Monday, May 5, 2008

Brokeback Mountain

Four blokes in a honeymoon suite? Yup, that’s how our trip began. The manager of the hotel had cut me a sweet deal for a suite at five thousand a night.

Does it have two rooms?

Yes sir.

Does it have a living room?

Yes sir.


Just one sir.

I should have figured something was amiss right then. Two rooms, a living room and only one bathroom for five grand a night didn’t seem to add up.

When we reached, I discovered that the second room was in fact the living room. So in all fairness he didn’t lie…he just sidestepped the specifics and made a friggin monkey out of me.

We added two more mattresses, but somehow sharing a circular bed with a circular mirror above and frilly curtains around it wasn’t the same kind of bonding trip I had in mind. It was that depressing phase of the evening. The sun had just set and the day fought with the night for just a little more time. I knew it was freezing outside and in case it slipped my mind, the four-foot long icicles suspended ominously outside my window were a reminder enough. Fortunately we had a contraption in the room that could be used for various ends from making toast to heating the place, often both at the same time.

Gulmarg in the winter is a visually exquisite. Being in Gulmarg during winter is quite another story. The banks of snow along the road rise to a height of six feet. At night, the temperature drops to minus 13 degrees and after a tipple or three no matter what you wear, a penguin’s balls would probably be warmer. But then there’s the skiing and snowboarding. Now skiing is relatively easier especially if you have done it before and have never snowboarded. Somehow we didn’t think it would be much of a challenge. After all, four guys in a honeymoon suite with gear that made us look like pros seemed an indestructible team.

Our ‘instructor’ was well, not an instructor. He was one of the four of us and had given us a thorough lowdown on the sport while we were at Bombay airport, on the plane to Kashmir and during the drive up to Gulmarg. Only later did I discover that he had amassed this knowledge snowboarding on the internet. Once we hit the beginner's slope, his first and only instruction to me was “just go down!”

Having grasped the theory of inertia, it didn’t seem like a good idea. By the end of the first session I had a bruised head, a very sore rear and a gashed elbow, which happened when my ‘instructor’ friend ran over my arm with his board. Two things that were an impediment in our learning process were turning and stopping. I think that we should have paid more attention to this before moving to the advanced slope. The thought stayed with me when we decided to graduate to the top of Apharwat Mountain at 13,500 feet. Looking down at a sheer drop of a thousand feet was a bit daunting to say the least. We had improved over the past four days. Stopping and turning were options now, though every run often entailed some bad wipeouts. Standing on top of the mountain, I felt a bit like a bungy jumper without a cord. Now I’ve done several jumps off various cliffs, cranes and bridges in my life, but somehow this seemed a bit more intimidating. It needed to be a little more pre-meditated than just tying one’s legs to something, screaming your lungs out, and yo-yoing a couple of hundred feet.

We meticulously planned which path to take, where we would turn into the lower bowl of the mountain and after the balance few thousand feet, the precise part where we'd get back on the designated track of the lower quarter section. Once we were off, every single detail of the plan was instantly forgotten. The only part we had to adhere to was the going down part. The board and the mountain were hand-in-glove in a scheme to knock some sense into our vacant heads. After wiping out a few times and fracturing my rib, we finally made it to the bottom.

Triumphant and more or less intact, we strapped the ol’ rib, popped some painkillers and did four runs from the very top that day. By the end of it we were flipping turns, controlling the board and actually stopping at will. Finally, we were boarding and boarding not like, but at least with, the pros.

Sitting back at the café, exchanging stories in our pro gear, we all looked like snowboarding vets. Fortunately, no one really sees anyone else when you’re actually running down the mountain or in our case tumbling down large parts of it. Exhausted, we limped back to our hotel, switched on the toaster contraption and I fell back on the round bed of our suite. As I lay on the bed looking at the reflection through the ceiling mirror, I saw four groaning blokes in a warm, toasty honeymoon suite and for some inexplicable reason, nothing seemed to be amiss…everything was absolutely perfect.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Gypsy Kings & Paper Tigers

“God gave man a cat so he could think that he was caressing a tiger!” – (I think Victor Hugo said something like this.)

It was so dark that the thick mist made no difference to the visibility on the road. As Ramayan’s mo-ped sputtered down the muddy path leading to Mahua Kothi, he wasn’t too concerned about whether he would reach work in time for his early morning shift. Even his fading headlight didn’t bother him as he had done these sixty-five kilometers so many times before that he could literally do it in his sleep (and ever so often he probably had). In fact he wasn’t really concerned with anything apart from wondering whether his nose would fall off with the biting cold. And then something happened that made Ramayan forget his duty, the cold, and his nose. As his headlight misbehaved and cut weakly through the fog, Ramayan caught flashes of the largest tiger he had ever seen. By the time he had confirmed that it wasn’t his imagination, he was halfway up the tiger's... Well you get the picture.

Considering, that Ramayan was serving me some fine wine in the courtyard of my lavish kothi -(village hut….of sorts, if spectacular décor, central heating, a luxuriant open bathroom, and a fragranced, steaming tub could count for one) – I assumed that the tiger was not too concerned with the mo-ped, the nose, or quite frankly him at all.

I wondered if the man’s story was fashioned to make my stay more interesting. After all, when you stay in Mahua Kothi on the brink of the Bandhavgarh jungle, the tariff makes one wonder if they’ll have a tiger tuck you into bed. And as I amused myself with the consideration, Keshavji, lurked around my kothi door, in a way that made me uncomfortable. He wasn’t peering at me in any way. He was just there – like an afternoon shadow that turns out to be wet tar on a road. When I insisted on walking myself to the dining room, he smiled hesitantly and told me about the resident tigress with two cubs that was discovered outside my room a month ago. After that, lurking tar became my best friend.

The last time I had been to Bandhavgarh was fifteen years ago. We were one of the few jeeps driving through pristine jungle and I saw four tigers in the first few hours of entering the forest. This time around, it all seemed the same, until the first tiger was forget sighted, just heard. Gypsys (of the jeep variety) from every path in the jungle converged with maddening enthusiasm and then some seemed to descend from the sky for good measure. It was absurd. Yet, only recently Bandavgarh’s other jungle corridors have been opened to outsiders. With a guide, one can traverse the one-thousand square kilometers of jungle that was closed up until now. This means that you probably will have a very hard time seeing wildlife that would shy away from the sound of a motored vehicle, but at least you will rarely see another vehicle on the path. More so, you get the fulfilling experience of such pristine forest that just being there makes everything worth it.

It takes a while to understand that you are actually in Tiger country. That there is a possibility of a tiger crossing your path even outside the sanctuary. I wouldn’t have said this if we didn’t hear them outside Mahua Kothi. But what makes the experience even more special is when you talk to the Ramayans and Keshavjis who live around Bandhavgarh. Out here, everyone has a ‘tiger story’. And it’s not to impress outsiders, it’s actually casual banter on their everyday lives. Up Bandhavgarh hill, we spent our last few hours soaking in the jungle sounds. Around a rather sizeable lying Vishnu statue hewn out of a single rock, our 60-yr old forest guide Ramavatar (whose stories made him at least 106!) told us of the colourful times he has experienced in this magical place. Times when Bandhavgarh was the Maharaja of Rewa’s personal hunting ground; when he saw a sadhu who lived here turn six vessels of water into ghee after standing on one toe for several days (why?); and when he would sleep out in the open wilderness for nights on end.

But there’s one thing Ramavatar mentioned that really made me smile.

“When the Maharaja hunted the animals, he was the king of the jungle, I could sleep out at night because the animals feared men… Now I wouldn’t dare sleep in the jungle at night” he said, adding with wry grin, “Now the tiger is the king of the jungle again.”

As we drove back to our luxurious camp in Mahua Kothi, I couldn’t help but wonder how much the Maharaja would have enjoyed forty jeeps barging into his palace every time he sat down for dinner?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Taming the Shroom

When you go through customs in Bhutan, they ask you whether you’re carrying any cigarettes. The in-flight magazine had forewarned me about this; slapping me with a potential 300% tax on tobacco related products. Since China is apparently blowing across a Global Warming Smiley over the mountains and into the little kingdom, I guess they could do with a little less smoke. Anyhow, as soon as the customs officer beckoned me with a raised eyebrow, I defensively stammered, “I have no cigarettes!”
All he wanted were my baggage tags. Eventually the tax I had to shug out on the carton in my bag was enough to make me quit.

I had spent over a month in Bhutan twelve years ago. It was a fantastic experience that entailed fishing, trekking, and some random bar brawls. This time around, the intention was rather different. I was planning to read, write, indulge in yoga and avoid bars. Some very close friends who live on a spectacular trout farm were hosting me. One of their main businesses is supplying organic vegetables, so between the fish jumping out of the river and the veggies in their backyard, you can imagine how good the food was. After a few days of sitting by the riverside and writing until my computer battery would exhaust itself, an invitation to go ‘mushroom hunting’ sounded exciting. Somehow visions of me wearing my Sound-Of-Music outfit and skipping through fields picking shrooms seemed entertaining. I was in the middle of nowhere and being spotted in a floral skirt didn’t seem daunting. The real picture was drastically different. I followed… no… I crawled, panting in pain behind a seventy year-old Bhutanese man who deftly bounded up a forested mountain that never seemed to end. To add to my agony, there were no paths. My old guide parted a wall of thorny branches to make way and left them exactly when my face was at a perfect distance to stop them. After the fourth smack in my face, I suspected a pattern. After the eighth, it was nothing short of a conspiracy.

Yet there were two other concerns that plagued my experience. The first one had something to do with my elderly companion emitting guttural screams every few minutes. At first it scared the hell out of me. Once I learned to anticipate the time of each scream, my annoyance grew as his yelling pierced through the peace of the jungle. When I had had enough, I sat him down and begged him to stop. Soon I discovered that the screaming was to alert the several bears in the area. They needed to be notified of our presence, as it wasn’t very wise to suddenly startle a foraging bear. At once I started yelling so hysterically with every step that I risked tripping over my tonsils.

The other issue at hand was how the hell would I know which mushrooms to pick? There were three options - edible, toxic and deadly. Now toxic, I was willing to indulge in if they promised some magical effects. Though with my luck it would probably result in my face swelling up like a hot-air balloon. And what about the old saying – “One man’s drink is another man’s poison.” Either way, I decided not to be too discerning and picked every mushroom in my path. I have never seen so many different mushrooms - The colours, shapes and sizes amazed me. But then I have never gone ‘mushroom hunting’ in my life before.

As we sat over dinner having over ten dishes of various wild mushrooms that had been cautiously compared to pictures in the “Big Mushroom Catalogue” and then cooked, I kept thinking of what would happen if one of the “deadly” shrooms slipped into the pot. What if the photograph of a type was just that lighter shade of pale yet with very deadly properties? I was a good guest at the table, wolfing down all that I had been served, but finally I had to quell my curiosity.

“Oh whenever there’s a doubt we try it on the old man first” my host laughed, adding, “last season we had to pump his stomach twice!”

I found the whole thing hilariously bizarre and couldn’t help but wonder whether he had been madly screaming to alert the bears or had he been guinea pigged one too many times on his mushroom hunting expeditions?

Walter Mitty and My Mother…

Walter Mitty \wawl-ter-MITT-ee\noun: a commonplace unadventurous person who seeks escape from reality through daydreaming.

‘Adventure tripping’ is something I’ve coined to cover anything concerning adventure travel and adventure sports. It’s just a term that makes writing this article a little easier. So, why do we indulge in adventure tripping?

The first time I ventured into high altitude was nearly my last. Before heading to one of the many base camps, a crumpled Sherpa had haunted my mind with words like “potentially fatal” and “Acute Altitude Sickness.” But then, I was nineteen and indestructible. I prided myself on voluntarily controlling my pulse rate, never getting sunburned, and for me, the cold was a state of mind. Once I reached fourteen thousand feet my pulse was already at the peak of the mountain, the sun had peeled layers of skin off my forehead, and my state of mind was too numb to process any kind of temperature. All I could think of was that I needed my mother.

On the second day of my month-long Rescue Diver course in Mauritius, I was a hundred and thirty feet under in very cold, dark water and my fin broke off. To cut a long story that seemed like an eternity, I ran out of air. I was in the middle of a rescue simulation bringing up a fainted victim. Fortunately my diving buddy who was also playing the “victim” had to nip his acting career in the bud and share his air with me. Unfortunately, he had just enough air for the both of us to reach ninety feet below the surface. That’s when he calmly removed his mouthpiece and signaled to me that we were F&*KED! Thankfully we were saved by a third diver who had returned in search of us, else I wouldn’t be writing this article.

Bobbing along the Mekong Delta, in a six-man canoe with twelve people in it, we disembarked on a snake farm for lunch. While walking around as our meal was being prepared, my Vietnamese host opened a wooden crate revealing a massive python inside. My curiousity got the better of me and I deftly plucked it up from behind the head. Suddenly I seemed to be the only person in a one-mile radius. My sudden change of expression from boastful to confusion to pure terror prompted my host to yell something shrill from behind a bush. After deciphering the tones and deciphering the odd consonant confusion, I figured that the python was “very hungry”. That was it. Now picking up a snake of this size is relatively easy if you grab it from the back. Letting it go is the unpredictable part. The “very hungry” python was also very pissed off. Before this ten-foot long muscle crushed my neck and spine, I flung it off me towards the local hiding-party. Mid-air, it spun around and snapped the hair off my arms. I’m not lying; it was straight out of a sci-fi film with a Rambo backdrop. I was thrilled to be back in that six-man canoe. Needless to say, I had lost my appetite. Had I been slightly stupider than I had, my right arm would have been lunch and I wouldn’t be writing this article.

Last year we ran the Zanskar River in Ladhak. Most adventure operators had cancelled the run as the region had been inundated by freak rain; villages were washed away and the river was in full spate. On our third day, both our rafts wrongly read a large though relatively regular grade 3 rapid. My mind’s eye clicked as the raft in front of us flipped vertically ejecting eight people into the freezing water. It was just one photograph and then, just in case God had missed it, our raft did exactly the same thing. Now sixteen of us where tumbling around in numbingly cold, rowdy water. Just as I managed to extricate myself from under the upside-down raft, I belched out half the river and extended my frozen hand to Carol who was yanking people into the two-man kitchen raft. Just as she stretched to get me out of the river that now seemed intent on consuming me, she withdrew her hand, whipped around and screamed, “F&*K we are hitting another rapid!” After that experience, I think twice before putting my clothes into the washing machine.

So coming back to the beginning. Why do we indulge in adventure tripping? To help the Walter Mittys of the world live vicariously through our experiences? I really don’t think so. It’s tough to really care about them when we’re doing all the hard work.

I think the reason is because there is no other way. Ultimately adventure tripping takes you to places so amazing in magnitude, it makes you realize that it’s the only way to travel. The experiences that it puts us through remind us that we are alive, temporary and thoroughly destructible. Added to this, it’s also good to realize how infinitely small we really are. Yet most importantly, being in the great outdoors can be so overwhelming that it honestly embraces your soul (and once in a while makes you remember your mother!).

Friday, June 29, 2007

Little Missus Sunshine

“Never test the depth of the water with both feet.” – Zen Maestro Phucknuckel

I have been a SCUBA Diving Instructor for the past nine years. Even though I would keep visiting the islands where I was teaching for no more than a month at a time, my girlfriend and now wife was never really interested in visiting the place. I have been living with the woman for the past fifteen years. So when she suddenly opted for a Lakshadweep over L.A holiday, well, I was caught quite unawares. It suddenly dawned on me that all the idyllic scenarios I had created for her were soon going to be exposed, revealing a grizzly layer of the conveniently forgotten adversity underneath. Adventure travel is a popular form of sado-masochism that generally doesn’t involve the props. Though, the idea of my wife on an adventure presented the frightening image of a whip being madly brandished on me. For these are holidays that evoke fond memories only when you return home. The suffering is readily forgotten and they are the best of experiences only in retrospect.

It’s actually uncomplicated. No bones about it. With my wife’s work schedule, holidaying with no strings attached is a rarity. So when she does get her one-week-in-a-decade off, she surprisingly doesn’t want to deal with cold showers, reptiles, packet food, or dehydration. There’s absolutely no confusion here. She likes nature as long as she can flip the channel. And I would not advise anyone to dish out the old traveler philosophy on embracing the journey. You have to teleport her to the destination.

I went pale with her unusual request to set out on an adventure trip. Suddenly, I was terrified of the two planes and then the seven-hour bumpy, loo-less boat ride to the remote island. Did I say bumpy? It’s a backbreaker. Flashes of the baby scorpions that had once jumped out of a fellow diver’s sock started recurring. The cute field mice that visited my hut frequently, transformed into beastly bandicoots from hell. Poisonous stonefish, jellyfish and sharks that I have never seen in my life emerged in my dreams, further breaking my broken sleep pattern.

And then we landed. Though my concerns were temporarily relieved with the sheer beauty of the islands, an underlying tension gnawed at my insides. The strain was too much. Something had to snap. And then I watched baffled as she happily bounced around the bouncy boat, applied repellent, walloped a freeze-dried butter chicken packet, and effortlessly slipped on her SCUBA gear for the first time (the gear had to be a fashionable match though). Some kind of conspiracy seemed to be brewing here. She was blissfully consuming the joys of island life.

Today, my wife is one good-looking diver underwater (and out of it for that matter). She gets back from two dives, lugs out her tank risking breaking her nails, helps us clean the gear, documents the fish life spotted, and for entertainment, she’ll download a slide show of the pictures she has clicked underwater for the guests. Where did this non-exercising species get her energy? Shopping 13 hours, 26 blocks straight? What can I say? The mystery never ceases to amaze me and as I sit here struggling on the script of my next film, she is probably amusing herself somewhere off some reef, 20 fathoms underwater trying to get the best angle on some sleeping shark.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Turtle Recall

It’s three o’clock in the morning and the moon is playing hide and seek through the thick reams of fog that hang over the water. At first I blame it on the exhaustion. Then possibly on my altered state of mind. But when I hear the creaking planks of its large wooden hull crashing through the black waters, I’m pretty damn sure of our predicament. It’s not rocket science – we are screwed. Out of the darkness, a sail-ship on steroids materializes out of nowhere as our little matchbox-sized fishing boat imprudently bobs in its path. And this is a usual restless night on our undersized roach-ridden vessel as we merrily get tossed around on the deep ocean looking for Olive Ridley turtles. We are somewhere in the uncertain waters of Orissa. I know they are uncertain for a few reasons that I’m certain about. There are huge fishing boats that come in from down south and can do pretty much anything here. A week before I arrive, a fisherman has been shot to add to the dramatic atmosphere. Then there’s the added issue of a fresh white paintjob that makes our boat look exactly like the one and only coastguard vessel in this area. And out here, ‘they’ really don’t like the coastguard.

After diving for several years in the pristine waters of Lakshadweep, the churning, dark waters of the Bay of Bengal are not luring to say the least. My crew is fabulous. They only speak Oriya and three other words that we have taught them – ‘Espraaasso’ (for tea), ‘forgedabouteet’ (for, well, forget-about-it) and ‘ciao’ (for everything else). Not the most useful words to have learned, but at least we get a good laugh every time someone speaks. They, on the other hand, seem to find it hysterical that we are venturing underwater. It takes us a few weeks to figure out why they find diving such a hilarious sport. Back on shore, a marine biologist informs us of a number of saltwater crocs that frequent the delta.

During our several days out in the ocean, we spot hundreds of Olive Ridley turtles popping up on the surface for a breath and a curious look at a world they chose to abandon several thousands of years ago. It’s their nesting season and almost fifty percent of the world’s Olive Ridley population comes here to lay their eggs. Unfortunately thousands get stuck and die in illegal nets within the designated sanctuary. So here we are, swimming in the middle of deep waters, lugging camera gear and scuba equipment towards these massive creatures with the sole intention of intruding on their lazy afternoon romps. Now I’m not sure how freely available Viagra is in these parts, but once these turtles start going at it, they just don’t stop. For over forty-five minutes they stay locked on the surface, turning circles. Once they passionately embrace, nothing will split them up and believe me, they aren’t exactly camera shy either.

After twelve days at sea, the crew finally takes the boat to firm ground to buy a cock (of the bird variety) in honour of our farewell meal. The next morning we are back in deep waters with this cock crowing madly. It’s not something many people will experience, but it is bizarre to hear a cock crowing in the middle of the ocean with no site of land. I guess it has figured before I have, that it is going to be breakfast very soon. The only problem that lies before us is that nobody knows how to kill it. After much deliberation, Arjun the skipper, repeatedly karate-chops it into shock before twisting its head around so many times that The Exorcist girl would have got a complex. As we sit around relishing this unappetizing last supper early in the morning, I feel like I’m with old friends. I guess that’s what happens when you are out at sea. Even if the common ground is three redundant words, you have to bond as there’s really no place you can go. More than that, witnessing the idiotic massacre of so many turtles stuck in illegal trawler nets was something that has brought us closer together. It needed to be documented so someone, anyone, will sit up and just make a small effort to monitor the turtles’ safety just during these couple of months when they come here for a good ol’ romp and to plop their babies out into the world.

Post last supper, we do one last dive before returning to shore. This time we aren’t looking for turtles, we just want to descend into the deep, since we’ve been diving shallow all these days. The first thirty-odd feet are fine and then suddenly the water turns pitch black. It’s pretty daunting when all one can see is three feet ahead. We drop to about seventy feet and decide it would be wise to abort this dive. And then something large and luminescent catches my eye. As we approach it, we figure that it’s a massive jellyfish. Turning around we see a second, then a third, a fourth… We aren’t sure how many there must be around us owing to the poor visibility. Now it really is time to get out. Back on the surface we are surrounded by jellyfish that seem to have ascended with us. We frantically wave to the boat guys who politely wave back at us. At this moment, the idea of being stung for the hundred time in my life is not a pleasant notion. The boat finally comes alongside us and I hurriedly pass all the gear to the crew on board. I have seen big jellyfish, but these guys look like the mother-of-all-jellies and I think how lucky I’ve been as I desperately stick my hand out to be pulled onto the deck.

As he looks at my cringed face pleading for a pull up, the boat boy stands motionless and a wide grin stretches across his face.

“Forgedabouteet!” he casually shouts.

Peruvian Potatoes

It has been a week and every time I pass the wrinkled woman outside my hotel, she laughs at me. This time I stop, laugh back, and tell her I’m leaving. That’s when she warns me about it: No exertion and no heavy food. What about alcohol? No, no nooo! Like I need her unsolicited advice. I’m familiar with altitude and acclimatization. I’ve been high in the Himalayas, so what on earth could happen on a lake? As soon as I reach, I climb vigorously around the Sullistani tombs, have an eight-course meal and wash down my repast with several pisco sours - sweet and dreadfully potent. The next morning, I wake utterly crippled by the rarified air of Lake Titicaca. After lugging myself out of bed, I crawl to the dock area. I’m aware that my head has split into two distinct halves and maybe this explains the casual nosebleed. But once I manage to open my eyes, all the hammering fades. This is the highest navigable lake in the world - extremely vast, unimaginably beautiful and the light here is so magnificent you can bathe in it. On reaching the island of Taquile, hunger pangs encourage me to risk death and climb to the only restaurant around. Unfortunately it’s perched on an outcrop somewhere in the sky. Wheezing and breathless, I am warmly greeted by the only dish: fried-to-a-fossil fish accompanied by a worn out black potato. The village square has an old wooden sign with arrows pointing towards various destinations in the world… Nueva Delhi is 16,341 kilometers away. Two thoughts cross my mind: I’m not coming home anytime soon and that wrinkled woman in Lima who would be laughing madly if she could see me now.

Some days later, I find myself alongside the ominous snow-capped Andes piercing through the clouds. Arguably one of the most beautiful ranges I have seen. The highland Indians still speak the ancient tongue of Quechua. The last time I tried Spanish, I ordered a trout and was served a piglet. I have no idea what to order for lunch so I decide to imbibe in a few cups of mate de coca - a greenish tea with the fragrance of an old stable. It’s made from the notorious coca plant and supposed to cure altitude concerns. After gulping five cups, all I am left with is suspicious breath, a progressively weakening bladder and a ten-hour bus journey ahead.

The famed citadel of the Incas majestically reveals itself atop the cloud forests. What’s interesting about Machu Picchu is that no one seems to know much about the place. How on earth they managed to move these mammoth rocks at this altitude is mind-boggling. The Incas have cut each enormous rock so that it slots into the next without a trace of cement or even a hairline gap. I sit there long after the last tourists have left and just watch. There’s a tangible energy and mystery enveloping this place. Before the sun dies, I reluctantly tread down to the village of Aguas Calliantes (hot springs) to have a good night’s rest before heading to a town that the world forgot.

Flying over the dense Peruvian Amazon, I catch a glimpse of a clearing, which turns out to be the airport at Puerto Maldonado. I pick up the essentials from the dusty township – insect repellent in wholesale. For a few hours we chug along on the Madre de Dios river wondering when Marlon Brando will pop up? Apparently he’s in Vietnam they tell me as we ply deeper into the jungle. The rainforest is breathtaking. It actually rains within the canopy as dew drips through the several layers of foliage. The struggle for sunlight has created a forest where evolution takes on a new meaning. There’s a Walking Palm that actually moves five-odd centimeters a year. It has external roots and walks by shedding an old root and growing a new one on the other side. On my visit to the shaman’s (medicine man) garden I encounter a large mound of Puma crap. I might as well divulge that I discover it after stepping ankle deep into the damn thing. The shaman is a nondescript man sporting a brand new pair of “Nikos” (fake Nikes), who takes me around indulging my curiousity. He offers a pulpy leaf to chew on that tingles like pop-rock on my tongue rendering it paralytic for the rest of the day. Something tells me that he was sick of my questions.

After an incredible time roaming the Peruvian winter, I reach Lima airport with visions of a warm bath and a warmer house in the UK. All dreams are abruptly shattered when I’m offloaded and my free ticket seems to have little influence for another whole month. My visa obviously expires and I squeeze all the juice out of my credit card to buy a new ticket back to Atlanta via Costa Rica and Miami. This is the third day I have been traveling with no shower, a capped credit card and no friggin bed. I beg for coffee in Costa Rica, sleep at Miami airport where disgruntled staff keep vacuuming a foot away from my head, and finally reach Atlanta to find that my only friend there is in hospital having a baby. No full power, no shit no shower and somehow the only thing I can hear is that wrinkled woman’s laughter in Lima as it echoes through my reeling head.