Mototaxi vs Peru

26 11 2013

Mertle
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Josh and I had no idea what we were getting ourselves in to. When deciding our team name for the 2013 Mototaxi Junket, I’d asked Josh what he thought it should be, his reply “Um, no friggin’ clue bro?” which despite being an admission of a poor imagination and not an actual suggestion, I decided I liked it and hence forth we were known as team ‘No Friggin’ Clue’. And how apt that turned out to be.

busGetting to the start line in itself was an adventure. From London to Cusco takes several days, three flights and 22 hours on a sleeper bus traversing the bumpy and windy roads over the Andes. Thankfully the bus was equipped with a cinema system, so to pass the time we drank beers which we’d smuggled on to the bus and the watched the movies of interest to us: For me, something with Emma Watson in it, and for Josh, a Star Trek film which he was watching for the umpteenth time. At some point I fell asleep and then slept for most of the journey, while Josh stayed awake forced to deal with the odours coming from the young man with motion sickness vomiting in to a plastic bag in the seat across the aisle from us.

At 3500m, Cusco was nowhere near the highest point of our trip, but we arrived only to find ourselves starved of oxygen in the thin mountainous air and even the simplest tasks, such as climbing the small flight of stairs to our hotel, became an arduous ordeal leaving us practically doubled over gasping for air.

me_cusco

We stayed in Cusco only one night, using our breathing difficulties as an excuse for spending the evening reclining on the roof of our hotel doing very little, which situated on a large hill provided a view of Cusco sprawling out below us. High as we were, we were still dwarfed by the mountains on all sides which were periodically dotted with large crosses and even larger statues of Jesus.

In the morning we boarded the train out to Machu Picchu. Surrounded by the elderly and infirm, we both suddenly felt very lazy not doing the four-day Inca trail to reach the alpine settlement. Diesel fumes from the train filled the carriage, rendering us both a bit light headed only to soon be accompanied by the pungent scent of citronella belched out of an electronic device attached to the waist of a rotund older woman.

As we arrived at Machu Picchu we pushed our way off the train thankful to be clear of the small-scale chemical attack, and set off for the starting point only to be dumbfounded where it was. Instead of the beginning of the path, we found ourselves surrounded by locals in stalls selling trinkets and other tourist fodder and inundated with restaurateurs trying to convince us to come try the alpaca. After a half hour of wandering around befuddled, we chanced upon a bus service which for a small fee offered to drive us to the summit. Exhausted and infuriated, we accepted.

After a perilous ride up a narrow road cut in to the mountain on which the buses seemed in constant risk of plummeting over the side or being pulverised by the other buses ripping back down the mountain we finally made it to our destination.

mp

Built by the Incas between 1200 and 1450 AD and abandoned when Peru was invaded by the Spanish it was lost to the world aside from a small group of Peruvians until it was rediscovered by Yale graduate Hiram Bingham in 1911. Today, it looks anything but lost or abandoned. Positively crawling with camera toting tourists we had to throw ourselves in to the mêlée and compete with everyone else for space to walk, and taking a photo that wasn’t completely full of other budding photographers was nigh on impossible.

peru_puppy

As the storm clouds grew over our head, we decided it was best to head back down to civilisation. The torrential rain soaked us to the skin as we disembarked from the bus so we fled to safety in a small restaurant filled with other sodden foreigners and finally ate some of that alpaca (it was good, if a little chewy).

We met that night in the small town of Urubamba – the start point of our expedition – with several of the other teams. We met an American couple on their honeymoon – Zach and Dawn – the latter of which had been studying Spanish for ten years, and the next team was an Australian couple – Steve and Brenda – who had brought 16kg of tools with them and had been diligently studying mototaxis for some months prior. Between them and most of the other teams we met, Josh and I suddenly felt very outclassed and totally under prepared. Figuring we had little to bring to the arrangement except our wit and charm, we set about trying to seduce our new friends to ride with us so that we may take advantage of their prized skill sets en route.

On the morning of October 11th, we met on a small dusty field on the outskirts of town to have our first taste of the glorious vehicle known to all as the mototaxi. Duncan, one of the organisers, jumped on one of the bikes to demonstrate how they worked and immediately the chain fell off and the bike abruptly came to a stand still. Brilliant. And frankly, it didn’t get much better from there.

first_dayA mototaxi is by no stretch of the imagination a fine vehicle. Despite their ubiquity in Peru, they are poorly made in China and essentially a low powered motorcycle in which the back tyre has been removed and in it’s place a not particularly comfortable two-wheeled sofa crudely welded. The rear left wheel is attached to the engine by a badly conceived two-chain drive mechanism which results in the chains constantly slipping off and needing reattaching and a permanent desire for the bike to turn to the right requiring the driver to constantly turn slightly to the left to counteract this effect. As a bonus, they’re also terribly uncomfortable to ride whether driver or passenger. As Josh so succinctly summed it up a few days in to our trip: “my gooch is really taking a pounding on this bike, aye.”

Having done our trial ride, it was decided that many spare parts were required as if they couldn’t get around a football field without breaking, surely taking them over the Andes was going to punish them in ways we couldn’t imagine. After a long and fruitless walk around Urubamba trying to find the long list of spares (none of which we obtained, but Josh found an entirely unnecessary kitchen sink) we retired to a small cafe where the conversation turned to the perils we may encounter on the trip. Between the poisonous spiders, blood sucking bats, aggressive snakes and the Foreign Office’s dire warnings about highway bandits, I was beginning to feel rather nervous about our undertaking.

start_line

The departure day was scheduled for the 13th, and somewhat hung over Josh and I awoke early to pack our things and get ready – only to find my money belt with my driver’s license had gone missing. After consulting with the organisers who assured me I could most likely bribe myself out of any situation, we made our way to the town square where the local community put on a show for us and bid us well on our forthcoming journey.

kids

Our first real taste of just how terrible the mototaxis are was the climb out of Urubamba. Unable to escape first gear we rung them out at about 9000rpm the entire way while only managing to achieve the pace of a mildly disabled jogger. Our oil was showing temperatures of 120°C within minutes of setting off and those with the provided plastic dipsticks promptly found they had melted off in to the engine never to be seen again.

gringo_allianceBy the end of the first day, the crowd of mototaxis had thinned out, and in addition to the Americans and the Aussies we had collected two other teams – Aaron and Greg, and Nick and Neil. Now ten people and five mototaxis strong, our group – which we later dubbed the Gringo Alliance – was ready to tackle the thousands of kilometres ahead of us as we wove our way through the land of the Incas.

In the following two weeks we encountered many hills, climbing to 4300m at one point and the temperatures dropping well below zero. We stayed in an array of lacklustre accommodations (and a couple of nice ones) and were forced to eat rice and chicken (“arros y pollo!”) for nearly every meal. Whilst tasty, the local cuisine does lack some variety.

surgery

Mertle (the turtle), as we started referring to our mototaxi, decided to completely die on us on about day three. As we could go no further, our posse had to choice but to set up camp in a small quarry surrounded by aggressive wild dogs who loomed around us all night and we were serenaded in to slumber by the beeping of large mining machinery just off in the distance. Steve and Brenda not having any camping gear suspended a tarpaulin off their mototaxi and slept out in the open air. We awoke in the morning light and suddenly noticed the all tarantulas. Never was I more thankful for our flimsy canvas tent.

group1After replacing the carburettor, we unfortunately found that Mertle was behaving just as badly as ever. Not wanting to hold the other teams up, we sadly sent them on our way while Josh and I tried to limp Mertle the 25km back to the city of Abancay for repair. Unfortunately Mertle didn’t get far; we pulled over at a gas station where a group of dishevelled homeless men and more smartly attired truck drivers were milling about. Once again our poor grasp of Spanish proved a hindrance, so Josh quickly drew an artistic rendition of a mototaxi on the back of a truck and thrust the piece of paper in to the face of any who would look trying to coerce them to take us and Mertle to the next town. This didn’t seem to get any traction, and the language barrier certainly wasn’t helping, so Josh kindly volunteered me to catch a local bus back to Abancay and try to find a mechanic. One of growing crowd of onlookers offered to escort me, so shortly thereafter we were rattling back to town on the local ‘colectivo‘.

Finding the mechanic closed (at just after 7am this wasn’t too surprising) my guide took me for breakfast where we were served a horrible soup at a small stand with unidentifiable bony chicken parts floating in it. Out of politeness I tried to force it down, but failed miserably. After consulting my phrase book, in my best Spanish I told him that I was ill and couldn’t eat any more. He didn’t look entirely sure what to do with this information, but nevertheless, he didn’t pressure me to eat any more. Shortly after, he convinced the mechanic to take me in his car back down to look at the bike and with a rigorous handshake and a pat on the back he cheerily left to start his day.

truck1As the mechanic was fiddling with the bike, Josh and I stood and looked on, joined by the ever-growing group of curious locals about these two mysterious gringos and their mototaxi. Just as he was about to tow us back to town for further inspection, the other teams rolled back in to the station. “We missed you too much!” Steve the Aussie proclaimed. Total bullshit we suspected.

It shortly became clear that they’d taken a rather sizeable wrong turn and were forced to retrace their steps to get heading in the right direction again. Josh and I described our plans to put Mertle on a truck and the others quickly agreed that was a good idea. We dispatched Dawn to converse with the locals and quickly came back with an offer for 1000 Peruvian Soles (£220) they would put all our bikes on a truck and drive us to Huancayo several hundred kilometres away.

After heaving the five mototaxis in to the truck through sheer manpower, the doors were locked and the ten of us wriggled in through the mess of machinery not looking forward to the 12 odd hours the driver had told us the journey would take.

12 hours was evidently quite an ambitious estimate as it was a long and uncomfortable 27 hours later we arrived in Huancayo. Forced to sleep in the back of the truck in the cold mountain air (the driver had locked us in there), we all became mototaxi contortionists trying to sleep where we could, beanies, jackets and sleeping bags abound.truck2

And so we trekked on, thankfully once Mertle the Turtle had her carburettor  tuned by a professional she didn’t give any more serious issues. Others in our entourage had an assortment of problems: Nick and Neil had their bike catch fire, which was extinguished with a bottle of Inka Cola which resulted in a lovely marshmallow smell from the caramelised sugar, and Steve and Brenda had their rear brake lever snap off when it collided with a large rock on a rough road. When asked if they’d like to stop, Steve retorted “Nah, don’t need them. I’ve got front brakes.” Typical Steve. This almost proved a bad decision when careening down a hill at speed we encountered a roundabout almost sending them sailing off a small cliff.

The rest of the ride was an enjoyable, if somewhat taxing experience. We climbed mountains, traversed desert and sweltered in the heat of the jungle. Got mauled by mosquitoes every night and were rudely awoken by roosters every morning. There seemed to be animals everywhere, particularly stray dogs who either wanted to bite off your face or lick it, many of the former chasing our mototaxis down the road barking furiously. Peru is a land of diverse landscapes and climes. From snow in the mountains and the minus temperatures in Junin to over 36°C in the jungle; dressing appropriately everyday was a challenge. The road rules also seemed entirely optional, and in the end we drove like the locals: Simply doing whatever we wanted and aggressively honking before, during and after the manoeuvre.

guns

We encountered many self-appointed armed guards on the side of the road demanding money, although they only ever wanted about about two Sol (40p) so it didn’t seem worth quibbling about and they were more than happy to pose for photos which made the bribe seem very worthwhile. Most of the other Peruvians we passed waved in delight, particularly the children, some of who would literally bounce up and down with glee as our bizarre caravan passed through their towns, particularly enthralled with the inflatable Kangaroo bouncing along atop the Aussie bike.

The only real malice we encountered wasn’t even aimed at us; we were informed one evening in the town of Tocache that the town was “closed” the following day due to a protest and we wouldn’t be able to leave. In the morning we found smouldering tires blocking the roads, and glass, nails and stones covering the bitumen. We managed to skirt around these obstacles with only one tyre fatality between us, but this was quickly changed and we were on our way keen to put some miles in between us and the angry mobs circling in the back of trucks shouting menacingly at all who passed. The modern day equivalent of burning torches and pitchforks we decided.dust

After driving practically the length of Peru in two weeks to the day, we arrived in Colan, just north of the town of Piura and just south of the border to Ecuador. The Adventurists (the organisers) threw us a party with fireworks and a truck of beer which the 50 or so of us polished off in quick succession. Our friends Danny and Jared in one of the other teams managed to break their chain just as they were coming in to Colan, so we pushed the bike in by hand which seemed like an appropriate conclusion to the stupidity of the preceding weeks.

The bikes were entirely unfit for purpose, and driving them the length of Peru was definitely not a sensible endeavour, but indeed, that was really was the point of the whole trip. An adventure was undeniably had and Josh and I raised over £1000 to support the good work of the rainforest preservation charity Cool Earth. It was with a heavy heart we parted with all our new friends and set forth on our journey back to England.

finish

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In the Shadow of Chernobyl: Notes From The Ukraine

3 03 2010

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I can’t help but stare at his gun; I’ve always had a lust for weaponry. I feel a mischievous urge: it’s the same urge that makes me want to shout in libraries or throw things at actors at the theatre; something in me just wants to see what would happen. I rarely act on these urges, but they do fill me with a kind of perverse glee. I want to grab the gun and fire it; to hear the crack of the bullet leaving the chamber; to smell the exquisite odour of spent gunpowder; to feel the power of life and death in my hands.

I daydream a little. Surely grabbing the service weapon of the military-fatigued, ultra-stern, permanently frowning, Ukrainian Border Guard at the outer edge of the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone would not end well. I contemplate the likely sequence of events and conclude that making a grab for the gun would almost certainly result in me getting riddled with bullets and having my bleeding corpse tossed in to the pristine snow like a bag of old rubbish. I decide against it.

While I’m pondering this, there is a torrent of Russian going on between our tour driver and the border guard. Neither of them speak a word of English, nor can we converse in their native tongue, so Nathan, Ben and I are having a hard time keeping up with the unfolding situation. They’ve pulled the three of us off our tour bus and the guard is comparing our passports to a piece of paper scrawled with Cyrillic letters and symbols we can’t even begin to decipher.

After some deliberation, “Nyet!” barks the guard, “Hotel. Kiev.” He waves his hand and abruptly walks back to the small building, slamming the door closed loudly behind him. We’re mystified: what’s happening here? Do they want to speak to our hostel? Were we supposed to follow him? While we’re scratching our heads, our tour bus suddenly also departs and disappears off down the road leaving the three of us standing alone and confused in the snow and ice thirty kilometres from the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history and a million miles from anywhere else. It starts snowing again; we look at each other. Fuck.

1

Abandoned at the Border

The weekend had started well; upon arriving at our hostel they’d immediately given us a beer and a large glass of vodka served from a bottle with a pump-nozzle attached (Note: this is one of my favourite ways to be welcomed). We confirmed our Chernobyl tour for the following day, paid our money, and set out for a night on the town.

Walking the streets of Kiev is like stumbling in to a city-wide fashion show; some combination of Soviet genetics, nuclear fallout, and the second-world scarcity of Kentucky Fried Chicken has resulted in a nation of supermodels. Not only that, there seems to be a serious shortage of men; everywhere we went it seemed to just be us and a room full of stunning women stealing glances in our direction. Regretfully, through some cruel twist of fate, none of them spoke even the tiniest amount of English, so our attempts to start conversations were met only with big smiles and general confusion. So much for the language of love being universal.

After many pints of Ukrainian beer, several shots of Nemiroff vodka, and some ice-cream we’d found while on a drunken midnight mission for cream doughnuts, we found ourselves sharing a table with two Russian girls visiting from Moscow who seemed delighted to be talking to three strapping young men. After several more unnecessary vodka shots with the womenfolk, a paper dart throwing competition, and a brusque telling off from bar staff for flinging airborne projectiles in every direction, we staggered back to our hostel and set an early alarm for our tour in the morning.

I awaken sweating, with a thumping headache, and the urge to vomit; bad things happen when you start doing vodka shots in the mid-afternoon. I open the window and let the cold air blast against my face, but I already know it’s not going to be enough to stave off the forthcoming rebellion of my body. I dash to the bathroom. After purging my stomach of the remainder of last nights efforts the three of us go and stand outside and wait to be picked up for our tour. All I want to do on the bus is sleep or die, but the driver plays terrible pumping euro-pop at maximum volume for the whole three hour journey to the Chernobyl border which makes any kind of rest an impossible goal.

Now on top of what already a rather unpleasant journey, we’ve been abandoned in the middle of a frozen wasteland without any real idea of why or what to do now. I hope the woman at the hostel might be able to act as an interpreter and find some resolution to our predicament, so we rap on the window of the guard booth and make a phone gesture to the guards sitting inside. They look at us with unmasked loathing. One of the men reluctantly opens the window and I hand them a small piece of paper containing the hostel’s number. He fondles the paper for a moment then says something to his colleagues which causes an outbreak of raucous laughter, then he hands the scrap back and slams the window closed.

2

Warning: Radiation

We’re now a little panicked: it was -9°C in Kiev and is markedly colder out here, plus a biting wind has picked up which only serves to rob us of what little warmth our bodies are generating. We’re all shivering, the guards are openly hostile towards us, and none of us have mobile phone reception; we’re genuinely starting to fret about the unpleasant four or five hours that lie ahead until our tour bus comes back in the other direction and I’m already quietly thinking about hypothermia. We’re about as isolated from civilisation as it’s possible to be and the only living creature that wants anything to do with us is a lone Alsatian guard dog who is looking to get her belly rubbed. We oblige.

With few other options, we make our way to a small shelter half a mile down the road. It has an open face and contains only a small broken bench, which hardly makes it an improvement over standing on the open road, but at least we’re away from the menacing stares of Border Patrol and it does provide a little protection from the icy winds.

Nathan starts sprinting up and down the road to warm up. Ben is noticeably shaken and starts using language that is not typical of himself and far too profane to quote here. I get out my mp3 player and a small speaker and chuck on some Pearl Jam; if we’re going to freeze to death I figure we might as well die with a soundtrack.

We’re at a loss for what to do. Ben thinks he might have had a single bar of mobile reception back toward the border, so he starts patrolling back and forth trying to capture an elusive signal. Nathan tries to wave down the occasional passing car with little success. I get out all my camera gear and start screwing around in the snow. Hell, there is nothing else to do.

3

Mother Motherland Statue A.K.A ‘Tin Tits’

 

Nathan finally has some success waving down a car; a beaten up old Lada with silver tinted windows rolls to a stop. The driver winds down the window letting a great cloud of thick smoke escape in to the frigid air. The man is wearing full camouflage gear, has greasy slicked back hair, and all gold teeth. “Americans?” he asks with a sinister smirk. We all look uneasily at each other, from the vibe he’s giving off he might as well have said “Would you like to get robbed and beaten?” We wave him on. He sneers at us and pulls away.

Meanwhile, Ben has finally had some success getting some mobile signal and manages to get through to the girl at the front desk of the hostel. “Oh, we’ll send someone to pick you up.” she says nonchalantly, “Wait where you are.” Um, sure. Where else would we go?

After a very chilly couple of hours waiting by the roadside and having each done numerous star-jumps, press-ups and furious sessions of jogging on the spot, a car finally rolls up and out pops what I can only describe as a Russian version of Bruce Willis. He looks all business: big leather boots, an animal skin jacket, a chest the size of a barrel, plus a few gold teeth of his own. “Come my friends!” he exclaims with a wide grin and shepherds us in to his car. The warmth makes us all a little giddy.

Our saviour puts Nathan on the phone with the owner of the tour company who apologises profusely for screwing up our entry permits and by way of making amends, offers to put us up in a hotel an hour or so from Chernobyl and will organise for us to have our own private tour the following morning. Furthermore, he says he will personally collect our belongings from our original hostel and then collect us from the Chernobyl border after our tour and will deliver us to the airport that afternoon. From seeming like an complete failure not a half-hour before, our visit to the Ukraine suddenly looks like it might work out all right after all.

4

Checking Our Radiation Levels (Chernobyl Reactor 4 In The Background)

 

Our evening’s accommodations appear to be some kind of hunting lodge set alone alongside a barren stretch of snow-covered road. The interior is all stone and wood and lined with all manner of taxidermied critters in an assortment of staged positions. Ginormous antlers hang from every wall and comprise the legs of most of the tables; a large stuffed beaver stares blankly at us next to a fake pond of stagnant green water; a giant eagle hangs from the ceiling; a wild boar stands outside the window.
We retire to our quarters for an afternoon nap before dinner only to find more dead animal decorations scattered around the rooms. It’s beyond me how anyone would come to the conclusion that a dead weasel filled with polystyrene and glued to a stick would make a nice ornament, but evidently it’s all the rage in these parts.

The following morning, as promised, we are collected by our own personal tour guide. He has a serious facial tic; his chin seems to move erratically as if of its own accord. He tells us he lives inside the nuclear exclusion zone, and suddenly the tic makes perfect sense. We collect a Geiger counter for measuring radiation levels and head towards the power plant.

5

Pripyat

 

We drive for a long time through the barren landscape. Snow covers everything, but you can see that nature long ago set about reclaiming the man-made structures. Buildings small and large are now eroded and crumbling and engulfed in weeds and foliage. Pripyat, the town built to house the workers of the Chernobyl reactor, has succumbed to rust which eats away at any exposed metal and the broken windows and devastation are absolute. In the rush to abandon the city much was left behind. We came across old 1980’s newspapers and decaying children’s toys while exploring through the desolate shell of what was once a jewel of the Soviet empire.
We park up a few hundred metres from the ill-fated reactor and the large metal and concrete sarcophagus that now entombs the once exposed core. Our Geiger counter starts beeping away furiously; we opt not to stay long. Even after 25 years the radiation levels are too high to spend any extended time in the area.
Trudging back to the car through the snow we I can’t help but think with the world’s energy demands continuing to grow, and nuclear one of the few strong candidates to meet these needs, Chernobyl is a stark reminder of what can potentially go wrong with nuclear energy. Geographical isolation prevented Chernobyl from being a bigger catastrophe than it already was, but more recent disasters like Fukushima show that even with scientific advances of the past two decades, nuclear still can pose a serious threat to human life and the environment. But the real question, in lieu of viable clean renewable energy, what other alternatives do we have?


6

Ukrainian Chic: Hotel Room Deluxe

 

7

Pripyat Amusement Park

 

8


Nathan at Pripyat

 

9

Pripyat


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Part 7: Back To Reality

10 02 2009

This post is part of a series:
https://marksteele.co.nz/the-2008-trip/


Go-Kart Racing At Fontana Speedway - Rancho Cucamonga, California

A few years ago I found myself one hot, sticky night sitting alone outside a crowded Bangkok (Read more…) bar sipping on a cold beer and watching the throng of Thais making their way home from their daily exertions.

The pungent smell of spices hung heavily in the air, masking the humid funk of the city streets, thanks to an elderly noodle vendor by the roadside trying to hock his wares to the passers-by. I gazed idly at the old man going about his work when another equally aged gentleman of Western origin tapped me on the shoulder and asked if he could join me at my table.

“Sure.” I said, “Go ahead”, I’d been hankering for some English conversation all day. As we spoke, the septuagenarian started to tell me the story of how he had found himself this night sitting at my table.

Chris and I On The Hollywood Hot Rod Tour - Los Angeles, California

Chris and I On The Hollywood Hot Rod Tour - Los Angeles, California

“I met my wife when I was eighteen years old,” he told me. “We were both young and naïve, but very much in love. Shortly after, we were married. I never remember having being been so happy. Neither of us had much money; we’d both come from poor farming families, but somehow we made ends meet.”

He sipped his beer and stared vacantly out towards the bustling streets, his thoughts obviously weighing on his mind. “A little over a year after we married, our son Charles arrived and then in the following years my two daughters, Sally and Margaret joined us on this earth.”

“My wife and I always wanted to travel. Since we were newly weds we spent hours talking about the fantastic journey that we were going to take. It was going to be incredible. As time went on, one by one our children grew older, left home and got married themselves and then finally the day for my wife and I to embark drew near.”

He paused; I could see tears starting to well in his eyes. “Two months before my wife was due to retire and we were to start the adventure we had spent a lifetime planning, she was diagnosed cancer and within six months she was dead, having never even stepped foot outside the United States.” I smiled sympathetically, unsure how to respond to his woeful tale.

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard

“Now,” he continued in a sombre tone, “I travel alone the journey she and I were to take together, and I do this for her, in her memory.” He turned to look at me squarely in the eyes. “Son, don’t postpone the things you want to do in your life, get out there and seize the world with two hands – if you delay, you might lose your chance forever.

His words were like a spark to the gasoline fumes of my thoughts. Suddenly my lifestyle seemed vindicated; no longer was I merely a bum coasting along, enjoying an extended holiday in South East Asia. I had found myself on a higher path.

The old man and I shortly thereafter parted ways, but his words have stayed with me ever since. Why should we postpone what we desire in life? I’m not talking about reckless hedonistic abandonment, but consciously planning to enrich and savour our lives on a day by day basis. It is with this in mind that I now try and live my life.

2008 was an incredible year. My travels took me right around the world; from the Arctic Circle through to Western Europe and onward to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the US.

Solitude - Forrest Hill Park, Auckland, New Zealand

Solitude - Forrest Hill Park, Auckland, New Zealand

During my nine months of travel, I hiked up a volcano in Rwanda and saw a family of gorillas in the wild; I dived a World War II shipwreck in the Red Sea and spent five months in my motherland; finally getting the opportunity to be a tourist in my own country and catch up with my friends and family who have had to endure my absence for so long.

Coming home felt peculiar, it forced me to acknowledge the gulf between the person I was when I left and the person I am now. It feels like I’ve grown a lot in the years since I was the confused, angst-ridden teenager that left New Zealand in 2004 and it made me realise how satisfied I am with the direction my life is moving in, albeit it perhaps being a different direction from many.

Franz Josef Glacier - Westland National Park, New Zealand

Franz Josef Glacier - Westland National Park, New Zealand

Coming home also reminded me of the love that I feel for my family, my friends and the natural beauty of the Land Of The Long White Cloud. Many of my memories of home had faded over the past four years. I’d forgotten how much I actually loved New Zealand. Ironically I’d arrived thinking I’d want to leave almost immediately, but when it came to it, I almost couldn’t bring myself to go.

That said, my time at home has confirmed my suspicions that I am not ready to return to New Zealand permanently, now or in the short term. There is still so much of the world I want to see, so much I want to do and living in New Zealand just doesn’t seem compatible with these goals (sorry Mum).

I always find travelling an enlightening experience. I believe there is much to be learnt by the curious mind. Witnessing the culture and customs of a foreign land illuminates the parallels and contrasts to one’s own society, forcing a new perspective upon the attentive traveller. From this new vantage point of thought I feel that I can see what was transparent before; I can appreciate how much of my own mental make-up is blindly inherited from my home land. I think that it is this new awareness of self that can prove such a catalyst for introspection and growth.

Routeburn Track - Glenorchy, New Zealand

Routeburn Track - Glenorchy, New Zealand

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

This sentiment is also echoed in the words of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”

This seems to be a common thread of thought amongst those of philosophical disposition. Witnessing the serene happiness of poverty stricken Africans despite the constant threat of hunger, thirst and death seems to confirm for me that the joy we derive from life comes more from inside us than from our external surroundings or circumstances.

Guitar Hero Shenanigans

'Guitar Hero' Shenanigans

So once again I find myself sitting in a cold London flat. I’m sleeping on an air bed in a mate’s lounge and I’m practically penniless, but I have many fond memories of an epic year behind me. Shortly I will rejoin responsible society – I’ll find a job, start paying taxes and attempt to get out of bed before 9 AM.

This trip has allowed me a lot of time to reflect on what I’ve been doing, where I’m going and ultimately what I want from life. The next few years are a mystery, I have vague inclinations of where they might lead, but it’s really completely unknown – to be honest, I have no idea where 2009, (let alone the rest of my life), will take me. I feel there is strength in tolerating the uncertainty, casting free the shackles of life sustained by fear, familiarity and the expectations of others. I believe it’s about being open to alternate paths and seeing where life may lead you.

Before I sign off, I want to extend a special thanks to my faithful travel companions Tony, Wendy and Mike – Thanks for everything. Here’s to many more adventures together! – and also to the other faces I met along the way that played such a huge part in making this trip so very memorable (you know who you are.)

Kensal Green Cemetery - London, England

Kensal Green Cemetery - London, England

I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading about my adventures as much as I have enjoyed having them and writing about them. I’d love to hear any thoughts or feedback you might have.

With love, until next time,

Mark





Travel Dispatch: Iceland (Jan 08)

23 05 2008

Snow Storm - Reykjavik , Iceland

Snow Storm at the Perlan Musuem - Reykjavik , Iceland

Particles of ice and snow stung my face. Shivering, I drew the drawstring tight on my hoodie and sneered in to the cold night.

Iceland – the land of murderous Vikings, ferocious geysers and dark bleak winters. Staring out the taxi windows at the overturned cars buried under a foot of snow lining the streets, I suddenly became acutely aware of the ominous slide of our own vehicle as we drove the icy roads. From my perch in front of the hot air vent, I glared at our Kaiser-Chiefs-humming driver who seemed blissfully unaware of our loss of traction, or the concerns of his six foreign passengers holding on tightly in the back. Davíð Stefánsson, the Icelandic poet, once said, “Það er löng leið frá Íslandi til Himnaríkis” or “It is a long road from Iceland to Heaven.” I was starting to have similar thoughts of my own.

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Travel Dispatch: Paris

18 03 2008

We sat in the brightly lit bar of our Parisian hostel, the smell of fresh paint and construction hung heavy in the air. I stabbed a large chunk of gelatinous meat out from my bowl and peered suspiciously at the oily brown liquid dribbling from it. Beef Bourguignon, a French delicacy, apparently.

Expressing Myself Through The Medium Of MusicI hacked off the fatty portion, deposited it on a napkin and placed the remaining sliver of chewy meat inside my mouth. Blurgh. My sister Lisa, who had been delicately removing small bones from her minuscule salmon steak looked equally unimpressed. With a sigh, we pushed our barely touched plates to the side of the table and vowed we would never eat at the hostel again.

Still hungry and €30 poorer, we did the only sensible thing one can do in these situations and ordered a round of strong drinks. A few minutes later we were necking shots of a mysterious blue liquid and thankfully feeling much better about the events of our evening.

The following morning, after trying to counter-act our hangovers with half a dozen cups of watery hostel coffee, we set out on a guided walking tour of the city. Walking tours, I have decided, are the best way to see a city like Paris, neither self-exploration or the prerecorded bus tours come close. Our guide told us lively stories from the history of the city, from the rule of Napoleon to the breaking of Bastille and the French revolution. We heard about the public guillotining of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and the controversal glass pyramids at the Lourve. Despite the fact this trip was my third visit to the French capital I had obviously missed so much of the city’s fascinating history before.

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Travel Dispatch: Pisa, Pizza and Penises

13 02 2008

We’re in Florence at the moment, and I’ve finally relaxed in to this whole travel gig again. For whatever reason it always takes me about a week to get to the point where I’m just chilled and enjoying whats going on around me, free from the constant feeling of needing to be doing something of importance.

My sister Lisa and I haven’t even been close to squabbling once today, a rarity so far on this trip, and in fact it’s actually been a really fun day; I think we’ve finally found our travel groove together and we’ve got a good few weeks ahead. Bought myself a sweet black fedora hat at the markets before and together with my blue scarf I look like an art critic, or perhaps a wine snob, I haven’t figured out which. Nevertheless, either way, it’s quite appropriate considering I’m spending much of my days surveying frescos and sculptures, and my evenings sampling the many fine vinos from this fair land.





Diving with Whale Sharks

24 10 2007

My first published article!
http://matadortravel.com/travel-writing/mexico/travel-place/diving-with-whale-sharks

The engine slowed down and settled in to idle. It was late afternoon and the intense heat of the day had finally dropped a little, but the sun still tingled on my sunburnt face. Our boat bobbed up and down in the waters of the Sea of Cortez; the city of La Paz just off in the distance. My fellow divers and I looked quizzically at our dive guide, mystified as to why we’d suddenly stopped out in the middle of nowhere.

The skipper of our boat was staring at our guide who was in turn standing on the bow gazing fixedly out towards the waters around us. In curious silence we all followed his gaze trying to find the reason for our sudden cessation. Slowly our guide gestured toward the waters beyond; I turned my gaze but could not see anything remarkable, until I noticed faint shadows moving in the water. “Get your gear on,” our guide instructed in his thick Mexican accent, “Whale Sharks!” Evan, my dive buddy, a pool digger from Los Angeles lit up and a wide grin spread across his face. “I’ve been trying to see these things for over ten years!” he shouted excitedly, “This is going to be incredible!” We hurriedly put our wet suits and masks back on as the boat circled back around, and on the guide’s instruction we dropped off the side of the small white boat in to the sea below. Mildly disorientated, it took me a second to gain my bearings, then suddenly I recoiled in horror; I was face to face with a monster.

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