Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

What Price?

5th April 2012 by Paul

Finally making the grade

The last week has been a bit of a roller-coaster, both practically and emotionally, and as we look forward, we now face some new challenging practicalities and some difficult decisions.

Leaving the desert just a few days ago we really felt re-energised and uplifted. We had been living on the Pacific shore for 45 days, and been welcomed warmly into the local fishing community. During our time in the sunshine, we’d not just achieved a great tan, but also prepared our first photo-book for publication, got ahead with our writing contract for Land Rover Monthly, finished some resource articles for the website (and for our book on Overlanding – more later), and drafted the outline for our book of the trip.  I’d also made some necessary repairs to Landy, and for once, we’d really chilled out – it was in effect a holiday from travel.

Ascending the Cordillera Negro and waking up the next day 13000 feet higher, 22 degrees Centigrade colder, but with a 200 mile horizon of the glorious snow topped Cordillera Blanca, was a stark contrast. It was like a massive but uplifting jolt of sensory stimulus that woke us up big time.

After re-provisioning in Huaraz, and uploading our photo-book over an internet connection at the speed of a dripping tap, we headed 50km south to Hatun Machay, a new rock climbing Mecca high in the wild hills.

After four years away from my sport, it was sobering to realise how quickly we lose our capabilities. I chose my first route carefully, a 5.10b, so that it should have been challenging but doable, but I could not get beyond the first few feet. My physical abilities were stretched due to weakened muscles, sure, but the main issue was fear. I was conscious of my fragility, and could not get past the ‘what if I fall’ script running (no, screaming) in my head.  Reluctantly, and with massive disappointment at myself, we opted for a much easier route, and at a grade 4 it was a breeze.  Although we went on to enjoy a 5.9, twice, the day had flagged up a reality – if I want to continue climbing, I have to work at it faster and harder than my advancing years steal away my ability.

The following morning my muscles were painful, and every physical job around camp had me wincing.  It’s a good feeling – like being reminded of my unfitness, but also the eventual thrill and achievement of the day before.

red ochre paintings

Stiffly, we walked a few hundred metres to an archaeological site amongst the rocks, where 9000 years ago, pre-Inca settlers had made a home in rock caves.  It was one of those amazing experiences – like we were discovering them for the first time.  There were no guards or ticket booths, not even a clearly trodden path led to the cave.  If we hadn’t known it was there, we would have missed it completely. The walls were covered in ochre paintings depicting hunting scenes, and stone carvings showed childbirth, worship, and family scenes, with life size etchings of hands and feet giving a real feel for the size of these ancient peoples.  A simple map carved into the rock showed the mountains, the streams converging, and where the animals to hunt could be found.  We could easily step back in time, and imagine the smoke filled cave filled with the sound of people working hard at staying alive, and raising their families.

 

Clearing el derrumbes

Returning to Huaraz, we met up with Duncan, the photographer who we’d coincidentally met at the derrumbes (rockfall) we’d helped clear on our way from the coast. 

He had some great shots of Landy saving the day, and kindly let us have them all. While sitting with him at an outdoor cafe, sipping orange juice, one of those amazing things happened – two overlanders we had been exchanging emails with for months in the hope of meeting up, walked up and introduced themselves!  Lois and Lacey have been on the road for three years, and before long we were nodding enthusiastically as it became clear we had experienced similar things and developed a shared outlook on many issues. Lois and Lacey are environmentalists, one an environmental scientist, the other an environmental engineer. They have become disenchanted with how the industry they have been so passionate about has betrayed its values, and compromised ethics and effectiveness for profit. A sad confirmation of what we have seen and experienced in many ways on our travels – personal gain put in front of ethical and sustainable solutions.

As the sun goes down in Mongolia

While talking to Lois and Lacey, who are travelling south like us, we began reflecting on the impact that delays in central and south America, and some changes in weather patterns, will have on our planned route and schedule.

Just now, winter is arriving in the south of both Argentina and Chile, while the wet season in Peru and Bolivia is proving to be longer this year, probably due to global warming. The road to Ushuia will close very soon for the winter, making the inclusion of a visit to the southernmost city in the Americas a more difficult objective, and the salt pans in Bolivia – a major highlight of our trip – are still under almost a foot of water.

Another component in our decision making is the need to raise funds to get our truck and ourselves onto the final continent. This dictates that I find professional, well paid work to earn the shipping costs and airfares to Africa. To travel to the most likely work locations I’ll need to depart from international airports, so our route and rate of travel must take account of this, and be revised to facilitate it.

It feels like our plans have wobbled again, so we need to work out how to achieve our goals despite the difficulties and setbacks.

Tien Shan Mountains, Russian Altai Region

There are some people who don’t understand why we are so committed to our circumnavigation, and who have already asked why we don’t just return home – after all, we have been travelling for almost two years, we have people at home who miss us dreadfully, and we have run out of both money and luck on more than one occasion. And its already been a trip of a lifetime, right?

Surely, the amazing experiences, the places, the people – its enough already?

True, but there is another trip we have been on – the trip of coming home, not to England, but to ourselves.  Helen and I have walked side by side on that journey for two long years, and each of us is committed to the other.

One of the most important things we have learned on that journey, and during life, is that everything has a price. The choices we make have consequences – every time.

To live our dream, we chose to sell pretty much anything and everything we could, save our tiny house. Our business didn’t survive the separation, and my professional reputation and the income went with it. We have been separated from family and friends, and felt the wrench of being unable to provide support when those same loved ones experienced tragedy, loss, and difficulty. We have had to learn to live more simply than we could have imagined possible. We’ve pushed the boundaries of what we will endure, and tested our relationship 24/7 for almost two years. We’ve paid the price of taking this particular pathway – making this particular choice.

But not to live our dreams has a price too, doesn’t it?  Doesn’t everything?

Maybe, like me, you feel the price you are paying if you have unfulfilled dreams; regrets it’s hard to remedy; things left unsaid that can’t now be heard; rifts now too wide or too raw to heal?  The price is sometimes high, but still, we choose to pay, because the other choice demands even more from us.

Our second antipodean point is about here somewhere

But is this really the path to happiness?  Each time we betray our own desires to please another, or take the easy route rather than the right route, we shrink a little, get a little more closed.  Each time, we pay the price.

When people look at my life, they tell me they see periods of significant achievement punctuated by periods of change – moving from one heady escapade to another.  Viewed from inside, my life is a series of daring adventures, none of which come to full fruition – a life of big dreams, never quite fulfilled.  It’s true of my work, my relationships, and my life in general. 

Each one a climb I can’t quite finish, an adventure that proved too ambitious, an ideal compromised in the name of personal profit, great opportunities missed because I didn’t know they were there, an easy route taken over the harder one.

This time, we both believe that price is too high to pay. This time, the adventure will be finished. This time will be the first time.

Shame

21st August 2011 by Paul
A 20´ fishing dugout boat - from one piece of wood!

A 20´ dugout fishing boat - from one piece of wood!

When I started writing this blog I thought it would be about shame – but there is so much more in here than that.

If you are a regular follower of Helen’s blogs, or a Facebook friend, you’ll be aware that things have been a bit fraught lately on a financial basis.  Ever since an ATM gobbled up our only remaining debit card almost three weeks ago, we have been surviving in Honduras on a relatively small amount of cash, and with no end in sight to the card problem we have been getting more and more anxious as funds have rapidly diminished.

Long distance overland travellers of all persuasions will no doubt be familiar with the (almost inevitable) catastrophe that is the loss of access to cash.  We have a credit card, but in Central America, in rural areas they are almost useless, as no-one accepts them.

The bank, Santander, is probably typical of any large modern banking institution.  It’s processes are not well dovetailed between departments, its staff are disempowered by the rigidity of their application – so even if they wanted to help they can’t, and there is little concept of security other than in a financial sense.  The upshot is that despite having used our debit card (issued in the name of Crittenden) for over a year, in about 17 different countries, informing their ‘holidays’ department of our whereabouts every three months, regularly topping up our Skype account using the card – in the last three weeks Santander have insisted on issuing a replacement card in Helen’s maiden name (even after we explained the history, and pointed out that all verifying documents are in her married name), insisted on sending the card and PIN to a UK address that we no longer live at and which is now rented to tenants, and blocking our account due to ‘unusual activity’ – us topping up our Skype account in Honduras (a notified country) in order to speak to the bank about the card problem!!  All this in the name of security, protecting the money we can’t get at!  We’d laugh – but its a miserable example of corporate incompetence, lack of sensitivity or flexibility to respond to customer needs, and inability to see things from any standpoint but their own.

I would argue that Santander have acted shamefully in this episode, and have created unnecessary risk to their customers abroad.

On the Caribbean coast in Moskitia

On the Caribbean coast in Moskitia

But all things are relative – including shameful behaviour.

As a result of our lack of cash, we adjusted our plans and headed further into the Moskitia region of northern Honduras, hoping to take the shoreline dirt track that weaves on and off the beach as far as the saltwater lagoons – a journey that requires several estuary crossings by wooden raft.  The plan was to mix adventure with some free beach camping while surviving on the tins and packets in our food boxes.  A ‘Plan B’ solution to our card dilemma.

The forests of Moskitia meet the Caribbean on the region’s northern edge, and the border with Nicaragua all along its eastern side.  It’s the largest area of rainforest outside the Amazon basin, and is a relatively lawless, but beautiful swathe of primary rainforest with Garifuna, Moskito and a handful of other indiginous communities thinly spread across the entire region.

Setting a sand anchor in preparation for tropical storms

Setting a sand anchor in preparation for tropical storms

Life is tough here, and hunting and fishing are the routine activities that sustain life, combined with daily trips by ‘collectivo’ (pick up trucks that carry people and goods for a few Lempiras) along the rough tracks to the more populated western towns of Limon and Sambo Creek.

Rough mud roads, a sandy track through edge of the forest, raft crossings, and some beach driving got us to a camp spot overlooking the Caribbean.  Not as deep into Moskitia as we’d hoped, but far enough to get a real feel for life here.

On the first day in camp we had a few visitors, and passing collectivos with people piled on top of flapping mattresses and plastic garden chairs, waved noisey welcomes.   It seemed a friendly enough place to us, and we settled in really well after a first-night tropical storm that persuaded us into another night in the cab, such was its ferrocity.

Our three young visitors - Leonardo on left

Our three young visitors - Leonardo on left

On the second day three young Garifuna boys between about ten and twelve years of age came to our camp.  They had no english, but it was clear that, despite their smiling faces and upbeat interest in the truck, their priority was to sate their hunger.  They rubbed their stomachs, and shoved clenched fingers towards their open mouths in an effective mime of eating.  We had little to share, but being kids, we thought they would appreciate some popcorn.  I set up the stove, oiled the pot, and poured in about two thirds of our stock of corn.  After the suspense of the initial few moments, the rewarding cacophany of popping corn brought smiles to their faces, and before long they were all munching on a bag of hot sweet popcorn – a real treat.

Later that night, we settled down for our evening meal.  Not much of a selection to choose from, and we ended up with mashed potato with onions and cabbage mixed in, and frijoles (bean paste) on the side.  A bit dry as you can imagine, and I wasn’t particluarly relishing every mouthful!  Helen raised my spirits by announcing that we still had some pre-toasted sliced bread left over from a previous camp about three weeks ago.  We felt sure it would still be OK, as it was cellophane wrapped and seemed pretty brittle.  We had strawberry jam too – so a desert seemed like a great finale to our somewhat dreary meal.  I unwrapped a slice, spread it with jam and took a bite.  Yuck!! It was sort of soft and stale and balled up in my mouth like strawberry flavoured glue.  I spat it out and announced that desert was off the menu.  Helen agreed and promptly threw the remaining few slices on the ground further up the beach for the birds.

On the third day our young friends returned.  This time they wasted no time before asking for food – they had even come prepared with a small plastic bowl.  We were making porridge for breakfast, so we made some extra, and they tucked in after asking for extra sugar – it was clear from their expressions that porridge is not part of their usual breakfast diet!

Local fishermen hard at work

Local fishermen hard at work

Then, one of the boys spotted the broken slices of bread laying further up the beach, softened by the overnight rain, and the mood changed suddenly.  The boys spoke quickly and angrily amongst themselves, shooting glances at us, and jerking fingers back and forth between us and the bread.  Our friends had suddenly become hostile, and within seconds the boldest was jabbering away at us in rapid Spanish and gesticulating wildly.

And then for the first time I remember, a wave of sickening shame flooded through me.  The night before, our spoiled western expectations had convinced us we were in dire straights – our food stocks were low, and we had only about $150 to last us three weeks or more.  Yet here were three young boys who would have given anything to have a share of the stale bread we had thrown to the birds because it didn’t taste nice.

As we looked again into their angry eyes, and listened afresh to their exclamations – we saw and heard not anger, but disbelief.  “How could we have been so wasteful – don’t we understand their hunger?”

My guess is that we don’t, and I suspect we never will.  But all at once, our world was reshaped by three young boys yet to reach puberty, but who’s daily lives are dominated by priorities we have long assumed will be met.  We take it for granted we´ll be OK – they can´t.

Later that day, they stole our cooking oil.  But after a few minutes of confused and heated exchange, our bottle was returned, minus the oil.  “I’m sorry,” Leonardo conveyed, “I didn’t take it for me, I took it for my mama.  Can we still be friends?”

We both considered it for a moment, and concluded that a pint of cooking oil is a small price to pay for an education of that magnitude.  We can´t condone a theft, however small and insignificant, but we can at least understand it.

And, after all, isn’t forgiveness a part of what makes a friend a friend?

A year in the life …

22nd July 2011 by Paul

A year in the life of…

“ We travel that we may see new things, but also, that we might see things differently”

In the last year – the first of our travels, we have suffered the agony of someone close contracting a terminal illness; closed our business in the face of financial ruin, and dealt with the ensuing financial struggles; felt the anxiety of both my son, and son-in-law being placed on redundancy notice, whilst my daughter lost her job when our business closed.  We’ve survived the usual smattering of minor illnesses and injuries; and, on the up side, felt the joy of two estranged brothers who have begun to heal their differences and repair their relationship.

In the same year, we have suffered the heartbreak of killing a horse in a road accident in Siberia, and the relief of completing repairs successfully without access to parts or repair shops.

We’ve successfully bodged our broken waterpump so it would take us 700 miles to safety from the desolate isolation deep in the Gobi desert. 

We’ve witnessed glorious sunsets and sunrises from the Qumdar desert in Kazakhstan, and the Gobi in Mongolia, from the Mongolian steppe, the ancient forests of Siberia, the brittle cold plains of Montana, and the breathtakingly silent and still canyons of Utah. 

We’ve spent many an hour staring in wonder at the vast black ocean of night sky above our heads peppered with a billion distant suns, and crisscrossed by satellites and shooting stars.

We’ve visited the Arctic Circle, and experienced what it is like to camp under canvas at minus 25 centigrade, and in the wet heat of Belize, imagined we’d melt in our sleep.

We’ve travelled through the silent and isolated red rock wilderness Between Moab and Needles in Utah, and ventured into places untrodden for hundreds of years.

In the Central Americas, we moved from the top to the bottom of the food chain, and were feasted upon by hoards of ants, flies, bugs and mosquitoes.

We’ve spied Bison, Reindeer, Jackrabbits, Gila Monsters, Texas Horned Lizards, Spider Monkeys, Giant Iguana and a thousand other species in their natural surroundings, found ourselves in the midst of a herd of curious camels, and felt them nibbling our ears and huffing their vile breath in our faces. 

We’ve enjoyed observing the entire two hour process of a dung beetle stashing its hoard on the arid plains of Kazakhstan, and experienced the relentless nocturnal foraging of thousands of leafcutter ants in Belize, so monumental being their number that they wore a muddy path through the dense undergrowth.

We’ve made dozens of new friends and experienced the kindness of strangers time after time.  I’ve learned to be patient and understanding as my lovely wife cuts my hair, and survived a few bouts of travellers’ diarrhoea.

We’ve spent a week in the chill zone with a beach-dwelling family on the remote and primitive western coast of Mexico, with no more expectation on either side of the language barrier than we should share a little of our lives with each other.

We’ve seen the bizarre effect of inept Russian policymaking at the Aral sea, where seagoing vessels are marooned seventy kilometres from the nearest water, and where ships of the desert now use ships of the sea for shelter.

We’ve been dug out of a Mongolian bog by new-found friends, and rescued a minibus full of travellers from the middle of a fast flowing river.  We’ve dragged a drunken Mexican taxi driver and his cab from a beach, and towed a tractor and its heavily laden trailer out of a sand dune in the desert.

We’ve learned how to build effective campfires and have eaten foods we couldn’t have imagined before. 

We’ve experienced kamikaze driving in Ukraine, violent, unmarked and bizarrely placed road humps in the Zonas de Topes of Mexico, and the weirdest of road systems, including paying road tax in a country with no roads, and dual carriageways where drivers randomly switch sides according to road surface quality rather than traffic flow.

We’ve explored abandoned gold mines in Death Valley, wondered at the engineering and human miracle that is the Hoover Dam, and been distressed by the human indignity and light pollution generated by Las Vegas.

We’ve swum in the Pacific and paddled in the Caribbean, and spent time discussing life and values with a Christian missionary on the run from the US police in the Hard Rock Cafe in Acapulco.

And we’ve learned that hedgehogs still get flattened by cars even in the depths of the Gobi desert.

We have learned or affirmed many things this year for ourselves too:

  • That not all change is progress, and that material and financial growth cannot be sustained forever.
  • That safety, security and certainty are things you find inside yourself, not outside yourself.
  • That the most generous people are generally those who have the least to give.
  • That there are infinitely more good people in the world than bad.
  • That the most important thing to fear is fear itself, because being fearful limits your experiences.  And accepting someone else’s fear is the most limiting fear of all.
  • That its hard to understand the world from any perspective than your own until you stand in someone else’s shoes for a while.
  • That the world is largely populated by poor people, with a few wealthy ones – its not the other way around.
  • That the currency in most places around the world is kindness, not the dollar – people exchange it in order to live on what money they have.
  • That life most often turns out the way we expect it to, not necessarily the way we want it to.
  • That there is a big difference between what you want and what you need, and knowing what you really need moves you closer to happiness.
  • That things seem to happen for a reason, and being curious about the reason opens life up to you.
  • That if we keep an open heart, good experiences often flow from bad experiences.
  • That life really is what you make of it, every single moment.

 

  • In many ways, we have affirmed the phrase “life is a journey, not a destination”. 

But perhaps the two most significant affirmations are these:

That people, in the majority, no matter their fortunes, location or origin, look towards the future with hope, strive to meet their needs for today, and dream of better things for their children tomorrow, just like you and I.

And that Life, with all its delights, surprises, joys, challenges, troubles and disasters, happens wherever you are, whoever you are, and whatever you have, and whilst pain and pleasure are essential experiences of life, greed and suffering are not.

Perhaps in remembering this, we can participate more thoughtfully in shaping a future for mankind that transcends the pointless, degrading, and ultimately damaging, quest for having more and having most, and instead, resolve to be more aware and more alive each day, and take active responsibility for sustaining ourselves, each other, and our environment, so that our children’s children will consider us wise and worthy benefactors.