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Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Episode 4: Taking some downtime off the highway

Today, heck, maybe even for most of this week, I’ve felt depressed.

It’s not easy for me to admit that, for two reasons:

1. Guilt/shame- I’m currently travelling with the rarest freedom to go where I please and so should surely be having the time of my life. I’m in Jamaica for Jah’s sake.

2. Ignorance. Full disclosure: I can sometimes be disconnected from my feelings, especially negative ones which I tend to block.

Managing to observe and examine this process is highly valuable- so how did I come to be this way?

In adolescence I spent several years in poor mental health. A diagnosis of clinical depression at 18 stalled my university ambitions. Three years of imbalance followed before reaching rock bottom with an acute psychosis and a couple of months in a psychiatric ward.

Who knows why...brain chemistry, personality, life. Whatever the reasons, it happened and it shaped who I am today...and I’m grateful.

“What makes you comfortable can ruin you and only in a state of discomfort can you continually grow.” (Bill Eckstrom)

During those years of discomfort I often felt bitter. As a schoolboy I only knew to measure ‘growth’ by academic success...B’s to A’s...A’s to A*’s. As friends were graduating with university degrees and commencing their journeys into adulthood, I was a drop-out - dependent on my parents for care and on drugs to cope.

Nevertheless growth was occurring. Growth that would never be validated with a grade or a piece of paper. No, this was a subtle, translucent growth. The foundation of what has now been over ten years of good mental health.

For me, the Greek aphorism ‘Know Thyself’ (seen above) is the definition of good mental health.

Depression is a deeply introspective state. Life, with its all-absorbing momentum, is halted. You’re thrown off the ride and when you land…’you’, whoever that person was, is gone. Who you are now is unclear, but one thing’s for feels fucking terrible.

I don’t know if I’ll ever revisit that dark place. The prospect used to terrify me, hence my reflex to block negative feelings. For me, being ‘down’ feels synonymous with Depression and therefore not to be tolerated.

And so ironically, as I run from Depression in such a way, with intolerance and denial, I’m actually running towards it, feeding its potential re-manifestation. For if good mental health is ‘know thyself’ then bad mental health is ‘ignore thyself’.

For the past two months I’ve been intensely absorbed and fulfilled - backpacking around Colombia. You can check out my last post on the lessons I learnt here.

Now for the first time on this trip, the ride has slowed. I am alone...far from home…existing in the bubble of my own heart heavy with a sadness I do not understand.

Please do not wish me better or hope that I cheer up soon. Instead celebrate and be grateful with me that I am simply aware. I welcome this spell of sadness as a teacher bearing a lesson of self-knowledge- an opportunity to grow and learn.

Wherever you are on your own journey I wish you patience and tolerance. Whatever you’re going through it will soon pass...everything does.                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Episode 3: Lessons learnt after two months Backpacking in Colombia

Today marks two months away from London...officially the longest time I’ve been away from home, ever.

I’ve spent this time in Colombia...experiencing the country as a backpacker...learning how to cope with, and embrace the transient lifestyle of utter freedom, bewildering novelty and solitude.

Hereby written...with the help of a few Columbian anecdotes...are my top five pieces of advice for the new backpacker to be...

Lesson #1: Make pancakes for Strangers

Toned and tattooed; the young Frenchman deftly served a stack of crepes with a bountiful selection of accoutrements...including a bowl of crushed Oreo cookies.

‘Take one man!’

Being English, I politely declined...'You're too thank you.'

Generous and perhaps experienced in the subtleties of English manners, the Frenchman insisted; 'Come on man...don't be polite, have one!'

And so I did. And so we became friends. And so I learnt the culinary masterstroke of a crushed packet of Oreo cookies...surely the finest of pancake accoutrements.

It was a valuable lesson...a valuable recipe in fact:

Pancakes* + strangers = new friends.
(*One cup of flour/one cup of milk/one egg...mix/fry/serve with accoutrements and a smile)

And when you’re alone in a hostel far from home who doesn’t need a new friend?   

In my case it was pancakes, but I’m sure there are many ways to break the ice with your fellow anonymous travel-mates; over some small act of generosity. Otherwise it’s all too easy to sit amongst each other in silent isolation, glumly gazing a smartphone screens.

Your new friend might be a veteran of the region and only too happy to share their best advice. Or else you might really hit it off and have a new companion for days or weeks to come. Either way, I believe that you receive what you be generous and positive!

Lesson #2: “No dar Papaya”

1.30am and I was homeward bound from the salsa club, having witnessed various men and women move their hips in hitherton unimagined ways.

My hostel was a short walk away here in Poblado, the well-lit and well-policed upmarket neighbourhood of Medellin, where all of the backpacker hostels are based.

At the next corner I happened upon a young, immensely well-built blonde man. I recognised him from the club though now he stood frozen, gazing into the middle distance.

Interrupting his reverie, we soon struck up a happy conversation over our different paths. He, Theoretical Mathematics Professor at MIT...I an actor.

A few street corners later and it was time to part. ‘Let me take your name...I’ll add you on Facebook’. Alone on the suburban street it felt safe to take out my phone.

Alas it was not...before I had written his surname (I got his first name...Simon)...a passing moped pulled to an abrupt stop beside us. I returned my ‘papaya’ to my pocket.

A man and a woman each took off their helmets. The man aggressively advanced towards me ...the woman for Simon. Instinct took over and I hostel was less than 50 metres away. Ashamedly, I can’t say what happened to Simon...I never looked back. He was built like a brick shithouse so I think it’s safe to say he wasn’t kidnapped.

This was an attempted crime of opportunity. Had I not made the mistake of showing papaya perhaps it wouldn’t have occurred. Papaya is a valued fruit in Colombia, hence the expression ‘No dar Papaya’ to be interpreted as ‘don’t be flashing items of value and therefore attracting trouble.’

It was a very close call and a timely reminder of just how careful I ought to be. Time and again in the past weeks I’ve met others less fortunate. The lesson...stay vigilant...and then some. DON’T SHOW PAPAYA.

(I’m aware that my story contravenes the common wisdom that in a theft situation you should give up your valuables without personal possession is worth being harmed over. I absolutely stand by that decision to run was perhaps foolish...yet alas it wasn’t a decision so much as an instinctual reflex...brave warrior that I am. Every situation is unique and you’re gonna play what you’re dealt)

Lesson #3: Escape the backpacker bubble

After weeks of bumbling along the gringo trail and ticking off the ‘must-do’ leisure activities I was ready to move into a new phase of work, to learn, to try to get away from the tourist trail in the hope of learning something deeper of Colombian culture, something beyond the distorted membrane of the backpacker bubble.

Shortly thereafter, it was my great fortune to meet two wonderful women; yoga teachers, healers and experienced travellers...Ruth and Caitlin. (Check out their blogs by clicking on their names.)

Aside from hours of utterly enlightening conversation they furnished me with instructions to a hippy-run farmhouse, remotely nestled in the sacred Sierra Nevada mountain range. They don't advertise or take bookings...the owner’s philosophy is that you will come if you are called. I was called.

Indeed it was a special place...spiritually and artistically centred. I took it as a good omen that one of the two long term volunteers, Izzy, shared the exact same birth date and year as me.

Though perhaps the most magical element was that the household’s next-door neighbours were a large family of the indigenous Kogi tribe. The Kogis had escaped Spanish colonisation by fleeing to these mountains, thus preserving their traditions and bloodlines dating back to the pre-Columbian era.

Now on my first night I was introducing myself as several family members visited the house to watch a DVD on Izzy’s laptop! The next morning I was drafted to help on their farm...digging a large hole for a vivarium...breeding fish to feed the family.   

In the local national park, visiting tourists pay good money just to pass through and see the Kogi people. Yet there I was...shovel-in-hand-in-hole...working alongside Augustine, Santiago and Clemente...making them giggle uproariously by repeating naughty words in their native language.

I felt a special contentment surrounded by nature and a timeless way of life...Grandmother quietly digging up crying for attention by the mud hut...birds of prey circling overhead...mountain valley stretching out below towards the coast.  

Going forward I’ll be keen to find more moments such as that. If you want to guarantee this kind of experience in your own travels then I recommend using a volunteer placement service such as...
Work Away or WOOFING.

Get off that beaten track...connect and learn something real about the culture of where you’re visiting. As an added bonus, being surrounded by locals will likely fast track your learning of the language and the customs.

Lesson #4: Keep Calm and don’t sweat paying ‘Stupidity Tax’

I don’t know about you, but I hate that feeling of being ripped off...perhaps you’ve failed to haggle and paid too much for something or just been the victim of some kind of con. When you’re travelling on a budget and trying to be careful with your cash then this hurts all the more.

I have a little name for this kind of occurrence…’stupidity tax’. It’s a tax you as an inexperienced traveller...because in your first-time ignorance you didn’t know better.

Yes it sucks and yes you can let it spoil your day...turning it over in your mind...considering how it could have gone differently...or you can choose not to. As my close friend advised me in those moments of stress…’breathe and let it go’. Then think about what you can do differently next time.

Breathe and let go...a sunset awaits you

If you’re buying something expensive...don’t rush! If you can speak the language maybe ask a local what something should cost. Shop around and get a couple of prices for comparison. Enter into the spirit of haggling with a playful energy. Try walking away - salesmen hate losing the sale so threatening to leave is a great tactic to see if they will drop the price.

Furthermore, try to understand the value of money as a local...not as a tourist. For example consider the price of a bus ticket or the price of a basic street lunch. Yes back at home you might be happy for a sandwich, crisps and a drink for £6...and yes you will find options catering to tourists for this price bracket too. But some of the best meals I’ve had have been from local canteens...‘typico’ dishes for £3.

Lesson #5: Be a Jellyfish

I encourage you not to make plans and embrace the flow of wherever your intuition guides you. Cultivate awareness in the present moment. Embrace the idea that within every new situation lurks a lesson to be learnt...provided you can approach it with sensitivity, patience and an open heart. Adopt the attitude that each and every person is a potential teacher, having lived a lifetime of different experiences.

Trust in the way and for further info click here to read my earlier post on this subject!

Lots of love and Happy Travels!