Expecting the unexpected in Papua New Guinea: Part 2

…continued from part one.

I’d been warned about safety in Port Moresby so I was walking through a chaotic bus station with my hands in my pockets wishing that I didn’t have an iPhone, cash, cards and a digital camera on me. Dumb tourist, but I was with two local friends so wasn’t too worried. As we were getting on a bus I felt hands trying to get into my pockets but a big North London “Oiiiii!” from me had the thief scurrying off. This was thankfully the closest I came to being a victim of any crime in PNG and I have to admit it was actually quite exciting and I felt smug that I was ready for it. I wouldn’t have been so smug if they had been armed which is common in the capital.

We were heading across Port Moresby via a series of local minibuses to go and visit Uncle Boga, the brother of Reverend Jacob who I stayed with in Mt Hagen. He lived in a very quiet fishing village away from the mayhem of the city. It was a completely different world. A peaceful simple life fishing in the warm Pacific. Many years ago, Uncle Boga had begun medicine training but his father needed someone to stay and continue the family fishing tradition. Out of about 5 brothers, he was the only one who was willing to sacrifice a modern career for the traditional life, but he was happy fishing and said he enjoyed being out of the dirty city.

Back in town, we visited PNG’s interesting parliament building built after independence in 1975. PNG is a very young democracy with its 9th parliament just sworn in. The parliament building had an inscription about power to people, but the country is incredibly corrupt. It’s well known that when ordinary village people are elected into government they instantly become incredibly rich from all of the back room dealing. Without sufficient rule of law there doesn’t appear to be consequences for corruption even when it’s fully exposed. I read in the local newspaper that a former senior policeman was trying to set up an anti-corruption task force but the prime minister refused to back it. It made me realise that although we might not like the government in our own countries, it’s a hell of a lot better than in places like PNG.

Ollie and I went to Port Moresby’s cinema at the new Vision City mall and watched the film Ted. It was exactly like every other modern air conditioned cinema throughout the world. I felt like I could have been in the Odeon on Brighton seafront until we got back outside into the humid nighttime heat and danger of Port Moresby, with red betelnut spittle on the floor and making sure we got into the right kind of taxi. It reminded me instantly how far I was from home.

Staying with my friends in Port Moresby was so humbling and I continued to be blown away by the hospitality and kindness that they showed me.

Next I flew to Madang met and met Reverend Zachariah at the airport, a friend of Rev. Jacobs from their days at theological college. Reverend Zachariah was a young and slightly built man with big cheeky, charismatic smile. In spite of the very loose connection, he hugged me like a brother at the airport and a member of his congregation took me to his house on the campus of the Divine Word University where he served as the chaplain.

Also staying at his house were Kudeb and Vela (who was amused when I told him that his name meant ‘candle’ in Spanish.) They were trainee teachers doing their practical assignment – a week of observing primary school classes then teaching for the first time. Kudeb was possibly the most earnest person I have ever met. He moved all of his things out of his room so that I could have it and then shared another room with Vela. Being British it feels uncomfortable to have other people making such sacrifices for you and once again I felt humbled by the PNG people. At meal times Kudeb always turned to me incredibly seriously and asked ‘Are you satisfied?’ at least twice which always made me chuckle. Such a great guy.

On my first night in Madang, Zachariah invited me to fellowship with some students, which is a bit like a mid-week religious meet-up. On the way I had the religion conversation again. I repeated my belief is that it’s values and actions that bind us rather than faith and said I thought that people with and without faith are capable of doing both good and bad things. He thought about this for a while and seemed to like it, later repeating it to the fellowship students. As in Mt Hagen, there was no attempt to preach to me or convert, and whilst I know I will never share their faith, I had grown a huge respect for the values that Christianity gave them.

Fellowship was a small bunch of people, about 10 students including a young man wearing a ‘jesus loves you’ shirt in a completely non-ironic way. In that place it was just fine. Jesus-shirt was a really good guitarist and kept going even when a string broke. There were teachings about life and the bible. As a non-religious person I felt how secular society misses out on thinking about things beyond our own existence and reflecting in this way, but I find it impossible to accept a philosophy based on just one book, written so long ago, as having all the answers we need. I think human understanding is built upon and extended over many generations, yet there is still something that atheists can learn from those with faith.

I asked Zachariah how he’d met wife. With a trademark cheeky grin he said the usual way is to write a love letter, but he was a modern reverend and so had done it by text message. He said he really admired her commitment to her faith and church work and asked if she was interested in a deeper relationship. Apparently she’d never thought that a reverend would be interested in her and was very flattered. He gave her a few days to think about it, then they got it together and were enjoying the first couple of months of marriage… with a random English guy and two young trainee teachers also in the house!

The next morning, Zachariah and I took long walk down the seafront into centre of Madang. It was so different from Port Moresby. It was safe and relaxed with well maintained grass verges, a golf course and one fancy tourist resort where I booked myself in for two days diving. Zachariah told me that although Madang was considered one of the safest cities in PNG, it was becoming more dangerous with people from outside the city moving there. He no longer felt safe walking along around the city at night.

I met a young guy of about 15 who wanted to tell me about his idea for a new invention which was essentially a perpetual motion machine – an engineering impossibility unfortunately. I encouraged him to keep to keep working on ideas. This wasn’t his only plan. He also wanted to export spicy ginger to Europe. I gave him some ideas about finding agents or distributers or even trying to arrange a trade mission. This was a real entrepreneur in the making and I think he’ll go on to great things, however with very little Internet access it would be so hard to actually make things happen.

After five days in Madang I flew to Manus, a tiny island province to the West of New Ireland. This was where the trail of hospitality I’d enjoyed for my first two weeks in the country finally ran out and I was on my own again. I arrived in the tiny island airport with nothing arranged, an hour away from the town. I saw a modern looking minibus with ‘Harbour Hotel’ on it which looked promising so I told the driver I wanted to find out if they had any rooms, and got a lift into town (by the way, this is a great way to get a free transfer from an airport to a town centre anywhere in the world.) It was actually a pretty dreary hotel and really expensive but I was able to leave my things there and walked into town asking local people for help finding a guest house. It seemed like there were only two on island. I found one a bit ramshackle on the outside but much cheaper than the hotel, with air-con and the room was clean. As the sun went down and the tropical rain hammered down I felt very alone and wondered what the hell I was doing there.

The next day, a Sunday, some local kids took me out for a walk and showed me around. They took me to their school and we walked back along beach where we saw WWII wreckage from the war with the Japanese. It was amazing how much rusting war junk was still lying around. Back at the guesthouse, one of the young guys said his older brother wanted to meet me. He was downstairs drinking South Pacific, PNG’s only local beer with a few friends. He was a very lively and friendly chap and they enjoyed the novelty of having a lost white guy there. He arranged for a friend to take us all out on their motorboat, loaded up with South Pacific, to a little island off-shore where we swam in gorgeous warm water. Then they took me on a little tour to a huge channel bombed out of the island by the Japanese for their submarines with wreckage of pontoons by the shore. Everyone was getting drunk. I’d tried to stay off the beer but had given in under pressure by this point and was quite merry myself. We stopped at a little store to buy gas but there was none available and we didn’t have enough to get home. Fortunately my friends managed to stop another boat who sold us some petrol and we made it back. One of the guys was so drunk he was lying semi-unconscious in the boat as the rest of us dragged it up out of the water. After a couple more beers I sloped off to bed. What an awesome day. Expect the unexpected in Papua New Guinea.

My friends arranged for the same bus to take me back to the airport for free the next morning. My friend was working on the check-in desk, soaked in sweat, massively hung over from the day before. It was a very funny sight watching him struggling to get the passengers checked in. We had a sweaty hug (I wasn’t in a much better state) and said goodbye on the tarmac. Next up, New Ireland.

To be concluded.

Expecting the unexpected in Papua New Guinea: Part 1

‘There will be gunshots any moment now,’ Moses said as the commotion in the market a couple of hundred metres away got louder. As if on cue, three shots rang out in the hot night air but the noise didn’t die down.

‘I think we should go inside now.’ said Moses’ wife Barbara, then added ‘Expect the unexpected in PNG’, a phrase I heard a lot in the five weeks that I was there.

A week earlier, I was sitting in the departure lounge in Cairns airport, Australia waiting to fly to Port Moresby, the capital of PNG. I was on my laptop, hovering over the ‘buy’ button for the electronic download of the new PNG Lonely Planet. Something that goes against my religion as a world traveller, but given the reputation of the country as a dangerous place with almost no tourist infrastructure I thought it might be a lifesaver. In the end I decided I was just going to wing it and got on the plane without a plan of where I was going or what I was doing when I got there. Possibly slightly mad, but it’s an adventure.

I spoke to a few people before the flight. All confirmed the reputation of PNG as a dangerous place. One said that in Port Moresby you shouldn’t even walk around in public on your own. So I decided on the flight that I would try to get in and out of the capital pronto and head to Madang which sounded like a nice place with good diving.

In Port Moresby, the Air Niugini ticket office said there was a flight in the afternoon which meant it would be arriving after dark with no place to stay. I asked what sort of a place Madang was – whether it had ATMs and guesthouses. She pointed me to a little tourist information office which of course was locked up with nobody there. I struck up a conversation with a couple of porters who were picking up customers for one of the expensive hotels in town (with the growth in natural resource exploitation, hotels for foreigners have seen skyrocketing prices.) They said it wouldn’t be a good idea to go to Madang without anyone to meet me at the other end so I asked if they knew of a cheap place to stay for the night. One of the porters, a young chap called Shamus said I could jump in their minibus and after they had dropped off their guests he would help me find a cheap place to stay. I decided to trust him and true to his word, he managed to find me a pretty grim, but cheap for Port Moresby, guesthouse. Once I’d checked in, he took me on a local bus to a supermarket to buy some food and we chatted about life in PNG. He talked about having been mixed up in the wrong crowds when he was younger and had be involved in petty crime. He had the scars to show for it – both from other ‘rascals’ and from the police who had broken his fingers with a golf club down at the station. Now that he was working for the hotel he said he was on the straight and narrow.

Shamus asked me if I wanted to take a walk round the neighbourhood. All I could think of was the warnings I’d heard but I decided to trust my instincts and we took a look around. We stopped at his uncle’s house who was surprised and pleased to meet a random British guy. It turned out he was the former minister for sport for PNG having lost his seat in the recent election, which he was contesting due to reported corruption in the ballot process. We talked for quite a while about education, the environment and of course sport. He would have been at the Olympics in London at the time if he was still in office. By this time it was getting dark and he invited me to join him, and some friends for dinner at a restaurant which I gladly accepted, and we talked more over Korean food.

It was a pretty mind-blowing introduction to the country, and a first glimpse of the kindness and hospitality of the people in PNG that I was to experience throughout my time there.

The next day I flew to Mt Hagen in the highlands where I’d heard there was a cultural show happening that weekend. My new friend the former minister said he would put me in contact with ‘his people’ up there who would look after me. This was the ‘wantok’ system (‘one talk’ translated from PNG’s common language, Pigin) which is the extended networks of family and friends who can call in favours and help, and you’re obliged to say yes. The perfect system when there’s no government social security or insurance. The good news for me was that I was now considered ‘in.’

True to his word, a young reverend called Eddie who permanently wore sunglasses met me when I got into town. He offered me a place to stay at a lodge run by the baptist church. I was happy to take anything offered by a friend-of-a-friend, but then one of Eddie’s colleagues, an older church minister, reverend Jacob with a warm and concerned expression said that he didn’t think they really looked after the lodge well enough and that he thought I’d be lonely there. Having just met me, he insisted that I stay in his house in a village on the edge of Mt Hagen with his wife, son, and another minister, reverend Oscar who was from one of the very remote highland areas. It’s extremely humbling to be offered such warmth and generosity when it’s hard to imagine the same happening in the UK.

Eventually the question of which church I belonged to came up. Being a fairly devout atheist I thought this might be awkward, but I wasn’t going to disrespect them by making anything up. I chose my words carefully and explained that although I had a different faith to them and didn’t go to church, and that for me the important thing is less what you believe, and more about where that leaves you and how you lead your life. I said that I thought we shared a lot of values about how to live a good life. Reverend Jacob smiled and told me he thought I was on a good path. And that was that. No preaching or trying to convert me, just mutual respect.

We talked all evening. Reverend Jacob had some great stories, delivered with a sense of humour and giggles. He was from a line of villages chiefs and talked about how he feared his grandfather, the chief, when he was growing up. He said that if he was out playing when his grandfather gave the whistle he would have to run home immediately. If his grandfather had to actually come and find him, then not only would he be in big trouble, but whichever family’s house he was in would be in trouble too and would have to offer the chief a pig as compensation. He laughed as he described himself as becoming a ‘hot potato’ in these situations, with the other villagers shooing him out of their houses.

Jacob was from a coastal village where the people lived in houses on stilts over the water. In past times, the coastal people feared the in-land tribes who were ruthless headhunters where warriors had to earn their position by taking 100 heads to their chief. However the coastal people’s tactical advantage was that the inland folk were scared of the water and would not even wade waist-deep into the sea. He chuckled as he said that all they had to do when their village was approach by outsiders was get back into their houses and pull up their ladders and they could wave at their would-be decapitators on the beach.

The other visitor in their house, reverend Oscar, was from Teleformin, a village only accessible by light aircraft to an old military airstrip deep in the highland jungle. He told me that there were even more remote villages nearby where the people still walked around naked, although he added that they kept the clothes given to them by the missionaries outside their village, only putting them on when they wanted something, then stripping off again and heading back into the mountains in the buff.

Oscar and Jacob worked together on a large HIV programme that the church ran across many disparate and remote areas. 1% of the population in PNG is HIV positive and the church is leading programmes to educate people about the disease and safe sex as well as handing out condoms, testing, and counselling for those who become infected. I visited their office where they also had a little industry going where groups of HIV positive women made ‘bilums’ – hand-woven bags for carrying anything from mobile phones, to vegetables to babies. The money from the sales went back to the women, and they even sell online, having had a VSO volunteer create a website for them.

Over the weekend, I went to the Mt Hagen show. A cultural event (sponsored by Coca-Cola – urgh) where people came from villages across the highlands in their incredible traditional tribal costumes and danced in a large arena. It was a really weird set-up, simultaneously extremely authentic and contrived. There was an inner and outer arena. The outside part for local people (and me), costing about £2 entry, and an inner arena (where the dancing was happening) for tourists, many of whom had come a long way for the event, costing £100 for entry. Outside the two arenas the people from the various tribes were out on the grass getting ready while tourists in classic touristy ‘explorer’ clothes mingled and pointed expensive SLR cameras at them, not that they seemed to mind at all.

I decided to give the local drug of choice, betelnut, a try. To chew betelnut, you tear open the husk with your teeth, and chew the nut inside, spitting out the juices. It doesn’t taste great, but it’s not too strong. Then you take a long bud of a mustard plant, wet the end and dip it in lyme (a white powder made from heating shells in a fire and grinding them down) a bit like a sherbet dab. You chew the mustard and lyme with the nut and a reaction turns the thick paste bright red in your mouth, staining your teeth and lips. The drug is a central nervous system stimulant which in practice meant it made me a bit sweaty and dizzy. Once they’ve built up a tolerance, regular chewers find it gives them an energy boost and makes them chatty. From what I could gather, chewing betelnut can fight parasites in the stomach (a real problem in places without clean water) and although it stains them, it actually helps keep teeth healthy, perhaps from the calcium in the lyme. Regular chewing greatly increases the chances of mouth and throat cancer though so it’s not a great idea, but the population are incredibly addicted to it, with small vendors not just on every street corner, but dotted all over the place in any public areas. There are both fresh and old splatters of red spittle everywhere as well as thousands of old husks. Apparently the government has tried to take steps to control betelnut but it grows abundantly by the coast and it’s such a part of the culture that for now at least it seems it’s not going anywhere.

Reverend Jacob took me to a ‘bride price’ ceremony in his village. The wantoks of the bride and groom were bringing offerings in the form of pigs, food, animals including rare birds as well as money to give to the groom’s father (apparently in different PNG cultures it’s the bride’s or the groom’s parents who are paid.) I gave the groom’s father the small amount of cash that I had on me.

After five wonderful days in Hagen I said goodbye to Jacob, his wife Lucy and their son Jakes (the most well-behaved 15-year-old I’ve ever met!) I later got a text saying that they had cried on the way home after dropping me off at the airport as they had come to consider me a son. Quite hard to describe how truly heartwarming that felt being so far from home.

Back in Port Moresby, Jacob’s son Peri came to meet me at the airport and I was again shown incredible hospitality, staying in their house with his wife and baby daughter, his sister Barbara, her husband Moses, his other sister Oli, as well as a collection of aunts, uncles and cousins. It was a real full house because uncle Felix was in town to try to get his ear operated on, but I was still treated like a guest of honour.

Also in the house was a young cousin called Keypax with an incredible story to tell. He worked on commercial fishing boats and a month previously the boat had caught fire. They had neither the appropriate training or the right equipment on board to deal with the fire and so the terrified sailors all jumped overboard and watched their boat go up in flames and then sink, many miles away from shore. They clung to a piece of wreckage and waited all day and night to be found. Tragically in the meantime, crew members were lost due to dehydration and even shark bites. Expect the unexpected in PNG.

Continued in part 2.

The end of countries

World Passport

It’s right up there on the list of questions NEVER to ask at a dinner party: ‘Where do you stand on immigration?’ If you have two guests with opposing views on this then the night is pretty much guaranteed to be ruined for everyone. But hey, this is a blog, so let’s dive in…

I’ve been travelling for the last year or so and crossed various borders around the world. Fortunately I’ve never had to bribe anyone, although I have had an Ecuadorian anti-narcoticos guard try on my sunglasses and ask me if he looked cool.

It’s always felt so strange to cross a border with someone from a different country and reflect on the different rules that apply, depending on the ‘nationality’ stated in the little book we all have to carry. In Latin America, citizens of the US seem to get the worst deal, having to pay visa fees on entry to most countries whereas I, as a Brit, get my passport stamped for free. I met a Chinese guy who told me that there are many countries he would be refused entry into, and if you have ever visited Israel – no matter where you’re from – then there are certain other middle eastern countries who won’t allow you entry.

Nationality seems so real when you’re in your home country, but completely arbitrary when you’re travelling. It’s all down to what flavour of passport you’re holding – something you have little or no choice about. There seems to me to be something inhumane about treating people differently depending on where they are from.

Borders, visas, immigration rules and even the basic notion of a ‘country’ is a result of centuries of wars, revolutions and treaties. International borders with their immigration guards seem so real and fixed, but a border is just an imaginary line on the shfting rock of a tectonic plate, on a plant spinning round the sun which happens to be inhabited by intelligent creatures descended from apes. There’s nothing natural about a country or border.

Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder is taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. A building that is agreed to be territory of Ecuador, thousands of miles away. There are police outside it ready to arrest him if he leaves but protocol dictates that they will not simply walk in and retrieve this wanted man.

When I was in Ecuador myself, I met a guy who had renounced his US citizenship, and just set off on a big trip to explore the planet. As a human being walking the earth he didn’t feel that he should have to have a particular ‘nationality’ based on where he happened to be born. He didn’t want to immigrate to another country either. He saw himself as a free man.

I asked him how he was able to travel without citizenship, and he explained to me that against his will he was forced to have a US passport in order to be able to leave the country. That’s right, in the land of the free you are not free to leave unless you sign up as a citizen, even if you have no desire to return.

As far as he was concerned, his US passport was a necessary evil to get him out of the country and to move around a world where the dogma of nationality is so fixed. But then he showed me what he considered to be his real passport. Issued by the ‘World Government of Citizens‘ it was a passport not attached to any particular country yet had the familar feel of a standard travel document.

I thought that this International passport was a cute idea but I wondered how, in reality, you could ever expect it to be accepted at a border. He was ready for this question and pulled out a copy of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. Most nations in the world have signed up to this declaration (notably, not the US), and article 13 states:

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

In theory, any country signed up to the Declaration of Human Rights has to let you in, and apparently after leaving his home country on his US passport, he had managed to enter Ecuador using the international document. It seems others have had successes travelling on the World Passport too. Perhaps the notion of a country and nationality is more fluid than we are all led believe.

So where does this leave us on immigration policy? Usually the debate centres around short-term pressures like the affect on the labour markets and welfare if immigration is loosened, or the affect on genuine asylum seekers and human rights if it goes the other way.

What I always feel is missing from the debate is the long-term goal for the planet. What kind of world are we trying to create? My view is that where we need to head is a world where any human being, no matter where they were born, is free to travel, work and live wherever they like without the old concept of nationality restricting us, because it means that all humans would be treated equally no matter where they were born.

I’m not suggesting that this can happen overnight. There would be chaos if borders around the globe were suddenly opened. There are enormous challenges to overcome, like managing natural resources and figuring out how public services and law are managed in a world without borders. But if you look at Europe as an example of a continent at war 70 years ago, to the peaceful cooperation we see today, in spite of the current economic problems. It might take 50, 100 or more years to achieve a completely open world, but I believe that this is the ultimate goal we should be working towards. We need political parties to commit to this vision, and then form short-term policy that paves the way towards it.

Guinea pig on a plate, pre-inca ruins and a hike from hell

My laptop has died which is really messing with my blogging rhythm so sorry for the slow posting recently. Hoping to have it fixed when I get to Lima in a couple of weeks, but in the meantime I thought I’d mix things up a bit with a story of a few days of Peruvian adventuring.

I’m in northern Perú at the moment in a town called Chachapoyas. It’s in a region full of important archaeological sites set in the Andes mountains. There are lots of tour groups taking people to see them but I decided to see how far I’d get on my own.

On Saturday morning I took a collectivo (the local public transport – a minibus that leaves once it’s full) to a small town in the mountains called Cruzpata. The journey was along typical Andean mountain dirt roads, winding their way up hill with steep drop-offs. At one point we had to pass a large parked truck on the road and we were getting dangerously close to the edge. I normally only get worried when the local people look scared so when a Peruvian lady started screaming at the driver all of the passengers decided to get off so the driver would only be risking his own life. It turned out that he got past the obstacle without any bother and we continued on our way. We arrived at Luya, a little town on the way where we needed to catch a new collectivo. The road was being dug up so together with some friendly Spanish students whose machine-gun speed Spanish was almost impossible for me to understand we hiked for a kilometer and persuaded a local taxi driver to squeeze seven of us into the car (not quite a record, I recall getting 9 in a car once in Bolivia) and take us to our first destination, Karajia, a site of 6 ancient sarcophagi together with human skulls and other bones in a cliff face.

The sarcophagi at Karajia are set in an imposing sheer cliff face with a great view of the surrounding mountains. You can see the human skulls set into the cliff around them, and the ancient paint work is still clearly visible. There are also collections of other human bones dotted around which have been found at the site.

After hiking back to the nearby village we ate our lunch at a house. Lunch was Cuy – the local speciality of roasted Guinea pig. People have been eating Cuy here for thousands of years, long before the little critters were kept as pets. You can sometimes see them running around a kitchen before being caught and killed. The taste isn’t bad actually, especially the crispy skin but as you’d imagine, there isn’t a whole lot of meat on them. The tiny little ribcage and claw still attached is also quite cute.

My new friends were heading back to Chachapoyas so I said goodbye to them and then stayed the night in a filthy but friendly little hospedaje in a small town called Cohechan. I was woken at 6:30AM by one of the delights of South America – municipal radio. It’s hard for a foreigner to understand why in an area where many people walk around with personal transistor radios that they need their local radio blasted out of speakers throughout the town and ricocheting off the surrounding mountains. Music with loud trumpets and accordions and really aggressive sounding monologues from the ‘DJ’ isn’t my ideal Sunday morning tonic, but the local people actually love it. In South America, people don’t have the concept of noise pollution like we do in Europe, as the car alarms which cycle through all possible variations of car alarm sirens if someone so much as sneezes within 20 feet, and people playing music out loud on their phones on buses confirms.

I had been told that I could catch a collectivo in the morning to my next destination, a beautiful valley called Belen. Some farmers in a passing 4×4 said they could take me part of the way so I jumped in the back. They were off to harvest potatoes which they said grew well at that altitude.

At the next village we stopped to pick up a couple of other people at this point they told me that actually where they were going to drop me off there would be no other transport to Belen and they asked me what I’d be prepared to pay someone to give me a ride on a motorcycle. This was one of those awkward moments when you’re in the middle of nowhere, with a group of locals laughing at your cluelessness and you’re wondering whether it’s a gringo rip-off or there really is no other option. The best thing to do in these situations is to smile and laugh along with them and trust your instincts. I’d only been in Perú a few days so had no idea what the going rate was so I offered a typical collectivo fare of 5 Sols (about $1.50) which was met with more laughter and the word ‘gringo’ (which just means ‘foreigner’ and isn’t usually meant as an insult.) I laughed along and said I’d just go as far as they could take me and then work it out from there.

When we got to the spot where the farmers were going to be working they pointed up the road and said “3 hours walk that way.” I don’t mind a hike so was about to set off when another local on a dirt bike pulled up and said he was going that way. Result! So I jumped on the back and we rode for an hour to get there. I was relieved that he didn’t drive like a maniac as it was muddy and sometimes loose ground with more steep cliffs. As we got close to the end of the valley he asked where I wanted to be dropped off. I was planning on having some breakfast there and then asking around for directions and making a plan, so I said “At the village” – at which point he laughed and said “there´s one house here.” Oh dear.

So I got dropped off at the only house for miles around and just as I was wondering what to do, a Peruvian came out of the house and asked me where I was heading. All I knew at that stage is that I wanted to see the valley and somehow get to a town called Congon. He said he could take me so I gladly accepted, at which point 3 friendly gringo hikers, two Americans and a Spaniard, came out of the house – they’d already hired this guy to be their guide and were going the same way as me, so I joined their group. Another result.

It turned out that our guide Carlo was awesome. He spoke excellent English although I tried to practice my Spanish as much as possible. He had fantastic knowledge of the area as well as a sarcastic, joking sense of humour so I knew we´d get along. He´d already nicknamed the two tall Americans “Chato” which is what you might call a small kitten, and “Chatito” which you might call an even smaller kitten. Great stuff.

We hiked along the lush green valley floor. It has a long winding river running through it which legend has it was created by a giant snake. There are wild horses and cattle grazing and you can sometimes see trout darting through the water.

Eventually we hiked up out of the valley onto a pre-inca trail and up into the humid cloud forest. It wasn’t long before we were at 3000M, the highest point for the day. On the way to the next town, we visited some pre-Inca ruins called Pirquilla. These were discovered relatively recently (in the 1990´s) but have yet to be properly explored by archaeologists. The trails around the site do not see many visitors so Carlo had to use a machete to hack through the jungle giving the experience a real Indiana Jones feel which I loved. The ruins are mostly stone brick platforms on which houses (long since gone) were built. Everything is covered in dense jungle and nobody even knows how big the site is.

We made our way down-hill to Congon and stayed in a hospedaje there, a wooden building with coffee beans drying out on the veranda, lively dogs fighting and loud roosters. There we had a hearty carbohydrate-fest of a dinner and tried to sleep as best we could through the animal noise.

The next day would cover some pretty hardcore terrain. A gruelling 36KM trail, about a vertical mile uphill (around the height of the grand canyon.) It was raining most of the time and there was very heavy mud on the ground. Carlo said that most people do this section on donkeys and the Americans had hired some. The Spaniard was up for walking and I thought “it´s only a hike, who needs a donkey?” Big mistake!

The first hour and a half while my legs were relatively fresh weren’t too bad, then the trail just seemed to get steeper and steeper with every step through the gloopy mud becoming tougher than the last. There was still another hour and a half of this until lunch, and even then we’d only be half way, with another 4 hours to cover in the afternoon. I made it to the lunch spot feeling almost delirious but there was no time to rest because we immediately set off on a side trail to check out some more ruins, similar to Pirquilla.

Lunch was dried meat, boiled potatoes and rice. My stomach was in knots from the climb so I didn’t eat much. We were still in good spirits though when we set off for the afternoon hike, just as the rain reached a new level of intensity. I somehow managed to hike uphill for another two and a half hours, cheating for about 15 minutes on the back of a donkey which was returning from dropping the Americans at the top. The end finally felt like it was within reach. We now had just one more hour of gentle uphill and flat terrain along the top of the mountains then an hour downhill to the town where we´d spend the next night. We were treated to some spectacular views of the cloud forest. A mixture of bright white and dark lush green rolling hills.

As we hiked along the top Carlo spotted wild blackberries growing and the five of us foraged like wild animals for a while, hungry and dehydrated. In my condition at the time I had never tasted anything quite so delicious as those berries and I then couldn´t stop myself fantasizing about eating a large fruit salad.

Finally, the trail began its descent, steep and muddy with streams of water running down them. After an hour of slipping and sliding we made it to the next town. I´d long since run out of water and was so dehydrated I drank about 2 pints of coca-cola from the local tienda to get some fluid and sugar back into me which I’d later regret as I lay exhausted but completely wired from the caffeine and unable to sleep until the early hours of the next morning.

On the final day my plan was to hike without a guide to the huge ruins of the pre-inca fortress, Kuelap. This site is known as the Machu Picchu of the north and is older, larger and far less excavated than its cousin in the south. Machu Picchu is an enormous privatised enterprise, with a huge brand and it´s over-run with tourists. 600 people per day on the Inca Trail and up to 2,500 daily on the site itself whereas Kuelap is still quite peaceful. My plan was to try to get there early before the tour groups, but after the hike the previous day I took the lazy option and stuck with my new friends who were taking transport to the site.

Our small group was joined by a whole minibus full of people from Chachapoyas and when we got to Kuelap I found myself surrounded by a really friendly, but large and noisy group of tourists chattering and snapping photos. The magic of being in such an incredible place was being broken and my heart sank a little. However once we got into the ruins themselves I snuck off away from the group to explore the ruins on my own and before long they were completely out of earshot and all I could hear was the rustle of the trees, the wind, birds and my own footsteps as I wandered between trees and the round stone foundations of houses the houses, complete with tombs for their ancestors inside each house. The fortress is spectacular, set on a mountain top with perimeter walls over 30 feet high. Unlike European castles where everything is inside the walls, the Chachapoyas people created a huge platform using these walls so the settlement was up high with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.

After exploring the ruins, we made our way back to Chachapoyas. I checked in at my hostel where I was told off by the owner for using all of the hot water for a long shower, having not had a wash for four days. I slept really well that night.

The plan from here is to go and explore the waterfall at Gocta – one of the highest in the world – then make my way over land and then ferry up the Amazon to the jungle city of Iquitos.

I will add some photos to this post once my laptop is fixed and I can get them off my camera. If you´d to see them, just add a comment below and tick ´notify me of follow-up comments´ and you´ll get an email once they´re up there.

Two things that travel has taught me about consumerism

1. Poor countries do not develop in the order you expect

When I stayed in Batu Puteh in Borneo last year, the family home I lived in had no sink in the bathroom and you washed by pouring cold water over yourself from a big barrel that filled up with rainwater. Yet in the living room there was a large flat-screen TV and satellite. This really showed me how poorer countries don’t always develop in the ways and order that we in the rich world might expect. You might expect people to be struggling for the basics and working up from there, but poor countries can see on TV the lives of the rich and they want a slice of that now. If you’ve washed in rainwater all of your life you don’t see that as a problem which needs fixing, whereas satellite TV is new and exciting.

2. It’s easy to get away from the consumer lifestyle. But hard to stay away.

When you live out of a rucksack for a year you learn to get by with the very minimum of possessions. It’s actually very liberating – you can walk through a shopping mall and not feel tempted with all of the ‘stuff’ on offer simply because you don’t have space for it in your backpack and don’t want to be encumbered with the added security risk of carrying more valuables. And of course when you’re out in the world experiencing new people and places, ‘stuff’ just doesn’t seem exciting. The only things I find myself really ‘wanting’ are very practical items like replacing worn out trail shoes.

The sad thing I noticed though from when I popped back to the UK last August is that once I was back in a very consumer society, the craving for ‘stuff’ came back quickly and I found myself shopping for trainers, watches, new clothes and other bits I didn’t actually need at all. I enjoyed the consumer buzz you get from buying something new even though I know it wears off quickly and doesn’t give you long-term happiness. I am going to try to fight this one hard and know I’ll probably fail to some degree. But being away certainly makes you aware of the forces at large in our society.