I think enough time has passed for me to safely post this. Not all my clients are happy clients. Normally because I just brought them a huge reality check. But, better to know the truth than spend millions of dollars drilling something that is not there.
The following poem was written by one such disgruntled client, after some mapping in the upper Amazon basin. Enjoy.
Now and then it is nice to watch one of those ‘off the radar’ films. On SAS I can check out Danish films, which is how ‘After the Wedding’ became one of my favourites; and not just because it has Mads in it. Similarly, I can get my quotient of screen nudity and gallic noir on Air France. KLM has the odd Dutch corker. Since today I was on Aeroflot, a Russian independent film seemed to fit the bill. I chose ‘Leviathan’, with a cetacean-like running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Before I start, I should say that there is a cast-iron, copper-bottomed formula for successful small, independent movies. I mean those that cannot afford Tom Cruise, spectacular stunts or Jurassic Park-style CGI. The formula is this: long, drawn-out shots of grey, rainy shores; monotonal Sigur Ros-type Scandi music that builds to a crescendo; mysterious characters who share meaningful looks, but don’t say much; others who fail to answer direct questions, then walk away slowly; long tracking shots that go on just a little too long. Hints of past troubles, as in the detective shows. And, finally, the Number 1 cliché; final scenes that mirror the opening ones, switching on an involuntary light bulb in the brain, triggering an emotional response. In other words, the overall feel is ‘moody ambiance’.
‘Leviathan’, clearly filmed on a tight budget, ticks all these boxes. Having said that, the movie paints a fascinating picture of small town corruption and modern attitudes in Russia. I also get the impression that the film is subversive, though, as an outsider, it is difficult to be sure. For example, in one hunting scene the drunken characters use old portraits, including Brezhnev, Lenin and Gorbachev, as shooting targets. One asks the other if he ‘has anything more recent?’, probably tantamount to treason.
They used to say, in England, that ‘it is grim up North’. Try ‘grim up North in Russia’ and you get the atmosphere of ‘Leviathan’. Like a Russian version of Get Carter (the one with Michael Caine, not Sylvester). I only persisted to the end because I was hoping for some sort of happy resolution. I won’t give the game away.
The plot is this. Kolya, the town mechanic, and his beautiful younger wife and son, are to be evicted by the corrupt mayor from their land. Though a great handyman, Kolya is clearly no architect; he built the only house in town with enormous glass windows, which must mean hellish heating bills in the bitter winter. Mind you, it does make for good lighting in crucial drinking scenes, set in the bright kitchen. At the start of the film he is pitted in battle against the mayor, who, in the tradition of all great movies, is fat and has the police and judiciary in his back pocket. It is all downhill for Kolya from there on. Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. His wife sleeps with the hotshot Moscow lawyer who comes to help out. His son goes off the rails, starts to drink, and stares at beached whale skeletons moodily, never a good sign. The wife contemplates flinging herself into the sea, while a whale, possibly the only CGI in the movie, breaches the choppy water below. So far, so moody.
There is a religious component; the local Russian Orthodox priest, a bearded, handsome chap, spouts moralistic rubbish, but seems to condone bad behaviour. Misogyny is everywhere. Wives are beaten, abused and generally mistreated. (And after reading an article on domestic abuse in the Moscow Times, on this same Aeroflot flight, this seems a sad and realistic assessment of modern day Russia.)
The film is steeped in alcohol. The characters spend over 50% of the time drunk; in fact, I don’t think I have seen such fine drunken acting since Burton and Taylor. Perhaps they really were drunk? Alcohol is prevalent in the best scenes. A wife asks her paralytic husband if he is OK to drive; he replies, ‘of course, I’m a traffic cop!’ Kolya is asked, in the shop, what he wants to buy. His response, ‘vodka, what else?’ It begs the question, is alcoholism really this prevalent in Russia? My limited drinking experiences (you know who you are) suggest that vodka is widely enjoyed and that there is no such thing as ‘just one shot’.
In my Russian Sit Reps I often mention the poor condition of Russian housing stock, outside the main population centres. The remote, northern fishing town that is backdrop to ‘Leviathan’ is populated by these buildings; ruined churches, crumbling fish factories, dank apartments. The filmmakers linger over these images of decay and even a moron like me can figure out their overall thesis, that Russian society is also decaying. This message is bludgeoned home. I would love to know what my Russian friends made of the film. Perhaps I am completely barking up the wrong tree.
In summary, be prepared for the long haul and seriously reduced bandwidth when you stream ‘Leviathan’ from Netflix. Yes, it would have been better with half an hour trimmed. But there are great rewards to be had. Fine acting, hilarious drunken scenes and luminous landscapes. And, after all, how many Russian-centric movies, apart from Dr Zhivago and the brilliant Battleship Potemkin, have you seen? (I am not counting Rocky IV.)
To try to continue self-improvement during my ‘year off’, I took myself, at short notice, to Morocco. Not to Marrakesh, long a magnet for, how to put it delicately, ‘those seeking same-sex company’. Nor to Casablanca, supposedly a renowned film location, though I have my doubts. But instead to Taroudannt, a small town nestled in the broad Souss river valley, between the High Atlas and Anti Atlas Mountains, inland from Agadir. I should point out that there is no water in the river, all is extracted for agriculture. But the town has all the essential ingredients of Morocco, without the hassle. Big crenulated mud wall round the town? Tick. Souks selling leather slippers? Tick. Five o clock (am) calls to prayer? Tick. A perfect place for long walks in the foothills, treacly coffee under palm trees, and the odd swim in tributary rivers, naturally upstream of where all the water gets abstracted.
My old school teacher runs a simple hotel, with special rates for ex-students. She undertakes social and environmental programs. Save the tortoise, honeybee and argan tree; supporting initiatives such as soap-making, pottery and responsible tourism. That sort of thing. Signs in the bathroom exhort careful use of water, so I feel guilty every time I take a shower, despite being the world’s fastest shower-taker. Vegetarian food, not my preferred diet, abounds. Markets overwhelm. Bright sun on displays of oranges causes physical pain to the retina. The green vegetables look too green, the carrots too orange. After a week of this vegetable torture, I was several pounds lighter, but craving a burger and fries. And now I never want to see another courgette, fig or date.
The cultural shock is profound. I know virtually no French, apart from the schoolboy voulez vous couchez avec moi, which didn’t come in very handy. Arabic is downright opaque, with weird guttural utterances similar to Welsh. I could manage the important stuff, like hello, goodbye and thanks. (People who know me will be stunned by omission of my ‘stock phrase’.) Let’s not even start with Berber, the native tongue and its corresponding hieroglyphs. So I got by sketching on scraps of paper, or holding up a phrase book with numerals when bartering. And hand signals.
The dominant religion is Islam and this makes for a very pleasant experience. It seems that Morocco is some sort of paradise, where everybody is happy, despite what we would consider as grinding poverty. Perhaps because it has rained recently and everything is fresh. There are no graven images, which means virtually no billboards or advertising. No images of Christ on the Cross, his side pierced by spears, as in my usual South American stamping grounds. No scantily clad models. No loud music. No alcohol, except in hotels for foreigners. Dress is very conservative. Women’s heads, arms and legs are covered. It is amazing how, after a week, even a glimpse of henna-tattooed ankle started to look erotic. The young men favour a sort of Mohican haircut. But they don’t strut and there are no legs on display. There is an apparent innocence to everybody; they greet and smile effusively.
Morocco has magnificent geology, always my escape. It keeps me both sane and insane. Morocco is one of the few places in the world where the explosion of life on Earth, in the early Cambrian, about 540 million years ago, is recorded. I cycle out to Tiout, once a candidate for a prestigious Golden Spike, the hallowed, internationally recognized, locality that marks the change from the Precambrian to the Cambrian. In the event, Morocco lost out to Newfoundland for the Golden Spike (damn those Newfies, with their beavers, skidoos and world-class geology). But the strata at Tiout are still impressive, with reefs and trilobites, animals that resemble giant cockroaches. I walked for several hours along a wadi, then up into the hills, and finally down a limestone ridge. Gullies between the rocks are planted with fresh green barley, not irrigated and therefore totally dependent on rainfall. The sun beats down and it feels good to do some exercise and get a sweat on. I get lost on the way back, taking a short cut that fizzles out into a gravel strewn plain. I end up pushing my bike across pebbly semi-desert, arriving an hour late for dinner, in the dark and exhausted. After that, even the vegetables looked good.
The next day, I visit more Cambrian rocks at Adar ou Aman, seeking the oldest skeletal fossils on Earth (archaeocyaths). Under leaden skies, I am shadowed for hours by three kids, aged about ten. They are fascinated by this nutcase, on his hands and knees with a lens, peering at fossils. They hold my hand, steal my sunflower seeds, share my lunch, wear my hat and chip away with the geological hammer. The hand lens causes great hilarity as they examine with it their fingertips, coins and hair. Of course, coming from the UK, where my local newspaper relies entirely on reporting paedophilia, this feels uncomfortable. But that is me, bringing my prejudices to a part of the world that is a million miles, and a hundred years, from what passes for culture in the UK. However, eventually I get sick of them pestering for money, to buy a ‘balon’, allegedly, and tell them to bugger off in pidgin French. They don’t take offence, and leave with a chocolate each, casually discarding the purple wrappers on the hillside. Clearly, the environmental message is not arriving at Adar ou Aman.
In transit, on my way out of Morocco, I find that Casablanca’s miserable national departure hall is dominated by another golden spike. This time, a gigantic one embedded in the cavernous ceiling, pointing down onto nervous passengers. Resembling something cast off from Game Of Thrones, it looks like it may detach at any moment. A cat strolls around, looking for titbits. Arms are missing from chairs and the atmosphere is deeply gloomy. The icing on this particularly grotty cake is a guy idly smoking beneath a ‘proud to be a non-smoking airport’ sign. Add to the mix the usual slab-faced immigration officers, who don’t even respond to a pleasant ‘Salamou Aleikum’, and Casablanca becomes just another shite transit airport. It kills romance dead and will forever stain my opinion of ‘Casablanca’, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
Conclusions. Visit Morocco, like I did, for a detox of the mind and body. Escape the 21st Century and enjoy simpler pleasures. And, don’t worry, if this all sounds too awful to contemplate, they do have decent WiFi; you can always turn to the Daily Mail Online for your fix of British culture.
Weather. Early morning fog, later intense sun. 20 degrees C. Status. Metal exploration.
Mules are very under-rated. They are the transport backbone in the mountainous parts of the Andes, linking isolated communities, bringing supplies and ferrying out the sick and dead. Carrying up to 200 pounds, without complaint, they are also invaluable for footsore geologists, exploring for gold, silver and copper.
This is a tale of a mule traverse, from the high Andes, to the coastal plain, of Ecuador. Two geologists, one under-aged machetero, and Macho the Mule. An unforgettable journey into little-visited mountains, almost untouched by ‘civilization’.
Of course, the Andes do have transitable dirt roads, but they are impassable in the wet season, because of landslips, and dusty and rutted in the dry. To get to the road-head, you generally spend a day or two on them. And these roads strike fear. Precipitous drops, sometimes a thousand metres, into gorges and raging rivers; worthy of those TV programs that tout the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’. Forget road barriers; they don’t exist. Add into the pant-wetting mix drivers who favour a one-handed approach to hairpins, using a polishing action on the steering wheel, hand flat against the middle, and these roads become genuinely terrifying. Not surprisingly, I normally emerge from these trips with a wet back, from cold sweats. During the worst stretches, I exit the car and walk ahead. These roads scare the shit out of me and I’m convinced they will one day claim my life. And this is not an unrealistic fear. A Peruvian friend, the marvellously named Wenceslao, plunged from a hairpin into an abyss. Luckily, he was in a Toyota Hilux, the other ‘workhorse’ of the Andes. He survived, but with life-changing injuries. Another passenger was thrown through the side window, then crushed and killed by the rolling car.
All the Andean dirt roads decline in quality and eventually fizzle out, normally at a village which serves as a distribution hub for more isolated communities. And that distribution is effected by my friend, the mule. Everything gets loaded onto these patient animals. Zinc roofing sheets, gas bottles, cement, timber and steel reinforcing rods. The list is endless.
So we find ourselves at a highland village, about 4000 metres above sea level, preparing for a mule traverse. The people are a mix of Quechua-speaking indigenas and Spanish-speaking mestizos. Occasional black faces peer from windows; they are described to me, unfairly, as fugitives from the Ecuadorian justice system, choosing to settle far from their native towns and cities, where they are wanted men.
We arrange our machetero, a surly, suspicious bugger, and mule for the following day. We agree prices, then travel back to the larger town of Pucará, to stop the night. The only accommodation is a convent. The place is a freezing, stark concrete monstrosity. The Catholic cura treats us warily, perhaps embarrassed by his small gaggle of 15-year old ‘nuns’, interpreted by my colleagues as his girlfriends. They tell me that, so far off the beaten track, the local priest more or less behaves as he likes. Probably grossly unfair, but I am no fan of the activities of the Catholic church in South America, so I choose to believe it.
I shower under a freezing torrent, missing bricks providing ventilation and access to the howling wind. Every geologist has their own cold water shower routine. Some just plunge in. Cowards, like me, use the ABC method (after the Spanish, ‘axilas, bolas y culo’), beginning by wetting the parts with fewest nerve endings. Surprisingly enough, these seem to be the genitals. (Not sure what this says about me.) Then I finish with the neck, shoulders and face, pure torture.
Shortly after this invigorating, pneumonia-inducing shower, the driver approaches, smirking. Two women at the convent door want to speak. I go down and quickly establish that there has been some miscommunication. This is how it arose. Ecuadorians are very formal. If you have a University degree, you are an ‘Ingeniero’ (literally, engineer). If you have a doctorate, then you are always ‘Doctor’. Clearly, someone overheard the word. At the door stand two hefty young women, clothed in typical indigena garb, with multiple, billowing skirts, white blouses and black porkpie hats. They needed there monthly check-up, and respective certificates, to allow them to keep ‘working’. And since no medical practitioners were available within a four hour bus radius, they seized their opportunity. I politely let them down, explaining I am a doctor of rocks and therefore practically useless, unless they were interested in epithermal gold veins. Gonorrhoea is not my speciality. They shrug and walk off, disappointed. Despite the remoteness, it is admirable that the tentacles of the Ecuadorian healthcare system extend so far.
Early next morning we head back to the road-head. There is no great surprise when the machetero fails to turn up. After all, it is Saturday and weekends are dangerous, particularly in rural areas. Ecuador has a huge drink problem, fueled by cheap sugar cane alcohol, known as aguardiente or puro. Roads are sometimes blocked by unconscious drinkers, always male. Groups of men can become aggressive, blockading roads to unknown vehicles, a problem if your job is exploration and you are new to the area. Ecuadorian society is deeply macho and it is common to see the loyal wife sitting patiently by her comatose husband in a ditch, waiting for him to recover. Or leading him, barely upright, on a horse. The women are diligent and use this downtime to spin wool as they sit. They keep this up even when walking. In fact, I am convinced women drive the rural economies of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia.
Drinking also leads to sex abuse and incest. I am no sociologist and cannot say just how prevalent it is; my experience is based on hearsay. Most Highland girls seem to have babies before the age of 15 or 16, but that is considered normal and not what we would consider as ‘abuse’. But more disturbingly, I had noticed the previous day, tiny hovels beneath the ignimbrite cliffs, a hard walk uphill from the road-head village. Each large enough for one person. I ask in the village and, apparently, these are where daughters escape to on a Saturday night, to escape the attentions of their fathers, stepfathers and uncles.
After an hour of waiting around, we contract a new machetero, probably fifteen years old, practically mute, and his mule. The animal is duly loaded with tents, sleeping bags, food and sample bags. Cans of sardines and condensed milk, my downfall, dominate the inventory. As we set off, predictably, the originally contracted machetero emerges blearily from his pit, hungover, starts complaining and all hell is let loose. There is already an undercurrent of anti-stranger feeling, common in the remote parts of Ecuador, and this incident, fueled by alcohol, ignites the flame. A cartoonish lynch mob assembles from nowhere, half of them drunk. No pitchforks, but plenty of machetes. There follows a very nervous half hour as we begin our traverse, back along the road for a short distance. Our driver keeps the vehicle between us and the angry mob. However, sometimes being a gringo has advantages; the locals seem a little more nervous about attacking a foreigner. With huge relief, we take the plunge down a mule trail and the mob loses interest and evaporates.
The mule traverse begins in earnest. A six day walk, mostly descending, with the heavy lifting done by the mule, freeing us geologists to hammer promising-looking rocks and collect samples. All as part of World Bank efforts to kick-start mining investment. We were the pioneers, sent out to discover future mines. The program was a reasonable success, but corruption diverted some of the money, intended for exploration, into the pockets of a few Ecuadorian fat cats. On the plus side, I made friends for life.
It is July in the highlands, the dry season. We begin about 4000 metres, planning to drop down to sea level, passing through several climatic and vegetation zones. The lack of rain makes for a pleasurable experience. The vegetation at this elevation is fascinating. From a distance, it could be Scottish moorland. But, up close, it looks very different. Instead of heather and berries, the ground is a hard, brittle carpet of dwarf shrubs and grasses. Many are waxy and hairy, a survival strategy against evaporation, intense ultraviolet light, and night frosts. Leaves are spiky, or curl in on themselves. This turf is dotted with tiny purple, yellow and white flowers; I am lousy with flowers, but recognize violets. Crunching pleasantly underfoot, like astroturf, it is one of my favourite surfaces, light-years from the boggy Russian tundra. The only plant that rises more than a few inches, is the frailejon, a pineapple-like confection of spikey leaves, with a central flower stalk, hairy and sticky, providing nectar for hummingbirds.
Once the inevitable altitude sickness and lassitude have passed, walking over this high ground, known as ‘paramo’, is unique and awe-inspiring. Cliffs of ignimbrite, with tooth-like columns, jut from the gently rolling green scenery. Most people think of the Andes as jagged mountains, but large tracts in Ecuador and Peru comprise high plateaus, cut by deep, steep-sided gorges. The occasional snow-capped volcano, straight from a child’s drawing, and reaching 6000 metres, towers over this terrain. The air is cold, fresh and intense. If there is no fog, the equatorial sun fries skin. Hats, sunglasses and long sleeved shirts are essential. In rain, it is the most miserable place on Earth, horrible for navigation.
As we descend, over the next few days, we enter first a zone with low, fragrant shrubs, with waxy leaves. As you brush through, clouds of pollen and scent are released. The smells include mint, thyme and rosemary, but some induce nausea. Gradually we enter cloud forest. Most of the year, this is a dripping wet, mossy environment. The trees are short, but densely packed. They drip with parasitical moss, orchids and bromeliads, looking like aerial pineapples. I wonder how the trees can sustain the weight. Unlike those arrays of gigantic, brilliant purple orchids in Tesco, the orchids here are small and yellow or flesh-coloured. Brilliant red flowers emerge from the bromeliads, like spears, and tiny frogs live in the bowl-shaped clusters of leaves, which trap water. Their entire lives are spent within these little communities, perched in the trees. Off the trail, the atmosphere is gloomy, oppressive and too quiet. Birds flit about furtively.
I start to befriend our machetero, a nervous youth, who barely says a word. I begin by asking the mule’s name. Of course, a relative newcomer to South America, I’m completely out of touch with life here. Animals, especially pack animals, don’t have names. They are commodities, like sacks of rice. The machetero looks bemused and eventually offers ‘Macho’, which, of course, means ‘male’. In my blissful ignorance, and before I had properly mastered Spanish, I thereafter call him ‘Macho’. What a berk.
These are pre-GPS days and the 1:50,000-scale topographic maps we have are total crap. Entire villages are mislocated, misnamed or non-existent. I navigate by altimeter and compass, reading the map contours and rivers. We hammer the rocks, take our samples, descending all the time. Crystalline rivers tumble down over smooth rock exposures. Geologist’s heaven.
We arrive at a tiny village called ‘El Paraiso’ (Paradise). It is still relatively untouched by the modern world, quaint and dusty. It means a comfortable night’s sleep, under a proper roof, rather than canvas. Such villages are a dying species. Slowly, but surely, road-heads advance and electricity arrives, particularly since the election of the social reformist president, Rafael Correa. With my own eyes, in the space of ten years visiting Ecuador, I see the change. It comes straight from the pages of Thomas Hardy, documenting the industrialization of England in the late 1800s; the elimination of a perceived, gentler, more pastoral life. In Ecuador, mud-brick buildings, with clay tile roofs, are replaced by concrete and galvanized zinc. This is seen as progress. Plastic starts to proliferate in and around the village. And no one sees the irony of a gigantic pink plastic babywalker, in a village built on a steep mountain side with no transitable streets. Inevitably, it ends up dumped in the nearby quebrada.
The impact is not just physical, but social. Pre-electricity, I have nostalgic memories of peaceful evenings, with three generations of family clustered around kerosene lamps, playing naipe, a card game, obsessively. Only matchsticks are gambled. Laughter rings out. Bats flit in and out of the field of view, snapping up moths drawn by the light. Fireflies drift around, blinking neon every five seconds or so. People are abed early and rise early.
Now, with the arrival of electricity, street lamps drive the bats and fireflies farther out. No longer reliant on expensive batteries, music blasts out, dawn till dusk, and beyond. Priorities change. Young people now buy gaudy sound systems on credit, bringing them home by mule. They treasure them, putting them in prominent positions, covering them with cloth when not in use. They are mini-altars, raised to the twin gods of credit and consumption. Invariably they are flanked by posters for local beer, with a big-assed girl (Ecuadorians love some ‘chunk in the trunk’) looking over her shoulder at the camera, bottle in hand, smiling. And the inevitable, stiff family portrait photographs, all smart suits, slicked hair and terrified expressions. Cheap Chinese-made motorbikes also appear, a little in advance of the advancing road-heads, because they can always be pushed the first leg of the journey to town and the social kudos of being the first to own a bike is immense.
But El Paraiso is still untouched. Electricity has not arrived. I capture a firefly in a glass jar, and, as I sleep on wooden boards, it blinks through the night beside me. A breeze comes through the gaps in the planks of the wall. Aromatic scents drift in.
Next day, dropping down the Cordillera flanks, there is a spectacular flat sea of cloud below. Common in Ecuador, this is unknown in Peru and Chile. In those countries the Andes drop West to a bone dry coastal plain, parched by millions of years of negligible rainfall. The Atacama Desert is dry for a reason. The cold offshore current, travelling north, provides no moisture to the air. Therefore, no rain falls on land. In contrast, Ecuador is blessed by a warm sea current, travelling south. It provides moist air and explains the tropical climate, ideal for banana plantations in the coast. The cloud in my field of view is augmented by smoke from numerous fires, set by the campesinos. They use it to clear scrub and forest, providing green shoots for grazing their few pox-ridden cattle when the rains arrive.
The first few nights under canvas are uneventful. Food is cooked on an open fire. There is pleasant chat with my newly qualified geologist colleague, Edgar, a fresh-faced, inoffensive guy. Overweight and out of breath, this traverse is a living hell for him. I don’t believe he has ever walked more than a kilometre or two. Also a hardcore smoker, he sneaks cigarettes behind my back, knowing how I hate the habit. Edgar, now, sadly, and prematurely, dead, came from the privileged class of richer Ecuadorians. He never had to cook in his life. Meals were provided by mollycoddling maids. He is totally impractical in the field, unable to even tie a knot. He asks ‘where should I wash?’ and I point him at the stream. Some evenings he collapses into his sleeping bag, unable to even eat his dinner. This is the hardest thing he has done in his life. I have a treasured photograph of Edgar, mid ablutions, underpants firmly pulled up. (Little known fact. All Ecuadorians shower with their underpants on. I anticipate a huge backlash now from Ecuadorian friends.)
I was with Edgar when he lost his virginity, in the seedy coastal town of Pasaje, where petty theft has been raised to an art form. Well, let me clarify. A more corrupt, older Ecuadorian geologist hired a couple of working girls to initiate Edgar into manhood on his birthday. I was already in my bed while this was going on. The geologists sneaked out after wishing me goodnight (honest guvnor). Edgar was mortified when the sorry tale was related by the older geologist the next evening, over dinner. Red-faced, Edgar later came to my hotel room protesting that ‘nothing had happened’, waving an unused condom, and ranting how his colleague was the ‘Devil’. (Getting to know the other guy over a couple of years, I came round to his point of view.) Until that evening, as I hugged a delicate and sobbing Edgar, I had never appreciated just how much counselling was involved in my job. Later I had to tackle the Devil, and tell him to ease off on Edgar.
On the mule traverse I cook, with emphasis on tuna and instant noodles. Everything tastes good in the wild. One learnt recipe, which I must share, involves a can of tuna, one tomato, one red onion, one lemon and a large plastic rock sample bag. Chop the tomato and onion finely, mix in bag with tuna, squeeze in lemon and leave for five minutes. Voila, delicious tuna and tomato salad, without the mess and no washing up.
The gulf between my world and this world becomes apparent on the fourth night. As we descend, the vegetation becomes more tropical. Secondary jungle, plantains (savoury bananas) and maize appear. As night falls we arrive at a smallholding, towered over by a gigantic zapote tree, in full fruit. Zapote is the size of a grapefruit and resembles a mix of melon and mango. The flesh is stringy, lodging between teeth for hours.
A gaunt woman, dressed in a ragged cotton dress, welcomes us. She lives in a timber shack, with a rusty corrugated zinc roof. Six or seven children stand silently, observing us and holding hands. Their faces are plastered with streaming snot, cracked and etched into their red faces by the intense sun. They look starved, with thin limbs and bloated stomachs. A sad tale ensues. The woman has not seen her husband in over a year. He went to the gold mines to make his fortune. She has heard no news since and, penniless, she struggles to support her family.
We agree to buy one of her valuable chickens, paying a big premium, which gives her much-valued cash. She kills it and prepares a watery caldo (stew). These country chickens are quite unlike KFC. The flesh is dark purple, coated with bright yellow fat, and very tough. The thighs are long. Bones are strong, they don’t melt in the mouth, like our factory farmed versions. Every part is used. As the level of the soupy stew drops in the bowls, feet, intestines and cleaved heads, complete with beak, start to emerge. We share our rice and vegetables and the kids enjoy a rare feast. She then whips up a dessert called ‘leche colostra’. At the time, I confess I wasn’t sure what I was eating, but it resembled scrambled egg. It turns out, it is colostrum, the first, very fatty milk, produced by a cow after birthing. Mixed and cooked with water, chamomile and panela (sugar). It was vile.
The kids are thrilled by our chocolate. They examine the bars as if for the first time. Perhaps it was.
We retire to our tent, raised under the huge zapote tree. I find it hard to sleep, thinking on the callousness of the husband. He was no doubt in nearby Pasaje, drunk and spending his hard-earned gold on whores. Ironically, as the crow flies, he is probably only 50 kilometres from his wife. But he may as well be on the moon. The poverty also affects me. This is not a biblical-type famine, like those reported from East Africa by Michael Buerk, which triggered Live Aid. Thank God, I have never visited such places or witnessed such scenes. People in Ecuador do not die of starvation, they always make do. But the poverty can be grinding.
Packing up the tent the next morning, we leave virtually all our food with the family. I show them how to open the cans of condensed milk, using a machete. The woman is weeping with gratitude and clutching my arm, begging us not to leave. I feel empty. To this day, the memory brings tears to my eyes. I wonder what happened to those kids.
On the final night of the traverse we find a wooden shack and sleep in relative comfort. I make instant noodles with tuna for the three of us. A nearby wildfire, out of control and blazing on a kilometre-wide front, paints the sky orange. The ominous roar and explosion of trees and bushes wakes me several times in the night and I monitor the progress of the fire. But we stay safe and the smoke blows in another direction.
The next day, walking along deeply rutted mule trails, I notice scraps of paper in the undergrowth. They comprise densely written words on lined, schoolbook-type paper. When I question the normally taciturn machetero, he explains all. Communications are tough in this neck of the woods and young lovers plant love letters in the bushes beside trails, hoping that some kind soul will deliver them to the intended person. It all seems very hit or miss to me, but what do I know?
We pass through a pitiful small village and the schoolteacher rushes out to meet us. Pleading with us to stay, she wants some company and conversation. She is not local and feels totally isolated. She comes and goes by mule, every month or so, a typical situation for teachers in Ecuador. She rushes around to prepare us a drink, and disappears for 10 minutes or so. When she returns, her face is caked with white makeup. She is also bereft when we make our excuses and continue down the trail.
On the final day of the traverse we descend to the coastal plain, with its sticky, humid air. There is a blessed reunion with the driver and vehicle. My friends Macho the Mule and Silent Bob, the machetero, are paid off and we say our goodbyes; it wasn’t that memorable, since neither really came out of their shells during the trip. Only six nights in the bush, but it feels like a lifetime. Coincidentally, the rendezvous point is exactly the same place where, several years later, my good friend Isidro loses his gold tooth in the river. In that case, we had just come out of a 21-day trip in tents. We were washing in the river when the tooth dropped out. Frantic searching, by 10 people, all in underpants, ensued, but the tooth was never found. Ironic that we should lose gold, whilst exploring for gold. Twenty years later, Isidro still mourns his lost tooth and I still dream of a gaunt lady under a zapote tree.
NOTES. Some names have been changed in this account. This mule traverse occurred in 1996, but it seems like yesterday.
Weather. Overcast. 25oC. High humidity. Status. Exploring Moscow.
Back again for the fourth year on the trot. But this time with three days and a determination to learn more of the culture and language. To date, my only Russian has been learnt from corrupt mining colleagues, and therefore highly suspect. To this end, a resident of Buryatia, which I had to look up on the map (clue, North of Mongolia), has been engaged as tour guide and language teacher. To protect her privacy, I’ll call her Marina. I’m not so sure how well I am managing with the language, when, after two days, she again patiently explains that ‘Cyrillic alphabet not same as English alphabet’. So what I read as ‘Crapdogs’ actually says ‘Stardogs’, a hugely popular hotdog chain. Mind you, I did get ‘Happy Potato’, the wonderfully rhythmic ‘Kroshka Kartoshka’, about right. The language may not be sticking, but it is fascinating to hear a Russian’s version of modern day Russia and her impressions of other countries. For that alone, Marina is worth every rouble. Quietly spoken, she is also about five foot tall, meaning I crouch to hear her. She is undertaking a PhD on Dostoevsky, he of ‘Crime and Punishment’ fame (but don’t ask me to name another). I feel a little guilty dragging her to distinctly non-literary sights. She suggests art museums, I suggest a military aircraft museum. She suggests St Basil’s Cathedral, I want to see cannons and suits of armour. Sod the Fabergé eggs, show me a guy dressed up as Stalin. But kudos to her, she pretends to be interested and suffers this geological philistine well. She adds a disdainful ‘of course’ onto the end of most her replies, inadvertently making me feel stupid. A couple of hours into Day 1, I finally pluck up the courage to ask about her eyes, which are a distinctly non-Mongolian shade of violet. In fact, a colour I have never seen in a human being. Turns out they are coloured contact lenses; I didn’t realize such things existed outside Hollywood movies.
Day 1. Lenin played his usual trick on me, his mausoleum again closed for some reason. That treat will have to wait. Rain dampened the Eternal Flame ceremony, the goose-stepping guards almost coming a cropper on slippery granitic gneiss flagstones. (Check out the xenoliths.) The Kremlin Armoury was firmly shut against invaders, with a long drawn out ‘nyet’ from the ticket booth staff. Not on a Thursday, apparently. Red Square, crowded with booksellers, was lightened by the occasional new bride posing for photo opportunities. Either that, or she desperately needed to pee (see photo). We decided to tour the Historical Museum, just off Red Square. This incredible place bludgeons the senses with ancient artefacts. Cabinet after cabinet stuffed with incredible riches. To me, it was fascinating to see the development of the human species, the ceramics, tools and weapons they left behind. Even more remarkable, this Asiatic stuff could have come from South America; the prehistoric Venus cult figures, with big stomachs and engorged, pendulous breasts, are identical to the Valdivia Culture of coastal Ecuador. Stone and bronze axes from frozen steppe burials are indistinguishable from those in Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. My mind boggles at the technical ability of Paleolithic Man, fashioning not just arrowheads and spears, but miniature seals, wolves and deer from flint. Try knapping a flint some time, to appreciate what an achievement this was. Or try building an 8 meter-long canoe out of a single tree, including elegant curved handles on the bow and stern. And let’s not even start with the mammoths.
All in all, a World Class museum. Shame that the descriptions are largely in Russian, alienating most visitors.
Day 2. I drag Marina to Monino air museum. What a saga to get there. Never have 40 kilometres seemed so painful. The initial Metro is fine, through marbled and granite-adorned stations that make the London Underground look shabby. But the subsequent journey from Yaroslavsky station to Monino is tedious. The gigantic train trundles along, stopping, it seems, every couple of hundred meters to disgorge and receive slab-faced commuters. The further we get from Moscow, the more dishevelled the stations; platforms appear to be built of children’s building blocks; gigantic pillars of concrete are topped by horizontal tabular slabs, much repaired by asphalt. Neat, almost continuous, lines of cigarette butts line the edge of the tracks by the platforms. The train, freakishly wide, is a brutal machine. The chassis displays magnificent, knobbly welds, resembling the scars on the faces of some African tribes. The cab windows are veiled by faded brown nylon curtains of the type seen throughout Russia, at apartment windows, in helicopters, boats and planes. The seats, and I have mentioned this public transport tendency before, are bone-hard. My guide happily tells me how the trains are ‘much improved’, but my arse tells me otherwise. My plan for on-board language training is scotched by noise; firstly, accordion-playing women knock out the kind of tunes I associate with Russia. Then a succession of ambulatory salesmen passes through the carriages, each with a loud sales pitch amplified by a microphone linked to a small belt speaker. They hawk phone covers, cosmetics, socks, superglue, books and even, on this hot day, camouflaged waterproof capes. What a hard life these people lead. Their bags, of the ‘For Life’ type, are heavily repaired with parcel tape. They fix their eyes on the ceiling as they give their pitch, not really engaging with their captive audience. Ticket collection is a KGB-like affair, whereby uniformed officers seal off each carriage, whilst a stern, surprisingly effeminate, ticket collector does his job. Perhaps in an act of rebellion, his tight-fitting jacket sleeves are rolled up to the elbow, revealing a tight white sweater. The officers look on unsmiling and disapprovingly, though it is unclear who they are pissed at, the passengers or the collector.
Finally, after a long walk, refusing offers from horribly drunk taxi drivers, we arrive at Monino. To me, this place is manna from heaven. An air force brat, my fondest memories are of standing beneath the black, Dante-esque exhaust trails of a Vulcan bomber, limping skyward from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus; of sun glittering on the stubby wings of silver English Electric Lightning fighters as they roared into the sky; of playing in a half-restored De Havilland Vampire jet in a hangar. So the opportunity to see, up close, Cold War behemoths was a no-brainer. And mighty impressive they are. Remarkable aircraft, on deflated tyres and rotting in the harsh climate, they are proud symbols of the genius of Soviet engineering. Names like Pavel Sukhoi and Tupolev abound and I can detect trends; the family of Sukhoi aircraft are essentially cylindrical jet engines that run the length of the aircraft, with stubby wings added as an afterthought. The MiGs (designers Mikoyan and Gurevich) are more elegant, some with sweeping, curved lines and air intakes. The monster that dominates the show is the Russian equivalent of Concorde. It was the ‘first supersonic passenger aircraft’, according to the noticeboard. Clearly the Russians beat the British and French to it, but I see little to distinguish it from Concorde. So either the Russians copied us, or we copied them. Perhaps it was a symbiotic relationship with mutually positive feedback. Whatever, both planes were clearly uneconomic prestige projects, made by equally misguided governments. The other Monino monster is the gigantic plane-helicopter, the B-12, described as a heavy lifting helicopter. The thing is gargantuan, with twin rotor assemblies on the end of spindly arms. It looks like it might crumple under a heavy landing, but what do I know? Words cannot do it justice – see the photo instead. On the journey back we examine the different 20th Century architectural styles in Moscow. It looks uniformly drab. These 5- to 10-storey concrete edifices are peppered with humid, enclosed balconies, stained by algae; they are topped by rusty pitched zinc roofs. The scene is enlivened only by the odd fire-stricken and weed-encrusted building, collapsed roof left unrepaired. There are occasional conspicuous shopping malls, which wouldn’t look out of place in Vegas. My guide patiently explains the different architectural styles, mostly categorised by General Secretaries, for example, the ‘Brezhnev‘ and ‘Khrushchev’ styles. The ‘Stalin-style’, represented by public buildings such as universities, was the most ostentatious, with soaring towers, tall ceilings and impressively wide corridors. Apparently, professors complain bitterly about the lack of space. The rooms are tiny. Clearly, they were built to impress, not for living.
We stray into more geo-political topics. Marina dissuades me from visiting her home town of Udan Ule, capital of Buryatia. The weather is wicked, with -40C in winter and +40C in summer. Unpredictable floods leave the capital knee-deep in water. I take the hint and strike it off my bucket list, though I did always yearn to see Lake Baikal and taste the fried freshwater seal. Migration is a common theme in my discussions with Russians. Many families move around the country, in search of a better life and economic conditions. I am amazed by the way Marina’s family has moved around the former Soviet Union, from Ulan Ude to Novosibirsk, then Moscow. But she describes her background as ‘nomadic’, with a family history rooted in livestock grazing and migration to new pastures. Buryatians clearly have wanderlust in their blood. Marina lists countries considered ‘friendly’ towards Russia. It is a short list: Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan. Her travels include China, the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany. Chinese are respected because they are ‘hard workers’. Vienna, hugely expensive, ‘comprises only bronze statutes of horses’ and why would one want to ‘take home a Viennese cake, in a wooden box, as a gift for anyone’? Especially when it costs 15 euros! Capitals and countries are rated on the cost of a square meal, which seems a bit of a brutal yardstick. Food is cheap in the Czech Republic. The Poles are disliked and the Finns are considered miserable, which seems a bit harsh; I have met many friendly Finns, though they definitely become friendlier when fuelled with alcohol, much like the Russians.
Continuing the theme of national characteristics, Marina explains ‘slab-face’. The default position of the Russian face is neutral, with a slight downturn of the mouth, emphasized by high cheekbones that lend a gaunt and haughty, model-like aspect. I would describe it as a ‘cool’ expression. Only when something is genuinely funny will a smile appear, like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. Russians consider British or Americans, who crack a smile at the drop of a hat, as buffoonish. Clearly I am in deep shit, since my default position is buffoon. On the Metro, escalators packed with grim, unsmiling faces, she explains how the people are happier today because it is Friday evening; tomorrow they will head to their dachas, for a weekend of swimming and barbecues. To me they look totally pissed off. Mind you, if I was faced with their enormous commutes, I would feel the same. I should add, that every Russian I deal with is unfalteringly friendly and kind to the ‘lost foreigner’ in their big city. So the cool expressions do not equate with unfriendliness. The facial expressions are in conflict to the dress. There is a huge variety of bright clothing and no sign of the hipster phenomenon or the narcissistic, metrosexual fashions seen in London. (Which is a relief; am I the only one who wants to punch every tosser on the Tube that sports pointy-shoes, skinny jeans and well-trimmed beard?) Women flounce by in full evening gowns, LBDs, ripped jeans, diaphanous blouses. Men favour jeans and untucked checked shirts. There are also tracksuits, a truly Russian phenomenon. Overall, it is a pleasing sight, especially as the entire population seems to be under 30 years old and fond of working out. Mind you, in my black cargo pants, walking boots and freebie mining T-shirt I am in no position to comment on fashion. I just try to be an observer.
Overall, a relaxing couple of days in a fascinating city. Hiring Marina made it so much better and I would recommend getting local help. Next stop Magadan. I mentioned before that this remote city has the only airport I know of with a real fishmonger in Departures. Watch this space.