Full Circle

The scene is a high end boutique on Rodeo Drive. Shop assistants clack around in their high heels looking glamorous and slightly mean. The door opens and in walks … Julia Roberts, in Pretty Woman looking for an outfit. The assistants sneer at her, she goes and gets rescued by Richard Gere and much hilarity ensues.

Actually, scratch that. The scene is a not quite so high end shop in New York City. Shop assistants slouch around looking deeply cool and slightly bored. The door opens and in walks … Lucy! (who is a pretty woman looking for an outfit).

Ladies and Gentlemen, if you want to make shop assistants swallow their bubble gum, may I recommend the following attire for shopping in downtown New York City: slightly worn thermals, hiking trousers and huge clompy hiking boots with scuffs and marks from several months hiking up and down lava flows and through jungles. Add to this a general air of world weariness caused by five days partying in Rio; a mild case of jet lag; a full day flying back to NYC via Bogota (of all places); and a plane-door-side row about immigration documents that left one of our fellow passengers (and nearly us) stranded on the wrong side of a slamming pressure door. Top this off (as it is bitterly, bitingly cold) with a short, blue, nylon down jacket bought in Lhasa in preparation for camping in the high Tibetan Himalaya in late autumn and a favorite red scarf from Kathmandu. To say there was an air of polite skepticism in the shop would be an understatement. Imagine a Republican patiently explaining his constitutional right to own an assault rifle to, say, assembled company at a dinner party in South Kensington and you have the idea.

Most of you probably haven’t had the joy of going shopping with Lucy, but the usual happened: a short and intense period of inspection, a short and intense period of thought, a short pause. “I’ll have that, and that, and that, and that, and two of those. Thank you. Right, shall we go to lunch?”

——————————–

Ah, New York City. It’s good to be back. Shopping, and architecture, and restaurants, and FRIENDS! The best part of a week staying in Tim & Jess’s lovely apartment (and not just because it was one floor below where ours used to be). Out partying every night and most days, catching up with Jon & Tek, and Matthew & Michelle, and Tim & Jess, and Stuart & Matt (not like that) and Jan & Giusy (not like that either, but it would be interesting) and the guys at ex-work. The famously sewn together shoes finally went the way of all things, replaced by a shiny but respectably burgundy pair of lace ups. I finally got a hair cut where the person wielding the sharp implements near my ears spoke more than one and a half words of English. Six pairs of jeans, six pairs of shoes (or perhaps even more) and six good meals later we were feeling almost human again. It was absolutely wonderful.

And then it was time to leave.

You see, we weren’t returning to New York. Part of the grand plan was that we would travel slowly West around the world while all of our possessions traveled East in a shipping container, fitting a life’s ambition to travel into a natural break while we emigrated back to the UK. Our time in America was (and I don’t say this very often) truly life-changing but it was time to move back to the UK and settle down. Family and old friends were calling; Manhattan is a hard place to raise putative future children and we ain’t moving to Westchester for nobody. And we were desperately sad.

We love the UK, but it hasn’t been home for a few years. Hell, we have been homeless for the best part of a year – for me, after months of backpacking and sleeping on hotel beds / floors / airplanes, home is where the Lucy is. Moving back and setting up house was going to be a logistical struggle, moving back in the depths of winter after sunny South America was going to be an emotional one. Recognizing this, we nearly didn’t go back via familiar New York at all – why make things hard on yourself? In the end, the intricacies of airmiles (OK, so Avios, but who’s counting?) tipped the balance, and so we found ourselves facing down snooty shop assistants, TSA officials, and NY maitre D’s all over again.

Guys, we wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Bring on the UK!

At a Loss in Lhasa

Ah, Lhasa. It’s difficult to know what to say about Lhasa. When Lucy and I originally worked out where in the world we wanted to travel, one of the key criteria was “places that we will never be able to go again”, either because they are too difficult to reach with a family or, perhaps more pertinently, because they may not exist in future. We don’t mean literally not exist (although North Korea may end up nuked off the face of the earth before we – and they – know it) but rather that the places and cultures are changing at such a rate that it may not be possible to experience them as they are meant to be seen.

Ce Pays, qui n'est pas le mien...

 

And in Lhasa, I fear that we turned up too late. Don’t get me wrong – Lhasa still has some amazing highlights. Although the phrase is a Lonely Planet cliché, the first sight of the Potala Palace really does take your breath away (and not just because of the altitude – boom boom). The interior of the Potala is then a maze of exquisite art and sculpture, blended with esoteric beliefs and an ancient yet still living culture. The Jokhang Temple is utterly amazing, as much for the building itself as for the extreme devotion of the pilgrims waiting for hours to get in, then filing around the various side chapels assiduously chanting, praying and filling butter lamps. And the old town is still Tibetan-charming, although struggling slightly to assert itself in the face of the rapidly expanding construction site that is Chinese Lhasa, all slab sided concrete buildings and general stores.

And the security. More police than you can shake a stick at, although I wouldn’t want to try doing something so provocative. Airport-style x-ray machines scanning anyone going anywhere near any of the monuments and confiscating anything flammable. Permits, multiple passport checks, metal detectors, police, army, you name it. All Han Chinese, and all perfectly civil to us Westerners. As an example of how pervasive it all is, we were posting a painting home: the lady behind the counter was inspecting our box and suddenly demanded whether we had used any newspaper as packaging material. It took us a while to realize, but you see newspapers are tightly controlled out here and must not be sent abroad on pain of God knows what. It boggles the mind rather.

And yet the Tibetans still go about their pious business, walking around the holy pilgrimages, praying at the temples, burning their incense and putting up with it all. Who knows how it will end, although I fear that the nice, gentle guys may not finish first.

Incidentally, Lucy came up with a new concept while we were in Lhasa: the “Buddhist Shopping Experience”. It is a state of mind you reach after a period of strolling past dozens of identical Buddhist tat shops all of whom are calling out to you to buy their prayer flags, rosaries etc.. If you concentrate hard enough at this point then all desires and all worldly attachments (in particular any desire to purchase anything ever again) magically vanishes. Om!

The South Pacific – The Stats

  • Countries visited: only three (Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu) although it felt like dozens in a region where the village over the hill probably speaks a different language
  • Flights taken: 16 in six weeks. Of which we only had to charter one ourselves (or we would be bankrupt by now). Locals medevac-ed for urgent medical treatment in our spare seats: two
  • Longest period without a hot shower: two full weeks, although cold showers, hot lava-warmed buckets and using industrial-strength insect repellent as deodorant go a long way (please think of this, when we are being gleeful about our posh flight tickets!)
  • Nights spent sleeping on the floor with no bedclothes: two. Both in the rain, one in a leaky tent. Never again
  • Number of naked boobs seen: several hundred. We have started to see them when we shut our eyes. The Horror. The Horror.
  • Number of naked men seen. None, as a single banana leaf technically counts as being appropriately dressed on Ambrym
  • Number of birds of paradise slaughtered to make headdresses for the Mount Hagen show: apparently none – apparently all the feathers are antique. So it only looks like thousands of these rare birds have been killed for your amusement
  • Time it took to get comfortable with everybody being armed with a bloody great machete: shorter than you might think!
  • Number of times robbed at knifepoint: zero. Number of times we thought someone might be about to rob us at knifepoint…
  • Occasions on which we fled the country under threat of police action: one. We love Port Moresby (hi Brian!)
  • Active volcanoes climbed: two. Active volcanoes actually seen: one
  • Meals consisting solely of bread or crackers, peanut butter and jam: a dozen? Maybe more – memory is merciful
  • Mind-bendingly incredible experiences you couldn’t get anywhere else in the world. Half a dozen? The Mount Hagen show; a good couple along the Sepik river; the Ambrym festival; Mount Yasur volcano on Tanna; diving on WW2 wrecks in the Solomons. Absolutely amazing.

Escape from … Tanna

Another island, another escape. Our so-far-so-unpredictable trip started to take a predictable turn on the Vanuatu island of Tanna. Fortunately, this allows us an early opportunity to practice the format of our “Escape from …” blog posts. As a reminder, these are typically structured as a short skip over some deeply extraordinary and alien experiences, followed by some epic yet mundane battle to escape as soon as any form of real deadline looms. So, here we go:

  • Blah blah blah, Mount Yasur – trekking up the world’s most accessible active volcano. Check the volcano activity forecast online (yawn), activity level two out of five (double yawn). Huge ash plain, quadruple caldera, humungous explosions with great gobs of lava being thrown about 100 meters vertically above where we are standing (like, so what?). Guide’s actual advice was to walk away slowly if lava bombs start landing behind us. So far, so normal
  • A dull, dull, dull trip to Friday night worship in a Jon Frum Village. You know, Cargo Cults which worship the American Navy as gods are sooo last year. An entire culture being set up to re-enact world war two invaders’ behavior (down to the mock flagpoles, marching in squares and setting up fake air traffic control towers) – seriously, why bother? The fact that their altars include a Red Cross (the god of free medical treatment!) just made it all so much less interesting
  • Three days living in a wooden tree house thirty feet up a banyan tree with a view of an active volcano? Having your tree shaken gently but firmly by the occasional eruption? Collecting rainwater to drink when your seventh day Adventist guest house owners go to church all day, locking the kitchen and your only water source? Banal, banal, banal…

So, on to the interesting stuff. What could possibly go wrong with a two hour drive across the island to the airport for our flight out?

  • Our guest house owner had a habit of dropping last minute bombs on us. His finest example, I think, was waiting until Friday night to tell us that they were Seventh Day Adventists … and that as a result they couldn’t drive us across the island to the airport on Saturday as planned. It was their Sabbath, you see, and they take it extremely seriously. No problem – we have got wise by this point, and have built a full day’s worth of slack into our (three day) timetable. The race to the airport will be just that – a race – but there is as yet no disaster
  • A day sitting in our tree house in the pouring rain later, we have driven about three miles when we stop to pick up Sergi and Miriam (but of course!) who were staying nearby. We should have known at this point – wherever these two go, disaster follows. Needless to say, about fifteen minutes later we were parked by the side of an unfordable flooded river. Our guest house owner (who we strongly suspect didn’t want to get his 4×4 muddy) told us that we would have to wait for the rain to stop and the flood to subside. Again unfazed, we get our shoes and socks off and prepare to wade across to hitchhike from the other side
  • Having finally found a car prepared to attempt a river crossing, we make it to the airport in the pouring rain to find the flight has been cancelled. Or perhaps never existed. Or maybe it did. Who knows? We wait drinking beer for Schrodinger’s aeroplane to resolve itself to discover that there were two flights, only one of which has scheduled, perhaps only one of which is running. Who knows? Air Vanuatu book all the white people in the terminal onto the one remaining flight and all the locals get up and leave (WTF? Anyone?)
  • It is at this point a deluge worthy of Noah’s Ark. The incoming plane finally touches down, only to discover that it is impossible to refuel from two barrels of avgas in said rain without filling the fuel tanks with water. A nervous hour ensues, before the pilot decides that we don’t actually, really, truly NEED to refuel. A further nervous hour ensues after take off, as we wait in turbulent cloud for the plane to run dry and fall from the sky…

Enough said. In true “Escape From…” style, we made it!

Escape from Ambrym

We are thinking of creating a new blog category called “Escape from…”

I don’t know how it happens, but Lucy and I will be having a perfectly happy time pootling round some lovely part of the world. Things will be going smoothly: buses will turn up reasonably on time, planes will run (sometimes early), tour guides will fulfill promises made, everything will be great. Then, over the horizon will come … a flight connection perhaps, a planned tour maybe, something from the outside world which was preplanned and Cannot Be Missed. Suddenly, it seems like everyone disappears, everything grinds to a halt and seemingly insurmountable obstacles stand in our way. So it was with Ambrym.

We were relaxing after our epic volcano trek. We had a thoroughly-deserved day off, ensuring that we didn’t miss the plane by the simple expedient of staying in Sam’s guest house (it is not only close to the airport; Sam is the airport). There were no showers, but the ground water was heated by lava and so bucket showers from the well were warm and toasty. We were given as much rice as we could eat. Life was great.

Then our plane was cancelled. “Don’t worry.” says Sam “We will get you off tomorrow.” We waited a day before it was cancelled. “Don’t worry.” says Sam “We will get you off tomorrow.” And then your connection will be the day after, so we can get you to your destination – ooh – three days late. Assuming that your connecting flight runs, which it probably will. Or it might not. Two weeks in Vanuatu you say? Once in a lifetime you say? Oh, so sorry about wasting a quarter of your trip loitering around an airstrip.

Lucy and I are relatively seasoned problem solvers – it was what we used to do for a living, I guess. We ran through the options: we called Air Vanuatu and gave them hell (no dice); I heard about a passing ship and strolled down to the harbor to see if they would give us a lift (deck passengers only, heading in a direction best described as “off the edge of the world”); we looked to see if we could make a short hop to another island and fly from there (no); and … er … that was it. Only one airline flies to Ambrym. Ships call once a week. The neighbouring islands are just as remote. There were no other options. We were stuck. We weren’t going to have time to do half the things we had wanted to do in Vanuatu, and we were deeply p***ed off.

Or not. In our problem solving bag of tricks, there is one that we try never to use. A Nuclear Option, if you will. We hate using it, but it sometimes works where nothing else does. There is a big red button with big white letters saying “Solve, with money”, and we pressed it – our private charter plane arrived soon afterwards.

And yet we had faced yet another difficult decision – due to the complex economics of inter-island flight we had two equally priced (expensive, but not too astronomical) options:

  • A nine-seater Islander plane, allowing us to fly out not only ourselves but also our two friends Sergi and Miriam and the late additions of one chronically sick local guy and his wife who desperately needed to make it to the capital for medical treatment; or
  • A three-seater REAL LIFE SEA PLANE that would take only Lucy and me, but the pilot of which promised that he would allow me to FLY THE PLANE MYSELF! And damn the others! YEAH!

Sigh. Cue two grateful Spaniards, two extraordinarily grateful islanders and a slightly wistful James. As a consolation prize the pilot of the nine-seater agreed to allow me to sit in the co-pilot’s seat so long as I agreed not to touch anything and not to squeal too loudly when he flew us between the first two islands at 150 feet, buzzing the occasional passing yacht.

We made it.

Last Impressions of PNG

PNG can be a pretty scary place at times. It has a terrible reputation internationally, particularly in Australia which is close enough for the newspapers to carry articles about the constant local tribal wars. Probably the best vignette to sum up the reality, however, happens about twenty times a day: you will be walking in the street when up comes a large Melanesian man, scruffily dressed, pretty dirty, bearded, deeply aggressive looking and with dark red betel-stained teeth. Oh, and he’s carrying a two foot machete. He stops and looks at you. You smile as confidently as you can muster, say a cheery good afternoon and cross your fingers. He pauses, then breaks out into a huge grin, introduces himself as something deeply biblical (like Isaac or Joshua) and is instantly your best friend. It’s bizarre, slightly unnerving yet rather wonderful.

The tribal wars which make the newspapers are typically fairly ritualized affairs fought, say, on the local football pitch – in the days before guns, they used to attract spectators. Although collateral damage regularly involves the burning down of villages, it is pretty rare for an outsider to be caught up in them. Compensation for wartime killings is typically made in pigs and the systems of payment are relatively sophisticated: we recently saw a long line of stakes by the side of a road stretching towards a distant marker – each stake signifies a pig, and both sides visit the site at differing times, adding and removing stakes and moving the marker back and forth. Once the stakes reach the marker the negotiation is complete, the pigs are paid and everyone is friends again. And at no point does anybody call the police – again, either great or terrible, depending on how you look at it.

The other issue which surprised us rather was the cost of everything. Or rather, the value of everything. We don’t mind slumming it, and we don’t mind paying up for quality. What really gets our goat is overpaying for crap. There are virtually no mid-range hotels, and very few backpacker joints that you would want to trust your backpack to. Mining companies fill up the few hotels inflating prices – you can easily pay US$100+ for a hotel room that would cost you about $40 in the US, if anybody were prepared to stay there. Two chicken drum sticks and half a plate of oven chips will set you back $22. Internal flights (which you need to get anywhere at all, as there are few roads) can be US$700 each, one way. We spent many thousands of dollars in our three weeks here, and were by no means rushing around.

PNG has been utterly blessed with an extraordinary fertile climate – everything grows everywhere and seemingly everybody has a garden producing an excess of coconuts, bananas, sweet potatoes, passion fruit, papayas etc.. Fish jump out of the rivers for lack of room. Jungle runs rampage on uncultivated land, fence posts sprout leaves – it’s incredible. So why do they charge tourists the earth for crappy imported noodles, crappy imported tuna, crappy imported peanut butter and (actually quite nice) imported jam? The roads are typically third world country bad, but don’t reach into the interior from the capital. Everything has to be flown in or shipped the long way round, and this boosts the prices yet further.

There is an argument that there is no need for enterprise, given the incredible fertility and the resulting ease with which subsistence affluence can be attained. There is another argument that the “wantok” system that allows one’s kinsmen to share in one’s good fortune not only provides an effective social security net, but also discourages individuals from working hard as they are not allowed to keep the gains. Post colonial hangovers of an unsuitable Westminster-style parliamentary democracy and (perhaps?) a post-colonial inferiority complex can’t help.

Yes, everybody is extremely friendly (while warning you to watch your back), but a smile doesn’t really soften the blow of (for example) a $400 one-way three hour minibus transfer or (and I think this was an accident, and I certainly didn’t pay it) $60 for four bowls of thin vegetable soup.

Apologies for the rant. This was written just after our hotel (for which we paid US$ 900 for three nights, during which we ate bread, jam and bananas two meals a day) just “forgot” about our agreed transfer to the airport, and eventually got us there ten minutes before the flight was due to take off. The upsides in PNG are amazing, however, and make the whole thing worthwhile (for example, the check in people at the airport were extremely helpful, waved us through, and put our backpacks on the plane themselves). You’ll just have to look at some of the other posts to describe the good times we have had here!

 

Escape from Sepik River

4 days on the river. I was tired, filthy and more than a little smelly. James’s stubble growing efforts were threatening beard-y success. We were down to our last packet of instant noodles and just the non-spicy tuna. Things were looking dire. Time to make a break for it.

Oh and we also a flight to catch.

We hatched a cunning but foolproof escape plan: overnight in Pagwe then catch a PMV into Wewak on Friday morning. Watches synchronized, we leapt from the canoe (hindered only slightly by the 10 kilos of sculptures we were by now carrying) into the throbbing by-lanes of Pagwe, alert and ready to go.

Instants later we successfully made contact with our friend in Pagwe, code name “Mike”, posing as the local guesthouse owner. Plan phase 1 successfully completed, we moved straight to “Mike”‘s Phase 2 briefing where our local contact immediately proved his value to the mission: there are no longer any PMVs to Wewak on Fridays.

We were stuck up the Sepik River without a paddle. Or indeed a canoe. We turned to Plan B, but cast it aside rapidly due to its fatal non-existence.

A brief consultation with “Mike” provided us with Plan C: ask anyone in town with a motorized or indeed semi motorized) vehicle if they’d take 2 smelly tourists plus 10 kilos of sculptures on the 3 hour journey to Wewak. Bribe where required. Use force if necessary.

We met some local counter-resistance: bare refusal to co-operate; outrageous pecuniary demands. We remained stalwart, but the truth was that our time was running out. Time to send in our chief negotiator. Trained in a ruthless London / New York investment banking operation he strikes fear into the hearts of snake oil salesmen worldwide. They call him James.

I don’t know what his tactics were, nor do I want to. Within 10 minutes of his deployment into the field, we were installed in a vehicle with an ex-missionary tour guide and 3 cowering colleagues. 3 hours later we arrived into Wewak, walked into the finest hotel in town and were immediately granted a 20% discount (we REALLY looked like we couldn’t afford it).

Operation successful.

Travelling in South America – The Stats

  • Countries visited: four (Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia)
  • Visa stamps collected: sixteen (including cheeky unofficial ones from the Inca trail, Macchu Picchu, Galapagos Islands and Easter Island). Lucy might run out of passport space before we are done!
  • Temperature range: 25C (Galapagos) to -20C (Bolivia – brrr!)
  • Min and max pieces of clothing worn: one (swimming with sharks in the Galapagos) and 16 (Lucy in Bolivia, not including three blankets, a sleeping bag and a hot water bottle at night)
  • Max days without a shower: 3.5 (twice – Uyuni Salt Flats and Inca Trail). For the record, it’s OK if you are both smelly at the same time
  • Pisco sours drunk: 35 (best one claimed made by James in Easter Island). And 35 isn’t as bad as it sounds between the two of us over a whole month! On second thoughts, how did we drink so little?
  • Rodents eaten: not entirely sure. Rodents eaten on purpose: one
  • Highest altitude: 4,900m (on the Uyuni salt flats tour. Gasp, wheeze.)
  • Most bone rattling ride: it’s a close call between the bus ride from Uyuni to Potosi (Lucy hit the ceiling at one point, from a reclining chair) and the final night crossing in the Galapagos (Lucy hit the ceiling at one point, from a prone position in bed)
  • Best building: you might think the Incas would win this, but our hotel room in Puno after four days in a jeep had a duvet! And a hot shower! And cable TV!
  • Best monolithic structure (South Pacific island category): the HUGE double ice cream cone that James ate in the shade of a stone Moai on Easter Island
  • Best new expression: “Poop!” – used twenty times a day by our guide in the Galapagos, and now a common part of our joint vocabulary. (But think about it, he has grannies and toddlers in his multi-lingual groups – how better to say it?)
  • Most unexpected cake: it’s a tie between the one five days out of port on the Galapagos boat trip baked on a slant in the galley, and the one three days into the Inca trail, baked on a propane burner. One said “Happy Honeymon” (sic) in icing; the other had bright green jelly on top – decisions, decisions
  • Scariest flight-related moment: a toss-up between Lucy in a turbulent six seater Cessna over the Nasca lines, and James when a condor about the size of the aforementioned Cessna flew low over his head in Colca Canyon
  • Closest wildlife encounter: you might think it was in the Galapagos, but almost being pushed off the Inca Trail over a sheer drop by a pack Llama probably clinches it
  • Intrepid Points gained: hundreds!

So, goodbye South America, roll on Papua New Guinea!

Our last night at 83 Mercer

Six men worked all day yesterday to pack all of our lives – sorry, all of our belongings – into a 20 foot crate for shipping to England. So what do you do on the last night in your home, when all the things that made it your home have gone?

Well, you camp.

The tent

Camping in our apartment

Camping

Under canvas at 83 Mercer

The Accidental (Second) Leaving Party

We didn’t mean to have a second leaving party. Oh no. Quite the reverse. In fact some of us (who can say who?) may have woken up that morning like bears with sore heads, vowing never agin to cease from our existence of solitary tranquility. We paused from meditative contemplation only to examine the fridge, secure in the knowledge that all the evil alcohol had been purged from our lives through the previous night’s party.

Or maybe not. We have incredibly generous friends it seems, and our humble efforts to diminish the accumulated hard liquor supply of the past three years had been rather squashed by the influx of new arrivals. Still we thought, no need to be hasty. Perhaps we could just invite a few, select friends round to eat the last of the leftover pizza and drink a glass of wine.

Just the one glass mind….

And so they came, our wonderful friends; first came Jon & Tek; we watched Jeeves and Wooster and shared a glass of wine. Matthew and Michelle followed; a second episode, a second glass of wine. Then came Tim and Jess, fresh from dinner with friends. Well, that unlooked for pleasure must be celebrated … champagne seemed to fit the bill. Next up, Stellah and Cordelia, upping the fabulous stakes with their wonderful outfits – to which we matched bellinis. Last came Giusy, bringing (as always) the party – and two huge helium balloons. The first we flung into the night, weighted to perfect buoyancy by the slightly unusual, but rather effective, ballast of a carefully nibbled slice of pizza.

What could top a pizza balloon? What more could anyone wish for…?

Well, to our minds it seemed quite simple. A wish balloon of course. What lovelier than to cast our wishes onto the summer night sky to find who they may … maybe if we were really lucky landing with the unfortunate recipient of the pizza balloon…

What a WONDERFUL night :-)