A drop in the ocean

Day 29 - Utila

Diving in the morning conceded to pure recreation in the afternoon and evenings (for us at least, the truly hardcore dove morning, noon and night). Time we filled with large amounts of nothing, only the metronomic swing of the hammock marked its steady progress. Après-scuba indeed. Faces became familiar, familiarity became friendship. Nicola and Tania monitored our diving progress with enthusiasm, each success toasted with the clink of glass. We became part of a little community where, even if everyone did not know your name, they certainly knew your aim and common ground was reclaimed from treacherous waves. Life outside the island was fond but faded remembrance, what did we lack but the means to exist here in perpetuity? How long could a person spend in this permissive utopia where not a policeman walked the streets and resplendent stars lulled you to sleep under a haze of slumbering cloud. All writing ceased and it is only now nearly a month since arriving that I relay these experiences to paper. I feel it a disservice to those times to omit anything at all from the account and a disservice to the reader to disregard eloquent concision. Hopefully I strike a middle ground between brevity and indulgent boredom.
But we were not divers yet, we had a foot in the door, a toe in the water, certification was pending however. The sea's ancient threat stood between us and our unexpected ambition. Okay so perhaps the only way you can fail the course is to drown but the six of us weren't home and dry at this point. The rigs were assembled, equipment checked and rechecked, the boat bounced by the dock like a dog eager for a walk. Our little launch's only possible water entry method was the classic backward roll. I pitched headfirst into unsighted unknown and after a somersault in the water found the surface. We spun into our rigs with increased ease and prepared to meet a bottom more than feet from our fins. Descent brought discomfort, each metre down a fresh pain to the ears. They squeaked and squabbled with the unyielding pressure outside, while I swallowed and pinched and wiggled and writhed. Eventually I dropped to 6 and 12 and the full 18 metres (54 feet for you pre-decimaliens) permitted by my basic training. The surface was near and yet unnervingly far, the sun's beams struggling through the liquid.
Languorous kicks propelled us through the water, silver saucers of carbon dioxide floated upwards trailing bubbles in their wake. We swam along sheer walls teeming with life, a tangled bank of Darwin's wildest imaginings. Eagle rays flapped close over cow and drumfish. Little tetra of a blazing orange and sultry purple mixed with parrotfish of pastel while barracuda leered from dingy caves. Breathing returned to unconscious pace, a slight inhale lifting while an exhale dropped. Deeper! my adventure urged, but that is not for now. All was in control in this most improbable of places, fear's business lay elsewhere. The twists and turns of travel had thrown up no greater surprise than this. Eighteen metres of water atop our heads meant we were certainly not in our element but those to whom it did belong shared it with tranquility. We shared beer and elation on our return, all had passed, all were scuba divers. Collective spirits were soaring, our certification all the sweeter for having achieved it together. The drink slipped down like iced nectar, the sea was our oyster, our fish and our crab. Talking of a dive afterwards, the things you all saw, the things that some missed! was almost as good as the dive itself. Truly we are social animals, our pleasures shared are pleasures magnified. The girls teased us with predictions of Dive Mastery before the year's end. A little fantastical perhaps, but only a little. I filled my logbook with every detail I could gather - air pressure, water temperatures and conditions, depths and times, sites and sights. The satisfying thud of the Dive Master's stamp an approval of our exponential progress and indisputable status. The best left turn I ever made.

Surface tension

Day 26 - Utila

Tanks were parked along the dock, we were about to invade a land that was not ours. A crash course in theory left disjointed terms floating around our head - regulators, pressure groups, equalisation, first stage, second stage, beans, rice, fish. The aquatic life below, I imagine, surveyed these nervous, rubberised humans with weary familiarity. We were being thrown in at the shallow end but fears were nonetheless for it. Certainly strapping on 14 pounds of iron before swimming would seem counterintuitive at the least. Fins on feet I staggered to the edge like a drunken clown. Below, the sea, above, the sky, the thin sliver in between where we live our lives. Perhaps I dramatise but, with the intonation 'continuous breathing so your lungs don't explode' ringing in my soon-to-be squeezed ears, mistakes would be costly. At least there is a slight affinity with the water in my person, my amigo had no such love. From anti-aqua to nascent snorkeler and now wannabe scuba diver in only a matter of weeks is certainly not taking (water) baby steps. His would be the most challenging of journeys, goading those most compelling of fears - the ones we cannot entirely rationalise.
As the cool liquid enveloped, a kick brought me to the surface and, tapping my head to signal 'ok' I congratulated myself on mastering the first skill of falling into the water. Jim bobbed to my left, Tony to my right and ahead Team Japan, a pair of affable orientals whose names I, shamefully, never got. This was our first confined water, the deep blue sea lay beyond the dock end but for now we were limited to what and where we could stand. The first task en agua was strapping into our buoyancy control device and air cylinder, easy on land, like wrestling a beach ball off it. Sinking to the bottom, we knelt muted each person no doubt wanting to scream and shout, enthuse and decry this wholly new experience. Only our eyes and the simplest of gestures could communicate our wonder and wariness. Barely time to acclimatise to our underwater existence did pass before Arjen, our instructor, had us removing masks and spitting out breathing apparatus, necessary exposure of sense-shocking rudeness. We rose and fell in the water like apples at Halloween, our buoyancy control in its primordacy. Weightlessness in water was replaced by leaden struggle as we hauled ourselves out. It had been a first step into the clear, blue unknown and while feelings were mixed there was unanimous agreement that the beer never tasted better. Indeed, as we discovered, drinking and diving are inextricably linked, at least we were plenty experienced in one of the two.
The sociability of the diving world is widely noted and nobody looked upon these newbies with anything but encouragement and perhaps fond remembrance of their own certification tens or even hundreds of dives ago. Hierarchy existed, Dive Masters afforded a far greater status than open water novices but all was informal and egos did not widely abound. Persuading someone of the joy of it all, wanting them to see as you have, feel as you do may not be altruism but it's an honest service to the welfare of others. Would that we could all gasp in wonder at a world inverted.

¡Feliz navidad!

Day 23 - Utila

Rain lashed our island paradise, the waves tossed the boat nauseatingly from left to right. Passengers doubled over the side and we questioned our judgement. It wasn't like this in the brochure so lasciviously flicked through in my head. A sodden golf cart whisked us through the weather to a striking white wooden structure jutting out into the Caribbean sea. The verbose landlady (perhaps a better term should be invented for an island hotelier) delivered a filibuster of a welcome talk while previous recipients looked on with amusement. A piece of advice she did give was to acquire supplies lest Santa enforce a shutdown the following day. In need of personal hygiene but finding deodorant priced the same as a bottle of wine it was clear that that night would be spent stinking drunk (I already have my coat on). Walking back along the main street we dodged children on quad bikes and spied building after building flying the red and white flag of scuba. On Utila a driver's license would appear optional, a diver's license compulsory. All about people lounged in hammocks trading anecdotes of underwater fauna. On an island of natural curving lines I felt like such a square. This pair of part time snorkelers had little cache in a 'dive culture' that was more than surface deep.
And so it came to pass on the night before Christmas these people who lived far below the waves did entice, bribe and cajole us into their antithetical existence. Embolded by Nicaraguan rum even Michael showed little resistance to their stories of sea horses and tales of turtles. Promised life-changing experiences we promised a life-changing decision. The fact that this all took place in the strangest and most surreal place I have ever been in only added to the acquiescent euphoria. The bar gave little clue of the Carollean wonderland that lay beyond when we first ascended the stairs. After ordering a drink we were advised by the barmaid to explore out the back, adding 'don't mind the spiders, they're harmless'. I don't know precisely why I thought she was talking about some kind of joke plastic models but this view only lasted until I walked face first into a thick, glutinous web. As my eyes acclimatised to the dark surround and Michael fired up his torch, hundreds of multi legged shapes were picked out in the night. Thousands of beady little eyes stared unblinkingly back, motionless save for the lightest of breeze. The cardinal points had them to both sides and above our heads, surrounded but for a waspish trail of planks. We edged along this bridge into hell, crouched and cowed as though the Styx itself did flow beneath. The webs coalesced into one giant silken structure metres across, what chance a bug in this forest of death? Highly evolved and rational as we are a cool terror was maintained while we walked through our nightmares. The reward was a fairy tale land of rainbow spanning colour and visceral texture. Angular and smooth, swooping and straight, the senses engorged by its psychedelic beauty. We had stepped into the wardrobe, the looking glass was through. The human imagination is glorious indeed. The rest of the night passed in a sweet fog of dancing and dive talk as our new acquaintances whirled us here and there in a hedonistic rush. Morning found us be-hammocked already, watching the sun rise over the glossy sheen of our watery destiny. There would be ample opportunity for doubts later but for now it was bedtime.
The time had come for us to leave the island that you never leave, to push east through Honduras to countries distant and foreign. We packed our bags for the umpteenth time and set our stride to the main street in the direction of the dock. Not ten metres had been walked before we reached the crossroads. To the left lay Alton's dive centre, straight ahead the ferry. Do we walk on to the uncertain certainty of the road or take a turn to the left and a giant stride off a short pier?

42

Day 23 - San Pedro Sula

Christmas was two days away and, being enamoured by the idea of spending it on the beach with lobster for dinner, we turned in the direction of the Bay Islands off the coast of northern Honduras. Figuring it was worth the extra money to guarantee our dream we dropped $50 on a 'King Quality' bus, not a chicken in sight. It should, all being well, leave us within spitting distance of the islands by nightfall. The lesson that in Central American bus travel all is never well had obviously not been learned. $50 would appear to be no guarantor of punctuality nor indeed, ironically, of quality. We were late leaving due to a faulty aircon, the fact that the bus' gear changes sounded like an elephant being hit in the face with a cricket bat indicated that the problems ran deeper. Death was pronounced at 14:02, a couple of minutes past our scheduled arrival time and still a full five hours from destination. Even the loosest of itineraries with the most generous float time can be wracked and ruined by these tardy logistics.
A man in a bar once asked me 'why go?', 'why travel?'. It seemed both self-evident and yet unanswerable. I respected him for asking and gave him a reply that went something along the lines of '...finding my place in the world...', plausible yet somehow unsatisfying. Maybe I don't have the words yet to express what I already know. Maybe like in that book I already have the answer and its simply the question I am searching for. Travel can provide a great bounty of life enhancing experiences but can it fundamentally change us? Will I find a better me on the other side of the world? I suppose in a basic sense this trip is freeing me from the shackles of 'normal' life. Rousseau said 'everywhere man is in chains' but he may not have been referring to this precise situation. My father would see this as a wilful denial of reality, a vain and perhaps immature attempt to break rules as immutable as those of physics. He may well be right but he has also given me this license, both directly and indirectly, to try. The chains of the mundane are far easier to break than those of the mind however, should I succeed in the latter it would be the magnum opus of a thus far undistinguished life. If I don't, well I guess I'll have to learn to live with myself!
Meanwhile, our unscheduled pitstop had caused us to have to transfer to a battered old bus that happened to be passing, a further step down in quality. Gulliver sprawled over the back seats while I calculated our ever decreasing odds of making the coast in this suffering rust bucket. As I stared out of the darkening window while we struggled up a hill a beautiful blue butterfly fluttered past. Shading, smoking, rudimentary next to such elegant simplicity was a striking juxtaposition. We eventually arrived in San Pedro Sula, Honduras' industrial capital (with all the aesthetics that implies). Our connection to the coast was long gone and the next necessitated a 4am start.  The bus terminal was also devoid of any nearby hotels which meant a 4km trip into town and additional pre-dawn complexities. Travel, you gotta love it!

Bordering on madness

Day 21 - San Salvador

For the sake of completeness El Salvador required a visit. It is, I am told, Central America's most densely populated country, its largest economy and yet is largely ignored by tourists. Hidden charms or a worthy swerve? We would find out. My enjoyment might be tempered by an unpleasant bout of traveler's flu though. The cough was ceaselessly unproductive while my nose streamed. My eyes stung to be open, stung to be closed. I bore it all stoically though and resisted the notion of gender-specific ailment. Our bus from Antigua was going along just fine until a large, solid bang consistent with an impact struck us. I suspect if we had actually run down an unfortunate Guatemalan pedestrian the delay would have been less than the burst tyre that actually transpired. We sweated in the dry heat as a herd of cows lumbered past in the opposite lane and the driver got to work on the wheelnuts with a blowtorch. Judging by the looks and mutterings of the locals this was not a common touristico stop-off. Soon the most cherished of sounds to a traveler, that of a bus engine spluttering life greeted our burning ears and we were back Salvador-bound.
The small matter of a border crossing now lay before us and it provided perhaps the most indelible memory of this particular hop, certainly the craziest crossing of my travels. Disembarking on the Guatemalan side we were swarmed by people helpfully pointing out an office round a nearby corner where we 'needed' to get our exit stamp. My passport was half out of my hand before I realised the lunacy of following these men of ill-intent Having negotiated that chaos we climbed back aboard the bus only to be followed by, in order, a legless guy (drunk), a blind man, several money changers, innumerable food and drink vendors and a legless guy (no legs). They filled the aisle in a jostling conga of chorizo, cambio and charity requests. San Salvador was our first capital city on this trip and exemplified many in this party of the world by being big, noisy, dirty and not a little bit dangerous. Frankly its nothing to write home about.

La luna negra

Day 17 - Antigua

The retrospective nature of these writings means there is a good chance you already know we made it but create an artificial suspense now if you like. Antigua was the colonial capital of all Central America until leveled by an earthquake in 1773. Siting the town between three volcanoes would seem to invite such destruction I would say. It still retains a handsome charm and, given its tourist draw, would be an ideal place to spend a few days and let the accumulated miles ease themselves from our sweaty, dirty bodies. The Danes pointed us in the direction of a hotel but rooms were hard to come by. After fruitless wanderings we took Michael's detested and feared option of a dorm. The fact that no-one shared it with us for more than one night can only be a coincidence. Antigua, in common with much of Guatemala (and I suspect, Central America), has issues with crime. Over here Security Guard is a job for life. From the guys at the bank with the sub-machine guns to the one outside the dollar store with a pump-action shotgun (certainly the weapon of choice here) there is no shortage of heat on the street. A little spot up on a nearby hill affords a fine view over the city. The book advises the company of a tourist policeman when walking to it so we didn't take one. Perhaps the robbers were on siesta, we were unmolested. The experience might also have given us a rather hubristic view of our climbing ability but more of that later. We took dinner in a delightful restaurant whose food sat temptingly in big clay pots. All along the lines of stew I struggled to follow the explanations of ingredients and simply plumped for the most appealing looking pot. One bite revealed the catastrophe of my choice. Liver. Just writing the world brings watery unease to my mouth and here I am chewing the ghastly organ. My appetite disappeared to be replaced by queasy discontent. It got so serious my taste for beer was even diminished. A memorable eating experience and probably the most expensive mouthful of food I have ever had. I think Michael has also decided he is not the unqualified fan of tongue that he professed to be, another indigestible choice. Happening on a raucous Irish pub full of Guatemalans dancing on tables was an improved course. A gringo trying the same thing took a bruising tumble off the bar. We had to return to Reilly's the following night due to the irresistible lure of a pub quiz. Our team swiftly expanded to 5 with Dale, Jessie and Justin too. And what a team it was sweeping all before it to win by a clear four and a half points. Our winning quetzals bought tequila shots for the losing teams with enough left for the victors to get throughly tired and emotional. Since my amigo usually handles the finances and had departed early the matter of an open tab rather slipped my mind before I too left. We would not be back for a third night. Breathing hard and impatient, lungs pulling at thin air. Feet slipping and hands bleeding. Down was far, up was further. Step by torturous step we climbed the volcano. Stunning views gave no comfort to our draining labour. I am not fit, my limbs have certainly seen better days and yet I was blasé about a challenge such as this. The foothills gave no warning of the desperate exhaustion that lay ahead, thousands of feet of it. But the summit grew no nearer, only steeper, and I felt I had no more to give. Pause, breathe. One more step. Dig in with your toes. Push up. One more step. The ground slipped beneath, magnifying the effort and slowing us to a figurative (and literal) crawl. I think a level of intoxication from the previous night sustained me through the first hour but the second one was Satan's playtime. Of course I'll say it was worth it with a rose tint even brighter than that of my cheeks but looking down into the brooding maw of a volcano is a worthy sight. No lava alas but hot, sulphuric fumes emanated from the rocks warning at what lay below. A passing cloud temporarily enveloped us as we sat panting with satisfaction and relief. The climb down is best described as like skiing without snow or, indeed, skis. The scorched, barren landscape gave a sobering reminder that the last eruption was only a year ago. Truly the most physically demanding thing i have ever done. Our last night in Antigua was a quietly pleasant one. We ate at a restaurant accessed behind the counter of a tiny convenience store, whose menu comprised just two items. Thankfully the Pepian de Pollo (chicken stew) was excellent and I ate heartily for the first time in days. We rounded off the evening in a venue where the barmaid committed the error of letting me make music requests. We'd probably still be there now if we didn't have an early bus to El Salvador.

Tuk-tik

Day 13 - Flores

A not insignificant amount is charged when you leave Belize, payment on entry would surely be a more reasonable system. We'd stopped in San Ignacio on the border the night before and received Guatemala pointers from a charming French girl named Lila. As soon as we'd walked across the border we were beset by Taxi Drivers and Bus Drovers bellowing "Flores!" and "Tikal!". Going alphabetically we chose the former. A familiar buzzing noise greeted our arrival into the town, the hairs on my travelling partners neck stood up. Tuk-tuks. His deep seated and impassioned loathing for the machines (or more accurately their operators) was salved by a few jars with some chickens. The Mayan ruins at Tikal were widely touted (and not just by the aforementioned) so a tour was booked for the following day.
We waited on pre-dawn streets silent but for the shrieks of bats diving in and out of the eaves. Our transport was exactly on (Guatemalan) time and we were soon heading north to a city reclaimed by the jungle. A hummingbird buzzed beside me as we loitered at the entrance while Occelated Turkeys strutted the dewy grass. Step pyramids rose through the mist their angular forms piercing the soft white vapour. We climbed one of the ancient ziggurats and looked over fogged canopy and distant (very distant) toucans. It takes a leap of imagination to see these ruins as a functioning, teeming city-state, the plazas thronged with people hundreds of years ago. What I'd give to step back just briefly to the golden age of Meso-American civilisation.
Next on the skimpy itinerary was a place in the mountains called Semuc Champey. Crystal clear water cascades down over turquoise pools. I swam a gentle stroke while looking up at steeply rising jungle all around. Already wet from a torrential downpour the cool waters washed the dirt of travel from my weary body. Our lodgings were perched above the river and once the electricity went off at 10pm a pitch blackness descended among with a present feeling of isolation. Danes lulled us to sleep with The Beatles greatest hits. The sun wasn't long up and we were bouncing down the mountains in the back of a goods van with the aforementioned Scandinavian songsmiths. Rocky roads threw us up and down, left and right until my senses were almost entirely loosened from me. Still, it beat for comfort the minivan from the other day packed to twice it's capacity, 30 people in a space designed for 15. We changed in the village of Lanquin to a more luxurious form of transport - one that had seats. Picking up a couple of South Africans the van sped off towards Antigua. Up into the clouded hills again we ascended, the roads a sticky mush from recent rains. Our driver decided speed would be our ally through these muddy passes even when the vehicle was fishtailing alarmingly from side to side. Near sideways and skidding towards the precipitous edge, I think collective hearts skipped a beat. Will we make it to Antigua or be a mess of expensively repatriated bodies on the valley floor? Stay tuned for the next thrilling installment!

Swimming with sharks

Day 9 - Belize City

Night was not Belize City's best side, black was not its colour. We fell in a parabolic curve down through Mexico, gravitating towards the little country sitting below the peninsula. The book helpfully outlined the places not to walk at night in Belize City - just about everywhere. We caught a cab with a German called Benton or Fenton or something and made for the Smokin' Balam Guesthouse. Our landlady also instructed us to 'be careful' and with nervous glances all around we walked to the main street in search of sustenance. We collared a copper to ask about gringo-friendly venues and though his suggestion of a bar down a dark alley was not taken seriously his advice to 'stay safe' certainly was, despite the fact that he should surely have a hand in that. Carmita's by the famous swing bridge was relatively friendly and a couple of buckets of Belikin (Belize's #1 beer, sorry, 1 beer) softened our angst. We had Lyndon's (after Johnson) undivided attention the bar being, as it was, bereft of other custom. We ended up having a pleasant evening perched out on the front step of Carmita's with the former president, the owner Alex and a guy called Jeff, they even invited us to a party the next day and 'party' beats 'high-murder-rate' in rock-paper-scissors. We did pluck up the reckless courage to visit the bar down the alley - the next day, in daylight. But not before a brief walking tour to Bird's Island, a tranquil spot where the city's literati chill. The island looked largely unchanged in the 50 years since Hurricane Hattie came through here and blew the capital 50 miles inland. As far as wildlife went - the birds, well I guess they went. There were two dogs angry at our transgression who made a barking beeline for us only halting their charge at the last minute. We left Bird's Island. Friendlier company was found at the aforementioned bar. JC was an imposing man who ran the security there and it seemed impolitic to complain when he helped himself to one of our beers. His right-hand man and girlfriend (one suspects she would be anyones girlfriend for a little US) also joined our libations but I was distracted from complaint by the large bag of weed JC had just placed into my hand. They were the Belizean Laurel & Hardy if Laurel & Hardy offered you drugs and prostitutes instead of slapstick comedy. As for the police? Don't worry about them amigo, they're all corrupt. We looked on from our hostel as a Christmas parade wended its way through the city in the distance. It must have wended its way through some neighboring countries too given the time it took to reach the spot on the main road where we had subsequently positioned ourselves. Joining us at Carmita's party afterwards was a tall rake of a rasta called Eldon who had come over from a nearby Caye (island, pronounced key) to feed tourists riddles, information on his sexual prowess and an endless supply of bullshit. The decision was made that if Eldon was here the island could only be the better for it and a visit was required forthwith. The Cayes are an hour and a world away from the city's simmering menace. As we bisected the mangrove forests our boat carved a great cross in the wake with a frothing geyser at its centre. The hankerchief that my fellow traveller had brought with him indicated a fundamental misunderstanding of the island's renowned watersports but I wasn't missing out on snorkeling the world's second largest barrier reef. We floated like weightless clouds above clear skies and sylvan fields of vivid, living rock while leopard rays flew slowly below. Bulbous spheres of Brain Coral with twisting mazes carved in their surface lay next to elegant fans caressed gently by the wind of current. Giant Grouper eyed us warily while shoals of smaller fish moved across the horizon like swooping flocks of birds. My breathing was slow and steady, my vision clear, I felt as if part of the ocean. Mountain ranges rose to my left and right, the valley floor seemed miles below but gravity held no sway. We circumnavigated the channel and drifted over undulating, brittle coral beds watching fish of a perfect purple dart in and out. Wrasse and beaked Clowns scoured the reef with sudden, jerking thrusts. We returned to our airy domain to explore further down the reef in search of its more.....emotive inhabitants. I dropped again into the temperate ocean with a note of anxiety quite absent before. Dark shapes swarmed the boat in a morass of fin and frenzy. Their slicing form evoked ingrained childhood fear, a two-note terror. But all they sought was food thrown from above, competing with Rays and greedy Petrels for the scraps of fish. Don't pull their tails or put your hand in their mouths and no harm will come, fair. Once the bucket was emptied and the fish had dispersed we clambered aboard our bobbing launch. It was exhilaration that took me as soon as I removed the mask from my face, a pure lightness of being. A wonderful experience only improved by the recounting. We leave behind an odd cultural melange of Menonites, Rastafarians and dear old Queenie staring up from every note.
Belize, interesting.

Into the West

Day 7 - Merida

We bid farewell to Hostel Rio Playa regretting that we didn't have time to bathe in their foot-deep 'swimming' pool even though, as notified by sign, diving was prohibited. Our early bus was of the plush (no really) ADO variety, I sense our standards of carriage can only decline as the trip progresses. We set our compass to Merida, the cultural capital of the Yucatan. First stop was Valladolid though for a brief excursion to the Mayan ruins at Ek Balam (Balam meaning Jaguar, Ek as in 'ooh ek'). A collectivo taxi with two Mexicans heading that way provided an economical connection. The Mayans put up some pretty impressive structures without the use of metal tools or draft animals and though most had crumbled the 29m pyramid still stood resplendent amongst the trees. The ascent was jagged and unforgiving and a slip could be painfully, bone-breakingly fatal. The view from the top, however, engorged the eyes with its vast verdancy. The climb down was more harrowing yet with our momentum towards a steep, staccato death. Visions of mine being another head bouncing down the stone steps were not easily put from the mind. But I leapt from the bottom step once I reached the bottom with a profound joy at still being alive. Cenotes dot the peninsula and are large cylindrical sinkholes filled with water, created by both natural forces and the hand of man. The complete lack of rivers or lakes in this part of Mexico made them life giving resources and a fixture on the tourist trail. The tour of Ek Balam's cenote we took was informative, interesting, entirely in Spanish. There is only so much nodding a person can do before it becomes apparent thye have no idea what you are on about. When our linguistic ineptitude dawned on our guide she....ploughed on with her script regardless. A colectivo with a couple of Czechs set us back on our way to the West. We were entertained on the bus by one of the Terminator films which, it should be noted, lose very little in their dubbing to Spanish. A hostel on the Grande Plaza gave us shelter from the storm (light drizzle). We took beers and endless tortillas outside a restaurant staffed by a waiter whose slow, deliberate delivery redolent of a sloth earned him the original sobriquet of 'Speedy Gonzales'. Above the pleasant woodwind of the house band he did manage to alert us to an evening of music in the nearby plaza which would be taking place the following day, Merida would have us for another night it seemed. The house band was certainly an improvement on the one in the previous bar whose oeuvre was limited to limitless variations on the same song. A Mexican Scouting for Girls if you will. They were supported by a wildly gyrating patron who, having abandoned attempts to be served another beer, took instead to flinging his arms and legs around in a blind, orgasmic salsa, a Mexican Bez if you also will. We took an open-topped bus tour (forshame!) around the city the next day. The commentary was, again, entirely Espanyol but the sites would only have been dangerous distraction from the very real hazard of low tree branches and power lines. Still, an enjoyable couple of hours was spent throwing ourselves beneath the safety of the seats. We wandered the market in the afternoon past stalls whose merchandise was nigh on indistinguishable save for one selling pets (or the freshest of meat if you incline towards racial stereotyping which, of course, I do not). Michael needed some persuading as to the impracticalities of bringing a puppy along for the trip. His dislike for bottles, finite taste for beer and disdain for lime was starting to limit his drinking ability (that and the humidity of course) so maybe the time had come to head South. The musical event was a bust by the way, we turned up in time to hear copious tributes to the benefactors and very little of what sounded like a decent chamber orchestra. Next stop Belize.

Sodom-on-Sea

Day 4 - Cancún

I fervently hope that a runway is approaching us with the rapidity that we are approaching the tree-carpeted ground. Black waters have become turquoise and grey skies an endless blue. I've never seen so much jungle and I've been to the New Forest ferchristsakes. Summer had arrived in December. We had touched down in Cancún in the Yucatán Peninsula. A town infamous for being a magnet to alcohol deprived American teenagers in spring and all the exported debauchery that suggests. Our hostel was sited in a disused shopping mall, the escalators had halted long ago but the place did the trick and it was in short order that we were sipping our first ice-cold Corona. The trip proper had started now, 'journey' if you're of a more literary bent. I had been fighting a rather fatalistic state of mind for the past two days, a mind of dark and doomy imaginings. Now every edge was a precipice, every drain cover a trapdoor, the cracks were everywhere. It drives one to distraction, it will pass I hope. What I do know is that somewhere in the back of my head I am ticking off each day that passes without serious mishap, each one a success. We only spent one $15 all-you-can-drink night in Cancún lest its visceral temptations corrupt our mortal souls and ensure our places beside Beelzebub himself. I tend to feel, if not guilt, then a kind of dismay when i'm in these places. Not through a moral objection or anything so high-minded, certainly I revel in their honesty. Moreso a wondering why the Western world need seek foreign shores to indulge its more basic (and sometimes base) desires. Should we inflict our vomiting, screwing, screaming on our poorer neighbours who can't turn away such regular business as our privilege provides. What does that make them think of us? Is this what they aspire to? Next morning after a night near spent on grass we jumped (carefully alighted) the bus South to Playa del Calmer, sorry Carmen. It is a cheaper, quieter version of its brash Northern neighbour. Lonely Planet evidently hasn't stopped by in a while given that its first two recommended hostels were, respectively, a souvenir shop and a building site. We did find success on our third attempt however. The trip has gone with an ease sharply contrasting that we experienced in the subcontinent. Places are, by and large, where they are meant to be and the language sticks, muy bueno. I am glad to be here, India can wait. It seems though, as is our perennial habit, we have landed outside of tourist season. We found some fellow gringos in a swinger's bar but the streets were empty of human traffic by midnight. Perhaps excitement lies to the West...

Don't step on the cracks

Day 1 - New York

The cold, dark New York air hits our faces as we rise from the petroleum-scented depths of the subway. In a life of bright, hopeful beginnings and dim, crestfallen endings here is another of the former that asks for a wordy substantiation, a placement in the order of things and, perhaps like none before, a worthwhile reckoning. Or maybe I just squeeze my eyes shut and fuse the disjointed, the dismembered ends of this violent year into one seamless, happy whole. As we walk across the Brooklyn Bridge it provides as apposite a metaphor as any of the dreaming spires and brilliant lights that lie ahead.
Our curious cattle shed of a hostel (can someone please investigate the previous life of the Bowery Whitehouse and let me know?) grounds us and in the finest of tourist traditions we are shortly ensconced in an Irish pub called McSorley's supping God's love (B. Franklin, 1779). Sarah, Sarah, Simon & Matt ably straddle the dividing line of a common language regaling us with tales of their own travels while I treasonably decry our blessed Saxe-Coburg-Gothas. 36 beers stagger us but not as much as the $90 bill and less yet, eventually, than the jet lag.
The High Line Park and swirling mysteries of the Guggenheim occupy us the following day, the suspended emphemera of the latter fueling our conversations on the definition of art and the efficiencies of ice cube varieties, whilst in an Irish pub. My fabled injuries feel everyone of the hundreds of blocks they traversed but surely don't feel pain as keenly as the drunken Yank's head as it cracks off our tiled lobby floor. The culture continued on our last day (keeps us out of the bars) with another immodestly sized New York institution. The Metropolitan Museum uses the word 'art' in its most liberal sense to encompass its near-kleptomaniacal collection of everything from Picassos to copious amounts of cabinets. Surely if my mother ran a museum this would be it. The Num Pang Sandwich Shop restored us after a day (literally) in the Met while simultaneously redefining the Earl's greatest invention. I fell asleep looking up at the ceiling that wasn't there, by the same time tomorrow these boys will be hombres.

1 year return-to-base warranty

Day X - Birmingham

It's not an easy thing to summate the thoughts and feelings of the past few weeks and I attempt it now not entirely confident that I will be successful. Indeed I am waiting for the usual flow to take me but the current is not there, stagnant I think is the descriptor. I look back at highs and lows,
the 'emotional ECG'images of it and find cause to treat any sensation or mood with a wary eye so mindful am I now of their fleeting conviction. One day joy, the next gloom, was either emotion worth the heartstring it was written on? It’s as if there if there is no definable identity, you are one of a myriad of personalities created only by a given state of mind. The subconscious and its teeming processes are hidden from our analysis but every second of every day they are creating and destroying you like a miniature Shiva inside us all. But there is solace in such vibrant variation and the furious energy it seems to grant, home is such a comfortable coma where I could close my eyes and sleep for a thousand years. How I miss travel, there was a certainty in the uncertain, a joy in having bearings but no mooring. The possibilitiesCRW_9475 of the next few months are terrifying to me, might dreams be dashed on the rocks of practicality? (that’s enough maritime metaphors I think). But there are reasons to be grateful too and I am certainly not the only one indisposed. What unwavering friendship I have received these weeks. What infinite patience with an insolent patient! ‘Thanks’ doesn’t really seem to do it justice, how can one find the words? The progenitors too fly ten thousand miles and now house me once again, how many more times? As many as it takes I suspect. So there is the silver lining to this monsoon cloud, the reaffirmation that when I do fall there is somebody to pick me up (even if it is from the side of a railway track).
Lucky? Me? Damn right.



Pills, pills, pills

As I reach the end of my course of medication I look back at the variety of pharmaceuticals I swallowed, usually in complete ignorance of their purpose. Having done some 'research' into these colourful little concoctions I present the results below.


Top to bottom, left to right.


1,
Name: Forte
Type: Caplet
Size: Very large
Colour: Dried blood
Purpose: This pill establishes whether there is any constriction of the airway, being sized, as it is, to the average human airway. If it becomes lodged in the throat constriction has occurred. In this way it is a little like Witch dunking in it's functioning.
Side effects: Death by asphyxiation

2,
Name: Vizylac
Type: Caplet
Size: Medium
Colour: Shocking pink
Purpose: This pill is administered when a patient has temporarily lost the use of one leg. It enables the patient to comfortably put all their bodyweight on the other leg for extended periods of time thereby increasing mobility. Contains extract of Flamingo.
Side effects: Cravings for seafood, esp Shrimp

3,
Name: Proxyvon Wockhardt
Type: Caplet
Size: Large
Colour: Red/gray
Purpose: A promotional drug released by Manchester United Football Club (MUFC) in 1995 to prove their notorious away kit of that season was in fact a most tasteful combination of colours. It also had the effect of increased allegiance to the club. Produced in large numbers abroad it is still included in most treatments if only to get rid of it.
Side effects: Largely foreign MUFC fanbase, perpetual sense of entitlement, moral degradation

4,
Name: Unknown
Type: Tablet
Size: Medium
Colour: White
Purpose: None, generic white pill given for the sake of completeness.
Side effects: Vampirism

5,
Name: Femidom
Type: Tablet
Size: Medium
Colour: Light pink
Purpose: Increases forbearance, empathy, ability to navigate, multi-tasking. Given to male patients to bolster their fortitude in the face of illness. Especially effective against 'man-flu'.
Side effects: Crying, all.the.time

6,
Name: Unknown
Type: Pill
Size: Small
Colour: Yellow
Purpose: Not certain that this is a drug, looks like a lentil from the Daal Masala I ate in hospital.
Side effects: In excess, gaseous emissions

7,
Name: Celin
Type: Pill
Size: Medium
Colour: White
Purpose: Alleviates the side effects from taking the drug 'CFT'.
Side effects: Propensity to gamble (esp Blackjack), herpes, excess earwax

8,
Name: CFT
Type: Pill
Size: Large
Colour: White
Purpose: Alleviates the side effects from taking the drug 'Celin'.
Side effects: Hirsutism in women, urge to cross stitch., constipation, diarrhea

Tick followed tock followed tick followed tock

T-0 - Delhi

My bandages were fresh, discharge set for 2PM and we waited. At 3 my consultant bade us au revoir and we were free but for the small matter of a large bill. A bill that in it's compilation took longer than The Domesday Book. First it was a two hour wait (incredulity) then another hour (incensement), wars have lasted less time. Indian efficiency and mindless, box-ticking beadledom was set to 11 and suddenly an extra hour on top of the 700ish already spent in the Apollo Hospital, Delhi seemed intolerable. We threatened (and nearly effected) a walkout which, credit to Indian resolve, speeded the process not one bit. I feel in hindsight and looking at the 37 page document that eventually arrived that the problem lay partially with the communication of the complexities of the task. How on earth the hospital accounted for 955 individual items on that bill I shall never know. From the syringe (7.7 rupees) and it's needle (3.1 rupees) to it's contents and the gloves the Doctor wore to do the injection, everything was here. It might have been easier to charge me for bandages by the mile. This gargantuan compendium could have been readied for the discharge time and the staff's intonations of "protocol, protocol" merely served to goad us further. But I am glad I can flick through it now with faint curiosity rather than mounting horror as I read the final page and it's total of 1,112,017.00 rupees (or about 15 grand in Britisher monies). I have also been issued with reams of documentation and X-rays (a hypochondriac's dream) done during my stay. Illuminating reading that reminded me of the (minor) brain haemorrhage I suffered during the fall and apprised me of the fact I have Spina Bifida in my S1 vertebrate, ho hum.
Suddenly I found myself sitting in a hotel bar wearing normal clothes and drinking a cold beer. My great, white swaddled leg allowed no fancy that the past month had all been a dream but certainly my world had altered once again. It was all taken in one's initial stride though and it is only later, now, at this ungodly hour of the morning that I contemplate my....unsettledness. No sleep has been had, the air con is too cold, too noisy, the pillows too soft, too different. Everything is too different and I am trying not to loathe it. One month in a hospital and I am institutionalised, oh dear. Suddenly I feel more invalided than I ever did at the hospital and am playing quite the mewling infant it appears. The outside world seems to leak in through every gap in the door and every chink in the curtains. Only now when everything sleeps do I feel buffeted by it and unprotected from it's uncaring bustle. I need rest really, my thoughts are piqued and contorted. These sleep-deprived entries never want for hyperbole though they do, I fear, for lucidity. Yes rest perhaps before I start screaming 'put me back!'

A white paper on healthcare reform

Day T-2 - Delhi

I've no love for private healthcare. For all its myriad imperfections the NHS can stand proudly (if not literally) next to the Great Pyramid as one of humankind's greatest wonders and most transcendent creations. Having been in the Indian health industry's life pricing clutches for the best part of a month i'm left faintly disappointed. For all intents and purposes and since I have insurance (thanks ma!) this experience differs very little from the one I would have had if I had thrown myself from a train back in the UK (or a less impossible but equally deleterious deed). Surely they're missing a trick here? My treatment won't be cheap but it has been standard, where are my choices? Wheres the menu Doc?
I guess i'm getting the best the hospital offers but how can I be sure unless there are clearly deliniated tiers of care? Health tourism is growing massively not least in the Subcontinent but apart from competitive prices whats the USP? The array of Doctors i've seen have done sterling work on my flayed leg and mutilated foot and my physical health has been most excellently attended to. The neglect lies with my mental health. Recovery is dull, long, unvarying, an unnecessary imposition on a person's receding idea of normality. The answer(s)? Keep reading.
Any person upon inflicting a heinous wound upon themselves (or possibly having said wound inflicted upon them, I only speak from personal experience) would surely dream of closing their eyes and on waking finding themselves fully restored, or at least restored to the extent that modern medicine permits. Induced comas must be the answer! My last month could have been passed in blissful ignorance of gaping, vacuumed heels, extensive skin grafts and modesty shredding ablutions. So theres our top notch offering right there "your family are weeping but you're sleeping!" (n.b this line needs work). The next option down the list might involve consciousness but a consciousness greatly enhanced. My last month was relatively pain free but barring a couple of pre general anaesthetic sedatives failed to be really mood lifting. For all the painkillers they've shovelled down my neck none have cheered my drearier days, none have expanded my mind. I thought I saw a familiar friend in the little vials of Tramadol amongst my cornucopia of chemical adulterants. Alas it seems a poor cousin to the stuff the NHS bunged me after a broken knee - back then I gently floated in seas of tranquility with the soft ripples of time trickling between my toes and caressing my outstretched fingertips. Imagine such relaxation combined with the occasional bed bath and you've practically got a spa. Perhaps spas could be the pioneers in this development of the industry? They already have the cucumber slices, get some doctors on the books, a job lot of morphine, a.....do you need a license to practise medicine over here?....i'm gonna say no, and you're set.
The next tier of treatment would be the one that I am currently receiving. The physical repairs are competant, the equal of those on 'Gold' and 'Silver' services (aforementioned) but you make your own entertainment here, you might be staring at the sky but there ain't no diamonds and its Lucy's day off. I'm afraid your recovery will be in what we call 'realtime'. A little like prison you'll have to serve every second of your sentence (n.b don't use ANY of this in the advertising materials). There will be drugs, painkillers you shall have but only enough to, well, kill the pain. Euphoria is off. Our Doctors will aim to maintain a status quo with regard to your pain, angst or suffering, you should experience no more than you would on an average (injury free) day. Bronze service might be long, it might be tedious beyond reason, it might result in some sort of psychological breakdown (which we can treat, for a fee) but you are saving the rupees.
The final tier is 'Lead' (might need to think of a non-toxic metal to represent this service) and is our most 'interactive' level of care. You're familiar with how everyone becomes an amateur Doctor when you have an ailment? Well silence their baseless and ill-informed pronouncements with some real hands on medical experience of your own, physician heal thyself! The Lead service keeps costs to a minimum by allowing the patient to take charge of their own wellbeing. As a patient you've seen your bandages changed a hundred times, "I could do that myself!" you say to yourself. With this tier of service you will be doing it yourself! No longer will you be a helpless bystander to your own recovery you'll be in the thick of the action 'getting your hands dirty' (latex gloves will be provided at extra cost). Doctors and Nurses can be hired by the hour (discounted rates for operations >3 hours) so you can keep in control of your costs and customise a healing programme to suit your needs. Do you need minor surgery? Can you assist? Then dispense with the support staff! The only limit to the money that can be saved is you (and your ability to stay conscious). There will likely be numerous legal waivers required with Lead tier and possibly some basic medical accreditation but I can see it revolutionising the medical industry. If you can sew a ripped seam you can suture a gashed leg.
I am convinced the future of consumer medicine has just been conceived. There are options to suit all budgets and tastes. Wanna sit the whole thing out? Go Gold and dream it all away. Wanna soar above it all? Go Silver and recline on fluffy clouds. Wanna read a lot of books and eat bad food? Go Bronze and count the hours. Got no money and nothing to lose (except your life)? Go Lead and pick up a scalpel. 

Included with this post a voucher for reclaiming 2 minutes of your life (5 if you`re a slow reader)

Day T-6 - Delhi
There seems to be a lot of shouting coming from outside my window. Either there is maintenance going on or the hospital has realised how grossly underutilised the roof space is and has created a new ward out there populated by the most vocal patients. The hands of the clock draw slowly around its face, 40 hours on the same piece of furniture, surely a new personal record. My new(er) wheelchair (freshly pilfered from the 3rd floor, kudos Attendant) stands forlorn and empty. All pleas for early release on the grounds of good behaviour have been flatly denied. It might be just me but the less you can do for yourself the less of a person you actually feel. I sit up, I lie down, 90 degrees of movement, 6 degrees of separation  from the person you were. All high melodrama really but also an injection of sensation into a vacuum of stimuli.
Anyway the doctors came and unwrapped my leg after 46 hours, a slow roast if ever there were one. For those of you more concerned with my physical health than the tiresome verbosity of my mental wellbeing they were pleased with what they saw (though,and to paraphrase, only a physician could love that leg). So...another milestone, back to a healthy quantity of holes in my body (9). I try not to look too far down the road of recovery because it seems awfully long and doesn't appear to be bending in a direction entirely favourable to my wilder ambitions. But somehow, in some part of my head, and I can't really explain this, i'm already standing at the end of that road, about to take a fearless and unhindered step. It' already happened because it will happen and each second that passes will be forgotten,will cease to be a meaningful unit of time or at best will be compressed and packaged up into a tidy memory of 'The time I fell off a train'. Time is relative, i'm sure someone smarter than me said that once.     

A meander of thoughts

T-8 - Delhi

I'm afraid the precise day of the trip on which we're on is impossible for me to pin down as time seems to pass in a different manner inside the walls of a hospital. I have therefore resorted to using possible days until discharge. Any stay beyond a few days in these places sees the familiar structure of your normal life break down or, more aptly, decay. The only constants would seem to be the times at which drugs are administered. Sleep is fitful and disjointed but is infinitely better than if I were on a ward with its perpetual twilight, its dimmed quiet. I like the isolation of this room, when the doors are closed it is my kingdom and I order it as I fancy. Of course there are limits to my power imposed by a pantheon of higher beings beyond the door. But they check my actions for my own good, benevolent gods if you will. I feel an odd contentedness this morning but I'm loathe to trust a feeling of positivity without knowing from whence it sprung. Has my favourite nurse flashed me her restorative smile? No sign of her. Have housekeeping replaced my aged wheelchair with a jetpack and turned the balcony into a launchpad? No, it's against hospital policy to open the balcony doors. Perhaps I've simply derived pleasure from the simple? From the completion of my morning tasks? Waking, taking my pills, wrapping a fresh dhoti around my waist. Nothing dramatic. Eating my breakfast, reading the paper, attending to my 'donor' (as opposed to doner) leg and its scorched skin (see below). Even something as insignificant as a bit of tidying, ordering the items on my bedside table gives a feeling of control in a wider situation in which I have little. Curious adaptation that, do we all grasp for a sliver of control even when we are largely powerless? Does it help us to reassure ourselves that we still exist, that we are still relevant? I tidy, therefore I am? It brings to mind my last extended sojourn in a medical facility. I recall reveling in the wonderful simplicity of my life for that period. All around was fervour and impotent anguish but I basked in the uncomplicated imperative of survival. It is different this time, 6 years ago the world beyond those disinfected walls seemingly offered little to me, I felt ensconced and protected from it's cruel vicissitudes. Nowadays these walls restrain me, hold me back from the world's wondrous possibilities. It's the same view out of the window as it was back then but now it's a different person looking.


Knock knock

Further to my previous post you may be wondering how all those people find sufficient activities to fill their time. Well wonder no longer, the list of tasks for maintaining just this patient is innumerable.I have cataloged a random day from around a week ago up until lunchtime. N.b. 'peek' denotes when a hospital worker opens the door to look inside but does not actually enter the room (the purpose is never known), the number in brackets is persons required for task.

00:01 - 05:45 Drip stand check every 45 minutes or so
05:45 - Blood test
06:00 - Tea
06:05 - Sheet change
06:10 - Drip stand check/robe change
06:28 - Housekeeping (2)
06:45 - Blood pressure check
06:49 - Tea collection
07:07 - Drip stand check
07:10 - Papers
07:30 - Drip stand check
07:50 - Drip stand check
08:05 - Peek
08:08 - Drip stand check (2)
08:14 - Breakfast
08:18 - Doctor's questions
08:25 - Peek
08:27 - Drip stand check (2), blood test, breakfast collection
08:46 - Doctor's check
08:55 - Medical supplies
09:03 - Leg dressing change (4)
09:50 - Cleanup
10:10 - Head dressing change
10:15 - Drip stand check
10:28 - Drip stand check redux
10:47 - Pain nurse
11:15 - Pills
11:35 - Blood transfusion
12:00 - Transfusion check
12:25 - Urine collection
12:35 - Blood pressure check

So you see a formidable army of staff must be needed to maintain such a schedule, pass the sleeping pills.

A hospital taxonomy

The Apollo Hospital in New Delhi employs a multitude of staff in various different roles. To aid in their visual differentiation they usually wear different coloured uniforms. I have described the types below according to my experience of them.


  • Blue Shirts - Generally unpossessed of English or alternatively forbidden from talking to patients. Quite lowly, frequent surly look may indicate dissatisfaction and possibly plans of uprising against superiors. Known wheelchair thieves, always be sat in yours or have hidden it in toilet when a Blue Shirt is around.
  • Red Shirts - Housekeeping. English also tends to be limited but is given freer rein than that of the Blue Shirts. If something must be picked up from the floor then these people must be called, no-one else is qualified. Sometimes employed as limb support during bandage changes with varying degrees of efficacy.
  • Yellow Shirts - Rarer than Red Shirts, possibly a sub species as have similar habits/habitats. Have not been observed in the wild often enough to form any firm conclusions, research ongoing.
  • Beige Shirts - Security. Main habitat is entrances/exits of hospital though a population also exists in the car park areas. Occasionally heavily armed but usually courteous, if you hold your hand to your head in a salute they will often mimic you.
  • Blue Tunics -  I believe these to be female Beige Shirts though  none carry visible weapons which suggests advanced martial arts skills or ability with spells/magic. Do not salute.
  • Green Aprons -  Catering. A very clear subdivision exists within the species, those who bring standard food and those who bring 'menu' food. Each will not clear the other's dirty dishes should they encounter them. Standard food consists of 3 meals a day although some days you may receive 2 breakfasts, 1 lunch and no dinner that is still 3 meals, consider hoarding. Tea is brought at 6AM whether you want it or not, whether you are conscious or not, probably whether you lived through the night or not (conjecture). 
  • Green Aprons (menu) - Bring food that is too spicy/flavoursome for ailing patients, strictly attendants (visitors) only. Should you tire of standard food the above rule can be circumvented by the following method. 1, Order desired menu food over the phone, no disguise of voice required. 2a, On food arrival if attendant is present no further subterfuge is required, wait for Green Apron to leave, consume. 2b, On food arrival if attendant is not present first explain their curious absence to Green Apron by pointing to the toilet* or indicating that they are smoking. Then with a wave of the hand (aim for nonchalance) direct the food to be placed somewhere in the room not close to you, this not your food and therefore you have no interest in it's whereabouts. Wait for Green Apron to leave, retrieve food, consume. *Green Apron may misconstrue and attempt to leave the food somewhere in the toilet, possibly in sink, try to prevent this. 3, On collection of dirty dishes make no attempt to disguise the fact that it was you that ate it. Do not attempt to explain continued curious absence of attendant, you will not be challenged. Wait for Green Apron to leave, delight in your cunning.
  • Pink Tunics -  Nurses. Always young, always female (though one is called 'Alan'), always from Kerala. The Doctors (see below) will refer to them as 'sister', they are not related. It is your choice whether you also choose to do this, having Afro-Caribbean ancestry may influence your decision. Main duty is replenishing the vast quantities of drugs and bandages you will require during your stay.Will offer bed baths, will not offer happy finish, don't inquire.
  • White Tunics - As above but <1 months training.
  • Doctors - No definable uniform though some wear shirt and tie combinations reminiscent of the magic eye pictures popular in the 1990s. You will likely have a doctor for each part of your body but the frequency of their visits will depend on your particular ailment, my belly button Doctor has been notable by his absence recently. Their main task is communicating via mobile phone (often delegated to Pink Tunics though) however they can combine this with other minor roles like surgery. Long hours have been known to make them lonely.

The Doors

A day - Delhi

I sit behind glass doors that won't be opened looking over a city that can't be explored. A famous philosopher once said that he'd rather be living in a cave looking at the Taj Mahal than living in the Taj looking at a cave, an interesting perspective. At least my confinement allows me to conjure fanciful notions of the world outside or, more accurately, my position within it. I am become detached from its ebb and flow, its bustle, its spin. My presence in that world is just that of an avatar, given life only by my imagination. All that I have ever done or ever might do seems superimposed when I look through the window at a planet that will not stop turning, where time will not stop ticking. Did I expect it to? Surely not! Such self-inflicted interludes have been my lot before. Perhaps never before though have I been so eager to to get on with the life that I have paused. But then of course I need only the briefest respite from daily reality to conceive the most fantastical ideas of how things shall be. Not a fault in itself, the lack of will to bring these things to pass (or even attempt to) a most desperate failing. A tearing, ripping, rending, soul-shredding bloodied mess of a failing. A silver bullet to the heart of undying expectation. I fear I am ever gasping for that extra gulp of air that no person gets. Always waiting to be waited for.

Red India

Day 0 - India

The Indians believe we we have reached the Age of Kali, the final dice throw when,

If the radiance of a thousand suns
were to burst at once into the sky
that would be like the splendor of the mighty one
I am become death
the destroyer of worlds.


Shame, I rather like India.

An apocryphal epoch in which to visit this this vast wedge of land with a history all of its own. It has endlessly fascinated me since I first visited, indeed it may well be the impetus for this particular journey. I have endeavored to understand the people, the culture, the esprit du corps. I have thus far failed but wholly enjoyed the toil. The dubious British gift of bureaucracy lingers and we had come together as a small band of travelers in the Kandy visa office to collectively curse, pray and wonder at the process by which we'd earn our entry sticker. After what seemed like, and was, hours we had the approval we needed, a paltry three months but surely sufficient baring any mishaps. An Aussie named Patrick joined us on the evening bus back to Colombo and regaled us with his adventures around South America, mental itineraries subtly shifted eastwards. We bade farewell to Sri Lanka, our first stop, after an uncomfortable night at the airport. It's a country I should like to see again in a decade or so and I will be interested to see if the people have hardened along with the concrete of the highways and flyovers.
Though there was never any notion of a schedule I hate to feel i'm falling behind with this writing. Minor details slip from memory and it seems like such a chore to start up again and so retrogressively recount. But then again there was intended to be a more abstract theme to this than previous scribblings (abstraction is always a crowd pleaser....). Perhaps better that the pure literal is lost and what remains is the amorphous taste of experience. We shall see perhaps.
From our landing point of Trivandrum (not its official name but that is beyond the scope of this article) we caught the train up through Kerala to Kochi (one of, I believe, four alternative spellings). It's a tropical, palm-fringed part of the country with extensive backwaters and an agreeable calm. The European influence is evident in the Fort area as successive waves of Portuguese, Dutch and English assumed control. It's also hard not to notice the hammer & sickle icon plastering walls and structures and though denoting (or promoting) a democratically elected and seemingly well run communist government it brought to mind the many swastikas I saw in Sri Lanka and reinforced the power of symbolism on us as humans.

As I write now, looking out over Delhi and its sunrise it is clear how any linearity of travel or writing has been abandoned. With a tube putting fluid into my left arm and another tube drawing it from my right leg things, one could safely say, have taken an unexpected turn. Such turnings make me feel like a naive, hubristic fool. Ever championing life's wonderful, unpredictable danger and arguing against those people who resist it. Did I feel such a pioneer laying on my back in the rail ballast, the train's emergency brakes screeching in my ear, my right leg ripped asunder? I couldn't tell you, the actual memory of the event sits in some inaccessible part of my brain or is lost forever perhaps precipitated by the twin gashes on the back of my head. Certain though is the fact that the first couple of days afterwards followed the familiar pattern of cheery, self-consciously stoic denial of consequence. OK so I fell from a train (rarer event in India than one might suppose) but it wasn't far from the ground and the thing was slowing for a station, what real harm? A lower right leg near stripped of skin and a butchered heel that wasn't just going to snap back together. Such hospitalisations have been far too common over the last ten years, to screw up one leg is unfortunate, to screw up two looks like carelessness. I detest the tag 'accident prone' yet I cannot help applying it to myself as my body collects ever more scars and impediments from misadventure. This can't continue, this fleshy form, which I treat with no particular daily reverence anyway, will not recover from every injurious dare I put it to. In short I shall end up a broken, bittered fool. My days may be much like this, resting in my wheeled seat while a nurse affectionately pats me on the head and brings me another tea.
I haven't walked in a week, I've rarely missed anything so much as I've missed my mobility. Having to call someone to complete the most basic tasks for you is a terrible vision of elderly decrepitude. Still, the wheelchair was heaven sent, the first few days limited to the 3' x 7' space occupied by the bed in my room sent me to the very edge of my sanity. It wasn't long before hot, wet tears of frustration doused my face in an uncontrollable flurry that, I think, was reality making its firm grip known. My throat lumps now to think of the emotional nadir. But a certain balance has been reached between actuality and aspiration and I feel better for it. Perhaps that is why I feel able to open up to my leather bound counsellor. I'm wary of epiphanies and resist the presumption I'll ever be anything but a wanton knave but....I feel improved. So I can't tell you much of India, I can tell you of drip stands and drug cocktails, of bed baths and bed pans? Not delectable reading I suspect and likely to smack of more self pity than any of us could stomach. So maybe I shall leave it here, still looking out of my Delhi hospital window as the sun chases the morning shadows and the chorus of hoots starts up again. Stay safe.

Never mine, never mind

Day 13 - Nuwara Eliya

It happened. Somewhere on the train between Peredeniya and Nanu Oya a romantic, idealistic, sure-to-be-disappointed dream of travel was made flesh. The butterflies in my stomach fluttered through valleys and hills blanketed with tea plantations. The land was verdant green and cool and there was an affinity with it I'd never before known. The trees turned straight and tall, their russet foliage contrasting with the lime of the shrubbery. The grass was no longer wide and indolent but prim and upright much as if the British had imported their own all those years ago. I talked about the country around with a Nederlander whose mediation related injuries suggested it was not always the calming experience it purported to be. Later, sitting in the door of the train I slipped into a whirlpool of feeling from which I would barely escape. All seemed possible even that which was not. Next to my beastly filth sat dark intrigue that intoxicated with tales of the world. I thanked chance and fortune as the realities of our nomadic existence began to dim. All these thoughts and fatal aspirations would whir ferociously around my head at the end of the world but for now the fairytale was still being written.
Gazing at the stars from our balcony the evening was a happy blur of Lion (beer) and laughter. The kaleidoscope of possibility had been turned and its pattern was most pleasing to the eye but so wretched to the heart. This was love spelled with a U, an S and a T but it drowned reason and choked reserve. And when the moment came I.....retreated. The fairytale could not be unwritten, my hands could not fashion what my wild imagination had conceived. I plunged from the precipice, rising fog obscuring the impact below. No half measures would tarnish the purity of my desire. Who chooses discomfort and deafening silence over warm embrace? That person, dear readers (optimistically pluralised) was me and I shall ever wonder at its logic. I suppose, in the final analysis, my questions were better left unanswered and my wants unfulfilled. It is a long life and it would be foolishly detrimental to allow myself to dwell in Nuwara Eliya, all things must pass you see.
I could only reflect back on the length of my grasp and the shortness of my reach as we departed the place. The thickened air cleared my head and somewhat restored my appetite. Most profound apologies for the alluding and fawning but this is the truest account I could give of an unexpected time. We were again 2 as the tea receded into the distance, the colours around seemed a little less vibrant, but only a little.

Trunk road (sorry)

Day 11 - Kandy

We bussed it back down to Kandy yesterday and for once arrived in a place at a reasonable hour to find accommodation. Leaning against a building next to Trinity College we decided to search again for the place where a bed for the night costs less than a bottle of Coke. Up into the hills again we went, a young Buddhist monk reoriented us and sent us back to the very building we had been leaning again. Finally we observed the small lettering of the 'Burmese Rest'. An exuberant puppy greeted us and managed to draw blood on my hand, he didn't look rabid so I should be alright.
We were welcomed at 'The Pub' with the familiarity of regulars which by flighty tourist standards I suppose we were. A beautifully cool pint of Lion on the roof terrace atop a nearby hotel ended the evening. Today (Friday) we struck out for the Elephant Orphanage. Intrepid ideas of connecting buses were forgotten with the chartering of a private taxi. We descended the hills at a decent lick, waylaid only by a political rally. There's a lot of money to be had in politics said our driver and I felt like a dreadful old colonial (natives? in government? good god!) for assuming that corruption was implied in his statement. The orphanage rescues abused or exploited elephants and....well...exploits them. At least they get something out of this deal and with a seemingly good standard of care I would guess that the former permits the latter. We arrived in time to see them bathing in the river after which they are driven up a street like some Sri Lankan Pamplona with the tat-wallahs hastily moving their goods. How can one ascertain the contentment of a Pachyderm? Certainly I would venture that their sad, wet eyes give no clue. They would seem to be afforded a reasonable degree of liberty with only a few chained for reasons unknown. I generally came out in favour of the place while still feeling that at times an animatronic herd would have sufficed given the contrivance of the photo opportunities. It's a manipulated encounter firmly on our terms rather than theirs but it does more good than it does harm. Getting people this close to these creatures (without a rifle in hand) can benefit both species.

Old bike

Day 9 - Polonaruwa/Sigiriya/Dambulla

Bemoaning the sedate pace of the train we switched to the bus for the journey to Polonaruwa. They are rattling old beasts but, judging by the crush of people aboard, the most popular way to travel. In this compressed way we passed the next few hours, the monotony only broken when my pack fell from the overhead rack onto a fellow passenger. He took this assault from above most amiably and offered me pineapple. I've found most Sri Lankans to be of this cheery disposition and how pleasant to be offered a warm smile for looking different rather than the traditional fear and suspicion.
Our landlady rather bucked the trend with her repeated attempts to extract money from us and indignation that we should choose to spend it elsewhere. She did tempt us into having our sweat-sodden clothes cleaned though the headband of my hat, stained betel juice red is surely beyond hope. I admire Sri Lankan's industry and constant efforts to earn a living wage. The sharp practice and deceit sometimes employed though leaves a more bitter taste. 'Caveat emptor' is a universal mantra but never more so here.
We stood atop the Lion's Rock looking out over all of Sigiriya and reflected on a worthwhile but draining 1202 steps in the April sun. A curious amount of blind people were being led up to the summit, quite what they got from the experience one cannot help but wonder. Certainly they would have missed out on the frescoes of the...pneumatic women on the climb. The Dambulla cave complex presented less of a climb but less of an experience with 5 shallow caves packed with a multitude of Buddhas, sitting, standing, reclining. Rinse (feet) and repeat.

Gran tourismo

Day 7 - Anuradhapura I hope

We tried our hand at hairdressing this morning, or barbary in Michael's case, my Nicky Clarke to his Sweeney Todd. Uncontent with a freshly shaved head he also removed a fair portion of his eyebrows. I am trying not to laugh too hard, I am failing. The staff at the Indian visa office didn't seem to notice the discrepancy between his picture and his actual appearance so no harm was done, except to his ability to look normal. The applications filed we were instructed to return to Kandy to collect in two weeks once the bureaucratic machine had spun its interminable wheels. That may not be time enugh given that the train on which we are travelling north has been broken for two hours...tbc
Engines came, engines went, the train spluttered forward, the train stopped. Heads were scratched. The mercantile vein ploughed its ceaseless circuit with all manner of foodstuffs from apples and nuts to, based on the seller's cry, 'showaddywaddy'. We reached Polgahawela with our connecting service long gone. I'm not sure if it was the welcoming committee of blacks crows squawking their sinister way, the Kafka-esque station building or our short foray into the town itself that made me most solemnly pray for another train that night. There wasn't an unthankful bone in my body that such a service existed and as the sun set over the passing rice paddies and we spied the occasional peacock in the fields I acknowledged that such disruptions must be the travellers lot. I passed the time by trading stories of our families with a food-wallah named Kumara.
The next day we obtained push bikes replete with baskets (but no streamers or spokey-dokeys alas) and pedalled off for the assorted ruins of once mighty Anuradhapura. Cool we weren't but the bikes were remarkably efficient at getting us around the disparate remains of temples, palaces and, of course, gatehouses. One of the two collossal stupas onsite was undergoing maintenance and with no internal staircase (what is inside these things? Answers on a postcard) a unfathomably scary means of ascent had been built up the outside of the curving dome. Much as I rail against overbearing health and safety back home a smidgen more in this particular would not be excessive. Considering they form part of the 'Cultural Triangle' in Sri Lanka the ruins themselves have a ramshackle organisation with minimal signage or direction unless you want to pay a tuk-tuk to take you around. Hopefully as tourism ever increases following the the end of the civil war more money can be found to invest in such places. We enjoyed the coldest beers of our trip thus far at a rest house, drunk beneath a canopy bespeckled with little geckos.

Kandy, man!

Day 5 – Kandy


Like it or loathe it, whatever your view of Kandy it can flip in a heartbeat. An 8 hour train from Galle (2 less than the journey that got us to Sri Lanka) does sensitise a person to the tribulations inevitable to unplanned travel but nonetheless our first evening in the spiritual capital was one of extraordinary frustration and rare anger. We searched first for the £3.50 a night guesthouse run by Burmese monks. Alas no trace could be found on its supposed road or in people’s local knowledge. We entered into the familiar tug of war with a tuk-tuk driver over where we wanted to go and where he wanted to take us. We checked into a mosquito-ridden guesthouse where the beer had run out by the ‘charming’ ethnic music being played in the garden most certainly had not. I don’t know if it was a man or a woman that ran the place but I do know he/she had a mightily impressive afro. Over a bottle of Coke we began talking to a well travelled Serb whose interest s clearly lay in the seedier side of South East Asian countries. After giving enthusiastically non-committal responses to his request to travel with us we retired to our malarial shoebox, sorry, room.
The morning brought a triumvirate of challenges, those being finding new lodgings, obtaining Indian visas and locating a bar to watch the cricket. Fruitless searches in the hills for a YMCA that existed only on a map left us desperate enough to ask a tuk-tuk driver for his recommendations. His drive back into the hills from which we had just descended was brought to a halt by already brittle tempers snapping in the back seat. His English deserted him just as ours reached full pitch. He stopped to pick up a friend ostensibly for advice, in reality probably for protection. The new guy secured us a ‘good deal’ (Sri Lankan for ‘bad deal’) in otherwise pleasant accommodation next to Kandy lake. The priciest place so far but it did boast paper in the toilet and a monkey in the garden. The staff at the Indian visa office had been given a day’s holiday due to the aforementioned country’s presence in the cricket world cup final but a sign on the closed door advised us of the preliminary paperwork we needed to complete. The forms being online there began a hunt for access. We completed the laborious details required for entry to India (Father’s favourite colour?) quickly and accurately with my addition of ‘Afghanistan’ as Mrs. Hartles’ second nationality being the only black mark.
Forms done, passport photos taken, the world cup final was about to start. The Sri Lankans made a good total (imagine this in Richie Benaud’s voice) but studied Indian hitting overcame them to the despair of our fellow patrons in ‘The Pub’. Our own beer total was no less impressive and we did nothing to dispel the English stereotype of inveterate drunkards, sorry England. Still, we were in better nick than most of the natives who ere clearly lacking our match practise.
Sunday brought sights. The Temple of the Tooth contains the aforementioned item retrieved from the Buddha’s funeral pyre and smuggled into Sri Lanka many moons ago. Or at least it is reputed to ‘cause ain’t nobody allowed to see it. An underwhelming experience shoulder to shoulder with visitors all to see a venerated box. Afterwards, I questioned the worth of visiting these famous places. What exactly am I getting from these experiences? An identical picture and a tick off a mental checklist, resolved to think harder about this in the future. A trek to the top of a hill overlooking Kandy provided a more rewarding experience despite the sun beating down on our already pinkened brows. We stood next to the giant Buddha and surveyed the teeming city as once Hilary surveyed the Himalaya (I may overstate slightly).
After tucking into our most authentic (menu in Sinhala or Tamil, your choice!) and extensive meal to date at the bottom of the hill we tukked it to the Peredeniya Gardens with little else to do. But what a highlight! Green and serene and a perfect tonic. Palm-lined avenues and orchid houses were a blessed break from the dusts and the car horns that we left at the gate. A massively broad tree shrieked with the sound of bird call. That is what we though until a jagged outline of leather cut through the sky above and the hanging brown leaves at the top began to writhe. Bats were suddenly all about, swooping this way and that in their hundreds. With the thre3at of rain in the air we returned to Kandy town heartened by nature’s uplifting touch.

Great Expectorations

Day 3 – Galle

Colombo’s inexpensive but inextensive (don’t check your dictionaries) charms receded into the distance as we pulled out of Fort Station. We traded urban bustle for serene blue sea and as our train hugged the south coast nothing lay beyond the horizon but water and ice. I sat in the door of the train to watch the altered world pass by. Shacks lined the track and dotted the beach, a meagre existence for sure but one soothed perhaps by the constant crash of waves. We passed a sign ‘navel gazing ahead’. Do they look beyond the horizon the people within? Or can any of us not? Aren’t we all born of a planet where a journey can only end in a practical or emotional sense rather than a geographical one? There is a need to push our imaginary boundaries even when the desert ahead seems endless. Perhaps it is courage to stay or perhaps it is courage to resist that urge to stray. I should think that our lives are long enough to do both.
Galle swelters on the Southern tip of the island and no sea breeze can challenge the sun’s overpowering glare. The headland is ringed by an old Dutch fort, we did the tourist thing and walked its walls. A few miles down the coast they drive poles into the sand beneath the surf for the purposes of fishing atop them. It’s an oft photographed act and in reality charging tourists for pictures has easily surpassed the income to be earned from the actual fishing itself. I couldn’t see the point in paying a man to climb a pole and pretend to fish so my shots have crashing waves, dusky sky and unadorned sticks. I did find myself in my first conversation with a member of the Sri Lankan armed forces who, it appears, employ half of the island’s population. (the other half being, of course, tuk-tuk drivers). Mrs. Wijeneke’s guesthouse was to be our abode, my head still bears the scars of her low doorways.

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Day 1 - Colombo

The city awoke early and so, after 10 hours in the air, did we. The steaming heat had already settled on Colombo and the first drop of perspiration trickled down my brow. The Sri Lankans have embraced the Ryanair concept of airport naming and 'Colombo' airport is a full two hours taxi ride from the city proper, still at £12 for the fare our complaints were few. Glossy billboards extolling our Western mores marked our path, the abnormally whitened faces in contrast to the populace about. But here we were, drunken concept made real and many miles of (malaria) pills 'n' thrills and bellyaches lay ahead. I confess the long demanded excitement was quickly subsumed by practicality and the as yet, planning being what it was, unfulfilled need for accommodation. If only there were a place where we could have-a-good-time, possibly with a Native American, a Policeman, a cowboy and that other one? There was and at £3.50 a night represented a very good deal.
Colombo has a smattering of sights but nothing, that I can observe, to hold a tourist (ick) indefinitely. It wouldn't be long before we were on our way but we were immersed, we were removed from familiar stricture and structure, rule and regulation, in short the world was ours. This was a big society alright, it's sights and ear-splitting sounds shake the senses forcibly. It's seeming chaos but enviable unfussiness a much needed antidote to the place from which we came. I shall like it here.