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The Biman flight from Dhaka to Kathmandu is virtually empty. In the airport I spotted a group of Pakistani men dressed in turbans and robes, all wearing matching stern expressions. They sported opulent beards streaked with grey that hid severe features and aged them considerably. As they dined near me in a restaurant I imagined them talking of theology and wondered (assuming them to be holy men) whether when they travel together there is a kind of macho one-up-man-ship to see who can appear the most religious and God fearing, much like there might exist between a group of UK boys in relation to drinking and shagging. Perhaps they even assign puerile nicknames to each other based on devotions shown on past trips; Cain, Solomon, and maybe even Ruth!

They were in the departure lounge and for some reason I did not imagine that they might be travelling to Nepal. They were. They boarded the plane after me, and as they passed by one man, whose beard was yet to receive the silver touch of age, smiled broadly and waved to get my attention. He asked me where I was from and seemed pleased with the answer. They moved to the back of the aircraft.

About 40mins in to the flight, just as I saw the first Himalayan peak above a thick blanket of cloud I heard a wailing from the back of the plane. The eldest Pakistani gentleman with a large perfectly straight nose, big white teeth and a beard flecked with white and red that reached at least to his sternum, was calling prayer. With his fingers in his ears he cried the name of Allah in a high pitched screech that sounded as though it should discomfort a man of such masculine features.

I imagined this this occurring on a trans-Atlantic flight. Nervous twitches and hushed tasteless jokes would have rippled through the plane immediately upon their embarkation. Quizzing eyes would dart to them and a vague physical notion of concern would brew in the bellies of Westerners aboard, try as they might to use the extent of their liberalism to crush all sinister thoughts. Deep into the in-flight entertainment they would hear the call to prayer. Heads turn. A young man at the front of the plane quickly reaches his left hand across his body to grab his chair behind his right shoulder so that he may raise himself up to get a better look. Upon seeing what is occurring he half raises himself to his feet, the blue cotton jersey that had been on his legs crumples to the floor.

A sex doll hostess with cherry red lips maintains a plastic smile as she approaches the man from behind. She walks with feigned decisiveness and gestures with her hands in an n attempt to assure the nervous passengers both that everything is OK and that they should stay in their seats. She is now so close that she could touch the man.

“Sir?” She says firmly but in a low harsh whisper, brandishing her smile from side to side nervously.

“Allaaaaah”

“Sir?!” This time more forcefully. She touches his shoulder but he is lost in his devotion.

She leans around the man and turning her palms upwards makes a shrugging motion to a male colleague down the cabin. She bites a corner of her lower lip which leaves a small red lipstick stain on her front teeth, and she knits her brow. A woman a few seats forward who has turned around anxiously sees this and screams. A child starts to cry.

“Allaaaaaaaaaaaaaah”

On the either side of the aisle forward of the Pakistani, all heads are now turned. The sound of unclicking seat belts chatter as man after man rises to his feet and takes in the scene wondering if they will be the one to do whatever it is that should be done.

“Allah, Allaaaaaaaaaaaah”

The forward cabin male attendant who received the pleading shrug from the hostess begins a resolute stride. His teeth are clenched bringing out high cheek bones under his round orange tanned fleshy face. His fists are tightly clenched with his thumbs tucked under his fingers. He feels in a dreamlike state and is not sure what he is going to do, although he knows it will become clear the nearer he gets to the holy man.

“Allaaaaaaaaaaaaah”

He is only a few metres away now. The plane banks slightly and the holy man takes his fingers from his ears and stabilizes himself by placing his hands on the seats either side of him where his companions sit with bowed heads. The male attendant wobbles slightly but his resolve is not weakened.

“Allaaaaaaaaaah”

Frightened friends grip each other’s hands

“Allaaaaaaaaaaaaah”

Passengers are involuntarily shaking and bracing

“Allaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah”

Suddenly, Samuel L Jackson jumps from behind the first class curtain and shouts:

“Will somebody get the mother fucking Muslims, off the mother fucking plane!!!”

It is over. The holy man slowly inhales a deep breath through his nostrils and gently lifts up his head. His eyelids twitch momentarily and open. The male attendant sees the softness of his light brown eyes contrasted against his heavy jaw-line. His previous momentum is carrying him still forward toward the prayer caller, and only manages to stop himself directly in front of him. The holy man is confused in the look of terror in the attendants perspiring face, and wonders at all the eyes directed at him. He blesses the attendant with a wave of his hand and sits down. The plane lands in London 2 hours later.

***

Later in the flight I went to the back of the cabin for a moment to look out of the window at the approaching mountains. In the row behind the seat I selected was the holy man. He clutched at a string of beads and, hiding himself from general view behind the seat in front of him, he quietly picked his nose and ate what he found.

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The horrific fire and consequent loss of life at Tazreen Fashions made the International pages of newspapers worldwide when it struck in November of this year. The New York Times has been particularly diligent in tracking the story, and has devoted many op-ed column inches to decrying the poor health and safety environment that the Bangladeshi workers that clothe US citizens are forced to work in. It is not surprising that in the West the story has resonated most deeply with an American audience given firstly that Tazreen was supplying American corporations, and secondly that there are clear parallels between what happened in the blaze here and the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City some hundred years ago. In both of these incidents stairwells were locked so that workers were unable to escape, forcing many to jump to their death rather than face the agony of immolation.

That the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City lead to widespread unionization of factory workers as well as a slew of labour legislation aimed at protecting the workers in the garment industry begs the question: will the same happen here in Bangladesh? It is true that the aftermath of the fire has seen public anger which has manifested itself in demonstrations and vandalism against factories. To a certain extent this ire has been subsumed by a wider unrest that is occurring here in the run up to elections in 2013. The opposition party is calling on the incumbent government to install a caretaker regime to oversee the nationwide polls in order to ensure a free and fair election process. Thus far the government has resisted these calls. This has led to widespread strikes, roadblocks and violence. In other words, the calls for government attention from garments workers may have been drowned out in what is already a very noisy political atmosphere.

Political clamour notwithstanding, it is doubtful whether the Tazreen fire will be a catalyst for meaningful change in Bangladesh. Many in the west are blaming globalization for this sad fact. It is argued that globalization creates incentives to “race to the bottom” in terms of safety and labour costs. Certainly it is true that in recent years, production has increasingly moved here from China as the cost of Chinese labour rises. Whether this is a bad thing or not is open to interpretation.

On the one hand people see immorality on the part of western buyers who, rapacious in their pursuit of profits, move production to a country where they can get away with paying workers 4000 taka a month ($50) a month for working 60 plus hour weeks. On the other hand this has led to a large increase in growth in both GDP and textile based exports in Bangladesh as well as providing a living for tens of thousands people (predominantly women) where previously there may have been none.  Furthermore, it should not be overlooked that the reason that Chinese wages are now relatively more expensive is partly due to the fact that human capital and technical experience has accumulated in the garment industry there pursuant to their having once been at the bottom of the global race for cheap labour.

The existence of these benefits from being one of the most competitive countries in the world in terms of labour price does not mean however, that it is right that workers should be subjected to working conditions that denigrate them as humans. Thus, a globalized race to the bottom for labour costs may well bring some benefits but it is hard to argue that a consequent race to the bottom of the working standards is in some way productive, and even if it were, it would certainly be hard to argue that it was justified in the pursuit of profit.

Thankfully the race to the bottom of the health and safety pile is not as ubiquitous in globalizing economies as the race for low labour costs.  An interesting example is dolphin friendly tuna. In that case western consumers, consumer groups and special interest NGOs used their purchasing power and political clout to pressure for domestic means of identifying tuna that had been caught using dolphin friendly fishing techniques. This created a race in the international supplier nations to ensure that systems were in place such that the tuna caught would be eligible for sale in the huge Western markets. The West imported tuna, and in effect exported their expectations about environmental standards.  Given that the health and safety in garments factories is as much a question of production standards as the means with which wild fish are turned into sashimi, there is no reason to suspect that a similar exporting of standards could not be achieved in the case of the garments industry. Western consumer pressure can therefore have real clout in increasing protections both for marine mammals and factory workers.

Unfortunately there are least three constraints on this kind of change. Firstly, people are not as photogenic as dolphins. Although there was a flurry of western media activity in relation to the fire, it is much harder to sustain that kind of attention for people than it is for animals or the environment. Even in the case of animals,

international-standards changing movements can only really galvanize behind those beasts which are easily anthropomorphised, such as orangutans and dolphins. The threat to sea slugs from trawler fishing is hardly likely to get anyone excited. This is pretty ironic, as when the beasts in question are in fact anthro – i.e. human – it can be even harder to generate enough sustained interest for change. Sadly this means that although there was a lot of rightful indignation at the senseless waste of life that this fire caused it is very likely that sufficient pressure will be put neither upon the Western governments to restrict imports on garments that come from factories that routinely flout safety compliance measures, nor on the buyers to ensure safety standards in their supplier factories.

Secondly, factory owners often tell buyers one thing and do quite another. Thus although Walmart’s cry of “we didn’t know” may sound hollow to Western skeptics, it is actually fairly plausible. Big buyers conduct spot audits of the factories that supply them with goods in order to gauge how up to date they are on social compliance (including health and safety). These requirements are frequently imposed not by the home government of Bangladesh but by the buyers themselves as part of their corporate social responsibility strategy.  For example, Marks and Spencer work to ensure that a certain fraction of jobs within a supplier factory are given to the disabled.

Despite this system of audit, factories will often illegally outsource production to cheaper suppliers who are less constrained by the demands of the buyers across many dimensions, and are thus able to supply the goods at a cheaper price than the factory with which the buyer directly contracted. This ensures that factories with poor working conditions can still operate despite the preference of buyers to work with factories that will not generate the kind of bad press that the Tazreen fire did for Walmart.

Is it possible that Walmart really did know that their goods were being produced Tazreen? Yes, I would not put it past them as they have a fairly well documented history of greed for profit margins. However, is it possible they really were unaware? Yes it is. All buyers have large teams of expensive-to-maintain compliance officers that check on the factories. But eliciting truthful information from factories is often extremely difficult, as I know from my own direct experience from working in the field.

Thirdly, and most obstinately, Western consumers are addicted to cheap clothing. Factory owners here may appear greedy in terms of how much they take home relative to their workers, but they are faced with difficult decisions. Metal values are soaring pushing the prices of machines upwards. Raw material prices are on the rise. Even labour costs, as paltry as they may seem to the West, are also creeping upwards. Against this backdrop, the West is in recession with all the focus on austerity and low cost options that that entails. Buyers want lower prices every year. Many factories operate at losses for part of the year. In such a climate, all energies are focused on staying open, keeping production running. They are not likely to be focused on how to improve fire safety.

This is not to say that low prices justify factories in not providing safe environments for their workers. Indeed it is quite possible that the Tazreen disaster would have occurred even with prices such that they could better afford to focus more on social compliance. This is because some factory owners are just greedy, thoughtless capitalists with no care for their workers. These men, even with better prices from their buyers, would probably siphon off the extra profits without making efforts to improve conditions in their factories. After the fire alarm was raised in Tazreen Fashions, workers were instructed to go back to work. This disgustingly callus and complacent attitude toward worker safety on the part of management is not likely related to low prices for output. However it would be naïve to believe that in general low prices do not contribute to low health and safety standards in the industry.

The upshot of these three constraints on change is that for conditions in the Bangladeshi garment industry to improve due to Western pressure, several things must happen almost simultaneously: Bangladeshis must become more attractive relative to dolphins, audits systems must be tightened (or Bangladeshi factory owners must not seek out ways to increase their margins through subcontracting), and either Western buyers will have to live with smaller margins, or Western consumers will have to be willing to pay higher prices for their clothes. With the exception of the possibility of improving audit systems, the likelihood of these things occurring seem pretty slim given what we know about physiognomy, capitalism, and the predilection of Western consumers for 3 Euro T-Shirts. Thus it seems that Western pressure in the wake of this fire will not be a sufficient vehicle for change here in Bangladesh.

This is not the end of the story, as change could plausibly come not pursuant to Western pressure, but from within. It will require some major upheavals. The major difference between the New York of 10 years ago, and the Bangladesh of today, was ability of the New Yorkers to organize into unions. Here in Bangladesh the rules regarding unionization are prohibitive. At least 30% of any workforce must be members for a union to form. Membership is restricted to those that are employed, meaning that termination from employment prevents membership of the union. Violence and intimidation are frequently practiced against union demonstrations, and the demonstrations themselves are subject to government approval. Thus it is that there is a chronic shortage of labour in the sector which should mean greater worker power to call for increased wages and better standards whilst the absence of unions means that this power cannot be turned into improved working conditions. The capitalist classes hold sway in government circles whereas workers have no means of expressing their demands.

As it stands, the formation of unions is even less sexy a cause than the poor old sea slug. Therefore there are not really any circumstances where Western pressure will be sufficient to induce meaningful change here. For real progress to be made in ensuring a decent working environment for garments industry workers, the workers themselves will have to fight for their right to freely organize.

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 This is the itineray I designed for a 20 day Hiking Visit to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Maine. As much as possible I have avided the Appalachian Trail Route as I believe it to be over-crowded.

Phase One: Sandwich to Waterville Valley (3 days)

  1. Mead Base to Mt. Israel Summit via Wentworth Trail: 2.1 miles, 2 hours (pg. 367)
  1. Mt. Israel Summit to Guinea Pond Trail via Mead Trail: 1.7 miles, 1 hour 25 mins (pg. 366)
  1. Guinea Pond Trail to McCrillis Trail via Flat Mountain Pond Trail [Whiteface River water source): 3.6 miles, 4 hours 15 mins (pg. 362) CAMP
  1. Flat Mountain Pond Trail to Mt. Whiteface Summit via McCrillis Trail: 3.2 miles 3 hours (pg. 417) Lower part lightly used, follow with care
  1. Mt. Whiteface Summit to Tripyramid Trail via Kate Sleeper Trail [Water source on Downes Brook Trail north of its junction with Kate Sleeper Trail]: 3.3 miles 2 hours 15 mins (pg. 419)
  1. Kate Sleeper Trail to Livermoor trail via Mt. Tripyramid Trail [Water source at cold brook after 1.5 miles]: 2.3 miles 1 hour 30 mins (pg. 353CAMP
  1. Livermoor Trail to Waterville Valley via Livermoor trail (0.8 miles pg.352), Norway rapids trail (0.5 miles), Cascades Trail, service road above cascades down to Greeley ledges trail and on to Waterville. CAMP in Waterville camp ground. Restock.

Phase Two: Waterville Valley to Bartlett (5 days)

  1. Waterville Valley to Kancamagus Highway via Livermoor trail (0.3 miles from parking on Livermoor Road) then Greeley Ponds Trail: 5.4 miles 3hours 15 minutes pg. 349
  1. Kancamagus Highway to Cedar Brook Trail via Highway (to hairpin bend) then the Hancock Notch Trail [lots of water here]: 1.8 miles 1 hour (pg.232)
  1. Cedar Brook Trail to Hancock Loop Trail via Cedar Brook Trail: 0.7 miles 30 mins.
  1. Make Camp at junction of Cedar brook and Hancock Loop trail [water source here], then hike loop trail over Mt. Hancock via Hancock Loop trail: 4.8 miles 3 hours 30 mins (pg. 233)
  1. Hancock Loop trail to Wilderness Trail via Cedar Brook Trail: 5.4 miles, 3 hours (pg.230)
  1. Cedar Brook Trail to Bondcliff Trail via Wilderness Trail: 0.7 miles 30 mins (pg. 200)
  1. Wilderness Trail to Goyout Campsite via Bondcliff Trail [from wilderness trail 2nd brook crossing at 1.9 miles is last reliable water – there is water at the campsite supposedly]: 6.3 miles, 4 hours 50 mins (pg. 211) CAMP
  1. Boncliff Trail to Ethan Pond Trail via Twinway trail: 4.4 miles, 2 hours 30 mins (pg. 183)
  1. Twinway trail to Thoreau Falls Trail via Ethan Pond trail: 2.1 miles 1 hour 15 mins (pg. 194)
  1. Ethan Pond Trail to Wilderness trail via Thoreau Falls trail [plenty of water]: 5.1 miles 3 hours. 0.4 miles before wilderness trail junction is a bridge, consider retracing steps to make camp as camping not allowed along wilderness trail or within 0.25 miles of Perigewasset River. If energy levels good follow wilderness trail 2.9 miles to Stillwater Junction and make camp there.
  1. Thoreau Falls Trail to Stillwater Junction via Wilderness trail: 2.6 miles 1 hour 30 mins (pg. 200)
  1. Stillwater Junction to Desolation Trail via Carrigain Notch trail [water here]: 08. miles 30 mins (pg. 228)
  1. Carrigain Notch Trail to Mt. Carrigain Summit via Desolation trail: 1.9 miles, 2 hours 30 mins (pg.228)
  1. Mt Carrigain Summit to Sawyer Pond Road via Signal Ridge Trail: 5 miles, 4 hours. CAMP 0.2 miles north of road near Whiteface Brook – nice cascades
  1. Sawyer River Road to Sawyer River Trail via Sawyer River Road; 1.5 miles (approx.), 1 hour
  1. Sawyer River Road to Brunel Trail via Sawyer Pond (1.5 miles) Sawyer Pond Trail: 4.9 miles, 3 hours (pg.237)
  1. Sawyer Pond Trail to Mt. Tremont Summit via Brunel Trail: 3.9 miles, 3hours (pg. 239) May be hard to follow – if impossible then head down Rob Brook trail and camp in Jigger Jonson campground Passaconway and rethink.
  1. Mt Tremont Summit to US302 via Mount Tremont Trail; 2.8 miles 2 hour 40 mins CAMP – try to get all way down trail and turn left on highway to find Fourth Iron Tentsite. If not camp on Tremont trail and head down in the morning
  1. Rest day. Go to Barlett and get supplies

Phase Three Bartlett to Gorham (5 days)

  1. Bartlett to Mount Parker Trail via Mt. Langdon Trail: 2.5 miles 2 hours (pg. 66)
  1. Mt. Langdon trail to Davis Path via Moutn Parker trail and summit [Water close to Mt. Resolution Shelter – possibly the last source]: 4.3 miles 3hours (pg. 67)
  1. Mount Parker Trail to Isolation Trail (East)  via Davis Path Trail [possible water before Mt. Davis, and between Davis and Isolation]: 6.9 miles 4 hours 20 mins (pg. 58) CAMP If possible camp down Isolation trail at water source


  1. Davis Path to Rocky Branch Trail via Isolation Trail: 2.6 miles 1hour 50 mins (pg. 65)
  1. Isolation Trail to US 16 via Rocky Branch Trail: 3.7 miles 2 hours 50 mins (pg. 64) Crossing river at Isolation/Rocky junction may be difficult. Might be possible to backtrack up isolation and cross to the east and bushwack down to meet Rocky trail.
  1. US 16 to Carter Notch Road via Hall’s Ledge Trail (follow road east a short distance): 3.3 miles 2 hours 25 mins (pg. 467)
  1. Carter Notch Road to Wild River Trail via Bog Brook Trail 2.8 miles 1 hour 45 mins (pg. 464) CAMP
  1. Bog Brook Trail to Rainbow Trail via Wild River Trail: 0.7 miles 30 mins (pg. 446)
  1. Wild River Trail to Carter Dome Summit via Rainbow Trail: 2.5 miles 2 hours 30 mins (pg. 464)
  1. Carter Dome Summit to Highwater Trail via Carter-Moriah Trail (0.4 miles) to junction with Black Angel Trail, then Black Angel Trail: 4.8 miles, 4 hours (pg. 450)
  1. Black Angel Trail to Moriah Brook Trail via Highwater Trail: 2.6 miles 1.45 mins Moriah Brook may be hard to cross. CAMP in or near Wild River Campground (pg. 448)
  1. Highwater Trail to Carter Moriah Trail via Moriah Brook Trail: 5.5 miles 3 hours 45 mins [get water for the day] (pg. 449)
  1. Moriah Brook Trail to Mt. Moriah Summit via Carter-Moriah Trail: 1.4 miles 1 hour 20 mins (pg. 439)
  1. Mount Moriah to Gorham via Carter-Moriah Trail: 4.5 miles (pg. 439) CAMP near Mt. Surprise and head to Gorham in the morning
  1. Gorham Rest Day. Restock. May need to re-camp at Mt. Surprise unless I can get a ride to the Rattle River Trail.

Phase Four Gorham to Conway (6 days)

  1. Gorham to Mt. Mariah via Carter-Moriah trail (unless ride available to Rattle river): 4.5 miles, 4 hours (pg. 439)
  1. Carter Moriah Trail to Shelburne Trail via Kenduskeag Trail: 4.1 miles 2 hours 30 mins
  1. Kenduskeag Trail to Highwater Trail via Shelburne Trail 3 miles 1 hour 30 mins (pg. 445) CAMP near river.
  1. Shelburne Trail to Wild River Road via Highwater Trail: 5.3 miles 2 hours 45 mins (pg. 448)
  1. Follow road south approx 3 miles (ride if possible) to Haystack Notch Trail: 1 hour 30 mins
  1. Wild River Road to Miles Notch Trail via Haystack Notch trail: 5.4 miles 3 hours (pg. 487) CAMP if possible to reach Miles Notch then follow 0.9 miles South to the WMNF otherwise stop after 4.4 miles (1 mile after Pleasant River crossing) near brook before entering private land. Water at brook.
  1. Haystack Notch Trail to Red Rock Trail via Miles Notch Trail: 2.4 miles 1 hour 15 mins (pg. 491).
  1. Miles Notch Trail to Speckled Mt. Summit via Red Rock Trail: 5.6 miles 4 hours [spring 0.1 miles east of summit] (pg. 497)
  1. Speckled Mt. Summit to Blueberry Ridge Trail via Bickford Rock trail: 0.5 miles 20 mins (pg. 492)
  1. Bickford Brook Trail to Blueberry Mountain via Blueberry Ridge Trail: 2.2 miles 1 hour 30 mins (pg. 493).
  1. Blueberry Mountain to CAMP via Stone House trail (not as far as private land), make camp then walk down to Rattlesnake Pond for water and swim.
  1. Stone House Trail to Shell Pond Loop via Stone House trail (pg. 498), Shell Pond Trail (pg. 500) 1.5 miles, then Shell Pond loop (pg. 501) 1.9 miles to Road. 2 hour 30 mins
  1. Shell Pond Loop to AMC Coldwater Camp via road (west) then south on Leach link trail (0.6 miles), west on Dear Hills Connector Trail (0.2 miles) cross road.
  1. AMC Coldwater Camp to Slippery Brook Road via Slippery Brook Trail after 0.7 miles of Baldface Circle trail): 6.6 miles 4 hours 15 mins {water in slippery brook] (pg. 460)
  1. If feasible follow road south 1.5 miles and bear left on Mountain Pond Loop to Mount Pond and CAMP
  1.  Spend day at Mountain Pond
  1. Hike Down Slippery Brook Road to Conway.

      

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I’m 1-9-8 from Ojinaga,
Wet to the bone and run through with thunder.
I beg the sky to cease its rain,
But the river of bones flows just the same;
The river of bones smiles just the same.

The desert sands are copper black,
But they’ve taken half that mountain back,
To the other side of that great line;
They blew it all out of La Perla mine;
They scraped it all out of La Perla mine.

Chihuahua
Chihuahua
Its been waiting here for 200 year
To test your mettle and smash your fear.

I’m 96 from Ojinaga.
I don my hat, my boots and my swagger,
I’ll play a part, what else to do?
Even though you may think this don’t apply to you;
Even though you may think you are authentically you.

Chihuahua
Chihuahua
Its been waiting here for 200 year
To test your mettle and smash your fear.

I’m 34 from Ojinaga.
I dont know if I can go much farther.
All I know is that I’m not the same;
I don’t know if I want to be a Briton again;
No I don’t know if I want to be a subject again.

Chihuahua
Chihuahua
Its been waiting here for 200 year
To test my mettle and smash your fear.
To prove my mettle and crush my fear.

– in honour of Mr. Dotson Radar.

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Thanks to Nica Pinolera for this image

Thanks to Nica Pinolera for this image

The worries I have about being granted the necessary permission to enter the Reserva Bosawas, a trip that I have been planning for two plus years and now hangs in the hands of beaurocrats in Managua, became ever smaller as I rolled further and further from that city where I had been captive for a week; 6 days longer than I had hoped. Transport in Nicaragua is much like that of Guatemala i.e. coutesy of decommissioned US school buses. However, here the balance is slighty different in that they are one half mass transit system and one half market place. At every stop hordes of vendors clambered and clattered aboard selling meals in plastic bowls, ice-cream, fruit, nuts, all manner of vegetables. One man pushed through the urchins selling gaseosas (fizzy drinks) to reveal a full suit of personal hygiene products and office equipment, carefully pinned to his shirt; a walking Rymans. There was of course a preacher, but his words were lost as his slightly effeminate alto (little wonder!) was lost over the whirring of the smoky diesel engine that slowly hauled us over the mountains that lead toward the Honduran border, and my destination, Somoto.

The journey felt long with my knees and legs sweating and suck fast to the plastic seating in front and underneath me. A triumphant feeling of freedom and pleasure at being on the road again brought back happy memories of journeys and friends in Guatemala, and especially as now as I was loaded with purpose: to see the birth of the Río Coco, a river I hope to travel through the heart of the rainforest all the way to the Atlantic ocean, some 800km from where it begins. My cheerful mood un-squashable even as a mysterious liquid, recently escaped from bags on the roof, came pouring in the window and all over me. It must have been for storing some sort of cheese as it left streaky soapy marks as it quickly evaporated from the bus windows, that, and it smelt strongly of fermented lactose.

We passed through wiry scrub, desiccated from months without rainfall, hungrily awaiting the temporada de lluvias (rainy season) which begins in July. Dusty towns, largely deserted in the midday heat except for vultures and people waiting patiently, in energy-saving mode, for a bus to pull up and take them away. Outskirts were scattered with half dreamt buildings, quarter realised, of use indeterminable. Signs of poverty of abounded, but this rural poverty seems so much less squalid that of urban centres, of Managua.

The Cañon de Somoto (Somoto Canyon) lies 15km outside of the town of Somoto, a sleepy town of 21,000 souls. A tranquil air hung over the parque central  when I arrived, bathed as it was in the warm rays of the fading sun. A pretty gated garden is overshadowed by an ancient adobe church whose bell, rusted green and covered in bird shit, was being enthusiastically rung to summon the faithful to the final procession of the cross through the town before semana santa.

Opposite the church is an ice-cream shop which in ignorance of the obvious irony, has proudly painted its slogan in full view of the church windows: un tentacion irresistible. It was here at 7.30 the next morning that I met Rodolfo who acted as my guide to the Cañon. He was a short man with lively eyes, a small grey moustache and a relatively ageless face offset by deep and insistent grooves on the back of his neck; much like those on aged palms, they suggested that he had spent too much time gazing at the stars.  He explained to me as we walked the track that lead to the cañon that the genesis moment for tourism in the region had come when he lead a team of Czech scientists through the area some five years ago. An article they subsequently published put the area perhaps not on the well trodden tourist route, but certainly on the radar of the international crowd.

Soon we met the Río Tapacalí which trickled over the gently pink stone that pervades the area. Before long evidence that this part of the river has flowed here for many millenia became apparent as a deep wound, 200 feet or more, has been cut into the ground. At this point, the Cañon walls no more than ten metres apart, are greened with lichen save for the visible veins of purple that hang over clear pools of water. There a signs of ancient indigenous settlements here. The people lived in naturally formed caves and were engaged in what seems to be a mineral grab as there are signs of excavation near to a covered storage facility dug deep in the rock. This is even protected by what appear to be sentry points.

This is the part of the cañon that the various teams of scientists and geologists Rodolfo has brought here, are most interested in. It seems the mineral potential of this land is not yet spent. Yet, although the ancients were looking for gold, Rodolfo believes that there is uranium in the ground and this is what has grabbed the attention of the scientific community. How he divined this however is anyone’s guess. If he is right of course there are serious implications for the future of the area. At present it is designated a national monument although locals are fighting for it to be upgraded to a national park, and UNESCO are also due to visit. However, if the government too believes the area to be a cash cow (which it is uranium or no) then it could declare the area unsafe and attempt to extract the mineral wealth.

Two km downstream the cañon opens up into a wide plain surrounded by rounded cliffs, blue with agave and bromeliads . The river shallows and splashes eagerly over the algaed rocks. Birds, disturbed by our presence, fly ahead of us to find a new resting spot. Scrambling over the rocks into this new plateau felt as though we were discovering something entirely new, Jurassic, a place for life to settle and grow. We spotted a Guardabarranco, the national bird of Nicaragua, too proud to be put out by us, it sat dressed in dark green with red and blue trim, a delicate trail of arrow-head feathers beneath it.

It is here that the Río Comalí flows in from Honduras, and at this confluence begins the mighty Río Coco, the biggest river in Central America. I knelt down and washed my face in the cool waters which I hope to see again many times as it widens, deepens and accelerates toward its saline destiny. There are still many question marks hanging over my trip in which I hope to learn about the life that inhabits the banks of the river. Yet in that moment I felt a certain clarity, an imagining of humid adventure in a fertile land where grows a forest of grandiose life forms and hopefully the pages I will leave behind me.

Following the first stokes of Coco brought us to a place where the cathedral walls rose once again. Huge boulders laying in the path of the river testify to seismic activity, and great overhangs lurk eerily over the deep green waters. From here we swam two km downstream. Sunlight all but excluded, the cañon is a mere six metres wide at this point. The water deepened to profundity and lying on my back I could float with the meagre current and trace the great meandering curves with my fingers against the great lips of the cliff walls. A huge rock made for fun jumping into a pool where the midday sun could penetrate parts of the depths, reflecting the ripples of the water in an unending dance of perplexing simplicity upon the grey walls that harbour the newly born Río Coco.

As we hiked out of the Cañon, Rodolfo asked me if I thought it had mass tourism potential, to which I of course replied in the affirmative. However, there are already problems with rogue, unprepared guides ready to undercut those with government authorisation to operate in the area. My guide himself seemed conflicted. After eight years of fighting in the civil war he has thrown himself into promoting the area and being a responsible local guide. He along with many others would like to increase the dollars coming into his community, as tourism undoubtedly would, but feels that regulation is needed. More than a few people in a space less than 6 metres wide will feel very crowded. Thus it is the age-old friction between desiring to preserve the tranquil natural beauty of the area, and the need to exploit it to the benefit of the local communities as surely is their right.

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Off to Bosawas

What follows is a mission statement of sorts; the reasons for my journey into the Reserva Bosawas. This is not something I usually do before my trips, but just so you get an idea of where it is I am going, I was today instructed by the branch of the Nicaraguan government that deals with the national reserves that such a document needed to be presented to them before I depart. They will then send it to their regional offices so that people have a general idea who I am. They also gave me the mobile phone numbers of the 5 presidents (yes presidents) of the indigenous communities that call the biosphere home so that I can contact them and ask their permission to enter their territories.

Nombre:          Rory Creedon

Edad:               25

País Natal:       Inglaterra, Británico

Misión

Quiero explorar La Reserva de la Biosfera BOSAWAS, para encontrar y conocer la gente que vive allí, y si es posible, querría trabajar con algunos proyectos sociales o ecológicas.

Motivaciones

  • Para explorar un lugar de belleza natural
  • Para ver la flora y la fauna de la selva
  • Para encontrar y entender culturas muy diferente que la mía
  • Para vivir en un lugar tan distinto de la mía
  • Para ayudar las comunidades cuando lo quieran, cuando yo pueda y donde yo tenga habilidades apropiadas
  • Para conseguir material por un libro lo que quiero escribir (véase a continuación)

Mi Vida como un Escritor

Durante el año pasado he estado viviendo en México y Guatemala aprendiendo español, viajando y también escribiendo. Escribí artículos sobre La Día de Independencia en México, La Día de Los Muertos en Guatemala, y dos viajes para escalar volcanes en Guatemala y México. Tres de estos artículos había publicado en un periódico en Inglaterra, se llama The Guardian.

Ahora quiero escribir mi primer libro, y quiero escribirlo sobre mis experiencias en la biosfera. Ahora la forma del libro no es fijado, pero mi plan es hacer una comparación entre mi vida antes en Londres y la vida que veré en la selva. Además voy a describir como se ven los animales, las plantas y la jungla en general.

Estoy interesado en la historia de los comunidades y la biosfera, pero realmente no quiero escribir ni estar involucrado en los preguntas políticas que afectan el área.

Trabajo

Quiero trabajar con proyectos activos en la biosfera para conocer a las comunidades locales y darlas gracias para permitirme quedarme en la biosfera y ver su manera de vida.

Tipos de trabajo:

  • Manual
  • En una escuela
  • Con niños
  • Cualquier manera que pueda

Experiencia

  • He trabajado en escuelas voluntarias en Rumania, Guatemala y México
  • He ayudado en campamentos para niños en Guatemala
  • Trabajaba en un banco de inversión por tres años en Londres.

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San Jose del Pacifico

San Jose del Pacifico

San José del Pacifico seemed, as most of the villages I had seen on the 130km journey from Oaxaca City (wa-ha-ka), in the deepest of REM sleep. The only other people who disembarked from a bus that was in such a state it surely could not make intact another journey across the vast mountains that separate the capital of Oaxaca State from its Pacific side satellites, were two other travellers from France, one of whom for some reason unknown to me had yet to discover the miracle of shoes. I had heard that there was a lot of hongos related activities in this tiny mountain village, but when I questioned the woman who served me a delicious portion of chiles rellenos -stuffed chiles- in the first comedor -buget restaurant/road side shack/ tent etc.- I spotted, what there was to do in the area, she neglected to mention being off your head on magic mushrooms. What she did tell me however was where the cheapest cabañas -cabins- in town were. As I was finishing my meal I took a napkin to wipe my face and noticed that the napkin holder was a small group of mushrooms carved in wood.

There were other little tell-tale details around the town; mushrooms painted on the sign pointing to my temporary residence, a mushroom drawn in ink on the wood panelling of said dwelling, wooden carvings, and a disproportionate number of hotels in an out-of-the-way, miniscule settlement. However, I was not interested in anything hallucinogenic at that moment. I rather felt like exploring some of the trails that wind through the thickly pine forested mountains.

The señora in charge of my hotel confirmed my suspicions that there was no map of the local area available, and that guides were not necessary. All that was required was that I follow the only road until it ran out, and from there pick a path to follow. It was, so I was told, impossible to get lost. As it turned out she was completely right (assuming you have a vague sense of direction), as I weaved in and out of the pines, changing paths, up then down through the heavily scented air, such that I should have been lost deep in the labyrinth. Yet I emerged somehow exactly where I had started. The pine incensed atmosphere, for me forever associated with Tamworth, New Hampshire, brought back memories of our family’s twice a decade trips to New England. However, these were swiftly purged when I came across giant cacti that served as reminders that I was in fact still in Mexico.

San Jose del Pacifico

San Jose del Pacifico

Early the next morning I had a bowl of Oaxacan hot chocolate and pan dulce -sweet bread- in a comedor in which pictures of Maria Sabrina, a curandera or shaman like woman who lived and died in northern Oaxaca, adorned the walls. She was a priestess of the mushroom and it is said that John Lennon, among other notables, made pilgrimages to trip with her. Thus the rumours about the village could only be true, and I was determined to investigate. In the next comedor where I went for my fix of eggs and frijoles –beans- I asked the woman if it was true that the town was famous for its mushrooms, and she told me it was. Had she tried them helself? “no”. Then who was eating them? “extranjeros”, foreigners.

I was left with the impression that the mushrooms were not so much part of everyday life here, rather there was a demand from tourists, and the forest and locals were only to happy to be the supply. However, Adolfo, who I was to question next told a different story altogether.

He had lived in the village all his life and had seen many come to sample the wildlife. He told me that the local families would “use” them once a year or so. In my vernacular I would say I had “taken” mushrooms, and the difference between the verbs “to use” and “to take” perhaps illustrates the different attitudes toward the drug in the UK and this part of Mexico. I explained to Adolfo that mushrooms had been legal in Britain until two or three years ago when a legal loophole was finally closed. In my experience they were primarily a party drug, taken at festivals and the such. Adolfo told me that in his village they had a more sacred purpose; not explicitly religious, but the ingestion of the fungus could resolve problems or difficulties in your life. “Such as?” I asked. “Well, if you have problems with your wife, mushrooms can help.”

Adolfo had experienced severe lower back pain until he dosed himself with one of the three varieties of mushroom that grow in these hills. Also, he had been an alcoholic and a prolific smoker of mota (marijuana) until he consulted the schroom and he was now coming up to eight years sober. I got the feeling he may have been laying it on a bit thick for my benefit given that he later asked me in a tone of voice that surely indicated an imminant offer, if I liked to smoke weed.

It was a shame I had not come in the rainy season when the mushrooms were fresh, as the preserved specimens were rarely as effective. During this time the town would be full of people. Adolfo wanted to know if I had tried them before, yes, and with a twinkle in his eye “would you like to try some now?”. It turned out that he could get his hands on some preserved ones and make me a tea, apologising that it would cost 200 pesos (10 pounds) as stocks were so low this far out of season. I accepted and we agreed to meet in two hours, so in the intervening time I went on an dramatic hike in the valley before climbing back up the mountain.

During my time thus surveying the seemingly endless pattern of valleys and peaks to the north, and the Pacific Ocean, just visible in the south, I got to thinking about what I had heard that morning. Physical ailments aside (I am no doctor) I do see one of the benefits of psychoactive elements being that they can help you understand how to fix problems, or to realise what ought to be done in life. However, I do not believe this is because they are magical or holy as Adolfo might, and certainly his pre-hispanic forbears did, but rather because they can help to switch off the part of the brain that suppresses deep desires and knowledge of oneself. Somewhere inside of me, I know what I want, and how to solve problems in my life but I so often lack the self-realisation and belief to first detect these elements, and secondly to have the courage to act on them. I assume I am not alone.

Thus when we find something that grows naturally such as a hallucinogenic mushroom, and the “trip” tells us something, gives us a vision or sign, then it is far simpler to outsource our conviction than to act on our own previously undiscovered initiative. This effect is multiplied ten fold when the enabler in question is considered holy or sacred. After all, it is impossible to ignore a message from the divine, but all too easy to ignore a self-generated sentiment.

***

Whilst celebrating the Day of the Dead by watching 12 metre kites being flown in a small town in Guatemala I met Chris who had spent the best part of his young working life the head of a successful film company based in LA. His greatest achievement was overseeing the production of American Psycho based on the novel which I thoroughly enjoyed, by Bret Easton-Ellis. One day he gave up this life and set out from his Californian home to walk to the centre of the Brazilian Amazon. One of the driving impetuses behind this epic journey was a vision he had received as part of a service in the church of Santo Daime. This church uses a drink called ayahuasca which contains a powerful psychoactive element, in the same way that the Catholic Church uses alter wine and guilt. Having drunk the ayahuasca Chris had a vision of himself walking and he interpreted this as a sign from God that he should undertake this great pilgrimage.

Yet it seems to me that this vision could have been interpreted in various different ways; that he should be abandoning the car as it is harmful to the environment; that he should be getting out and enjoying the Californian scenery more frequently, or even that he is out of milk and should walk to the shop to stock up. But he interpreted it as meaning he should set in motion an inspiring and life changing series of events.

***

If we draw a Maltese cross in black on a white background, we will either see a black cross or a white flower. It is impossible to see both at the same time and what is more, if the illusion is not explained to us we may continue to only see one of the symbols. Which we see first, it is thought by phenomenologists, is effected by our background. To simplify, if you are a gardener you will see the flower, and if you are soldier you will see the cross. Thus our reading of the image is a product of choices already made and experiences already lived. This explains why Chris interpreted his vision as mentioned: he told me that prior to the vision he was already aware that his company made violent films and he felt he was not therefore doing good in the world. Is it not natural that he would then choose to give up this life in a broader search for meaning? It also explains why Adolfo told me he saw an image of the Virgin of Guadeloupe (the most celebrated holy image in Mexico): he is a Catholic Mexican. In my view, both experienced visions of experiences and decisions long ago embedded and made, deep inside their own brains. To me such hallucinations are not sent from God, do not occur due to the sacred nature of a plant or fungus or root. They are not signs from above, but signs from ourselves, equally as potent, productive, and even more important. They are pure moments of realisation.

***

In Franz Kafka’s The Trial, there is a parable about a man who wants access to “The Law”. He finds a door that will give him this access but his way is blocked by a doorkeeper who says he may not pass. Although the doorkeeper himself will not stop him, the man is made aware that after this particular doorkeeper there are many more doorkeepers each more terrifying than the last. The man decides to wait until he may be permitted to enter. Just before the man dies the doorman reveals to him that the door he was dying outside had in fact been intended for him all this time.

Such is life! We all have deep desires, dreams, ideas, solutions, but a part of our brain is condicioned to tell us that even if we overcome the immediate problems facing us in an attempt to realise these deep held wants, be it money, work, family or whatever, there will only be further and more grave problems around the corner. Thus we continue on a path which, had we been bathed in the soothing light of the infinity of our options in this world, we may not have even chosen. We miss opportunities that are rightfully ours; rightfully mine.

Since I began this journey (which started many months before I physically got on the plane), I have been slowly working toward a better understanding of myself. I now know that what I want in life is to travel the world and be a full-time writer. I am terrified at this prospect and see many hurdles and future problems, amplified in my mind to many times their actual size. Whether I am strong enough to overcome them, and how I shall feel to thus read this back to myself in 30 years remains to be seen. I have had my eureka moment, my dawn of realisation. I have received and interpreted the message from myself, and as such I do not need to rely on the revelatory nature of hallucinogenic drugs. This does not mean that they do not remain incredibly good fun though.

Enjoy responsibly.

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