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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Next stop: San Sebastian (Spain)

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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

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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 

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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

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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

Day 27 – Poorly Paris

It was great to catch up with friends in Paris, one of my favourite cities, but after 24 hours I got the feeling that it’s a little unwell.

The 20 minute walk from Gare de Bercy up to Gare de Lyon is not the Champs-Élysée but it was a grim welcome. Dingy and dirty, there was an aggressive tension in the air along with 2 or 3 different varieties of weed as I walked through a dimly lit park.

In the station I sat down to listen to a couple of old guys taking turns to play beautiful pieces on the grand piano until they were surrounded by a swarm of youngish teenagers who elbowed them off the stool. It was nothing too malicious – the kids were just showing off – but as the old men trudged away there was a sense of resigned indifference from the disappointed audience.

Parisian waiters are notorious for their attitudes, particularly towards Brits with terrible French accents. It’s usually an entertaining element of the dining experience but, after encountering consistently miserable and rude servers at each of the 7 or 8 bars, restaurants and cafes we went to, it was just unpleasant. Even my French friend got sick of the impatience, unhelpfulness, eye rolls and sighs.

Walking through the streets there was an extremely active police presence, as expected in the current climate. I found it reassuring but the aftershocks of multiple terror attacks are clearly reverberating with Parisians. There was a noticeable lack of buzz, with few people staying out late (even on La Nuit Blanche).

As a British francophile I hate to paint a depressing picture of such an amazing city and must caveat this with the fact that I was only there for 24 hours, spending most of my time in and around the Marais. Having said that, it is clear to me that Paris is suffering from deep political, social and economic malaise; the city will bounce back but it will take time.

While I may not be qualified to give this opinion it is clear that Parisians feel it too. A beautiful, hand-painted piece of satirical street art posted at the entrance to a subway station may be the best way of summing up how many French people currently feel about France:

Marianne Pinnochio


Next stop: Fontainebleau (trees, chateaus and only happy thoughts I promise)

What is The Gump Method

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Day 26 – The Spectrum of Spending

Words of the day:

Parsimony – extreme unwillingness to spend money or use resources

Profligacy – reckless extravagance or wastefulness in the use of resources


As a kid I used to love money. Just having it, looking at it, saving it and watching the coffers rise. My Britannia Building Society Young Savers Account booklet paints a picture of financial discipline and restraint: an opening investment of £20 was gradually bolstered with deposits of anything from £10 to £75 (after a bumper Christmas haul in 1992) and not a single withdrawal in the first 5 years. I saved so much at Natwest that I got the whole family of piggy banks.

Natwest Piggy Banks

Was this love of money my natural state or was it something taught? I believe the latter, and that most people’s attitudes towards money change over time. Things that we learn can be unlearned and I’m currently in a process of unlearning. Or maybe I’m learning.

In support of this nascent theory I present Exhibit A: Stephanie Jones. My sister Steph was always a ‘get it, spend it’ kind of a kid – clothes, makeup and magazines would cause her to shell out cash. What’s the point of having money if you don’t use it to buy a Take That pencil case and a massive poster of Jason Orange breakdancing? (She was actually more of a Mark Owen girl but whatevs).

take that

As an adult Steph still spends eye-watering amounts on clothes and shoes but lives well within her means, saves and is far more financially controlled than Exhibit B: her big brother (me). I’m not sure exactly when the switcharoo happened but after saving everything as a kid I developed an ability as an adult to spend spend spend.

In Britain you don’t need to have money to spend it, but fortunately I did. I was earning a decent salary but smashing most of it away on poor value-for-money purchases – usually extravagant holidays and stag dos all over the world. I had an amazing time and have no regrets (apart from that one time in Hong Kong, oh and Miami, and I try not to think about Vegas) but recently decided that a change was necessary.

While I have always appreciated the value of money my approach to saving and spending has clearly changed over time; I’ve travelled from parsimony to profligacy – one extreme of the spending spectrum to the other – and I’m currently trying to settle somewhere in the middle.

It was in this spirit of enlightenment that I approached booking my current trip to France. Using my remaining airmiles was not good value so would it be the expensive, last minute Eurostar train or the cheap but gloomy bus from London to Paris?

I hate long bus journeys so that was a non-starter. With a little help from a friend (hi Marits) I settled on a perfect compromise, buying a Eurostar ticket for £50 (full price £170) on a Facebook resale group. I then smugly told everyone how clever I was.

My 8am Saturday journey was perfect, forcing me to behave on the Friday night and getting me to Paris by 11am to hang out with friends and do some touristy shizz.

Then late last night I saw a sign at a petrol station saying  “Old style £1 coins must be exchanged before 15 October when they cease to be legal tender.” Rushing home I emptied my (Natwest) piggy bank, found 53 old style pound coins and put them in a freezer bag in preparation for an early morning spending spree. The banks wouldn’t be open yet but, consistent with my new approach, I was not sacrificing a hard-earned £53.

It’s tough getting up early when you’re shunemployed, and I snoozed the alarm at 6.30am. No bother, we still have plenty of time here. On arrival at St Pancras off I went to Neal’s Yard to buy a gift, then Calvin Klein for 2 pairs of boxers, then Joe and the Juice for a healthy start to the day. As I approached the Eurostar terminal with £3 left to give to the next homeless person I felt like everything was coming together.

You know where this is going – the check-in had closed, I went to change my ticket and was asked for my passport. She saw my name wasn’t Maxime, scowled at me like a corked wine and offered me a new ticket for £190. Merde.

FLix bus.jpg

As I write this 6 hours into my 8 hour bus journey to Paris (cost: £19) I am feeling surprisingly pleased about the way today is working out. I spent the first two hours deep in conversation with Spencer who has had a far worse day than me so far (a banana exploded in his pocket which took A LOT of sorting out – see Exhibit D).

banana.jpg

I have also chatted to a couple of other lovely people (bus photo credit to Marwa) and noticed a palpable sense of team spirit on this bus. Helping each other out, vacating seats so the tired people can sleep, sharing food. Yes there are better ways to travel but this is fine so let’s be nice and enjoy ourselves.

Every day’s a learning day and I’ve learnt a few lessons already, one being that I should have got the bus in the first place.


Next stop: still Paris 

What is The Gump Method

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