samedi 24 décembre 2011

A year of wonders

It’s been a while, I realise, since I said goodbye to a year with such fond regret as I will to 2011 in a week’s time. It has truly been a year of wonders.

A year of new experiences: bears and tapestry and Peru and Spanish and Somalia and walking on fire (no, seriously!). And of happy returns to known pleasures: family and friendship and falling in love.

A year of consistently sleeping my fill for the first time in a decade, and during my waking hours of satisfying my every desire of food, drink, company, place and entertainment until I can want for nothing. Of feeling in tune with my body for the first time I can honestly remember, and my body responding by eating up the Inca Trail like it hadn’t been sitting in front of a computer since its teens. (Admittedly, since Cusco there’s been a lot more sitting around, drinking and eating and not getting regular exercise… But what are new years for if not good resolutions?!)

It’s been a year of revelling in places: returning to the remembered beauties of south-west France, swooning before the high wild glories of the Andes, dipping into the pleasing otherness of Quebec, drinking in the sweet salt winds of the Cornwall of my childhood and the budding woods and rolling meadows of a middle English spring. And of delighting in people: renewing old friendships, taking time with those who matter most but who wouldn’t normally know it from my irregular and fleeting contact, and meeting new friends, mentors and inspirations – relearning the truth that, wherever you go, you find people to love.

In the last month of the dying year, my family lost a dear friend for whom a progressive disease had inexorably been closing off access to all the pleasures I’ve been delighting in in 2011. There’s a Steve-shaped hole in the world for his passing. But everything around that hole is the dearer for his having loved and enjoyed it to the last drop.

My cup flows over. All I can do is keep my hand steady so as not to spill any of it in the passage to the new year. Happy 2012!

lundi 31 octobre 2011

On luggage

I should first of all say in my defence that it was the packing equivalent of Mission Impossible. I’d got pretty good at packing over the past four years in particular: micro-packing for baggage limits on humanitarian flights, speed packing when the flight was brought forward without notice, packing in the dark when there was a power cut. I’d reached the stage where I could pack for up to four weeks of work and play almost blindfold and in less than 13kg, leaving space in my luggage limit for the computer and whatever parcels and envelopes the local admin and logs teams would load me up with for colleagues on the other side of the country. In the Tetris of packing, I was at level five, easy.

But this was packing for five months, and for an itinerary encompassing an Italian summer and autumn in Canada; I was going to need clothes, shoes and kit suitable for cocktails in Manhattan and hiking in Peru. I was also going to have to adapt to the widely varying luggage limits of a range of airlines, from intra-European cattle transporters to trans-Atlantic carriers to domestic Peruvian airlines. This was Tetris level 27.

There are of course various strategies you can adopt at level 27. Over the past few months I’ve tried or witnessed quite a few of them.

There’s denial. You meticulously research the weight and size restrictions of every one of the eight airlines you’ll be flying with and reassure yourself, in the teeth of the evidence, that your compact and bijou case will be quite enough for half a year’s travel. All you have to do is wear all your bulky clothes to the airport, insisting to check-in staff that three coats and a fleece are absolutely essential to your in-flight comfort. Fill your coat pockets with any heavy items that won’t set off security alarms. And somehow squeeze your boots into the outer pocket of your hand luggage. Oh, and not buy anything while you’re away…

When denial finally breaks down, you buy a bigger case. In the best case, you do this early on, so you don’t spend half your holiday agonising over it. That also gives you time to get used to the new case; it loses the mental associations with double-decker buses and woolly mammoths and you eventually stop flinching involuntarily when you catch sight of it on a luggage carousel.

Then there’s precision packing. This is where you spend hours at each stage of your journey shoehorning your belongings back into every last square nanometre of space, until you need tweezers to extract them on arrival and your case acquires the density of iridium. If you don’t time the breakdown of the denial stage right, you can end up spending an inordinate amount of your holiday in this soul-destroying pursuit, only to give in and buy an extra bag right at the end. Unpleasant side-effects of precision packing include lumbago, excess weight charges and a strong desire for the whole lot to be irretrievably lost en route, enabling you to start afresh with nothing more than a toothbrush in a knotted handkerchief.

Borrowing is an excellent wheeze: it works especially well if your friends are of a similar size to you, but even if that's not the case, given that they live in the climates you’ll be visiting and are often given to the activities you’ll be indulging in, chances are they can lend you a large chunk of what you will need – making space savings in your luggage that can be filled with thank-you presents.

Parking is a less elegant but terribly convenient stratagem. It can require some long-range preparation, as it entails strategically locating close friends and family close to major airports, but once this is done you can plan your itinerary around them, depositing and retrieving plastic bags of hiking gear and swimwear according to what you’ll need on the next leg of your journey.

A secret cache of luggage space is a great stress reliever, if you can deny yourself the gratification of using it until the last possible moment. On a long trip, however luggage-phobic you are, inevitably your bags are going to fill up eventually. That means you need to keep some space in reserve for as long as you can: lie on your case to shut it, get someone else to sit on it with you, use a sharp implement to insert objects into the outer pockets – but don’t open up that expander zip until you have no other option. When every seam strains and the locks are ready to pop open at the slightest vibration, you release your secret weapon – and suddenly the tension is gone. Magic.

If all else fails, the postal service is your friend. Anything you’re not going to need between now and your final destination, assuming that’s somewhere with a functioning post office, can probably be sent on as a small parcel. (If you’re unreasonably lucky, you may even find someone willing to carry it back to your final destination for you – some kind soul who either has a larger luggage allowance than you or simply packs better.)

So in short, at Tetris level 27 – you cheat.
Trying to work out how to manage my luggage for this holiday actually kept me awake at night for a while at the beginning. (An excellent indicator of relaxation levels, given what used to keep me up at nights.) In a couple of days I’ll be checking in for my last flight of the journey with bags that now feel like home, equivalent to my full Air Canada luggage allowance, and still astonishingly full despite all of the above stratagems. I can't say I'll be sorry to set them down and return to my old 13kg formula. But they've neither multiplied, exploded in transit nor been traded in for a knotted kerchief on a stick - and I've only paid an excess fare once, so far...

mercredi 26 octobre 2011

Waiting for the vowels to land

I’m growing rather fond of Montreal.

I can’t claim to know it at all well: lacking an insider alongside to direct me, I’ve spent daylight hours during the past week mostly either meandering around it with my guidebook on one of the clunky but marvellously ubiquitous Bixi hire bikes, or seeking refuge from the cold in a variety of cafés in its (small) pretty bit. It’s not the most exciting place to visit at this time of year – better to come when the weather’s warmer and the Cirque du Soleil are performing – but it’s been a gentle place for a low-octane stay after the excitements of Peru, and you can tell it would probably be a good place to live.

For someone who, like me, came to French from the Old World, the accent’s obviously (and appropriately) outlandish; this must be what it would be like to find yourself in inner-city Glasgow after a lifetime listening to the BBC World Service. For this is French toutes voyelles dehors; its vowel sounds have an elastic quality, ready to ping off in unexpected directions at any moment, and are only loosely restrained by oddly toothy consonants. Ça becomes ceu, voilà voileu; nasal vowels, as in bon vin blanc, jump about like nervous cats, and the ‘-aire’ sound in faire or annuaire spirals so long in intersyllable space you wonder if it’s ever coming down.

It can make it hard to follow the line of a speech or story. I’ve had to give up on some of the Québécois conteurs in the storytelling festival that brought me here and has been my main occupation during the hours of darkness – given them up with regret, as it’s the spontaneous use of language that gives a tale much of its colour. (Luckily the Swiss, Venezuelan and Burkinabé storytellers have more than filled the gap; my favourite tale so far has to be a hilarious account of a US First Lady seduced by many-tentacled lesbians from outer space, by the Swiss Catherine Gaillard.)

But the Montrealers are just so damn likeable that you end up smiling even when you understand only a fraction of what’s being said (which isn’t generally for long: they kindly switch to a mid-Atlantic variant of French when they hear my own accent). There’s the default use of tu rather than vous, for starters – ditching the centuries-old ballast of buttoned-up French obsession with etiquette and status in one fell swoop, and irresistibly putting you on a friendlier and less formal footing with your interlocutor in the process. There’s the bilingualism that doesn’t seem to carry the resentment it does in Belgium, for instance, where it’s safer to speak English than to use French with a Flemish-speaking shopkeeper. There’s the polite driving culture, and the metro and railway staff who’ll go out of their way, even outside the rulebook, to help a confused tourist. And of course there’s the band of damply optimistic indignés on the Square Victoria:

But enough wittering: time to set about finding the venue for tonight’s storytelling. I’ve grown cautious since spending a fruitless lunchtime hunting for one venue at the weekend on the rue St-Jean, only to reread the programme and discover it was the rue St-Jean, Quebec city. So tonight the plan is to locate the place well in advance, set myself at a table with a good view of the stage, and order a bon vin blanc

mardi 18 octobre 2011

In the footsteps of giants

‘Why on earth,’ gasped Christie, digging her poles between two rough-hewn rocks 4,000 metres above sea level and hauling herself up a foot onto the next step, ‘if people 500 years ago were shorter than us, would they make steps this BIG?!’ As the giant stairway curved away before us at a depressingly steep angle, I could see her point.

This was day two of the Inca trail, the killer climb to the bracingly named Dead Woman’s Pass, and we were all feeling it. Arguing that the uneven steps we had been dragging ourselves up since the early morning were unreasonably deep and steep didn’t make the climb any easier, but it did offer a brief distraction from our shortness of breath and the length of the journey ahead. The few kilometres from our idyllic first night’s camp to the pass marked an elevation of 1,200m, and the river running beside the track was gaining in ebullience as our own energy levels sagged.

Yet it was impossible to be downcast, even as your lungs begged for mercy: the forest around us dripped with life, rain-starred orchids and fuchsias zinging out of the undergrowth or dangling from odd branches, bright rock flowers bursting up from the stones at our feet, crazy bromeliads rearing their outer-space heads at the sky. We passed cacti dusted with the powdery white presence of cochineal beetles, and Wilbert crushed one in his palm to reveal the blood that is still used as a powerful red dye for textiles; weaves we saw in the museums in Lima remained a vibrant pink centuries later. Birds of a luminous green, blue or orange flashed among the branches, chiding one another or warning of the heavy-footed intruders as we passed.

And above it all rose the mountains – preening in the word-of-god shafts of sunlight or brooding somewhere over the cloud line, achingly beautiful and wonderfully, constantly present. The snowy head of Mt Veronica would disappear for hours at a time, but there she’d be again once the sun came out; clouds would obscure the further peaks, but as we climbed into their pearled lower reaches the mists would tear apart and drift casually past into the valley below. Each night we crouched at the feet of the ancient stone gods and watched a silvery moon slip behind their backs and into the sky to gleam down on river, tent and rosebush. Each morning we woke in the cradle of the hills, and it wasn’t long before sun lifted the clouds and we could see the way we’d come, the way ahead, and the apus watching over our laboured progress.

And so on we panted, slithered and hopped – the latter mostly in the hour or so immediately after one of Grimaldo’s spectacular lunches, which he prepared in full chef’s regalia at one end of the tent and magicked onto a table improbably decked with a checked tablecloth on the other side of the makeshift tarpaulin divider. Any time we paused along the trail to congratulate ourselves on just how well we were doing, we’d be interrupted by a cry of ‘portador!’ from behind, and would paste ourselves against the cliff while the merry band of porters jogged by with dripping brow, sacks the size of small bungalows strapped to their backs and $2 car-tyre sandals on their wingéd feet, speeding on over the impossible terrain to build another tented oasis at the next campsite before we got there.

Porters aside (well, ahead mostly), there will have been about 495 other people on the trail with us each day, but for the most part Wilbert was able to keep us apart from the herd, choosing less-visited Inca ruins and timing our route to give us the space to savour our surroundings and explore terraces and temples in relative peace. As a result, we had the evocative, overgrown Intipata to ourselves on our last evening, hanging over the valley in its cloak of moss and wild flowers as the mists came down. And on the final morning, while the herd thundered towards the Sun Gate, Intipunku, we saw dawn come to the fascinating Huiñayhuayna (‘forever young’), wandering through this most complex of Inca complexes to admire the 17 ceremonial baths, gaze out on the sacred Urubamba river from its perfectly aligned gate, and imagine the sun of the solstice striking the royal quarters and the high-perched temple. The whole observed by a solitary inquisitive alpaca…

It was hard to pull ourselves away from Huiñayhuayna and head towards ‘civilisation’. Though the great Intipunku and Machu Picchu itself lay ahead, we knew that what came afterwards was the tourist trap of Aguas Calientes, and already we could hear the siren of the train that would carry us away to Ollantaytambo.

But first there were more steps! Hundreds of them, some on an almost vertical plane, others descending through the deep shadows of rock tunnels. Some in the group struggled most with the uphill climb, some with the downhill – but by this time all of us were struggling. We were now among the jungly vegetation of the rainforest: moss-draped tree trunks stood out at vertiginous angles from the steep slopes as if trying to maintain a sense of balance as their contours were sucked away by the gathering mist. The succulent tendrils of climbing plants wound their way across our path in search of the next support; we dug in our walking poles and empathised.

And finally we were there, at the gate of the sun, the gate to Machu Picchu. Wilbert’s imagining of the trail as a kind of trial by ordeal for those who would study in the royal city felt about right: when the cloud in which we sat finally lifted to show us our prize, we shared a moment of celebration at having overcome our own frailties to earn it. For me, there was satisfaction at having got fit enough since the desperately slow and painful climb of Nyiragongo in March to complete this more arduous trail with relative ease: I spared a mental ‘yah boo’ for those who had doubted I could do it, and a grateful thought for those who helped me get there.

…Yet no sooner were we there than we were gone again, it seemed. First a short time to savour Machu Picchu from the upper terraces again, and reflect on our time in Peru now coming to an end. And then we were onto the bus, then onto the train, and finally into the van, while the peaks we had so briefly moved among were whisked away, back into the clouds…

vendredi 7 octobre 2011

At the centre of the world

We stagger bleary-eyed off the bus: it was a grisly 4.30 wake-up call, and now after the hairpin bends I feel a bit like I’ve been blindfolded and spun in a circle.

Around us early-morning clouds are rising out of the Sacred Valley, and we find ourselves blinking in the sunlight as the mists clear over Huayna Picchu (the young mountain) to the north and Machu Picchu (the old mountain) to the south, and the peaks of mountains to east and west rear suddenly close. The blindfold lifts, and here we are at the centre of the Inca world.

The city built here some 500 years ago is tiny by comparison with other Inca ruins we’ve visited in recent days, but the beautiful precision of layout and stonework, the tailoring of terrace and temple to the lines of peak and sky, were wonderfully familiar. Wilbert, our shaman-guide, led our little group up to the upper terraces, from where we could gaze tranquilly on the little miracle below. He pointed out how the setting of the sacred city was aligned with both the mountains whose gods (apus) watched over it and the major constellations in the sky above. Taking three coca leaves, symbolising the trinity of the spirit world, humankind and the gods, he made a dedication to the apus and had each of us do the same. Then, tuning out the growing noise of the tourists arriving from Ollantaytambo, we sat listening to the suddenly full-throated birds and drinking in the peace and beauty of the place for a long while before heading down to tour the site proper.

I’d decided before we got there that I was less interested in the Inca civilisation than in the cultures of artists and craftspeople it conquered, some of whose artistry we were able to appreciate at the Amano and Larco Herrera museums in Lima. But there’s no way you can remain unmoved by Machu Picchu, and by its three-dimensional adoration of the magnificent mountains that surround it. If you must worship, a mountain seems to me a very natural object of devotion.

So: another wonderful experience. And it will be yet another to come back down to the city through the Gate of the Sun after walking the Inca’s royal highway over the next few days.

lundi 3 octobre 2011

Falling in love with Peru

Travelling from Arequipa to Cusco – 12 hours on the bus, illuminated by the glories passing by the window and made more comfortable by my almost limitless capacity for sleep in moving vehicles – I had time to start plotting how, exactly, I can move to Peru.

I mean, what’s not to like? The countryside is spectacular – the same high, wild, remote, intoxicating beauty that got me in the solar plexus in Nepal and Mongolia. The smaller towns remind me of those countries too: a nostalgia grips me as we pass through streets lined with hardware stores and roadside mechanics, shops selling cheap biscuits and paint-stripping moonshine on five rickety shelves, women in peanut-shaped hats making up bunches of flowers or hoisting babies into bright wraps on their backs, tuk-tuks stuttering their way around the bicycle-driven pushcarts, kids with red noses on doorsteps, political slogans painted on walls, and then on the outskirts the farming beginning again. In one field coming down from the altiplano towards Cusco we saw a young boy riding on an ox-drawn plough like a water-skier, pushing the blade deeper into the soil with his weight.

Some of the cities are spectacular, though: Arequipa, the white city, is a striking combination of colonial bastion and colonnaded showpiece, where the Plaza de Armas, the main square, gathers lovers, friends, musicians and street vendors under its flowering trees and arcades in the warm light of evening.

What’s more, the culture is rich and inspiring and occasionally overwhelming. Old women sit in doorways with their strap looms hitched to their lace-up shoes and whip up complex strips of tapestry in rich colours. Cusco has developed its own wild and wonderful school of visual arts, Máximo Laura's tapestries make the work of other tapesters look pedestrian, and street stalls overflow with knitwear and woven alpaca that you just want to roll around in.

And the people we have met have been wonderful: first and foremost the teachers we’ve been learning from, but also the hotel staff, shopkeepers, market vendors, waiters, random people in the street… While being aware that any impression formed in two weeks with ropey language skills is going to be hopelessly superficial, I still have a strong sense of a culture where individual ego and individual angst are just not that important, and instead people manage to work, live and laugh together in warmer, less competitive, more cohesive units than I can imagine occurring in the global North.

And of course, in comparison with my beloved Mongolia and Nepal, I have the wherewithal to communicate so much better with the people I meet. My Spanish remains threadbare and eccentric, almost entirely unsupported by any grammatical substructure and continually confused with French and with notions of Italian. But since all but a handful of the group have no Spanish at all, I have quite laughably become the default interpreter, which has given me a whole new vocabulary and the confidence to use it, while wincing internally at what my Spanish-speaking friends would think if they heard me! And I could get a lot better with just a few months’ practice…

Oh, and did I mention the food?? Seafood, lime, buttery avocados, chilli, corn, coriander, quinoa, tender lamb and a cult of the potato that outdoes even Ireland’s. Nuff said.

So: now all I need to do is write that bestseller, and find my ideal home in Arequipa…

dimanche 2 octobre 2011


From My First Tapestry to My Second Tapestry – something of a quantum leap!
The finished Fish Man – based on a Máximo Laura design – is one part dream to two parts sampler: there are many more techniques in there than the design really calls for, so that I could learn how to do them. It’s also probably only about 55% my own work, the rest being down to the patient and scarily speedy mastery of Jimmy, Richard and Máximo, all of whom took quite remarkable time and care over helping each of the five tapesters in the second week’s workshop to choose their colours and techniques and then understand and work them. Oh, and speeding through the ‘easy’ bits for us to save time as the Friday lunchtime deadline began to loom!

Inevitably, and very happily, I learned tons – much of it through repetition, trial and error, and much through unfailingly patient explanation and demonstration from our three teachers. The great Máximo Laura sat for half an hour just showing me how to work out which way to tie the knots to make a line go up or down, left or right. Jimmy gave me probably my third mini-masterclass in blending colours in sumac when there was just an hour to go till the deadline for finishing our tapestries – and you would have thought we had all the time in the world.

It wasn’t just that the three of them – each a master tapester who has been weaving since childhood, and one officially a ‘living national treasure’ – were kind enough to mask what you would have thought would be the almost physical pain of observing our laboured progress and correcting our recurrent mistakes over the course of four days. Instead they had the calm of people who were genuinely perfectly happy to explain all over again, and who delighted in our delight at every new piece of learning.
As the novice of the group, I was unable to complete my fish man by midday on Friday, so condemning los chicos to a further afternoon’s coaching. To let me take my time and reap as much learning from it as possible, they set me on course with each of the remaining blocks of weaving and then let me get on with it at my own pace, while they dismantled the workshop around me, stopping only to respond to the occasional distress call as my yarn failed to do what it was supposed to, and to natter about life, the universe and everything.

By the end, you’d swear they were as proud and pleased as I was with the result.

Our collective celebrations at the end of another week’s learning and laughing were fun, warm, colourful and musical – but we were all sad to say goodbye to our teachers, of all disciplines. A more talented, hard-working and likeable group of people you could scarcely wish to learn from, and more generous with their knowledge and time than we could have hoped for.

We did get to take one hostage, though: Anabél, whom we smuggled to Cusco with us the next day... J