Friday, March 12, 2010

A Baptism of Fire

"Baptism of Fire" a phrase with an ancient etymology, used through the centuries to mean many things including theological purification, a rite of passage and martyrdom on a flaming pyre. The French commandeered the idiom, baptême du feu, during WW1 and used it to refer to a soldier’s first experience under fire in battle.

Since then the phrase has morphed and evolved, and in modern vernacular it means doing something for the first time as long as it’s done the Hard Way.

Flying straight into the filth of Delhi as a first travelling experience for example, or climbing a multi-pitch sea cliff with no walk-off the first ever time you tie into a rope, or perhaps being made to treat a patient on your first day as a medical student.

I’ve heard the phrase a million times but never has it been used as aptly as when describing Pete’s first few days on the job as a Hot Rock driver. This is a story about Pete.

Put yourself in Pete’s shoes for the next 5 minutes….

Close your eyes and imagine:

Pass your truck driving test on British roads, then wait 10 days for the paperwork to come through. On day 11 you hop onto a plane and fly east to India. Swap British rules for games of chicken, trade British predictability for wacky races, exchange smooth British tarmac for the surface of the moon and then half the width of all the roads and cover what you have left with a menagerie of cows, goats, pigs, dogs and small children…. And only then are you approaching an accurate portrayal of Indian roads.

It’s your very first day on the job, and you climb into the cab, start up that truck for the very first time and, leaving Amritsar and its stunning Golden Temple behind, motor off into the Himalayas in search cool weather and long unclimbed lines.

Problem #1 – the main road out of town hasn’t been built yet. Driving slowly through cow-jams and past roadworks with no roadworkers, the road gradually turns to dirt dotted with potholes and crossed with water-worn runnels. A few miles more and the road has disappeared altogether, and with it go our hopes of an easy drive.

Problem #2 – gravity. We wind our way up into the mountains, negotiating switchback after switchback, with a precipitously craggy hillside plummeting down to our left. Driving on, we try to ignore the daunting maw of the river raging at the bottom of this precipice, and we huddle ever further into the safe shadows of the vertiginous cliffs looming above us on our right.

Problem #3 – steadily narrowing roads. Now BiRT is 2.4m wide (a waistline slightly larger than most local trucks) while most roads are about 2.5m wide. No problem therefore, until oncoming traffic comes careening round the blind mountain corners, which it does terrifyingly often. More than once we scrape the side of our poor truck against the wall just to keep all the wheels on the road and not over the edge!

Problem #4 – with BiRT’s above-average waistline comes above average weight (18 tonnes – we keep trying to put her on a diet but she seems to finds weight loss quite tricky.) Ripples of panic and distress are common as the edges of the road repeatedly crumble under her weighty mass, and 17 pairs of eyes watch small pieces of blacktop tumbling down and down and down and down and down and....

All the while, you are driving and the responsibility for these 17 lives sits firmly on your petrified shoulders.

Problem #5 – not only is BiRT fat and heavy, but at 4.1m she is also really quite tall. Unfortunately, the road has often literally been cut out of the hillside. Worryingly frequently, on many of the scariest corners, the road is nothing more than a skinny band of crumbling tarmac with a rocky roof jutting out ominously above it, often only a few inches higher than BiRT.

Reversing is impossible anywhere because the road is too small, and the moment we hit a ‘ceiling’ a few inches lower than our roof, we’d be faced with grinding our entire roof off

And so it continues for mile after beautifully green sub-Himalayan mile, and hour after slow, silent and tense hour. That nothing catastrophic happens that day is miraculous, and to say that Pete's nerves are a little frayed at the end of it would be an understatement of stratospheric proportions.

Day 2 dawns. Day 2 working on your new job.

Problem #6 – a bridge 2 inches lower than the top of BiRT. Cue wading through a fast flowing glacial melt river to see if we can find a ford through it, we decide that we can’t and commit to a 65km detour on even smaller roads.

Problem #7 – paddy fields. We turn up the narrowest road we’ve seen yet, we slow to about 10kph and pootle uphill for about 4km before we round a corner to find our path blocked by an oncoming truck.

We try to get past it. We fail. Instead, we drive straight into a paddy field. Our wheels are dragged deep into the bog, the suction stops us dead and we are going nowhere.


Now add up the costs and consequences:

4 days to find vehicles that are capable of extracting 18 tonnes of metal from a sucking bog.

3 pathetic recovery vehicles that the government keeps arriving with, each of which weighs less than half of BiRT and is never going to pull us out, and each of which we break in the process of trying.

2 massive hydraulic cranes which eventually do manage to lift us out.

1 closed road, closed for the duration of the rescue.

And perhaps the greatest cost of them all – one very damaged pride – Pete’s.

We did gain a little fame though – apparently our story, complete with photos, made the front cover of the major North Indian Broadsheet.

Surely a Baptism of Fire to remember!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

One Long Night in the Indian Monsoon!

Badami – Hampi’s less well known but no less brilliant cousin. Green hillsides covered in crags and freestanding pillars of red sandstone, crimps, jugs, edges, vines and monkeys. The crags stand sentry over the small but bustling village and its characteristically crazy traffic – pedestrians give way to bikes, bikes to motorbikes, motorbikes to rickshaws, rickshaws to cars, cars to trucks, and the trucks to buses. Buses will give way to one thing and one thing only – the king of the road – the Holy Cow.

The main street is lined with small shops. Cafes peddle dirty glasses filled with sweet lassi while the dhabas do a roaring trade in ready-made and sure-to-make-you-sprint-to-the-toilet food. Men sit under the shade of the Banyan trees, unsure what to do with their day and seemingly unperturbed by the rotting rubbish that surrounds them and is the most ubiquitous feature of India . Tuk tuks block the traffic as they compete for each fare while street vendors hawk onions and flowers, broken watches and phones with no batteries. Touts try and sell you bus tickets to places you don’t want to go and the only two internet cafes have one working computer between them. Here, pigs are the street cleaners, dogs are the villains and the monkeys are the thieves.

And in amongst the bedlam, cows stroll and lie in the shade, or lie in the middle of the road as the traffic waits. Untouched, unscathed, unbothered, just waiting for a passing Hindu to scratch their ears and swat the flies from their rump.

We’d arrived in Badami late one night after taking 17 hours to cover 230km. Steep mountain passes slowed us down, the unspeakably pot holed roads jarred our bones, and the traffic terrified us. Seemingly death defying, sadly this is the one thing the traffic is all too often not - as we drive, we tend to pass one twisted metal carcass after another, each wrapped around another, or wrapped around a tree, or rolled off the side of a precipice, or crushed under something bigger than itself.

It was 2am before we finally pulled into the forecourt of a swish hotel, woke up the staff and wearily pitched our tents in the garden as the post-monsoon drizzle fell softly.

The following day, we climbed in a dry heat, the sun managing to burn away the humidity we’d gotten so used to recently. And boy were we happy to be there, with climbing in such abundance, route after route on great rock, bolts waiting to be clipped and boulder fields waiting to be explored. We found easy walk-ins, flat landings and awesome moves, with water buffalo and monkeys providing an ever-amusing back drop.

After a glorious day, we lit a campfire and cooked up some sloppy egg fried rice with an assortment of unidentified vegetables. We’d had cake for pudding and then told stories and jokes over a few beers before I crawled into bed early, delightfully relaxed after such a happy day.

It was dry. I read a little although the pages passed slowly. I listened to cheesy tunes on my iPod and zoned out from the laughter outside.

A few drops of rain started to patter on my tent - one of my favourite sounds. I was cocooned, cozy and enjoying the night-time cool. And I was dry. I even lay there for a while marveling at how waterproof my tent was. And the rain continued.

And it became heavier. I lay there staring up at the yellow pertex stretched tightly between the poles, watching the stitches for signs of water droplets, and none came. Still the tent didn’t leak. I marveled some more. And the rain continued.

And it became heavier. But still no rain came through the roof of my tent. Awesome! And the rain continued.

And it became heavier. And then I felt my toes getting a little wet. Sitting bolt upright in shock that my tent would do such a thing, I prodded at the groundsheet to see how wet it was.

And it wobbled.

Now, I may not know a lot in this life but I do know that the ground is not supposed to wobble.

Hmmm. Opening my inner a little, just enough to poke one eye through to survey the outside world, I couldn’t help but notice that my yellow bag seemed to be swimming in 2 inches of lovely brown water.

And the rain became heavier, and I gradually I was forced to notice how torrential it really was. Somehow I’d managed to block most of this out in my drowsy reverie, but listening now, my ears filled with an ominous roaring. The thunder had started now too, and its deafening booms were the only sound breaking through the thrashing rain. Lightning was becoming ever more frequent until I had my own disco light show inside my tent. A minute later, the thunder was no longer discrete – just one deafeningly continuous growl.

But I was cozy, and warm, and the groundsheet was only leaking a little bit. So I ignored the rain like I’d ignored it before and went back to sleep.

Believe it or not, I actually got away with this for about 3 minutes. But then reality hit and I could no longer ignore the fact that not only was the ground wobbling like it ought not to, but I was floating. Maybe not properly, maybe some parts of me touched the ground but there was definitely too great an element of ‘float’ for comfort. Bugger.

Time to poke my head out of the tent again, just to survey, just to see what was going and see if I could get away with another 40 winks. Only this time, opened the fly just a wee bit was all the welcome that the flood waters needed. Before I knew it, the tent was a foot deep in water. Just like the field outside was.

Ok. No more denying it. I was going to have to get up. Dammit.

Scrambling to find my clothes in my new swimming pool and managing to find only the sodden rags that they'd become, I crawled out into carnage. The entire campsite was knee-deep in water. It had risen from 2 inches to 2 feet in less than 40 minutes and still the rain sheeted down.

Between the lashing rain, I could see people legging it around all over the place, dragging their things into the only dry, which soon became very wet. We were falling, crawling, desperately trying to rescue the few fragile possessions left inside our tents – down sleeping bags, iPods, phones, cameras, books, precious diaries, that kind of thing…

And at that point, the night truly turned to shit with the bursting of sewers that further flooded our already flooded field. No longer were we walking in knee deep water. Now we were walking through knee deep piss with brown floaters to make the brown water browner.

What to do, what to do? Rescue possessions and walk through shit or leave possessions and avoid wading through poo.

We spent a while trying to decide before we gave in, accepted what was, huddled in the dry room kindly donated by the hotel, drank what brandy we could find (really quite a lot) and passed out surrounded by wet clothes, wet tents, wet sleeping bags, wet everything, not to mention the all-pervading smell of poo.

Let’s just say that our use of detergent has been on an industrial scale over recent weeks, and now, finally, my possessions have finally reverted to their original un-brown state.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

For those that are stressed at work....

I read this somewhere years ago and really liked it... I don't know who wrote it but they had the right idea!

The Mexican Fisherman

The American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow fin tuna.

The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, "Only a little while."

The American then asked, "Why didn't you stay out longer and catch more fish?"

The Mexican said, "With this I have more than enough to support my family's needs."

The American then asked, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?"

The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life."

The American scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing; and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat: With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor; eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles and eventually New York where you will run your ever-expanding enterprise."

The Mexican fisherman asked, "But, how long will this all take?" To which the American replied, "15 to 20 years."

"But what then?" asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said that's the best part. "When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions."

"Millions?...Then what?"

The American said, "Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos."

Monday, February 2, 2009

Cambodia - the Killing Fields

We have just arrived in Cambodia, and while 2 days is not nearly enough to get a sense of the modern country, you don't have to be here long or read too many books before you get a picture of what Cambodians had to suffer 30 years ago.

The poem that follows is by a Cambodian at the Minnesota Correctional Facility where he is serving two life sentences. These simple words document things that were eradicated during the Khmer Rouge Regime and Genocide. 1975 – 1979. Normal lives were thrown into disarray. One third of lives were ended, by the barbarous brutality or cold-hearted starvations tactic of the Khmer Rouge.

If I’d been born, by some twist of fate, on my same birthday but in Cambodia, I would not be here.

The New Regime

No religious rituals
No religious symbols
No fortune tellers
No traditional healers
No paying respect to elders
No social status. No titles

No education. No training.
No school. No learning.
No books. No library.
No science. No technology.
No pens. No paper.

No currency. No bartering
No buying. No selling
No begging. No giving
No purses. No wallets.

No human rights. No liberty.
No courts. No judges.
No laws. No attorneys.

No communications.
No public transport.
No private transportation.
No travelling. No mailing.
No inviting. No visiting.
No faxes. No telephones.

No social gatherings.
No chitchatting.
No jokes. No laughter,
No music. No dancing.

No romance. No flirting.
No fornication. No dating.
No wet dreaming.
No masturbating.
No naked sleepers.
No bathers.
No nakedness in showers.
No love songs. No lover letters.
No affection.

No marrying. No divorcing.
No marital conflicts. No fighting.
No profanity. No cursing.

No shoes. No sandals.
No toothbrushes. No razors.
No combs. No mirrors.
No lotion. No make-up.
No long hair. No braids.
No jewelry.
No soap. No detergent. No shampoo.
No knitting. No embroidering.
No colored clothes, except black.
No styles, except pajamas.
No wine. No palm sap hooch.
No lighters. No cigarettes.
No morning coffee. No afternoon tea.
No snacks. No desserts.
No breakfast (sometimes no dinner).

No mercy. No forgiveness.
No regret. No remorse.
No second chances. No excuses.
No complaints. No grievances.
No help. No favors.
No eyeglasses. No dental treatment.
No vaccines. No medicines.
No hospitals. No doctors.
No disabilities. No social diseases.
No tuberculosis. No leprosy.

No kites. No marbles. No rubber bands.
No cookies. No popsicle. No candy.
No playing. No toys.
No lullabies.
No rest. No vacations.
No holidays. No weekends.
No games. No sports.
No staying up late.
No newspapers.

No radio. No TV.
No drawing. No painting.
No pets. No pictures.
No electricity. No lamp oil.
No clocks. No watches.

No hope. No life.
A third of the people didn’t survive.
The regime died.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hanoi - The Restaurant

The only way to really see Hanoi is to throw yourself in amongst the chaos and be a part of it.

It's a busy city, vibrant but not quite crazy. There's stuff to see... Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body, loads of ornate and beautiful Buddhist temples, lakes, palaces and opera houses.

But the city shows its best side when the offices close, the shops pull down their shutters and workmen hang up their tools for the day. As the light drops the food stalls come out and you learn that this is a city that lives on street food. Women hurriedly fill every square inch of pavement with pint-sized stools and tiny tables, and begin filling giant bowls with noodle soup and serving it to every passer-by for what feels like only a few pennies - the city turns into an enormous outdoor restaurant!

And then out come the street bars serving Beer Hoi - glasses of beer served to scores of people sat on their small stools on the streets, cheap beer and weak, but never as weak as you think!

Syria - The Military and The Climbers

"You have to dominate them. Let the soldiers know that you are the boss, that you will not be intimidated by them"

Monte Rosa is a beautiful crag situated in a lovely green valley about 35km outside of Damascus and about 900m from the Lebanese border. You'd not call it a warzone, quite, yet you wouldn't call it peaceful and undisputed either. Both sides of the border are heavily patrolled by armed military men. The valleys are decorated with rows and rows of bunkers, and the occassional stray tank on the lookout for invading troops and people who shouldn't really be there...... and this is where we wanted to go climbing!

Jurg, a very helpful Swiss climber living in Damascus, had come to our campsite to share a few beers, sell a few guidebooks and instruct us on the necessary 'code of conduct' for climbing at these crags. No loud noise. No bright colours. No drinking. Definately no cameras at all. Go climbing, keep quiet, draw no attention to ourselves, and should the military find us, stand up to them and their guns... ignore the rifle pointed at our heads and tell them we have every right to be there.

Hmmmm?! Syria was an interesting place!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pakistan - the Dark Days

The region spanning eastern Iran and western Pakistan is totally lawless. The few roads in the area are the main transport arteries for the booming Afghan drugs trade, and this is where the heroin and opium make their way westwards. The region is populated by Afghani refugees, drug runners, bandits waiting for drug runners, and overzealous, trigger happy cops and soldiers waiting to attack drug runners and bandits.

Not, perhaps, the best region for BiRT to travel through. We're hardly inconspicuous,

It's hot, dusty, turbulent and dangerous. The governments of most western countries consider it as out of bounds for tourists. But we were in western Iran and wanted to get to eastern Pakistan. As independent travellers maybe we could have bimbled through and enjoyed the experience, but as official 'tour operators' that option wasn't open. All insurances would be invalidated the moment we ignored government warnings which meant we were up for a massive transit. Get through it as fast as possible. No luxuries. No stopping. No nothing. Just driving.

24/7 driving until we were through the 'danger zone.'

It took us 6 days. It was hot. It was dusty, sandy, hot. So incredibly hot. Constantly moving, driving, bumping along on poor roads. And the dust got everywhere. Dust in our mouths, noses, hair, clothes, food. And it was hot. 40 degrees, 45 degrees, 50 degrees, I don't know how hot but hot. The height of summer, early July. In the desert. Fully clothed. Islamic territory. Long trousers. Long sleeves. Head scarf for the girls. We couldn't eat, we couldn't sleep, we couldn't think. All we could do was keep driving and try to drink. Drink the dusty boiling water.

All along we had a police escort. Joyful grinning maniacs who liked to show off their guns, pull over innocent cars and commandeer their water and food. Fire off a few rounds at west-bound vehicles. Just in case they were carrying drugs, guns or illegal people. Just to show off. They loved us. Novelty. Tourists. Tourists travelling through their hot and dusty fuedal no-mans land. In a giant crazy big red truck.

Poor truck. Couldn't cope with the heat. She was thirsty, needed feeding a constant diet of water and oil. Over heated time and again. Steamed. Bubbled. Boiled. The dust clogged all her filters, she had to work hard. But she made it. Trooped on slowly, through the dust.

The exhaustion set in. Daytimes no sleep because we were moving, bouncing and hot. Nighttimes no sleep because we were running the show and had to stay awake. Keep the drivers awake. Henry and Scottie driving. Round the clock the two of them. I don't know how they did it but they did. Amazing.

Three times in six days we tried to pull over to sleep. On the first, our Iranian police escort escorted us all round town, Zahedan on the border, until they decided we weren't allowed to check into any cheap hotels (for our own protection you understand) so we slept for 3 hours on the side of the road, in the truck, on the truck, on any flat bit of space. Dust and exhaust being blown into our nostrils all night as we sweated, sweated the hours away. No sleep.

On the second we stopped in Dalbandin. Our first town in Pakistan. We checked into a hotel and the police confined us to it. Not allowed out. For our own protection you understand. Most slept on the hotel roof to try and catch some breeze. We slept in the room to guard the bags. Up every 15 minutes to shower off, lie under the fan for 3 minutes, lie cool until the cool water was gone, then hot. Too too hot. Drenched in sweat within 5 minutes. Get up and have another shower. Hot. Crazy hot. Dunc couldn't breathe it was so hot. He had to go and sit outside. Sweating all night. Strangers started banging on the door at 2am demanding we leave the rooms. The hotel had sold our room to us and to others. Gun shots going off regularly through the dark night. Who knows what lives were being disrupted, ended, that night. No sleep. Just 5 hours of sweating and listening to the crack and report, the turbulence.

On the third, our escort made us park in a police station in Loralai. Had to park on uneven ground, for our own protection you understand. Arrived late. 2am. Left early. 6am. All night surrounded by police coming and going. Police have a busy life in Loralai. Shouting, guns, sirens. Music, laughter, noise. No more dust though. We were in a small patch of green in slightly higher land. Still hot. Stupidly sweatily hot. But no dust. Instead, mosquitoes. Hundreds upon thousands of mosquitoes. No sleep. Just 4 hours of sweating and swatting.

The other nights we just drove. Through the heat. Through the dust. No street lights. Dark days and dark dark nights. Backlit trucks, silhouetted by the head lights of other trucks. Kicking up dust as they drove. Dirt roads, dust roads. Donkey carts. Ox carts. Tuk tuks, cars and sweating kameez-clad men pulling trailers and hauling hessian dacks full of who knows what. All eerily backlit in clouds of dust. Shapes loom out of the dark. Most without lights. Driving was more than ever, an exercise in not hitting anything.

On the road we see a donkey. Hit by a passing truck. Desperately trying to get up but it can't. It only has three legs now. Dark days.

Sleep deprivation. Exhaustion. A tinge of madness. Heat. Sweat. Dust. Sandstorms. Dehydration. Filth. Dark days.

But it didn't feel dangerous. We never felt threatened. People smiled a lot. Lots of grinning and vigorous hand shakes. I'd go back. Maybe I'd travel more slowly. And sleep a little.