Monday, 8 December 2014

A Confession

‘I’m living in a tent mum. I’m sorry. I’m living in a frigging tent.’ I snapped in confession.  She carried on, stepping cautiously down The Band seemingly unhearing, head down as her mind tried to control her flatland Suffolk earth feet on uneven steep and Lake District rock. This complication of her daughter apparently homeless and - god forbid -‘a tent dweller’ was seemingly not, at that moment, welcome or important.

I love it when my mother is concentrating. “How was your day dear?” she’d ask. My sister and I used to take great delight as adolescents informing her we were pregnant or had been expelled as she was carefully measuring the ingredients for a recipe while wondering how she would pay the gas bill let alone afford Christmas presents. “Oh that’s nice dear” she’d reply as she reached for the sieve.
‘What are you doing in the sunroom, dinner’s ready soon?’ as she lovingly doused the potatoes with rosemary, olive oil and black cracked pepper while filling in a tax return form. “oh just dealing in drugs’ we’d retort and she’d smile and say distractedly “That sounds like fun. Can you lay the table? Dinner’s ready in 10 minutes”.

I’ve inherited my mum’s lack of listening and absorbing while multi tasking so I thought it had worked out well as we continued out through Stool End Farm.. that was until she stopped at the cattle grid and burst into tears.

Oh shit.

Let’s go up to Stickle Tarn I suggested. She nodded, bottom lip wobbling as I embraced her awkwardly and shed a few tears too. My problem had turned into a reassurance “I’m ok mum honestly, I’m fine. I like living in a tent, really I do.” By the time we’d climbed up the ghyll to Stickle Tarn and I looked on proudly at my mum as she rested wearily her 69 years of neverending care and responsibility for others on her walking pole and gazed down over the verdant Langdale Valley with a slight smile on her face: her hazel eyes bright under a furrowed brow, I felt she would understand.

Thank god.

To be honest I blame her: endless camping trips as a kid, that comforting sound of a tent zip still excites me even now living in a tent.

Her waking me, my sister and cousins up at 4am: we slumped like cast aside marionettes propped up against steel tent poles and camp beds under a stage of damp canvas, inert and lifeless, willing for some type of Child helpline to be invented as she forced cagoules over our heads and tucked our pyjama bottoms into wellington boots.

Bleary eyed and wondering why we couldn’t just have a mum who watched daytime television, took us to Sainsburys on a Saturday and did her nails and had facials on her holiday we followed her out into the trembling of dawn in quiet, sleep-numbed compliance.

Yet when there is only the gentle murmurings and creaking of nature you don’t wish to speak to question what you are doing, even as a child, you don’t dare interrupt and your ears strain to simply listen and understand. The refreshing smell of crushed forest pine needles with each step mingled with the pungent odour of dank, foot disturbed roots and leaves of forest floor, the choral song of blackbirds, the warbling of chaffinches and bullfinches, the rising call and swooping of swallows, the rhythmic tapping of woodpeckers replacing the fading screams of nightmares and owls; the wisps of mist that you wish to grab as candyfloss, uplit clouds you yearn to trampoline upon and wonder if you will ever afford to go up in an aeroplane to see them, just those sounds, calming smells and mystical sights as you feel the morning uncurl from its nighttime slumber.

We stopped and gazed in a cluster of trees, around a patch of impossibly green grass, at a vibrant ring of toadstools of all shapes and sizes; “fairy toadstools’ my mother whispered with finger to mouth as we, now wide-eyed, shook our cloaks of tiredness from our shoulders and marched on through the forest, taking care not to step on a twig should the bears, tigers or natives with bows and poisonous arrows find us, our eyes searching through the dawn for leprechauns peeping out from gnarly tree trunks, tree stumps became the hiding place of treasure chests and we knew the vampires would leave us alone in daylight. As for dinosaurs.. well they were simply the stuff of fairytales. Then we came to a clearing and there before us stretched an ocean of golden corn.

“I gazed - and gazed  - but little thought 
what wealth to me the show had brought:” 

A Pastoral delight, embracing everything childhood memories can offer. I recall it so vividly. I just need to close my eyes to return to that day - those golden, dreamlike and abundant neverending heydays of childhood.

 “For oft, when on my couch I lie 
 In vacant or in pensive mood, 
 They flash upon that inward eye..” 

The milkiness of the sky, that bright yellow globe peeping over the horizon setting the whole crop on fire and igniting every cliched turn of phrase; the morning dew converted into mist wafting up in curls of genie smoke, the glare mesmorising and poetry inducing.

..“Which is the bliss of solitude;..”

And then we saw him. wading through the corn. “It’s a man with a gun!’ as I hurriedly crouched down. An arm yanked me up, finger to lips again and a nod of the head forwards: we stood there - in our orange cagoules, our M&S pyjama hand me downs, our green wellingtons that made our socks undress themselves and curl into a ball under our toes - with wide eyes as we watched the man with the gun stop and turn it towards us. As my 6 years of age flashed before me my eyes finally adjusted to that bright mid summer sunrise and he became a magnificent stag with antlers ablaze and a chest of fur I wished to embrace and bury my life into. We gasped, he paused and gazed at us for eternity.

“And then my heart with pleasure fills..”

Is there a greater gift you can receive from your mother?

So as we walked silently back down to the valley floor and into the Old Dungeon Ghyll pub for a pint of ale I knew she understood.

She always does.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Laos: Leave no Trace

I don't do high fives simply because I don't understand them. I'll be sitting there with someone, we agree and then suddenly I see an open palm before me. I look blankly, they look confused at my reticence, 'high five' they prompt: my smile strains as my palm reluctantly reaches up and touches theirs and that's where it goes so terribly wrong. Sometimes people grasp my hand on contact sometimes they don't so then there's an awkward fumbling on my behalf as I keep their hand in mine waiting for them to guide me through the next steps. Do we twist or slide, do you then punch my knuckles. My hand seizes and their eyes are saying 'What are you doing?? Let go of my hand!' My eyes are saying 'Help me, I just don't get this'. I finally release my grasp when I feel the sweat from our palms mingling and mirrored we both lower our offending hand, surreptitiously wipe it on our trousers and try and forget it ever happened.

Through Laos I further resented every high fiver that ever lived. Hurtling down a dusty potholed hill with panniers flapping I see excited children jumping from stilted verandahs, clambering down trees, dropping their catapults and rushing to greet the falang with their palms outstretched. It's not just the navigation and coordination of such a challenge - ensuring you hit each child for fear of retribution from the dropped catapult or tears from the 3 year old whom you missed while trying to keep upright while braking with one hand over terrain that is akin to the north side of scafell pike - it's the trepidation of pain. I'm lucky I have good genes that have given me a high pain threshold, however it appears that all my nerve endings were allocated to the palm of my hand and hitting a child’s palm at 40km an hour hurts!

Yet it's not all high fives and as I continue with my journey through Laos the 'sabaidee' call from every single child lifts your heart. I'm chased up steep inclines by young boys with sticks masterfully spinning tyres, children from the fields greet me clutching minature scythes. 

 In hill top villages where I stop to regain my breath and quietly observe and absorb the village life children coyly appear from wooden huts with sides of woven bamboo to see me. I try not to intrude, to force upon them the high fives, the low fives, to give them pens and sweets. Maybe I'm wrong I don't know I just try and do what feels right . Should a camera even be pulled out and a shot taken..

Yet then there's the strange phenomenon where some villages greet me with a cry of 'goodbye'. Confused I return it with a Sabaidee.  While pedalling up my 2nd 25km uphill of the day I mull this over. Leave no trace becomes my mantra with each turn of the crank. Leave no trace. I like to see cycle touring - or whatever you wish to call it -as one of the less intrusive means of tourism yet us myriad cycle tourers have left our wake in Laos. Shouting goodbye in return to the hello to some villagers means that now in the hills of Laos people no longer say hello or simply Sabaidee. So be it our innocent high fives or our goodbyes – we have left a trace.

And then there is Vang Vieng...
As I make my way towards the bamboo bridge that defies the laws of engineering I stumble over a body. I peer at it in the dim light. Indistinguishable letters are scrawled in fluorescent pen across his naked beer-stretched torso: a waterproof pouch around his neck lolls to the side like a hangman's noose.. A moan. It's alive. "Erm, are you ok?" I ask. He opens his eyes and lifts his head slightly. "I don’t know where I’m staying" he says and promptly bursts into tears, letting his head drop back heavily on the road. A girl with braided hair sporting the 'tubing in Vang Vieng' vest top uniform and with ample bosom spilling out from the sides staggers by clutching the arm of another flourescent tattooed, bare-chested man with his hair in a high ponytail who holds under his arm the obligatory bucket of local spirit- Lao lao - and red bull. I stop them and ask if they can help. They peer down yet stagger back but eventually between the 3 of us we get him to his feet. I remove my arm from his clammy waist and with him wedged in the middle of the two, arms around shoulders I watch them vacillate for a while before they reach a more in tune drunken gait and wander off towards one of the bars to refuel

I return to the hut I'm staying in, a tranquil place on the other side of the river surrounded by magnificent Karst scenery. After months of seeing only a handful of travellers I am overwhelmed by this in your face alcohol and amphetimine fuelled debauchery. They clutch their Lonely Planets to their chests, open them up on arrival, go to the place the Lonely Planet recommends, obeying everything their bible tells them apart from the section on modesty and that the reserved Laos people have covered themselves up for centuries for religious reasons: walking down the street in a bikini or with naked torso is not considered respectful, neither is peeing or vomiting in the river, taking your clothes off and doing things that should be done in a bedroom.. nor is dying... Guardian - Vang Vieng the world's most unlikely party town . I begin to annoy myself with my self righteousness and recall the times I had woken up  wrapped round a table leg, after the free tequila shots that came with my spaghetti bolognaise, during my early backpacking years (and no doubt in recent years, months,.. erm..weeks too). I realise I am suffering culture shock after all these months on the road yet I never believed it would have come from meeting my fellow country men again!

The beauty of Laos is staggering yet I only became privy to it when I reached the lowlands. Higher up I saw nothing while cloaked in a cloud of dust from potholed roads and choked by the smoke of slash and burn farming. This was not the ideal time of year to see Laos in all its glory. I would arrive at my destination for the day covered in a yellow grime from the road and smears of black on my face and clothing from the fallout of the ash.  In one small village at 1400m where old men wore halfmast widelegged trousers and brimmed bamboo hats I went in search of a guesthouse. A man beckoned me, he had rooms. We have a view too he insisted as he took me to a ledge where there was a great expanse of.. nothing. I can imagine what lay behind that layer of smoke. I knew there was a valley below us of vibrant green paddy fields, dramatic limestone pinnacles and jagged hills carpeted in trees that had so far escaped the deforestation horror yet I could see absolutely nothing. I looked at him, he looked back at me and nodded towards the nonexistent view and we both gazed out over a blank canvas, a mutual the Emperor's got no clothes agreement of silence, compliance and acceptance.