Fancy some travel-inspired gifts that evoke one of my favourite destinations? Then check out CNN’s article on 7 distinctly Thai Christmas gifts, which is a nice round-up of shopping inspiration.

It doesn’t, however, include one of my favourite travel books of all time, Very Thai. This book looks at Thai culture and pop culture through a lightly anthropological lens. Illustrated by some fantastic photography, both words and images will surely help you get more out of your Thai travels than any other book on the country. I bought my copy in Koh Lanta, anjd have treasured it ever since – whether travelling in Thailand or simply melting into my armchair at home dreaming of visiting that beautiful land.

Should have mentioned this ages ago…I’ve moved this blog over to http://www.leafcuttertravel.com.

Reasons:

  • Name – the “Pop Culture…” dynasty of blogs grew out of a writing style when I was  a little younger, a little hipper, a little more plugged into pop culture. My travelling is much more hippy like, and driven by doing stuff, by nature, sport and adventure. The leafcutter ants that I loved when travelling seem to be apt inspiration – they work together to have a good time all without fucking up resources.

 

  • Layout – I wanted a little more creative freedom than that afforded by the free (and awesome) wordpress.com templates

 

Unfortunately, I don’t update the blog as much as I wanted to. Starved of travelling since a I returned from my round the world trip, I’m also an expectant father so it looks like travel might be difficult for the forseeable. I’m a kind of in-the-moment 110% person, so if I can’t travel then I find it hard to stay interested in maintaining it alongside all the other stuff going on in my life.

If I can maintain it and make it useful, I will. If not, RIP.

Was shocked yesterday to read about the oil spill in the Amazon, not just becuase it happened, or because of the devastation, but that it did so without a whisper from the media.

Indeed, I hadn’t heard about it until I picked up a tweet when searching twitter for Amazon news.

It’s rediculous that this has gone unreported but hardly surprising. The media’s obsession with meaningless trivia ensures that important news rarely gets reported, sometimes with devastating effect. What I nwant to know is, when are we going to stop burying our heads in the sand and start giving a shit about things that matter?

As soon as I heard about the news, I spoke with a friend who lives in the Amazon, Alejandro Vargas. He was brought up on the banks of the Amazon, and makes his living there now as a nature guide.

He says that oil “was spread in the river,” but that the government are saying that ” is (under) control now…but I´ve got my doubts.” The impact on the local communities is real, “because some villages around, they don´t have fish in the river now, and they can´t drink the water, you know that us as a local people drink the water from the river.”Alex did go on to say that the oil company is reportedly helping the villages and people. That isn’t undoing the devatastion done so far, however.

It’s not the first time that our greed for oil has wreacked havoc on local people who are too poor to even dream of owning a car. There was one in Feb 2009, January 2002,

Normally, I don’t use this platform for ranting, but I can’t not shout about this issue. The Amazon is such an important place which made such a deep, impression on me. From Iquitos in Peru on the banks of Rio Maranon, to the great river and rainforest basin itself, to the villages along Rio Tapira, a tributary, the place and people moved me enough to rethink my own life, particularly how and what I consume, and what I do with the waste.

As adventurer,  Bruce Parry, says “With everything we do – we’re affecting, often negatively, other places in the world and often, a lot of people in the world are being affected by everything we touch, eat, drink. The Amazon is just the biggest example you can find to say, ‘Listen! When you buy hardwood, you are doing this. When you buy oil, you are doing this. When you buy gold, you are doing this’, and it’s good for us to see that.”

Travelling in the Amazon made me totally re-evaluate what I buy and how I live. When you thrive in the jungle without ‘luxuries’ like electricity, hot water, and air conditioning – and your worldy possessions for four months weigh no more than 27kg – you review your addiction to stuff.

The irony that I earn money from promoting stuff to people isn’t lost on me, but at least I love the brands I work with, and believe that they make many nice things. Of course, many people buy things to cure the feeling of emptiness inside, of course often it doesn’t. So surely each of us can rein it in a bit and do something more useful (for ourselves and each other) instead.

So, by way of a call to action, why not do something more useful?Here are some suggestions:

  • Watch Tribe and Amazon by Bruce Parry – be inspired by how Bruce is moved and transformed by the places and people he visits
  • Read the Last Viridian Note by Bruce Sterling and use it as a guide on what to buy (warning, it’s a bit of a thick, long read)
  • Visit the Amazon and stay at an eco-lodge – I guarantee it will change your life for the better

Rant over!

Honduras gets off to a bad start, but grows on us pretty rapidly. We start off with the worst border entry, but exit on a high after discovering idyllic beaches, hip hop lizards, and a bagpipe loving toucan rescuer.
Here’s a short summary of our trip to what turned out to be a helluva country.
Arrivals

We have the worst immigration experience ever, which starts with a guy in uniform snatching our passports from us and ends with our maverick taxi driver, Junior, swooping into immigration, throwing a few dollars ‘tax’ at suspect officials and grabbing our passports back for us. We have arrived by boat into a tourist-unfriendly area swarming with crooks, so Junior whisks us out of there toute suite.

Taxi death race

Crammed into the tiny taxi with a French couple – a late ferry meant we all missed a crucial bus connection – Junior gave us a the kind of near-death four hour taxi ride experience that roller coaster addicts would kill for. To drive in Honduras you need balls of a bull and the stomach of a horse. Floor it at all times, fly through red lights, drive into oncoming traffic until someone chickens out – and don’t forget to overtake in reverse. Making us feel like we were in the ultimate car chase movie, Junior somehow got us to our destination La Ceiba, safely. And he was a total dude to boot.

Yet another beachy paradise
We’re in La Ceiba, itself a sketchy enough town, to catch the ferry to the beautiful Bay islands – Roatan island to be exact. Yep, it’s another beachy, Caribbean paradise, and I ain’t complaining. The island is stunning – all soft, bone white beaches and warm, turquoise waters. It’s also the world’s cheapest place to scuba dive, yet one of the best – so we dive so much we practically evolve gills.

Hip hop lizards

We also shred around the breathtaking countryside, mainly off road, on motorbikes. A wacky place we end up is an iguana farm where the lizards have developed a taste for hip hop antics. Started by a guy who ate the huge lizards (we didn‘t partake, before you ask), he eventually had so many curious human visitors he turned the farm into a tourist attraction. The lizards seem to be massively into hip hop – they nod their heads at us like they’re trying out for a Jay Z video.  We try a few lines of ‘New York State of Mind’ and they seem to dig it, all nodding furiously. It’s hilarious – particularly because it could just be a sign that they want to mate with us.

Back on the mainland, we take a bus that costs less than a round at the pub but is more luxurious than a first class seat on any European flight. It’s an amazing way to travel to our next destination further south, Copan Ruinas. This is a fantastic little town, with the friendliest people we have met so far. Everyone is just so proud of their town and so happy to host tourists there. We came here for one night but ended up staying three.

‘Jesus’, is our guide

Scarlet macaw

Here, Jesus himself is our guide – Jesus the tuk tuk driver that is. He drives us to some great places like thermal springs, but one we really enjoy, believe it or not, is a bird sanctuary. It’s basically the jungle but with some safe housing for rescued macaws, parrots, toucans and other feathered friends. The best part is hanging out with nature guide, Alex, who turns out to be a massive fan of bagpipes.

As soon as I tell him I’m Scottish, he’s waxing lyrical about his passion for pipes. I suppose if you have learned to love the ear-splitting screech of the forest’s noisiest birds, then bagpipes might well sound heavenly. One quick phone call later and some CDs from a contact at Scotdisc are on the way to him. As a thank you, Alex covers me in parrots which peck my head till it bleeds and gnaws holes in my shirt. Apparently this is how they show affection.

Next stop, Nicaragua.

It’s 12am, and with a throbbing altitude sickness headache for company I’ve tumbled down a staircase in the dark, in a hut that clings onto a mountain at over 4,000 meters in Ecuador.

Cotapaxi, the world's highest active volcano

A vicious storm makes opening the hut’s heavy wooden front door hard – and I need to get outside to pee, or else I’ll have wet pants to add to the general misery list.

When I stagger back inside, a torch beam rudely shines in my  face, and in my stupor on the roof of the world, I feel disoriented, like I’m suddenly on some gruelling SAS survival-type TV show.

Through the shrill noise of my drilling headache, I barely hear what the grim figure says, but it sounds like “time to go.”

And shockingly, it is indeed that awful time when we must attempt to scale the world’s highest active volcano, the perfectly cone-shaped, snow covered summit that is Ecuador’s Cotopaxi.

We’re here to end our four month travel adventure on a high. Having visited one of the lowest points on Earth (Death Valley), we’re now set to scale one of the highest. Through our adventures, we have progressively exposed ourselves to more and more risk – and this climb certainly represents one of the biggest risks for us to date.

The objective: a dark terror
In Spanish, it’s name means “smooth neck of the moon” and in Quechua, “mass of fire”. This snow-topped fiery monster has also been worshipped since pre-Incan times as the ‘rain sender.’ None of which conveys the fear the actual climb can inspire.

Indeed, to me, it’s a brutal 9 hour return climb (although we hear, more accurately, that it takes complete novices around 12-13 hours), from over 4,000 meters (around half the height of Everest) to around 5,800 meters through dangerous weather (snow storm with gale force winds), clawing up shifting gravel before climbing onto a glacier, and picking a perilous path to the top with crampons and an ice axe in a race against time to beat melting ice bridges. And, oh yeah, in the dark.

Breaking point

We had decided to climb Cotopaxi without any experience because we wanted to end our adventure with a big mental and physical risk. We had invested a large amount of money, muscle and mental graft just to get to the refuge, or mountain hut, from where we begin our ascent.

Our only preparation was a crucial, but exhausting acclimatisation walk at altitude – the muscle tearingly-tough 5000m+ (over 16,500 feet) peak of Illiniza (South). Backing out would render all investment so far pointless. Yet pushing on to the summit would push us to breaking point.

Fear and dread
Earlier, I ascended to the refuge (mountain hut) – a tough little ascent – with little incident. Sure, there was some mild soroche – altitude sickness, low energy levels and mild exhaustion – however  I had felt surprisingly up for the summit attempt, if I could just get some rest and, importantly, sleep between 7pm-11.30pm.

Seeking refuge - Scot grabs a breather en route to Cotopaxi's refuge at 4000m+

During the evening, however, my nerves jangled inside my sleeping bag, as fear and dread gnawed nastily away at my pluck and optimism. Indeed, by the time the mountain guide’s wake-up beam smashes into my face, I already have prepared a list of excuses not to climb. At midnight, in response to my protestations, Hernan – who is such a good climber, incidentally, that he summited Cotopaxi 45 times in one week for a competition – merely laughs at me and lopes off somewhere into the darkness.

Hewn from rock
Our Ecuadorian mountain guide, Hernan, was born at over 2,500m. He came into this world a spent his entire childhood at an altitude far higher than Britain’s biggest peak, and now, as a man, he has a physique like a spider.

Having scaled some of the world’s highest peaks, and surely holding the record for speed ascents of Ecuador’s biggest mountains, he’s as adept a climber as I’ve ever met. He’s scaling Everest next May.

His face looks like it was hewn from Cotopaxi’s rock: the ridged Ecuadorian nose; sharp, high cheekbones; angular jaws; and sunken cheeks covered in a stubborn stubble like mountainside gorse.

He wears a long, pleated pony tail, which, like a monkey tail, is maybe useful for balance in knife-edge situations. While nimble ascents are his strong point, guiding beginners is surely his weak spot.

For he really lacks empathy with struggling beginners, does not give clear briefings, won’t teach any climbing techniques, and sometimes forgets key pieces of equipment. He makes you feel confident that he’ll ascend – and fast, but nervous that you won’t make it along with him.

Wishing we were there - looking downhill into the valley from Cotopaxi's refuge

Freakish and fidgety with soroche


The freakish and fidgety last 6 hours before Hernan’s rude wake-up call went something like this: eat barely digestible pasta before the sunset (i.e., before available light ran out), put on all seven available layers of clothing, wriggle into a stinking borrowed sleeping bag and clamber into a tiny bunk in the dark, inside a hut with no heating or light, and feel so bone-cold the entire time so as to never stop shivering night-long.

Gamely I attempt to get to sleep but between altitude sickness and noise – people constantly clump about in heavy climbing boots, and loudly snore, fart and shake pill bottles open to combat the brain-splitting symptoms of soroche – worryingly, I can’t get a single wink.

Instead, a migraine hammers away inside my head, nausea rails me, and my guts loll around on puke duty. So I’m hardly in peak condition. On top of this, our acclimatisation climb the day before had left me severely weak. So when I hear the grim words ‘time to go’,  I’m honestly on the verge of bailing out.

Yet, somehow, a little voice deep inside me offers a spark of resistance. Part of me still wants to fight through it, wants to do it. Another part of me has a morbid fascination with how the twisted scenario will turn out – what kind of pathetic figure will I cut, will I be hospitalised?

In effect, despite my sick feelings and protestations, by 12.45am, I grimly  hike into the dark night with H and Hernan, our party of 3, for the summit. Just one problem: Hernan has forgotten our head torches – we’ll have to climb with one flashlight between three.

Seeing stars
Outside, we’re greeted by a stunning sight – a skyfull of shining stars, studded with more distant glittering suns than I’ve ever seen in one place, and far brighter, too. There’s a reason for this – we’re straddling the equator so there are two constellations, from both the northern and southern hemisphere.  And being so high up and so far away from any light pollution means that you feel close enough to reach out and touch these sweet diamonds.

The delight doesn’t last, however, as the worsening weather rears up in the west and storms in with renewed vigour. Later, when we’ll leave the mountain, we’ll see the aftermath – a landscape covered in ice and snow, all the way down to 3,000 meters.

Left foot in, right foot out


The first hour is seriously strange, with body and mind trying to win the argument for going back to bed. That’s the normal thing to do, it’s the middle of the night after all. All I try to do is put one foot in front of the other. Left foot down breathe in, right foot down breathe out. This is all I do for an hour. Altitude sickness even subsides for a little while.

Heart like a hummingbird’s
The next thirty minutes is hard, but doable. Then it gets truly tough. Being higher than we have ever been, the upturn in altitude brings the soroche back in full force. With only 60% oxygen in the air (compared to 100% at normal level), the muscles burn a thousand burns on this hellish, shifting staircase. The ground underfoot is loose gravel, trying to swallow our feet and throw us off balance with every step.

All I can do is numbly put one foot in front of another, fragilely breath one breath with each step, stupefying pause when soroche makes my heart beat as fast as a hummingbird’s, or makes me swoon with dizziness, or creates flashing head pains.

Join the dark side
By 3am, it’s a truly agonising climb, with wind battering us, ice solidifying our outer shell of clothing. Snow blasts us in the dark. Looking at my watch is alarming – time is moving as slowly as a glacier. What seems like hours passing turns out to be mere minutes. Don’t look at your watch. I try to empty my head and think of nothing, nothing but one foot in front of the other; breathe in, breathe out‘  Then it happens. A seed of negative thought,  you can’t you do this climb without a flashlight.

Rapidly, it starts spawning other negative ideas. What kind of idiot sets off on a dangerous climb without a torch? How are three of you going to ice-climb a glacier? Why didn’t you get glacier training like the others? Do you even know how to use crampons? Before long, I have practically joined the dark side – negativity dominates my thinking. Given that you have to climb exhausted and in pain anyway, mental strength is absolutely mission-critical.
I try my best to forge upward. Now gravity seems to have joined soroche, exhaustion and negativity as a blocking force. Gravity seems annoyed at me, for some reason, and angrily tries to push me down. It makes my legs feel pulpy and my feet feel embedded in quick drying cement. Left foot down – breathe in, right foot down – breathe out, seems harder than ever.

At 5,000 meters, negative thoughts are toying with me so much I feel like Darth Vader’s just told me he’s my father. Overwhelmed and defeated, the nagging annoyance of no torch beam thought somehow opened the floodgates. A torrent of negative self-abuse has flooded my thinking and telling me that a no-good failure. Then a spark of light penetrates the inky blackness.

Laughing birds


Then it happens. H finds mind strength for both of us – and how. Her trick is smart yet straightforward – with her English stoicism, she simply pretends that everything’s fine and dandy. Bombs could be dropping to each side of us – she’d pretend they were helping to prepare the ground for flowers. So instead of climbing terror, she sends little messages of love to me like laughing birds flying easily over these spiteful obstacles.
She cajoles, sets small targets, urges us on, treats all setbacks with laughing disdain, playfully knocks my stiff, frozen clothing and generally chivvies me up. Ah, it’s more magical than the stars.
She even screams above the wind – indeed, the wind momentarily acts sheepish, embarrassed at H having to shout so loud above it – at Hernan, telling him to slow down and stop to let us rest more frequently. Aye, what a woman, what a climber!

Hitting the wall
And somehow we make it. Well, to the glacier, at least, or to 5,200 meters, or not far off 18,000 feet. Here, in the worst weather we have ever been out in, at 3.45am, a weird euphoria grips us and hugs us and spins us around and dances with us.

What feelings of joy and release after such agonies! What a sense of accomplishment for us two! Even making this ‘summit’ feels like achieving the impossible. And, for absolute beginners with no experience of real mountain climbing, and minimal acclimatisation, it really is.
And, so it goes, this wall is to be our final objective. With the wind, and the equipment, we’re not going to summit Cotopaxi. The peak is only 600 meters away, but the conditions today are just too dangerous for beginners like us, and this current ‘summit’ is more than enough for us.

Glacier minted - serious elation back at the lodge as I realise we're heading down instead of up from here on in

We’re certainly ready to head down hill, race down in fact, to lower ground, hotter weather, warm showers, big breakfasts and soft hotel beds for hours of golden sleep.

Risk and ambition
When we decided to do this climb, it was a purely impulsive decision. The risk and ambition of it blew our hair back. Unfortunately, we learned from our acclimatisation climb on Illiniza that we had possibly made a dangerous move – we were taking a serious health risk, and we weren’t experienced enough for such a stiff challenge as Cotopaxi.

Yet, despite the overall a shock to the central nervous system, we feel good about our attempt. Still think it was a crazy, possibly stupid thing to attempt, but we’re glad we did it. We drew on much more physical and mental strength than we ever knew we had, and we’re confident about embrace more risk and ambition in our day-to-day lives.

We’re not, however, ready to tackle another mountain climb on this scale. Indeed, as I type, we’re headed to cosier climes – surfing in Florida to be exact. And back to sea level – that’s an altitude that’ll do for now. Cocoa Beach here we come.

Nightlife in Drake Bay, Costa Rica, ain’t like London. Here, in the rainforest, it’s not the sound of club classics rocking the dancefloor, it’s the weird sounds of wildlife bringing the jungle to life. We hung out with Tracie, aka ‘the bug lady‘, an awesome story teller, and her husband John, an eagle-eyed wildlife spotter.

Our tour with these two critter-loving entymologists was like being in a live action version of a cutting edge nature documentary such as Planet Earth or Life. Tracie is an incredible fount of knowledge, and has horrifying tales of badass bug encounters as well as the weirder side of wildlife – all delivered in her impossibly laid back drawl. John was the first person on the penisula to identify the elusive trap-door spider, and is a hoot at mimicking frog mating calls – he had the lady frogs literally begging him to take their phone numbers in this strangest of natural night clubs.

Here, we couldn’t wear the kind of glad rags we’d don for night out in the city. It was insect bite-repelling shirts (biting gnats, mosquitoes, biting flies, etc), rubber boots (snake-proof) and headlamps (a magnet for every insect in the jungle), and set off into the forest in search of frogs, beetles and stick insects. We found them, and how – but we also encountered far more dangerous creatures.

The tour kicked off at nightfall with a silent, eerie paddle across a river. In pitch, as we knifed slowly through the water, our torchbeams picked out the menacing red glow of saltwater crocodiles – there were loads of them. And we were wearing bug sprayas we rode the thinnest, shallowest of canoes. I could bite throuh them, let alone a hungry, killer croc. Later, we had close run-ins with hairy jumpy aggresive spiders, and nasty-looking snakes. It was great fun.

Thankfully, we lived to tell the tale, and share some pics with you. Here they are. It’s a jungle out there, make sure you take a torch.

Bit of silliness from our hike around the Rincon de la Vieja volcano in Costa Rica yesterday.

Around the park, sulphur pits, steam vents, boiling hot pools and bubbling mud baths give the landscape a sci-fi edge.

Different kinds of forest – from dry to virgin cloud to rain – lay all around supporting a startling diversity of flora and fauna.

It was crowd-free, which I gather is a rarity in Costa Rica, so we had the place to ourselves more or less – ‘mas o menos’.

Monkeys threw sticks at us, kingsnakes hissed at us, and toucans croaked in our general direction. Good times!

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