Tundra tales – Year 6

You know the situation. At the barbecue, party, or parents’ evening, someone sidles up and asks ‘So…….’, and nowadays all sentences start with ‘so’, ‘So, what do you do for a living?’. And you tell them, ‘I’m a geologist. I work in gold exploration’. A pregnant pause follows. Then, an ‘Oh, that’s nice’, and off they sidle for less complex prey.

It’s hard to make small talk with a geologist. Most people have no idea what we do. So, and a ‘so’ is justified in this context, here is a ‘day in the life’ of a geologist.

 

With all the Brexit-related kerfuffle in the UK, what a relief to escape to the fresh Arctic tundra air again. For the sixth year on the trot, summer holidays are torpedoed by my Russian comrades. After the long mobilization (Aberdeen-Amsterdam-Moscow-Magadan), then 2-hour flight to the mine, and 2-hour TrekAll trip to tented camp, I settle in. It takes a while to get into the right sleeping pattern; the 10-hour time difference is brutal. But, after three or four days, I feel up to making mental notes for ‘Tundra Tales Part 6’.

The typical day. Wake at 6 am. Squeeze past colleagues in cramped tent, complete with giant kerosene stove (Russians love their hot tents). Slip on sandals, walk to wash tent. Carry out an ABC wash (face first, armpits, ‘bottom area’ and, if I’m feeling lucky, feet) using freezing river water in a plastic tub. A wooden pallet serves as a wash station. The soap will not lather. Opportunistic mosquitoes get tangled in the (limited) suds. I dry using a dirty shirt.

6.30 am. To the kitchen tent, an old Soviet throwback of heavy canvas. The kind of thing you still find at Scout jamborees, but with nailed wooden beams, not poles. Black tea and something hot, milky, and reminiscent of school dinners: porridge, rice pudding or semolina, with some chopped apple to liven it up. Topped by lashings of condensed milk (‘moloka’ in Russian). I only recently found out that this is not actually ‘condensed’ milk, thickened by some magical distilling process, but instead milk with huge amounts of sugar added. Whatever its origin, it assumes mythical dimensions in Russia. Moloka is liberally used in tea, porridge, on pancakes (blini) and on bread. Childhood memories of condensed milk and, unbelievably, sugar sandwiches come flooding back. (God knows how I still have all my own teeth.)

Return to sleeping tent. Briefly retch on threshold at the stench of unwashed human bodies, in particular, feet. (It takes a dose of fresh air to make you realize just how bad it is. The culprit sleeps about two feet away. I never saw evidence of washing in the week I was there.) Dress, pack rucksack, coordinate lunch with gunman (on bear duty). Load two quad bikes. Set off about 7.30 am up into the hills. Hammer rocks all day, collect samples for assay, look through my little hand lens; this is not a high-tech job. A brief respite at midday for a lunch of dubious dietary value, normally closely related to previous night’s dinner. In afternoon, munch sunflower seeds using the following technique: 1) store 20-odd seeds in left cheek, aka hamster; 2) balance a single seed between upper and lower jaw, on left side; 3) squeeze gently, seed pops out; 4) transfer kernel with tongue to right hand side for chewing; 5) spit out husk from left side. Deeply satisfying and as addictive as smoking or ‘Love Island’ (Channel ITV2, UK). Filthy habit, of course, but I recommend Bubushka, ‘Grandma’, brand.

At 5 pm, given no breakdowns, back to camp and the warm farty atmosphere of the kitchen tent, alive with laughter, mostly at the expense of the young cook,  too fond of ned-beat music. Eat dinner and banter with colleagues, trying to translate the wide-mouthed frog joke into Russian, with the help of Valentin. He is a bilingual resident of Anadyr, regional capital and a very remote spot; the only entertainment in Anadyr seems to be the annual whale hunt, involving speedboats, old fashioned harpoons, a tractor, and plenty of balls. I enjoy my fried pork, usually with spaghetti or other pasta. The Russians dip into a bowl of raw garlic cloves and munch happily. Everything is washed down by black tea with numerous sugar cubes. Anal as always, I check the expiration dates of produce. Everything is out of date; the Nesquik by 2 years, the coffee by a year, the cans by just a few months. I take my own plate, cup and cutlery to the euphemistically titled ‘wash station’, for their own ‘ABC’; the mosquitoes are happiest at dusk, so the visit is brief. The plates end up liberally covered in dead insects.

From 6 pm to 8 pm. Get all the day’s data from notebook to laptop. Download GPS waypoints. At 8 pm clean teeth and pass out in sleeping bag, with sleep-inducing book; Rider Haggard usually does the trick (it was great to learn the derivation of ‘She Who Must be Obeyed’, from the novel ‘She’, of course). After a night or two, the noise of the 5-kw generator, needed for the geophysicists, becomes tolerable. Mind you, Sonos noise-cancelling headphones are a big help.

Wake suddenly in the middle of the night. Something is sniffing round the tent. A wolverine or bear? Attracted by our fruity scent? I clutch the bear spray and debate whether it is best to go out and confront it, or risk it ripping canvas and me having to spray concentrated pepper inside the tent? I decide it is probably just a gopher and slip back to sleep, sleep mask over eyes, to block out permanent daylight. The dawn is already creeping up, though it never really buggered off. Another day, another dollar.

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Tundra Tales – Year 5

Sit Rep.  Magadan, Far East Russia. August 12th 2016, 7.30 pm. Yuri Gagarin Street. Temperature 18C,  outlook rainy.

A Toyota minivan, missing back window replaced by duct tape and plastic sheeting, literally screeches to a halt. The burly male Russian driver, pumped, as most Russian men are, leaps out, regardless of traffic. He sprints over to the three bemused Ghanaian engineers, visitors from a sister mine, each approximately half his size. Loud laughing, hugs,   high fives, backslaps and selfies ensue. Ignoring our glamorous translators, he runs off just as quickly. I ask Johnathon, leader of the pack, who he was. ‘No idea’ he answers, ‘never seen him before’. That is the effect caused by a black face in this remote part of Russia. Welcome to Magadan.

Yes, it’s that time of year again. Demob from the Chukotka tundra wastes, time to draw breath and scribble words, before life moves on and memories become buried by new experiences.

The stars were in alignment this year. No blackfly feasting on my white flesh. No run-ins with bears or wolverines. No quad bike accidents and cracked ribs. Instead, perfect weather, gentle tundra breezes, a comfortable room, helicopter mobilisation in an MI-8, the gentle giant of Russian aviation, and, best of all, exclusive use of the Trek-All. This ‘Top Gear’-style orange fibreglass vehicle with bloated low pressure tyres can cross any obstacle, even lakes. The sea-sickness subsides after a few rides and the gentle rocking motion becomes soporific. That gives time for power naps, very necessary given that the working day starts at 5.30 am and finishes after 9 pm.

Exploring for gold in the far northeast of Russia has never been easier. Mind you, there was the usual crisis; a vehicle missing from the rendezvous point meant an exhausting trek across soggy tundra with sample-laden rucksacks; this at the end of a long, hot foot traverse. This is the first time my shirt has been off in the tundra, not pleasant for my companion, subjected to the vivid contrast between brown face and dazzling white belly. Another day, a 20 km trek across the tundra, hopping from hummock to hummock, probably the equivalent of 35-40 km on the flat, left our gunman, ostensibly there to protect us from grizzly bears, almost blacking out from exhaustion.

The food could have been better. Top marks considering everything is flown in or dragged across ice for about 400 km in winter, but I never want to see another perfect white, almost spherical egg, presumably from some extreme Gulag-like battery farm. Field lunches comprise optimistically named ‘cutlets’ (photo evidence attached) with cracked wheat or rice; cold spaghetti was a special treat. The chemical soft drinks, with flavours like ‘grape’ and ‘berry’, converted me to a water Nazi; now I only drink cold water. Back home I will install a jug in my fridge, so I always have it at hand.

lunch

Two things make Chukokta special. Firstly, the air. I have never breathed air, except perhaps in Greenland, that feels as fresh. The daily walk from camp to mine office, before 6 am, is delicious and far preferable to the over-heated, farty, 1 km-long Arctic Corridor, a series of shipping containers placed end-to-end and welded together. Mind you, in winter, with temperatures plunging to -40C, the outside route is not an option.

The second special thing is the people. After 5 years of summer visits, I am getting to know this bunch of characters. I appreciate their genuine warmth, despite our lack of a shared language. A few Russian phrases and sign language seem enough to establish good working relationships. I even managed to learn more Russian than normal, thrown in at the deep end with non-English-speaking colleagues on some days. It reminded me of the mid 1990s in Ecuador, travelling in a beat-up Isuzu Trooper, dictionary on dashboard, pointing at chickens and trying to pronounce ‘pollo’.

People who deserve a mention are smiley Stas, whose resemblance to Mads Mikkelsen is preternaturally disturbing (see photo attached). Student Nikita, with his Bradley Wiggins mutton chop sideburns. Canadian/Ukrainian Andrey, who is now on the post-marriage slide into porkiness. Igor, whose wild grey hair looks like it has never had a professional haircut.

MADS OR STAS

Many of these people have drawn the short straw at some stage, and accompanied me in the field for a couple of days. For some it is a great experience, for others clearly a torture. But there is nothing quite like fieldwork for building friendships. That’s why it is difficult when I try to explain back home that my closest friends are in Canada, Peru, Colombia or Far East Russia.

The wildlife continues to fascinate. A fox appears, in the middle of nowhere. Completely fearless, he/she strolls up to within 5 metres and carefully removes the clingfilm and bread of a proffered sandwich. He delicately gulps the sausage and cheese, ignores the bread, and strolls off. Gophers pop up, stand balanced on their tails, and squeak stridently. Big-eared rodents peer from under rocks. Red weasels dart so quickly over the rocks that they leave only a blurred impression on the eye. Wolverines skulk.

The only thing missing to make the Russia experience complete is a winter visit. Come on guys, invite me please……..

 

Film Review – LA CIÉNEGA

LA CIÉNEGA

Finally, time for a film review. Wedding MC duties complete, and I’m kicking back in Ganado Class on the bizarre, and empty, Anchorage-Petropavlosk flight. It must be the only US flight that crosses the northern Pacific to Russia. Departing once a week, it even has its own dedicated terminal at Anchorage; the halls are shabby and tired, as if preparing the traveler for, how to say it tactfully, less ‘well developed’ Russian airports. The flight has the remarkable side effect of making an entire day disappear in only 4 hours. I leave Monday morning, but arrive, in the volcano-strewn Kamchatka peninsula, on Tuesday morning.   Something to do with the International Date Line and the rotation of our blue planet that I still don’t fully grasp. Best of all, and after five years of travelling to Russia, it is heart-warming to see flight attendants with that classic forehead fringe beloved by Russian women.

.cienega

Talking of blue planets, to the film. Again, from Paris to Vancouver, I dodged Hollywood fare and plumped for a Colombian film, ‘La Ciénega’. Yet another inspired decision because, like the Russian-set ‘Leviathian’, but considerably shorter, this film is a joy. Made on a shoestring, it had me properly weeping, and my neighbour squirming in his seat.

The film opens with a magnificent aerial sequence of rolling turquoise surf (drones are clearly making film-making more democratic and affordable). Because of the forward motion of the viewpoint, the waves appear to move backwards, an optical illusion. They seem to claw at the shore. The camera pans behind, to the murky lagoon (‘La Ciénega’), with houses on stilts, before arriving at the kind of busy highway I know well from Latin America. These roads suffer no pedestrians. In fact, they are without pavements. Crammed with logging and container trucks, roaring past in a blue haze of exhaust gas. Cheek by jowl with bustling restaurants and half naked toddlers, so much future roadkill.

Alberto, a young man, occupies one of these dirt-poor houses on stilts, accessible only by canoe. He lies contorted on a low bed, breathing assisted by a ventilator. The sides are open and the constant breeze ruffles his hair, mosquito net and curtains. His hands are clawed, his back contorted, his face palsied. His ribs stick out and his belly is concave. A mirror taped to a spatula, held between teeth, allows him views of lagoon and surf. The implication of the opening sequence, established within a minute, is clear; Alberto is trapped by his body, poverty, topography and logistics. Only his stout mother, played by the magnificent Vicky Hernández, allows his continued survival; his dependency is total, the tenuous electricity supply, on which his life depends, terrifying.

But if life gives you lemons……. Alberto is an artist, not by inherent ability, but by necessity. He draws what he observes in his mirror. Crayons gripped in his claw produce simple scratchings. And his love-life is clearly not DOA. A pretty neighbour takes a shine to him and turns him into her ‘project’, with foreseeable, tragic consequences. Childlike, she is unaware of the effect her short skirts have on the prone Alberto as she straddles him to pin up photos on the wall. Until Mum, fiercely loyal and afraid of where this is going, takes her aside and, in one of the most affecting parts of the movie, explains that Alberto, despite his condition, is still ‘a man, like any other man’. I was expecting some sort of ‘mercy f***’ scenario, but that doesn’t happen; the conclusion is more tragic.

The cinematography, given the miniscule budget, is stunning. Light pervades everything, bringing hope. Glossy sunsets are avoided and mostly the light is that unique tropical white light that is made less harsh by cloudy conditions, as if filtered. Many of the protagonists are clearly non-actors, which makes the film more authentic. Scenarios strike true chords. A male neighbour constantly hurls abuse across the water, but the reason is never explained. A mechanic ends up donating a car battery to Mum, trying to get Alberto mobile. Initially he insists on the full price. But eventually he accepts two fish and some coins, clearly the victim of some emotional mugging; the same way I feel when Christian Aid knock on my door for the envelope. Charity by arm-twisting, not innate generosity.

Only a cynic would suggest that the director, Manolo Cruz, was sniffing for an Oscar by telling a tragic personal history, along the lines of ‘Mar Adentro’ (‘The Sea Inside’) or ‘The Theory of Everything’.  He financed, starred in, and wrote this film; he even lost 20 kgs, a la Christian Bale, to represent the muscular wasting. The film was clearly a personal project. Having seen similar scenarios in Ecuador, where being poor and disabled makes life insupportable, I can sympathise with Alberto and understand the director’s objectives. In the West we have the support of healthcare and social systems that, despite our First World grouches, are first class in comparison. Despite the sub titles, I recommend the film highly.

Review of ‘Mission Impossible 5’ and ‘Trainwreck’. Part of an occasional movie review series.

Why, oh why, choose ‘Mission Impossible 5’ (‘MI’ hereafter)? A moment of madness on another long haul, which I put down to a fortnight of bad sleep, unable to adjust to Japan time. Spookily peopled exclusively by dwarves (Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Tom Cruise, Tom Hollander), this movie is unrelenting crap. In fact, I will use the term ‘gobshite’, brought out only on special occasions. This is despite the fact it was largely filmed in the UK. Whoever bankrolled this should be put against a wall and shot, or at least forced to watch the entire ‘MI’ oeuvre with eyelids held open forcibly, ‘Clockwork Orange’-style. The guilty, judging by product placement, include BMW and Tissot. ‘Casino Royale’, with dear, dear James, worked hard at advertising, but somehow made it classy and ironic. But ‘MI5’ takes things too far, feeling horribly intrusive; at one point, car chase action breaks away to show the proximity alarm on the BMW dashboard. At several stages, BMW palm print security is used to open car doors. Really? Is this what it has come to?

Right, that’s the rant over. Let’s talk in more detail. First, the dwarf thing. I have nothing against dwarves. Some of my favourite actors are dwarves: think of Peter Dinklage in ‘Game of Thrones’, Warwick Davis in the monumental ‘Willow’. Granted, I am freakishly tall, which means a skewed life view. But to make an entire movie with the sole aim of making Tom look average height is just plain wrong. Never have I seen such an ensemble of short actors, clearly to avoid eclipsing Tom. Let’s hope they didn’t film ‘MI5’ in the UK winter; they must have poached dwarves from pantos the length and breadth of the land. And don’t get me started on the whole British thing. It just makes the movie look more like ‘Austin Powers’. Plotlines that stretch plausibility are expected in ‘MI’, but having London filled with red telephone boxes, and have them work, is a step too far. We all know that the final remaining boxes are only for use as urinals and/or advertising space for working girls. Jarringly, most street lighting in ‘MI5’ seems to comprise Victorian gas lamps; roads are paved with cobbles, red post boxes occur on every corner. Which part of London was this filmed in? I am guessing the set of ‘Ripper Street’.

Need we discuss plot? I think you can guess. There is a deadly new threat to the world, in the shape of a Spectre-like organization. Yawn. Remember that major air crash, Indonesian assassination, and financial crash in Hong Kong? They were all engineered, apparently, to cause anarchy. Blah, blah, blah. And, to resolve this sad state of affairs, Tom/Ethan Hunt goes rogue (again). Tom/Ethan Hunt is disowned by his own organization (again), and I don’t mean the Church of Scientology. Tom/Ethan Hunt meets a beautiful, but deadly assassin who initially tries to kill him, but ends up loving him (again). Oh, and Tom/Ethan Hunt rides a powerful motorbike (again). The writing is by numbers and instantly forgettable.

The film is remarkably coy, surely going beyond the requirements of a 12A certificate. Not a drop of blood is seen, despite the high body count and numerous headshots. There is no nudity. There is even a moment when said deadly assassin emerges, dripping and bikini clad, from a pool. Any filmmaker worth his/her salt would have shown a lingering foot-to-face panning shot. It is de rigueur for spy movies. Not in this film. Clearly, the heavy hand of Tom prevailed in the editing suite.  And, I won’t spoil it by revealing no kiss is exchanged, only a hug. Maybe Tom still has latent feelings for Katy, but I suspect his tastes lie elsewhere?

By the way, have you heard that Tom does all his own stunts? Right. And I own a Ferrari and start work for Médecins Sans Frontières next week………..

Second film. ‘Trainwreck’. I watched this because I enjoy Amy Schumer. She falls clearly into the sassy generation of female comics pushing the boundaries of taste, along the lines of ‘Two Broke Girls’. Nothing is off limits in her routines, as she over-shares her own sexual misfortunes. Watch the celebrity roast of Charlie Sheen on Youtube to get an idea.

I have talked about the maths of independent films before. Something similar exists in the comedy-romcom world. It is the well-known Judd Apatow formula. Think of the ’40 year old Virgin’, ‘Knocked Up’ and ‘Bridesmaids’, all of them successful and funny. The mainstay is the exceptionally dry delivery of very rude conversations, normally in inappropriate places, such as classrooms, restaurants and doctor’s surgeries. Words are spoken by unexpected people, such as children or pensioners. Gross out situations are contrived, normally in the bedroom, though in ‘Bridesmaids’ a wedding dress studio and street sufficed.

The plot of ‘Trainwreck’, for what it is worth; as a child, Amy is brainwashed by her bitter, divorced father into thinking monogamy unnatural. Like some of my geo colleagues, she pursues an orgiastic and irresponsible life, full of one-night stands and substance abuse. Her sister chooses a conventional path, marriage to a dork and saccharine kids; she is the foil to Amy, the Laurel to her Hardy. Of course, Amy then meets a doctor who seems to be ‘The One’. Admirably, this ‘knee surgeon to the stars’, is played by a distinctly unconventional Hollywood type, Bill Hader. Pigeon-chested, his arms are skinnier than mine and he has a little paunch. His face has a Jim Carrey-like plasticity. He is the one (small) saving grace. The film also features a ball-breaking British boss (Tilda Swinton, a near neighbour in northeast Scotland), a Dad with dementia, and a nursing home riddled with foul-mouthed geriatrics. Hilarity ensues, or should ensue.

The Apatow formula is applied in ‘Trainwreck’, unrelentingly. But here, instead of the hilarious Paul Rudd, a most underrated comedic actor, the words come from Amy’s mouth. And it doesn’t quite work. I cannot put my finger on it, but, unlike Steve Martin, who made the transition from stand-up to film brilliantly, Amy Schumer does not. The jokes fall flat or seem forced. The plot arc follows the Apatow or Bridget Jones formula: girl or boy meets, or becomes allied with, a badly behaved or socially inferior partner. They have a crisis, normally induced by: a) infidelity, b) falling off the wagon, or c) revealed secrets. Separation, self-pity and substance abuse follow until, finally, a reconciliation wraps up the movie. It involves the hero/heroine rushing to catch their partner before they board a plane, train or bus. Otherwise, this reconciliation occurs in some other public arena, such as a subway, football stadium or dance competition.  A microphone is generally involved. Cue kiss, zoom out to show big city overview, and roll feel good soundtrack. End credits.

Final verdict, ‘Trainwreck’ is a huge disappointment. Unfortunately, Amy’s vagina- and pooh-centric stand-up jokes simply get recycled. With every passing minute, it becomes obvious that the film cannot decide if it is a romcom or a gross-out comedy. It therefore falls between two stools, no pun implied, failing at both. The finale, which sees nonathletic Amy join an overly choreographed cheerleader routine, is embarrassing. Ugh, lazier writing cannot be imagined. Amy should stick to stand-up comedy until she gets better scripts. Ironic, because she wrote this one.

Review of ‘San Andreas’ and ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. Part of an occasional movie review series.

To begin, an explanation of these eclectic choices. As a geologist, the first is essential viewing; I am honour-bound to vet movies with a geological theme. ‘Dante’s Peak’ gets a big thumbs up for its realistic pyroclastic flow and top drawer acting. (That being said, driving over red hot lava will never work; even Pierce has his limits.) The totally crap ‘Volcano’, on the other hand, with a bigger budget, had no volcanic edifice. Instead, lava flowed spookily through Los Angeles sewers, choosing to pop up, incinerate utility workers, then disappear mysteriously. Add in the wooden Tommy Lee Jones, whose face runs the gamut from pissed off and craggy, to craggy and pissed off, and this became a true ‘disaster’ movie. But not in the way the makers intended. So, is ‘San Andreas’ a ‘Volcano’ or another ‘Dante’s Peak’? Dull grey sinter or red hot lava?

‘San Andreas’ features Dwayne Johnson, aka ‘The Rock’, someone I greatly admire. Despite a background in professional wrestling, or because of it, he runs acting rings around Arnie, Van Damme and Vin Diesel. Here he plays Ray, a rugged emergency helicopter pilot who can do remarkable things with a helicopter, some defying the laws of physics. Likewise, the fuel tank seems bottomless; his chopper has the range of a Voyager probe. Sadly, Ray is newly separated from his improbably hot wife, played by Carla Gugino. You may recall her magnificent, ahem, acting assets from ‘Sin City’. Ray is also possessed of an impossibly beautiful daughter, similarly blessed. Wife and daughter become key plot strands, each rescued from a series of ‘Perils of Pauline’-type situations. These include drowning, crushing, and being tied to railway tracks as a locomotive approaches. (Sorry, I made that last one up.)  The women strip down to vests, becoming grungier as the various earthquakes take their toll. Fortunately, eye makeup and lippy survives 9.5 magnitude quakes. Ironically, as foundations fail all around, their foundation, augmented by demolition dust, seems to improve.

I went into ‘San Andreas’ with rock bottom expectations, my default position with Hollywood movies. And was therefore pleasantly surprised. The plot has more holes in it than a Fukushima reactor, but the special effects dazzle and the acting is not bad at all.  ‘The Rock’ does a sterling job, backed up by a great cast, including porky Paul Giamatti as a seismologist with a permanently quizzical expression, as if he just sat on something sharp. Poor Paul seems to have given up on smart films (‘Sideways’ anyone?) and can now be found in such fodder as  ‘Shoot ‘em Up’. I can forgive the over-the-top tsunami, which towers over the Golden Gate bridge. Likewise, that the San Andreas Fault remains as a gaping, bottomless chasm after the quake (has no-one heard of lithostatic pressure folks?). The wavelength of the surface S-waves also looks a bit too long, the ground heaving in gigantic waves. But, in summary, it is all good clean fun and gets the Pratt thumbs-up.

The second film, best categorised as ‘good filthy fun’, was chosen because it is one of those ‘event’ movies that cannot be ignored. Beginning as a ‘Twilight’ fan’s blog, it became a book, then firmly established as a film. I thought it may provide a rich vein for criticism, but I was careful to check that none of my fellow air passengers was underage. Nothing worse than ogling flesh when there is a 10-year old sat next to you. The book was dreadful, full of ‘Anastasia thought he was amazing’ moments. Christ knows how it became a bestseller, but I have a theory, expounded below.

The eponymous Christian Grey is played by Jamie Dornan. Our favourite serial killer, you will recall him drawling ‘Stella’ in his sexy northern Irish accent in ‘The Fall’, the best piece of UK television in the last decade. Throughout ‘Shades’ he has a ‘what the hell am I doing in this’ expression.  Washboard abs are flashed frequently, but, unfairly, and hypocritically, he seems to get a lot less nude than poor Anastasia, played by perky Dakota Johnson.

Christian is a seriously messed up guy. His sex addiction and controlling behaviour goes beyond the pale. And what woman would not run a mile at being asked to sign a contract with clauses like….. well, I can’t even write them down. My mother may read this.

Anastasia shows her spunky character by refusing certain acts, whilst accepting others. She yields to fairly intense spankings. Why would any woman enter into this type of relationship? It can’t just be because he flies a helicopter and is a billionaire, surely? And why are the books so hugely successful, almost entirely with women?

And time for my theories, nothing earth-shattering and I know I risk sounding sexist. Firstly, I think Christian is the ultimate ‘Bad boy’ and many women love a challenge. They want to change him. They want to be ‘The One’ effecting transformation. It doesn’t hurt that he is loaded with cash and has a penchant for Audis.

Secondly, in the modern world women and men are equal. Women are under considerable pressure to have a successful career and be good mothers. To achieve this, they need control in their lives. ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is about the complete loss of control and I suspect that, deep down, this appeals to women. Something here chimes with investigations of female sexual fantasies. Many years ago, I was forced to read ‘My Secret Garden’ (Nancy Friday), by my ex-wife, a sociologist and anthropologist. This collection of female fantasies is a bit of an eye-opener, making ‘Shades’ look like an Andy Pandy bedtime story. You will certainly never look at faithful Fido the same way again after reading Friday.

That is the end of my theorising and I await the onslaught. I have entered a minefield which, as a man, I am ill equipped to traverse.

As with ‘San Andreas’, my expectations of the film were minimal. How could such a terribly written book ever be a good movie? Which just goes to show how wrong one can be. Yes, like the book, some plot strands jar. Did Christian’s equally hot brother really have to fall in love with Anastasia’s best friend? Can Christian really run a massive corporation and fly a helicopter? Cable ties. Really? But that is just me, nit-picking. The movie is entertaining and, breathe it quietly, quite sexy, particularly when perfect sweaty bodies are accompanied by Beyonce’s ‘Crazy in Love’.  The mix of sex, luxury lifestyle and beautiful people is irresistible. I eagerly await the sequel.

Sit. Rep. Peru – ‘Boring scenery’. Weather. Bright sunshine. 25C. Low humidity. Status. Exploring the Cordillera Blanca.

Back to Peru, my favourite destination. Home to Machu Picchu, the world’s No 1 Bucket-list destination, also the most crowded. You will be familiar with Peru from the startlingly accurate depiction in ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’; it is all man-eating ants, quick sands, elongate skulls and extra-terrestrial-influenced archaeology. This time I was determined to finally see Chavín de Huantar. This site, much less-visited, lies on the East flank of the Cordillera Blanca.  During 15 years of Peruvian visits, I have caught far-off, snowy glimpses from various copper and gold prospects. A work window finally gave me a chance to visit, in the company of two close friends, one a Scot, the other Australian. (Cue ‘yoghurt versus Australia’ and ‘Australian Ballet’ jokes.)fig1The plan was for 5 days of road trip through the Cordillera, with frequent stops for roast pig sandwiches (chicharron), micro-brewery beer, and visits to dingy night clubs. It didn’t quite turn out that way; head colds and mild altitude sickness stymied plans for late nights and, like angelitos, we were tucked up and snoring before 10 pm. The closest we got was a couple of beers after a dreadful curry in Huaraz. (Tip. Never eat ‘authentic’ Thai or Indian cuisine outside the UK or Southeast Asia.) Never mind, the scenery and sights more than made up for the lack of nightlife.

The Cordillera Blanca is remarkable because it is one of the world’s highest tropical mountain chains. Most mountains in this neck of the woods are symmetrical young volcanoes, the kind that children draw; think of El Misti in Arequipa and snow-capped Cotopaxi in Ecuador.  The Blanca is different. It is a continuous spine of unfeasibly beautiful, almost Tolkien-esque mountains formed by muscovite granite. The glaciars are retreating, leaving the kind of landforms that make geography teachers go weak at the knees. Terminal, median and lateral moraines cloak the valley sides. Waterfalls spill over precipices. U-shaped valleys are flanked by towering granite cliffs. The scenery is breath-taking, even for a hardened and cynical geologist like myself. Peru always surprises.

My burly Caledonian colleague, who you may remember from a geological Highland Tour in 2014, proclaims, between sighs, that the scenery doesn’t really ‘do it’ for him. His expectations are clearly sky-high. I exclaim constantly at every new vista. He grunts. Neither does the temple at Chavín de Huantar impress him much. In my opinion, it is one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the world; in his, it is ‘OK’. At the confluence of two rivers, between towering mountains, it is otherworldly and has somehow survived centuries of avalanches, floods and mud-flows.

The Chavín culture was active about 3400 years ago, nearly 3000 years before Machu Picchu was constructed. The temple comprises a couple of plazas, one round, the other rectangular, beneath a single tall flat-topped pyramid of dressed and polished granite and black limestone. In Ying-Yang fashion, the temple is divided into perfect black and white halves. Zoomorphic images abound and the crowning glory is a bladed carved monolithic creature buried deep in a network of tunnels. Very creepy. Carved heads comprising hybrid mythical beings jut out at regular intervals from the high walls.IMG_6209There are none of the rich tombs, dripping with gold artefacts and gemstones, found in later Peruvian cultures. Neither is the pottery exciting. For example, there is nothing like the photo-realistic figures of the pornography-obsessed Moche, along the Peruvian coast. Instead, the crowning glory is the quality of the stonework. Inca stonework, with its 16-angled stones, is impressive, but I have never seen technical skills like Chavín outside Egypt. The rectangular plaza is lined by banks of steps formed by rectangular granite blocks up to 8 metres long. There are hundreds of these domino-like pieces, all with perfect dimensions. The work involved is unimaginable.  And with only stone tools.fig 2

The joy of visiting sites like this is normally the compulsory guide. With profound confidence, our new friend Esteban announces, in practiced drone, that such-and-such a room was ‘used by the priest to consume San Pedro cactus’, the local hallucinogenic. He talks about mystic energy fields and crystals. Woe betide if you interrupt his flow with a piercing question, like, ‘how do you know that?’ Several times he fixes me with a baleful gaze and replies ‘no, space aliens did not build the pyramid.’ Of course, I was only kidding, but my questions clearly just piss him off and force him to deviate from his well-trodden script. He is relieved when, after the inevitable visit to the souvenir stand, coincidentally run by his wife, to buy imitation heads carved in soft sandstone, we finally bugger off for lunch and he can pocket his 40 soles.

The other joy of Chavín is the lack of people. Apart from us, there may have been only two or three visitors. You don’t get that at Machu Picchu; a crush injury is more likely. Chavín is an oasis of peace, with empty hotels, peaceful streets and no nightlife whatsoever.

Archaeological needs sated, we move to Huaraz, on the west flank of the Cordillera Blanca. The city is devoid of colonial buildings because it is regularly devastated by powerful earthquakes. It has one of those grotesquely ugly concrete-and-glass churches considered fashionable in the 1970s. (It resembles Liverpool Catholic cathedral, but Huaraz can at least point to hasty rebuilding after natural disaster as an excuse.) We visit Yungay, where, in 1970, part of Huascarán detached, rocketed down the hillside at several hundred kilometres per hour, and buried several villages in many metres of mud and rock. Over 20,000 people were entombed within seconds. Today there is an eerie memorial park, complete with toothless and decrepit guides who tout for business; they cry ‘I survived Yungay’. The focal point is the ruined church that emerges from the fan of debris. A bus also remains, crumpled into a rusty heap. Ironically, the cemetery, raised on a hill, survived unscathed. Interestingly, the glossiest memorials, financed by their respective patrons, are tributes to the crews of Russian and Argentinian aircraft that crashed on their way to aid Peru in its darkest hour. Gene Savoy, an American treasure-hunter and notorious self-publicist, was nearby when it happened. He recounts, in his book ‘Vilcabamba, Last City of the Incas’, how his child dies, not from the avalanche, but from subsequent waterborne disease. His description is remarkably cold.

Our final day is spent on a backside-numbing trip in our Volkswagen Amarok, a wannabe Hi-Lux with over-inflated, rock-hard tyres, to a pass at 4700 metres elevation. We pass the turquoise lakes at Llanganuco, stopping to argue over the flaky-barked Polylepis tree, which I insist is the source of anti-malarial quinine. (Later research shows that our knowledgeable Ozzie compañero is instead right; quinine is derived from a tropical Peruvian tree called Cinchona. Plumbing his bottomless fact pit, he also he tells us the tree appears on the Peruvian coat of arms. Who would have thunk it?). The views were again breath-taking; the kind of stuff you see in National Geographic, between the glossy, and ever-increasing, adverts for Breitling watches and American Airlines. My Scottish colleague, under the weather from the cold he alleges he caught from me, is even mildly impressed, an improvement. Like children, we use the outstanding mountainscape to take some humorous selfies which I hope will remain buried for a long time.

Only the long slog along the Pan American highway remained. As always, this was a white-knuckle ride, worsened by the heavy footed nature of our Ozzie driver, who belongs to the one-handed school and looks at his cellphone every minute or so. Unlike my other trips on this road, we saw no dead bodies, fatal crashes or remnant oil slicks. I gripped the handles firmly as we weaved in and out of vehicles that, despite their chassis being oblique to the travel direction, seem to attain lunatic speeds. My prayers for salvation were answered and we survived the Peruvian equivalent of Death Race 2000, arriving in Lima in time to see our driver’s son in a cricket match. There followed a very, very enjoyable evening beginning with a get-to-know you drinks event at a Lima bar and finishing in a sweaty Miraflores disco dancing to Cumbia and Regaton with unfeasibly attractive people.fig 5

Now I sit on my Aeromexico flight, watching The Rock ‘acting’ in ‘San Andreas’, trying to avoid a visit to the pestilent toilets. I have over 30 hours to ruminate on my trip, but my conclusion will not change. Visit Chavín before it gets washed away in the next avalanche and mudflow. Get to Huaraz before it suffers the fate of San Francisco, so well depicted in ‘San Andreas’. With the worst El Niño for 50 years predicted, you need to get there quickly. Peru is going to have an interesting and potentially very difficult year. Fingers crossed I am wrong.

Review of ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ and ‘Wild’. Part of an occasional movie review series.

Another long haul, another couple of movies. I am normally drawn to science fiction, films with big bangs. It takes real willpower to watch something less ‘popcorn’. Today, feeling self-righteous, I chose two worthier movies: ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’, based on Thomas Hardy’s novel, one of his least miserable tales, and ‘Wild’, the true story of a woman who confronts her demons by walking the Pacific Coast Route.

I have talked before about the distinct lack of true feminist movies in modern cinema. Even those that claim feminist credentials, such as ‘Mad Max; Fury Road’, fall into some horrible clichéd traps. But today I got the opportunity to meet two women, one fictional, one real, who fall squarely into the category of feminists.

Hardy has a reputation as a misogynist; his female characters are mostly memorable because they suffer so badly, normally at the hands of men. Priests, toffs, soldiers, mayors, they all treat their womenfolk appallingly. To be raped, abandoned, even sold. Poor Tess, she of the D’Urbervilles, is probably the most memorable. I have her image, brought to life by Nastassja Kinski in Polanski’s version, etched on my memory. Forced first to eat a strawberry from the hands of the arch-cad Alec D’Urberville and then rape on a dark night on The Chase.  She is a classic, tragic Hardy heroine, fallen so far that she ends up on the gallows. In a final act of misogyny, Hardy gifts Angel Clare, Tess’s beau, her younger sister as consolation prize.

‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ is a little different. It features Bathsheba Everdene, not a victim, but a women of independent means. She can manage just fine without a man, thank you very much. She smirks when Farmer Boldwood offers her, as well as 400 acres, a piano in return for her hand in marriage. This is because she already owns one. Bathsheba is played in this version by an actress  with strong feminist credentials, Carey Mulligan. She has a hard act to follow, because who can forget Bathsheba played by the magical Julie Christie? Carey, possessed of a wasp-like waist (and lips), strides around determinedly in tight-fitting dresses and leather jackets, clearly the 19th Century equivalent of skinny jeans. She rides a horse like a man, eschewing side saddle. She holds her own in a male world, running a successful farm and bartering grain prices with gentlemen farmers. At the time Hardy wrote the novel, this must have been ground-breaking stuff.

Hardy depicts Bathsheba in the novel as vain, willful and flighty. And Carey’s version shows traces of these characteristics; she stupidly sends Farmer Boldwood a Valentine card, when she really has no interest in him. But in this film Carey depicts Bathsheba as a much more intelligent, cool-headed woman. In the novel, Bathsheba rejects Gabriel Oak’s early marriage proposal with haughty disdain. She makes it clear he is beneath her. In the film, it is a gentler and more considered rejection. She simply says she is not ready to marry.

But, despite this encouraging start, Hardy just cannot resist turning Bathsheba into a bit of a weak female caricature. The film follows suit. She literally melts at the first sight of dashing Sergeant Troy, in his red uniform and big, curved sword (get the Freudian reference?). She completely overlooks the fact he is a complete dick. Whereas poor dependable Gabriel Oak, and dull-but-rich Farmer Boldwood, never even make it to first base, Bathsheba more or less lets Troy feel her up at their second meeting. And, in the film, they seem to be wedded and bedded by the following evening. So much for her high morals and independent character. Mind you, she realizes Troy is a cad pretty quickly; he guzzles brandy at the reception and encourages farmhands to sing bawdy songs. After Troy is conveniently removed from the equation, Bathsheba, at the final dénouement, falls into the arms of dependable, monosyllabic Gabriel Oak; he is the only man who truly ever loved her.  Mind you, Hardy more or less makes her beg him to marry her, his misogynistic petticoats again showing.  It is really not much of an improvement on ‘Taming of the Shrew’.

The film is great though. Lots of sunny Wessex scenes, with plenty of lens flare, hair blowing in the wind and other truly cinematic camerawork. The only thing that jars is the unrealistic nature of farm scenes. Gigantic fields, devoid of hedgerows, clearly ploughed by titanic tractor, stand in for 19th Century hay meadows. Unfortunately, it takes more than a bit of manky grass flung on fertiliser-fed, pesticide-laced fields to achieve realism. Clothes suffer the same fate as antique cars in period TV shows; they look too new. Hardy’s peasants are too well dressed. Otherwise, a touching film that will have the toughest, most cynical guys in tears, even if the lead man looks more Scandinavian than West Country.

‘Wild’ is brilliant. Any film that, early on, features a close-up of the protagonist’s ‘field dump’, geologist-speak for ‘outdoor pooh’, gets a big thumbs-up from me. I had no idea that women actually poohed, let alone in the countryside, so that came as a bit of a shock. I can also think of only one other pooh-centric film, ‘Pink Flamingos’ by John Waters, and that is seriously weird. (OK, ‘Trainspotting’ is another.)

Cheryl Strayed, an appropriate name, given her slutty behaviour, undertakes a mammoth walk in North America, to heal herself. This woman goes seriously off the rails after the death of her beloved mother, played by the luminous Laura Dern (shamefully consigned to David Lynch films after starring in ‘Jurassic Park’). Cheryl descends into heroin and cheats on her husband numerous times, often in the backroom of the restaurant where she waitresses.  Ironically, Cheryl is played by saccharine-sweet Reese Witherspoon, her of ‘Legally Blonde’ fame. My cynical side suggests Reese took this role as penance for her appalling, and well publicised, behaviour to traffic cops (‘don’t you know who I am?’). Henry Fonda, renowned for good guy roles, made a similar career move when he played the baddie in ‘Once Upon A Time in The West’. Arnie did it, in reverse, for ‘Kindergarten Cop’. Whatever her motivation, Reese, and the director, do an excellent job. This is a film that totally avoids cliché and sentimentality. The landscapes do not intrude on the story; long drawn out sunsets and mountain spectacles are avoided. In fact, some of the Pacific Coast Trail follows noisy highways and looks totally crap. Camouflaged rednecks wander the forest on some parts. In the style of ‘Deliverance’, they carry bows and arrows and exude menace. Cheryl survives this unwanted male attention, but the film depicts the fear of rape very well. It takes a special type of filmmaker to successfully transmit that fear to male viewers.

Cheryl’s grieving is finally properly triggered close to the end of the trek, by a conversation with a young child. She drops to her knees and weeps. Anyone who has ever undertaken a tremendous physical exertion, like a marathon, will know how the slightest kind gesture can trigger overwhelming emotions. And, for some strange reason, it is often strangers that do it. I think most of us can empathise.

Films that make us care are powerful and memorable. So thank goodness I skipped ‘Avengers; Age of Ultron’, the memory of which does not last beyond the foyer, and instead plumped for these two. I recommend both highly.