Day 83 – Amateur Hour in Nicaragua

Words of the Day

Caldera: A large cauldron-like depression that forms following the evacuation of a magma chamber

Camping: (Informal) The act of attaching a bed sheet(s) to the side(s) of a bunk bed in a hostel dorm room to provide privacy for a couple partaking in sexual activities on the bottom bunk


During 5 days of intrepid solo exploring in Costa Rica I had a number of close encounters with beautiful wild animals, but far fewer interactions with the domesticated species at the top of the food chain: homo sapiens.

Staying in hostels I met plenty of travellers, struck up conversations and passed the time but didn’t meet anyone particularly engaging (I’m sure they all felt the same about me). Ultimately I decided to cut my losses, abandoning all friend-making efforts to focus on relaxing and reading.

I enjoyed the ‘me time’ and read a couple of great books but knew that this situation couldn’t last; instead of late nights at the bar, socialising with other travellers, I was choosing early nights in the bottom bunk (not camping, like a couple of Dutch backpackers that alerted me to the term) with only my Kindle for company – this did not feel like my natural habitat.

Wondering where I might go to find like-minded people, Whatsapp provided the answer as a familiar individual dropped a pin a mere 293km and a lot more than 5 hours and 17 minutes away, over the border in Nicaragua.

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Rather than going travelling to “find myself,” within 5 days of departing I’d found Andy, my best mate from school, who was in Nicaragua for 3 weeks with his girlfriend Jolie.

Delighted to have two of my favourite people as potential travel buddies, we arranged to meet up in the Laguna de Apoyo the following day. After accusing me of not being a proper traveller in Madrid, Andy was now an accessory to the crime.

I’ll take a second to talk about these two legends as I can’t think of many couples who would allow a mate to gatecrash their romantic getaway. Two weeks into our family holiday (I am the son and they are my parents) they got a little more of me than they bargained for, but it’s been amazing and we’ve had a lot of fun; far too much fun for one blog post so I will start at the beginning and see how far I get.

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Amateurlogue

Actually I will start before the beginning, due to noteworthy events which pre-dated the rendezvous with my new travel companions. Rather than calling it a prologue, this is the ‘amateurlogue’ for reasons that will become apparent.

I’m sure there are many more challenging border crossings in the world but there was a lot of walking, queuing and 4 separate cash payments (exit, entry, tax and admin fees) between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Every time someone handed me a piece of paper I handed over some more cash and eventually I got through.

On the Nicaraguan side things felt raw and undeveloped against the relatively polished Costa Rica. Nicaragua is materially cheaper than its neighbour but I immediately wiped out any early cost savings by paying for the same bus ticket three times.

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As I approached the famous ‘chicken buses’ (which are re-purposed American yellow school buses, often populated with chickens as well as people) a benevolent stranger helped me with my bag, sold me what turned out to be a fake $5 ticket and then said, in Spanish, “you have the ticket but what about me and my family?” I gave him a well-deserved extra dollar – if you’re going to rob someone, do it in style.

The second ticket salesman seemed legit as he took my original stub, pointed out it was fake (to be fair it referenced a completely different route on a different day), renounced his predecessor as a “bandido” and took another $5 off me for my new ticket. Strike two.

A third man approached me half an hour into the journey wearing a very official looking yellow t-shirt with words on it. I took a pre-emptive strike saying “please don’t ask me for $5” but that is exactly what he did. The ticket I showed him was apparently the wrong one or had ceased to be valid, and my entreaties were to no avail.

I couldn’t help but find it entertaining, which was a view shared by the local passengers who made no effort to conceal their mirth. We bonded over my misfortune and they kindly shared their selection of local snacks to soften the blow.

Laguna de Apoyo

Finally, after a 10 hour journey, I made it to my destination and immediately fell in love with Laguna de Apoyo, an idyllic freshwater lake formed in the caldera of an extinct volcano.

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Andy and Jolie (henceforth ‘Anjolie’) were waiting there patiently at the Beach Club with their new friend Drew and we got straight to work, polishing off a few local beers and a bottle of whisky as the sun went down. In search of some nightlife we stumbled across Quiz Night at a lively local hostel El Paradiso, argued over our team name (“Colombia my face”) and proceeded to drink a lot of rum.

Despite being the oldest people there by a comfortable margin we were by far the most fun (or the most annoying, depending on your perspective). One of the travelling volunteers who was hosting quiz night took particular exception to our mischievous ways and repeatedly admonished us. Being shushed by a 21 year old in a vest and board shorts only encouraged us and the poor guy’s agitation increased in line with our inebriation.

Surprisingly we did not trouble the scorers in the quiz but did make a lot of friends and got the party started. A dip in the lake ensued, which was a tepid 28 degrees even in the middle of the night. As I stared upwards from a pontoon at a mesmerizing, perfectly clear night sky I saw a few shooting stars and felt, for the first time in a while, “this is what it’s all about.”


Next Stop: Omatepe, Nicaragua  

What is The Gump Method

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Day 77 – Cost and Costa Rica

If travel was based on intentions rather than actions I would have been around the world by now. The flexibility that is the cornerstone of the Gump Method has resulted in a series of loose travel plans which have been rehashed and abandoned as quickly as I came up with them.

A few months ago I was set on Nepal after reading that October was a great time of year to see the Himalayas. Kathmandu then became Kathmandon’t as I chose an unconventional alternative: Spain.

Yes, I wanted to improve my Spanish, but there was also an economic angle – with a mid-November wedding in London I only had 3 weeks to play with and decided against the expensive return flight to Nepal for a short trip. I then proceeded to spend so much money in Spain that it probably would have evened out financially. And I didn’t learn much Spanish.

My trip to the Americas would definitely be starting with a month in Cuba, until I was put off by it’s reputedly terrible internet access. Yep, Jonesy aka Phonesy aka Blog Boy just couldn’t handle the thought of being away from his one true love: the world wide web. Ok two true loves – I forgot Nandos.

Next on the magical list of countries I would talk about and not go to was Nicaragua. I found a perfect flight but then hesitated on making the booking and it went up by £200; another plan scuppered for financial reasons.

Finally I found a cheap flight to Nicaragua’s southern neighbour, Costa Rica, and pulled the trigger. Landing in the capital city, San José, I soon realised (and had been warned) that Costa Rica, as with most countries frequented by American tourists, is quite expensive. My saving on the flight was another false economy.

Looking back on all this – Cuban internet crisis aside – I have clearly allowed financial considerations to take too much precedence in my decision-making. With a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do whatever and go wherever, I’ve been letting Skyscanner determine my itinerary.

The added irony is that money isn’t even the major constraint in my travel planning, at least not at this early stage of shunemployment while the coffers are still in good shape. Having zero income for the first time in 12 years seems to have had a disproportionate impact on my decision-making. The real constraint, as always, is time.

Costa Rica

After all this self-flagellation one might assume that I did not enjoy the start of my Central American adventure, but thankfully Costa Rica’s incredible collection of wildlife ensured that was not the case.

Swapping a cold, wet and windy London for a warm, wet and windy San José didn’t feel like a good deal, until I made my way up into the mountains to a town called La Fortuna which thrives in wet weather conditions (as it must with average annual rainfall of 3.5 metres, approximately 6 times that of London).

With constant rain forecast for four days I cursed Skyscanner and my schoolboy decision not to bring walking boots or a rain coat, but refused to let the weather win by signing up for the first activity I could think of for which fun is directly proportional to rainfall – whitewater rafting.

The river was high and the rafting was exhilarating, but what made it for me was the wildlife. While paddling frantically I spent most of my time looking upwards as the guide pointed out howler monkeys, cuckoos, kingfishers and a large iguana chilling out in a tree.

The highlight for me was a sloth descending for its weekly poo. I know many people who take pleasure in going about their natural business but just look at the pride this sloth takes in its work. Observed by two teams of rafters it took its sweet time and maintained its idiotic but endearing perma-grin while we captured the moment.

Sloth

After getting a taste for what lay within, my second day in La Fortuna was also spent in the jungle with a nature walk around the base of the Arenal volcano.

I had spent a lot of time watching hummingbird hawk moths during the French ayahuasca retreat, mesmerized by their dexterity. Here I was treated to the real thing as a team of hummingbirds drained pollen with absolute mastery.

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Costa Rica is also a lepidopterist’s dream with over 8,000 species of butterflies and moths. We saw more than I could count, but I was blown away when a Blue Morpho flapped within a few feet of me – one of the largest butterflies in the world, it was the size of a human hand, and a real treat to see in the wild.

We saw two varieties of toucan, one better camouflaged than the other despite its ridiculous multi-coloured beak, and a wild turkey that was visibly delighted to be running free in the Costa Rican jungle on the day of Thanksgiving. On percussion was a solitary woodpecker.

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When the tour was officially over we made our way back to the bus and witnessed one of the best spots of the day. A young ocelot, which hadn’t got the memo about being a wild nocturnal hunter, was scavenging for food at the back door of a restaurant kitchen.

Ocelot

For my final “things that are good to do in the rain” activity I took advantage of the ‘hot river’ in La Fortuna. Naturally heated to around 38 degrees by the volcano, there is plenty of room for everyone as locals and tourists bathe side-by-side in nature’s hot tub.

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Returning to the town I passed a curious looking coatimundi – another first for me – as it scraped the dregs from a discarded coconut.


In just a few days I was lucky to be treated to a fantastic array of natural beauty for very little effort. Following on from my ayahuasca-fuelled visions of the rainforest a couple of months earlier, Costa Rica was the real deal and I loved it.

A local guide book claims that Costa Rica has 5% of the world’s animal species, an incredible fact (if it is one – I haven’t been able to verify it) for such a small country. While the line between wild and tame was a little blurred at times, the Costa Ricans appear to be doing a great job of protecting their natural treasure, with many designated national parks and high quality, professional guides.

Despite travelling to Costa Rica for the wrong reasons and spending far too many Colóns while I was there, it was money well spent and I would highly recommend a trip into the rainforest. 


Next Stop: Nicaragua

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Day 65 – Not Really Travelling in Madrid

Word of the Day

Travelling

Going from one place to another, as on a trip


Oh hi blog fans! I enjoyed my two week sabbatical but it’s good to be back. Allow me to explain.

With my recent lack of activity the default assumption seems to have been was that I was still in Bilbao practising the YMCA with Vissi. In fact I had made the 4 hour drive down to Madrid, ‘hosting’ my journey on Bla-Bla-Car, a ride sharing service, which was great fun.

Once in Madrid I enjoyed the city so much that I changed my plans and just stayed there, Gump Method style, for an extra week. I half-wrote a couple of blog entries but didn’t get around to posting, so this is a 2-weeks-in-one-post extravaganza. I’ll keep it snappy.


My time in the Spanish capital was, for the most part, pretty wholesome – visiting museums and galleries, signing up for Spanish language school and finally getting back into the gym at Raw Madrid.

While I of course sampled the nightlife, the addition of routine into my days, with early morning gym trips and afternoon language classes, gave me a sense for living in the city rather than just travelling.

I wasn’t the only person to notice the lack of travelling. Realising that I would soon be relocating to a less accessible continent, Mama Jones made a pit stop in Madrid to give her big little boy a hug. We had a lovely couple of days, and when I added photos of our mini family reunion to Instagram one amigo back home saw an opportunity:

“Jonesy, can you confirm you’re still classifying being in Spain with your mum as ‘travelling’? I’m driving my mum to the station this afternoon – stay tuned for the blog”

Touché. I won’t mention his name but he lives in Portsmouth and has big goggly eyes.

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Despite the cultural and climatic differences Madrid, more than any other capital city I have been to, felt like home: a more compact version of London with a familiar buzz and layout, plenty of green space and the welcome addition of consistent November sunshine.

So, with thanks for your patience and apologies for the lack of mileage, here is a quick highlight reel of my time in Madrid:

1. Watched Some Football 

My first stop in the city was the Santiago Bernabeu stadium – watching Real Madrid on home turf was a genuine bucket list item. The ground and the atmosphere were incredible but, as is often the case when Cristiano Ronaldo is present, the evening was all about him.

He was the best player on the pitch, but while his teammates revelled in a comfortable 3-0 victory, Ronaldo’s inability to score resulted in a series of hissy fits from the 32 year old, whose three children would struggle to throw a better tantrum. Despite his short temper the man is still a football genius and even watching him get increasingly disgruntled was strangely compelling.

2. Looked At Some Art

Madrid has an impressive collection of art galleries and museums, most of which offer free entry for a couple of hours at the end of the day.

The Museo Nacional Del Prado houses an enormous and impressive collection of masterpieces gathered by Spain’s 16th- and 17th-century monarchs. More to my taste was the Reina Sofia, Spain’s national museum of 20th century art, which houses Picasso’s master of all masterpieces – Guernica. 

This wall-filling monster, nearly 8 metres across, was painted after the Nazi bombing of Guernica to raise awareness and cash to fight the fascist Franco during the Spanish Civil War. It has since become a global symbol for peace and might be the most impressive and powerful piece of art I have ever seen. It certainly beats queuing for hours to squint at the Mona Lisa.

(I got in trouble for taking this photo 🙂 Full image and explanation here)

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3. Cycled Around Town

While cycling in Madrid is really just a series of near death experiences (another similarity to London) I found it an enjoyable way to get around the city. Madrid’s idea of a cycle path is to paint a bike symbol on the 6th lane of a superhighway, and drivers are not sympathetic to the cyclist’s plight, ducking between lanes and leaving a few centimetres of space if you’re lucky.

bike-lane-e1511485200887.jpgWith the odds stacked against them Madrid’s cyclists have fought back with a powerful trump card: the bikes-for-hire are electrified. Boris bikes have got nothing on these bad boys – stick them into assistance level three and the electric motor whizzes you around at high speed with minimal pedalling. The scheme is called Bicimad for a reason as they are completely mental and great fun – regular cycling will never be the same again.

4. Learnt Some Spanish

A key objective of my trip to Madrid was to “brush up” my Spanish before travelling to Central America. I had massively overstated my ability, and after 12 hours of high quality group lessons at Inhispania I felt like I’d taken a toothbrush to clean up the elephant enclosure. A shocking 19 years had elapsed since my GCSE Spanish results (A* obvs) and I had even forgotten how to say the number one (apparently it’s not ‘uno’). I was the worst student in the class but really enjoyed it and feel I will get there with (a lot of) practice.

Here is a picture of me with my classmates on my first day at school, looking like a 5 year old with learning difficulties – a fairly accurate description.

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5. Went Out And Stuff

There were many people I enjoyed nights out with in Madrid from the one and only El Coco (hi Jimmy) on arrival, to multiple jaunts with my language school buddies (hola amigos), to some very welcoming Madrileños I was introduced to (hi Alvaro and Iñaki) and another rendezvous with the Chilean I met in San Sebastien (hi Stifmeister). From tapas bars and sangria to salsa dancing, clubs and a very weird 7am underground afterparty I got a broad taste of the Madrid nightlife and absolutely loved it.

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Goodbye Europe, Hello Proper Travelling

My experience in Madrid has added to my belief that there is something uniquely enjoyable about ‘travelling’ in cities where most people are not on holiday. As I heard somewhere recently, “work isn’t supposed to be fun, that’s why they have to pay you for it” and after 2 months I have found not working to be pretty good, consistent fun. Doing what you want to do every day is fun; even sitting in a classroom is fun when you’ve chosen to be there.

With my time in Europe at an end it will be interesting to see how the fun, and the travelling, evolve. I have rented out my London room for the next 7 months meaning I am now a fully committed nomad. As I move on to tourist destinations where I am no longer in the minority, the proper travelling starts here.


Next stop: Costa Rica

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Day 53 – The King of Bilbania 

Word of the day

Chartreuse

A pale colour between yellow and green, named after the French liqueur (and David Hirtz’s favourite alcoholic beverage) Chartreuse


Blog roll

The internet has agreed that there are approximately 2 million new blog posts written every day. Ridiculous. Let’s assume they’re all written in English, averaging 500 words each (totally made up number): that’s a billion words a day.

Since I never read more than a few thousand blog words in a day, some of which are my own, I am unqualified to judge the calibre of the blogging masses. I imagine every blog has at least one dedicated and delighted reader (its creator), but considering the amount of dross in the media, penned by people who are paid to write words, I can’t help but compare this high volume of blog output to the notorious ‘long drop’ toilets at Glastonbury. While many festival-goers drop something useful, namely toilet paper, into the gruesome cesspits and occasionally something really valuable is dropped, like a beloved piece of jewellery, they’re mostly just big piles of shit.

glasto-long drop

As 21st centurions we are lucky to have the knowledge and understanding of humanity accessible online, but with so much ‘content’ and so little time (even when travelling) we need to be more selective than ever about what we choose to read.

Whether you think my blog roll is full of crap or that I’m churning out nuggets of a different colour, my intention has always been to post only when I have something to say, rather than just blogging for the sake of it.


Bilbao

After a disappointing 24 hours in the Basque Country’s most populous city, with just a few hours of daylight remaining before an early morning departure, I had already decided not to write about Bilbao as I had nothing much to say.

Yes, the Guggenheim museum is an architectural masterpiece and there were a couple of decent Picassos knocking about elsewhere, but I’m no art critic and, after an extremely underwhelming hostel experience, I chose not to threaten anyone’s time or good mood with a negative post.

Guggenheim

Then an Albanian man called Vissi offered me a satsuma and it all changed.


Albania 

Before we get to Vissi I need to sketch out my first day in Bilbao’s Pil Pil Hostel, starting with its 12 bed, men-only dorm. When empty, the room had the aesthetic of a psychiatric ward. When full, it developed the fetid stench of a post-match locker room.

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Its inhabitants seemed to be suffering from a variety of ailments: snifflers and sneezers gave way to loud snorers and sleep-talkers as the lights eventually went off – there was no way I was getting my 8 hours and I hardly slept at all.

During a silent breakfast the following morning the assembled zombies munched on cereal and avoided eye contact. I realised how lucky I had been in Biarritz and San Sebastián, internally declaring my hostelling love affair to be over. Cause of death: sleep deprivation and smelly feet. RIP, which is what I hoped to be doing in my private Airbnb bedroom in Madrid.

With a couple of drunk guys talking and slamming locker doors at 2am the noise was really bothering me and one group of lads in particular was getting on my tits. Ever-present in the hostel, cooking and talking loudly in a language I couldn’t pinpoint, they came across as brash and mildly obnoxious. This hostile assessment was all about my lack of sleep and nothing to do with them.

Until mid-afternoon I stayed in the communal area reading, dreading my second night in the battery farm and wishing these lads would be quiet. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and, as I sat there minding my own business, one of them smiled and offered me a satsuma.

I gratefully accepted, ate it (and another two), exchanged names with Vissi then remembered I had a couple of beers in the fridge as we embarked on a silent game of bilingual Chinese Whispers using Google Translate. One of my opening gambits was intended as a mildly humorous compliment:

“You’re a good cook – that pork you made yesterday looked tastier than my pot noodle”

Whether it was the choice of words or the technology, this rapidly escalated into what I thought was a decision to cook together later that day.

I told Vissi I was going out but would be back in time for food, depending on when he wanted to eat. That message clearly didn’t get across as intended, he asked if I was hungry (answer: yes) and suggested that we go to the supermarket together.

I held the basket and Vissi led the charge, navigating the aisles instinctively. The first of our three arguments came at the checkout: he insisted on paying but I ripped away his banknote, replacing it with my own in the hand of the perplexed cashier. Fifteen love.

The second disagreement regarded who would carry the shopping. Vissi demanded that I give the bag to him, I initially declined, but he insisted and I gave way. Fifteen all.

This scene unfolded entirely through body language with smiles, frowns, head-shakes and finger-points serving our communicative purposes.

It wasn’t until we got back to the hostel and Vissi had carefully prepared the meal that I realised what was going on: he had already eaten lunch and was cooking just for me. What an absolute dreamboat.

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Vissi wasn’t travelling alone and desperate to make friends – he was staying in the hostel with his cousin Gazmend. He was just being nice.

Our third dispute was over the washing up. This time I refused to back down. While the argument battle ended 2-1 in my favour it was a Pyhhric victory as Vissi had already won the war.

We cooked another delicious meal as a three for dinner and communicated later that night in the universal language of Oktoberfest. I was sceptical at first but no one in Bilbao gave una mierda that it was November, the German four piece band absolutely smashed it and we had a brilliant night.

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Bilbania

I learnt a few things in the day I hung out with Vissi.

The first is cheesy but worth saying: whether it’s a pizza slice in Biarritz or a satsuma in Bilbao, small acts of kindness open doors and start friendships.

Vissi’s kindness and generosity were palpable in every movement he made, from the way he interacted with the supermarket checkout lady to sharing his last bit of pork chop at the dinner table. While language helps us to communicate, I learnt from Vissi that you can be a great lad without saying a word.

In an effort to bridge a language gap as wide as the Grand Canyon I also learnt a couple of Albanian words, namely faleminderit (thank you) and, of course, gëzuar (cheers).

I learnt that avocados, a brunch staple in New York and London, clearly haven’t made it to Albania yet, as Vissi and Gazmend prodded the creamy, chartreuse flesh with a mixture of curiosity and disgust.

The final, and by far most entertaining, thing that I learnt was that Vissi cannot do the YMCA. We were a few beers down and my one-handed directions clearly weren’t helping but it was so funny and endearing, the three of us watched it repeatedly that night and it gets better every time.

Despite all the beautiful holiday destinations in the world, for me it is nearly always the people you meet, rather than just the places themselves, that make experiences memorable. For that reason I will always remember Bilbao as Bilbania, and Vissi as its King.


Next stop: Madrid

What is The Gump Method

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Day 50 – San Sebastián

Whether Chaucer or someone else coined it, the proverb Time and tide wait for no man has been around for hundreds of years. Raising my bat to celebrate a shunemployed half century I now understand it better than ever.

Managing a travel day, like managing a workday, is all about prioritisation. The difference is that at work there is usually a clear winner for what you should be doing.  There is no “should” when travelling; there is only “do and do not” (thanks Yoda) and options are limitless.

While I’m enjoying my freedom it’s easy to get sidetracked; time is only on your side if you force it to be. After 4 days of pancake-flat water at a renowned surf spot I’ve realised there’s not much I can do about the tide.


Time 

Shunning the structure of the working week I anticipated an abundance of ‘me time;’ I would be gaining 40 plus hours each week, surely resulting in time aplenty for my stated travel objectives and other favoured but neglected pastimes such as reading, sitting and Netflix.

That assumption proved naive:

  1. A pleasant but unforeseen effect of publicising my shunemployment was a succession of coffees, lunches and nights out. It was brilliant catching up with so many friends, some of which I hadn’t seen in years, but it’s no surprise that retirees wonder how they ever had time to work.
  2. Time evaporates when travelling. Days not filled with activities are spent researching destinations, arranging transport and accommodation. Personal time can be hard to come by, especially when sharing a bedroom with 11 people.
  3. To top if off I’ve been writing this blog which takes forever. I just hope someone out there appreciates the lack of spelling misteaks.

As a result my first 50 days have whizzed by, I’m still only 71% of the way through Sapiens and haven’t watched a single minute of Stranger Things 2.


Tide

With the Biarritz surf scene approaching its annual low tide I made the short trip across the border to San Sebastián, or Donostia to the Basque Country locals. Famed for its culinary scene, San Seb boasts more Michelin stars per capita than any other European city, an almost unmatched selection of pintxo (tapas) bars and a surf season that extends a couple of weeks beyond its French neighbour.

I rocked up at the Etxea Surf Hostel next to San Seb’s premier surf spot, Zurriola Beach, increasingly conscious of the need to spend my time on things I actually want to do, like surfing. In the lounge area an American guy was freestyling on the guitar. He was a strong musician but a dubious lyricist:

I smoked a bunch of joints, in the morning and the night,

I smoked so many joints, most I’d had in my life. 

Listening to Johnny Hash did not feature anywhere on my to do list so, in line with my new views on time management, I left him to it.

The hostel turned out to be incredibly social with a great atmosphere. While this photo taken on night one by a local bike saddle suggests I was escorting my nieces and nephews to the nearest skate park, the age range in the hostel turned out to be quite broad.

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Despite a few travellers in their 30’s I was clearly the oldest guest until the perfectly named and excellent human being Jerry Valentine spared me that honour.

Jerry is a very young 55 year old retiree from New Jersey who spends his time either chasing waves or saving lives at Avalon beach on America’s Jersey Shore. Give him a high five from me if you see him next summer.

Avalon swimmers will feel extra safe with Crawford, who lifeguards at the same beach, on duty. Stacked like shelves, the de facto fourth Hemsworth brother combines with Jerry, 35 years his senior, to form an unlikely but perfectly balanced travel partnership.

Last but not least is Sebastien – Chile’s answer to Steve Stifler and my first official new BFF – a surfer, skateboarder and future Warren Buffett. Being hilarious in a second language is a skill I do not possess but value highly and the Stifmeister has it in abundance.

I’ll let you guess who is who in the photos below.

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Rather than maximising personal time I took the opportunity to hang out with this crew, which swelled and ebbed as others rolled in and out of town. We were not collecting Michelin stars but enjoyed the rest of what San Sebastián has to offer.

We walked everywhere, taking in the beautiful scenery both in the city and its surrounding hills. We drank Spanish wine, local cider and monster G&Ts. We think we enjoyed but don’t really remember a couple of 5am finishes at the entertaining but creepy dabadaba.

Dabadaba

One thing we did not do a lot of was surfing. One surfable day out of five was a poor return but I was encouraged to catch a couple of clean waves; a glimmer of hope.

Not surfing freed up plenty of time to live like locals, eating delicious and reasonably priced pintxos. To contextualise the brilliance of this city may I introduce Bar Sport.

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If you were to put Bar Sport on Old Street roundabout in London it would contain a selection of strippers and people wanting to knock you out. In San Seb it’s a fine culinary establishment serving exquisite pintxos while Real Madrid entertain on TV.

(Vegans please look away now)

Goat cheese with jamon and chutney, crabmeat vol-au-vent, pig trotter and mushroom fritter, sirloin steak with piquito peppers, foie gras on toast, king prawns on a stick, squid stuffed with crab and two glasses of Rioja for €25.

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It was absolutely banging; I can only imagine the culinary wonders available in this city for those willing to spend serious euros.

Despite the lack of surf in San Seb there was plenty to do (and eat) over 5 days and I would highly recommend a visit. Whether you have time and cash to burn or just want to escape for the weekend on a tight budget, a trip to San Sebastián is both time and money well spent.


Next stop: Bilbao

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Day 45 – Ridin Solo

Word of the day

Joie-de-vivre: exuberant enjoyment of life (French)


Along with the film Notting Hill and red cherry Muller fruit corners I classify Ridin Solo by Jason Derulo as one of my guilty pleasures in life. Few would argue it’s a classic but what Jason lacks in songwriting ability he more than makes up for with autotuning and joie-de-vivre. I am particularly fond of listening to Ridin Solo in the all too familiar “Jonesy’s back” post break-up phase, but did not expect to be humming it on my first night in Biarritz.

(Jason has kindly offered to provide the backing music as you read the rest of this post)

My first six weeks of freedom hadn’t been too testing; jumping from place to place in Germany and France I was either travelling with friends or visiting them in their home venues for guaranteed fun and ready made social circles.

A one man trip to the south of France was hardly a major challenge but it was a step up; for the first time I was actually backpacking and didn’t know anyone in my destination. I would either have to make some friends or find some of Jason’s joie-de-vivre in my own company – I’d left Pieter the white tiger in London.

I rocked up at the Biarritz Surf Hostel with a spring in my step expecting to be fist-bumped by some radical bro; the French version of Brad from Neighbours. Instead I was greeted by a note on the door detailing the entry code and my sleeping arrangements:

surf-hostel-welcome.jpg

I would be staying in the delightfully named ‘Brown Room.’ Perhaps they’d heard about my surfing ability and were predicting the future colour of my underpants.

brown-room.jpg

There was an eerie silence as I walked up the stairs and realised the building was deserted. On reflection perhaps Halloween and surfing weren’t quite the happy bedfellows I’d imagined when booking my flights.

Recalling my recent epoophanies I felt reassured; ayahuasca clearly wanted me to catch up on some admin so I replied to a few emails and bought travel insurance.

I decided to leave in search of sustenance and bumped into a friendly group of Brits eating dinner in the kitchen downstairs. As Michael Jackson’s You Are Not Alone replaced Jason Derulo in my head I felt uncharacteristically self-conscious chatting to them.

Are you travelling alone? Yep

Are you a good surfer? Nope

What do you do for work? Nothing

What did you do before nothing? Umm finance, investment stuff

Oh so you were an investment banker? Nooooo

Despite this unpromising introduction they kindly offered me a slice of pizza. I politely declined; I was on a solo joie-de-vivre mission and marched into town, taking my Kindle just in case.

Thursday night in Biarritz was lively but after tip-toeing in and out of a couple of bars it felt a little too French; my conversational skills weren’t up to the challenge so I decided to keep my powder dry. Dinner for one please Monsieur.

dinner-for-one.jpg

I made a single glass of wine last an eternity before walking back to the hostel, slightly disappointed in myself but looking forward to an episode of Narcos and a good night’s sleep.

When I returned the British foursome’s pizzas had been replaced with a deck of cards; they were playing drinking games and ploughing into their remaining alcohol supplies. They again invited me to join and this time I gratefully accepted, downing a welcome shot of rum. God Save The Queen.

My solo excursion had been underwhelming but thanks to these benevolent strangers I rediscovered my joie-de-vivre and had a really fun evening.

Drinking Games.jpg

The fun continued as they heroically went out to a local club until 4am while I went to bed, happy with my first day as a lone ranger.

The next day I was invited to join their morning surfing excursion. I was even more grateful for the companionship as I was repeatedly battered by large waves, barely getting onto a knee let alone two feet. I have a long way to go before achieving my ‘Get Good At Surfing’ goal. My attempts at volleyball were marginally more successful.

Rosie, James, Flo and Jos were a lovely group; entertaining, cheerful (we did our serious faces in the shot below to look professional), interesting and all doing jobs that make the world a better place. They dropped me back at base before heading off to the airport. I waved them off, grateful to have been taken under their collective wing.

Surfing Serious.jpg


Next stop: San Sebastian (Spain)

What is The Gump Method

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Day 37 – Epoophany (Ayahuasca III)

DISCLAIMER

I reference an old song at the end of this post and feel the need to include a slightly modified version of its opening disclaimer:

“The long term benefits of ayahuasca have been proven by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.”

I don’t have facts or hard evidence but you’re just going to have to trust me on this one.


Do you believe in magic?

Before our retreat Ru (the shaman) talked to me about the ayahuasca (pronounced “are you Oscar?”) experience, how to prepare and what I should expect. He said one thing that really stuck: “By the end of the trip I want you to believe a little bit in magic.”

For me, magic is the opposite of science. At school I was terrible at science but its laws have always been my foundation: science can explain everything. I have never had faith in any god or religion. We’re born, we live, we die and that’s it. Science. I’ve never been contacted by a dead relative and have never seen a ghost.

I’d always been open to magical things happening but, with no evidence after 35 years on this earth, my mind was made up. If magic was the end game, Ru and ayahuasca had a lot of work to do on this non-believer.

After my second, unsuccessful ayahuasca trip it felt like there was no coming back – I had secretly had enough. I didn’t want to ingest another drop of that foul liquid. But while I had lost faith in the mission I was not going to be a deserter: I decided to see it through to the third ceremony, mainly out of respect for Ru and Hannah who had put on such an amazing show for us.

Andy felt the same way. As we had both got nothing from the second ceremony Ru decided to give us bigger first cups and sit us next to each other, reuniting the Brothers Grimm in the Giggle Corner where we’d had our first magical trips.

Andy got straight into the medicine this time, purged into his bucket and was off on another mystery tour, albeit more serious than the first one, without the giggles. I was happy for him but also felt envious. Time passed and the ceremony intensified for everyone but me; as my friends tripped out and their collective crescendo gathered momentum I just got more annoyed and wanted to go home.

After two hours I was offered another cup of ayahuasca and declined. Andy and Ru pushed me to drink more but my body said no and I listened. In my head I said “bollocks to this, I’m done.”

The ceremony drew to a close and I became mother hen as everyone else in the room was, well, twatted. I made tea, ate a banana, put some tunes on and prepared Ru’s birthday cake (happy birthday maestro 🙂 ). Now we were done with the ayahuasca we could all eat sugar again. Every cloud.

As the group debriefed on their hallucinations and epiphanies (of which there were many) I wasn’t angry at being the odd one out; I did my best to be cheerful and was really just glad that it was over. My magical journey through the animal kingdom on night one made it all worthwhile, but as for answering life’s big questions and believing in magic I just hadn’t got there.

I ate a slice of carrot cake and felt a sudden need to poo. I ran to the bathroom and squeezed out a golden egg which was followed by Angel Falls as my bowels were evacuated. Feeling queasy I closed my eyes and out of nowhere, three and a half hours after taking my medicine, the hallucinations came.

POO

Before long I was in a glass palace observing a statuesque, silver, bejewelled vision of ayahuasca. I had expected her to have the body of a woman and be covered in leaves and vines but here she was in front of me, stationary, reflecting light from her many silver and crystal panels.

As Ru read out a poem he had written about Hannah I started to feel the love. This was my epoophany and my patience had been rewarded. I left the bathroom and went back to the ceremonial area, where my visions became huge industrial machines with cogs whirring and wheels spinning. In my mind there was a fight going on between science and magic.

As the visions faded I looked around and took stock. The people drinking ayahuasca with me this week had been completely transformed. The weight of the world had been replaced with childlike enthusiasm for the adventures ahead. Everyone had their own personal and private experiences which I will not share here, but each had been on a positive journey, answering big questions and understanding themselves, their natures, what was important and what they now needed to do to manifest their dreams.

As people often find with ayahuasca, we had each had 10 years of counselling in the space of 5 days.

Ru read another beautiful poem and suddenly it all clicked. I went to the upstairs toilet and, like I had done on the first night after my hallucination, made a voice recording. I had been looking for evidence that magic exists and, sat there on the toilet, I worked it out: my second epoophany.

Ayahuasca is a medicine because – unlike drugs – it leaves people better than it found them, wanting and knowing how to be better still. The real beauty of ayahuasca is that it makes people realise they are ALREADY PERFECT. And that, in my opinion, is magical.


While this may not seem like magic in its purest form, this epoophany was just the beginning. The synapses in my brain were on overdrive and I was suddenly deciphering the mysteries of the universe, seeing links between everything. Bog not blog, poocasts not podcasts. Yes I was still very high but this was my ‘Matrix Moment’ and I was Neo rocking back on his knees, dodging bullets and stopping time. I tried that briefly and almost fell over backwards, realising I wasn’t yet worthy of “The One” status but still believing in what ayahuasca had shown me: magic is happening every minute of every day – you just have to notice it.

Ayahuasca gives you faith in the universe and a belief in all those weird little things: the strange coincidences, numbers that keep popping up, recognising a shape or a face in the clouds, bumping into the same cute guy or girl repeatedly in seemingly random locations. All these little quirks of fate happen for a reason. Call it your angels talking to you, call it god, magic, the universe or your higher conscience, but don’t ignore it.

We are trained to respond to environmental stimuli in a certain way but there is so much more processing going on in our subconscious than our conscious minds are aware of. Just like our relatives in the animal kingdom we should learn to trust our instincts.

In the days since we came back I have jokingly been saying “thank you” to ayahuasca every time something has worked out well, like walking onto the platform just as a train arrives. When things haven’t worked out so well I’ve said “that’s fine, it wasn’t part of ayahuasca’s plan.” In this way I feel ayahuasca has taught me acceptance. Furthermore, thanking ayahuasca is really no different to thanking god or the universe so in a strange, roundabout way I’ve also discovered faith. Not faith in a particular god or goddess: faith in the belief that the universe is unfolding as it should.

As I wrote that last line it took me back to Desiderata by Max Ehrmann and my mind suddenly rhymejumped (this should be a word if it’s not) to Baz Luhrmann. I felt compelled to change the music upstairs to Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen), which I genuinely don’t think I’d heard since it was popular in 1999. In exactly the same style as Desiderata it gives gentle advice on how to live life. The words are brilliant and all so poignant to me.

When I heard one particular line it hit me:

“Live in New York City once but leave before it makes you hard”

I laughed as I realised that listening to this song was the final part of her masterplan, at least for now. Shamazing.

Thanks ayahuasca 🙂



If enough people request it in the comments I will post the sound recording of my epoophany. I don’t know what ‘enough’ is – ayahuasca will tell me. For now, here’s the sunscreen song by Baz Luhrmann:


Next stop: London

What is The Gump Method

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Day 35 – Ayahuasca Part II

After the first magical ceremony we were on spiritual overdrive. The Ayahuasca goddess had let us into her beautiful, natural world and nothing could stop us.

We started the next day with a cleanse, jumping into a freshwater stream at the bottom of the hill, one by one dipping our heads three times underwater to clear the cobwebs from the night before. It was cold.

Two of the group went for a walk and foraged a selection of delicious fruits and berries. The line between foraging and scrumping is a little blurry when you’re still full of DMT and pass a pomegranate tree in someone’s front garden.

fruit.jpgFeeling my newfound bond with the animals I let a house fly land repeatedly on my arms and legs; rather than swatting it away I let it go about its business: “I’m a friend of the flies, you can land wherever you want pal.” A red shield bug got agitated as I coaxed him onto my hand: “Fear not little bug, I come in peace.” I was clearly still under the influence as I fell over on my way to the toilet.

As recommended we took a full day off the black stuff after our first ceremony to recover. I wouldn’t say any of us were quite compos mentis but a proper sleep and a rest did us all good.

Next on the agenda was a short ritual around Hannah’s cauldron – each of us wrote on a piece of paper something we wanted to get rid of, lit the paper on fire and cast it into the pot to burn away.

Impatience.jpgMy patience was soon tested as we looked for a bicycle pump. I delved among dust and cobwebs in the exposed basement, dislodging a couple of dead snails as I searched. After 20 minutes and three laps of the musty drawers I was about to abort mission when I checked a new drawer inside the house and a brand new pump appeared – thanks Auntie Ayahuasca.

In preparation for our second ceremony we took a plant bath. This involved Ru and Hannah picking a selection of healing and medicinal plants from around the garden – lavender, rosemary, hibiscus and other flowers – before leaving them to soak in water for a few hours.

Plant bath.jpgThis felt like the perfect opportunity for Tarzan to get his speedos on. I was instructed to rub the brown, plant-infused concoction into every crack and orifice. It was cold.

speedo-plant-bath.jpgAfter all this bonding with nature we expected an even better second trip. In contrast to the nervous excitement of the first ceremony there was a reverential atmosphere as we went through the rituals, banishing dark spirits as the medicine flowed.

I asked Ayahuasca for a better understanding of the universe and my own place within it. Not much then. I sat in a new spot, buckled up and got ready for the ride.

Similarly to round one the first two drinks had no effect and I purged after my third cup. I sat waiting for the magic and was again greeted with a whole lot of nothing. I thought back to the cauldron and tried to relax…then the ceremony drew to a close, the lights came on and it was over.

Was I being impatient? Had I been greedy in my request? Maybe I was being punished for eating a couple of biscuits earlier that day, or maybe I simply hadn’t drunk enough.

It was clearly working on others: Hasina was occupied by spirits as she incanted a tribal chant and Justin was in pleasuretown, giggling and whooping as if he was being tickled aggressively with a feather duster.

As Andy had also felt very little we reassessed the situation and let doubt creep in. Maybe the talk of spirits and nature was just a way to make sense of all the discomfort and vomiting. Maybe we were putting lipstick on a DMT pig.

As one of the group mistakenly trusted a fart and followed through for the second time that night we laughed at how ridiculous it all felt: when you subtract the hallucinations all you are left with is nausea and a few buckets of human waste.

Ru told us there would be ups and downs and that each person would find their own meaning from the experience, even long after the retreat was over; perhaps we needed to be brought down to earth and this was all part of the journey.

I decided to keep the faith but after glimpsing something otherworldly in the first ceremony this felt like a major speedbump; either the magic was wearing off or this was another necessary stage in Ayahuasca’s masterplan…


Next stop: Ayahuasca Part III 

What is The Gump Method

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Day 33 – Ayahuasca Part I

HEALTH WARNING: THIS IS A BIT LONGER THAN MY USUAL POSTS

ALSO: LOTS OF WORDS AND NOT MANY PHOTOS FOR LEGAL REASONS 🙂


Ayahuasca is a psychoactive drink brewed from a combination of 12 sacred master plants growing in the Amazonian jungle. For centuries, the brew has been used as a traditional spiritual medicine by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin; the tourist trade for ayahuasca has only boomed in the last few decades.

Ayahuasca is a medicine rather than a drug, but as the drink contains concentrated amounts of the hallucinogen DMT it is illegal in most countries except Peru, where the government states that the “wisdom” plant “constitutes the gateway to the spiritual world and its secrets,” recognising ayahuasca’s status as “one of the basic pillars of the identity of the Amazon peoples.”

I travelled to Perpignan on the Southern tip of France for my ayahuasca retreat with 5 other curious travellers, only one of whom had previous experience of the medicine. Three ceremonies were planned over five days by our shaman Ru and his girlfriend Hannah, an energy healer. I had met them both a few months earlier at the Secret Garden Party festival and we bonded instantly. This is me hitting on Hannah (it’s ok, Ru took the photo).

Pomme d'amour

Half hippie half North London boy from the flats, a musician and ex-boxing trainer, Ru did his shaman apprenticeship over 6 months in the Amazon jungle. He is an incredibly spiritual but also totally normal and funny guy who I knew would be the perfect guide for my first ayahuasca journey.

In preparation for a ceremony the body needs to be cleansed. The term ‘Stoptober’ has been coined for giving up cigarettes in October but we stopped almost everything: with alcohol, meat, dairy, sugar, salt and processed foods off limits it was also Droptober due to the weight loss. We were even banned from sex, both with others and with ourselves (Floptober).

The reason for this cleanse is not only to show respect for the ‘divine goddess’ and the plants she represents but also to prepare the body for the ‘purge’ (vomiting) which occurs between 20 minutes and a few hours after drinking the thick, brown medicine.

ayahuasca brew

Each person comes to an ayahuasca ceremony with their own objective which is stated, in the mind, before their first drink. I had no particular yearning for a deeper understanding of anything, feeling I had already been on a spiritual journey in recent months, but Ru said something in the preparatory phase that helped bring me clarity:

“Plants don’t have spirits but all spirits have plants:”

After my walk in the Fontainebleau forest and a beautiful experience earlier in the day watching a hummingbird hawk-moth drain nectar from the flowers in the garden I felt a strong desire to connect with nature and asked ayahuasca to help me.

As night fell and the ceremony began one of the group was overwhelmed by emotion and started sobbing. We each took turns to drink our first cup with the shaman and return to our places. I felt reassured that my place was next to Andy, my best friend for the last 25 years, who would be with me on the journey.

I closed my eyes and waited. Nothing. After 15 minutes another group member started purging aggressively into his bucket. Nothing. Before long I realised Andy was on a magical mystery tour, giggling, mumbling and singing to himself as I sat there in complete darkness feeling nothing. Another hour passed and I took a second cup, still nothing. A few puffs of purple smoke were the only vision I had as I sat there, disappointed and frustrated that it hadn’t worked on me.

Two hours in there was a cacophony: multiple people vomiting loudly into their buckets, Andy having a whale of a time next to me bouncing around in the clouds and me sat there thinking “well this is shit.”

I felt like Oliver Twist as I knelt in front of the shaman and asked him for my third cup. Feeling a bit queasy by that stage I took my bucket with me, knowing that one more swig of the smoky, bitter liquid could send me over the edge, and it did. I puked violently into my bucket 5 or 6 times, still only thinking about what a shitty time I was having, and then sat back in my spot, swilled my mouth with water and blew my nose.

It is common for the visions to start after a purge, and as Ru broke out into one of his many beautiful and magical shamanic songs it started POW. With my eyes closed I was suddenly in a greenhouse with light streaming in from all angles. Space and noise were distorted as Ru sang, with tweeting birds and chirping crickets, frogs and insects providing the backing music. Next I saw kaleidoscopes of neon animal faces before my sick bucket became a menagerie with gorillas and monkeys and birds and plants growing everywhere. I suddenly realised how excited I was to write about this when a hippopotamus looked up at me lazily and said “stop thinking about your blog and focus on the animals.”

As I watched a pink flamingo preening himself I briefly panicked and thought “surely this isn’t my spirit animal?” but the flamingo flew away and was replaced by every animal I had ever seen. I went deep into the rainforest where every noise echoed through the jungle. I joined in and made a few noises of my own: drips and drops of water and then out of nowhere a “KAW” thinking I was a bird, which drew giggles from the other participants.

I found myself in the taxidermy shop on Essex Road in London where I bonded with the big stuffed giraffe that has been in there for years. I felt his pride and frustration as I connected with him.

As my body went into convulsions I felt the spirit of ayahuasca was inside me, giving me energy. When Ru came over to check I was ok he spoke to me as a lion. I giggled as he turned into a hummingbird hawk-moth, then a baboon, and as he played the xylophone beautifully in my visions he was a fly, beating down left-right-left-right on the instrument with his big, bulbous eyes.

Then I was a frog being rescued from the pool in our Hamptons house, before finding myself in a garden populated by all the family dogs from over the years who are no longer with us: Billy, Louis, Rufus, Amber and Baxter; all smiling, wagging their tails and turning over to be tickled before going into their own doggy dreams.

Very briefly I was Indiana Jones, Andy was the BFG, Jackie (not even present) was a mermaid and Hasina was a tree, but mostly it was just me and the animals. Whenever we got carried away Ru said “tranquilo” to calm us down. While there is no dialogue allowed with anyone other than the shaman, Andy, Hannah and I were clearly bouncing off each other’s trips as the laughter at times became uncontrollable. Each of us was given a special time with the shaman called ‘Limpieza’ where we were cleansed and asked what we needed help with. In the height of my high I didn’t really know what I wanted but asked for help in finding my spirit animal. Ru said “maybe you won’t choose one, but all of the animals” as he presented me with a turquoise pendant necklace.

I had been waiting for him all night and then he came – the white tiger – but instead of Pieter the cuddly toy I saw a white version of Tony the Tiger (the Frosties mascot) which started a wonderful period of white tiger faces peeking out at me from behind leaves and branches, smiling and laughing with me. In my head I was saying “come and find me, come and get me” but it was at that point that I realised I didn’t love one animal, I loved all the animals, even the ugly ones as I smiled at a rat. During this epiphany Ru came over, hugged me and, as he does for all participants, gave me my new nickname: Tarzan. It was too perfect and I burst into joyous fits of laughter.

Ru called the ceremony to a close but the journey continued as we were still full of ayahuasca. Gurglings, rumblings and painful wind in the stomach were uncomfortable and I needed food. I ate an apple followed by an unpeeled kiwi. We were finally allowed to talk to each other and it was hilarious. Mine was the most lighthearted and fluffy journey but all of us had incredible experiences with very different outcomes.

Andy took a trip on the love train. Starting with the members of his own family his vision took him around the room and outside the house where he fired love thunderbolts from his wrists like Spider-Man.

Hasina spoke to the goddess in their own new language and was told to draw a series of symbols which she has since been trying to decipher.

symbols.jpg

Farid purged the pain and suffering of all humanity, feeling an overwhelming urge to save the planet.

It took Justin the whole ceremony, and 5 cups of ayahuasca, to let her in; only after everyone else had left the room did he finally cast his inhibitions aside, purge and see visions of his own, immediately taking on the persona of a cat before being called upstairs by the real life house cat Fauve who was sat, purring, on his bed.

What do these different journeys say about us as people? Only Ayahuasca knows, but it is clear from our first ceremony that ultimately she gives each person what they want and need, not necessarily in that order.

After hearing various horror stories my first experience of the medicine was magical, beautiful and beyond my wildest imagination. How the next two journeys unfold, and whether I touch on anything deeper and darker in my inner psyche, is yet to be seen.


Next stop: Ayahuasca Part II

What is The Gump Method

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Day 29 – Forest Bathing

Words of the day: 

Phonophobia: a fear or aversion to loud sounds

Shinrin-yoku: the Japanese art of “forest bathing”

Shunrin-yoku: the art of forest bathing while shunemployed


After 10 years in London I had accepted the noise of the city: like people living next to a busy railway track who stop hearing the trains you get used to it.

I moved to New York in late 2015 and the volume went from 7 to 10. The buzz and energy of New York are a big part of what makes it special but there is no escape hatch when you’ve had enough. You can get anything you want in downtown Manhattan, unless you want outdoor quiet time which is guaranteed only by leaving the city.

I was sad to leave New York after 14 months but happy to leave behind the noise. Living on 19th street, one block away from a fire station, I had a specific issue with the unnecessarily loud and genuinely frightening FDNY fire trucks. Words like ‘beep’ and ‘toot’ are totally inadequate to describe their booming devil horns which assaulted not just the ears but the whole body and soul. I realise they were saving lives and I was just trying to sleep but I developed a genuine phonophobia from the incessant horn abuse.

A German friend who I spent time with in New York (hi again Luki) was, at the time, working on a really interesting project called the Sonic Movement. With growing numbers of noiseless vehicles, for safety reasons European regulations now mandate that new electric cars sold in the EU must emit noise by 2019.

Rather than the unimaginative replication of existing combustion engine noises proposed by the regulators, the Sonic Movement identified this once-in-a-generation opportunity to make our motorways and city streets sound more pleasant.

What if, instead of screeching brakes and roaring engines, electric cars sounded like classical music? Instead of toots and beeps and FDNY death honks, horns could replicate birdsong. Yes, my two examples are totally impractical but there must be a happy medium.


With all this emotional and aural baggage I approached the Forest of Fontainebleau on day 29, about 40 minutes south of Paris, for a solo walk in the wilderness on a Monday. I took a fold-up paper map and deliberately left my headphones at home – just me, my map, and the sounds of the forest. I didn’t have a loin cloth handy but packed my speedos just in case.

packing for the forest

I had planned to switch off my phone for the day but as I entered the woods I realised how dependent I had become on the little computer in my pocket. How will I know how far I’ve walked? How will I take photos? What if I get really lost? I put it in airplane mode and resolved to use it only for emergencies (and photos and poetry recitations).

Marching deeper into the deserted forest I realised it was the first time I had done something like this, totally alone, and took pleasure in just wandering along, observing and listening. I was also in search of a suitable location for my first attempt at ‘forest bathing.’

The Japanese love a good tree and when they’re not celebrating the cherry blossoms during hanami you may find them in the woods enjoying a spot of shinrin-yoku. This essentially involves ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ and is regarded as a form of preventive healthcare.

I identified a small clearing under some oak trees and lay down for 15 minutes looking up at the canopy. I can honestly say I have never felt so relaxed. A couple of aeroplanes passing at 30,000 feet provided an amusing contrast as I lay silently among the leaves. As insects buzzed past and acorns dropped around me I had once again found my perfect paradise.

This time lapse video captured my view (extra point if you can spot the plane):

The woods weren’t completely deserted, but in 6 hours of walking and shinrin-yoku I had seen only two men, one lady of the forest and three dogs. After enjoying my own company for hours on end my interactions with these strangers were a little awkward, especially when I realised one of them was working.

As I calmly walked through the trees, enjoying the silence, I remembered the first line of the prose poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann which was on the wall at home when I was growing up:

Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence. 

I was never encouraged to read the poem – it just hung there – but over time it has come to mean a lot to me. It is a beautiful collection of words offering gentle guidance on how to live life. As I had no music to distract me and a lot of walking to do I decided to learn it.

Finding a lovely spot for afternoon tea on one of Fontainebleau’s many formations of huge boulders I set up my recording studio and gave it a go. The gap after the word ‘silence’ was deliberate, but all other dramatic pauses were just me trying to remember the words.

From the noises of London and New York to the silence of Fontainebleau I am making an effort to go more placidly; my day alone in the forest was very special and I believe that all my big city friends would benefit from a little more silence, shinrin-yoku and maybe even some boulder-top poetry recital.


Next stop: Ayahuasca (Béziers, South of France)

What is The Gump Method

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trees and boulders