Struggle

 

I wanted to write something about a topic that’s been bugging me for while. A lot of people don’t seem to understand the reasons why I would put myself in danger unnecessarily, risking my life hanging off of crevices with nothing but an ice axe between me and a hundred foot drop, or wandering off into the desert with nothing but a pair of pyjamas and a water bottle (sometimes significantly less). Every time I say that I’m going to do something like this, people sit me down and talk to me like I’m stupid, or a child with an impossible fancy. They say “That’s dangerous…you shouldn’t go on your own…you’re crazy. etc. etc. etc.”

So let me explain.

First of all: I’m aware of the danger

I’m not stupid. I know that Ice climbing, or desert surfing is dangerous and to be honest I probably wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t. Why you ask? Is it because I’m an adrenaline junkie, a thrill seeker, irresponsible? No. Despite the obvious endorphin rush, I do it for a deeper reason. I believe in the importance particular emotions plays in our lives.

Most of us (not everyone) go through our lives in a kind of neutral emotional state. We feel strongly about certain things, but don’t usually engage in activities that bring about strong emotional responses. Yes sometimes we get angry, or sad, or happy, but there is a lot missing from our lives. How about fear? Real fear, not the kind we feel when we’re late for work, or accidentally step on someones toe on the train, I’m talking about that feral feeling when you are actually afraid for your life, the moment between heartbeats when your foot slips from a foothold on the side of a cliff. Ask yourself: when was the last time you were really, truly, afraid?

It’s a terribly powerful emotion, one that we may go through our entire lives without fully appreciating.

So why is this important? The feeling of fear unlocks the ‘fight or flight’ response in your brain. When this happens your body produces adrenaline and unlocks the true potential of the human body, a force far beyond that which you can normally control. This is why mothers can pull cars off of their trapped children, or why a climber will be able to hold onto a rock with one finger to save themselves from falling. You truly become in touch with your own body and just how powerful it really is.

After this happens your body produces dopamine, ceretonin and oxitocin, the pleasure, joy and closeness chemicals. All these things are the chemical translations of a feeling of profound fulfilment. Have you ever done something that you never thought you could and were so surprised that a feeling welled up inside you and you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry? That’s the feeling I’m talking about.

The moral of that scientific sermon is that once we have overcome the fear and survived, we are filled with a deep sense of joy, fulfilment and confidence in ourselves. People are always telling us to ‘be confident’ but this is like telling a a plant to grown, it’s useless. The only thing that builds confidence is success, so if you want to become more confident, challenge yourself, scare yourself, and when you survive, you’ll be one step closer.

Secondly: I want to go alone

There’s a particular kind of experience that can only be truly discovered in the absence of anyone else.

One particular view of happiness can be defined in term of a triangle, the three points of which are: health, wealth and relationships. Now before we jump on the “money doesn’t make you happy” argument, there are two parts to each of these points, an inner and an outer.

For example: outer wealth could be defined as possessions, money, assets, etc. but inner wealth is your wealth of experiences, your skills and knowledge, and your memories. A person could be considered in poverty, but have a wealth of knowledge and memories that make them far happier.

One thing can affect another, for example: if you are struggling with your relationships, this can affect your mental health; or if you’re struggling with your wealth, i.e. your broke, this can affect your relationships and self-confidence. Let’s face it, we all feel a little low when we’re broke.

In a similar way, the inner aspects of health and relationships are your inner health and your inner relationships. In other words, how you feel about yourself. Some people who struggle with depression don’t find it helpful when others try to comfort them or offer advice, because the real issue is their self-confidence and self-actualisation. For example: if you tell someone who thinks they are ugly, that they are beautiful, they simply won’t believe you because it does not agree with their own self-image. The only way for that person to really believe that they are beautiful is to try and change their own self-image, and that is far more difficult.

Let’s use the case of self-confidence then. Like I said before, you can’t tell someone to be confident, but if they go through hardship, experience struggle, then they will come out at the other end with a stronger self image, a fuller confidence, and that props the triangle up from within. At the end of the day, no one can rescue you from what’s inside, and if you can always rely on yourself for strength, then you will feel more confident and able to deal with hardship.

So what’s the point of all this then? Going through personal struggle makes you a stronger. Have you ever had a moment when you achieved something you thought you couldn’t, like walking a long distance, or completing a task that seemed impossible. Didn’t it make you feel proud?

The best way to work on your relationship with yourself, is to spend time with yourself. Do you really know you? Have you ever had a long conversation with yourself without distractions? Give it a try, go for a long walk. You might just enjoy your own company.

There’s also the factor of feeling at one with the world, but I’ll save that for another time.

Finally: I may seem crazy to you, but who’s the judge?

Everyone lives in their own world. What you may consider to be fun may not be the same as someone else. What you may consider to be crazy may seem mundane to someone else. You may think I’m crazy for climbing mountains, but personally, I consider spending my entire life sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen to be the very definition of insanity. That’s why I left the big city and the corporate world and live in the mountains.

We were born on this earth naked, and the world is a hard place when you think about it. Have you ever taken your shoes and socks off and walked down the street? Painful isn’t it? But what about people who don’t have shoes? They grow thick skin.

In the wise words of the philosopher Ian Watts:

“Light is only bright because we have eyes, rocks are only hard because we have soft skin.”

We fear what we do not understand and we cannot understand what we have not yet experienced. A lot of people go through life not believing that they can do things and so they project this feeling onto other people. The truth is, you’d be surprised what the human body can do, and if you ever set about testing your own limits, you may find that you’re stronger than you think.

Sometimes I even think what I do is crazy, but when I see people wasting away behind desk it makes me feel sorry for them. I would rather die in a rock slide than be waiting forty years for retirement.

Some wise words

In a survey of thousands of American’s taken over the course of several decades, it was found that 70% of people, although they did not consider their lives to be bad, said that they had no sense of purpose at all. Most people when asked how they felt about life merely replied “Meh…” Purpose was not necessarily linked to happiness, but those who said that they identified with something greater than themselves, had a dramatically lower rate of depression.

In answer to this I can offer a quote from the Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, from his great work: Man’s search for meaning.

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’…But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”

The pursuit of pleasure does not necessarily bring about happiness, and the pursuit of happiness does not necessarily bring about purpose, or a meaningful life. A person might make great sacrifices in life for the good of others and experience no pleasure at all in life, but still feel a profound sense of fulfilment. If you live a life of relative happiness and ease, but have no connection to a greater purpose, then why not try doing something extraordinary to bring yourself closer to it.

For me, mountaineering is why I live. It gives me a sense of connection with something greater than myself, and gives me a sense of purpose in life. Through struggle I connect with my inner strength and through spending time with myself and with the natural world, I feel more connected with myself as a person, and with the world too.

Don’t be afraid of hardship, don’t be afraid of tears, you might enjoy them more than you thought.

What’s your opinion? Am I crazy? kick off a discussion in the comments box, I’d love to hear your thoughts, I live with mine all day. Don’t forget to like and follow the blog if you enjoy my ramblings. I’m fairly well stocked with topics and I’ll try and put them up here as often as I can. Thanks for reading.

 

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Understanding Africa: Rwanda

Rwanda is the cleanest, most well maintained and safest country in the region, by far. It truly is the Gem of Africa. So why don’t people go here? What really goes on in the Land of a Thousand Hills? What about those beautiful Gorillas? And wasn’t there that horrible thing that happened 20 years ago?

At university I studied renewable engineering with my good friend Mike. Since then he has been living almost exclusively in Africa with his partner Melba, working on development projects in renewable energies, whilst I on the other hand, have been working in the Oil & Gas industry. After a brief visit home, he convinced myself and our fellow uni-mate Ben to visit them in Rwanda and experience a different kind of life, so we popped on a flight and paid them a visit.

First impressions

I tried not to create expectations before my trip, but I couldn’t help myself worrying about how safe it was going to be. When we first arrived however, it was not what I had expected at all. It was clean, quiet and modern, like you might expect from any city in Europe, barring the holes in the pavement. Mike and Melba greeted us with a big hug at the airport and introduced us to our first Rwandan, their house mate Denyse. Denyse is an angel. She spent the whole week ferrying us around to bars and restaurants so that we could drink, leant us her car to go on a road trip, and even gave Ben and I her room to sleep in. Denyse has a great job with Oxfam and earns a decent salary, but chooses to live n a house with no electrical appliances, no hot water and cooks in a charcoal outhouse. When I asked her why, she said that she just prefers a simpler life. Denyse, like most Rwandans, is a Christian and believes in Christian values. She works for a charity and is in her heart a deeply charitable person. Why then would she succumb to unnecessary home comforts not afforded to most of her fellow people? Mike and Melba also live in the same house out of choice.

The second Rwandan I met was a police officer. “Leave these Muzungus in the car and pick up a shovel.” said the policemen to Denyse, Mike’s Rwandan house mate. Muzungu is actually a polite word for white man, since the actual word for Englishman translates to ‘The Cager.’ It just so happened that the day we arrived, the last Saturday of the month, was community service day. This is a compulsory exercise where everyone gets together and helps the local community by doing some labour or cleaning the streets. while in principle this sounds like a great thing, it actual projects a grim image of the iron fist of the Rwandan government. The only reason we were able to escape labour was because the beautiful Denyse managed to convince at least 10 officers that they shouldn’t make our first impression of Rwanda a bad one.

Mike told me another story about the Rwandan police force. He had a conversation with a local guy about a thief being gunned down in the street for stealing a wing mirror. “That would never happen in Europe.” Mike explained, to which the man replied “I know, you guys don’t steal over there, right?” Mike was stunned to silence, not just by this man’s acceptance of totalitarian policing, but also of his view that Europeans are beyond crime at all. Actually Rwandan police are incorruptible. They will never accept a bribe, in fact they will throw you in prison for suggesting it, quite unlike in Kenya where they will arrest you for no reason other than for the purpose of soliciting a bribe.

“So why is Rwanda so nice?” I asked Mike. “Rwanda is Africa Easy Mode.” he tells me, “Just wait till you get to Kenya!” After some experience, I am inclined to agree with him. “After the whole genocide thing” he continues, “everyone was like ‘right, come on guys, let’s sort this out’ and now Rwanda is the most stable country in the region.” Mike is obviously simplifying a complex socio-political situation into an anecdote, but he’s not far off. After the events of 1994, most of the perpetrators of the atrocities fled into neighbouring countries, and everyone who was left was so horrified that all they wanted was for a chance at normal life again. With some help from western governments and organizations, the infrastructure and economy was repaired, and things got back to normal, but the emotional and physical scars will never be forgotten.

I had a chance to visit the Genocide memorial in Kigali, something that everyone should do once in their lives. I could not possibly have prepared myself for what was to come. Ben and I were two grown men sharing a pair of headphones, crying our eyes out as we walked through the museum. Here are some of the personal accounts I remember:

“If someone came up to me and said “I murdered your wife and children” I would forgive them, but you cannot forgive if you don’t know who was to blame. Forgiveness is a gift that they can still give to us.”

“The saddest thing was the silence. After people being killed day and night, there was no more sound. No one could even talk about it any more. It was as if Rwanda had been erased from the earth.”

“I saw a baby breast feeding itself off its own dead mother. I did nothing to stop the baby. I could not. I was so lost myself. It was like walking through a Bush after it has already been burnt.”

“Now released prisoners from the genocidiers stand beside victims at the memorial and they know why they do so…the focus was not on revenge but forgiveness.”

The list of survivor accounts is longer than the wall of names of the victims, because most of them were either never found, or never identified. The fact that a Rwandan can stand next to the person that murdered their family and morn them together, is something that I almost couldn’t believe. It just goes to show how strong the focus is on forgiveness and unity in the country. If you want to learn more I would advise against looking on Wikipedia or BBC websites. If you want to get a real feel for what happened, visit the Genocide Archive of Rwanda.

Pragmatism and African time

One thing that impressed me deeply about the Rwandan people are their pragmatism. They don’t sit around all day complaining that they don’t have things, they simply go and make them. On one of our first nights in Rwanda we went to a bowling alley for dinner and, well, you can’t not laugh. They are hand-operated. It’s just about the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen. Since modern machinery is expensive, but labour is cheap, when you knock down the pins, little hands suddenly appear from the dark and sweep away the remnants, sometimes scoring you additional points if they accidentally knock more pins over. They couldn’t give a toss about health and safety, they just want to get it done.

Mike and I used to work out together at our uni gym, so when I asked him how he was keeping fit, he took Ben and I to his local gym to see how they do things there. As engineers, we were thrilled to see that, in place of proper weights, they had welded car differentials to the ends of axles to make barbells. For cable machines they had rigged a system of pulley that lifted buckets of nuts and bolts off the ground. Ingenious. This is the kind of thing I love about Rwanda, and Africa in general. You can buy 1 cigarette from a shop, or 1 roll of toilet paper from a multi-pack. If a garage can’t fix your car, the mechanic will drive with you to the next town to see if they can, and the next town, until someone fixes it and drives them all home. Cars have infinite mileage and there’s no such thing as an MOT.

As we were driving through the countryside we saw people walking for miles with everything from bricks to bananas balanced on their heads. Their skills at this could rival even the most highly trained Chinese acrobats . They do this because there are no cars to transport goods, but stuff still needs to get done, so they just do it on African time. Most of these people aren’t even being paid for doing this , but at the end of the day someone will have a house, and that’s what’s important. The feeling is that if they are doing nothing, then they might as well be helping out. This kind of philosophy , is something that’s really missing from a lot of places in this world.

Mike’s project in Rwanda (when he’s not moonlighting as a bike mechanic for their national team) is to develop a new kind of electric induction cooker that could replace charcoal cooking and stop deforestation in the country. The only problem with this, apart from the fact that it only works with certain kinds of pots, is that Rwandan homes don’t really have kitchens. Instead they cook in a little black outhouse on a coal stove. Since Mike’s cooker is still in the development stage we ate out a lot. In most restaurants in Rwanda you will wait a seriously long time for food. This is called African Time. This is can be frustrating, and is kind of bizarre since there are always a ton of people working in restaurants. The problem is, they are only really being employed for the sake of not having unemployment, so there is about twice as many people as there is stuff to do. You’d think this would make it faster, but actually they just all get in each other’s way and mix up your banana chips with your fried bananas (they are both identical).

Getting around

Even though Mike has only been living in Rwanda for about 3 months, he’s no Muzungu. He seems to speak Kiriwanda with a surprising fluency. Every time we need to get anywhere he hails a bunch of motorbike taxis, or motos, and get’s us the Rwandan price of about 10p per kilometre. Now, the first time you get on one of these you will likely cling on for dear life to the drivers back as it meanders through, and across, traffic at high speed. Once you get used to them, and you realise that the driver really doesn’t mind if you spoon them, you can sit up, relax and enjoy the view.

One of my most beautiful memories of Kigali is driving on the back of a moto at night. Kigali is spread over a number of hills, and at night they light up like fibre optic domes. At a certain hour the traffic clears and a sweet smell of honeysuckle rises through the air. It hits you and you loosen your helmet, suddenly wishing that your journey would be just that little bit longer. After a few days in Kigali the four of us set off on a road trip in Denyse’s car and headed for the hills. Rwanda is a lush green country filled with bananas, tea plantations and mangoes, and driving through it is probably the best part (as long as you have a four wheel drive car). Unfortunately we wrecked Denyse’s Toyota Espacia and had to glue it back together when we got back to town.

It’s called the land of a thousand hills for a reason, and it’s choc-a-block with forests and small villages. All along the road you’ll find people walking who will stare at you for no other reason than they’ve probably not seen a Muzungu in a while and are curious. Nearly every kid we passed shouted out “Muzungu!” at the top of their voice, waving a chasing the car. It’s cute at first but it gets old real fast. We stopped for a break to soak in the view at one point and about 30 children all crowded around in silence, watching us like we were in a zoo. I still remember probably the most bizarre sight I saw: a little boy ran across the road barefoot and scrambled up a hill. As we turned the bend there was an ancient looking women sitting on the corner with white eyes full of cataracts, wearing shabby clothes, but holding a beautiful new rainbow coloured umbrella over her head. As we passed by, a picturesque green dairy farm revolved behind her and she followed us with her ears the whole time.

Sadly, after just over a week, it was my time to go, and so Mike two’s up on a moto with me down to the city bus station to get a ticket for the overnight bus to Uganda. These buses don’t joke about. It was like a scene from the fast and the furious. They’re all lit up like Christmas trees, LEDs and banging tunes, chromed out wheels and leather seats (in the VIP section). Unfortunately for me who bought a VIP seat for the, (which are located right at the front), they play ear splitting Afrobeat in the cockpit all night to keep the driver awake. This has got to have been one of the most uncomfortable journeys of my life. On top of the roads being bad, the music and the lights were like some kind of sensory torture. The border was also a joke. I basically got kicked out in the middle of the night and had to wonder across no-man’s land spooning my passport and beating away the touts selling fake money and cigarettes.

Things not to miss

As part of our little road trip we spent a few days kicking around Lake Kivu, which is one of the biggest lakes in Africa, separating Rwanda from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This vast expanse of water holds host to a striking array of scenery. In the south at Gisenyi, mushroom islands stick out of snaking waterways like a scene from South East Asia. We hired canoes for next to nothing and paddles out to enjoy the sunset, sipping local banana beer, which is vile FYI. In the north in Kichigi there are beautiful sandy beaches that look over open water like the Mediterranean, dotted with little resorts and boulevards. I got told not to swim too far out however, as blinking in the distance near the DRC side there is a natural gas rig polluting the lake. Classic Africa. We were going to do a border run but apparently you’ll pay $200 for a single entry visa. Also DRC is a bad place, don’t go there.

Ben really wanted to do gorilla trekking, so we stopped off in Virunga under the shadow of the volcano. If you looked on a Rwandan tourist brochure this would be the only thing on it. Ask anyone else who has even heard of Rwanda and “gorillas” is the second word they’ll say after “genocide.” It’s even on their money. The guide took Ben so close he could have touched them and they surrounded their group like they weren’t even there. He told me that one of the bull males came up and beat his chest at them and they all had to make supplicating gestures towards him so as not to get beaten to death. When I asked him how it was he said “Amazing! But not worth $800.” Yes $800 for one morning. If you have the money do it, but I passed.

The mountain gorillas are severely endangered, mainly because farmers have expanded into their jungle and consider them a nuisance. They used to just shoot them, but now the Rwandan government employs a huge task force to keep them under check, both the farmers and the gorillas. This seems to be working well and this is why you’ll pay top dollar to see them. It does actually seem to feed back into program and would be working well if not for the DRC side just giving free reign to anyone with a few dollars.

Besides the fact that it’s a massive cliché, I actually had the most fun just hanging out with some local kids. When we were in Virunga we decided to break out of our sheltered camp site and hang out with some goat herders, after losing an epic animal noise competition against them through the fence. We headed off across the farms and into the forest. Now, being a film-maker, I wanted to take pictures with all the kids, but Mike was very against this. “Imagine if you lived in a poverty in England” he put it, “and rich foreigners kept coming into your neighbourhood on tours and taking pictures with you to show how poor you were. How would you feel?” He has a valid point.

He is also against giving money to beggars, or letting people over charge you, even for a quick moto ride. “It’s a false economy” he said, “If you give them money, they will know that the next foreigner will give them money, so they will stop working because they know they can make more money begging. So the whole community turns into beggars, and what happens when the tourists go away? Suddenly the whole thing collapses and they are left with less than they started with.” I kept thinking about this each time I someone asked me for money, but it’s hard to remain so stolid when someone appears to be suffering right in front of your face. I’m still unsure on this.

It rained fiercely that day and the kids led us to shelter in a local barn. Here, as the rain chattered against the corrugated iron rooftop, we had a song and dance competition. We never could have planned it and it was one of the most magical experiences of my life. Obviously I could go on all day about Rwanda, and I do in my travel journal, which may well soon be available to download or buy in a shop! I’ll keep you updated. My advice then is hit the road, explore the mountains and meet local people. You don’t need to speak the language to understand each other. Avoid restaurants. Eat croissants.

If you’ve been to Rwanda, or have any comments about the country or anything I’ve said, leave a comment below and start the dialogue, and don’t forget to check out the gallery for some of my favourite pics of this stunning country.

Understanding Africa: Introduction

In the beginning there was doubt

Africa?” they said, “Alone?” they said, “But you’ll be killed by: bandits, terrorists, witch doctors, lions, snakes, Ebola, AIDs, etc.” and while I did encounter the majority of the above, I am still alive to tell the tale, and to top it off, I got a tan!

Last year I travelled from the heart of Rwanda to the tip of South Africa, some 60,000km overland, snaking through the rainforests, mountains, deserts, and island paradises, from the equator to the Cape. Along the way I lived with a dirt-biking Masai in a volcano doomed to become a thermo-power plant, witnessed the corruption and bribery of the Swahili police force, and carved up dead zebra in Zululand. Jackal fishing anyone? From cannibalism and witchcraft, to humping baboons with a fetish for car bonnets, I seemed to become a magnet for strange and hilarious events, but my true effort on this journey was to help dispel some of the harsh stigma surrounding this beautiful place.

Some things you need to know about me

Unlike most people who travel to Africa I am not a journalist, I am not a humanitarian, and I am not an ironic eco-tourist. I am just a nomad with a thirst for the unknown and a good nose for gossip. I can guarantee you some of the stories I heard are not true, but sometimes the lie is more revealing than the truth, because it exposes the motives of the teller, and every story here is straight from the horse’s mouth. I make it my point to ask the difficult questions and talk to the unheard people, who harbour the opinions and motives of the true heart of Africa. I have no scruples asking about religious indoctrination, genocide, or apartheid, and I don’t omit truths because they don’t agree with my views. I also meet the different kinds of people who travel to Africa, and ask them why: the ex-pats, the volunteers and the Dutch colonials.

Some things you didn’t know about Africa

People forget (or just don’t realise) that Africa is made up of some 112 different nations, and that it is massive! You don’t really realise how big Africa is, because when you flatten out the globe into a rectangle (like on most maps), everything in the middle is squished, and everything at the top and bottom is stretched. Looking at a map in this way, you’d probably think that Africa was about the same size as the U.S, and that Greenland was huge, but actually, you could fit the whole of North America, China, and India into Africa, and still have room for Greenland at the bottom. Check it out at Thetruesize.com, it’s super fun!

You also can’t really make any sweeping statements about Africa as a whole, because it contains possibly the biggest diversity of terrain, culture, and wildlife on the planet. It would be like saying that people in Canada eat the same food as Mexicans, Indians have the same hairstyles as Siberians, or that France and Germany have the same football team. Imagine how that would go down in the pub.

And off we go!

To clarify then, I visited the following countries on this trip: Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. I travelled almost exclusively by land routes (Maybe some boats in there), and I was gone for about three months. This is all possible because I’m unemployed and thought “Screw it! Let’s go on an adventure.” You can be unemployed too! I actively encourage it.

My posts will follow in chronological order by country, starting with Rwanda. Here I visited with some ex-pat friends of mine from university, who have been living in Africa for some time now. After sampling the delights of Kigali we went on a cross country road trip, visiting the lakes, mountains and gorillas of this beautiful country, and found out what makes it tick. Check out the next blog “Understanding Africa: Rwanda” for the full story.

Only in China: Day 1

Introduction

This blog is about my meanderings through China on one of my little adventures. Follow me using this rather crudely edited map and see what really goes on in this vast and interesting country. I try to present it as honestly and ironically as possible, and comedy is often implicit, though not always sought after.

Of course, this has all already happened, but since China has a no tolerance blockade on the internet, I can only tell you about it after my return. So without further ado, here’s day 1.

Day 1: London – Guangzhou

“Oh, just a second.” I say hurriedly as someone walks in on me whilst peeing in the aeroplane toilet. God, I should really learn how to say sorry in Mandarin, and how to lock a door. Not quite what you were expecting for the beginning of a travel story? Well, you’ve obviously not met me. My life is the kind of farcical adventure that features on TV sketch shows that people make up, but you can’t make this shit up.

“Fuck.” I said when I realized I didn’t know the pin code to the card that has all my money on, whilst trying to change £3000 worth of GBP into shiny pink Chinese bank notes this morning, at a Thompson booth in Surrey Quays…but no fear, there’s always a backup plan.

Online banking, switch money between accounts, buy 24,700CYN (special staff rate of course), stash it in my backpack and head to the airport. I heard a saying once, can’t remember where it was from but it goes:

“If you haven’t used your plan B then you haven’t tried hard enough.”

There’s another saying in Chinese that reads: “Shou zhu dai tu.” Which literally means:  “To guard a tree stump” but actually means: “To stand by a stump waiting for hares to come and dash themselves against it.”

It’s an ironical poke at leaving things to chance that I found quite insightful, whilst translating random garbage on my phone, trying to rapidly learn Chinese.

So I learnt a bit of Mandarin, have enough cash to buy a Chinese bank, have a Rough Guide to China, and am now downloading the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon soundtrack. Totally psyched. I like it when things go to plan, but I also like a challenge. Example: sent off to get my Chinese visa a month in advance. Receive the following phone call from a charming older Chinese man struggling with English:

“Ah, Hello, Mr Ocean?”

“O’Shea, but yes, who’s calling?”

“It’s Chan from a the Chinese visa centre in Edinburgh. We receive a your application, but there’s a no passport.”

“Fuck.”

So my passport was lost in the post. No problem, book appointment for 1 week rush service, get new passport the day before I go to Spain, book new visa appointment for the day I get back. Visa application denied. Fuck. Who do I know in China…?

“James, I need to ask a huge favour. Can you get your girlfriend to write me an invitation letter?”

James doesn’t really know me. We went to school in the same area when we were kids and had some of the same friends, ironically all Chinese, but apart from that, I haven’t spoken to him in ten years. He just so happened to like my post about going to China on Facebook and I found out that he actually lives there.

“If you promise to bring me some Sainsbury’s Strawberry Laces to Wuhan.” He says.

“Deal.”

Invitation letter received, new appointment booked, visa accepted. Fuck yeah! Collect visa and passport the day before travel, quick Sainsbury’s trip. Now to get my travel money…

I also have a detailed map of china, which I have drawn lines and circles all across; a map of the Chinese rail network; a list of trains, journey times and costs of all the major journeys on my list (which I will forthwith ignore); a list of all the places I want to go, with a rough schedule, taking into account that I need to pop into Kasakhstan to renew my visa by day 90; and of course, an MP3 player full of classic rock and Chinese meditation music.

I’m about to spend the next four months in China. What could possibly go wrong?

 

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