Musings about our world


Mounting the Fiery Chasm

The following is a copy of Paul’s article from ‘The Telegraph’ in the UK, dated July 1st, 2011.

Civilisation gave way to the jungle and, beyond that, rumble. Gunung Kerinci is Indonesia’s highest active volcano. My guide called himself Eddy; a short, lithe man who tottered under his backpack. Platitudes were exchanged. “You married?” he asked. “Nope,” I said. “You?” “Yes.” Having ruminated briefly, he added: “But I hate my wife.” And with that we set about our two-day hike up the volcano.

Rice, corn and strips of cinnamon bark were spread out by the road to dry in the hot sun. Verdant tea plantations gave way to a scruffy beard of jungle ringing the volcano, which gradually petered out to solidified lava flows.










A narrow path led through dense undergrowth. Monkeys howled. It was hot, sweaty work. Eddy said little except to answer my questions. Mostly we trekked in silence. Occasionally he would stop and indicate a plant, such as wild ginger or the rare pitcher plants unique to this area.

I was negotiating my way over a fallen tree when Eddy came rolling past me and down the slope. In a blur of red canvas, flying shoes and flailing arms, he narrowly missed dragging me with him. He picked himself up and brushed himself off, as though what had left me stunned was more of a routine skirmish than a dangerous tumble.

For the next four hours, the route steepened. We slowly passed the 3,000m (1,875ft) mark, above the tree-line, and arrived at our campsite. It was windy and cold.

After 30 minutes, we had a pitiful fire going. Eddy pulled out an unmarked bottle that I took to contain water. I was close to the fire, trying to absorb warmth, when half of the bottle’s contents were unleashed onto it, causing an explosion that could well have been seen from space.

Checking my eyebrows, I decided it was time for some liquor. I had smuggled along a quart of whiskey; an emergency supply for just such an occasion. Eddy soon retired to the tent, but not before another mistimed round of pyromania.

Four in the morning. In total darkness, we began to walk. Two pairs of gloves barely kept the warmth in, but protected my hands from the sharp, igneous rock. On the horizon an electrical storm cast eerie shadows over the solidified lava. The wind groaned. Thunder was disguised as volcano noise. My torch sputtered a low-battery light over a makeshift graveyard for the six lives once claimed here.









The volcano’s gut gaped like the mouth of a basking shark. Sulphurous gas emanated in plumes, accompanied by a cracking noise from the bottom of the crater that sounded like a pebble being thrown into a dry well.



The sun shinned up over the horizon, spilling a glorious orange light. Perched on the lip of the volcano, I realised that I no longer felt the cold. I gazed at the perfect simplicity of the earth’s processes.

Eventually we headed down. I could only hope that Eddy planned to walk and not roll back to the bottom.



A very merry Communist Christmas

All my opinions about Cuba, this conflicted country; all the dreams and idealised perceptions I had were tarnished by the abject poverty and repression I had witnessed. It had not been all negativity, in fact it does not take long to grow accustomed to such a complex and beautiful culture so far removed from one’s own. Everywhere you look, you can see glimpses of something special. The region known as Pinar Del Rio is a fine example of this; made famous as the tobacco rich farming lands of Cuba, and hub of the island’s cigar industry.

Catching a taxi from Havana for the 3-hour journey out to the West is cramped, uncomfortable, but will only set you back about $60. Upon arrival, the light had fallen and menacing clouds had spilled their cargo upon the lush green lands. Looking for a place to stay sometimes proves hard; the only places available in Cuba’s countryside, hotels aside, are casas de huespedes. Most of the money goes to the Government and they have to be registered as part of the country’s tourism industry (if not they would be breaking the Cuban constitution by housing people). Every guest has to sign a form and give their passport and visa number every night of their stay in Cuba, and it feels as though Big Brother always has an eye on where you are.

It was then that we were told that the taxi driver in our friend’s taxi had family in the region with whom we could stay. We consented and went out away from the town of Viñales into the countryside, to a small wooden farm house.

Morning came, seven of us had shared two beds, each paying a very small sum of money. Our hosts came in, an elderly couple, the man with calloused hands and deep wrinkles in his face depicting a life of hard work and struggle. They owned hardly anything, the bare house their pride, and most likely only home throughout their lives. We ate a delicious breakfast of fried bananas, fruit and eggs, a traditional Cuban serving. It was then that we ventured outside and saw our surroundings.

It was as though God had used the rest of the world as his practice and then saved his finest work for this region. We were set on the lush green valley floor, surrounded by a carved igneous landscape that was sheer, breath-taking and brought me to my knees. I felt as though I had been winded, I felt as though I had been cheated out of seeing such a view for my entire life. Even on the sheer rock faces, stubborn vegetation clung on as though it refused to admit the existence of gravity.

The modest little farm house was surrounded by a dirt yard inhabited by the most important posessions to our hosts: three chickens, a turkey and two pigs. Later that day, the son of our hosts came over and told us he would take us to see the valleys. We headed to a series of caves, went swimming in the pitch black along with whatever other nameless creatures lived in that light-depraved pool. Later we went to see a cock-fight, and although it was not for the faint-hearted, it was fun to see an underbelly of Cuban culture, marred by gambling and alcohol consumption. Later in the day, tensions ran high between locals as the underdog won its fateful fight. It was truly special to see, and we were the only priviledged outsiders there.

We returned back to the house in high spirits, we had walked far, seen cave lakes, mountains, wildlife and real Cuban culture. We felt we had experienced something truely unique, and to add to the jubilation was the fact that it was Christmas eve. That evening is very important to the Latin American world. Known as La Noche Buena (The good night), a large feast is often held in celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Our hosts had put on a magnificent feast, a turkey, sweet potatoes, carrots and of course, more fried banana. We dined together, we laughed and drank and retired to bed late at night in good humour.

Two hours later we were to be rudely awoken.

It could not have been later than 6:30am on Christmas day, I awoke hearing the word ‘policia, policia’. It was not the most pleasant way to wake up on Christmas morning.

We slowly got up and were greeted by a member of Cuba’s police force, clearly unphased by day nor time. We were paraded, all seven of us, in front of him and told to hand over our passports and visas, then wait for the result. After some time, he came over to us and told us in the sternest Spanish I will ever hear, that by staying in that farmhouse we were breaking Cuban law (i.e. not paying our money straight into the Government coffers). Worse was to come, our hosts were fined 200 convertible (A farcical, Mickey Mouse, second currency only for foreigners, and equal to roughly £140), which was almost two years wages to a Cuban farmer.

Of course we had to pay, lest we were to live forever with the thought of being responsible for ruining someone’s life. We then had to leave our paradise and were forced to walk the 5kms back into Viñales town in the rain, and arrived soaked, broke and tired. Happy Christmas!

My one piece of advice and most certainly the moral of the story here is; if you want to see a stable, autocratic country for what it really is, you will not find it easy. Going against the force of the Cuban Government was not the best idea, but we did feel that we had seen the exposed Cuba as a result. The true untainted beauty that lies beneath a veneer applied only to betray the eyes of tourists who only want to see the romanticised Cuba of which they have heard so much. Cuba is very much a butterfly trying to escape from its cocoon, and only when it can spread its wings will the world fully see its full beauty.

Long after returning from Cuba, I heard somebody else had the same story, from the same town with the same family. Chances are, we were duped, and the illegal stay in a farmhouse is a regular occurrence with thrifty backpackers. Be warned, if offered the chance to stay in an home in Cuba that is not registered to accept outsiders, you are probably going to be tricked out of money.

The Dying Languages

Every year, it is estimated that an average 20-25 languages disappear. This is often due to the last remaining speaker dying without any record of the language being made.

Back in 2010, this happened in the Andaman Islands when the last Bo tribeswoman passed away.

The Andaman Islands are a little-known archipelago West of Burma in the Bay of Bengal that now belong to India. Click here for my post on tribes for more information.

Worldwide, there are roughly 6500 spoken languages, although there is much debate about this. Some have similarities to one another; others such as arabic are considered one language, but differ greatly. Arabic is a great example of a widely spoken language where syntax, dialect and accent vary greatly. It is spoken across many countries and has evolved into its present form during a time when, other than trade routes, little connected the peoples of the different areas. Arabic differs to the point that often speakers of Arabic from different countries have difficulties comprehending one another. A Sudanese arabic speaker may not be able to converse with a Levantine arabic speaker (from Lebanon) even on a rudimentary level.

In the Pacific the Polynesian settlers, who moved eastwards from South East Asia to colonise many of the Pacific Islands, set sail from larger communities. The distance they traveled before finding land would sometimes be so great that old ties with the home lands would be severed, eventually leaving an isolated community for centuries. This isolation has led to unique languages developing that have a root, but little else in common with their ancestors further West.

Looking at the history of language, it could be said that all known languages at some point stemmed from the same root in East Africa, where we are thought to originate from as a species. Isolation of wandering tribes across the globe over many thousands of years accounts for the wide breadth of linguistic styles. Looking at the UK, where distances were not great between tribes, there are a multitude of dialects, and even 3 generally recognised languages besides English are still used in more remote regions of the UK: Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish.

On Easter Island, there is evidence suggesting that perhaps a unique religion or two competing kings from divergent tribes on the island led to the creation of the famous heads, before natural resources were exhausted and the population died out. This is another indication of the isolated nature of the colonies. Most likely, when these tribes dies out on Easter, so too did a unique language. One that likely no outsider ever got the chance to hear.

Another common factor present in the languages of these isolated communities is a lack of knowledge of certain concepts.

One example is the Pacific Island Tikopia:

This tiny island’s population had no concept of ‘inland’ or mountains because of its minute size. Their language does however, have a variety of words related to the sea, such as having the sea closest to your right/left side, which many of us don’t have any words for in our own languages.

Other recent findings from linguistic studies of a tribe from the Amazon, contacted first in 1986, suggest that the Amondawa tribe lacks any real concept of time. See this BBC article for more information. The reasoning behind this is linked to lack of development within the tribe, of any form of astronomical study, which therefore failed to recognise the passage of a year, and the reason behind the cyclical nature of day/night/day etc. This comes as no surprise given the location, where there is a less distinct seasonal variation over the year.

Both previous examples may now slowly become victims of globalisation. As the English language permeates the globe, so too does it permeate foreign language. Korea is a country with a wonderfully original language, whose writing system, hangeul has been given UNESCO heritage status. Today, many English words like television, coffee shop and many others are used more commonly than their original Korean counterparts in modern Korean speech.

Languages are often being lost due to this rapid globalisation. This is not necessarily a recent issue; colonists of the 17th-19th centuries would often enforce the use of their own language throughout a nation, which is why most Africans use English, French or Portuguese as their first language.

Over time all languages evolve. Understanding an original Shakespeare manuscript from 500 years ago is a challenge without explanatory footnotes as an aide. English itself is thought to have more words than any other language. Variously over time, French, Germanic and Latin have had prolonged influence over our syntax, sentence structure and grammar.

Even modern English speakers struggle to keep up with change, as worldwide social pressures mold English into new forms. If it weren’t for mass media: television, film, radio and music, then we might not have any concept of the modern American accent in the U.K. and vice versa (watch The Wire on HBO to better understand what I mean). Only by being in constant contact with one another can we follow the two as our languages evolve imperceptibly, and therefore continue to influence each other.

In the modern era, I would not be too surprised to see a common accentual consciousness slowly develop among native English speakers around the world, to the point where in a few centuries, all English speakers have a similar lexicon.

If you are interested in language history, two interesting gateway books are Bill Bryson’s ‘The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way’ (1990, Perennial), and Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed’ (2005, Viking Press). The latter isn’t specifically focused on language but has a number of interesting passages related to the significance of communication systems in early civilisations, and their importance.


The other day, something quite unusual happened over Seoul, South Korea. It was snowing heavily (not unusual), when a low, deep growl rippled across the sky and lasted for at least 5 seconds. This is the relatively rare phenomenon known as thunder snow.

Most commonly, snow is accompanied by, well, more snow, and possibly wind. It’s not something that is new to science, it just seems like the news has only really made a big deal about it in the last few years. It is so rare that it can even throw off weathermen:

Listen to this free comedy podcast (internet radio):

So what causes it and why is it so rare?

During a normal thunderstorm storm, a mass of warm air rises within denser, cooler air. As it rises it starts to cool and the moisture in it condenses. The warmer the air is, the more moisture it can hold, which is why some places that are hot and have a lot of rain feel so horribly humid.

When moisture condenses it releases latent energy which allows the warm air to cool slower and continue rising. This first stage is the towering cumulus stage. If there is a large enough instability between cool and hot air the huge cumulonimbus clouds begin to form, known as the mature stage. This all happens within about 30 minutes on average. During the mature stage there is often enough instability caused by the cooling air and condensing water, to create an electric charge, which builds up and eventually will discharge in the form of lightning. Of course thunder being the sound of lightning, it travels slower than light, and often seems to come later.

Thundersnow takes place in much the same way, but the conditions have to be slightly different. Of course usually ground level will be freezing, and a difference of at least 25°C (45°F) between the ground and 1.5km(5000 ft.) up from the ground is also needed. Most commonly thudersnow forms over lakes, as a lake’s temperature often drops slightly faster than that of the sea/ocean, which is a much larger, saltier body of water. The warm air usually rises against a cold front which also provides the difference in temperature needed.

In addition, due to the cold temperatures at ground level, the body of water must have a minimum distance (fetch) of 30 miles (50kms) across (in the prevailing direction of the front), for the air to take on enough moisture. These are some of the main prerequisites, which among other things means the likelihood of such an event is very slim and constricted to specific areas of the planet only.

Calculating distance from storm to you.

  1. Count the second between the lightning flash to the thunder peel.
  2. Divide the number of seconds counted by 5 for a rough distance in miles. Divide by 3 for a rough distance in Km.

In the U.S.A. perhaps only 5-10 instances of thundersnow are recorded annually, usually forming over the Great Lakes. In Korea it is very rare, but often starts over the Sea of Japan.

Don’t forget to also check out my podcast, ‘The Condition’ free on iTunes:

Counting on Castro

I took a little time this New year to reflect on my past new years. It seems like they are always a bit of an anti-climax, you build up the new year’s eve to an extent that it can’t possibly match, especially when there are another couple of hundred thousand people desperately trying to have a good night. New year’s eve 2006 was unique for me:

Cuba had always seemed like the ideal place to visit. Maybe it was the romantic air of idealism and the refusal to submit to imperialistic US oppression, or my own deep-seated student rebellion tendencies surfacing from a sea of contemporary apathy. Whatever it was, I decided to see in the new year in the Communist state of Cuba.

But it’s not that easy to see the real Cuba, at least anywhere that is not the tourist board, “Look how great we are” side; to find the heart of the country and by all means avoid the tourist traps. Veradero is a famous beach, but it sickens one to know that it is strictly off limits to all Cubans unless they work in one of the fancy hotels, in order to preserve it for tourists. It is just another place where tourists are herded like sheep then lifted upside down by the ankles until their pockets are emptied into the state coffers.

Christmas 2006: arrival in Cuba amidst a tidal wave of confusion; a tubulent time, where nobody actually knew whether Fidel Castro, leader of the country since the successful revolution in 1959, was actually still alive. Nothing had been seen nor heard from him in some time and the tension was so thick in the air on the ground at Havana airport that people were cutting through it with their suitcases. Many of us were pulled aside. We were searched, one by one, everything taken from our luggage as wealthier, better-presented Europeans idled through immigration virtually unhindered.

Stood on Havana’s Malecon, the angry, invading sea was trying to break down the newly renovated sea defenses. Originally built by the Americans in 1901, tourist money has recently helped the Cuban Government fund the much-needed reparations. I watched the heavy, rolling, Straits of Florida-borne waves crash against it sending up a cloud of spray, which soared over the wall and onto the cars passing by on the busy road below. Normally the Malecon would be lined with Cubans by 6:30pm, singing, chatting and drinking rum into the darkest hours.

The majority of the old pastiche buildings lining the road hold none of the glory they once knew. Ramshackle, these uninhabitable wrecks show all tell-tale signs of habitation, washing hangs out the window of one house, making do with what remains after the onslaught of almost yearly hurricanes, Wilma in 2005 was especially devastating.

West along the malecon is Hospital Nacional Hermanos Ameijeiras, a tall beacon of the world-class health service that Cuba boasts. Was it possible that the ill Fidel Castro, who had not appeared on television for more than four months was in there? He had since handed over control of his country to his brother, Raul. The sky above the hospital held five turkey vultures, puppets of death, which circled the building, eventually landing on the ledge of the highest window. Perhaps they were death’s messengers keeping tabs on The Man’s progress, if indeed he was in Havana at all.

Nobody seemed certain about whether Fidel was alive or dead. Nobody was willing to say. An acquaintance, Ulysses (perhaps so named by his parents after the James Joyce book, which appears to be extremely popular in Cuba, a rarity of sorts because it is on the short list of accepted foreign fiction by the Revolutionary Committee) wandered through the claustrophobic streets of Centro Habana, pointing out landmarks. I asked him if he thinks Castro is still alive or not. “I would tell you but I can’t say anything out here in the streets” he said in a hoarse whisper. It is ignorant to come to Cuba and expect speech to be free. It could also be dangerous.

La Plaza de la Revolucion and the Museo de la Revolucion are among some of the Havana sights that are simply unmissable. The museum especially commemorates the multitudinous achievements of the Cuban Communist government under Castro and is as much a propaganda tool as the numerous signs and billboards adorning every corner pronouncing ‘Venceremos!’ (We will triumph). Americans at any point on the tour of the museum are noted only as ‘Yankees’ and couple of ex-Presidents even make it up on to the museum’s prestigeous ‘Corner of the cretins’.

The centre also houses many beautiful churches and squares that have a weather-beaten and yet very romantic atmosphere. The famous Capitolio building is modelled on the United Stated Capitol in Washington D.C. but no longer houses the Government. Statues and monuments line every street, more often than not of revered figures adopted by the state for purposes of propaganda, such as that of Che Guevara and Jose Marti, an influential intellectual who led the Cuban independence from the Spanish revolt in the 1890’s and became a martyr when killed in battle.

People in Cuba lack many of the freedoms that we in the ‘free world’ often take for granted. A few examples are the ability to leave one’s country, the freedom of political association or the freedom of speech. A quarter of Cubans belong to the Comité de la Defensa de la Revolucion (Revolutionary Defense Committee), which is essentially a network of spies who alert the authorities to any unconstitutional acts perpetrated by Cuban citizens, including anything remotely anti-Castro or anti-Communist.

Cuba is classed as a Third World country, particularly after the fall of Soviet Russia. After 1991, Cuba entered what was known as the ‘Special Period’ where strict rationing was imposed upon food and petrol. Today, principally tourist money has helped buoy Cuba. Every Cuban receives from the Government food and clothing rations, enough to stay alive, and extremely cheap accommodation.

The U.S. embargo certainly makes life hard, but ever the opportunist, Castro uses it as propaganda to strengthen his own domestic position. There is a saying that goes around which is “One man’s dream has become the nightmare of the 11 million Cuban citizens.” The embargo only strengthens Castro’s rule but makes life for ordinary people harder. But the ingenuity which comes out of this is amazing. Cuba might just have some of the world’s finest mechanics. Cuban streets are still filled with U.S. cars built prior to 1959. The fact that they are still running after half a decade without any recourse to buy spare parts or new batteries is amazing. Some of course are merely the shell of the original with a Russian engine, but the streets of Havana are still graced with many a Studebaker, Chevrolet, Buick and old Ford.

Tourism in effect has been the saving grace for Cuba economically, but could essentially be the Revolution’s downfall. There is an apparent lust in many people for money. Many people are prepared to break the law in order to make money off foreigners. Old men walk the streets selling copies of the only newspaper in Cuba, Granma for 24 times the prices they pay for it, in order to supplement their meager pensions. It is nearly impossible to walk for more than five minutes without being approached. Often the opening line will be “Are you looking for something?” The Cuban tact is not to sell something out and out, for which they could get into trouble with the policia, but to offer something in a friendly way and expect underhand payment for the service offered. Another form of service offered to tourists is encountered in the form of the jinterias. Prostitution is a form of consumerism here in Cuba, and sex tourism is a grave problem that the Government fails to recognize.

Sitting out on the verandah in a rocking chair, smoking a cigar bought illegally from a street tout, a man passing by notices my distinct ‘whiteness’ and stops to chat. ‘Frank’, a tall, black, athletic looking man of 30 years seems out of place as a Cuban. He is wearing fine clothes and has an mp3 player.
“What line of work are you in” I quizzed.
“I teach salsa four days a week” he replied, giving me a little demonstration.
“So it must pay pretty well then?”
“No, no, but I have a German girlfriend who gives me money and this mp3 player” he interjected. There was a slight pause as I took this in. I had heard of this situation before. A foreigner meets a Cuban on holiday, the Cuban then feigns love, gets married to the foreigner, which is essentially their get out of Cuba free card, then files for divorce. Unprovoked, Frank continued, “I don’t love her, she is 54. I am only 30! But my family needs the money.” He pauses shaking his head solemnly. “If …(Makes the beard gesture with his hand to denote Castro) dies then I might be ok, but until then I must stay with this woman.”

Cuba is not all negativity, but many younger generation Cubans find themselves in a position of near-desperation thanks to tourism which has inevitably highlighted the comfort of the capitalist world. There are so many positives to take from the city, children play happily in the narrow streets, music fills the air; the fresh, rhythmical sounds of salsa encourages one or two steps from even the least adept dancers. As a foreigner, the cars and the people are all very beautiful, the cigars sublime. The Caribbean lifestyle is relaxed, fun and energetic all at the same time. The sense of cameraderie and of being a part of something big is impossible to escape, but at the same time one feels as though they are on the cusp of great change, the calm before the storm as it were.

p.s. It is now exactly 4 years since I wrote this piece. Since then, Fidel stepped aside from government permanently but, despite viral rumours of him having colon cancer, wikileaks recently released a document that suggested his illness was due to a perforated intestine. In the past 6 months, he has made regular appearances in public which would suggest his improved health, although there is no hint of a return to power. His legacy is already such that when he does eventually pass away, his legacy will live on for some time to come.

The Zapatistas – A Resilient Ideology

On January 1 1994, a band of masked rebel Indians emerged from the Southern Mexican rainforest in an attempt to overthrow the Mexican government. Today they are confined to the mountains of Chiapas, living defeated and in poverty. Yet still they subsist autonomously.

Poor and hungry, their cause was simply this: to claim back the land promised to them almost eight decades ago in the 1917 Mexican Constitution. Land on which to grow food, live and die.

Fighting for the most part was averted and the death toll remained low. If it was not for the timing of the uprising however, there is little doubt that the Zapatistas would be a movement confined solely to the annals of history.

Coinciding with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an international spotlight illuminated Mexico.  It was time to show the world economic injustices polluting the country. Naturally the world sympathised with the cause: poor people fighting for their right to land as deemed in the Mexican Constitution. The tiny rebel army led by charismatic Subcomandante Marcos, at least on a media level, were immune to the Mexican military many times stronger than they ever would be.

Sadly the shock waves did not crumble the country’s infrastructure as the Zapatistas had hoped. The crucial first domino did not fall and the result was a lengthy period of talks and discussions, which solved little or none of the problems for the poor. Quite a different outcome to the efforts of their namesake Emiliano Zapata, who created his own insurgency in the area during the Mexican Civil war which preceded the 1917 Constitution.

Thirteen years had passed before I set foot upon the red earth, which held the reminders of spilled blood at every turn. Zapatista signs demanding rights for the indigenous people, and graffiti-covered wooden huts, making for powerful propaganda tools for all who drive past.

Upon entering through the modest gates of autonomous Zapatista village, Oventic, my passport is taken from me and I have to answer a number of questions. Most people cover their faces with bandanas and I am forbidden to take photos. I talk to people who tell me that there is no running water, and the community subsides on the financial support of wealthy foreigners who view the struggle with romanticised overtones.

The sad irony is that the governments of these wealthy benefactors who have backed Mexico up against the wall for over a century, raped her of her resources and left very little, but the scraps for her inhabitants to squabble over. True there are many who enriched themselves in the process, but so many people live in abject poverty in Mexico, and especially in Chiapas.

The question begs: if so many people live in such a position, then why did the Zapatista uprising not incite a revolution? The answer is complex and almost impossible to explain. One thing is for sure, the Mexican government could certainly not act with aggression, but someone on the far right had been paid to do so. One by one, key civilians from villages known to support the uprising disappeared. The support was slowly eroded in the remote mountains by paramilitary groups.

Only speculation points the finger at government corruption, but it certainly made the Zapatistas one less problem in a part of the country which, for them, is essentially an enigma.

Travel advice

Hey guys, there is some great travel advice travel advice on my other blog: The Condition

Check out these links:

For information on common scams to avoid on the road.

Travel on a budget, how to move around from place to place and sleep for free.

Merry Christmas

A very merry christmas to you all, wherever you may be in the world.

Paul, Seoul, 2010

Have a lovely fat turkey

Coasting the Copper Canyon

Our rickety motorboat skipped over the Pacific waves out of the harbour of the small, North Mexican fishing pueblo Topolobampo, with a light wind blowing spray everywhere and soaking my sun-indulged skin. A bulky Brown Pelican took flight on noticing our advance, seemingly defying the work of one Sir Isaac Newton.

Riding the waves in our lancha we headed out to an area of mangrove swamps, which protect a sea inlet creating calm waters. It was the home of an extremely friendly dolphin, which immediately swam up to the boat and began toying around, rolling over and flicking water up at us with its tail. It even shimmed up to the side of the boat and allowed us to stroke its flanks, which felt as though they had similar properties to rubber.

Heading back across the bay, our guide suddenly shouted out lobo marino. Given the fact that my Spanish still had not surpassed the literal translation stage, I was curious to find out what on earth a ‘marine wolf’ was.

Majestically raising its shiny brown head above the waves momentarily, I caught a glimpse of the sea lion – an equally confusing name when translated literally into Spanish no doubt. Then suddenly out of the sea an entire school of dolphins – somewhere in the region of 15-20 mammals – began jumping over the waves beside our boat. It was as though they were subtly mocking our pathetic attempts as humans to swim, with their ostentatious acrobatics.

The day at the coast was merely a case of killing some free time before embarking on the real focus of our journey: The Copper Canyon, which has been dubbed by the Mexican Tourist Board and by many travelers, as one of the most beautiful train rides in the world.

Waking up at 5:30am, stepping wearily out of our hotel into the cool, inky, Mexican madrugada we hailed the first taxi to pass by. We were driven, in what would have been dubbed in the UK: “A complete write-off”. It had a boot/trunk that wouldn’t close, was minus one headlight, and had what appeared at first glance to be bullet holes in the passenger door. After my initial inspection of the vehicle however, I thought ‘Meh! This is Mexico!’

We left the dirty, modern, industrial town of Los Mochis and arrived at the train station, where I bought my ticket for $400 pesos (£20). My basic bodily functions told me that I needed to find coffee so I crossed the car park to a hole in the wall, with the feel of an 11-year olds’ cub-scout tuck shop. The crumbling, white paint was illuminated by the typical, harsh and unwelcoming neon light: the type found everywhere in Mexico. The soft buzzing seemingly the only company to the elderly lady sat behind the counter, with more gaps than teeth, and a wisdom in the lines of her face that I could only hope to posess after a lifetime of experience. After being handed a tub of Nescafe, one of powdered milk and a plastic cup of boiling water, a do-it-yourself coffee concoction, I headed back to the station and boarded the 7:00am, 2nd class ferrocarril.

The first three hours were dominated by wide, flat, fertile plains, off which the American Benjamin Johnson created much of his wealth through sugarcane plantations when he founded Los Mochis in 1903. Los Mochis then became the starting point of a project that would take 36 bridges, 87 tunnels, 655km of railway track and the good part of nine decades to build, incorporating some highly advanced and accomplished engineering work in the process.

As we passed through El Fuerte three hours in, the terrain began to lose its horizontal appearance, taking on rougher, untamed qualities. Soon afterwards we passed over the first viaduct, bridging the edge of a large lake and its’ nourishing river: water trapped in by the gigantic chunks of rock, forcing themselves up through the valley floor towards the sky. From here the long climb began..

Gradually the train ascended through inhospitable valleys, scorched by the bare sun, and torn open by ferocious rivers, angry and forceful as they make their way to the sea. We passed over another bridge that led straight into the tunneled, light-shy, heart of one peak, only to emerge in a different valley, seemingly just as remote as the last. A natural V carved out in the rock. Perhaps the V stands for volatile: the nature of our terrain that seems less so only because of the relative safety and comfort of the train cabin.

Then again, the V could stand for victory: the human triumph of audacity and engineering to unlock the door to such a gargantuan maze of valleys that is the Copper Canyon. Or perhaps the victory comes from bringing the many native Tarahumara peoples who inhabit the canyon, into contact with the outside world far beyond their primitive lifestyles and subsistence farming.

Climbing ever higher to a peak of around 7300 feet, the flora became more abundant and transformed from dry scrub land to lush pine forest. It became apparent that despite the stunning scenery, we had only ever been down in the valleys, and had not yet been given the opportunity to glimpse the true expanse of the Copper Canyon.

At around 4:30pm, two hours behind schedule, as the sun was in its death throes for the day, we reached the small village of Divisadero. I instantly got the feeling that this place came to be, solely for the purpose of tourists. On leaving the train during our 15 minute break, I was confronted by fresh, cool evening air and a sprawling mass of brightly coloured stalls vending all manner of local Tarahumara hand-made crafts, and to the highly appealing smells of tacos, quesadillas and gorditas. Oddly enough, none of the other places we had passed through had been like this.

After walking no more than 100 meters, it suddenly became obvious why this place was so popular: Spread out before me was probably one of the most magnificent natural sights it is possible to behold. As the sun dropped, it played off every contour, niche and fault-line, of the hundreds of valleys that lay below me, intricately linked to form the true Copper Canyon. I found it hard to believe my own eyes, and equally hard to believe that this beautiful recess of the world was closed to the outside world until 1961.

We continued to our destination of Creel, a popular choice with many travelers, and dusted with a light snow when we arrived at dusk, two hours late. The train carried on to its final destination of Chihuahua. This was quite possibly the only time I have been glad to arrive late at a destination when traveling on a train. Just to think that yesterday we were on a deserted Pacific beach, yet now standing in the snow-capped Sierra Madre Mountains. This bears true testament to the diversity of natural beauty that can be found in Mexico.

Scaling the volcano

I’m not going to lie, my friends and I wanted to look for adventure, but we were seriously under-prepared for what we were about to endure. The sound of climbing a volcano appealed to all of us, so we set out for Angahuan at the base of Paricutin volcano, a small town of 8000 people, only about 500 of which spoke Spanish.

When we arrived we were told we would need a guide and horses, but we could not afford this so we paid for a guide and one horse between the five of us and set out through dense pine forest after leaving the sleepy Indian village behind.

Upon emerging from the forest we saw it, the immense monolith pushing up through the solidifed lava flows, the spire of a church, the only remnants of a village that was wiped out by the last eruption in the 1940’s.

It was then that the heavens opened, we donned our ponchos and proceeded amongst giant blue agave plants (from which tequila is made), and on to the ash field. Trainers and shorts are a bad idea for this type of walking, and being more accustomed to hiking I was not seeing much time on the horse. The going was tough, like walking on fine, powdery sand, uphill.

We trudged on, the peak of the volcano now obscured by clouds so that it was impossible to discern steam from cloud.

Soaked through and tired, we finally reached the base of the cone, and the final push was certainly going to be hard, a steep climb on soft, unpredictable ground. I had done this type of thing before, but never on a volcano.  Incorrect clothing coupled with rain made our task harder. We felt about as hopeless as a man trying to open a can of beans with a spoon.

We pushed for the top amidst steaming fumeroles and igneous rock until finally we reached the top, shrouded in cloud, and peered over the edge into the mirky darkness, the belly of the earth. The firey chasm of this fuming volcano. Never has the sense of achievement been so great. We were each Edmund Hillary in our own right, and this was out Everest. We sang, and our spirited voices carried down the mountain to our guide who had stayed at the bottom with our horses, which could not make the steep final push.

Getting down was the best bit. Straight down, a streak of ash field that seemed almost vertical. It was like skiing without the skis, I have never descended anthing so fast in my life, I just put one foot in front of the other and hoped I would not fall.

At the bottom, all with ruined shoes and undampened, high spirits, we set off back to Uruapan and our hotel. Five poorly prepared Brits with one more tick on the life experience list.

Welcome to International Paul

Hello, welcome. Nice to meet you.

Please keep checking back for the latest updates and stories from my travels abroad in the last few years.

Also don’t forget to pay homage to the mothership here. aka The Condition