Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The perils of the Internet as a tool for existential optimisation: Part 1 - Conspiracy theories

I have always considered myself as being in the possession of an open mind. I have always thought of this as a good thing. But it strikes me that if you use the Internet instead of, say, the library, which must be its analogue equivalent, to start looking for 'answers', then there is no end to the queue of people lining up to push all sorts of things through an open mind.

As this is a travel blog, albeit currently of a non-geographical kind, just a quick note on actual geographical travelling as a tool for existential optimisation: it didn't work. I simply took my issues all the way around the world with me and sometimes they weighed heavier than my actual luggage. Travelling was fantastic for all kinds of things but 'finding myself', Losing Luggage, and anything of that kind, were not among them.

Another quick aside to explain my use of the term 'existential optimisation'. What I really mean is spiritual fulfilment or something, but even I can't help rolling my eyes at that, it's like an involuntary tick. Given that I don't think I'll actually know what I'm looking for until I find it, 'external optimisation' seems like the best fit name for this journey, which obviously has its own eye-rolling qualities, for which I can only apologise. Or I could just stick with Losing Luggage.

Anyway, the Internet is not like the library. While you might stumble across the 'Esoteric, Mystic and Occult' section on the way back from 'Philosophy' or 'Religion' in the library, you won't have a bunch of strangers in the aisles who probably have viruses chucking pamphlets at you about how we're made by aliens. At the library, the guy with the sandwich board telling us that The End Is Nigh is not, from what I've seen, allowed inside, but on the Internet they have their own websites to really get into the details. Whatever print publications from established publishing channels that might be accepted in a library might lack or fail to satisfy with fact, the Internet is more than happy to make up for with theory.

So it is a disadvantage for me that I've always been partial to a conspiracy theory. There was only one when I was a kid - the JFK assassination. The first time I was allowed to watch television past nine o'clock was to see a documentary about it. They'd show one on every possible anniversary. I would look out of the window on car journeys wondering if England had grassy knolls, or if they were just in America. The JFK assassination was followed by the conspiracy fact of Watergate, so the idea that governments and institutions might have a complex and perhaps creative relationship with what others would call the truth has always seemed quite obvious to me, as it must surely do for anyone who has ever been to the cinema. I don't, for example, believe there will be a public service broadcast asking us to calmly make our way to the eastern hemisphere of the planet, take our seats and fasten our seatbelts as we are about to experience some celestial turbulence if an asteroid really is hurtling in our general direction. Obviously, a lot has happened since JFK and the conspiracy section on the Internet has it all covered.

There seems no end to how deep that particular aisle in the Internet library goes. You would have to take me to the pub and get me a beer for me to get into any of that. If you don't already have an idea about what's down there, you probably don't want to know. To satisfy the curious-but-non-commital-minded, you could look to David Cronenberg's Videodrome, or the 1988 film They Live (whose star delivered the immortal lines "I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum and I’m all out of bubblegum" and "They Live is a documentary!!" RIP Roddy Piper) for an executive summary of the common themes.

Regardless of whether they're true or not, I find them more interesting than TV, but can't tolerate the following:
  • bad grammar and spelling, a generally poor writing style
  • extensive use of capital letters and exclamation marks
  • bad attitude and bossy tone e.g. 'Wake up, sheeple!'
  • use of the word 'sheeple'
  • use of the word the word 'repent' and derivations thereof
  • smugness about having taken out the correct religious cover against an impending apocalypse
because they seem to be used by mean-spirited nutjobs. Even then, there's only so many theories you can take before you have to get out in the fresh air. They all seem to trade in the same currency: belief, which is why I leave mine at the desk before I go in. But when I look around, everyone seems to be trading in belief: whether immigrants are taking over or play a vital role in culture and society, whether religion is better or science, Conservative or Labour, Pepsi or Coke. Beliefs appear to be a valuable commodity. To continue any further on this journey, I can see that I will have to be extremely careful with mine.

Friday, 17 July 2015

What's it all about?

When I was a kid, back when adults were strange and boring beings, always sitting about and talking instead of running around, playing and having fun, I asked my dad what philosophy was. "It's when you ask questions like 'Why are we here?'" he explained. That's a silly question, I thought. I got here without anyone asking or explaining why, so what could it matter? It was a silly and also annoying question. It made me not much look forward to being an adult if that was the kind of thing they talked about. I would probably have been mortified to know that some thirty years later (the other day), I would have this conversation with Dad:

"What's it all about, Dad? Why do you think we're here?"
"Does there have to be a reason?"
"I guess not." I pondered. "But wouldn't it be awful if there was and we never even asked?"
He laughed and buttered some toast.

So, I'm still stuck with this blasted question and only a rough sketch of an answer, which I didn't even come up with. It was a teacher, on a school report. "Tania has not reached her potential." Annoyingly, this continues to be a problem. I think I'm here to reach my potential and I still haven't. Even a glimpse of it would be nice.

I mentioned this to my best friend while we were sitting about in the pub and talking. Although she is far too nice and considerate to use these specific words, I believe I can paraphrase what she said to "You're thinking too much," and I don't disagree. She is fully occupied with a gorgeous child, a husband, a house, a good job that she enjoys and I completely understand it if she, and indeed anyone, thinks that looking for an invisible and perhaps fictional concept such as 'potential' is a pointless and wasteful luxury.

On the other hand, it has led me to some very interesting things. So for now, I will leave you with a fruit of my, er, 'labour' which, hopefully, can show that this journey is not as miserable and pointless as it may well sound.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The journey continues...

It has been just over four years since we returned from our travels. Perhaps the most common question I was asked was 'So, what's it like to get back to normality?' After deciding that they weren't deliberately trying to wind me up or bring me down, it was still a tricky one to answer. What did they mean by 'normality'? Having no job and no money? That the first violent experience I encountered in over two years of travelling happened on the tube when it pulled into my home station on the night of my arrival back to the UK? Finding that a KitKat now cost 60p? Was that 'normal'? And what did they think was going on in everywhere else in the world? Oddness? Obviously, it would have been somewhat abrasive to respond honestly to what was clearly assumed to be an innocuous question (and no one likes it when you answer a question with a question, let alone several). The closest I could get to both truth and courtesy was 'I feel like I haven't stopped travelling,' and even that would trigger a long pause and then an awkward change of subject. It would have been a lot more straightforward if they'd asked me what it was like to come home, because that was great.

I existed in a quiet and stable state of euphoria right up until I got promoted at work about a year later. My excitement at life and all its possibilities (for a person with a British passport) was slowly and eventually entirely consumed by concern for issues that I'd spend all day trying to sort out, all night worrying about and all weekend zonked in front of the telly trying not to think about. None of which was the problem. The problem was that it was not for what I could describe as a worthy cause. No, I'm not really sure what a worthy cause is either.. maybe meaningful or important or fun or interesting or to support a family or household of my own (which I still don't have)? Or maybe just knowing what you're doing it for? Because I don't think the job provides the meaning - that's up to the person and I can't find it. But if this was the normality they were banging on about, then it was shit. So, six months later, I quit.

I'm no stranger to existential crises, I have one at least every couple of years, but this one's a humdinger. So, I invite you to join me on another journey. And this time, it's spiritual! 

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Intinerary

So this is where went, pretty much in order - except for Thailand which was split into 2 sections, the second coming after Cambodia, when Nairi and Toby came out to see us. We started the trip on 2nd Feb 2009 and finished on 19 May 2011.

(2 months)
Nairobi (1 month volunteering)
Kibera slum
Mount Kenya
Lamu island (during Maulid festival)

Tanzania (2 days!)
Dar es Salaam

Malawi (2 months)
Mzuzu (1 month with Niall Dorey and family)
Nkhata Bay
Likoma island (3 weeks, learning to dive)

Mozambique (1 month)
Pena Longa
Bazaruto island

South Africa (1 month)
Blyde River Canyon
Cape Town
Fish Hoek
Mossel Bay

Thailand (2.5 months)
Bang Saphan
Koh Tao island
Chiang Khan
Pak Chom
Chiang Mai
Koh Kood island
Koh Jum island
Koh Phi Phi island
Koh Mak island

Laos (3 weeks)
Luang Namtha
Muang Sing
Luang Prabang
Nam Ou river
Muang Ngoi
Nang Kio
Vang Vieng
Si Phan Don - 4,000 islands

Cambodia (1 month)
Siem Reap
Angkor Wat
Phnom Penh (3 weeks volunteering)

Myanmar (1 day)
Ranong - Victoria Point visa run

Vietnam (3 weeks)
Ho Chi Minh
Hoi An
Halong Bay
Cat Ba island
Fan Si Pan mountain

Australia (1 month)
Gold Coast
Phillip island
Central Coast
Woy Woy

New Zealand (2 weeks)
Fox Glacier
Mount Cook
Lake Tekapo

USA (2 months)
San Francisco
Saratoga (6 weeks with Jan and Ania)
Santa Cruz
17 mile drive
Hearst Castle
San Luis Obispo

Mexico (8 months)
Mexico City (lived there 5 months)
Teotiuachan ruins
Mitla ruins
Monte Alban ruins
Yagul ruins
San Jose del Pacifico
San Cristobal de las Casas
Tonina ruins
Aguas Azules
Misol Ha
Palenque ruins
Tulum ruins

Guatemala (3 months)
Tikal ruins
Pacaya volcano
Lake Atitlan (2.5 months)
Guatemala City

Belize (0.5 days)
Belize City

El Salvador (1 day)
San Salvador

Costa Rica (1 day)
San Jose

Nicaragua (1 day)

Panama (4 days)
Panama City

Colombia (2 months)
Playa Blanca
Santa Marta
Palomino (Magdalena)
San Gil, Santander
Villa de Leyva, Boyaca

Ecuador (1 month)
Guandera Reserve

Peru (5 weeks)
Tucume ruins
Señor de Sipán museum
Aguas Calientes
Machu Picchu ruins
Ollantaytambo ruins
Lake Titicaca
Uros floating islands

Bolivia (3 weeks)
Isla del Sol
La Paz
Altiplano tour, salt flats etc
Santa Cruz
Samai Pata ruins

Monday, 18 July 2011


Bolivia was amazing, we ended up wishing we had left more time to do it justice - we missed out on jungle trips and the death road and what look like some of the best ruins anywhere at Tiowanaku. But our 3 week whirlwind tour was very satisfying, particularly due to some local contacts we had through Tania's family (again). And in Bolivia we saw some of the strangest, awe-inspiring landscapes, dissimilar to anything we had previously seen on the trip.

We travelled from very cold Puno, on the shores of sacred Lake Titicaca (at 3,811m), to slightly warmer Copacabana, which we liked, even though it is undeniably touristy. From there we got a boat to Isla del Sol where we spent a very pleasant 24 hours, having a nice meal with some new friends in the evening and doing the 3 hour hike from north to south the next day. The water was a stunning azure and the whole thing looked strangely like a Mediterranean island. We then hotfooted it to La Paz, where we paid attention to the spectacular nighttime entrance into the city through El Alto - the many lights start on the right hand side of the bus and it takes a while before you get the scale of the city. It's a bit like an upside down night sky opening up below you.

We had 3 nights in La Paz and didn't really do very much but see markets and eat - comfortably conquering the 40 chilli vindaloo at the notorious Star of India, which we enjoyed on 2 visits. Many online reviewers say it's not the real thing, but nothing outside of India is and considering you're in South America.. come on, it's not bad. We did walk down the valley from Plaza San Francisco towards the sports area, which is a pretty amazing sight - in fact, my favourite city view of the trip, well apart from Cape Town maybe. Reflective skyscrapers to the right of the foreground; the huge, multi-level open sports complex filling the bottom of the valley; the eroded, redddish lunar hills in the distance; hillside and top residencial areas to the right and left and this twisting walkway going out over it all, the road passing below. Kind of like Miraflores in Lima, but better. And we took a bus out to La Valle de la Luna, a park of walkways through eroded hills and valleys that is pretty out there.

Then we hit Cochabamba, where we met Fabian, Geoff's former student who was just a miracle to us. He helped us arrange our Uyuni tour, took us out for a real Pique Macho (a huge pile of meats, veggies, cheeses and sauces à la Desperate Dan) and Huari draft beer and taught us the local dice game, Cacho. Then it was time to do the tour which everyone recommends and you've all seen photos of, the Uyuni salt flats. The train down from Ururo was very pretty - we saw flamingoes within minutes of leaving. The salt flats were pretty different and quite wet at the time, the place really coming alive when the sun came out which was unfortunately towards the end... but the real wonder was the rest of the 4x4 trip, onto the Altiplano where altitudes approach 5,000m. Photos can do it little justice, descriptions even less - you simply have to be there to understand the scale and the stark beauty. The colours, the colours - I didn't know browns could be so beautiful - and the vivid reds, blues and greens in the many lakes we saw. Very, very different indeed.

We had a great group on this trip, one of the best minglings ever. We kept people up on 2 successive nights with our raucous behaviour. We were stupefied that we could find alcohol in the tiny towns where the refuges in which we slept were. A far cry from Mount Kenya, at the same altitude, where I lay quietly hyperventilating, fully wrapped and still freezing, waiting for the 2am summit push.

After returning to Uyuni, we caught a bus to Potosi with Lisette and Oscar, our new Dutch friends. We had a very nice day there just wandering about the town and managing to miss both main attractions, the silver mines and the best museum in Bolivia, the Casa de la Moneda. Then onto Sucre, the governmental capital where we were to hook up with Fabian again, drink some Anejo rum with his interesting architect friends and try the amazing chorizo sandwiches at the Siete Lunares restaurant in the central market. A 20 minute flight (infinitely preferable to the alternative 10 hour bus journey) took us to our final city of the whole trip, Santa Cruz, the financial capital which everyone had dissed but we actually liked. I guess it may have been dull for some in comparison to all the spectacular things you can do in Bolivia. We had tea with another contact of Geoff's, ate some river crocodile nuggets, met up with some more friends from the Uyuni trip and went for a more expensive hotel than usual, as it would be the last of the trip - $15 a night!! One last complete unpack/repack (gotta be careful) and it was time to book our taxi to the airport.

What would the borders be like, I thought. We were coming from Bolivia and going via Miami, so we were expecting hellish customs and immigration but as usual it was straight through. I was a bit shocked when on the first leg I didn't have my own personal TV screen and was rather squished, but hey ho, this was Bolivia, even if we had forked out for American Airlines. The second leg delivered though, particularly with the extremely nice attendant who kept giving us free drinks, pretending to swipe our proferred card. Some of the views over the Americas and the Caribbean were outstanding, with some amazing cloud formations and islands that I wished we had visited. Then I realised I was really quite excited about going back to London, where I was born, where I grew up, effectively my "home" - even though I had no actual home there, apart from the rather nice one so kindly offered by my surrogate (Tania's) parents. What would immmigration say? "Welcome back Mr Shepherd, it's been a while," perhaps? Nothing. We wondered whether Geoff and Rita would be at the airport, as we couldn't remember specifically arranging anything. Of course they were. Place looked quite nice, people cheery, weather warm. Chatted to a German tourist while enjoying the outdoor smoking area. Felt quite emotional to be back. Let's go and see some Senegalese music tonight near Liverpool street. Walk the dog on Ealing Common. See some good friends - did we have "an announcement" to make? Yeah - we're splitting up! ;-)

And then, it wasn't really over. Because after a week in London, we would be getting in a car to go to the south of France to visit my family. Which I have realised it is the most beautiful place on earth. Oh well - had to make sure, didn't I?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Peru on Alex

Peru has generally been invigorating, with incredible landscapes, facsinating culture, very spiritual places (yes, I was actually affected!) and nice people. Coming in from Ecuador in the north and coming down the coast was exhilarating, the first really different scenery we'd seen in a while - desolate desert and coastline. Tumbes, just across the border, had probably the heaviest mosquito arsenal we have ever come across. We got on a very fancy bus; we'd heard they were good in Peru, but this double decker was off the scale - really good food too (food?! on a bus???). We checked out the big market in Chiclayo, with all the shaman stuff - San Pedro cactus and Ayahuasca for trippy cleansing - and loads of remedies for every ailment, including the bedroom variety. Best market since Mexico, definitely. We did a tour to see the weathered Túcume ruins, collections of Moche pottery and the collection made from the tomb of the Señor de Sipán - one of the richest collections of finery we have ever seen. Then onto Trujillo, another big city in the middle of the desert - the centre looks a bit like Ealing or something, with pedestrianised shopping areas. I was amazed at the amount of agriculture around the towns and cities, huge expanses of green cultivation which (I think) must have taken a lot to achieve. Amd then a truly unbelievable top floor trip to Lima - the desert looked just how I imagine Arrakis (the Dune planet from the Frank Herbert books) to look, huge sand dunes everywhere and mountains in the distance. Tania's camera didn't stop clicking.

We were just four days in Lima; it was nice but we had to get on. Steve and Connie, whom we had met on the tour in Chiclayo and who actually live on a boat moored off the San Blas islands!!!, had recommended us Ica and particulary Huacachina, with it's sand dunes, buggies and boarding. But I must have been very relaxed on the bus, I put the computer bag on the upper rack for the first time... and it got pinched. We'd been warned about that too. First time anything bad had happened on the whole trip, really - in 2 and a quarter years. We miss you Mac, you were very good to us! So we had to hang in Ica for a bit to get the police report for the insurance and we both got sick with bad tummies (we haven't had much of that on the trip either).

After 3 days convalescence we made it to Huacachina, the oasis tourist town. What a crazy, surreal place that is. Tiny and a literal oasis, every hostel has a pool, the dunes are amazing (especially right on the top at sunset) and the weather perfect. The dune buggy ride was nuts - it was like being in Star Wars, on Luke's home planet Tatooine. One of the most amazing sights of the whole trip and I mean that. Managed to come a cropper in spectacular fasion on the board. I optimistically thought I would be a natural, with my extensive skiing and (admittedly) only one time snow bording experience. Oh well, everyone cheered and clapped. I only hurt for a few days.

So then it was just a night in Arequipa (lovely from what we saw, we went to the museum with the mummy, one of the best museums anywhere even if Juanita herself was away for investigation) and then onto Cusco, because time was starting to turn against us. Cusco is stunning, all cobbled streets and little alleys and hills - a walker's paradise. We had one night on the English beer they serve there (Old Speckled Hen!) and did a tour of the nearby ruins - all great. Then onto Machu Picchu, by train - we decided not to do the trail a while ago: too expensive and we're hoping to find some less trodden Inka trails later on. The plan was to stay a night in the mountain/jungle tourist town near to the site, Aguas Calientes (there are baths there) and get up really early to climb Huayna Picchu, the mountain that looks down on Machu Picchu. Mission! Up at 2.30am, in the queue for the bus at 3.15am, bus left at 5.30am, queue to get on the list for the climb (they only let 400 people a day do it), then wait till 7.45am to actually start.... It was spitting and everywhere was cloud - probably a good thing, 'cos that mountain is vertiginous to say the least. In fact everything Inka is vertiginous, I think. It was hard, but we got to the top and and promptly managed to lose each other. The clouds parted and we saw Machu Picchu, to claps and cheers. Some hours later, when he sun had come out, we reconvened. I was shattered and slightly traumatised after a scary trip down, my legs were shaking badly - Tania semed fine. And then we did a tour of Machu Picchu, finally leaving the place late afternoon. I didn't want to leave though - the city is impressive because of the quantity of original material (hardly any recon), the scale of it and the setting (a bloody steep mountain side), but the surrounding mountains are just breathtaking and there is definitely something spiritual going on.

We stayed at Ollantaytambo on the way back, in the Sacred valley - one of my favourite places anywhere. I actually did feel very spiritually uplifted there. There are crazy ruins on really steep mountainsides again and the face of an Apu (mountain spirit) looking over the village. Did some great walks, met a local archaeologist who showed us an amazing collection of Inka relics including a complete mummy(!!!) and skulls with full heads of hair; and drank a small quantity of pisco sours, and Chicha in a real Chicheria (an old lady's house, with guinea pigs running around on the floor, and mainly women drinking). The Chicha (fermented corn beer) knocked me for six :) I was sad to leave that place.

Amd now we are on the banks of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,810m, about to go into Bolivia, the final country. 24 countries, 2 years 3 months, 5 pairs of shoes, 40 beach locations, god knows how many bottles of insect repellent and sunscreen - and just 2 weeks left. What you sayin', Bolivia?

Friday, 29 April 2011

Books and Music

More books I've been reading

A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving
The Bridge by Iain Banks
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord by Louis de Bernières
The World According to Garp by John Irving

It's a good list I think - I really enjoyed all of these books. First time for me with both Conrad and Steinbeck: very good indeed, particularly The Secret Sharer and Tortilla Flat. I seem to have become a real fan of John Irving - I've read and loved four of his books on the trip; he's an amazing story-teller with a devious mind and an intimate touch. Thanks to Erik Gorter, whom we met in Kenya some 26 months ago at the beginning of this trip, for turning me onto him.

Music I've been listening to

Mainly house mixes, seem to have temporarily taken a break from my world music selection. Did hear a squarepusher band album that was quite interesting.

Derrick Carter Live @ Footwork, Toronto 02/04/2011
My Number 1 DJ really is a wiz, and particularly slick at eq'ing, filters and fx. He really works the mixer on this one with some great new disco house tunes and the odd acapella.

Derrick Carter Live @ King King, Hollywood 22/01/2011
Great section where he uses MLK "I have a dream" speech and Malcolm X (I think) too over a cpla tunes, including Armando's Land of Confusion, effecting to great ... effect - and then seques into a track called "house negro". He's really thinking about what he's doing! Also a wicked old disco section, including Teddy Pendergrass's "you can't hide".

Best mix I've heard by FK for a long while, didn't like his techno sets much. He's moved to digital right? (although he plays at least one record in this set, you can tell) - I'm not sure whether it's his style or the technology, but I find his mixes sound digital, a little forced, not natural, and his eq'ing a bit ... jerky, at times. However, this is a great selection and he does some great things with a sample and fx at one point.

Carl Craig, Francesco Tristano & Moritz Von Oswald Live @ Infiné Week, Gaîté Lyrique 14/04/2011
Only just downloaded this, but what I have heard sounds AMAZING, the real deal, live techno, you don't hear this kind of thing too much. Respect to the masters.

The Philosophy of Sound and Machine
My Australian techno fiend, Andy Craswell, whom we met in Laos a year and a half ago, reminded me of this great compilation on one of his facebook updates. I then managed to get very slightly involved in a conversation about bootlegging with Kirk Degiorgio, one of the guys responsible for putting it out, with Mike Dred, Richard D James and B12 copied in. My friend Andy has my heroes as friends.

Legowelt - Juno Plus Podcast 02/03/2011
Great selection of old, unknown and new house music and oddities (Lebanese dabke from 1982 anyone?) from Legowelt here - particularly like the mixes in and out of chic "le freak".

Mark Farina - Hot Dogs
My second favourite house dj is a bit patchy IMHO when it comes to recorded mixes - some are incredible and some are in places a bit... 'softcock' as we say in the trade, 'scuse my french. But this is absolute gold, a real spirit of deep house thing, from 2004.

Dr Colonic - The Don
One of mine that I made for my friend Chris Don, who I seem to have managed to fall out of touch with. If you're out there Chris, would be great to hear from you, hope you and your family are well. This is the tracklist, classics pretty much all the way...

gina x - no gdm
joyce sims - all in all (remix)
Suzy Q - Get On Up And Do It Again
talking heads - once in a lifetime (carl craig edit)
Marcel King – Reach For Love
jamie principle / frankie knuckles - your love
Afrika Bambaataa / Soulsonic Force – Renegades Of Funk
Deodato - Keep it in the family
eurythmics - love is a stranger
telex - moskow diskow
gorillaz - dare
luke eargoggle - ocarina of time
***men - we love
Syclops - Mom The Video Broke
Unkle Feat Ian Brown - Reign (remix)
afx - analord (not sure which one)
some ambient tune
talk talk - it's my life
kraftwerk - tour de france
landscape - einstein a go go
some jazz tune!