Friday, March 12, 2010
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
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
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.
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
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."
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
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 public transport.
No private transportation.
No travelling. No mailing.
No inviting. No visiting.
No faxes. No telephones.
No social gatherings.
No jokes. No laughter,
No music. No dancing.
No romance. No flirting.
No fornication. No dating.
No wet dreaming.
No naked sleepers.
No nakedness in showers.
No love songs. No lover letters.
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 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 rest. No vacations.
No holidays. No weekends.
No games. No sports.
No staying up late.
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
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!