How the Mountain Didn’t Move Me

I stumble forward on the black, frozen scree and squint at the rising sun. I’m on the edge of a mammoth crater and unsteadily following its jagged rim.

I’m exhausted. My two African guides gently coerce me forward while my brothers, who walk unassisted, coax me with the uninspiring ‘you’re a bad ass!’ I stop and the blood and snot is wiped from my tender, grubby nose while my own hands hang at my side listlessly, my fingers numb from the icy wind. A cup of tea is pushed towards my lips, but I turn my head away like a child. My teary eyes glance with emptiness at the blue chasms of glacier on my left as I’m pushed on. I’m wearing five pairs of pants, four tops, two jackets, two beanies and a headache the size of a mountain.

We reach a disorganised mass of people huddled around a wooden sign and stop. I sway as though drunk. We are motioned by one of our guides and I slump down next to my brothers and grimace at the camera before being shooed away by impossibly eager tourists. I’ve done it. I’ve climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. And I couldn’t care less.

I walk a few steps back, dry wretch three times and vomit a teaspoon’s worth of dark yellow bile while a porter pats me gently on my back and awkwardly, my front. I think maybe I should have had some tea.

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Since the first officially-recorded climb of Mount Kilimanjaro in 1889 by German geologist, Hans Meyer, hundreds of thousands of people have climbed this ‘roof’ of Africa. I am officially the 384,585th person to reach its top point, Uhuru Peak, presumably since the National Park mandated climber registration in 1991, but no one can – or will – confirm this detail. Bodil Ashton, from the Kilimanjaro Mountain Club, the organisation that used to manage the mountain, tells me that ever since the government took over in 1973, access to information has been difficult. Her tired frustration is evident; now the Club just collates archives. In any case, this number doesn’t include the army of locals supporting our bourgeois expeditions, nor the poor adventurers who don’t quite make it due to altitude sickness. Nor the people who climbed when ascents were simply announced in newspapers, nor all those who bribe their way up today. Numbers are vague, but around 35,000 tourists attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro every year and anywhere between 45-85% reach the final summit, depending on the route they take.

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30 September, 2016: Day 1

Moshi Town (915m) to Mkubwa Campsite (2,250m)

On the way to the registration gate, we stop and I buy myself a pair of $15, rose-tinted Roy Bins. As the jeep traverses the long highway, I chuckle to myself as I gaze out the window through these ironically-coloured glasses; the arid farmlands and shanty towns of rural Tanzania are so beautiful in this dusky tinge. This keeps my mind far from the looming mountain we are on our way to climb.

I’m on this tour with my two younger brothers, Evan and Liam, and a smiling Californian called Chris. We are sharing this part of the journey with a pair of Norwegians on their own tour, Alvhild and Ragnhild, who buy disposable razors last minute and are already ruing the lack of showers.

We begin the walk without fanfare. Ali, our guide, leads us, while Cypi, our assistant guide, keeps pace at the back. The porters run on ahead with our gear resting on their heads and necks. We walk slower than I’ve ever walked before. In Swahili, they call it pole pole.

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Four hours later, we reach our busy jungle campsite. Besides a range of other tour groups, we are surrounded by blue monkeys grasping for mouldy bread that’s dangled by teasing, cheeky porters.

We watch the porters organise our tents, which they construct haphazardly upon tree roots, amidst ant nests, without tension. Cypi starts brushing the dust off our feet and trousers. We are horrified at the subservience, but our attempts to stop him are met with annoyance; this is his job. Omari, our waiter, brings ‘water for wash’; each of us is given a small tub of hot water and Ali tells us we’ll enjoy this ritual every morning and night. He then points out our dining tent and says that we’ll have tea and popcorn every afternoon. We look at each other, embarrassed at this seeming colonial reality, and retreat to our tents to make our beds.

The porters are wearing a mishmash of donated outdoor wear with faded logos, strange western-branded t-shirts and well-loved soccer jerseys. One porter wears a Baker’s Delight hoody. I’m reminded of the story of a porter freezing to death earlier in the week; a hoody is no protection from the cold.

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There’s a lot of controversy over working conditions for porters in the mountain tourism industry. In Tanzania, the non-governmental organisation, Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project, established in 2003, works to address these concerns. They provide proper gear, free classes in English and First Aid, and attempt to ensure that their partner companies meet the guidelines regarding fair wages, load weights, tipping and daily provisions. Our self-named ‘charitable’ operator, Zara Tours, is not a current partner and established its own Mount Kilimanjaro Porters Society in 2006. Although they claim to offer similar support, this fact alone suggests discord in the industry. I can’t help but be cynical, especially when we never counted the recommended three porters per climber on our own tour. Did our porters carry more than the 20kg limit? Was our tipping money fairly distributed? Ali dismissed my concerns when I asked, but I could see that it wasn’t so simple. Ali was lucky to come from a wealthy family who paid for his tourism degree. Most guides, like Cypi, start as porters. The hierarchy is clear.

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1 October, 2016: Day 2

Mkubwa Camp (2,250m) to Shira Camp I (3,500m)

Today is a difficult day: 1000m of elevation and a steep, rocky incline. I’m told it’s the worst before the summit climb, but we’re feeling confident because it is a manageable struggle. But the dust is insidious. We inhale it as it’s kicked up by our slow-moving feet.

We share snacks as we walk. We give Ali and Cypi chocolate; they give us peanuts. Chris gives us all Twizzlers and we relish in the sweet, sour, chemical sensation.

We arrive at the campsite – now a low-alpine moorland zone – just as the wind picks up. The dust penetrates every surface. Our dining table has a thick film of ochre.

This campsite is patrolled by huge ravens with hooked beaks, which reminds me of Poe and makes me wonder if I’ll die on this mountain. But the curious population of doves, who potter around as though in Sydney suburbia, give me an odd sense of security.

The Norwegians are starting to relax. Covered in dust, Alvhild remarks, ‘I look like a Mexican!’, before grinning that she doesn’t think she’ll be shaving her legs this trip.

We learn of an American wedding party climbing the mountain. They have a Tanzanian pastor and lawyer, whom we pass three times on the trail earlier in the day. We wonder if they’ll make it. They’re planning to summit and conduct their record-breaking ceremony in daylight hours. I ask Ali why we can’t summit during the day. He laughs nervously and says, ‘I don’t want to see where I’m going.’ He pauses. ‘If I look up, I won’t want to continue.’ Ali has climbed the mountain over 250 times and is still intimidated by the peak. I blink away thoughts of anxiety.

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Big mountains make people want to do big things.

Statistics are constantly being updated for the oldest or fastest male and female climber, youngest boy and girl, climbers in wheelchairs, climbers without limbs, charity climbers.

Last year, Ecuadorian Karl Egloff reached the summit and back in a record 6 hours and 42 minutes. I barely made 1,200m in the same time.

In May of this year, Pizza Hut organised an unusual marketing stunt by having pizzas made in the capital, Dar Es Salaam, flown to Kilimanjaro airport and then walked to the summit in a battery-heated pack. The company’s General Manager and his employees enjoyed the pizzas at the top. I couldn’t eat anything for ten hours after descent, let alone a pizza on the peak.

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2 October 2016: Day 3

Shira Camp I (3,500m) to Shira Camp II (3,840m)

Our walk is short and easy, giving us plenty of time to talk.

Ali tells us of the rivalry between Tanzania and Burundi: a respectful, light-hearted one similar to that between Australia and New Zealand. He tells us that all Tanzanians can tell a Burundi by asking them to count. At number four, nne, Burundi people pronounce it enne. Cypi, who barely speaks English, recognises the story and starts to laugh. We tell them about the Kiwi pronunciation of the number six. I ask if one of our porters is Burundi, and Ali says, ‘No. Burundis are tall, tough and very black. With very white teeth.’ He smiles and laughs his husky, open-mouthed laugh and I wonder how much whiter teeth could possibly be.

Chris, who’s 22 and fresh out of college, is impressed with our worldly lives; Liam is currently studying in Denmark, Evan is up to his 70th-odd country and this is my second time in Tanzania. Chris was inspired to come because his grandfather was born here, back when it was Tanganyika. He throws around his ambitions to travel the world and climb the big seven, but in the next breath says that when he gets home, he will buy a truck and settle down. He doesn’t understand how we can travel so much and I tell him it’s all about the choices we make. He agrees but I can see that he doesn’t quite understand; he’s following his American Dream.

The rain starts. We play cards all afternoon in our dining tent, while our poorly constructed tents collect puddles of water. My sleeping bag is wet. I’m furious and think nothing of the mountain.

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Americans are the number one nationality to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, despite Africa being the continent by far least travelled by passport-holding Americans, and Americans in general being much less likely than Australians to travel overseas at all. Many who travel there have a box to tick, and when one is planning to do the seven summits, Kilimanjaro is the easiest one to start with (unless you live in Australia, where you can go for a scenic drive and short bush walk and tick Mount Kosciuszko, at a mere 2,228m, off your list). Australian climbers come in at fifth on the nationality list.

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3 October 2016: Day 4

Shira Camp II (3,840m) to Barranco Camp (3,900m)

We hike through sparse alpine desert to Lava Point, a mighty 4,630m above sea level – a record for all of us. Here we stop for lunch, but none of us can eat. We slump down in our chairs feeling feverish and doze off as the crowds move around outside our tent. Ali stands over us like a parent, putting food on our plates and commanding: ‘You must eat for energy.’ We take a few bites. Liam vomits.

Several hours of slow walking follow. Liam vomits five times. We descend to our bustling mountain-side campsite with miserable relief. There are no flat surfaces anymore; we have to climb a hill in exasperated breath just to go to the toilet.

We chat with the Norwegians. Alvhild has decided to return to Moshi. She has been hallucinating, shivering wildly in the corner of her tent. She doesn’t want to risk anything; she has children at home. They both do. My brothers and I are our mother’s only children, and suddenly I think of how she might have been feeling as we embarked on this risky adventure together. What if the plane had gone down? What if there was some freak snowstorm that wiped us all out? What if we all died from altitude sickness?

Liam isn’t sure if he wants to go on. Evan thinks he’s dying. We all have headaches. We collapse into our beds after our long day.

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Most of the estimated 7-10 tourists and porters who die each year on the mountain do so from altitude sickness. Most climbers will suffer from some symptom – vomiting and headaches – but taking a longer route, like our 8-day Lemosho trek, gives the body time to gradually acclimatise, which minimises any serious problems. No one knows why some people are more susceptible than others, but one scientific theory is it’s genetic.

There’s a lot of blame thrown around when people die on the mountain. While Alvhild was very adamant in her decision, her guide was unsupportive and reluctant to descend. If the rumours about the guides competing to reach the summit are true, then a less assertive person might not be able to stand up for themselves. Moreover, some people are so driven to reach the summit that they ignore their own body. On summit afternoon, we watched at least five stretchers rush past us in urgency, including one carrying the wedding pastor.

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4 October 2016: Day 5

Barranco Camp (3,900m) to Karanga Camp (4,200)

It rains all day and our five hours of walking are a sad mixture of glory and pain. The scenery, we know, is spectacular, but we can’t see it through the fog. We scramble up Barranco wall and slip on slippery edges. Liam vomits seven times. Water permeates all surfaces. By the time we reach the campsite, everyone except me is drenched. I am quietly content, but feel guilty that my gear is reliable.

After dinner, the rain finally stops and the clouds above us clear to reveal the magnificent beast. The clouds below dissolve into the city lights of Moshi. We feel on top of the world.

The campsite buzzes and it’s not because of the raven sentinels; several trails have converged at this point. There’s a mix of languages, many new faces and the hum of music from cheap radios.

Liam is feeling better and my headache has disappeared. Evan and Chris spend the evening experimenting with their camera settings; the mountain is their star.

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A group of academics at Bangor University in Wales recently concluded that while skydivers are ‘sensation seeking’, mountaineers are motivated by ‘emotion regulation and agency.’ This means that these sort of people tend to climb mountains because it’s the only activity where they can control their emotional and psychological response to their environment. They tend to feel almost no control in their day-to-day life and compensate with high-risk, endurance sports. While climbing Mount Kilimanjaro doesn’t require any technical skills, it’s certainly a physical, emotional and mental challenge. I wonder if that’s really who I am, and then I remember that besides this being my second mountain climb, I used to ride motorbikes really fast around race tracks for fun.

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14633643_10157543241665277_4376341503083225581_o5 October 2016: Day 6

Karanga Camp (4,200) to Barafu Camp (4,550m)

The sunshine is invigorating. We throw our damp gear across rocks and relax late into the morning.

Our short walk takes us to the eastern side of the mountain across a vast, rocky, grey alpine desert. This new perspective is daunting, but I feel so close now to its beauty. On the way we see Ragnhild, who has been powering along the trail with just her guide for company. She tells us that Alvhild has been sitting by the hotel pool.

A distant yammering inches closer and I realise they’re female porters. Ali tells me that women are becoming more involved in the mountain. I smile with admiration at their strength and stamina.

We reach base camp just after midday. It’s an exposed rocky crag with different levels and tents tucked in between rocks. Our site is the highest. Below are the toilets and other groups; above is only the mountain. Everyone is feeling good. We eat bowls of rice, drink ginger tea and sleep early. Ali says his usual lala salama, which is Swahili for ‘sleep peacefully’. Suddenly it has so much more meaning.

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George Mallory’s trite and somewhat flippant justification for climbing mountains is surprisingly accurate; there is no good reason to climb a mountain other than ‘because it’s there.’ And when I think back to the origins of my trip, all I can remember is my own flippant remark on hearing my brothers tell me their plan: ‘I’ll come!’ I never once reviewed this casual decision, not once in the ten months that followed. When Evan sent me invoices for various parts, I just paid them. I didn’t watch the videos he sent me about the trek and I barely even browsed the tour operator’s website. Although I am generally fit, a month before the trip I stopped exercising due to injury and only went on one long bushwalk three weeks before departure. It wasn’t until the summit trek that I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ By then it was a little late and in the tragedy of my life, hubris came into play: I did not come all the way to Tanzania to fail. What would people think?

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5-6 October, 2016: Day 7

Barafu Camp (4,550m) to Uhuru Peak (5895m)

We wake easily to our alarms. I’m grateful I’ve slept a few hours. I’m also anxious, but I put it out of my mind as I layer my clothes. We drink hot tea, eat sugary biscuits and start walking at 11:45pm. There’s excitement in the frosty air.

Pole pole.

One hour in and I have a dry throat and mouth. Then it’s all downhill.

No words can truly describe the agony of the next five hours, but I’m disoriented and yet at times deeply focused. I’m looking up in whimsy, dazzled by lights, wondering where the head-torches end and the stars begin. At some point, I decide that going down is worse than continuing up.

I’m reminded of my struggles exactly a year earlier when I climbed the diminutive Acatenango in Guatemala.

Ali and Cypi sing and make animal noises to keep me conscious. My brothers call out encouraging mantras. Cypi takes Chris up ahead. Ali fixes my clothes. He feeds me water. It freezes in our bottles.

As the sun starts to rise, we reach the first peak, Stella Point, where Chris and Cypi wait smiling. We run into a dazed Ragnhild. I sink, sip some tea, and over the next blurry hour, trudge between tears to the real summit, Uhuru Peak.

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 I am not the first to write about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and I certainly won’t be the last, but it’s one of those extraordinary experiences that simply grips you with its (diminishing) ice-capped claws.

Travel writer, Tim Moore, calls the climb ‘the most appalling voluntary activity one could undertake in peacetime, the worst thing anyone … could ever pay to do.’ An old 1940s brochure calls it an ‘assault.’ Hyperbolic? Maybe, but that’s how I felt and that’s how I still feel as the mountain disappears into my memory like its evasive peak into the clouds, hidden and preserved. And although I don’t feel any sense of achievement, I do feel transformed. I couldn’t have done it without Ali, and probably not without my brothers. I will never do it again.

Next year my brothers want to go off-country skiing in Gulmarg, India, where the gondola – one of the highest in the world – lifts you to a lofty 4000m. I’m not a skier, but I haven’t said no.

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All photos except the summit sign are my bro’s – Evan Ford.

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“The best way to help Burma is to empower the people of Burma, to help us have enough self-confidence to obtain what we want for ourselves.” – Aung San Suu Kyi

Gallery

This gallery contains 3 photos.

This entry will be a little different because I am still processing the two weeks I spent in beautiful Burma (Myanmar), so instead of the usual stories, I bring you a series of photos with captions. Almost every photo here … Continue reading

Big Brother is Watching You.

So if you ever want to know what it feels like to be an otherwise educated, illiterate migrant minority, go to China. 

Perhaps Guangzhou was not the best first stop in China, or perhaps it was. Either way, once you’ve been to China, I think it’s fair to say that there is nowhere else like it in the world. I have travelled a lot, and yet I felt like it was my first time travelling. Despite being with my two friends who lived in the city, who were generous enough to walk me around and orientate me, who gave me a bed to sleep in in a well stocked apartment with maps galore and a metro card, I was still utterly overwhelmed. To be fair, I hadn’t really done any proper travelling since first arriving in Belize several months earlier, so I was a little out of practice, but the China factor was a challenge. With twenty-two million people, the same as Mexico City, and the third biggest city in China, and a main industry of goods manufacturing, the city was dizzying, daunting and rather ugly, though it was awfully convenient from Hong Kong at only two hours away.

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Customs and immigration was fast and efficient, though Sarah warned me about not coughing or showing any signs of illness to avoid being pulled aside and checked over, or held for several hours for fear of bringing in whatever the latest terrifying affliction (avian flu, sars, etc). In fact the number of people wearing face masks was quite surprising. Chatting to an American student who had spent time wearing a mask himself, he maintained that it was the only thing to help his lungs recover after getting ill. Certainly the pollution levels are well beyond what most of us in the developed world are used to, so if it kept me healthy, I’d wear one.

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Sarah and Mercy lived in the same complex of apartment buildings in a really thriving shopping and eating district (though many places were, simply to accommodate the vast number of people), so we first stopped at one of their local restaurants, eating some easy, cheap veggies and rice. We went on our orientation walk, which basically consisted of them pointing out various restaurants, the new massage place that had recently opened and the train ticket man. We walked down the stinky canal, a stretch of water that had been neatly landscaped with colourful flowers, a brief haven from the congestion of the roads, and around the block, stopping at the Indian grocers, a small room at the back of one of the apartment buildings. Sarah informed me that this seemed to be a better place to buy fresh fruits and vegetables in a country where pesticides were heavily used, but not heavily regulated. Even so, we were all very careful to soak everything in vinegar and water, and sometimes visible debris would lift off the food and float. Lovely.

After a weekend of semi decadence in Hong Kong (and for me longer in Switzerland; I was getting dangerously close to belt buckle moving territory), we had a very simple dinner in Sarah’s apartment and I retired early, closing the curtains to the city skyline view from the twenty-fifth floor.

On my first sightseeing day, I set off fairly early as I knew I would have to book ahead for any upcoming train travel, especially my return to Hong Kong. I visited the train main with my piece of paper listing dates and train numbers and made my arrangements, and bought some bakery goods for breakfast, something I rarely ate in Australia, even though these same items were available on my doorstep. Then with my guide book and map in tow, I headed to the metro, determined to find the antique markets in the west of the city. The metro was efficient and fairly empty, even at ten o’clock; Sarah had told me the day before that the Chinese were not really morning people, but actually at no point on my metro journeys was I ever truly squashed against other commuters. In fact, the whole train experience was surprisingly easy and pleasant. Of course, everyone just stared at me.

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I had looked at the map a million times and worked out where I was going, but despite having two maps on me and referring to the tourist maps on the streets, I still ended up lost most of the day. Each map was slightly different, to the point where I could not actually work out where I was half the time. I walked the Shangxiajiu Pedestrian street (I think) and veered down interesting alleyways, oblivious to traffic and stopping abruptly to take photographs. There was no hiding in Guangzhou, and it didn’t take me long to just embrace my conspicuousnness and go about my touristy business. I took a turn somewhere and strolled down the apparently famous Enning Lu, which was once upon a time the central business district of old Canton and key area for Cantonese opera people, and also the location of Bruce Lee’s ancestral home (his father was an opera actor). 

I found myself down at Shamian Island, a piece of land (or “elliptic sandbar”) that was once a trade area, then a strategic fort during the Opium Wars before being conceded to the British and French. It was now this weird European style area with lavish buildings, a popular photo stop for locals. It was also where Western couples went to adopt Chinese babies, apparently.

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Starving, I stopped at a corner restaurant and used a dish picture to order, covering up the meat and pointing at the vegetables and adjacent rice picture, which was thankfully successful (and cheap), and I used their internet to reorientate myself in order to find these thus far elusive antique streets.

I walked the direction I thought I should go, but entered a park instead by accident, and mindlessly followed the clean paths around the body of water. I stopped at the park theatre to listen to the old opera singers entertaining the retired folk with their dramatic voices and gestures, and laughed at the old man trying to surreptitiously take my photo. It was a really beautiful area, and it soon became clear that this type of public space was a key feature of the city infrastructure. Every green and landscaped place I walked through or past had locals doing different exercises or playing games or simply just relaxing; it was all so fascinating and functional.

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I continued around the water and took an exit, leading to a residential pedestrian path that was evidently designed to join the park to a main road, and when I exited, I was more or less back at the metro station I had first embarked that morning. I had covered a lot of ground, and seen a lot of interesting things, but I never found the bloody antique streets. When I got home and looked them up online, I read that everything there was fake anyway, but I still felt a mild sense of utter failure (and the pictures would have been good).

When Sarah returned home from work, I debriefed, my response a mixture of marvelled, stunned and exhausted. I was suddenly impressed with her ability to overcome the craziness and embrace her situation, and despite the enormous language barrier, she found living there fairly easy. We both commented that the culture shock we felt moving to the States was unquestionably worse than anything felt moving to China, because in the States there was an expectation of familiarity that never eventuated, whereas in China, everything was different, but it all simply worked.

The next morning Sarah was off to Seoul for a school trip, leaving me with her apartment for the week. My brain and body was still in a bit of shock, and my head was cloudy, so I decided to stay close to the apartment. I went to the local supermarket, one of my favourite activities in a foreign place, and a site-seeing, cultural experience in itself. I was there for about an hour and a half, looking at all the different products for sale. Park and Shop had a big international section, but most of the items were Vietnamese or Thai, an indication of the main expat nationalities I presumed, though there were a few random European, Australian and American products. But the highlight was the fresh food section, where everything and anything could be found. In Dubai I always loved the spices section, where sacks and sacks of different ingredients were stacked next to each other and a man would weigh and price your choices. Here there was a lot of dried fish, mushrooms and other mystery food, and a lot of different pulses. The fresh fruit and vegetable selection was comprehensive, and I mulled over kiwis like a local, nodding in agreement when a little old lady grumbled over their unripe condition. I bought a lot of fresh food to cook my meals and some deli items for lunch, excited to have a real home for the week. But my day consisted of little else. I watched a couple of DVDs and cooked and ate a lot of food. That night I met Mercy at the salon downstairs, and we had our nails done, just because we could. It was all very Dubai-esque with the expats sitting in their lounges while silent Asian ladies did their jobs with expert efficiency.

The following day, my last in Guangzhou, I went to Yuexiu park, a city highlight and another escape from the loud, bustling city. The park was full of large groups of ladies doing Tai Chi, and locals just enjoying the serenity. It was hardly busy at all, and the park was genuinely peaceful.

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Again I followed the paths in different directions, bringing me to various features, such as the World of Idioms and Fables, full of fantastical statues whose meaning was completely lost on me.
I also stopped at one of the park’s key monuments, the Sun Yat-sen Monument, honouring one of the leaders of the Republic of China, the “Father of the Nation”, Dr Sun Yat-sen.

I visited the other key attraction, Five Rams Statue, which was linked to the city’s origins. It was your typical fairies riding rams giving rice to the people story.

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I went to the Museum of Guangzhou, housed in the Zhentai Tower, one of the four most important towers in China, according to the museum. I didn’t absorb much of the history, but enjoyed the artefacts and decorations.

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I decided to start walking towards the direction of home, along a busy, famous road, Zhongshan Road. I zigzaged through Martyrs’ Park, an extravagant memorial to the people who died during the Guangzhou Insurrection in the twenties. It was now considered a base for “national patriotism education”. I honestly could not keep up with the history of the place. After another hour or so of strolling, I jumped back on the metro bound for home.

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The next day I was off to Guilin, a town two hours north west of Guangzhou and famous for its location on the Li River. I took the fast train, reaching two hundred and fifty kilometres an hour, and arrived with enough time to walk the small town and enjoy its lake district, another well landscaped and scenic area.

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There were many different tourist spots, but most had entry fees and were designed for Chinese tourists, so I avoided the Donald and Daisy Duck statues and took my Elephant Hill photo from the road with the other cheapskates. I watched crazy locals do their daily excerise in the river, marvelled at the very convenient bike lane, and watched the fisherman.

As a more touristy town, there was a little more English spoken and written, so I was finally able to order my rice noodle soup and delicious mango smoothie without frantic pointing. The hostel was one of the best I have stayed in, with comfy beds and electric blankets, and quirky, enthusiastic staff (and real coffee).

On my one full day I went on a “luxury” tour on the Li River, the highlight of the area. The other option was a bamboo raft, which although perhaps more “authentic”, did not appeal to me in the misty, cold rain. I made friends with another traveller, a young Brit who was there to do random business to manufacture and sell unusually shaped clothes hangers (I was convinced at first that it was just a front for dodgier activities) and together we squinted with befuddlement at the guide’s energetic pointing out of different natural formations. We could not see the horses or the boy worshipping Buddha. We did see Batman (and the image that appeared on the twenty yuan note).

The cruise ended in Yangshuo, another touristy village, with narrow cobbled streets full of shops and vendors selling local goods and made in China handicrafts (it was such a ridiculously cool novelty to buy something cheesy in China that was actually made in China, though there was still a problem with determining which items were made in factories and which were made locally). We had mango smoothies and wandered around, signs of technology invasive amongst the tradition.

We bussed back to Guilin, a long, traffic and roadworks congested trip, and I packed to head back to Guangzhou, my train set for an early-ish departure. Guilin had been a really wonderful respite from the big smoke, and I returned feeling relaxed and happy. Sarah was also due to return from her trip so I made dinner for everyone and we caught up with another old friend. Unfortunately her situation was one of the unlucky ones, where the school had run out of money and was now struggling to pay its staff. It’s a sad but all too real reality of teaching in some countries, especially those where the wage is comparatively high and the jobs aplenty (it was the same in Dubai). She had no certainty if her job would even exist the next month, but she was being optimistic, and making the most of the professional development opportunities it provided. The night ended in smiles, and it was great to catch up with such good people.

China was surprisingly easy in the end. It was cheap for travelling and eating and genuinely interesting. As for China itself, it was a weird place to be, and there was a weird vibe. The internet was censored (within five minutes of logging into Facebook Messenger, they had flagged me and shut it down; they say there is one person per one hundred checking all communication and transmissions), and although many news sites were not censored, such as Huffington Post and the BBC, they were not easily accessed, whereas Chinese news sites loaded immediately. But actually, everyone had a rerouter or VPN to allow them to access the blocked sites, like Facebook, and this was generally tolerated.

Like many countries, their news was highly China-centric and had bylines like “China has achieved the pollution reduction targets for major pollutants outlined in its 12th Five-Year Plan, six months ahead of schedule…” (Shanghai News), immediately reminding me of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (and Stalinist Russia).

One night at Sarah’s, government officials turned up to check her passport and visa, which was something they apparently did every month. Since she was away, they took my details instead, one of the officers taking a photo of my passport with her phone. It was a strange thing to have what we in Australia may call a breach of privacy go completely unquestioned. But I was not going to say no.

There was also a lot of weird going on. One is example was that due to the laws restricting groups assembling in public, on Sunday you saw small groups, mostly migrant female muslim groups, congregating in public spaces (such as in parks or the middle of concrete walkways) with cardboard box walls giving their picnics privacy.

On the long distance train ride, there was a sense that the cleanliness and healthiness and generally good agricultural practices seen out the window were just a front, and that you could head a few miles out of view and the real China would be found. My new UK friend in Guilin had visited a few factories with his potential business associates, and had checked them thoroughly for human rights abuses, but he suspected that this was all just a front, and I expect there is a whole industry attached to these factory and other facades. Or perhaps our skepticism, borne from the media and our governments with their own agendas, made us too cynical to take it all at face value. The scary thing about China though was that while the truth was out there, none of us could ever hope to discover it.

It was most definitely a different world in China, one that functioned so efficiently and was obnoxiously clean and tidy despite the unusual manners and behaviours of the people (which is a euphemism, because in Australia we’d say they were dirty and rude), yet at the same time quite disgusting, and to counter the traffic congestion and noise and encourage exercise, there were many extremely well landscaped and beautifully constructed havens of tranquility, making you think you were in the middle of an ancient mythological forest. I always thought of Dubai as a world of contradictions, and in a way China was that too, but it had a magnetism that you barely even realised was drawing you in. I only spent a week there, saw barely a strand of hair from the beast of China, but I know for sure that China has definitely not seen the last of me.

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“You can leave Hong Kong, but it will never leave you” – Nury Vittachi

It was now time to visit one of the many homelands, Hong Kong. My family’s connection to this part of the world was long and complicated, and would make a fantastic book if I had been organised when I told my dad many years ago that I would write one. Thankfully my half sister wrote a well researched and interesting thesis on our family’s history that may develop into something more one day.

Briefly, my grandparents migrated with their son (leaving their daughter behind which is a whole other story) from the south of China in the 1930s to escape the Japanese, and made their way to South Africa. Setting up a typical Chinese groceries and everything shop in a culturally rich black neighbourhood in Joburg, this is where my dad, uncle and aunt were born and bred. After several years, they moved to Hong Kong, reconnecting with their Cantonese roots (and the estranged sister). My dad went to school there and in his spare time studied Wing Chun with Ipman, Bruce Lee’s trainer, a hobby I expect gave him a sense of identity and focus that may have been lacking in his turbulent youth. The family split again, with my dad and his siblings returning to South Africa before he finally and conclusively called it quits (he has never and will never return) and he found himself in Sydney, Australia, where he lives to this day. My uncle and his family soon followed to Australia and my grandmother joined them from Hong Kong, where she remained until her passing at the ripe old age of 106 (or thereabouts – birth certificates were not that prevalent in peasantry China). The rest of the family are scattered in South Africa, the States and Australia. My grandfather had died many years earlier and was buried in Honkers, and as a teenager I had visited both the city and his grave, but at the time I didn’t really feel the importance of the place, and in fact when I arrived this time, I didn’t feel any sense of connection, in fact there was more of a disconnection, having travelled my long haul flight with a seemingly endless middle of the night stopover in Dubai, but I did feel something, even if it was just an odd relief or familiarity at being back on this – the Australasian – side of the world.

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But I was also excited about seeing some old friends, Sarah and Mercy, with whom I had worked in Indianapolis. They had both moved to China after their contracts ended, and were going to meet me in Hong Kong for the weekend. They had booked an apartment through Airbnb, so I made contact with the host, who generously met me at the train station and walked me back to the apartment. He was a Kiwi who made a living through the exotic life of poker playing (and some other altruistic venture to balance the depravity, as he called it). The apartment was tiny and a little grimy, but was perfect for our weekend shenanigans. I arrived several hours earlier than the others, but they passed quickly while I zoned in and out of semi-consciousness (sleeping on the plane had been difficult, especially when sitting in the middle section a rather inconsiderate man took up three of the four seats, pushing his smelly feet into my side. This was particularly irritating because I had the whole row to myself before he saw the opportunity and grabbed it).

When my friends finally arrived, we wasted no time in heading out to the unbelievably busy Friday night streets to eat some amazing Nepalese food. We were staying in Soho, an area popular with all its resident expats, eating and drinking in the streets, but we kept our partying humble, lost in chatter and catching up. The last time we really holidayed together (not including a rather uneventful trip to Chicago), we were glammed up on an obnoxious cruise ship, where we soireed among the thousands of fat white Americans who were eating and drinking in excess “because I’m on vacation”, as though they weren’t living that type of gluttonous life every day. We spent the week making friends and enemies, but enjoying every minute, even if it was just for the cultural experience. Needless to say, it is not something any of us wish to repeat.

On the Saturday we ferried to Lantau Island where I chatted with an Irish expat who had lived in Honkers for five years. He was going to the island to sign a new lease, his wife and him deciding that they had had enough of apartment living and the craziness of the city. They had a bit of an eight year plan, enough for him to make the money they needed to retire. It made me think of maybe moving to Hong Kong to teach, and while the idea didn’t excite me, it was definitely a possibility. But at the back of my mind was the reason I left Dubai in the first place: to enjoy the [Western] expat life was to contribute to the inherent slavery that existed for the other, less desirable passport holding expats. Would Honkers be any morally better than Dubai?

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We caught the bus to Ngong Ping, a disneyland-like area with a monastery and shops and a big buddha. But the area was surrounded by a national park, and several prominent mountains, and we were surprised by the range of hiking and camping options (and the number of people doing these activities). We weren’t really dressed for any major hiking, so we ambled to the Path of Wisdom, where several wooden poles with philosophical inscriptions, the “heart sutra”, a non-nihilist wisdom about emptiness and existence, were erected. We walked to the top of the hill where a large rock protruded so that we could take photos of the Lantau mountain but found ourselves among a tour group, a loud hippy American leading them in meditation. We inched back in silence, wary of disturbing their temporary state of financially supported peace.

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We climbed the steps to see the biggest outdoor bronze Buddha in the world, Tian Tan, but without a real knowledge of the religion or the ability to read the language, it was really just a bit of a photo op.

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We took the cable car back to the city, paying extra for the glass floor (but really to avoid the hour and a half wait for the normal car), and while in the queue I noticed some young boys drawing in a notebook to pass the time instead of playing with technology so I tried to take a photo of them because I was so impressed.

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Unfortunately one of the boys did not appreciate this, and spent the rest of the waiting time crossing his arms and scowling at me in a fairly non-serious, but completely serious manner. It was hilarious, and cute.

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That night we went to a few different cool hipster bars and enjoyed some average middle eastern food (the best I’ve had this trip was still the place in Caye Caulker, Belize), and finally, a little drunkenly, we trudged up the hill home.

I had a list of things I wanted to do in Hong Kong, number one being to eat yum cha. But it was a struggle to make a decision on where to go, and when we opted for a real local choice instead of a famous touristy one, it was very quickly clear that we had made a mistake. Instead of trolleys, we ordered from a menu and this immediately removed a key part of the yum cha experience. We were barely there half an hour, and ate only a couple of dishes, leaving me disappointed and mourning the countless yum chas I had enjoyed with my various family groups, especially the two hour yum chas I used to have with my dad.

Both Sarah and Mercy had done all the main touristy things before, so we decided to go to the Heritage Museum and see the Bruce Lee exhibit, something my dad had recommended in an email.

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By all accounts, he is the one true darling of Hong Kong, but neither Sarah nor Mercy could understand the attention given to him. Being my father’s hero, I knew a lot more about his life and how important he was to a certain generation, perhaps for bridging a cultural gap between the east and west, perhaps just for the coolness factor, all of which made the whole exhibit quite fascinating. It was thorough and the fan memorabilia section a little staggering (and the donating fan himself a little obsessive). We watched the documentary they were showing in the theatre, and left a little dazed and confused; it was ninety minutes of interview excerpts, in no discernible thematic order, other than overwhelming hero worship. But many visitors left the theatre a little teary eyed.

We also did some interactive Chinese opera thing, this being the result:

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We followed the very pretty Shing Mun River back to the metro station and strolled through the fairly average night markets before taking the famous Star Ferry to the mainland. The riverside was busy, crowds standing in anticipation of the evening light show, but as we crossed the harbour, we watched buildings light up in colour and movement and were not particularly impressed. It was an early night for us as I had been struggling throughout the afternoon, part jetlag, part hangover, part travel fatigue.

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And then it was time to depart. I knew I would be back as my flight for Burma was from Hong Kong, but I was pretty sure I would not really see much more. I had wanted to visit my grandfather’s gravesite, but didn’t make the time to do so. I never knew him, but it was my tangible connection to the city, and the character tattooed on my wrist was etched on his grave. It made me think again about living in Hong Kong, but whether that would ever be a reality I was not yet sure.

We made our way to the Hung Hom train station and checked in for our train to Guangzhou. I was excited about heading to a brand new and thoroughly interesting country, and a little anxious about the crowds and language barrier. But I was travelling with two residents, and confident that I could conquer the bewildering force that was my family’s original homeland, China.

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“Friends are the family you choose”

Stumbling into the most expensive city in the world with all my newly purchased belongings and a bank account deficit to match made me a little concerned. Oslo, Norway was my first stop in Europe on this new itinerary, and suddenly a night’s accommodation in Mexico could hardly buy me a beer.

After months of being in the Americas and negotiating my way around ambiguities, the clarity and structure of the hostel’s extremely straightforward directions confused me. But what can I say, the Oslo Hostel Central had the cleanest, tidiest and neatest set up I had ever seen: starched white ironed linen, including a doona cover, a big towel and matching bath mat, all neatly folded and enclosed within sealed plastic. They did not mess around, and there was no mess to be had.

The dorm room was small but cosy, and there was a little sitting area with comfy lounge chairs which was perfect for my catching up on MotoGP races using the super speedy internet (though unbelievably there was a sign advising guests that an even faster speed was available at a cost). The bathroom was spacious and had one of the best showers I have ever experienced, the cherry on top being the warm, heated floors. Everything functioned. I was utterly impressed, and I knew I was not even remotely close to Kansas anymore.

Realising I was now closer to the arctic than I had ever been before, I huddled up in my woolies and wandered the rain speckled, cobbled streets, up and down shopping alleys and through palace grounds and waterfront architectural extravaganzas.

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I perused the Nobel Peace Museum, saw some famous art, and cringed at a menu’s listing of “whale”. I ate thirty dollar pad thai and revelled in the cheese provided by the hostel for breakfast.

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Two nights gone, I was on the train, airport bound, and found myself in Zurich, Switzerland by the afternoon. I needed to stay the night in order to go to the Chinese Consulate the next morning to apply for my visa for ongoing travels, so I booked myself a tiny, overpriced hotel room and ate more expensive food (at the apparently famous vegetarian buffet, Hitl, which, to be fair, actually seemed cheap in comparison to Oslo and was darn tasty) and enjoyed my large comfortable bed, the first in months it seemed. Travelling the world is exhausting.

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A long stroll along the water the next morning found me lost, searching for the Consulate, and it took my keen detective skills to follow the only Chinese person in sight through the park to its entrance. With all my documentation in tow, including various itineraries, flight bookings and my letter of invitation, the process was finally easy, and I could return at the end of the week to pick up my visa.

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I walked one of those bridges that will undoubtedly collapse under all that love, and then I was headed to Lucerne, a pretty little touristy town forty minutes by train.

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The last time I was in Lucerne was in 1998, when I went on one of those terrible coach tours for youngsters – a twenty countries in twenty days sort of thing – and my memory hazy not from age but from hangovers. I had bought a blue swiss army knife and after my request to have the inscription in Swiss, the man etched “Luzerne 1998”, and I remember thinking that he was either an idiot, or I was very confused about where I was. I lost that knife after I thought I had really lost it, when an airport x-ray machine discovered it in a secret compartment of my hand luggage, somewhere in the States in 2011. With a mixture of “a-ha!” and “oh no!”, I shrugged and handed it over to the security people. It had had a good innings, probably the only thing that had accompanied my passport and I on these travels of mine, but what else could I do. I bought a new one in Peru the following year, travelling on a new passport.

But I didn’t travel to Europe to explore viking town, get a visa for China or go down no memory lane, I came to see this:

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And her incredible mother, my dear friend Wendy, who, with her lovely family had recently relocated from Sydney, Australia to Lucerne, Switzerland. My first reaction to this news had been one of shock horror grief (I’d been overseas for six years and was finally coming home and now she moved overseas?) But it very quickly became an excellent excuse to go travelling again in the future, and it ended up being very convenient indeed for me to stop over on this trip and see her as she was settling in.

I followed Wendy’s email directions to her new building and followed the moving guys up to her floor and apartment; the Noller-Purtells (or Purtell-Nollers, or Notels) were moving into their more permanent home after being in a temporary place for the previous two months. It was a large open plan apartment on the fifth floor, overlooking the park littered neighbourhood, and on a clear day (which most days were), the mountains.

 

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And so over the next week I ended up playing a key role as an excellent conversationalist and somewhat lazy PA, maid and nanny rolled into one. In any case, Wendy and I explored her new hood, visited the supermarkets and tried the different wines and cheeses on offer (the CHF5.50 Chateau whatever something France was the winner), and went to IKEA. We unpacked the last of the boxes, arranged and then rearranged the apartment, I built a shelf and vacuumed the floor. I returned to Zurich to pick up my visa, and had the lightbulb moment of being able to live in this well organised country, promptly applying for a tentatively advertised job at an international school (however, as luck would have it, the current employee decided to stay and the advertisement was pulled).

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We ate hearty vegetarians meals and had short walks in the park, learning about the Swiss people and their weird fashion habits.

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Wendy was also forced to confront her lifelong fear of all things avian.
This is not a fear one can have when surrounded by dozens of graceful, violent swans (a rapid spread of their wings can break a man’s bones, so we were told). Their hissing is rather unpleasant too.

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Tim babysat for us one night while we went on an adventure to a place called Richterswil, where the annual Rabechilbi Turnip Festival was taking place. It was exactly as the internet described, a mixture of quirky, cheesy and downright odd. Made better by gluhwein, but tarnished by poor food options (seasoned with the Swiss’ favourite msg flavour enhancer).

We shared a perch with a boy who helped us identify the various characters in the street parade, and I stand by my original guess that this is supposed to be Hugh Jackman.

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Maybe it was the crowds, or the gluhwein, or the relative lack of excitement (it did seem not only very specifically local, but also more for the youngsters to enjoy), but we left early, beating the crowds and home in time to have a drink or two at the new abode.

On the weekend we did some family activities, like driving around the lake, dining out and playing in the park with all the other bundled up kiddies.

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Probably one of the highlights of my time there, not including all of Addy’s slobbery smiles and raspberries, was the free walking tour we did in Lucerne. Our enthusiastic, highly knowledgable and genuinely passionate guide was a young university student, who with a few mates had seen a hole in the tourist industry. Together they liaised with the free walking tour network (it exists), had their webpage set up, and after less than a year had made their way to the top of the tripadvisor activities list. Our guide walked us through the “old” town (so quotemarked because it is not actually any older than the more modern looking, uglier part), and over bridges and into churches. By this point, Addy was a snoozing babe.

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He led us up a hill where all the schools are built, and to a park that gave us an amazing view of the city, then back down, giving detailed commentary about the history of the not-so-neutral Switzerland (mercenaries, anyone?)

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So the story in an acorn nutshell goes that during the French Revolution, the Swiss Guard remained loyal to the end, depsite the King long ago fleeing the palace. They lost their lives in this fight, and a mournful, dying lion commemorative statue was erected in Lucerne to honour these fallen soldiers. But allegedly the Danish sculptor was frustrated with not being paid the amount he was promised, so he carved a pig outline. There’s a metaphor in here somewhere, or maybe just an analogy, or perhaps just a flimsy attempt at making loose connections in order to conclude a long post, but despite distance, both physical and time apart, nothing compares to hanging out with old, dear friends, and feasting like pigs on wine and cheese. Until next time!

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“The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”

But I am jumping ahead. Leaving Wildtracks was both exciting and sad, but in the end, my time had come and it was on to the next stage of my journey. But not before I was reminded one or two times of the kindness and general loveliness of the Belizean people. Dionicio, the driver and knower of all things (I often turned to him for his always accurate weather and mosquito pronouncements), drove me to the bus station at the bleary eyed time of a quarter to five in the morning. As we waited for the bus driver to arrive, he was affectionate and emotional, and his tight hugs and fatherly kisses, though perhaps bordering on creepy old man, were a reminder of the really basic generosity and warmth of humanity. Or maybe I was just in a vulnerable place and he could sense what I needed. Either way, it made me feel a little less sad about leaving what had been my home for the past seven-odd weeks (and the various people and animals I was leaving too).

I got on the dim bus a little weary, but utterly confident that I would get to my destination, Belize Airport. Any other town in the world, my situation may have been considered scary and dangerous; sitting in the dark on an old American yellow school bus that was parked in a rubbish strewn, deserted depot, with two young public transit workers milling around me. But in Sarteneja, there was a trust and familiarity that made me feel safe. And small towns are small towns after all, where very little often happens in the way of serious crime.

I had decided to take the early bus on recommendation from the volunteer coordinator, who had joked that at least if the bus broke down, I’d be able to take the next one. I had laughed it off at the time, but lo and behold, two and a half hours into the trip (and another hour and a half from the airport), the bus did in fact break down. The day was hot, the bus was full, and as soon as the tyres screeched on the road, leaving black marks on the ash grey tar, the passengers disembarked, dragging their bags and children off the bus. Some started the mile trek back to Orange Walk where they could take another bus, others walked quickly up the road, flagging passing cars, but most of us just stood on the side a little befuddled, waiting for the broken bus to move out of the way and allow any passing bus to stop. I wasn’t too worried because I had several hours until my flight was due to depart, but it was still a major pain in the arse. I noticed a man wearing an Avianca shirt, and using my amazing detective skills, concluded that he must work at the airport. He was travelling with a stunning, tall woman, perhaps a flight attendant, so I edged next to them and started a conversation about the next bus to the airport, throwing in a completely random question about whether they were headed there too (unsurprisingly, they were). We stood around on the side of the road for a minute or two, and then they went onto the road and tried to flag a passing car. As the car passed, its windows open, the man flung his hands up in frustration and screamed out “why?”, adding a few other polite curse words. I was surprised at his brazenness, assuming it was just a random passerby, but then the car stopped and the two of them moved towards the car. The man turned and asked me if I’d like to join, telling me I could just offer the driver a quick fiver. Naturally I took him up on the offer, and we got into the car, which happened to be a Department of Transport vehicle taking a customs officer to work. Being the small world that it is, it was soon evident that they all knew each other quite well. The two complained about the bus situation, the woman rued that the driver had not answered his cellphone, and they chatted convivially about stuff (“stuff” being the only vague subject I could conclude, seeing as the conversation was in Creole). Our driver was not the most patient person in the world, chattering angrily and throwing his hands up at slow drivers, the customs officer remained staunchly quiet, and after about ten minutes of general conversation, the other bus passengers fell asleep, while I stared out the window, grinning and musing over the joys of travel.

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They dropped me right outside my airline check-in area and I waited for the desk to open. The driver came in and was familiar with everyone, giving me a friendly wave as he walked past, again reminding me of the relaxed warmth of these people. Through immigration and waiting at the gate I ran into another Wildtracks volunteer and two Americans she had met at the taxi stand; we were all on the same flight to Houston. We chatted for a couple of hours and the two Americans ended up travelling through to my final destination, so we shared thoughts about life, the universe and everything until the taxi stand in New York City, several hours later, where we parted with plans to meet sometime in the week (which did not eventuate because, that’s life, and I was too lazy to contact them).

My hostel was in Queens, not your usual Borough of choice when travelling to NYC, but I had been to Manhattan a couple of times and didn’t want to be anywhere near the tourist districts. I had planned to see some art and stuff in this land of culture, but I was honestly so overwhelmed by the noise and people that I ended up doing very little. Life in Central America had been so much simpler and slower, calmer and carefree, that the only thing I could muster on my first day was a ferry ride, giving me wonderful views of the city.

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A sculpture of the famous “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” photograph was parked around the corner from my hostel, and that was always a nice touristy thing to see every day.

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But mostly, I ended up doing really exciting things like going to the hairdresser, where I tried red on for size (now a faded pink) and shopping, visiting my favourite shop, REI, and my second favourite shop, Target, the red spot boutique, where I could feel a little normal. A ridiculous thing, perhaps, to seek out a suburban department store in order to feel normal, but four months is a long time to be on the road, or away from home, so it was a home comfort (of socks and underwear) that I needed. Going grocery shopping and making my own meals was another thing that gave me a really boring sense of satisfaction. And catching the very easy and functional subway was an absolute delight.

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As was strolling the streets, because you really just never know what you will run into.

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I walked to Roosevelt Island and ran around the weird mix of nursing homes, state housing and really pretty parks.

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And I had a few nice IPAs at the hostel bar, retiring early every night.

And then New York was over and I was sitting in traffic on my way to the airport. I was finally getting ready to leave the United States, my home for two years, with mixed feelings and an uncertainty about whether I would ever return, and here I was chatting to the Ecuadorian driver about my travels in South America. The adventure never ends.

“The least I can do is speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves.”

It has been a while folks, and now that I am back in internet land and have a bit of time up my sleeve, I will be continuing the blog.

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Wildtracks was established by British couple and passionate conservationists, Paul and Zoe Walker, in 1991 and officially registered as a non-profit organisation in 1996. The organisation has a primary conservation objective, and while the day to day care of the animals in the rehabilitation centre is important, Wildtracks is more concerned, understandably, with sustainable strategies for the conservation of Belize’s biodiversity. Wildtracks works directly with the Forest Department in its attempt to end the illegal pet trade in Belize by running the monkey rehabilitation program for all monkeys seized by the government in Belize. They have released eleven monkeys this year (and thirty-nine since they started the monkey arm of the organisation in May 2011). About three quarters have been monkeys rescued from the illegal pet trade, and a quarter have been translocation monkeys, usually because their territory has been cleared for agriculture. The impressive thing of course is that the pet trade monkeys arrive in various circumstances and conditions, but most started their life experience with a poacher shooting the mother and ripping them as a baby from her back, yet Wildtracks has managed to develop a program that rears these monkeys to be monkeys, regardless of their backgrounds. They integrate them slowly with other monkeys to form troops, and have a very organised structure that gradually exposes them to life in the wild, finally releasing them to a protected reserve where they are tracked to ensure they are healthy, happy monkeys. There have already been several monkeys born in this reserve to former pets, certainly a strong indication of a successful rehabilitation and release program. But actually this program started officially with manatees, as there was no place in Belize for injured manatees to go, and so Wildtracks came to be the first manatee rehabilitation centre in the region, and is the most successful one in the world (equally so for howler monkeys).

In order to meet their objectives, the centre focuses on educating governmental and private agencies on conservation strategies and facilitating their enactment. Such as providing a more effective land clearing strategy that does not alienate troops of monkeys, but instead, gives them time to relocate themselves so that these monkeys don’t need to come here and be relocated. Of course, ideally they would not be clearing the land at all, and the government would have a more proactive approach to conserving its wildlife, but as it goes, money is more persuasive, and animals, as we well know, fall low on the priority scale in all countries.

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(Sir Currosaw, a sanctuary animal who can never be free)

Wildtracks is located in a small fishing village called Sarteneja in the north of Belize, on a property facing the lagoon. Seeing the view for the very first time is something I still remember, and I never stopped marvelling at the beauty in different light.

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Sean and I arrived in the middle of October, ready to get to work after spending so much time gallivanting. We were met at the dock by one of the local employees, Dionicio, who drove for the organisation. He took us down the gravel road towards Wildtracks, about two kilometres out of town. Immediately we were greeted by a monkey holding Paul, and as the afternoon wore on, we met the volunteers, a somewhat random collection of people from all over the world, who were there for one month to a year. After our initial orientation, we were quickly set to work, starting softly with the fruit chop for monkey feeding before quickly being allocated our roles after a short interview with Zoe.

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(The fruit chop)

Due to my previous experience working with howler monkeys in Bolivia, I was allocated four baby-ish howler monkeys who were in the process of building independence, and sharing the care of the youngest animal at Wildtracks, Cas, a baby spider monkey who was draining the time of Paul and Zoe since they were the primary carers when I arrived (although a rewarding job, it did not give them the time they needed to focus on the organisation and its conservation efforts).

My four howler monkeys had recently been moved permanently to their outside cage from the nursery. And this was my second home for the seven weeks.

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I fed and cleaned four times a day, and spent a couple of hours sitting in with them as a surrogate parent.

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Sometimes they clambered all over me, sometimes they slept, sometimes they frolicked amongst themselves.

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But my presence was supposed to be one of reassurance, and while watching monkey antics is an entertaining exercise, I spent a lot of time just sitting, staring into space. Previous experience with howlers taught me not to be too hands on; while the monkeys themselves wanted my attention, giving them too much was detrimental to their development as wild animals. It is a hard line to draw, and one that many volunteers struggle with.

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My seven weeks at Wildtracks included perfect weather, the mosquito apocalypse (full mosquito net cover did not stop the bastards), the tropical depression, which saw my monkeys huddled under the cage cover for three days, crying at me for salvation, and stinking hot heat, where monkeys just lay around all day (of course howlers are known to sleep for approximately thirty percent of the time, snooze for about forty percent and eat and move for the rest, so I couldn’t expect too much activity). It also included a lot of bats that needed to be removed from the cage.image

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Sean was allocated three cages to look after, a young pair called Darwin and Sansa, and two monkeys, Joe and Kenya, who were potentially being integrated with each other. But as happens in life, you can’t make two monkeys (or humans) like each other, and Kenya ended up being integrated with my group instead. When I left Wildtracks, the five of them had been together just two days, and I can only hope that there is ultimately a positive outcome. Unfortunately for Joe, and for other adult male howlers (such as the particularly dashing in that legs spread, farting type of way, Pachuco), there can be no release without being part of a troop or at least with a mate, so for the time being, they will be at the centre until suitable monkey friends can be found. This is a double edged sword; we do not wish for more adult monkeys to arrive at Wildtracks, however unless they do, these two monkeys may end up being sanctuary monkeys.

My second job was as a carer for the spider monkey Cas, which I shared with three to four people over the course of my time there. Like any baby, Cas needed full time care, but I could never forget that Cas was first and foremost a wild animal, which he reminded me of often.

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It was interesting to see how he responded to the different carers; Paul was his main “parent”, and he would go to him eagerly every time. Transitions between the rest of us were mixed, as were our night time experiences. Being the second longest carer at the time made Cas a little more clingy to me, and while I felt a warmth when his arms reached out to me or he gave me nightly face hugs, I was also happy to pass him to others, knowing that this was for the best. I think I did hold the record for the least amount of daytime poops and wees, but I certainly had my fair share of evening ones (waking up to the smell of poo and not knowing where it was coming from, then discovering it was stuck in my hair and then trying to clean it while half asleep, still holding the sleeping Cas was not as fun as it sounds).

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But Wildtracks was not just about the animals we were allocated with. It was also about the other animals at the centre, such as manatees. Although I had no experience with feeding the calves, I did have something to do with helping find glasses lost in their enclosure on my first day, bringing me in direct contact with them. I was also lucky enough to work with the adult manatee, Ben, who was rescued after being injured by several boats. Every day he was tube fed, which was quite an experience, and we also spent time with him individually in his pool, feeding him seagrass and giving him company.

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I would liked to have spent more time with the manatees, but I did have my hands full with the monkeys.

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At lunch every day, we’d be graced with the snorting presence of Piggy, Piggery or her official name, Lexxi (so named after a former volunteer). She was a peccary pig, born at Wildtracks as a twin, but left to die in the mud. She was rescued and looked after by two volunteers; she was born around the same time Cas arrived, so technically she was the youngest animal at Wildtracks. As a baby she resembled a little deer, and then she grew to be more peccary-like, grabbing people’s toes under the table and running around snorting. She was a delight to have around, and as most people know, pigs are extremely smart animals, so she was becoming quite clever. I just hope she will go on to be releasable, as unfortunately the other peccaries cannot because they have shown aggression towards humans.

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Then there was Otto. A rescued baby raccoon who really does need his own blog. He certainly had many an adventure in the time I was there, going from a caged animal to a “soft” release, where ideally he should have eventually tired of us humans and disappeared into the wilderness. Unfortunately he followed us around instead, so he was taken to two different natural reserves and both times, even during the tropical depression, he managed to make his way back to Wildtracks (the first time took a week, the next only a day). We called it the Otto Saga. When I left, he was back in his cage (now more raccoon safe) and was getting regular outings around the property, such as to the lagoon, crab hunting and other activities to encourage him to be more independent. Hopefully he will be a happy, self-sufficient raccoon one day.

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And then there were the volunteer shenanigans. But thre are no words to describe the camaraderie created in this environment, from Canadian Thanksgiving to Belize Independence Day. Hair braiding sessions and coconut cracking lessons. I won’t be attending a “safety meeting” anytime soon, nor will I experience another “Frog Walk”, but I certainly won’t forget any of it, or any of the people who gave life to this experience.

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Wildtracks gave me the opprtunity to do something I loved and I look forward to hearing more success stories about released animals. Maybe I will even return one day…

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