Take Back Time Part Four: The Journey

There will be times in your life when there seems to be this wall in front of you. You have gone down the straight path all your life without ever looking around and suddenly you find that you cannot go on.

But it is in these times that you wake up from the trance you have been in and shake your head and suddenly you realise that you’ve been searching in the sand all your life for a drop of water, not realising that it was a beach and that there was a sea right next to you…

You see there is always a choice.

You can stare at this wall and think about how high it is, and how difficult it seems to climb, and that the ladder you had been on your whole life is now in tatters on the floor…

Or you can look around and realise that the wall is only blocking you from what is on the other side…

You see if you travel with a river, so that you swim along with it, you’re going with the flow and everything is moving with you…you are at rest.

It’s only when you try to swim against it that the water rushes against you and pushes you back…

And what happens to a river when it hits a wall? It simply flows around it.

As long as the river flows, that is as long as life flows, the water will always find another way.

There is always another way…

You only need know there is a way and you will inevitably find it.

And there IS a way…

This is the key.


To Africa

So I took the money from the medical trial and the money from my redundancy settlement and I disappeared…gone with the wind…

I decided that I would do everything I’d always wanted to do. My old life had nothing left for me anymore and so I decided that I would find another way to live.

I had nothing to lose right?

So I went to visit my friends in Africa. They were living in a small house in Rwanda with no hot water, no cooking and barely any electricity.

Mike was a bicycle mechanic for the Rwanda cycling team and Melba was starting her own jewellery up-selling business.

I hadn’t seem them for years and they had been living the most extraordinary lives all over Africa, living from hand to mouth, from country to country, doing what they could to get by.

And I thought “Wow, how can they be living like this?”

So I asked Mike “Are you happy?” and he said to me “Dean, all I ever really wanted was for it to be warm.”

You see Mike has Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. He get’s depressed in the wintertime, and on the equator there is no winter…

For him it was a choice as obvious as whether or not to wear a rain coat in a storm. He saw the problem and saw the solution.

Because you see a problem is really just a solution upside down…

Problem: you hate winter. Solution: remove winter…

Does anyone else have a problem like that?

Problem: I’m fat…solution: remove fat…

But these things can be difficult, as I’m sure we all know.

So the question really is ‘How?’ Right?

Wrong…the question is not how.


So you’re friend says “I’m depressed.”

You respond: “How will you fix this problem?”

“I will become happy.”

“How?”

“I will think happy thoughts, and do happy things and pretend that everything is alright.”

Does this solve the problem? Does that ever solve the problem?

No. Because you never really find out what the problem is…and if you don’t know what the problem really is, you’ll never find a solution.

The question you need to ask is not “How?” but “Why?”

If you can find out why you are unhappy, why you are afraid, why you do the things you do, why you are at this wall, not how you got there, then you will be able to break free.


The Why

“How is it that you can do so many things?” asked the boy to the adventurer. “You can build a ship and sail it across the seas, and read the starts, and always find your way home. How do you do it?” pleaded the boy.

“It’s not how you should be asking” replied the adventurer sombrely, “but why.”

“Why?” asked the boy, confused, “but why?”

“Why do you do the things that you do?” asked the adventurer. “Why do you get up in the morning? Why do you eat breakfast, why do you look up at the stars and wonder what they mean?”

“Well…” hesitated the boy, “Well, I don’t know.”

“How comes after Why my boy.” whispered the adventurer with a secret smile, “It is his little brother. It follows him, learns from him and aspires to him. It grows to him, feeds from him and finds all paths that lead from him, no matter how hard or far: it always meets him in the end. So do not worry about How, find your Why and you will find your way…”


In Part Five…

In Part Five I’m going to tell you about The Question. There is a fundamental questions that lives in all our hearts, that guides almost every action we take: it is Your Why.

And if you know what your Why is then your How will become obvious.

Subscribe to get email notifications and look out for Part Five: The Question

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Take Back Time, Part Two: The Invisible Ladder

Have you ever felt like your whole life has been building up to something, but that you’ve never really arrived?

Do you ever get that anxious feeling like there’s something you’re supposed to do, or that time is running out?

Are you always thinking of the future at the expense of the moment?

It happens to all of us and it’s the route of so much anxiety. So What’s the rootof it all?

The Root

The famous philosopher Alan Watts once said:

“Don’t you remember when you first went to school and suddenly there was a path already laid out before you?”

Before you’d just been playing in the sand, now your teacher begins telling you all the things you’re going to learn and all the things you have to do in your life in order to become part of ‘The World.’

And you’re captivated…It’s like an oracle is telling you your future. So you climb aboard this ship that is your life and begin to sail.

You go through your first year at school and there’s this pressure to learn so that you can do well in the next year, and before you know it you’re sitting your first exams, and this is the moment you’ve been preparing for your whole life…or so it seems.

And then you’re in secondary school and it’s a whole new world, and you sit down with your new classmates and your new teacher tells you that all of that was just child’s play, and that now you will be really learning, and there’s all this stuff to prepare you for.

So you go on up the years and there are more tests and more pressure, and then you graduate from secondary school and someone sits you down again and says:

“OK, so you made it this far, but that was just a stepping stone, and now you need to study hard to go to college, and university, and if you ever want to be a part of the ‘real world’ you better do well, or else!”

So you go to college and you go to university and every step gets harder and harder and there’s more pressure, and when you finally graduate you go out into this famous world…

And there you begin the struggle for success in the workplace.

And again it’s like there’s a ladder before you and you have to do well so you can get a promotion and climb up the next rung, so that you can have that house and that mortgage you’ve always been told about.

And somewhere along the line, maybe when your 40 or 45, in the middle of your life you wake up and go:

“Huh…I’ve arrived. And you know what I feel just about the same as I’ve always felt, in fact I don’t know if I don’t feel a little cheated.”

Again, stop me if this sounds familiar…

And some people work all their lives until they’re 60 or 65 and when they retire they say “Aha! Finally I can live my life…but now I’m old and have no teeth, and a bad hip, and two bad knees, and I can’t climb that mountain I’ve always wanted to climb, or skinny dip in that lake because I’m all saggy and old and I don’t want people to look at me anymore.”

Because you see you were fooled…You are always living for somewhere you aren’t.

And when you finally get to that future and it becomes now, you’ve not really there, because you’re living in some other future that hasn’t happened yet.

And so you will never be able to truly inherit the fruits of your actions.

You can’t really live at all…unless you live fully…now.

The Proof

One morning a violinist stood in the middle of a subway station in Washington DC and began to play. He played for nearly an hour, and in that time no more than a handful of people stopped to listen. He made about $50.

This was the great violinist Joshua Bell who has commanded millions of dollars playing in the some of the greatest venues in the world. The case where people threw their change usually housed a $1,000,000 violin.

You see people are so engaged in attempting to climb this invisible ladder, that they never actually stop to appreciate the beauty in the world all around them.

And their anxiety springs from the fact that they are always reaching for something that they cannot grasp, so they will never be happy with what they have, because they’re always looking for something more.

Forever is not a point far in the future, or something that happened a long time ago. Forever is now!

So Live Forever!

In Part Three…

In part three I will tell you about The Wall. This is the moment in your life when you feel you cannot go on, when some insurmountable object lies in your way. I’m going to tell you how I came across The Wall and how I got around it.

Subscribe to get email notifications and look out for Part Three: The Wall

Take Back Time, Part One: Death

Why are you here?

Hi, my Name’s Dean O’Shea and I’m going to teach you how to take back time.

Disclaimer…you won’t gain immortality from reading this. I’m not God, or the Devil. I’m not going to give you some pill for immortality in exchange for your soul.

But what this story will teach you, is how to let go of the fear and pain in your life so that you can finally start living the way you want to.

There’s a fundamental question that guides almost all of our actions, but there’s a fundamental fear that stops us from ever finding out what that question really is.

If we never find out what that question is, we can never truly understand why we are here, and if we do not know why, then we can never truly live.

I’m going to help you find out what that question is and show you how to conquer the fear that stands in your way.

Then, and only then, will you be able to live fully, forever.

If you are reading this it is probably because you have been searching for the answer to this question before. You may have followed other gurus, or travelled the world in search for answers, or even paid a therapist, or a hypnotist to pry them from your brain.

Don’t worry, I am not a therapist, this is not a journey with no end, and I’m not going to hypnotise you and then bill you at the end. All I want to do is show you the path I walked and help you walk it for yourself.

It can be scary to tread the path, or to uncover your fears. Most of us keep them buried our whole lives. But what you will discover is that once you truly understand what they are, and how to deal with them, you can conquer them with ease.

You may be suspicious as to what my motives are. In truth, I had lived my whole life in fear, and now that I have finally conquered it, I feel like it’s my moral obligation to help others to conquer theirs.

I believe that this journey has had more of a profound impact on my life than anything I’ve ever done, and that it is the most noble pursuit anyone can undertake.

I cannot tell you in words the feeling of joy and gratification letting go of my fears and embracing my life has given me. My friends, my family, my relationships, even my wealth has improved seven-fold from what it was before.

And you can experience those things too.

So sit back, relax, and let me tell you a story…

The Fear

When I was a child I used to be terrified of death.

I would lie awake at night and imagine what it would be like to experience nothingness, forever and ever.

I would panic that if I went to sleep I might never wake up again, that’s probably why I’m a bit of an insomniac.

I’m sure we’ve all felt it, that inescapable fear that keeps us awake at night…that follows us through life…and may still do to this day. But that’s why we are here right?

I remember one night, I must have been about 24, I couldn’t sleep and started having a panic attack. I started having convulsions, saying “No! No! No!” over and over again. I leapt out of bed, paced around, tried to distract myself, but I couldn’t.

It was as if death were knocking on my door right then!

In my desperation I picked up the phone and I called my ex-girlfriend. It was late at night and when she answered she was confused.

I asked her to do something I’ve never asked anyone to do before, or since.

I asked her just to talk, to not ask me why I was calling, or what it was about. I made her promise to never ask why I called her, or ever mention it again.

And we just talked about nothing. After half an hour or so I said thank you, I put down the phone and I went to sleep.

And we never spoke of it again.

Why did I do that? Why didn’t I tell her? She would have understood, maybe even been able to help.

I didn’t tell her because I was so afraid of death, it was the worst thing I could possibly imagine, and though I was destitute and had no-one else to turn to, to save me from my fear, I also couldn’t bring myself to infect another person with it.

It was like a disease.

And so I held on to it my entire life, without ever telling anyone I carried this horrible secret, this vile illness, festering inside of me, because I thought that if I ever told anyone, it might awaken inside of them and spread.

And now I am here, in front of all of you, sharing this terrible secret. Why?

Because I’ve finally found the cure…

In Part Two…

In Part Two I will tell you about the ladder that we’ve been led to believe is our lives, and why it is so important that we break away from it.

Subscribe to get email notifications and look out for Part Two: ‘The Invisible Ladder

5 ways to “Super Charge” your adventures

If you’re like me and like to get more out of a trip, you’ll want to go off the beaten path, experience more and come out the other end with a truly amazing story. Some people like to come up with rules that they always follow, like always pack a map and sun cream, but rules are meant to be broken. Here’s some things I like to do to put an edge on my adventures.

1. Don’t bring a map

I’m not saying don’t know your terrain, but having a map generally slows me down. Always checking and second guessing yourself makes you frustrated and unsure of yourself, and often wastes time and valuable daylight. Just follow your gut and use your senses, navigate by line of sight and digest some breadcrumbs to find your way home.

Some top tips on how to navigate on the fly:

  • Pick a reference point on the horizon or up the hill and if you get turned around or have to go round an obstacle, you can always use this to get you back on track.
  • If the sun is out, look at your shadow. Which direction is it pointing in with respect to where you want to go? If you’re headed north west and its 1pm, your shadow will be behind you and slightly on your left, about 7 O’Clock (in the northern hemisphere.) If you can’t use a reference point, just remember to keep your shadow at 7 O’clock and you’ll stay on track for a couple of hours.
  • Path-finding. This can be a difficult skill to master, but there a a few simple ways to start. If you’re looking for a path, look for lines in the natural world. Paths often follow rivers, or natural depressions in the ground. The rocks might be slightly lighter where they’re exposed to more sun, or the grass or flora more down-trodden. You’ll get an eye for it eventually.
  • Look behind you. When you’re on your way home you’ll be going in the opposite direction and things can look very different the other way round. Remember to periodically look behind you and memorise what the terrain looks like that way.

It’s an incredibly fulfilling feeling once you get the hang of it and will make you more confident and independent whilst travelling.

2. Have a time constraint

I’ve often found myself running home after a long days adventure because I’m trying to beat the light, or the last lifts in a ski resort, and it’s these times when you really dig deep and pull out all the stops. It encourages you to push harder and gives you a challenge at the end of the day to keep you pushing on. I’ve often had the most fun trying to beat the clock, running down a mountain and leaping through bushes. It just feels so much more adventurous.

3. Try out new things

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Sometimes having too  much gear can slow you down, but there are things you might never be able to do without specialist equipment. For example: I would not have been able to climb half the peaks I did last winter in Andorra without my trusty ice axe “Bertha.” She definitely saved my life a few times, but then again, I wouldn’t have been hanging off all those cliffs without her in the first place.

Bertha is now my favourite thing in the world and I never go climbing in the snow without her, but I’d been on many climbs barehanded before. Snow shoes and crampons are another two things for climbing in the snow that I’m less fond of, but I tried them all out and found out which one was best for me.

You may want to seek advice or get help from a guide on how to use things for the first time, but that’s up to you.

4. Go nuts

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Don’t just stare longing at that tree, climb it! Many years ago my mother and I were hiking in the Himalayas and I leapt down from a tree in front of our group, having gone on ahead. A girl turned around to me and moaned, saying “err, why were you up there?” to which I replied “Why aren’t you?”  If you’re going to spend lots of money travelling and exploring the world, don’t let what other people think kill your buzz. After all, isn’t that why you’re there?

If you feel like climbing something, do it. If you feel like dive rolling in the snow, do it. If you feel like skinny dipping in a lake, do it! It’s your damned life. Just don’t get frost bite.

5. Don’t just take pictures.

I hate people who just go somewhere, take a picture and then leave. First of all you’re not really experiencing it, and secondly, a picture is a poor representation of a moment. You have at least five senses and sight is just one of them.

Whenever I’m alone out on a precipice in the middle of the wilderness, or in some peaceful forest by a lake, I take some time to really soak it in and remember it.

Finishing Sunset

Here’s how I do it:

  • Sit in a comfortable spot surrounded by as much space as possible (I like precipices).
  • Listen. Close your eyes and pick out all the specific sounds around you: the birds, the wind, the water. Try and visualise where they are around you.
  • Notice the feelings: the warm sun, the cool wind, the feeling of the rough sand, the smooth stone, the tickle of the grass. all the things that make this place unique.
  • Open your eyes and look all around you in a 180. Don’t try and remember everything you see, but pick specific things and solidify them in your mind. The way a rock formation looks like a face, the way the water swirls around a rock, the curve of a interesting tree.
  • Using all of these things, you can build a sensory map of your environment far greater than just a picture. Meld the sounds, the feelings and the sights together, then close your eyes again and try to picture it without seeing it.
  • This is the important part, because later on you won’t be able to see it. So imagine it, then open your eyes and check it, then close them and imagine it again.

Once you have a full map inside your head, you will be able to recall that specific moment and how it made you feel forever. Once you have some of these maps in your head, sit down at another time and repeat the process, going through each one and experiencing them again. This way you can revisit your adventures from anywhere in the world and draw from those experiences to super charge your life.

If you want some examples of my adventures why don;t you check out my Only in China, or Understanding Africa series.

Stay Strong.

 

3 ways to travel China on “easy-mode”

I travelled around China for four months, crossing from east to west, south to north, through 13 different provinces. We’re talking mountains, deserts, cities and more regional dialects than Europe has languages. It can be a difficult place to travel around, even getting a visa, but I learned how to do it the hard way, so now I can make it easy for you.

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Relaxing after a long day climbing Huang Shan: The Yellow Mountains

Here’s a list of the most important hacks I found during my adventures:

1. Visa

It can be difficult to get a visa to freely travel around China and they place a lot of restrictions on you, I even failed my application twice before I got through, just a day before I was travelling! On the application they ask for:

  1. Your return flight tickets
  2. Proof of funding for the trip (bank statements)
  3. Proof of booking and the full address of where you’re staying for the entire trip! Yes, every day!

So how are you going to do this if you’re planning on traversing the country, or planning it day by day? There are two ways to get around this.

  1. Book a bunch of rooms on Booking.com, or Hostelworld that are “Pay on arrival”, “No deposit required” enough to cover every day. Then simply print these out and submit them with your application. You don’t have to show up at any of them, since

  2. If you know anyone who is a Chinese national you can get them to write you a signed letter with a copy of their Chinese ID card. The letter needs to state that they have known you for 3 or more years and that you will be staying with them for the duration of your trip. This has to be a Chinese National, not someone just living there under a visa.

After failing at the first method, I chose the second, as I had a friend who had moved over here from China. Just ask really nice and bring them back some Chinese sweets.

Here’s a link to the Chinese Visa Application service, which is appointment only! Everything you need is there. Make sure to read the guide. If you’re successful you’ll receive a 2 year visa, maximum stay 90 days at a time. Just do a border run every 90 days.

2. Language

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A mistranslated sign in a toilet in An Hui province

If you’re going to be a noob and only visit Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an then don’t bother, but if you’re going anywhere else it is essential to learn the basics. 90% of the time I was in places where no one spoke a word of English and nothing is written in English either, it’s like being on another planet. 90% of all my problems could have been solved by speaking more Chinese.

 

Some basic tips:

  1. Buy a phrase book and learn it! Don’t worry about pleasantries, learn: numbers, directions, time, food, and most importantly how to buy things.

  2. Download Pleco. Google translate just doesn’t get Chinese grammar. Nothing will make sense when you try and read it off. Pleco is a fantastic app that explains all the variations of a word and how to use it in different contexts. You can also sketch out a symbol using your finger and it will translate it for you. Magic.

  3. Write it down. Pronunciation is incredibly difficult in Chinese. If you’re travelling somewhere write the Chinese character down with a sharpie on your arm. Use a guidebook and plan in advance.

  4. Use WeChat. Everyone in China has WeChat. It’s like Whatsapp but better and it has an auto-translate function, just hold down on the text and an option pops up. Everyone you meet will ask you to add them on WeChat and as long as you have internet, or if they share their wireless hotspot with you, you can simply type and auto-translate both ways.

  5. Learn to read. It may look impossible at a glance, but if you ever want to know what you’re ordering off a menu and how to avoid getting a plate full of intestines, it’s worth learning some symbols like “rice” “noodles” “soup” “meat.” The same goes for places.

3. Trains

China has the greatest and best railway network in the world…if you know how to use it. Trains are always on time, they go everywhere, the timetables don’t change on weekends and there is no difference in price, no matter when you buy the ticket.

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Why is there is a road sign in the desert?

There are three ways to buy a train ticket:

  1. Go to the train station and queue up
  2. Go to a ticket kiosk somewhere else in town and buy a ticket
  3. Book it online, then go to the train station and collect it

#1 is only advisable if you know the station is not busy, and that the tickets for your journey won’t sell out. Queuing for an hour at the station is commonplace and sometimes popular journeys will sell out for days. If you’re only travelling short distance between small stations, use method number one, just make sure to write your destination down in Chinese and take your passport to the station, as this is required to buy tickets.

#2 is great if you can find a kiosk. Some guidebooks will have them on the map of the town, or just ask a local where one is, but make sure it’s the right company. There is usually a small surcharge for this as it is a convenience option.

#3 is highly advisable if you’re taking a sleeper or long popular journey, as you can book in advance. There are a couple of different services for this, but the best one I found is Travel China Guide. This service is great. in fact, Travel China Guide is the best resource for travelling china, period. Their charges are quite high ($5 per ticket) but you can reserve ahead of time and then just pick up your ticket from the station before you go. They have a booking service online so you can plan connections, check availability and prices, and reserve seats. The first time you book with them you need to email them a picture of your passport, but then each other time you only need to reply to their email to confirm you want to purchase. Using this service usually takes about 2 days, so plan accordingly.

Yu Long rice man

A lone farmer emerges from a paddy field in Guilin

Hopefully you’ll be able to avoid some of the traps I fell into during my adventures in China. It’s a beautiful country and well worth travelling independently as Chinese tour groups are insufferable. If you want to learn more about travelling around China subscribe to my blog bellow and check out the other posts.

WAW Climb for Justice: Week 2

This weeks film: The French Crown

In this weeks film a tackle a crown of peaks leading from Arinsal and spilling over the French border.

At the top of the mountain in Arinsal ski area you get off the lift and look out onto a distant crown of mountains, snow capped, cloud crested and inviting. I’d been eyeing these up for some time now, the solitary eagle circling above. It looked like a very good circuit to attempt and from line of sight, not too time consuming.

Unfortunately these particular mountains fell off the side of my map and so I had to plan my day purely by line of sight. Who needs maps anyway? I set off at 8.15am from my hotel, my new pair of hired (for free) snow shoes strapped to my bag. I’ve never used snow shoes before but always wanted to and since I had a good deal of deep powder last time and my crampons were pretty useless, I thought I’d give it a go.

It was a gruelling 11 hour day and left me exhausted and walking home in the dark. So without further ado, here it is:

Women for Afghan Women: The work they do

Let’s not forget what this is all about. WAW provide women and girls with life saving support, shelter and legal guidance in human rights violations in Afghanistan.

In 2013, one  of Women for Afghan Women’s clients was 17 years old when she was married to a man who already had a wife and children. The man physically and mentally abused her for years. Unable to endure more, the client decided to divorce him. She went to the local Department of Women’s Affairs who referred her to WAW. This woman is currently living in a WAW shelter and attending empowerment classes while her defense lawyer is working on her divorce.

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So If you’d like to donate to this wonderful cause, visit my JustGiving page and tag a friend on Facebook to donate too. Follow my weekly climbs in support of WAW and keep donating each time I release a new video.

Climb for Justice: So here’s what I did

After grabbing a pair of skis from the hire shop I headed outside, but unfortunately I didn’t realise that the first lifts don’t open until 9am, so I was sitting waiting for half an hour impatiently at the top with the other dawn patrol. These dedicated snowboarder and I watched the sunrise over the mountain before the gates opened and got on the very first chair.

dawn-patrol

A couple of chairlifts later and I was at the start of my hike. I had originally thought that getting the chairlifts and having skis would save me a bunch of time and effort, but by the time I finally got started it was already 9.30am. I did however, get about 1000m of elevation gain for free, so trade -offs. My route for the day was as follows:

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I ditched my skis and boots at the top of the resort, planning on collecting them and skiing down later, and headed out in an anti-clockwise direction around the crown. The weather was fine and sunny for most of the day and the first part of the hike was a slow and steady walk in regular hiking boots to the start of the bowl.

When I hit the bottom of the bowl at 11am where the forest began, I donned the snow-shoes for the first time and wow! The extra surface area made a big difference in the soft powder and I glided down as if on skis.

The forest was beautiful and the sound of birds filled the air, much more inviting than the constant thrum of chairlifts in resort. I kind of lost track of time here however, and after a slow and tiring traverse I found myself at the first ascent by 12.30pm, much later than I had planned. It had now been three hours since I started and I was only just at the first ascent of the bowl.

Throwing off the snow-shoes, I headed for hard ground and climbed up the right hand side, not resting until I had gotten to the top (Peak #1). The sun was now on my face again and I went from cold to too hot in no time, shedding layers until I was just in my T-shirt and waterproof. After A further two hours I was finally at the top where I had picked out my meditation spot for the day (Peak #2).

But I was still against the clock.

Rising up, had a quick warm up with some Thai Chi and then threw on some beats to get me through the next section: The Ridge.

alone-at-the-topThis one wasn’t nearly as severe as last time, but It still presented it’s challenges and was a lot longer than I had anticipated. In fact, the entire left hand side of the crown had been hiding a nasty little ridge with many ups and downs, constantly losing and gaining elevation. I was very conscious of time by this point and so I pressed on through exhaustion to get round the crown, trying to motivate myself by keeping the end goal in sight: my skis. If I didn’t get back to them on time, I would be walking home…

The technical climb section, previously hidden from my sight, took up a lot of time and required some axe work, but It wasn’t too bad. It was more the time of day dragging on that really took it out of me. I thought to myself “Why do I put myself through this?” and then I remembered: for all the women and girls suffering in Afghanistan and around the world.

Then I hit the ice sheet.

Coming down the final descent towards the road I had planned on making up a bunch of time by sliding all  the way down, but when I got there I immediately slipped and launched myself down at high speed, saving myself with the axe once more. The entire northern side of the mountain was sheet ice, having been kept shaded from the low sun. I then had to be extremely careful, inching my way across, digging in with the axe and inching some more. At one point I slid down backwards, looking through my legs at the world moving upside down, using the axe as a brake. This was quite disorientating, but amusingly original. I always find that good humour can carry you through the toughest of situations, and laughing at one’s self is the best medicine for panic!

I made it down to the road by 5.30pm, a further three hours from my meditation point, pretty much without rest. I was now on safe ground and as the sun had already set, lost hopes of seeing my skis today. It’s one thing to ski home after the mountain is closed, but it’s another altogether to ski home in total darkness. This was not an option.

It would have taken me about two hours to walk to the town, where I could have called a cab, but It was now pitch black, I had been walking for nine hours, and I was now extremely cold. So, what to do?

I called my friend Matt and he came and met me with his van. It was a very pleasant walk for about an hour to where I could meet him and the night sky was spectacular. The old moon was in the new moons arms, a term for when you can see a slither of moon and the dark side is illuminated with the reflection from the earth, a beautiful sight. Jupiter was also out in full splendour just behind it and The Milky Way was splashed across the sky, with not a light to pollute it anywhere.

When he met me I pointed out all these wonderful astronomical sights and we star gazed for a while before heading home to get some food and a cup of tea.

All in all the day finished at around 7.30pm, I was walking for ten hours, and I had to go and collect my skis the next day.

So if you thought I put in a good effort, check out Women for Afghan Women’s website and see all the amazing work they do to further Women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Once again thanks for all your support and don’t forget to follow the blog below for weekly updates, a new video release and visit my JustGiving page to donate. Thanks for reading.

Only in China Day 7: Yellow Mountain Soda

Greater Shanghai

A sprawling flatland of non-identical housing estates, peppered with industry and farming, in a not so charming hot pot: that is how I would describe the greater Shanghai area. It is very green though, and the elevated highways do occasionally pass by nice parks with willow trees stroking little ponds. But mostly the above.

The housing estates, though very communist concrete in appearance, all have their own particularly out of place feature. A Grecian temple entrance for example, or a stack of poorly executed ionic columns. As you get further out there are occasionally charming little stone bridges over canals, bordered by rice paddies, tree fields, and lily looking plantations that I have no idea what are. I later found out that, yes, they are lilies. People like their pods for some reason. Good luck I think.

Chinese medicine

I had planned on getting up early this morning and getting to the bus station, (which is actually miles away from the one I thought it was) but I woke up at around 4am with a splitting toothache. Why, why did I not bring my customary drug kit with all the painkillers and powerful anti-inflammatory in the world?

At a local pharmacy where no-one speaks English and who sells almost exclusively traditional medicine, I manage to find some paracetamol and ibuprofen, only to get a ten minute long lecture by people who clearly have no idea what they’re talking about, trying to explain to me in Chinese that I can’t take both.

“Just give me the fucking drugs!” I say smiling, knowing that they don’t understand me. They’re actually pretty good.

Public busses

Now I’m on a bus! Shanghai long distance bus station (which is at Shanghai South Rail Station, the coach terminal not the bus station, in case anyone ever wanted to find it!) reminds me of a Greyhound bus station in the US.

Unlike Greyhound in Australia or South Africa, which is actually pretty premium, a Greyhound bus ticket is all they give you when you leave prison in America. They are shit. So in short, it’s below average for western standards, but not as bad as say, Kenya, although Kenya’s magic hip-hop, UV light-show coaches are pretty fun.

I am the only white person in this whole station. A girl sitting opposite me is wearing an anime T-shirt with a guy openly fingering a girl. How on Earth, anywhere, is that appropriate to wear, or even make? The coach is pretty basic, but not as bad as I had expected. There are no chicken coups, it’s not a sausage factory, and there is functional, though non-directional air-con.

Anhui

As we encroach on Ahnui the magic and mystery of China finally opens itself, as sharp hills coated in bamboo forests poke their heads out of the mist. A tiny patch of blue sky emerges, but the windows of the bus are still battered with rain. Did I mention it’s been raining for the last week?

At last a taste of Chinese hospitality. The nice English speaking hotel receptionist is doing all she can to help me out, even though I’m not staying at her hotel. She called a cheaper place for me and got their driver to come and pick me up, even though it’s late. I then arrive at the new place, get a cracking room for Y60 and then am asked if I want to eat.

The hotel has a restaurant that, though it’s clearly just closed, stay open for me and give me good grub at a reasonable price too. To top it off the guy is going to pick me up in the morning again at 6.30am and ferry me back to the park gates, and no charge!

Huangshan

The Grand Canyon, or so it’s called, suddenly opens up all its glory from behind the clouds, and is there anyone else here? No.

huangshan-canyon-overlook

I have finally escaped the sea of umbrella poking, trash hurling, megaphone blaring, Chinese tourist groups swarming Huangshan (The Yellow Mountains) from every angle, by going down a little known side route to another valley. This is undoubtedly the finest scenery this mountain has had to offer so far, and the weather has finally cleared enough to see it.

Don’t get me wrong, this has actually been the nicest day since I got here. A pleasant bright morning with the occasional quick shower and some obscuring clouds, but I’m glad that it’s been cool for the epic ascent. What I could not tolerate however, worse than the fact that I was inside a cloud at the apex, ironically staring at a sign that said “Best views of Huagnshan!” was the continuous, obnoxious, unnecessary safety tannoy from the nearby cable car station. Oh my Buddha! How can they not know that it ruins everything!!!! I felt like it was the line for purgatory, but I digress.

The Grand Canyon was spectacular, with brown jagged teeth sticking up hundreds of feet from the bamboo forest, topped with impossible evergreen and hanging vines, splintering into the distant fog.  In the far background, amongst the 3D pop-out of a guidebook’s wet dream, lies a lonely pavilion, barely visible, yet infinitely powerful. Superb. What China lack in audio sensitivity they certainly make up for in visuals.

huangshan-grand-canyon

The canyon just keeps on giving. Many steps and shady forest tunnels later, and I come across something that looks like an old 80’s isometric platform game scene.

The angles and architecture wrought into the imposing scenery are almost too difficult to describe.

huangshan-bridge-over-nowhere

The stone bridge over nothing in particular was breath-taking, apparently the only thing that connects the two valleys together. Unfortunately I cannot go further as the way is closed, probably due to the typhoon.

On another detour I found myself not being able to resist the archetypal adventure photo standing atop a precariously wedged round boulder between two cliffs.

seems-legit

I must admit that getting to it was a scary task and I couldn’t quite make it in 30 seconds, the maximum self-timer setting on my camera, but the photo speaks for itself (insert photo here).

Stealth Camping

Not much of an actual sunset, but the evening light was wonderful over the far hills, disappearing endlessly like a painting.

huang-shan-pavilion

I caught another moment of solitude by frequenting a quiet place, but had my headphones in by this point anyway, to drown out the screaming Chinese tourists. Detours and all it was a punishing 12 hour day hiking up a mountain, heavy pack and all.

I resented paying the extortionate prices for soft drinks, but I could not resist, my anger immediately washed away by the cool liquid Gatorade. Best drink ever…twice. I must have drank 3.5L of water and I haven’t even peed. It’s not had the chance to get that far. I don’t think I’ve ever sweat so much in my life. Totally worth it.

At the end of the day I stealth camped in a bush nearby the sunrise spot at Beihai, my black, waist height Vango Helium pulling its meagre 900g weight. Don’t listen to what anyone tells you about it being illegal to camp in China. Everyone does it, all the time, so don’t worry about it. Take a tent, you’ll save loads of money.

I had to don ear plugs however, due to the myriad of Cicadas. For those of you who don’t know these devils, they are the size of cockroaches, but fly around bumping into stuff, screaming at 90Db in a noise that is a cross between an alarm clock and someone shaving through a megaphone. Bastards.

What a day. Continue to follow my adventures in China by hitting the Follow button below, and check out the albums on the site. Share your stories in the comments. Like and follow us on Twitter or Facebook for updates and titbits from other aspects of MiscEarth, daily quotes, photos and more.

Understanding Africa: Masai

The Volcano

My heart is racing, my arse is sore and my eyes are burning. I am on the back of a 300cc off road bike behind a Masai tribesman, driving over lava tubes towards a volcano.

Some might think this an odd combination, but Daniel is a modern Masai who lives in the active but dormant crater of Mount Suswa, in the Great Rift Valley, Kenya. He has had his motorbike for about a year now and is a proficient driver. I get the feeling that he could navigate this vast expanse of mazy lava tubes with his eyes closed. Before the Challenger he had a bicycle, but I cannot imagine him making this journey in less than half a day that way.

challenger

All I can think about is how cool this guy is. I could talk about Daniel all day. He wears traditional Masai robes but has a smartphone, lives in a mud hut but has solar panels to charge said smartphone, he is a Christian pastor but still drinks cows blood (minus the platelets. Apparently they extract them using a stick that turns into a blood popsicle). He has one wife and five children, though his father had 6 wives and 30 children.

“My firstborn” Daniel tells me as he is naming his kids, “Oh wait, I can’t really call him this because he is not mine. I adopted him. Do you know how old he was when I adopted him? Six days. His mother died during childbirth. This happens a lot because Masai still practice circumcision and female genital mutilation, which causes bleeding during birth.”

We are sitting inside one of five mud huts that occupy this particular patch of endless plateau inside the outer crater: one is for his wife and children, one for his mother, one for his brother Reuben and his family, and one is for guests (don’t know what the other is for). It is dark and cool, but little spots of light poke through the ceiling and walls, which are lined with plastic and a net to keep some insects out (I say some, because infestation by flies is inevitable). I brush them away and Daniel laughs at me.

“You cannot handle the flies? Ah, we are pastorals.” His children have flies all over them but they don’t flinch, even when they are in their eyes.

daniels-house

This is the guest hut, but Daniel sleeps here at the moment because his wife Agnes has a new born and their other four children in his hut, which is also used for cooking. I can’t sit in that one because the smoke makes my eyes burn. I am feeling increasingly weak compared with these stalwart people.

“I bet you did not think you would be sleeping with me when you came here.” Daniel smiles.

He has perfectly white teeth, except the two front bottom teeth are missing. We had a discussion about this and apparently it is a Masai tradition to removed the bottom teeth so that if someone is stranded in the bush and cannot open their mouth, another Masai can feed them and give them water through the hole. Also it’s kind of a right of passage to pull them out, that and the circumcision. I hear that if you flinch during the ceremony you are disowned. Consequently a lot of Masai have burn marks on their legs where they practice suffering pain.

That first night Daniel and I talked for some time about the Masai and his plans for the community, but first: to the bat cave!

“Turn off your torch.” Daniel says once we are far enough inside. I switch off the torch on my phone and it is pitch black. “This is darker than night. They call this the great relaxation, because when you are in here there is no worrying about your car, or your job, or your belly, only this dark and quiet, and when people leave they feel clean.”

“Like a reset button.” I add.

There is a pile of bones in the corner. “Look, a picnick!” he exclaims. “When you see the bones you know that the Jaguar could be anywhere.” There is a shelf above the bones. “This is where he eats and drops the rubbish from his mouth.” I am now looking at every crevice for signs of movement.

The caves are remnants of lava flows that bored tunnels all through the ground. There is a huge system of caves that are all connected one way or another, some hot from still active steam vents and some cold from where the rainwater filters down through the crater.

Daniel gives me another scare story about the bats having Ebola and so we don’t venture any further. Instead we head to the Baboon Parliament. This large open chamber has brilliant acoustics and viewing platforms where the baboons gather at night. A large single vine hangs down from a prominent fig tree through the huge hole in the ceiling and the light falls on a smooth flat rock in the centre of the chamber.

daniel-in-the-cave

 

Daniel is a bit of a poser and I get some great shots with him in the caves. He told me he was once in a BBC documentary about the Great Rift Valley. I can just imagine his perfect teeth smiling for the camera.

“Here they all gather to discuss how to avoid the Jaguar” Daniel tells me, “and to discipline their tribe. They are very clever you know. One baboon will come and sit here and “hoo hoo hoo!” and they all listen to it. This stone is especially smooth because the baboons polish it.”

I find this almost too hard to believe, but when we come back near sunset, the baboons gather and play and sit on the shelves. Unfortunately parliament is not in session today as they are distracted by our presence, so we ride off into the sunset on the Challenger.

Hard Times

After dinner Daniel and I sit down and have a chat. Because of all the orphaned children and his own troubled upbringing, he wants to open an orphanage and even has his own crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter.

“I believe that if you help someone who is in need, they will grow up grateful and they are more likely to help someone else who is in need. That way you plant the seed and it grows in future generations.”

‘I could not have put it better myself’ I think, as I sit there captivated by his shadowy figure beneath the solar lamp, which is now the only light source in the hut.

He also tells me about the Kenyan governments plans to build a Thermo-power plant in the crater. Because of its still active nature, the steam – which the Masai use to condense into clean water via PVC pipes – could apparently provide several Megawatts of power for the grid. If the plans go through, the Kenyan government will buy all the land and displace the Masai from their homes. Roads will be built, land will be fenced off and huge amounts of industry will be poured into the mountain.

“How do you feel about it?” I ask. He looks at the ground in silence for a short while.

“I’m sorry” he says in a defeated tone “I can’t talk about it any more. It is too sad.”

After getting to know him a little better, he later told me: “Do you know what the worst thing is? They will be given a lot of money for their land. It will change them. Some will buy cars, some will drink and kill themselves, but all will die as Masai. It will never be the same. I don’t know what we’ll do.” My heart breaks listening to him.

Sadly this happens all too often. The damn in Jinja flooded huge amounts of land and changed the whole ecosystem, all for power to be sold to Kenya. Further up the Nile in Egypt, the Aswan damn flooded thousands of acres, forcing the Bedouin people off of their land and creating huge lakes. They even took apart Abul Simbel, a 5000 year old ancient Egyptian temple, piece by piece, and re-assembled it 5 miles uphill.

A testament to modern technology: they actually got it wrong, and the event which should happen on the solstice, where a beam of light shines down the centre of the temple, lighting the faces of the four gods, is now a day later, on the 22nd of December. The Pharaohs would roll over in their graves if they weren’t locked in a basement at the British museum.

I am standing outside staring up at the full beauty of the Milky Way, pondering the problems that these people I have come to love now face. A shooting star passes by and is gone. I make a wish for their future.

Family life

And winner of the “Lu with a View” award goes to Squat Box Suswa!

lu-with-a-view

I am sitting on a comfortable mahogany toilet box completely in the open, in the middle of the grassy plains of a volcano. The sun is shining, the wind blowing pleasantly and as I do my business, Gazelles prance in front of me beneath the Acacia trees. Paradise.

Daniel caught me escaping with the necklace of shame, a toilet roll on a rope you hang around your head so that everyone knows you about to do your business.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

“Urgh, the bathroom.” I reply timidly

“I am not finished building it yet.” he laughs, “Do you want to see?”

“Um, ok.” I reply tentatively. This diet of bread and butter sandwiches and Jappatis is really taking its toll. “Proper Masai food!” Daniel calls it.

We walk about 100ft from his house and there it is, pleasantly concealed behind a low bush. It is a toilet shaped wooden box with no bottom that covers a foot deep hole. There is even a shovel with a little pile of dirt to finish. Nice.

It was a hell of a hike around the inner crater today and this is the perfect release after having held it in for fear of squatting in a bush.

It was just as I had imagined, the crater that is. It is difficult to see until you are right at the rim, but then a sharp drop takes your eyes down to an undulating bowl of verdant green that sweeps round a full six hours hike, about 800 meters from trench to peak. In the centre is the hidden island, surrounded by little pillars of steam and looking back westward you can see the half crescent of the outer crater towering above, giving the full effect of the power of this explosion.

daniel-rests

Apparently Mount Suswa erupted twice, creating the two craters, the inner plateau, the mote, and the hidden island. The tribe elders sometimes go to the hidden island in the centre of the volcano to pray and perform rituals. This is only very rare nowadays however, as Christianity is fast taking over the Masai here. Around 1982 Missionaries reached this valley and swept down, imposing Christianity on all they could find, condemning the heathen ways of the locals. Within a single family, the elders will follow the old ways while the middle aged impose their newly found religion on their children.

On the way down Daniel complains that his leg is hurting.

“You’re getting old.” I joke, knowing full well he is a great deal fitter than me.

“How old do you think I am?” he asks.

I have no idea. He could be fifty for all I know. Guess low. “45?” I ask.

He laughs. “I am not so old. My father is 93.”

“Wow.”

“We have a woman, she is…130.”

“Now that’s old.” I say, trying to remember what the world’s oldest person is in the Guinness book of records. I thought it was 126.

“She cannot see now for maybe ten years.” He says dismissively. “And she has no teeth.” It suddenly gets hot as we walk past a steam vent.

“Time for a footbath!” Daniel says.

suswa-plains

We are almost home, it is about 3pm and the plateau is an oven. We head over to one of the steam vents and Daniel pulls over half an oil barrel. He fetches a cup of hot water from the steam condensation tank and pours it over my head. The water quickly evaporates leaving me feeling refreshed. He helps me wash my feet and I think about the religious significance. He is a pastor after all.

That night Rueben, Daniels brother, invites us in for tea. I met Rueben earlier when he asked me if I was stealing his son. I was walking back from watching the sunset out by the crater and a small kid came up and held my hand as I was walking by. Embarrassingly enough I didn’t realise it was Daniel’s son and asked Reuben if the boy was his. Reuben’s English is very good and he looks nothing like Daniel.

“So you are brothers from another mother?” Hanga, Reuben’s Romanian guest asks.

“Exactly.” Reuben laughs.

I didn’t get much chance to talk to him that night, but the next day we were all hiking around the crater and I sparked off a conversation.

“So your father was a guide?” I ask.

“My father was a warrior.” he replies casually. “He fought in the wars against the other tribe. He once killed a jaguar with his bare hands. He cannot move these two fingers because it bit him.” What a guy.

“Are you afraid of anything?” asks Hanga.

Reuben laughs. “I do not like frogs. When they are in the grass and they are all wet.” He screws up his face.

“Ok, so if I see any frogs I will kill them and if there is a lion, you can kill it for me.”

“You know” says Reuben “In the past you were not allowed to marry if you had not killed a lion.”

“What if you couldn’t kill one, like there wasn’t one? Could you still marry?”

“Well, yes, but you would not be recognised as a man.”

“Did your father ever kill a lion?”

“He had six wives.” He laughs. “Lions used to be everywhere.” He down-plays the fact that his father was basically Russell Crow.

Daniel has a very different view of his father. He abandoned his mother when Daniel was just a boy and so he was driven into education, which funnily enough was only for outcasts back then. He is actually only 34, so that shows how recently views have changed. I can see that life here is hard for Masai and it’s only going to get harder as modern society continues to encroach on their traditional way of living.

Where to find them

daniel-close-up

The hospitality I received in Daniel’s home was not that of royalty, but rather of equality. He made me feel like family and that’s the greatest gift I could have hoped for. So where did I find Daniel you ask? My friend Mike gave me his number. If you want to meet him and the rest of his family, check out Reuben’s Facebook page at https://goo.gl/Ja7CSx and help support their traditional way of life.

If you find enjoyed hearing about my experience with the Masai why not share and follow the blog below, or on our Facebook or Twitter page. As always check out the relevant galleries linked to the blog and watch my short film Africa Finale, including some good face time for our Daniel.

Only in China: Day 5 The Jade Buddha Fiasco

Thai Chi

The air is alive with the sound of Asian flutes and strings, a peaceful cacophony of intermingling boom-boxes strewn about Lu Xun Park in northern Shanghai. This is where the Taiwanese congregate each morning to practice the art of Thai Chi on mass. It is a spectacle to behold and one well worth getting up at 6am for. Every space is taken up by some movement, from large groups to single denizens swaying slowly amongst the bamboo groves.

The precision and fluidity with which they execute their movements is breath-taking: such a peaceful and inspiring existence. Most of the practitioners are old, but look in the prime of health, I a young man, sitting here yawning and sweating at the same time just watching them. It’s incredibly hot and humid and I can’t even fathom doing exercise right now.

thai-chi

There are a number of people practising with swords as well, one handed slender blades, straight and double edged, with small winged cross guards. The weapon is an embodiment of its use, light and flowing, balanced and decorative, a true extension of its user.

Lu Xun Park is a memorial for the political novelist of the same name, who promoted Mao’s movement. In honour of him, Mao built this park and monument, burying him here even against the artists own wish, which was to be buried in a small family grave in his home province. It seems his fame owned him even after his death.

Besides its political irony, the park is beautiful, with small tea houses harbouring local card players, a tranquil lake with in impressive stone bridge, and lily ponds to boot. The only downside is that by 8am the park is overrun with dance classes, choking every possible space and converting the peaceful atmosphere into an insufferable rabble. I feel for the birds in their cages hung from the trees. Apparently it’s tradition. Chinese don’t seem so good with pets thus far.

Pudong & Xintandi

Pudong is the neck breaking skyscraper capitol of China. Being a restoration project in the 1950’s, Pudong used to be a slum, but now is the financial capital of mainland China. There are skyscrapers of every description here, from the art-deco Mao tower, to the phallic 60’s space station of the Pearl TV tower.

There is a series of elevated modern walkways suspended above lush parks that wind through the glass jungle. The most impressive buildings are undoubtedly the Mao, International Finance Centre, and Shanghai tower, which are a perfect example of architectural evolution. They form a triangle from Art deco Mao, to post-modern straight line Financial centre, and then mind-bogglingly curvatious Shanghai tower, the second tallest and most beanstalk like building in the world.

DCIM129GOPRO

I sample all three interiors, but there’s not much to be seen without paying up to Y200 for the observation decks. After sunset amongst the shimmering trees I headed to the cool artsy district of Xintiandi , a restored Shikumen complex just west of the old city. It was almost like a posh restored dock, with lively cafes and restaurants set amongst a rather fake looking pastiche of an old-school Chinese housing estate.

Beautiful though it was with its dimly lit wood and stonework, narrow alleyways and modern statues, I suddenly realised what it is. This is a place where rich Chinese people go to eat expensive Western food. Nearly every building was an Italian, French, or American restaurant, with Starbucks to boot. It’s also surrounded by a series of shopping malls, sporting boutique, upmarket fashion stores. After absorbing the cool ambience I ate my cheap ramen noodles and went home.

The Jade Buddha Fiasco

In an extremely poorly lit room, a fair distance away, there sits an exquisite Jade Buddha behind two oil burning candles, which, if you buy a bottle of oil from the guard, she will pour into the vat amongst all the other un-burnt oils.

“No photography!” she yells, as I sneak a quick pic while she’s busy pouring tourists money into the pot.

img_1069

Yufo temple in North Western Shanghai was built to house two Jade Buddha statues, the largest of which I am looking at. It is situated in an out of the way residential area, amongst soaring communist housing estates with peculiar architecture. I mean, who creates a natural rock effect on one part of a thousand strong occupancy estate, leaving the other 90% plain concrete? It is one of these highly overrated places that has no real significance unless you’re Chinese, something I would later discover is a bit of a thing in China.

The Great Treasure hall is far more impressive, with giant statues of past and future golden Buddha’s everywhere. This is the kind of thing you get really excited about the first time and then realise that every temple in China is exactly the same. The temple itself looks like it was built yesterday, as all the ramparts are shiny and plastic looking. Surprisingly, even though it’s a weekend, it’s not rammed, being primarily a functional temple.

I am a little late for the morning service, but I catch the end of a prayer session, which is quite charming. Locals and pilgrims don their robes and sing along to chants as the Buddhist monk leads them along with his microphone.

People everywhere are praying, burning incense (which you have to buy in the shop) and throwing money into little pots in front of statues. I hear monks make a killing selling blessings here as well. No wonder all the statues are adorned with gold. The place is tiny and there’s not much to see other than what I already mentioned, apart from a couple of giant lumps of green glass for sale outside the gift shop.

One thing that does catch my eye however, is a just larger than life-sized shiny wooden statue of Zhang Fei, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms legendary “Warrior of the magnificent beard” hidden away in a shady corner. He holds his beard to one side as if presenting it to be inspected. It is magnificent, as is his expression, both fearsome and with a slight airy humour about it, as if with one laugh he could cut you down.

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Zhang Fei was the giant warrior who was renowned as much for his beard as much as for his chivalry: the ancient equivalent of a modern David Beckham. When I heard about it, I bought the book to read whilst travelling, but I didn’t realised that part one is 1000 pages long, so I had to leave it at home.

On my way in to grab my camera and head back out to The Bund (I accidentally deleted all my photos from the last 2 days, no biggie) I bump into my new roommates (Had to change hostels as part of the Jade Buddha Fiasco), who turn out to be completely un-interesting. They all want to go out for dinner and then drinks at a place they admitted was lame yesterday just so they can get drunk. I hate backpackers like these.

Back at the Bund, night has fallen and the light show is out in all its glory. It’s actually spectacular. Purples and blues and whites blend into the foggy sheen of the Fouzhou Creek, the top of the Shanghai tower still shrouded in cloud. I take a series of long exposures in order to filter out the crowds of spectators in the way.

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The city comes alive at night. It’s even busier than it is during the day and there is a choke of Chinese tourists heading up East Nanjing Road. I get offers of prostitution twice. Strangely one block south and there’s almost no-one. Tourist traps always amuse me. I must be less than 50m from the choke, the view is identical, and there is almost 90% less people. Noobs, everywhere!

When I look back at all my adventures in China, somehow Shanghai feels very disconnected. It was my first experience of China, and yet my memories of everywhere else are fonder. I think for me, I just hate big cities. I grew up in London and I’ve seen tourist traps all over the world, and although they all have their own uniqueness, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. I far prefer the countryside and the natural beauty of a place, not human-kind’s blight upon it.

If you enjoy my ramblings don’t forget to like and subscribe below. In the next episode I’ll be leaving the big city and sampling my first course of the Chinese railway, my home for the next four months. First stop: Huang Shan (Yellow Mountains).

Understanding Africa: Uganda

Uganda is not the cleanest, nor the best maintained country in East Africa, but it has its own particular style. Continuing on my journey through East Africa, I caught the overnight bus from Kigali to Kampala, and what a striking difference.

Kampala

When I get off the overnight bus to Kampala, it is still dark and I am disorientated from lack of sleep. After swatting away a few mosquitos and taxi drivers, I spot just outside the bus station, a stylish, handsome Ugandan on a 60’s red racing motorcycle. He has a leather jacket with a feathered rim and looks like an ex-movie star from the 40’s. He should be smoking a cigarette and complaining about all the gin joints in all the world, but instead he is wearing a beanie hat. He nods and I jump on the back.

I notice he has a helmet on the front of his bike, but he doesn’t offer it to me or put it on himself. These Boda Bodas are a different ballgame to the Motos of Rwanda. I have to hold onto the back and don’t quite get the right spoonage. He stops to fuel up and I get off perplexedly. I might have thought it rude if it weren’t so early and he so damn handsome. He tops up 0.84l of fuel for the equivalent of about 50p. There must be some serious maths involved in fuel economy on these things.

After an epic nap in my run down hotel, I have the second best coffee I have ever seen in the Nakumatt mall. It is a mocha served in a tall glass cup with froth and chocolate powder on top, and most touchingly, the words: “One love Boss!” written on top in fantastic calligraphy with a chocolate syrup gun. I look over to the counter and expect to see a black James Dean barista smoking another cigarette and winking at me, but he is just a regular guy. I take a picture.

uganda-coffee

I’ve been walking around for half an hour trying to find this park I saw from the first floor of the mall and as soon as I sit down to eat my border cakes I am assaulted by a group of cheerful, raggedy dressed Ugandan children. They want my cake. They can’t have it: false economy.

Don’t judge me, but my decision was based on pigeon politics. Once you feed one you get swarmed. I feel bad, they are lovely and they make me smile, rolling around on the floor with their beaming smiles and hardly any teeth. The owner of the cardboard sheet I have been sitting nearby settles in as the sun is getting low and so I take my leave.

Kampala is “same same but different” as the East African saying goes: they drive on the left and have British style plug sockets; have something silly like 82 languages but the official language is English; their food and customs are similar; looks and smells and tastes; but are all part of the same tribes that occupy the region. It seems in the 1800’s German’s colonized East Africa and drew lines on maps that had little to do with cultural and tribal identities. Hutu, Tutsi, Twa, Massai and Swahili all lived in relative harmony until they were fenced in and told to share the same space. Playground politics ensue. And I’m not even going to go into the whole evil history of it all.

Later, in my hotel, I order some local vegetarian cuisine, but it backfires. What I received was a nothing tasting green slosh with the definition of stodge: maze starch lumps, to dip into it. Malakwang and Uglai sounded so tempting in Swahili. My stomach burns.

Camp Muzungu

When my alarm goes off at 6am I am delirious. Breakfast is a rushed blur and I am soon on the bus to Jinja to do white water rafting on the Nile. Some observations:

Ironic sign in chipped paint: “Our paints last a very, very, very long time.”

Unnoticed copy write infringement: “Yellow Bull phone accessories.”

A Ugandan on a Harley Davidson motorcycle with a handlebar moustache.

Razor wire everywhere.

Exclusively white mannequins and pictures of white babies on “New-born” congratulations cards. Really? There can’t be more than a handful of white babies born in Uganda a year. Where is their target market?

It is plethora of randomness that can only be observed through the windows of a small minibus, on the way past tiny villages and places likely not even on the map. It makes me smile to experience. There’s no other way to travel.

As I’m drowning I try and remember the advice of my cheeky Scottish instructor. “The river has a mind of its own, if it wants to pull you in, spin you around, suck you down, let it, there’s nothing you can do about it. Just relax and hold your breath. Try to go feet first down a rapid, you’ve got a lot of meet on your butt, but not much on your shins you know.”

uganda-white-water-rafting

He is a huge man, bare chested and tanned with tattoos and a pink baseball cap style helmet. As he speaks to us you can tell that he has told these jokes a hundred times before and that he is investing no more of his personality than is necessary to give you a good day and then forget you after lunch. He does this every day.

I say hi to him at the bar that afternoon and he barely acknowledged me with a shrug. He has been rafting on the Nile in Uganda for 10 years now. I ask him if he will ever go back to Scotland. He says no, but doesn’t think he’ll stay here either. It is the classic Ex-Pat mentality. Not entirely an immigrant, but also not a patriot.

A week earlier Mike, Melba, Ben and I were having a rather controversial conversation about this, whilst driving down the Nile Congo trail that ruined our car.

“So you think any non-British person in the UK is an immigrant, but every Brit abroad is an Ex-Pat?” Melba asks Ben in a not un-annoyed tone.

“No…” Ben replies, but he has dug himself a hole. “Well…What’s the difference then?”

“The difference is” continues Melba in a definitive, empowered, but also non-aggressive manner, “That an immigrant is anyone seeking permanent residence in a foreign country, while an Ex-Pat is just someone living abroad temporarily. Most British Ex-Pats come home eventually for the good health and social system in England, because they can. Immigrants who – for whatever reason – have chosen to live in another country, won’t go back because they’re country is less fortunate, or is dangerous and they don’t want to spend the rest of their lives, or their children’s lives there. It’s not so much a choice as a necessity.”

I have stayed tactfully on the outskirts of this conversation, but I have my ice breaker: “I think we should round up all the British Ex-Pats and put them on an island and let them fend for themselves.”

“Like Australia?” says Mike. “Trololololol!”

We all laugh, Melba swerves the car around a ditch and we continue.

Back in Uganda, I have made a little group by merging 3 smaller groups together, in an attempt to rekindle my sociable nature. There is a Belgian couple whom I rafted with, two Austrian girls who I made friends with earlier over photography and Sophia, a Ugandan woman who works at the other camp, who told me that she liked my walk earlier when she mistook me for a tour guide.

“It isn’t like a proper Muzungu walk, it’s got style.” She is the life of the party and the first bubbly, energetic and modern Ugandan woman I have met.

We are laughing about African clubs and how it is so easy to dance and copy what the locals are doing. “Shake what your mother gave you!” she laughs after an hour long spiel about how Africans have big asses for a reason. “Or if you don’t have it, shake your back!” she gestures to the two Austrians. “But it is not like in your country where if you dance with a guy you are telling him you are going home with him tonight. No. I will dance with a guy, shake what my mother gave me and if I don’t like him, afterwards I say, ok thank you, goodnight. There are some local guy of course who will be like that, there is always somebody, but you just have to look out for yourself.”

Everyone is in stitches. “One guy, he came up to me and put his hand like this, straight down my pants. I punched him in the face, but I did not make a scene. I told him. “Mister! If you want to touch my pussy you have to ask for my permission. You are lucky it was me, because if it was anyone else and they screamed, everyone would come and beat you.” They will club you with this.” She holds up an empty beer bottle. “I have seen it before, it is their weapon.”

“But the dancing is just having a good time. It is like holding hands. Men will hold hands, it is not like in your country where it is gay. If a man is caught in bed with another man he will be beaten, but if they are holding hands, this is nothing, it is just what we do. We have no association with this in Uganda, it is nothing.” Sophia explains it all.

She also hooked the girls up with a place to stay in Sippy Falls with her ex-boyfriend. She even got him to come and pick them up from town and drive them up there. “He is the only one of his family who is here.” She told them, “He is the only one who got deported from England. Silly boy, did he not know that you could not carry a pistol? But don’t tell him we met yesterday! Or he will be like “Whaaaaaat? You are ruining my business!” He is filthy rich though.”

Later that night, the stars are out in full bloom, so bright that they even reflect off the Nile and the Milky Way is splattered across the sky. One of the Aussie girls and I have snuck onto the house boat docked at the bottom of the steep, secluded bay. Now it is just the two of us.

uganda-lake-victoria

“Look a shooting star!” she exclaims in an excited whisper, “I haven’t seen one of those the whole time I’ve been here.”

“What did you wish for?” I ask.

“I can’t tell you that.” she giggles, “I could stare at this all night.”

The next morning, the Austrian girls walked right past me while I was having breakfast. It was 11am and they were just coming back from a rather expensive hour and a half of horse ridging. All the organised activities here are overpriced, specifically targeted for foreign travellers, for whom the perceived value of the thing is proportionate to the payment. There is a sign that warns about unlicensed tours and activities, but these are likely far more reasonably priced and conducted by local Ugandans, earning an honest living and offering their culture and proficiency to share with travellers.

Yesterday I was slack lining with some Ex-Pats who were staying with a host family in the nearby village. They loved the whole experience and she cooked them spectacular meals every night, offering her home and love at a very fair price. I can’t help but think that these foreign owned touristy establishments set up a syndicate in poor areas and create a bubble, sucking in all the money and spitting out photocopied experiences. It is comfortable though.

Charity

As the girls walk back past me I say hi and break the embargo on awkwardness. I know that Theresa has told Greta all about last night, but everyone is casual. They come and join me and show me pictures of what they had been doing in Uganda. They both study occupational therapy and have been doing a placement at a local hospital, in a small town between Kampala and Entebe that treats children with crippling disabilities. They are teaching parents and doctors how to treat these children and offer them a better life.

As I see the pictures of these poor children with MS, cerebral palsy, and the condition whose name I cannot remember that makes your head the shape of a giant melon, I cannot help but feel horrified. The atmosphere and the photos however, are overwhelmingly positive and the girls speak about the children with delight and good humour. I feel bad for my initial reaction. After all, the whole point of this project is to help communities be more positive about disabilities.

“Aww Timmy, I miss him.” They smile over a picture of a joyful looking boy with cerebral palsy. “He is always so happy and energetic. When he laughs his whole body tightens up and you have to hold onto him really tight.”

There is a little boy who looks less delighted in a small wheelchair. “That wheelchair is no good for him. He still cannot move himself because the streets are too bad.”

“Also it is very expensive.” Greta adds.

There is a picture of a poor girl with a giant swollen head. Every picture is of her either crying or looking very unhappy. “Poor Emma.” Greta says with a deep empathy. “She is always in pain. Before she was just left in the corner, they did not know what to do with her, but we teach the parents how to help their children. She has a special chair with a head cup, because she cannot support her own head.”

There are more photos of them with the kids, and then some of a rather nice looking apartment. “Woops! Our photos are all mixed up.” Says Theresa. “This is where we were staying. There is the hospital, and there’s our apartments attached to it.”

Having seen the state of the hospital and the children, this comes as a bit of a surprise. Their apartment is the nicest house I have seen in East Africa so far. Suspiciously so. It makes me think that although these projects that bring in foreign volunteers do help the community, they are housed and treated specially at the cost of these institutions. You would think that they would be proportionate to the needs of the clinic, but is seems a bit of a contradiction. On the other hand, it must make these placements seem more attractive to perspective volunteers. Otherwise they might get none at all.

The last image is of a sleepy looking little boy. “That’s Anthony.” Theresa says gravely. “He is so full of medication all the time. He is in a constant state of delirium.”

More pictures of the house and of them cooking pizza. I trade some photos of the scenery with Theresa via an SD card. All my photos are of me having a good time. I would feel guilty, but instead I have another opinion.

Africa has a bad stigma. The only time you hear about people going to Africa is to do volunteering in impoverished communities. They then come back with stories about all these poor children and their families and how much westerners can help. Volunteering is all very well and good, don’t get me wrong. As long as it’s sustainable, i.e. projects continue after you leave and build on the effort year after year, instead of just showing up, making a small impact at a relatively high cost and then disappearing, leaving the locals feeling disenfranchised. Sadly a lot of “Voluntourism” is the latter.

But who do you hear about travelling around Africa on a holiday? Only rich elderly colonial looking Europeans on safari. The rest of the world stay away, like it’s some wounded animal, or the homeless person you know is there, but never acknowledge as you walk past with your morning coffee. He is a real person. Africa is a real Continent.

Saying Goodbye

I say goodbye to Theresa and Greta, take a selfie, exchange email addresses and never see them again. We are a polaroid picture, quick to develop and disposable.

Jinja is apparently the second biggest city in Uganda by population, but it could not get more different to Kampala if it tried. It is very run down and dirty – not that Kampala wasn’t – and has the feeling more of a truck stop than a town. It does however have the bustle of being very over populated and polluted by old vehicles. The back streets between cramped houses are dark and vacant and full of rubbish and unwanted things. Heaps of trash burn on the sides of roads, simply left to evaporate into the air and become someone else’s problem.

The VIP seat on my Modern Coast coach is bliss. No loud music, better suspension and a larger, more comfortable seat. The Ugandan / Kenyan border is relative bliss. I am directed towards one, orderly line to passport control where I have a pen at the ready to fill out my exit form. I am not the only Muzungu and can share a pleasant conversation with a German Ex-Pat girl, who accompanies me across no man’s land as she has been here many times before. She has a minor hiccup however, when she doesn’t have her Yellow Fever vaccination card.

Charlotte pre-warned me that if you don’t have proof of the vaccination, they jab you at the border with the same needle as everyone else, so you won’t get Yellow Fever, but you might get AIDs. Fortunately for my friend, she is a permanent resident and so they let her off.

The thing I will miss most about Uganda: The Rolex (an omelette rolled up in a pancake).

The thing I will miss the least: burning trash on the side of the road.

To sum it up in a single word: well, I didn’t really see much of it, but I suppose “Mosquitos.”

So I hope you enjoyed my ramblings about Uganda, if you like my stories there’s plenty more coming in this series! 8 more countries to go and several featured posts on tribes, game park life, youth culture and more. Hit the follow button for updates on the series and check out my other blogs about China and mountain life.

Disclaimer: these are just my observations, feel free to discuss in the comments below. follow the story in pictures on my gallery page.