Yes, to everyone who’s been asking, this is not a drill. I have been amazingly lazy, but bit by bit I have typed up the Raleigh diaries. I know a lot of you wanted to be able to read some of the best bits, so the highlights have now been published on the blog. Given it ended nearly a year ago, I hope the timing will give you some nice warm fuzzy memories. And for those readers who did not volunteer with me last year with Raleigh International, and want some idea of what it’s like, maybe this will be useful to you too. I know it’s been a really long time coming and therefore will probably not live up to the hype, but I’ve been putting it off far too long.
It’s finally happened! It’s 5:45 in the morning, on the 12th February, 2015, in Miami. So far everything’s gone to plan, although I do need to find some food to eat with my malaria pills. The flight was unremarkable, yet I did get the feeling that the woman seated next to me somehow despised me. I’ll convince myself that it was down to the five young children she was travelling with. Had a surprisingly nice last civilised meal in the restaurant at the airport, bought some locks for my bags and returned to that ever-familiar, yet always somehow debilitatingly bland atmosphere that is the average American hotel room. That’s where I encountered my first problem. In time-honoured Finn tradition, I flooded the bathroom during my shower, soaking the pair of clean underwear I’d brought with me for tomorrow’s travel. I improvised a kind of clothes line formed from the hooks of three coat hangers, and to my utter astonishment, it actually worked! Maybe I won’t get murdered after all.
Arrived in Costa Rica. Still not dead yet. Survived a momentary fright when security barged onto the plane demanding to see my ticket (how those fateful words ‘E-tickets included in separate email’ still reverberate in my ears). It doesn’t take long for the foreignness to sink in. As soon as you step out of arrivals, you’re spat out onto the taxi lanes. The sound hits you more than the heat. A cacophony of sharp, piercing offers to help, orange laminated taxi cards shuddering under the force with which their subjects fervently brandish them in indignation. And then you set off along the road, towards where you think the main airport is, all the while ignoring the disquieting, augmenting fear that this is in fact the main airport. But it got worse. As I scrabbled on my knees to extract a conspicuously touristy hat and sunglasses from my pack, the person whom I least wanted to see arrives, my twisted saviour, asking the question I want least of all to hear: “Do you need help?” Battered, dirty trainers, fake Real Madrid shirt; this cannot be good. As if in some paralysing reverie of self-consciousness and social embarrassment, I followed him. He’s asked me where I’m from, trying to make conversation. He leads me to a cafe down the road from arrivals, shows me a free table, and leaves. I couldn’t believe he didn’t ask for money. He actually was giving me help. Odd how attempting to find yourself on a gap year in a foreign country demands you to see the worst in people. Or at the very least, the people you don’t think about when it comes to benevolent self-discovery, the people who escape the supposedly diligent application of your philosophy. I ordered some authentic looking food (the meat was porro or something, which I looked up under ‘food’ in my guidebook but couldn’t find, so perhaps it’s best I never find out) and waited near to an hour before the first other Raleigh venturer showed up. Hanna, a vivacious blond Californian-turned-Brit, who’s been in Peru for the last month, where the Inca trail in particular sounded magical. She’s studying Medicine at Oxford next year, and in even more time-honoured Finn tradition, I realised about an hour into our conversation that I’d forgotten her name. The rest of the group arrived in due course, and they all seem a charming bunch so far. We loaded up into the bus and got our first look at Costa Rica. On the highway, it gave a startlingly good impression of the States, with the exception of the indubitably Latin American traffic. As we approached the school, however, everything grew dirtier, the roads rose and fell more sharply, and everything began to look uncomfortably cramped. I’m now laying on my sleeping bag and rollmat, with the foundations of my life for the foreseeable future unfurled around me. Spoken to a handful of people, including Angus and Alex, two older guys of university age who seem the kind of people you could have a really good pub chat with, but it’s simply so different here that I’ve generally kept myself to myself. We leave at 5:30 tomorrow morning.
In the words of the great Tom Ballinger, most resilient of all D of E Group One to the unpredictable savagery of nature, “Everything-k is soaking”. It began with such promise. As the sun began to creep over the already electrified -in both senses of the word- city of San Jose, there was an unmistakably familiar sense of a Tennessee summer morning’s promise of warmth, which fooled almost everyone into opting for shorts and t-shirts. That happy, shimmering illusion however, could only sustain itself for about half an hour. As soon as the buses ran out of highway, a heavy mist appeared. But it didn’t seem to descend over time. It was almost like a theatrical effect; it seemed to issue out of the surface of the road, as if if opposition to the rain responsible for its birth. After a couple of hours crawling through mountain roads and towns, we came to Turrialba. I was taken aback at how comprehensive it was. Dental clinics, alcoholics anonymous, two supermarkets- and then nothing. “It was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world”, wrote Conrad in Heart of Darkness, and the novel rose to the surface of my thoughts as the buses travelled deeper into the countryside. Field base was not how I had imagined it, although I had admittedly imagined as some sort of demi-paradise in a flowery, sunlight-streamed meadow in the foothills of mountains, surrounded by cute galavanting mammals, whilst some serene classical score sang sweetly in your mind, such was the unrestrained force of this fantastical euphoria. And of course, in my imagination, there was a pure, clear waterfall which we’d use as a shower. Naturally, field base was not that. What we did get was mist so thick you couldn’t tell if there were mountains or not. There was also a dog with a sort of reverse bushfire haircut (shaved but only on top) barking its head off whilst the amazingly happy Costa Ricans bellowed a rendition of La Bamba. Nonetheless, it was rather charming. I also saw a stunningly pretty hummingbird, so at least the happy little critters aspect of my fantasy was partially realised. It rained though. It rained a lot. It rained through the introduction from Kei and Olivia, through the swimming test, through the communications talk, through breakfast (rice, beans, egg and sausage), lunch (ham, cheese, tomato and lettuce sandwiches) and dinner (rice and beans with something else I’ve already forgotten), through the project presentation, all of which look amazing, and through the night. Sleeping in that enormous tent- the ‘resort’- was actually the most difficult part to tolerate. The almost unhinged rhythm of the rain rapping its knuckles mockingly on the tarpaulin required such efforts of concentration to ignore it that letting sleep overtake you was a long and uneasy wait.
And all of a sudden, my vision of an idyllic tropical paradise seems to have been realised. Everything I’d hung up to dry yesterday is absolutely fine. This morning we were at last allocated to our groups for the first phase, and I’m doing an environment project restoring trails in Piedras Blancas National Park. Apparently it’s really hot and rarely rains, so I now can’t wait to leave field base. I got my wish after lunch, when I finally sorted out my pack and headed out with my new Alpha 5 companions into the now dry landscape for Jungle Camp. It’s so bizarre to think Turrialba is just a few minutes away, because on the hike the land seems utterly deserted. Nature guards her secrets closely in this part of the world. Once we turned away from official footpaths, Conrad once again exploded into life in my head. The ferns, the trees- even the sky- it all seemed vast, prehistoric, utterly unknown. But the most miraculous of all was yet to come. We climbed up an already treacherous muddied slope to jungle camp, and we learnt how to make camp: hammocks between two trees, a kitchen area with a hole in the ground for a sink, a bathroom down the trail (another hole in the ground), and basha beds, formed of a stretcher laid between two tripods of bamboo. Darkness fell quickly that night. It was an exercise of frustration, attempting to make the tarpaulin not touch the edges of the bed, but ultimately we gathered in the shelter of the kitchen for the first proper camp meal of the trip, seated on soggy tree stumps that the wilderness seemed to offer us, although I suppose we cut down those trees to begin with. Perhaps she realised this, because soon our camp was more akin to a swamp. I clambered as delicately as I could under the tarp and prayed I would stay dry. I had thought the rain last night was loud, but this seemed entirely of a different nature, like hail. Worse even after I’d managed to somehow drift back into the solace of unconsciousness, I woke up with an uncomfortably full bladder. Stumbling about in a dark jungle in torrential rain certainly has not been a highlight of the trip.
We had to get up at four this morning in order to dismantle the bamboo beds. I actually did remain dry during the night, whereas both tents actually flooded. Felipe, a Costa Rican venturer, had buckets of water in his hammock. It seems significant that in the worst possible conditions, carrying bamboo and jerry cans down mud-slickened slopes, we became much closer as a group. I had a lot of discussion with Charlotte, the sole Kiwi, about, of all things, the Ronbledore theory, and the greatness of Dave Dobbyn- I’m determined to make Slice of Heaven our group’s anthem. I also spoke more with Maria, a Nicaraguan girl who introduced herself to me yesterday by telling me that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was dead. I’ve had to rely on my rather rusty Spanish to talk to her as her English isn’t fluent. If it continues though I’ll be practically fluent. Emma, one of PMs, pretended to break her leg, which meant we were forced to ring field base on the sat phone and carry Emma on a stretcher for the last few kilometres in the rain. It has, for the sake of clarity, been raining constantly since yesterday evening. We finally got back to field base, and fortunately the TrekMates poncho (without arms) served its purpose, because my shirt, thankfully, was dry. I was so desperately happy at the mere mention of tea and biscuits that I forgot about my newfound hatred of milk powder. The rest of the day, which seemed to last at least two, was spent attempting to clean the sodden tents and tarpaulins, instruction for river crossings, and medical presentations (the second awkward sex talk so far) before finally heading back into the now totally mud-strewn resort for bed. I opted for a shower and an early night instead of a salsa night, but apparently we’ll have another one after Phase One is over. Fell asleep in a rather cramped foetal position owing to a somewhat overpopulated resort, staring blankly at the ugly comfort of the lamp’s orange stain on the darkness. One last thing- in Spanish, the same word, ‘esperar’ is used both for waiting and hoping. I like that.
It stopped raining at some point during the night, and with some minor back pain and a rather muddied mosquito net, my impersonation of a malnourished child was a resounding success. Despite frequent threats, it didn’t rain today, although it probably wouldn’t have made a great deal of difference as the vast majority of the day was spent organising the kit before the beginning of Phase One tomorrow. We’re sleeping on basha beds like the ones we tested in the jungle for the entire 19 days in Piedras Blancas, so we had to check all of the stretchers for faults. After we’d sorted out the food- which seems like far more than enough for us, and marked all our equipment, because apparently the rangers want our tools as much as our help, I decided to make a start on packing. It’s amazing how disorganised your bag can become if you let it, which makes for some cramped manoeuvring in the container, or to give it its true name, the apology chamber. Or more accurately still, the Chamber of awkward non-verbal encounters if one has already deployed ‘sorry’, ‘thanks’ and ‘do you mind if I just…’ in quick succession. I packed most of my clothes, if only because they’re all filthy and we’ll be able to wash them in the sinks at the ranger station. Left most of the books and spare toiletries in the holdall.
For the first time so far we were allowed into Turrialba this afternoon. The horde descended predictably like a biblical plague upon the nearest supermarket, Maxi-Pali. Felipe and I went exploring the town. It actually was, to quote Rust Cohle, like “someone’s memory of a town”. It didn’t look as if it had undergone any significant change for decades. The university campus was not even as big as Brighton’s, and everything from the the cars, to the advertising billboards, to the stray dogs, to the people kicking them away, seemed faded. After about ten minutes we came upon a music shop, where we each bought a cheap chinese harmonica for about eight dollars. The owner clearly didn’t see dollars very often, and it took about 10 minutes to work out the exchange rate from colones. We stopped for a drink at a cafe, La Hulera, before heading back. I like Felipe. I remember mistaking him for staff when we first arrived, such was his enthusiasm. But he’s 22 and studying business at El Universidad de Costa Rica en San Jose, and lives a stone’s throw from the airport. He told us about his selection process under that torchlit tent in the darkness of jungle camp two days ago, and in all honesty it sounded only a shade away from what Uncle Tom does for SEAL Fit, a physically and psychologically gruelling test in the mud and the rain overnight. All I did was fill out a form on the internet. He wants me to help him learn harmonica, and I hope I’ll be able to. Late that afternoon, Keiner gave us a really interesting talk on the habitats we’ll be working in and a history of conservation in Costa Rica. I now know the difference between the lethal and harmless variants of coral snakes (‘red and yellow, kill a fellow, red and black, friendly Jack’ if you’re interested), and not to lick poison dart frogs. Pumas really are incredible creatures to survive in such a variety of climates; I’d not expected to find them in tropical rainforest. I was also given a nasty shock to discover that jaguars were not restricted to the Amazon. Keiner was brilliant. The man is so clearly enamoured by nature that it’s inspiring just to have a conversation with him. When I spoke to him in Spanish about wanting to improve my fluency, he assured me I would with such fortitude that I couldn’t help but believe him. Today, after his presentation I asked him about diving courses, to which his response was to qualify in Panama and then come back to explore Costa Rica’s diving. When I told him I would be working in Yellowstone over the summer his face truly lit up, and he placed both his hands on my shoulders and told me how excited he was for me. He has that rare, supposedly Clintonion ability to make you feel as though nothing would delight him more than to keep talking with you for hours. It’s energising just to observe how completely perfect he is for his job. I hope in my life I can create, if not success, then a similar level of personal joy in my work. And the encouraging thing is, on the occasion when someone starts talking to me about books or poetry, I’ve been told that my face lights up in the same way. My chats with Keiner formed one of my favourite moments of the day. The other came after dinner. Rory and I have been privately complaining about ‘las guitaristas’ for a while now. First of all, I don’t think he’s had a mention yet. He introduced himself in the bathrooms of the British school on the first night thus: “I think you at least should know my name before we get naked”. He’s got a brilliant sense of humour, and is off to Nicaragua tomorrow. We’ve been talking about the fact that the guys with a monopoly on Fieldbase’s lone guitar take it in turns to play riffs of songs that nobody knows. However, after dinner, Felipe got hold of the guitar and started playing Wonderwall (incidentally the one song that everyone on earth knows). Everybody was singing along, and I actually played a vaguely tuneful harmonica solo at the end. Eight dollars well spent; it was a lovely way to end our stay at Fieldbase. I’m so excited to start Phase One tomorrow that I find myself writing, for the first, and possibly only, time: 3:30 AM cannot come quickly enough.
Perhaps it was the excitement, or perhaps I’ve just become conditioned to Raleigh time (ie. hardly sleeping), but getting up was bizarrely effortless. Head torches pierced the night as we gathered under the terrace roof for another mess tin of luxury porridge. It’s only been five days, but I find I may miss some people going off to other projects. Rory, Louis, with all his lovable obnoxiousness, and Natasha, one of the poshest girls I’ve ever come across- maybe I find solace in the spectacle of people even more out of place than myself- Ella, and Alex and Angus, two uni students who share my love of Peep Show and Harry Potter criticism. Come to think of it, the latter’s actually been my best icebreaker so far. That said, I really love my Phase One group. There’s Maria the Nicaraguan, who’s already been mentioned. She doesn’t speak much English, so I’ve had to step in on occasion to translate when Felipe isn’t around. In Nicaragua, according to her, she smokes weed like most people drink coffee, she’s a Beatles fan, and best of all (!) she’s an anarchist. She believes in nothing Lebowski. Then there’s Raggy, ever-smiley and quietly authoritative, Lizzy, whose lilting Irish accent make’s even the soggiest night under tarpaulins seem amazing, Philly, who so far has amassed a reputation for brilliant offhand quotes, Charlotte, the prepared-for-anything Kiwi with a great singing voice, Robine, a Dutch girl who’s almost ridiculously practical, Mardoche, a lovely gentle guy from London, Juno, and his almost comically quiet voice who is, incredible though it may seem, has even less common sense than yours truly, and Felipe. The thin watery glow cast by the street lamps at base camp was blinded when the first ephemeral sheen of daylight burst upon the valley. We said our final goodbyes, and got on the bus for the eight hour drive to the very south of the country. Before we’d even reached Piedras Blancas, Keiner’s prediction came true. I’m beginning to fall in love with this country. Its beauty is practically beyond measure. Its greatest victory lies in how it continues to exude the appearance of total and utter wilderness. In the jungle camp a few days ago, it seemed like nothing of civilisation could or should exist there, until the alien noise of a police siren, of humans attempting to exert order, slit between the illusion. In many ways the reverse was true on the journey to Golfito. The highway was once again methodically laced with the same repetitive and unimaginative billboards you find in the States, but then suddenly you see a barefoot man riding on a donkey and cart into the depths of an impenetrable forest, and you feel as if you are standing on the crossroads of ages. It seemed bizarre that these people could exist along the same coastline as the luxuries private communities with ornamented floral entrances that reminded me strikingly of Debordieu. Eight uncomfortable hours later- it’s incredible that it takes so long to travel half the length of a country the size of Wales- we arrived in Piedras Blancas National Park. We put our bags and gear into a four-by-four and then hiked the two kilometres along a riverbed (shades of Morocco 2013) to camp. By the time we arrived it was too late to set up the whole camp, so we got to sleep on mattresses (!!!). It is beyond amazing here; proper ninety-degree heat and perversely comforting Deep South-esque insect noise. The weather is far more what I’d initially imagined Costa Rica to be like. The stars came out that night, and, sitting with Alpha 5 eating refried beans and finishing the Mug root beer I’d bought on the road, when a Georgetown Ice Company-shaped wave of sentimentality caught me unawares, I felt completely happy and unconcerned for the first time so far. Despite all the tedium, it was a good day.
How is it that one week here has felt like three? When you’re enjoying yourself, time is supposed to move quickly, so I have no idea what’s going on here. I need to savour it, though, because even at 18 these moments do not occur often. After breakfast, where I demonstrated I still have not yet got sick of porridge, we began to set up camp. To my utter bewilderment, I actually mostly remembered how to assemble the bamboo beds, although somehow the mechanics of tying a slipknot still continue to slip through my memory. By lunch most of the basha beds had gone up, and Greddy, one of the rangers, took us around the trail we’d be working on. It’s already stunning, culminating at the foot of an enormous Ceiba tree, four hundred years old. When we returned to our camp outside the ranger station, Manny, Felipe and I set up our communal area, complete with logs for seating. Once the interior decoration was deemed satisfactory, Juno and I stayed to cook dinner- pasta. Everyone turned up much hungrier than anticipated, so we put another batch on and chatted in the kitchen. Somewhere during that time a ranger appeared. For the sake of clarity, that is exactly what happened. We’re staying by the ranger station, in a large clearing, a stone’s throw grin the collection of buildings where we slept the previous night. Just above us stand the glowering trees of the national park. People really do just appear out of the wilderness in this place; it’s almost like an absurd, poorly written screenplay at times. A local ranger thus appears whilst the others are in the dining area. He gives us both a curved, thick plant stem, and instructs us to break it over the knee and open it, so it comes apart a bit like a huge broad bean. Inside are about twenty white fruits, each surrounding a large seed with the appearance of thumb-sized balls of candy floss. It tasted sugary too, sweet certainly, but natural and refreshing. I haven’t tasted anything so wonderful in recent memory. He called it guaba. I hope they’re common here.
Already started to settle into something resembling a routine. Wake at 4:55, extract myself from the sweaty grip of my sleeping bag, shiver under a cold shower, and inhale the customary porridge, slather the repellent and suncream on and head out onto the trail. We made really good progress in the morning for five hours, hacking away at the rainforest to produce a wide, flat trail of dirt, with trenches filled with rocks to combat the rain. The heat grew intolerable by about 9. Nonetheless, we managed about a hundred metres in the morning, which Don Carlos the ranger was very pleased with. Crackers and refried beans for lunch, fast becoming my favourite meal, because it reminds me ever so faintly of Mexican night at home. It’s odd; I’d expected Vine House, Vicarage Hill to flash piercingly in my mind every time things have been hard, thinking of warm, yawning winter nights in front of the fire with the dogs. And yet now is the first time that image has come to mind, and I’ve had to conjure it of my own volition. I suppose at this point, Finn the reader will point out that the narrator’s need to emphasise this might mask insecurities about how he feels about leaving home. Well, to future Finn, looking over this in Bristol someday: you’re right. I’m certainly not secure. I’m very insecure- it’s unlike anything I’ver ever done before. But the whole Raleigh experience, the language barrier, the exhausting labour, the desire to find out more about each other, about Ben, the enigmatic Swiss who’s joined us on our trail project, about having clean underwear- all of these things make Vine House, Vicarage Hill, seem of another existence, as remote, as distant, as increasingly unfamiliar as Costa Rica has seemed. After a brief siesta, we resumed work for two hours in the afternoon, which was much tougher. Lifting the pickaxe was much heavier work, and it was still awfully hot and humid. Moreover, I ate all of my snacks (a large bag of raisins) in one go, and was subsequently plagued by such awful gas that I thought I might have diarrhoea, but I managed to inconspicuously and uncomfortably fart my way through the rest of the session. Night comes so quickly it still surprises me. One moment you’ve just noticed the light is beginning to fade, and then somehow you’re rooting through your pack looking for the headtorch. We played a game of one word story in Spanish over dinner, the highlight of which being, without question,: “The brothers are very spicy, so we will go running, yes?” We then went back to the basha beds. It actually sounds foreign even to think the words in my head, given how psychopathically insular I’ve been over the last year, but I detest solitude more than anything else here. Despite concerted efforts to do otherwise, my spirits fall with the sun. Like a child, I’m once again scared of the dark. But the darkness of Turrialba is not equitable to the darkness of Piedras Blancas; thick, noisy, and intoxicating. In darkness your fears and anxieties augment into terrible secrets and disturbing truths. With the rest of the group, at least you can take comfort in the fact that everyone else is as nervous and disorganised as yourself. Solitude and solace have become utter antonyms. And though Emma is always a voice of calm authority during the day, her snoring in the neighbouring basha cannot be described in the same terms.
It rained overnight, and I also fell asleep writing, before waking up at 2:45 this morning with my headtorch shining in my face. These beds are admittedly a tad cramped. I haven’t properly described them yet. They are formed from ten pieces of bamboo, three arranged and tied in a tripod shape at each end. The two (supposedly) three-metre ones lie on each side of the tripods. These big ones go in each side of a stretcher with two small bits of bamboo at each end for the feet and head. You hang a tarpaulin over a piece of string tied between each end, and voila! The morning was much the same as yesterday. Started work at six, when I generally used the rakes and hoes (ayo) to change the natural slant of the forest, so that rainfall doesn’t stay on the trail, and flatten the path, which is probably the least fulfilling of all the jobs on the trail. It takes forever, so it doesn’t exactly reek of accomplishment when you finally glance back at the twenty metres you’ve covered. Using the mattock, by comparison, feels like instant self-gratification. We stopped at around 9 for energy bombs- basically porridge and nuts with condensed milk- and then for lunch at 11, which might sound a bit weird, but it’s perfectly timed. Tuna on the omnipresent club crackers. Not bad with some all purpose seasoning, which somehow, true to its word, seems to go well with everything. Progress was slower today (more roots) but we still covered a lot of ground. We took a stroll to a deeper little cove in the river. Ben came with us. It’s transpired that he’s a published poet, a member of the Paris writing society. He gave Maria a copy of one of his books. The river was stunning, lovely and cold, and we managed an impromptu game of water polo. It felt very tropical rainforesty, particularly when thunderclouds seemed to materialise from nothing. We dried off and stumbled towards camp, but we were too late. Because almost everything is forest you can hear the rain falling on trees that lie beyond sight. And when the rain did reach us, it was in thick, heavy droplets, like when you walk under an awning in the city during the rain, and there are those concentrated drops of rain that gather at the corners. We blundered into camp as quickly as we could, then watched as everything became a swamp. I rescued my fleece from my bed, and just had to hope that my mosquito net, roll mat, and sleeping bag would be safe. We ate instant mac and cheese in the picnic area, and by 8:30 the rain had mercifully relented. Luckily my bedding had stayed dry. Same again tomorrow!
Today I worked closely digging drainage trenches and shifting rocks from the riverbed to line the path with Pella, our other PM, and one of the most profoundly happy, funny, and all round lovely people I’ve ever met. She’d broken up with her boyfriend, moved out of her apartment, and left her life in Australia producing musicals to come out here. There’s often a defiance in the PMs, or a disillusionment with some aspect of the lives they’ve left behind. All of Emma’s possessions are in a London storage unit. This hadn’t factored in my motives for doing Raleigh. I’m not disillusioned by my former life at all, but I’m now slightly worried that I may be when I finally return. Lugging heavy rocks from the riverbed to the jungle may not have been particularly relaxing, but it does give me hope that just maybe my arms will be as good as Ben’s when we leave. This semi-conscious vision of a sweaty, muscle-bound, practically-aware Finn of masculine perfection sustained the afternoon shift and it finished so quickly that I checked someone else’s watch.
The rest of the group are finding their voices every day. Juno, it turns out, likes Elvis Costello, Neil Young, and Sam Cooke! We finished dinner, and I find the quality of conversation is also exponentially increasing. It’s now 8:45- it’s still bizarre that this now a very late night- and I’m lying in a very hot sleeping bag in my basha bed. I brought my iPod in tonight, and I’m at last relishing my chance to get back into the Ultimate Springsteen playlist. It’s a solo acoustic version of Born To Run, and perhaps it’s just my abnormally good spirits considering how much I hate the nights here (I saw a massive mantis and a centipede the size of my foot on my way to bed), but I can’t recall it sounding more beautiful. He’s singing it one step down, so it’s much more understated, the speaker sounds much less sure of himself, but the crowd are singing along to the studio melody which creates some lovely harmonies. He introduced it very intriguingly. Apparently the song’s meaning has shifted for him; it initially was an exuberant anthem of defiance, of two young lovers trying to make a new life for themselves. Now (in 1988) he says he considers it more introspective, about two people searching for some kind of irrefutable truth of belonging. That’s not disillusioned; that’s forgotten. Both disillusionment and forgetting something you once knew require one to recover this truth, but I find I can accept the latter more easily. And that’s a good compromise with which to stop writing. Back tomorrow.
Possibly due to listening to Springsteen last night, I set my alarm for the wrong time. I’d intended to wake at 4:45 to have breakfast ready and have a shower in time. Of course the plan wasn’t executed quite so smoothly. I flapped up to the showers like some demented flightless bird trailing my sarong and a change of underwear behind me in the thinning darkness, stripped off in the bathroom by the weak glow of my head torch, turned on the jet of cold water, jolted from the temperature, and knocked the torch onto the floor, where the batteries promptly rolled out and I was reduced even further to scrabbling around naked on the dark floor for what is a truly precious object on a Raleigh expedition. Thankfully it still worked, and I dashed out for porridge, suncream and insect repellent (not all at once- I haven’t tried it, but I don’t think it would taste particularly nice), and headed back onto the trail. We made incredible progress today, extending the path by at least another seventy metres, bringing the total completed trail to three hundred and ninety two. But that wasn’t the only highlight. At the end of our first shift, about fifteen squirrel monkeys wandered into the trees lining the trail as we began to sweep the floor of leaves. I was taken aback at how improbably small they looked. I could have stayed to watch them for hours. Despite their size, they nevertheless seemed remarkably human-like, in their chattering, their play-fighting. I could have sworn I saw one give another a noogie. I don’t think I’d mind being a Central American Squirrel Monkey. It looked like a good life, effortlessly weaving in and out of dappled patches of piercing sunlight through hot and weighted leaves, leaping carelessly onto the thinnest of branches, and delighting in how the tree shuddered from the impact. I don’t suppose there’s much chance of being eaten either, as they’re so impossibly quick and agile. We had the afternoon off and hiked about twenty minutes to a deep section of the river, which was devastatingly refreshing. We played a bit of water polo and posed for some astonishingly hideous underwater photos. We came back after about forty minutes, owing to the ominous darkening clouds overhead. Finally got an opportunity to talk to the one and only Ben about his writing. His favourite writer is Baudelaire, so I’ll add him to my list. I waxed lyrical about Coleridge for a while, so now he has a recommendation too. Not long after we returned, fieldbase turned up. They brought us some fresh stuff! We now boast stocks of spinach, avocado, coriander, garlic, bananas, plantain, and carrots. After dinner, Felipe, Maria, Charlotte and I stayed by the benches, playing guitar and harmonica, and singing late into the night. After a while the voices died away, lost somewhere in that weak red glow of the torches. Felipe played some heartbreaking songs, and for a moment, all was complete, all was perfect. I didn’t get to bed until well after 10, which in Piedras Blancas might as well be midnight.
We were extraordinarily fortunate to have the help of fieldbase today. The heat seems to grow ever more oppressive. It’s become another thing to shoulder, as it’s actually heavy. The mist rises from the forest floor in a dreamlike haze, as the lizards scamper across the trail into the tumultuous silence of the dead leaves cast down by the trees like copper coins. The homoerotic Ben joke are now coming thick and fast. Apparently it;s been decided that, having talked to him about Nietzsche, I must be the one to ask him to dinner. Moreover, after singing his praises last night, during a one word version of Articulate, I shouted “Ben!” in response to the word ‘lover’ a little too instinctively for my liking. Thus when Olivia asked me if I had “done the deed” it was met with a fit of giggles from the entire group. We worked through the crushing heat, and though everything seemed to be a degree harder, particularly flatting out the path in what was a rather rooty area (though Lizzy was on hand throughout with the machete), we made good progress today. Back tomorrow!
Our first completely free day. Awoke at 5 (no change there) and departed on a gruelling hike over the mountain, where we all seemed to trip over at least once, and we saw our first snake- non-venomous- so Felipe and I naturally took a selfie with it- before finally starting downhill towards a dried up riverbed, which we followed to the sea. It’s now 12:30, and I’m lying in the shade of an enormous palm tree, in which two magnificent scarlet macaw, are resting overhead. Every now and then they take flight simultaneously, one mate gliding just behind the other like a pair of stunt planes. One particularly inquisitive one landed right next to us during lunch. Maria gave it a cracker, and then it wandered right up to my camera to show off its stunning red, yellow and blue plumage. I hope the footage turns out well. As soon as the forest acquiesced and slipped away onto a stony beach, we all dashed, or, to be precise, unceremoniously hobbled into the ocean. My first time in Pacific waters. The Golfo Dulce lived up to its name. It was extraordinarily calm, more like a lake than a bay, and I must have spent half and hour simply floating on my back, struggling to fully comprehend the utter perfection of it all. The beach stretched around a small bay gilded by the rainforest. The opposite shores of Costa Rica (we’re close to the Osa Peninsula) loom mountainous and wild in the distance, burned blue by the unflinching glare of the sun. And the sky yawns panoramic, a deep, almost unnatural shade of blue, which looks welded to the sea in the one large gap between the two coastlines. The only sounds are the squawks of the macaws and the sea’s soothing caresses of the stones on the shore. I cannot conceive that any photograph I can take of this devastatingly still place could do it justice, and if one did, it would not look real. Costa Rica is so small, and yet the longer I stay here, the more beautiful it becomes, and the more helpless I feel in its embrace. I cannot imagine leaving. We then boarded a boat, and are currently travelling along the coastline. It’s still only the early afternoon, but the moon has already assumed a spectral outline opposite the sun, waiting silently to supplant it. Felipe is in his element, and perversely gets more energetic as our bodies begin to bear the brunt of our labours. This was most clearly illustrated yesterday during a team-building exercise in which we had to get the whole time through a bamboo football goal divided into ten holes by string, without touching said string. I proposed climbing through a low, large, easy-looking hole, but my shorts just brushed the string and it didn’t count. Felipe then had a brainwave. “I could dive through it”, he exclaimed, “head first, as long as I’ve got a bit of a run up”. Struck dumb by his overflowing confidence, we stood back to watch. It began well. True to his word, Felipe sprinted towards the goal, threw his arms before him like an Olympic swimmer and hurled himself towards the hole. Unfortunately, he had failed to calculate that his body was comprised of more than just his torso. Consequently, his knee caught the string, Felipe was sprawled on the ground and the frame of the goal surreptitiously collapsed in on itself. It wasn’t the only thing on the ground. Everyone watching, even Ben and the rangers in the nearby house fell to their knees in laughter. It was hilarious in its absurdity, its obvious futility, and most all in Felipe’s unfailing faith of his unattainable success. By far the funniest moment of 2015 so far.
We arrived back on shore in the small fishing town of Golfito, pooled our money, and, following a brief but very 4-wheel-drive taxi ride over inhospitable roads, reached a trail in Golfito National Park which led us back to Piers Blancas before dark, in time to forget to stare apprehensively at dinner before inhaling it all, and then clambering as clumsily as ever into my now rather wonky basha.
Back onto the normal full time day schedule today, and despite finally completing a very tough ravine section by adding some stairs, Greddy (the ranger who has a proper plan) came back from his time off, only to make a disappointingly large number of corrections to sections we had already finished. Nonetheless, we somehow found the energy to realign the gradient of the path, dig new drainage trenches, and make sure the edge of the path was always 45 degrees. It’s strange, but it seems that Nature chooses to unveil her most precious secrets when the labour is at its most draining. A family of white-faced monkeys suddenly appeared, more chimp-like than the squirrel monkeys we saw what feels like about a month ago. They seemed to be more naturally suspicious of us, purposefully landing hard on dead branches so that the ensuing sharp crack would frighten us off. This is a truly remarkable place. Butterflies slashed with colour are swept along in the breeze’s relaxed inevitability, whilst brilliant blue songbirds dart from tree to tree. Were it not for the intermittent bursts of electricity, fundamental truths like time could so easily just fade away. It’s utterly transcendental. Spend enough time, throw away the cheap Casio watch, the camera, and the iPod: you’d never know what year it was. I could stay forever. I also am starting to think I’ve found some speciality jobs in Alpha 5. I think all those long winter afternoons over the last few months making fires have finally paid off, as last night I got a campfire started without dousing the whole thing in lighter fuel. Also, the group was introduced, as have all my camping groups, from the Year 7 camp on the sports field, to my friends who came round for barbecues, to the legendary D of E group, to the humble s’more. Strangely enough I find myself looking forward to cooking dinner. I think Juno and I will be cooking again tomorrow.
February’s over. Hard to believe. Stayed up a little too late last night talking about our respective pasts, reasons for coming here with Raleigh, hopes for the future, strengths and weaknesses. One does get the impression of those scenarios every British person dreads (“so, tell us a bit about yourself”) when it’s simply written down in this kind of bland sentence. It was actually really satisfying to be plain and honest about what kind of person I am- introverted and insecure- with a group of new friends. It felt good to confess that I’ve only had a small handful of real, proper friends in my life, and that I felt completely lost on my gap year before Raleigh, as it seemed as if everyone I knew at Brighton had basically ceased to exist.
Greddy’s improvements seemed a little more frustrating today, as I wound up digging in foul-smelling, sticky mud making the trench to end all trenches, coating myself almost entirely in mud. More pork and beans for lunch, which I can feel my digestive system beginning to complain about. The only thing that causes it more discomfort is when, never learning from my mistakes, I wolf down handfuls of semi-fermented raisins. Of course, most of Alpha 5 were planning to save their frustration with Greddy for the Europeans vs Rest of the World football match. The Rest of the World’s choice of a small pitch played well with my ‘park the bus’ strategy. It held firm for about 10 minutes, when we conceded a penalty and Felipe put the Rest of The World ahead. Not long after that, we conceded again. Emma was quite literally putting her body (or her face) on the line in defence, while Robine charged up and down the wing and Manny (our sole forward) tried to score. His tenacity was rewarded, when he got through the defence and stole a goal back. My contribution was to take what felt like most of the skin off my right leg in a particularly exuberant slide tackle on unexpectedly dry ground, and so I, to quote Clive Tyldesley, ‘trotted gingerly’ around in defensive midfield until half time, when I dropped back into defence to swap with Emma. The Rest of The World scored from a well-directed corner, and despite some close shaves, including a moment when I charged out of defence, dribbled round a midfielder, and exchanged passes with Manny before shooting wide, to the surprise of myself more than anyone else.
I enjoy cooking with Juno. Somehow the fragrant aroma of supermarket brand instant noodles opens him up, and we have very interesting conversations. As we were due more fresh food tomorrow, we went all out on the noodles. Juno fried slices of plantain, while I mixed fried garlic with salt pepper, and obviously the complete seasoning, into the tomato sauce. I couldn’t remember anything tasting so good. I bet the family will love it when I cook them instant noodles with cold tinned tuna and fried plantain. The group gave me a second ‘Man of the Day’ award today, which, given how much I smelled from the boggy ditch, how awful my leg looked, and how amazing the noodles were, I was pleased with.
Most of Greddy’s corrections were sorted this morning, which today reverted to a more manageable gradient for us to alter. There was a minor scare when Maria was sure she’d seen a snake, but I was working nearby and saw nothing. Come to think of it, in a court of law, anybody testifying who knew me well would probably say that me not seeing something was as good as evidence that there had indeed been a snake. I was unfortunate enough to be the first victim of Philly’s murder spree, a game that lasted the entire duration of the day, until Juno of all people unmasked her as the sun was going down. Spent the free hours in the afternoon scuttling helplessly under any shade I found. The scrapes I sustained during yesterday’s football match look to have worsened, so I strapped some gauze bandages to my leg with that zinc oxide tape that may as well have superpowers given how match the Fieldbase medic was going on about it in the preliminary medical when we first arrived at Fieldbase. That already feels as if it was several months ago, and as for that trip to see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with the family in London- it may as well be a memory from the life of a stranger. I don’t think that person would recognise me as I now appear, in clothes that refuse to ever be fully clean, with flies buzzing around a heavily bandaged leg as I lug a rucksack of rocks through the Costa Rican rainforest. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I’d blame him.
Day Twenty One:
The morning was marked by a gruelling but ultimately satisfying work shift. While Robine and Felipe put the finishing touches on the ravine stairs, I dug a drainage trench perpendicular to the first set of steps. Mattocks were in high demand, and I was forced to dig it out with a trench spade, which owing to the parched earth- we haven’t had rain in nearly a week- proved frustrating. The drain also had to go through a thick cluster of tree roots, which I also had to painstakingly hack through, and in once case I resorted to tunnelling under one and rejoin the drain on the other side. I stopped for the customary 9:00 break, and then filled my pack with rocks and staggered back to the new drain which lay 20 minute’s walk behind. Walking alone through the mottle shade in the jungle, I found myself thinking about home with actual significance for the first time. I expect Durham have made their decision now, and it’s possible people might have now realised I’m no longer in England. Hopefully Poppy’s more comfortable about where she’s going to study next year, and Milo hasn’t relapsed into his Clash of Clans addiction. I remember the last time I saw them all. Hurried one-handed hugs, unsure glances at the smiling faces that even then were being left further and further behind. I remember the last thing Mum did was to stuff one of those plastic bags from airport security into my pocket. I’ve just noticed that I’m now using it protect this notebook and my pens. I hope they’re not missing me too much, especially Poppy, who was very sad not to see me off at Heathrow.
Love in the Time of Cholera, meanwhile, is getting really engrossing, and I spent my entire break getting lost as much in the oppressive, aromatic heat of Colombia as that of Costa Rica. Marquez, or the writer of the translation, does seem to overuse the word ‘ephemeral’, but apart from that, it’s a beautifully written book. The afternoon was far more straightforward, which I’m beginning to note is a general rule of thumb in the Alpha 5 schedule. That damned drain is one of my favourite parts of the trail, as it stands as evidence that I can in fact exist in self-sufficiency, and that, without a trace of irony, has been my biggest achievement. I’ve now left behind evidence of it. That night we stayed up late again, although not as late as on my birthday when we laid down tarps on the ground and a small cluster of us sang and played harmonica and guitar. Tonight was even more beautiful. The moon was wreathed in concentric rings of cloud, so that it resembled an unblinking iris within a fiercely lidded eye. Getting way too self-indulgently descriptive, so I’ll leave it there before it gets insufferable.
Day Twenty Two:
Today marked the final day of work on the trail. We were only able to work during the morning shift, but, spurred on by our achievements thus far, we prepared two more drains and perfected a formidable section of trail. Don Carlos, most beloved of our rangers, personally thanked me when he walked along the part I had just finished hoeing and told me that it looked beautiful. It’s been difficult to gauge with so little rain since that almighty downpour, but we’re confident that its beauty will endure the rainy season, and another acrobatic display from a family of white-faced monkeys further demonstrated that the stunning ecosystems here have not suffered from improving the trail’s accessibility. Keiner had predicted that we would complete about 500 metres of trail, but when Juno, Felipe and I walked the trail with our measuring tape, we found that we’d actually gone over 800! After a celebratory banquet of Pork and Beans, which worsened my gas problem with every can, we began to plan our skit for when we return to Fieldbase. We’ve ended up with an appropriately variegated mash-up of La Macarena, Rapper’s Delight and Nicki Minaj’s Starships. It’s quite short though, so we may have to murder the lyrics of another song and re-sculpt them to Natural Resource Management. There’s a curious aspect of the phase, and paradoxically its significance was underlined by the fact that it crept past, keeping perfect rhythm with the seemingly ever-yawning mouth of time. One of the reasons I didn’t feel obliged to mention my experience leading the group was because I didn’t consider it to be even slightly dissimilar to any other day. We established such a devastatingly effective template for the day leader that we were, to a certain extent, victims of our own success. Our familiarity with the routine was such that the necessity for a leader has all but disappeared. During that discussion about leadership, it became clear that this was the area of Raleigh in which I still felt deficient.
Tonight was music night, and all the available rangers turned up to attend. Manny performed a jaw-dropping spoken word accompanied by Felipe. I backed up some of Maria’s Spanish songs on the harmonica and led the group rather clumsily through a Disney medley (A Whole New World and Let It Go), before Charlotte sang Part of That World from The Little Mermaid absolutely beautifully. I managed to get the group to back me up on the harmony of The Fever, followed it up with a nervy I’m On Fire, and after the group reflection, played a strangely apt Never Gonna Give You Up solo acoustic to wrap things up.
Day Twenty Three:
We were allowed a lie-in today until 9:00 (!!) but once the mist starts to clear as the sun warms up, staying under a hot tarp in a sleeping back isn’t really feasible. I considered 6 to be sufficiently luxurious, an headed up to make the sitrep and make the porridge. We’d been given the news yesterday that 19 German students would be moving in today, so I organised my pack and tidied up in anticipation of their arrival. It transpired that the drybag I’d used for my sleeping bag and mosquito net is missing, which is both ridiculous and infuriating, given that there’s no place it could go, but there might be some outdoors shops in Turrialba, so hopefully I can get one when we’re allowed into town during changeover.
That afternoon we polished up the skit a little more, though we are planning to add a campfire section with the guitar and harmonica. Juno and I walked the trail one last time, and were rewarded with a pair of white-faced monkeys walking on the trail. It was the first time I’d seen them up close, rather than high up in the jungle canopy.
It os a strange phenomenon, Raleigh time. Individual days seem to take an age to pass, the allocation of Phase One groups when we all awkwardly posed under a mosquito net feels like ages ago, and yet we all find ourselves unwilling to accept the fact that we have to leave tomorrow. The rest of the day passed comparatively numbly, cooling the last dinner, taking the last shower, talking to the Germans, signing our names in the volunteer book, singing with Felipe in the moonlit clearing and trudging, dazed back to the basha, where the moonlight slipped softly beneath my tarpaulin.
Day Twenty Four:
It seemed a much shorter trip back to Turrialba from Piers Blancas than vice versa. After taking down our camp by the light of headtorches, we made our way back down the riverbed to where the bus was waiting. The untamed sprawling forests of coastal southwestern Costa Rica became pockmarked, then riddled with clumsy cheap tin roofs and ugly concrete roads hastily and roughly forced wide. The mountains blanketed in forest, however, remained untouched. The difference in temperature, the change in climate was so sudden that I physically started when we got off the bus for lunch. A pullulating gloom had descended, and the air was a cold chill in my lungs. A pleasant reminder of England, in other words. We finalised the lyrics and came up with a harmonica part for the Riptide segment of our skit, which opens brilliantly with the lyric, ‘I was scared of insects and the dark’, on the last leg of our journey, and then somehow we’d already arrived. Fieldbase greeted us again with the customary hugs and the even more customary downpour. Already almost everyone seems to know about what happened in Piedras Blancas. All I can do is admit it, giving them the knowing smile of affirmation for which they’re so keen to see. Alpha 5 was last to arrive, which meant, in a stunning flash of realisation, that I had to act quickly. Thus, I raced into the apology chamber, pulled out my mosquito net, sleeping bag and roll mat, and sped off to Resort One. I wasn’t keen to sleep on a square metre of damp, muddy wood this time, and found a nice dry space to sleep. It was already dark by then, so there was only time to be welcomed back, to have a completely fresh meal for the first time in three weeks, and find a comfortable position on the uneven wooden floor (although due to my partially-healed buttock injury), my go-to strategy of lying right-sided, with one arm over, the other on the fleece which has become my pillow, was unfeasible. After that, all that remained was to fall asleep and shut out the depressingly familiar sound of that mocking, rapping rain.
Day Twenty Five:
Apart from a few sessions- our last as Alpha 5, in which we discussed our handover of the Piedras Blancas project to the next Alpha 5, this was our first completely free day. Naturally, I enacted my plan with ruthless efficiency. I bought a jar of extra crunchy peanut mutter and a jar of strawberry jam first, of course. Disappointingly most of the shops were closed on Sunday, so Juno and I went to a cafe called La Cocina De Betty, where I got my first taste of authentic Costa Rican food cooked to order since that cerro in San Jose Airport with Hanna. I had some fajitas and vegetables, but found I was still hungry, so I tried a local standard called casado which was rice, beans, shredded potato, salad and a piece of grilled mahimahi. I can’t do it justice here, so I won’t attempt to. I even managed to get hold of an internet connection, and despite failing to load the football scores, I was able to FaceTime the family! Apart from the occasional sound lapse, it was just like being back at home. It was a Sunday evening, so the smalls were ready to go to bed, and by the look of the bowl from which Dad was serving, it looked as if it was pasta with pesto and cream. I told them about my birthday, the weather, as much as could in those seven minutes. Strangely enough, I didn’t find myself missing them more than I expected to after that. I suppose there’s sense of indignant arrogance in knowing how unchanged, how ordinary their lives have remained. And the Queen isn’t dead yet either! I was certain for some reason that she’d be the famous person that died while I was away, but it was Leonard Nimoy instead, although I suppose quite a few people consider him a queen in his own right. The ATM at the bank wouldn’t accept my card, although I was told it likely that it was because there simply weren’t enough colones in the machine, rather than the bank blocking the transaction. I’ll have to ring them next changeover, as I won’t get far post-Raleigh with only the cash I currently have on me. I returned from Turrialba’s charms of disrepair in time for skit rehearsals and dinner. It goes without saying that our Macarena-Rapper’s Delight-Starships-Riptide mashup went down a storm, and I felt strange; elated that my first experience playing the harmonica in public had not ended with a ragged, breathless, shrill, tinny squeak of notes, and deeply saddened that I wouldn’t do an activity with their wonderful group of people again. Robine’s quintessential pragmatism, self-conscious smiles and quiet beauty, Raggy’s unparalleled organisation and voice of calm, Lizzy’s floating giggles that ornament her voice, Philly’s sly grins illuminated in the ever-faltering glint of our dying headtorches, Charlotte’s beautiful singing voice and her inability to have an uninteresting conversation, Juno’s inimitable running style, Maria’s shy laughs after speaking an English sentence, Manny’s eternal warm smile and Felipe’s puppy-like exuberance in all he does. But, as it turned out, we were crowned skit champions and were thus rewarded with a tub of ice-cream and cones, and we sat around for one last time, each of us attempting to perform the most technically accurate impression of what has become Pella’s catchphrase, in her soft Aussie accent, ‘that’s amazing’.
Having well and truly massacred Superstition with Juno at Raleigh-oke, the day, and now for certain, all the remnants of Phase One, were over.
Day Twenty Six:
Allocated to our new groups for Phase 2 after porridge this morning, and a few Alpha 5 members survived Fieldbase’s cull. Philly, Felipe and I were joined by Hanna from the airport, another Hannah who I recognised from the training event in London, who managed to maintain an expression of outstanding severity during the whole thing. There’s also Gus, an easy-going guy who seems amicable enough, Esmee, a rather quiet Dutch girl, Hede, a comparatively explosive Dutch guy, Matt, who I met at the airport and know reasonably well, and Phillip, a particularly keen new 7-weeker. Roberto a Costa Rican who lives fairly near Turrialba, and Emma, an A & E nurse from back home are our new PMs, and our project is exactly what I’d been hoping for. In two days, we’re going to Nicaragua, helping a community in La Laguna, a tiny little spot in the Miraflor reserve. The people there are in need of environmentally-friendly latrines that can turn solid waste into compost, so, as well as raising awareness about basic sanitary practices, we’ll be building some of these eco-latrines with the community. The handover session with the previous group inspired such panic that I went back to Turrialba again, to stock up on baby wipes and sweets for the kids. It sounded as if we’d be limited to around four or five showers during this phase. On the other hand, La Laguna is so high up that there’s no need for a mosquito net. Nothing else of significance took place today, to be frank. It was, for the most part, spent counting our food and general admin. We leave tomorrow, and after three days of general disorganisation at Fieldbase, I’m more than ready to leave.
Day Twenty Seven:
In truth, I’d forgotten that generally one is not exited by the prospect of being woken from one’s uncomfortable slumber by a Fieldbase jeep driving past our resorts blasting Ke$ha at 3:30 am. But my tactic of taking only the essentials out of the apology chamber paid off because I’d packed yesterday and was instead living out of my daypack, which held all my essentials. I was not therefore rushing about in the darkness, head torch bouncing with comic urgency like some of the others. The journey to Nicaragua takes two days, and I sat next to a South African named Hayley, a 23 year old who’s just finished uni, and was going to a different community in Miraflor. As he Dad is a white farmer in South Africa, we had a very interesting chat about the land ownership policies beginning to take place there.
Spotted some painfully conspicuous American tourists at a rest stop, who spoke no Spanish whatsoever, tried to order milkshakes without understanding what leche was, and, in a coup-de-grace, the Dad spent several minutes repeatedly bashing his straw into the plastic covering, before finally accepting defeat and reluctantly peeling off the top. I caught a disturbing glimpse of myself in a bathroom mirror, and was taken aback by how fit the NRM manual labour has made me. It’s nice that I can get nice and fat for the next few weeks before trek. We rested at a school, where I realised with a sickening inward jolt that I’d left my solar charger dutifully charging in the bus window. I suppose there’s a chance Fieldbase can get hold of the driver and see if it turns up. It’s been an immeasurably useful bit of kit, and I find it deeply frustrating, especially given how well I’ve kept up with my stuff so far. Currently lying in my sleeping bag, attempting to find some cushioning on an unforgiving stone floor. We wake at 3:30 again tomorrow!
Day Twenty Eight:
We’ve arrived! And it’s so different from how I’d imagined it. When I heard about the project, I rather naively assumed the differences between Costa Rica and Nicaragua would be minimal. As I write this in the room I’m sharing with Gus in our homestay in La Laguna, everything I’d heard in Fieldbase without considering how those countless charts, studies and statistics are manifested in reality…it all becomes horrifyingly obvious. Nicaragua is the second country most at risk on earth to the effects of climate change, and that was evident even driving in. Nothing looks remotely fertile. Grey mountains cast a mournful shadow over vast plains burned brown by the inescapable sun. The roads throw clouds of dust behind you, and the currency, the cordoba, is worth about the same. We stopped at a marked at 8:00, and I bought three bananas for 5 cordoba, which equates to about 10-15 pence. These impressions are exacerbated in La Laguna. We’re staying with Maria Flores, who’s about Mum’s age but is already a grandmother, whose sizeable family are always dropping in to say hello. The house is made of wood and mud, covered by a corrugated tin roof. It’s routine to have a dog, a skeletal kitten who chats as much as Titch back home, a bunch of ducks and chickens, and sometimes even the odd pig wander in through the front door to visit as well. The village lies on one side of a dusty road, a collection of small buildings, a school of two rooms, and a community centre built by Raleigh two years ago. Raleigh also, over the course of three 10-week expeditions constructed a solar powered water system with the help of a German company. There’s a spring down in the valley, and water is fed up into the mountains during the day to a large drum in the village. For half an hour a day, that water is accessible via taps in the yard. Gus and I have a large jerry can, which should last two days at least.
We were introduced to the community leader, Don Victor, and ate what looks to be the first of many meals of rice, beans and tortillas. NRM was certainly pretty, but this seems much more raw, more exciting and more rewarding altogether. I even have a bed, although technically I’m sharing a double. We’ve both decided to play it safe on the flea front and sleep in our sleeping bags on top of the bed. It’s now 7:30, and we get to meet at 7:00 tomorrow. That’s eleven hours of sleep, and I don’t think anything could make me happier than seeing it written down in front of me.
Day Twenty Nine:
They have eggs! Scrambled eggs with onions make me feel like royalty after so long without a taste of dairy, unless you count that awful powdered milk we get. We hiked about 5km to see the solar system, because we plan to build a fence around the source to stop animals contaminating the water. The landscape of the Miraflor Reserve is like something straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. It’s a harsh, cold, haggard, savage, merciless beauty. The Spanish moss trees that line the road give off a Southern Gothic impression, but once you are led across the countryside, the land grows somehow older-looking, more ancient, more inscrutable, parched beyond death by a sky that has not granted it rain since October 2014, a sky so immeasurably gargantuan that it seems to move faster than usual, vast shadows bathing the sharp edges of dying forests in intermittent, inevitable darknesses, as if aware of their single witness to block out your own light, a sky of apocalyptic brooding, casting its curse upon a Miltononic country that can only silently accept it, while the ominous blackened forms of the vultures wheel in that huge greyness, as if joined ludicrously together by invisible trapeze wires, perhaps the secret of which lies beneath the surface of the stagnant dark pools, where people wash their clothes and their bodies, that only reflect the outrageous futility wrought upon them. Anyone who dismisses global warming as a natural, rather than human-caused phenomenon, should visit this place, where nature has been forced to debase itself to an extent beyond any of my own recognition. Its paradoxical beauty is sickening to conceive.
After lunch, during which I spoke to Elias and Arlen, two family members who are usually around, about football and why our national team is in such a dire state, we started planning our first action day on Sunday, which will be about water management and disease awareness. We began writing invites for the two neighbouring communities and planning what we needed from the shop in Esteli, the nearest town. We met up for a bonfire outside Don Victor’s that night to roast marshmallows and play some songs. Johnny Cash, James Blunt, U2, Vance Joy- all made an appearance, but the highlight was the full unabridged epic that is American Pie. Don Victor couldn’t stop smiling.
Didn’t need to meet until 8 this morning, which meant a luxurious lie-in, before writing invites for the action day and deliver as many as we could during the morning to La Laguna, and after lunch we had a two hour break, which I spent at the top of a hill that overlooks the village listening to music. The afternoon was surprisingly dull for the most part, until we dispersed into two groups to deliver invitations to the neighbouring two communities. Rather typically, Felipe and I got lost leading Hannah, Philly and Gus, and we missed a turning completely. As luck would have it, the place we stopped to ask for directions was a pulperia, and Felipe bought a large loaf of sweet bread for us to eat for about 40 cents. Everything is so cheap here! Got an early night tonight.
Day Thirty One:
A few people went to Esteli with Roberto this morning, but I didn’t find myself particularly wanting for anything. I stumbled through a Spanish sitrep this morning, during which I was told we needed to take some photos of community members holding signs showing what water meant for them. That took up most of the morning, and then after lunch, fatigue hit me like a freight train. I’m worried I’m falling ill, despite my hand hygiene being fastidious to the point of obsessive. We spent the afternoon cooped up in that energy-sapping community centre planning our video for Fieldbase (looks like a lot of GoPro time lapses) and the blog, and filming our pledges. I opted for something small, difficult, but achievable: stop buying plastic bottled drinks. I only managed a bit of dinner before going straight to bed instead of another music night at Don Victor’s. I really don’t want to get sick.
Day Thirty Two:
I’m sick. Awoke at 11 last night to go to the loo (which is a stone toilet bowl atop a latrine surrounded by tin walls- don’t think I’ll ever quite be ok with flies flying into your bum mid-poo), and was then kept awake by my furiously shifting digestive system, which seemed to be using its utmost efforts to impress upon me the level of its displeasure with me. It’s been bubbling away without the common courtesy of allowing me a nice big fart of respite. I haven’t puked yet though. I’ve been in our room all day, with my iPod and Nostromo for company. I hope I’m better tomorrow, because this has easily been the one day of Raleigh that I’ve truly hated. Reconciling my feelings towards my homestay under the cold glare of the solitary lightbulb in the room.
I got up for some soup at lunch, and slightly more energised, finally got around to writing the my grandparents a thank you letter. I was surprised at how much I’m looking forward to seeing them, Grandad’s raised one raised arm in something between recognition and triumph, Mimi’s hug and her squeaks of how different I look. She’ll have cause this time; I hardly recognise myself, after a moth without shaving and a wild tangle of hair one just controlled by a very mid-80s bandanna.
I’m gutted to be missing the action day, and I wish my body would hurry up and decide my fate (vomiting or diarrhoea) rather than being stuck in this bloody limbo. The road trip are arriving today (the Fieldbase staff), so there’s a slim chance of news on the solar charger, and I think there’ll be another bonfire. I hope I can recover for that.
Day Thirty Three:
I managed a bit of soup and went to the bonfire, where Don Victor and a few of the locals had brought two guitars and instrument that sounded something close to a mandolin. But they didn’t play in conventional keys; they tuned their instruments two steps down from the other and somehow found corresponding chords in their respective kets. However, in these strange mutant keys, they could only play one song, without words, which left me, with my C and G harmonica, with only one note to harmonise, and the rest of the team, including the road trip staff, sitting in a rather flabbergasted silence. I went home after about half an hour and by the grace of my recovering immune system, fell into an undisturbed and deeper sleep for the first time since Phase One. When I woke this morning, the sickness, whatever it was, had all but gone, and we began work on an eco-latrine below, in that deadened valley that somehow provided the villages with their clean water. Hiking down that path with construction tools was legitimately scary. The surface was loose dirt and treacherous stone, and though I only fell once, to get away with a bruised thigh, I felt a pang of pity for the nameless Alpha 6 group who would come after us, and would have to complete the latrine and add the roof, walls, and door. Soon after we began construction, it became clear that there were far too many of us. Thirteen in our group plus four locals, not to mention the road trip, meant that six people for the most part built the latrines, while the remainder who didn’t have tools watched, or dug holes for extra soil in the excruciatingly unremitting heat. Most people were burned by the end of the day, but we didn’t care, owing to the fact that we finally got a shower, or, more specifically, several mess tins of water and biodegradable soap after work. This was the first time I’d had a proper wash, discounting baby wipes, since the stop at the school on the journey to Nicaragua. I dug out some colones from my pack that evening to pay for the letter to Mimi and Grandad. I hope it arrives soon. Cards in the community centre before bed. The real work begins tomorrow.
Day Thirty Four:
Splitting into two groups for two latrine bases was far more effective, although the rather crushing realisation that I was down to the very last Fruttini sweet was hard to accept, given that I’d had them since the last changeover. The food is becoming easier to eat too; my body seems to have made the necessary adjustments to function under such a vast intake of rice and beans. The aspect of life that I really struggle to deal with is the total silence of people in general – the villagers, our family, everyone with the exception of Don Victor and little Elias in our house (son of elder Elias), although his littler brother shrieks in such powerful anguish I was again struck by the thought that he was the only one protesting their poverty, their stark social injustice. Ignoring it just doesn’t seem to work for me.
I feel that our group is starting to grow closer too. Esmee, typically the most withdrawn, has opened up a notch, quite like Juno in Phase One. Ginge (Hannah’s new name, to distinguish her from American Hanna) has mellowed into a perfectly lovely person, although Phillip is still extremely clumsy, worse even than me. I’d never before come across someone who dropped to there knees to use a shovel. Despite realising halfway through that the cement we’d mixed was too sandy, we finished off our base and made it back to watch a film! In English! There’s a tiny television in our house, with a collection of pirated Spanish dubbed movies. The village’s favourites are the old Planet of The Apes movies, based on what Gus and I have heard at night when we go to bed. Granted, this film was Lone Survivor with Mark Wahlberg, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Day Thirty Five:
Gus and I headed out with the unnerving knowledge that we’d used the last of our clean water from the jerry can, and given the heat today (this latrine was to be built away from the village, out on the plain), I was worried about dehydration, which at this altitude is apparently severe and hard to shake off. Thankfully I’d stocked up at one of the pulperias yesterday evening and my supply of caramel maize helped to lessen the effects. We’d learned from our mistakes yesterday, got the right consistency of cement, and finished off the base without too much difficulty.
I’ve felt that over the last few days I seem to have become more organised and definitely more practical. Naturally I shall be slightly disheartened if these are the only things that Raleigh changes in me, but then again, I find reassurance in the likelihood that many changes may escape my notice until after Raleigh, and perhaps not until I finally return to England. Six months of 2015 living abroad, and I’m truly unsure what most of my friends would make of that. In many ways, I think my disorganisation in not telling them much, if anything, about where I was going has worked in my favour.
We gathered at Don Victor’s tonight to chat and roast marshmallows, which were a complete novelty to the locals. Only our way back to the pulperia afterwards I discovered they’d started selling salted peanuts, and without hesitation I bought an entire rack for 12 cents. Happy times.
Day Thirty Six:
The days seem to be blurring together. While one of our two groups began construction on a latrine base at the school, which I time lapsed, others began to plan the next action day, this time centred on the use and management of the eco-latrines themselves. I’m surprised by my anticipation for it, as I missed the last one. We started writing introductory speeches, and I realised how difficult it was to maintain a measure of balance between accessibility and patronisation, but I’m pleased we’ll prepare actual Nicaraguan food this time (vigarron, a pork dish).
In the afternoon, we were tasked with roofing and walling our first latrine. Despite a frustratingly lengthy amount of time captured on the GoPro of our group waiting expectantly as Don Victor realised the measurements of the walls were too wide for the roof, we ultimately were able to finish it off, and got some homemade crisps for 10 cordobas as an added bonus!
Day Thirty Seven:
Today was devoted solely to the action day, which now lies only two days away. Rattled off about forty invitations and set off towards Circo Piedras, the nearest community downhill from La Laguna. The mountain range suddenly rises up to meet you as you descend from the comparative basin of La Laguna, where the only notable peak is a large, parched one several miles away to the South, and the reality of the altitude of this place suddenly resounds again more loudly. We only came across seven people in that community, if it was a community at all. It was as if the world had forgotten them, misplaced them in the indistinguishable vastness of Miraflor.
We regrouped in the afternoon to translate the activities that we had planned (to my great disappointment, Christine The Latrine had been vetoed) into Spanish, and I treated myself to another mess tin shower. Fieldbase threw a rather destructive spanner in the works by rejecting our request to go to Esteli to buy food for tomorrow, but Don Victor, ever the spanner-rescuer, volunteered to take Roberto there in a rather non-existent trip tomorrow. We call came round to our house at the Flores’ to watch Pirates of the Caribbean (in English!), where Emma came in to tell us that we didn’t have to report until 9 tomorrow. Not bad at all.
Day Thirty Eight:
Woke up at 6 nonetheless, and resolved to go for my first run in at least two months. I’d imagined it as a graceful canter on the slopes of Miraflor, being as much a component of the ecosystem as the wild horses that you sometimes glimpse racing over far-off hills with an ease as natural as wisps of cloud on the horizon. And so it was, for the first few minutes downhill. That’s the important word. Downhill. Somehow the idea that every leisurely stride in that descent would equal three hoarse, wheezing breaths fifteen minutes later. And so it was that I subsequently found myself covered in sweat, legs screaming for relief and cursing between wheezes as I wearily jogged back into La Laguna.
We met up to begin filming our video, conducting several interviews with the villages, including Elias, who I suppose in our rather large homestay is our brother. I definitely notice our lunch-time chats are longer now. He, as with many of the others, is beginning to open up a bit. I discovered that the twenty dollars I exchanged at the border is running low, but with a little more budgetary diligence (wouldn’t Dad be proud?) I’ll have enough to buy a hammock as a souvenir on the return journey. Perhaps if I really tighten my belt I can get one for the family, and one for my student digs at Bristol. Then again, that would be so gap yah that I might get ostracised for the whole of my university existence.
That afternoon, we distributed the rest of the invitations to the immediate neighbourhood. I hope the action day goes well. It feels over the last three or four days that as our construction has thinned with fewer and fewer latrines to build, our purpose here has begun to wane. We could easily have done all the latrines and two action days in ten days, which leaves us with five or six days spent doing altogether nothing, and the fact that we are staying here, eating their food, drinking their water and sleeping in their beds elicits tremendous guilt. I want to leave. Short sentences for dramatic effect in accordance with the dictatorial close analysis techniques Brighton shoved down our throats. I feel that after tomorrow, we are, at least speaking practically, no longer needed.
Day Thirty Nine:
The action day was a resounding success. We had about 50 people turn up, and we (though only just) managed to serve enough vigarron to everyone. The presentations on the management of the eco-latrines went well enough; I feel that most people understood it, and we seemed to be able to accurately answer their questions. Afterwards we held a closely fought football match, which Raleigh again lost 3-2, although I was pleased enough to have managed a backheel, and it be caught on camera!
I haven’t left myself sufficient time to accurately, or succinctly, capture the day, so I’ll have to resort to a technique you may have seen me previously employ: to simply describe where I am and what I’m doing. Hence, it is 6:25 in the evening, and I’ve climbed to the highest point I could find in La Laguna to shoot a time-lapse of the sunset. The mountains at my back have started to acquiesce to the great, darkening blue mass obscuring further sight. Facing that, the sky is arranged in layers of blue, lilac, orange, and pure, brilliant white. All is in order, all in its place, except for two parallel diagonal slashes of blue sky that cut, as if in vain protest at the quiet hushed end to which I am the solitary witness. Even as the stain behind deepens into blackness, Venus begins her rise to meet the infant crescent moon, and I switch my head torch on to continue writing. The rest of the stars are beginning to sharpen against the dull night, granting the colour of the plains a stronger contrast from the thin grey haze provided by the stars’ delicate penetration. One frequently characterises darkness as a thing of disorder, of loss, of evil, and yet this night is one of such perfect silence and stillness of visage, paused somewhat ironically by the only person here to record this moment in these grubby brown pages. The greyness that emits the strongest glow above the horizon has now retreated to the obscurity of the surrounding sky, and I suspect the camera can no longer discern the haze from the utter black of the land, and thus I must somehow climb down from the top of the water container without killing myself.
Back to the construction again, completing stairs to two more bases. Again, having grown accustomed to the labour, we work, if anything, a little too efficiently now. What with smashing stone blocks with the wrecking bar, mixing cement without a mixer (just sieve several bags of sand to eliminate large gravel, add one sack of cement, and create a volcano-like crater the middle of the resulting pile, which, when filled with water and mixed several times, makes concrete), laying the breeze blocks, making them level and putting them in place, a job that used to take many hours, is now always done well before lunch, leaving us with little to do except question why we cannot do more. Perhaps this is someone else’s definition of ‘sustainable development’ that we are supposedly realising. We are, after all, only to act as a catalyst to encourage independent communal development in the villagers of La Laguna. But is that’s true, why has Raleigh been working with this collection of communities in Miraflor for nearly ten years? It’s true that the solar clean water system is definitely a vital improvement to life, but a decade seems a long time. There must be something that is not functioning as it should.
However, that afternoon, whilst attempting to brainstorm another skit (in addition to the videos we’ve made, another aggravating task dumped on us by Fieldbase), I remarked jokingly that as my faithful bandanna had been more or less destroyed by battery acid leaking from the power supply in our room, I ought to shave my head for the next phase, trek. Philly then challenged “Odds on you shave your head at changeover!”, a challenge I thought I would be safe with odds of 40-1. Alas, we both ending up saying those fateful words, “thirty seven”, and thus the skit problem was solved. I get my head shaved in front of everyone. Great.
Day Forty One:
Last day of labour today, laying roofs and walls and Don Cero’s, Don Victor’s father who lives in the house down in the valley. It also became apparent as we gathered in the community centre for one of the last times – that place holds no sentimental value or affection for me whatsoever, a literally dark place that seems to drain one of motivation to accomplish even the most effortless tasks (sorry, rambling again!) – that the German company that helped to fund the solar-powered water system were arriving tomorrow to see it in action. Therefore, we had a rather slap-dash construction job this morning, which consisted of us watching in bewilderment whilst the locals embarked on what appeared to be a certain fool’s errand, attempting to roll an immensely heavy roll of steel chicken wire over an area of water twice as wide as the wire.
Roberto, Phillip, and I spent the afternoon mixing the last batch of cement to affix the walls. Roberto is reaching Pella levels of greatness, Both are reserved in opinions, huge fun to be around and profoundly good people. It defies belief to imagine this feverishly energetic 26 year-old Tico was until recently working in a thankless H.R job. His smile and his silent laughter should really be quarantined, and the relationships he has cultivated within the community are honestly a thing of wonder. Small children dash up to him in peals of laughter, scrambling to be the first lucky two ti swing on his arms. A woman gave him a free bag of sweet bread, and he gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. I’d find it very interesting to see if I stayed here longer whether I would not only be treated the same as Roberto, but act the same in return. This phase must have been excruciatingly frustrating for those who didn’t speak a word of Spanish at all. It certainly proved to be the case for Emma and Gus. I don’t mean to say, however, that I have failed to integrate at least partially into the community. My nightly chats over dinner with Elias have resulted in a good friendship. He told me tonight I’d be welcome to stop in at any time in the future, and added me on Facebook and gave me an email address, so I shall endeavour to send him the handful of photos I took with the Flores family.
On balance, I’d say it’s been a much more satisfying phase for the reason that the impact of our work, even if only superficially, has been far more direct. In Piedras Blancas, we worked non-stop to improve a trail in a national park that nobody came to, and it seemed we should have been simultaneously raising Greddy & Co’s profile. Here, we are making an immediate effective change while also attempting to instigate shifts in hygiene practices. I really find it difficult imagining going home, and over the last few weeks, I’ve considered becoming a vegetarian. I think Milo’s jaw would drop further at that decision than when he sees my freshly shaved head.
Day Forty Two:
Took a day off today, and we spent most of the morning hiking to an amazing naturally formed waterfall and pool. The hike over such a harsh landscape, scattered with inch-long thorns, treacherous loose soil surfaces, and rather memorably, a pair of sizeable snakes fighting a stone’s throw away seemed to enhance even the most mundane aspects of our destination, like the handrail made of sticks that appeared the ultimate sign of high culture. There was also an inconceivably out of place shirtless fat American tourist who gaped open-mouthed as we, sweaty, grubby and sporting, in the case of the guys, some truly atrocious facial hair, traipsed past. “Y’all came through the jungle?”, he asked with the same confused expression I must have worn when that ranger materialised out of the rainforest offering guaba weeks before.
The water was freezing, the lunch our family packed us delicious, and even using my hat as a frisbee, getting it caught and therefore soaked under the waterfall couldn’t dampen our mood.
Our group didn’t bond at quite the same rate as the first, although I’ve heard those are the people to whom you’re closest, but we’ve certainly got to know each other a lot better. I write this in mind with a particularly, and unexpectedly illuminating, chat with Hidde on the walk home. He is using Raleigh as a springboard to prove that he could use his own privilege to help others and gain independence of his own, which are very similar to my own motives. But he also told me that he pointedly refuses to travel post-Raleigh, as, in his eyes, the memories, and by extension, the value, of the experience would be diluted. I suppose there’s quite a lot of truth in that, but considering the prospect of 5 weeks twiddling my thumbs back home seems perhaps not also dilutive, but definitely not an extension of the ethics I hope to preserve after Raleigh. I believe my best course of action once the ever-looming 21st April finally bears down upon me is to keep moving, careful not to stay too long in one place. And although I’m staying for a rather sizeable block of time, it’ll be hard to be bored there.
Day Forty Three:
In time-honoured Raleigh fashion, there was another ‘miscommunication’ and, having been told to be ready to leave at 8, we were in fact the last WASH group to leave, at 10:30. The Flores family, to say the least, were absolute troopers. They came out in full force to get some farewell photos with us. Elias and I had one last chat. I’ll have to bring him some new DVDs when I visit next time. After Pirates of the Caribbean, film quality dropped dramatically, from Snowpiercer (a bit weird) to Bigfoot Wars (downright awful). When the bus did finally arrive, our families all got aboard just before we left to give us one last hug goodbye. I was very touched. These people had next to nothing and not only were willing to share it with us, but were in tears, in several cases, to see us leave. I sincerely hope that this community will become the sustainably developed and hygienically self-sufficient one they have every potential of becoming. I must come back one day.
The reunited three WASH groups then spent the poorly-paved, bum-numbing journey back to the school being subjected to another crappy film, Blood & Bone, which essentially consisted of an invincible black man punching other mortal black men in the face really hard for poorly explained reasons.
Day Forty Four:
Little to say once again on the travel day. The coach seats seemed to have grown exponentially more comfortable, and having risen a 3:30 this morning, with less than two hours’ sleep, for reasons I should hope are obvious, I slept for most of the journey. We enjoyed our last few moments as Alpha 6 at a Costa Rican rest stop, and I stopped to consider how much I’m going to miss the 7-weekers, for whom this was the final phase. My mealtime deep chats with Gus, the laughs with Matt, the catch-ups with Rory every changeover- all have meant a ton to me and my experience here, and to see them depart will be to let the catalysts of those experiences go. But on the other hand, trek is fast approaching, and each phase has occurred in precisely the order I wanted. Besides, there’s no knowing that Philly, Felipe and I, the survivors of Alpha 5 in Piedras Blancas, won’t be together for all three phases. And for this reason, I bounced back into Fieldbase with a little more hope. Even sleeping back in that resort didn’t seem too bed.
But my head is still getting shaved tomorrow.
Day Forty Five:
Took full advantage of the free day in town and bought a cheap phone and some PB&J from Maxi. Ran the loose itinerary for travelling after Raleigh by Ian Zimmerman, and waded through the mountain of letters under which I was buried upon arrival at Fieldbase. Rupert’s letter was utterly brilliant, and I hope I can rattle off a reply worthy of inclusion to his proposed hypothetical collected correspondence. Even better, I managed to FaceTime Poppy, Milo, Mum, Dad, Raine and Aunt Laurie, and Mimi and Grandad before I returned.
Then came the skit.
The intent to use my head shaving as a symbol for our initially difficult yet ultimately successful work was effectively dissipated once the audience realised it was actually happening. Rather dishearteningly, we didn’t make the top three although Charlotte gave me a scoop of her group’s winning ice cream, as a crowd gathered to watch Matt add the finishing touches. On the one hand, I have a well-proportioned head. However, I do look like I’ve either just gone to prison, or I’ve joined the US marines. I warned Poppy and Milo so they could break the news perhaps a little more gently to Mum and Dad. I expect it’ll grow on me (!) although I need to suncream it and basically always wear the Tilly hat. There is also perhaps no stranger sensation than that of mosquito net on bald head.
Day Forty Six:
Final allocations! And, to the sheer delight of my inner six year old, we were sorted into our new groups via sorting hat, voiced by Kei. Rather poetically, I’m returning to the same corner of South-Western Costa Rica that I began in, on the Corcovado Trek with Kristina and Aimee as PMs, which I’m very excited about. Both are very animated, and very funny. Because they really don’t know much more than we do about hiking 280km across Costa Rica, they’re a lot like slightly less stupid venturers, which is refreshing- I haven’t really had managers like these before. Moreover, the spirit of Piedras Blancas endures- Philly and Felipe are here again! We’re joined by Hanna from Phase Two, Juliette and Laure, two very unruffled Belgians, Vivi, a very short but very determined Tico, Jacob, who’s alarmingly laid back, a different Dutch Esmee, Seb from Jersey, who is always chatty and friendly during the changeover meals I’ve had with him, and Quinten, who might take the biscuit for thickest Dutch accent. He’s hilarious already, I think I may have found a new best friend.
Packing and sorting out our food for the next three weeks proved very stressful, but I’d got as organised as possible by dinner, in time to place my order for an expedition T shirt and DVD, and to realise that the phone I bought yesterday has a faulty sim, so I’ll have to wait until final changeover to get in contact with Dad, which isn’t ideal. 3:30 as usual, for the final phase.
Day Forty Seven:
Packed the last few essentials after a hurried breakfast. As dawn broke to yield a morning of quintessential Fieldbase grey, one by one the groups departed on their final phases. Bidding goodbye to the 7-weekers was extremely emotional. Matt was in tears as I hugged him for the last time, which only raised questions I’ve avoided confronting so far: what will this scene look like three weeks from now?
We met up with the new Alpha 5 going to Piedras Blancas on the journey south for a hot cooked meal, but we made good time and arrived in the village of El Progreso relatively early in the afternoon. It’s a tiny village, more a collection of buildings along a road and an intersection nestling improbably outside the jaws of thick dark jungle. I can’t wait to get hold of Tom Ballinger to tell him about this; he’s certain to want to come to Corcovado. Vivi’s family turned up with gifts of sweet pastries which we hungrily accepted with gabbled “muchas gracias”’s and after cooking our first of many trangia dinners, I elected for a few more minutes’ sleep on the floor of the community centre the town had let us stay in rather than watch Panama beat Costa Rica. We start hiking tomorrow morning.
Day Forty Eight:
My first impression of trek was unfortunately the dreaded recognition of a wet bum that only ever meant one thing: a leaky Camelbak. After collectively bumbling about in the darkened community centre for two hours and my panicked rescue of said Camelbak, we set off from El Progreso. The first hill seemed to go on for miles, and I had just begun to flirtatiously entertain the notion that this may well have been the most moronic decision of my life, when Seb offered me a song on his little speakers. As if spiritually guided by Tolkien himself, I almost subconsciously switched on my iPod, scrolled through to Howard Shore and then it was like magic. Suddenly no hill was too steep, no surface too loose, no sweat too disgusting. And it then transpired that Quinten, Jacob, and Aimee are all huge fans.
Already before 8 am, we had recast ourselves in LOTR. I’ve gotten away quite nicely as Merry, although because of my baldness I also double as Gollum. Poor Esmee got stuck with Gimli. The fellowship suffered its first Pass-Of-Carhad-Dras moment during a river crying when the irreplaceable four bowls (of four-bowl system fame) fell into the river, but Felipe, or Samwise, and Quinten, perfectly cast as Pippin, managed to save them.
We made pretty good time for our first 10km of Corcovado, which, though we walked in mostly brush and forest, tingles with the same indefinable magic as Piedras Blancas, and made it to a small community called Alturas, who let us stay in their community centre. It looked like an eco-bar that had been abandoned, but in good condition, as if its staff and customers had left town a few days before. A lot of Alturas was like that, I noted, as I wandered around the riverbank, during what I now realise was my penultimate one on one with a PM, a collection of brightly coloured pastel painted houses and buildings that looked as if their inhabitants had moved the week before. It was a little unsettling.
Over dinner that afternoon (not evening, as because our days now start so early, we go to bed extremely early too), satisfied with the variety of, relative to my flexibility, anatomically impossible stretches Felipe taught us, I found the best icebreaker in my new group was gossip. Felipe and I were named the group sluts for our respective escapades in the first phase.
I’m navigating tomorrow, so don’t be alarmed if this journal is never seen again, owing to the disappearance of a Raleigh group who got lost a little too close to the Panamanian border.
Day Forty Nine:
To my great surprise, I didn’t get the group lost! We awoke somewhat groggily to the Fresh Prince theme song (Quentin as Day Leader also assumes DJ duty in the morning). After three weeks of rice and beans, I can feel myself falling back in love with porridge with guava jam.
We didn’t end up getting out until 5:30, but I took us up a steep hill that rewarded us with our first proper panoramic view of this enormous wilderness, improbably covering one a corner of a country the size of Wales. Cartoonishly green valleys give way to mountains blanketed in forest, which rise and fade, bristling in the strong Pacific breezes that give the mountains an appearance of taking breath. It’s utterly remarkable. We made it to a hot springs in time for lunch, having posed for selfies with a parrot. It was held on the arm of a smiling woman who let us refill our water. But when it flew away, it was immediately lost against the emerald green vistas that stretched before our road.
In my opinion, bolstered of course by the benefit of hindsight, we luxuriated a little too long in the hot springs, which I had felt necessary after trying to change into my trunks in front of a crowd of Semana Santa holidaymakers with only my meagre microfibre towel to shield my myself. The final kilometre up a very steep slope was made harder after that two hour rest.
We’ve managed to stay on the porch of the community centre, and apart from a fistfight amongst some drunken revellers, it’s a pleasant end to the day. I enjoyed singing U2, Black Keys and even (gasp) Springsteen with Jacob, who is constantly proving great company.
The moon has risen now, thickly wounded by tight circles of cloud strongly evoke memories of Piedras Blancas. Apart from some soreness in my hips and shoulders, the latter of which are peeling like sunburn owing to the friction, I’m really enjoying this so far.
Woke up at 3:10, put some water on to boil for porridge and managed to make a start on packing before blasting Beyonce’s Love On Top to wake up the others. We managed to pack up from Alturas ten minutes early and set back off into the heart of the mountains. Having lent my iPod (or more accurately, the LOTR soundtrack) to Jacob yesterday, I was taking no chances and gave myself an early dose of Howard Shore to get going. Obviously it’s incredibly nerdy, but listening to the soaring strings that dominate that score seems to attenuate everything from the weight to the gradient to the heat. I think of winter nights and roaring fires slumped haphazardly on the sofa with Milo when ever the Shire theme resurfaces. You cannot help but associate it with thoughts of home, and yet simultaneously convince yourself that home is a place that you don’t necessarily need to return to physically. The word nostalgia is after all derived from the Greek ‘nostos’, which means to return, or go home. It’s always pleasant when that music appears as you come into your resting place for the night. And ours today was almost unbelievably luxurious. We made utterly incredible time and got in at 10:30 (am!!) to the Pettier ranger station, and our prolonged yells of surprise and elation upon discovering the cabins of bunkbeds, dining room, and electricity were on the whole an accurate summation of what Raleigh does to people.
I was reminded once again how pathetically inflexible I am during an hour long yoga session with Felipe, another thing I want to take up when I finish Raleigh. We enjoyed a lovely prolonged lunch, took showers and washed clothes before the Road Trip arrived- Kei, Richard and Sarah this time. Richard is a retiree who has dived in virgin territory over the last few decades- he’s in his late sixties now, but his whole life sounds like a massive gap year. He was pleased to see I haven’t fried my head yet, and Kei was again full of good Costa Rican conservation facts. Apparently we’ll be walking between sections of primary forest, untouched by humans during some of the trek, and that this is the only time of year Corcovado is open, which makes us the last people to do it in 2015.
I chose to sleep on my rollmat on the floor tonight because I don’t want to confuse my body by sleeping on a mattress for one night. Today was a really rewarding day, the personal highlight of which was probably finding in small writing on the corner of the dining room whiteboard ‘Raggy was here’, bringing with it an Alpha 5-shaped wave of affection. Until tomorrow.
Day Fifty One:
I was flushed with confidence due to our rapid journey to Pettier yesterday, and that confidence was only compounded when a quick glance at our route card yielded an encouraging statistic: “total distance- 7km”. We did not, unfortunately, finish our walking by 10:30 today. An unrelenting descent down the mountain took most of the feeling from my calves and earned the first toe-taping of the trek so far, although to be honest I’m surprised that it’s taken my feet this long to require external attention. Practically quivering with a mixture of anxiety and excitement from a midmorning snack of energy bombs, which might be thing I miss most from the NRM Raleigh rations. They live up to their name. For about 40 minutes we flew back up the next hill, then suffered the subsequent inevitable sugar crash and lost the motivation to do anything.
At around midday we stumbled across an ice cream parlour, inexplicably located high in the mountains, open from 9 until 7, 7 days a week. I indulged myself with three scoops from about a dollar (!) of banana, naranjilla, and passionfruit, which might have been the tastiest ice cream I’ve ever eaten. As it became apparent several hours later, Quinten, my Dutch LOTR companion, whilst walking up the ‘hill of tears’, as dubbed by the previous group, irrefutably proved that my three scoops were frugal. Wheezing and groaning the life sapping 2 kilometre climb to Altamira, Quinten spontaneously vomited everywhere. When we asked him what had happened, in that characteristic thick Dutch accent, had time to blurt out “It’s the ice cream!” before the next bout. It transpired he’d eaten seven scoops, as we gathered from his shouts between vomits of “Ugh, it’s the banana!”.
Fruity artisan vomit aside, we did ultimately reach Altamira, which had a viewing platform of a vista that truly did take my breath away. Enormous, blue, thickly forested mountains were level with us, each further away and more empyreal and hazy against the sky than the last. It was, to quote Jacob, a great place to be penetrated. Better still, the rangers allowed the plucky few who wanted to to sleep there tonight. I’ve already raced up to the platform from the campsite below after watching the wind lift up a rollmat and nearly flinging it into the forest below (it actually wasn’t mine), so it looks a bit nippy. Hopefully I won’t freeze.
Day Fifty Two:
3:30 seemed sooner than generally anticipated this morning, as a blood orange sun supplanted the fading stars, emitting a feeble but gradually strengthening glow over the dark figures stooping over trangias and mosquito nets. I slept without interruption, and rather bizarrely Juliette and I both dreamt that a small white dog with black spots (Pepper!) came and slept beside us through the night. She, along with Aimee and Seb, spent the first two hours downhill from Altamira playing that song linking game from Pitch Perfect, during which I discovered an uncanny ability to drag the came back to a cheesy country song. The day seemed to heat up much more quickly, and by 9:00 it was almost unbearable. I lent my iPod out again, so the Corcovado/Middle Earth references were thin on the ground too.
Fortunately the hills relented, and we were lead downhill for four kilometres, which we managed in just one hour. We celebrated in customary fashion by whipping up the energy bombs. I snapped my spork in two, such was my excitement, but I managed to tape it rather wonkily back together.
As the quasi-Alpine, idyllic mountain-ringed fields trundled slowly on each side of that unending road, I enjoyed lovely conversations with both Jacob and Juliette. It seems to me, certainly more so with each of these chats, that Raleigh has changed me in several ways. I’m definitely more decisive, although I admit that’s not saying much, and I feel more confident in my foresight of things. I think these changes will, relatively inconspicuous in this environment at the moment, become more pronounced when the homeward path finally does beckon. But for now, I lie awake in a sweltering hot tent with Quinten and Philly. Hanna, bless her, chose to sleep on the porch. We washed in a beautiful river this afternoon, and it felt for the first time as if we’ve really gone well off the beaten path. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Day Fifty Three:
We awoke once more, tired and haphazard, taking down the tents and forcing down porridge (I’m becoming sick of it) in the darkness with my ruined spork, a sight which must have appeared so pathetic that Philly gave me her spare fork. I found myself moving at a snail’s pace this morning, and because of this the continuation of our quest to Corcovado was delayed by 40 minutes. The tall grass that snatched at our heels gradually thinned to dirt roads and before long we made it into the next village, where we shared a watermelon and cokes, which, at 7:30 in the morning, I hope, was the earliest I’ll ever drink it.
Fruit stalls were scattered by the roadside all this morning, and we found ourselves carrying coconuts, guava and cashew fruit, walking steadily along a stretch of unnaturally flat road while mountains, rising formidably against the sky’s omniscience ringed our view. Shade was scarce, however, and the experience of finding a bar that filled our bottles with chilled water provoked reactions of such pure ecstasy that it took even us by surprise. But the best was yet to come. We made it to our final destination at noon, a covered ranchita on the banks of a gorgeous lagoon with electricity, toilets, and showers! Quinten and I paddled out that afternoon in a pair of small wooden boats by the dock. Not only was it relaxing to be out, drifting lazily on the water, but, as we neared the far bank, we spotted some squirrel monkeys, and were able to float under the branches of the tree on the shore where they were playing, and even more amazingly, they stayed right there for 10 minutes while we laid back in the boats and watched. It really does seem to improve every day.
Day Fifty Four:
We awoke on time and made our way back into the foothills, where we were guided through not uneven dirt roads but a wild, untamed trail that zigzagged dizzily upwards for hours. Branches grabbed roughly at the Tilley hat now perched permanently on my head, and cut my legs and forearms, but each straining muscle, each bead of sweat dancing aggravatingly down my cheek was like an extra reason to get through the jungle, which wound its way like the tightening coils of a great green serpent around what turned out to be the highest mountain we’ve summited so far. It was at this point where the excellent comradeship of the group began to ever so slightly crack. Uncle Tom, who I’m sure would be nodding along with his trademark clenched jaw, is so correct about mind yielding before the body. Seb, a perfectly lovely and chatty 21 year old who I’d known over changeovers before Phase Three, just seemed to suddenly break down, snapping at other members of the group and ultimately slipping over near the summit and howling curses and no-one in particular. That might be the thing that trek has surprised me with the most – my mental strength. Making conversation, drinking water, listening to LOTR, even employing cross-country strategies like breathing patterns – no matter what, I’ve managed to suck it up and deal with it. And the mountain rewarded us that defied credulity. Nature seems to impress you ten times more than you could ever impress yourself. We made it to the church where we were allowed to spend the night, and picked up our next four days of food, where I’d stashed what was left of my PB&J from Fieldbase. Even better, Philly broke out some Maria biscuits with Betty Crocker frosting after dinner. It’s so cliched, but little things really do carry a lot of weight.
Day Fifty Five:
Today has probably been my least favourite day of trek so far, but then again, I suppose it’s a measure of just how incredible trek has been that it was only less enjoyable because the walk itself was rather dull. We met our guide just after 5, and owing to the horse he rode through the jungle, my allergies flared up and I had to use the inhaler. However, once I’d recovered I simply stayed at the very back of the pack, and I think that is partly why it wasn’t quite as much fun. Generally I like to walk at my own pace, talking to one or two other people or losing myself in the marvellous fusion that is hiking in one of the most outstanding parts of the world with the Lord of The Rings Symphony. At the back, on the other hand, you can grow impatient and frustrated for little to no reason, often even in spite of yourself. After two hours the descent through thick mountainside jungle had done little to alleviate my frustration, although a steep slide down the hill towards the end was a lot of fun. We’ve now been at our wild campsite for six hours, having arrived just before lunch. We’re only about 10 kilometres from Greddy, Don Carlos and Co in Piedras Blancas, which helps to explain the familiar, unbearable heat. It’s twenty times worse in the tent, though – I can see the sweat trickling down my bare chest with Philly, Quinten, and Hanna all squeezed in with me. I had a wonderful conversation with Juliette as we were refilling our bottles at the stream this evening. She was working at a ranch in Argentina before Raleigh and will then go to New York this summer for acting classes. And I thought my travel plans were busy.
Day Fifty Six:
It took a little longer to get going this morning, taking down the tents and sorting out the packs. Eventually we made it out of camp and back into the wilderness. It was a steep ascent into the forests as dawn broke, forcing a delicate sheet of mist to float languidly upwards, refracting the new sunlight into a glowing golden haze. The path climbed high into cattle fields slanted comically on the mountainside before diving once more into thick forest trails that spiralled their way along the opposite slope. The hike seemed a little more difficult as the conditions became more humid and the constant sweating began to aggravate my skin. The last section was on a steep downhill road, easily my least favourite surface to walk on, made more exciting by a small forest fire burning just below us, forcing us to walk through a thick cloud of smoke, but it was improved immeasurably by a man who rushed out to hand us 28 bananas, two for each person. The kindness of strangers here can be astonishing sometimes.
Day Fifty Seven:
The school porch we slept beneath didn’t offer a particularly constant night’s sleep as it was situated a stone’s throw from a main road, upon which juggernauts rumbled, ugly and brutish under the street lamps pullulating orange stains of light. The prolonged roars pierced the sleep I’d sunken into three times, and on the last, I laid awake for forty minutes until Nicki Minaj’s Pound The Alarm awoke the others, in some cases rather violently. We set off at dawn in a strangely flat landscape that called to mind Somerset on a really, really good day. It emerged that we were circumnavigating our way around an enormous banana plantation, and although the sun was out in full force by 8:30, we made extraordinary time and after stopping for lunch (incidentally one of the few times we’ve eaten lunch on the road so far) where I regretfully polished off the last of the peanut butter, we reached the main road and found a cafe with, mercifully, charging points for my camera and iPod, and, better still, pinto with egg for five bucks. Incredibly it got even better when a local woman offered us her house to sleep in. She had back problems now, so had moved into a new bungalow next door. The house had water and a shower; a far cry from the abandoned school without taps that we were expecting to stay in.
That evening we returned to the cafe, chatting to the Californian who was touring Costa Rica by motorbike, and watching the fluorescent green-beaked toucans fly from one tree to another. I stayed there for over an hour – I could have watched them forever.
Day Fifty Eight:
There were none of the usual, jaw-dropping views today, nor hilly roads that undulated like little waves of lake water, or even the dense claustrophobic jungle trails. Instead, when we left that lovely woman’s house at dawn, we were faced with 26 kilometres along a main road, which meant single file and little chance of the chats to which we usually resort to pass the time and distance our thoughts from the straining ache on our shoulders. It was lucky I had a Harry Potter audiobook on my iPod saved for a day such as this. The ceaseless grey ribbon of road yawned lazily ahead, unfurling as it traced the coastline, past countless cars which drove slowly past, their occupants gawking at the sight for 14 filthy people walking with heavy packs but no conspicuous motive, past roadworks were I lost my balance and slipped, but avoided a much nastier fall than I’d feared, past a pulperia where I all but inhaled a tin each of tuna and sweetcorn, all the while being watched by a sentinel dog who, as it transpired, was not fond of the sweetcorn. At last we came into the town we were due to stay in, Rincon. We were refused shelter at the church and a campsite – apparently last group’s had soiled Raleigh’s good name amongst these people – but mercifully the proprietor of some seaside cabins let us stay on the porches of some, and an even bigger treat was in store.
Felipe somehow bartered with a restaurant to give them one of our group dinners, and in return we got rice, beans, salad, and fresh fish with juice for next to nothing. The bay that the cabins looked out on was gorgeous, even in the late afternoon rain. I later realised it was the opposite side of the Golfo Dulce that I’d relaxed in two months before. Forest ringed it halfway around, and far off in the distance, beyond the mouth, several mountains seemed to grow out of the sea, coloured a cold grey just a shade darker than the gathering clouds above. My trusted Casio however looks to have given up after its last dip in the ocean. I’ve put it in some rice tonight to try to save it. Otherwise I’m sure I can get one from a venturer who’s travelling straight home after Raleigh ends on the 21st. Amazingly, that’s only ten days away. I suppose I do, accurately speaking, have the capacity to write about how I feel about this, but, without wanting to needlessly state the obvious, trek does seem to make me quite tired.
Day Fifty Nine:
The main road was abandoned today after only half an hour, as we turned onto flat agricultural land, still more green and exotic than any English fields. The sunrise at the cabins this morning was perhaps the most spectacular of Raleigh altogether. Streams of gold, splintered by the grove of palm trees in front of the porch gave us our first glimpse. Once I’d hurriedly shoved the stoves, the remains of breakfast, and my seven days worth of personal food (snacks and lunches) that should cover me for the rest of expedition, into my bulging pack, I sprinted towards the beach. Blackened clouds split their seams, spilling brilliant bloody light across the horizon, scattered upon the infinite refractions of the ocean surface. A wonderful parting gift. We later found a supermarket (I know!!), where I spent the last of my pulperia stash on a fresh jar of peanut butter, and somehow just the knowledge of it, glorying in my possession of it, spurred me on and after a record 24 river crossings in one afternoon, we arrived at Los Patos, the first ranger station in Corcovado. Back tomorrow.
Perhaps it was due to the slightly jarring reward of getting at up at 4:45 as opposed to 3:30, perhaps it was the growing fatigue of the group compounded by this crazy routine of ours, or perhaps, in my case most likely of all, the rather weary start this morning had something to do with an enormous green mantis which, no doubt enamoured by the glow of my headtorch, passed the night periodically propelling itself across the ranger station onto my mosquito net. Somewhat predictably, my reaction to these unscheduled visits was consistent and spectacular. It generally involved me performing a sort of lopsided pirouette in my sleeping bag, having shot what seemed like a foot in the air and emitting a hastily stifled shriek of panic and swatting madly at the folds of my mosquito net each time I heard the dreaded sound, somewhere between a thump and a thud, owing to the insect’s size. It always seemed to land too near the vicinity of my face to elicit a nonchalant reaction.
Anyhow, irrespective of exactly which of those three possible factors had brought on my dozy start, we, as ever, ultimately made it out of Los Patos just on time. We had a guide today, Aila, who was born in Corcovado and is a renowned expert on the area. Consequently we departed keenly into the jungle, minds racing with thoughts of flocks of toucans, trees groaning with the weight of the elusive howler monkeys, which we’d certainly heard but never seen, or maybe even a sloth. Wanting naturally to fill the pages of this entry with an account of how an enormous jaguar had attacked Quinten only to be wrestled, tamed and from thereon ridden by yours truly, I was therefore slightly put out by the fact that, apart from a charming group of white-faced monkeys, we saw next to nothing. The trail was thin enough that conversation opportunities were severely limited, and I don’t think I can emphasise how important talking actually is- sometimes the knowledge that everyone else is about to go mental too is the only thing that keeps you going. Moreover, the unchanging appearance of the jungle, interrupted only by the odd river crossing made the trail unexpectedly boring. Worse still, we fell victim to a heavy, incessant downpour as we were finishing lunch and waterproof pack covers and ponchos could not save our precious feet which squelched along for the remaining four hours until the jungle mercifully yielded to, of all things, an airstrip which boarded the Sirena Ranger Station, the biggest, and hence, most touristy and densely populated one we’d ever seen. We pitched tents for Esmee, Laure, Vivi, Felipe, Seb and I, and then returned for a game of ‘spot the gringos’ before bed. Tomorrow we have a free day at Sirena, and I fully intend to exploit this night’s sleep, whether in this tent or not, for all it’s worth.
Day Sixty One:
A bushplane, its engine magnified in the relative silence of the enormous clearing where Sirena is based, woke us up at the incredibly luxurious hour of 7 am this morning, in our now horrifyingly tolerable sweltering tent. A gaggle of neon-wrapped, boot-strapped Europeans, adorably complete with Camelbaks and hiking poles, clambered out. They looked amazing when seen next to my lovely Alpha One, who, despite showering the day before, still must have looked, I thought, as I kicked a football with a shirtless Quinten and Felipe, disturbingly like recently liberated prisoners of war. I’ve definitely lost a ton of weight- there’s only one pair of shorts that don’t slip down my waist now. In fact the other tourists in Sirena seemed to corroborate my thoughts. Quinten, with his bloodhound-like nose for Dutchies, quickly sniffed out a group, and their reaction when he informed them of the details of our journey was ‘Yeeshus!’ (‘Jesus’ to you and I, or maybe they still hadn’t gotten over Kanye’s latest oeuvre). When we all hobbled, barefoot and blistered across the wooden walkways to the kitchen area of the station, the stares we received were of a mixture of horror, pity and (a part of me hopes) admiration, as if we had wandered for years rather than weeks, as if we were the survivors of some horrible battle. Donations flew in from all directions. Instant soups, herbs, spices, even Nutella, were accepted with wide eyes, half disbelieving yells of delight, and in the case of the Nutella, tears.
This afternoon a handful of us accompanied Aila, our guide on an hour or so walk in Corcovado, and based on the wildlife we saw today we may as well have been walking yesterday in a completely different time. Granted I still failed to return to Sirena on jaguarback, but the things we saw didn’t fall very short of my most wild expectations. All four types of monkeys (of which the spider monkey was my personal favourite species, as one of them had a tiny baby with her), and enormous lizard which unfortunately ran off as I was taking a photo and accidentally unleashed an equally enormous fart, a crocodile which rather worryingly surfaced just after Aila had asked us if we’d like to swim in that particular river, a beach positively swarming with hundreds of minute hermit crabs that sent Juliette into a fit of happiness, and best of all, a huge, slumbering tapir in a sheltered grove of palm trees which awoke and looked right at me as I took a photo in amazement. It was, in short, a well-rested, well-used and hugely satisfying day off.
Day Sixty Two:
I remember, somewhere during that miserable, rain-soaked night of jungle camp, filling out a slip that read ’65 days from now’. As I’m into the 60s of this journal, the knowledge of Raleigh’s impending end is no longer avoidable. I suppose my central focus should be working out exactly whether I have become the person I wanted to be in 65 days. The problem is that almost 65 days later, I’ve completely forgotten what I wrote down. Instead I found myself, during my time alone, which, having walked in silence along a stunning, wild, Jurassic Park-like beach for most of the day, was rather a lot, thinking about the end of Raleigh. It’s been indubitably one of the best, if not the best experience of my life.
Certainly there are aspects I’ll be glad to remove from my normal routine with forcing porridge down my throat at 4am every morning being one particular example. But what of the time? This is a hugely introspective experience as well. What of those vast swathes of time in your own head to fathom precisely your identity, your aspirations, your own personal principles? I highly doubt that this time, for these purposes in particular, will ever be as freely available to me as it has been on Raleigh. I’m determined to start gradually phasing out meat from my diet, stop buying bottled water, and try to be much more discerning about the food I buy. Does this transform me into the idealised vision of a human being that Raleigh is constantly perpetuating and lusting after, the ‘active global citizen’? Probably not, I’m afraid. Whenever I hear that phrase, I like to imagine a world of unified and socially conscious people all, to delve into eco-cliche, ‘stepping up and doing their part’. But then I pause and consider the reality of this idea. It goes without saying, of course, that this definition does not describe the world we live in today. Therefore, before this definition can be obtained, we need a proportion, however great or small, of, for want of a better word, ‘persuaders’. These people have the unenviable job of telling most of the western world that their ways of living are unsustainable and, at worst, destructive. I’m not the kind of person to shove my beliefs down other people’s throats; in fact one permanent effect I think Raleigh has had on me was making me more open-minded than I initially was. It’s an incredibly complex balance between respecting an enormous variety of ways of life, and telling a significant proportion of people that the majority of these ways of life are wrong. I’ve never felt comfortable being the chest-thumping, aggressively self-righteous person that strives to project their beliefs onto everything they see, but I’m generally happy to explain why I believe in certain things if asked. I’ll definitely tell my family, and I expect they may accommodate one or two of my personal aims, of which the bottled water embargo seems most likely. Such is the benefit of organising one’s mind with a pen and paper, as now I have though about this far more deeply than I expected to when I started writing. My family are already four, maybe more including the extended relatives who might change something small in their lives, and if I do decide to publish all of this crap on the blog, then perhaps one of my (admittedly few) readers might also be persuaded. Furthermore, although I may feel uncomfortable telling people what they can and cannot do, I’m starting to think that I will feel equally if not more uncomfortable, even guilty, if I was to see a friend buying a bottle of Buxton and not say anything. It’s possible, then, that I may be an ‘active global citizen’ after all.
In a nicely self-dramatising fashion, the scenery seems to reflect exactly why people should care about the world they live in. At the expense of my feet, which thanks to the sand have their first blisters, we’re now at La Leona ranger station, just a few metres from a perfect beach. Due to the brilliance of the sun when we arrived, the sea, which, owing to sharks and crocodiles, we couldn’t swim in, was an almost unbelievably potent shade of turquoise. As the sky began to darken rather ominously and storm clouds suddenly rolled in like a scenery change in a stage play, the sea shifted to a deep blue. Now after a delicate pink sunset the silhouettes of enormous palm trees are momentarily glimpsed in the flashes of lightning from a huge electrical storm that casts its fury over the sea, while we squeeze as far beneath the cover of the ranger station’s porch as we can to avoid the angry sheets of rain that are ceaselessly hurled upon the roof. Despite the wet, the blistered feet, and another praying mantis that hit me in the face as I was taking down my mosquito net at dawn, causing me to then stub my toe on the long drop spade, it has nonetheless been a wonderful day.
Day Sixty Three:
Our last day of walking! We have a free day tomorrow, and return to fieldbase the next morning. But this was a bitch of a last day. Not only was it hard to will myself to keep walking despite the burning in the balls of my feet, despite my best repairs yesterday evening, but I suffered my first real problem with dehydration, It was towards the end of a particularly evil hill, which had forced me to adapt a cross-country breathing pattern as I neared the top, when I heard shouting. A topless Tico was running up the hill, perhaps a hundred metres from where I’d stopped to pee, the blood hammering in my ears. He seemed to be yelling, from what I could make out, expletive-ridden self encouragement, throwing his shirt on the ground and pounding his chest in a manner eerily reminiscent of Uncle Tom. I peered closer. It was Felipe, and without the backpack on, at this distance, I hadn’t recognised him. He shouted to run up and get Kristina, our wonderful bubbly medic PM, because Seb was in serious trouble. I threw off my pack, ignoring my racing pulse and dashed up the hill. A few minutes later, Kristina, Felipe and I were walking back down with the medical kit and the comms box. I was feeling nervous. What had happened to Seb? What had my failure to immediately recognise Felipe cost him?
We found him about a kilometre behind the others. He’d fallen when he was walking with Felipe, and told us he’d then fainted as Felipe ran ahead. Mercifully some tourists, from Savannah, Georgia, (off ALL places!) stopped in a car beside us, and when we asked them if they had any water, they responded admirably, handing out four bottles! I didn’t take any- it was clear that Felipe and Seb were in much greater need than me. Seb had fainted from exhaustion and Felipe had just run over a kilometre up a steep hill in these conditions. I took Seb’s pack to walk uphill once more with Felipe. It was surprisingly light but incredibly uncomfortable. Seb had borrowed it from Fieldbase. I breathed an internal sigh of relief that most of my birthday and Christmas presents had been good quality kit for Raleigh. Walking all the way with that pack must have been hell. If Seb had a properly working pack, I expect he could have easily carried at least a few more kilos, and walked quicker without those awful lumps poking him incessantly in the lower back.
I took a Dioralyte, when we returned to the top, but after giving Seb most of the water in my Camelbak, I had to ration myself less than a litre of water for the rest of the day. Thank god, however that it was only about an hour or two more of walking. As we sat in a lovely, simple, though ludicrously overpriced bar run by a Gringo who’d resettled here, enjoying a a fruit batido, I thought about the other parts of Raleigh I would miss. My Phase Three group has been even closer than Phase One, and I’ve become really strong friends with Jacob and Quinten in particular. But I love all of them. Philly’s daily insults are now a source of perverse pride for me, Hanna’s fruitless attempts to sound firm, undermined by her sunny Californian accent, Felipe’s boundless, puppy-like exuberance, Vivi and her wonderfully Hobbit-esque walking sticks, Seb’s guaranteed daily question that was generally answered 10 seconds beforehand, Anisa’s reaction to any kind of dog, paradoxically clapping her hands in encouragement whilst telling it in the calmest, peaceful voice of terror I’ve ever heard, to go away, Esmee’s grudging grins in response to the chorus of ‘SCHMAAAY’s every time we want her attention, Laure’s almost desperate daily pleading wth me to hurry up repacking my bag in the morning (I still maintain my pack has less straps, I swear!), Jules breaking down in tears of laughter for no discernible reason, causing the rest of us to laugh along with her in bewilderment, the frequent deep conversations with Jacob coupled with his almost admirable farting capacity, and Quinten’s perfectly timed response to my ‘sitting on the field of victory’ speech from LOTR. The pork and beans are particularly good, guys.
Even as my swollen feet protested as I squeezed them painfully into the trusty boots for one last walk to the campsite that Kristina, Vivi, and Felipe had found – a moonlit beach swarming with orange and purple ghost crabs, one of which woke me up crawling over my mosquito net last night- I couldn’t help feeling happy. That might also be because I’ve saved 20 bucks for that beachside restaurant tomorrow though.
Day Sixty Four:
Having set up camp after dark, it was a refreshingly cool night;s sleep, despite my fellow occupants on this occasion being Jacob, Seb and Quinten, and this rare untroubled sleep meant I didn’t wake up until 6:30. A staggering sight came into view as the door of the tent flopped open. The Pacific Ocean, the true Pacific, not the perfectly still Golfo Dulce to the east that I’d seen on NRM, lay before us, a brilliant clear blue, wild and beautiful. I skipped breakfast, so enrapturing and tranquil was the scene, although I may have just been completely unable to eat porridge any longer. The last time I found myself sitting on a beach like this, watching the sea for a few sunny hours, I was thinking exactly where I would be in a year’s time, talking to Dad about rejecting my place at Exeter, reapplying to uni and taking a gap year.
There’s a peculiar sense of sadness in the knowledge that we did it, we came to the end, the end of an expedition that might sound more gruelling than enriching, and yet…
And yet, maddening, malicious, and downright mental as it was, it was the best experience of my life. While NRM and WASH softened me to and deepened my awareness of the environmental and social challenges that the world faces, trek hardened me both physically and mentally. When I cast my mind back to the start of it, as far away as it feels now, there’s an indefinable sense of pride. Kristina, the admirably tireless medic asked at least three times what this weird thing on somebody’s leg was (answered each time without fail as ‘a mosquito bite’), and Aimee, with whom I’ve been able to have chats in the Costa Rican wilderness that I’d never imagined to- including topic covering, but not limited to, The Cracker Barrel and Ray Wylie Hubbard have been much more like equals to us on this phase, nervous and uncertain at times of course, but always defiantly positive even when it was hardest. Everyone has been wonderful. And just like those films we were endlessly quoting an reenacting, our fellowship at last comes to an end, here by the shores of the sea. Quinten and I dashed, mad with elation at finally being allowed to swim, into the foamy electric blue boiling pot that was the swell just offshore, and were rewarded with a couple of choice bruises and scrapes from several uncomfortably close encounters with hidden rocks.
Jacob, Quinten and Seb looked on as I finally presented the battered $20 bill I’d been storing in my hat to pay for a real hot meal. However it was cut a little short by a a fortunate warning from the bartender that police were coming in ten minutes for ID checks, and having walked across the country for almost three weeks with little other human contact, we’d left all our ID and valuables at Fieldbase. Evidently this carried a risk of fines judging by the bartender’s agitation, so we beat a hasty retreat back towards camp, though not before spotting, at pretty much our last wildlife viewing opportunity, a mother sloth with a tiny baby, draped lazily over the limb of a roadside tree. I’d made certain to walk as much as possible today barefoot or in sandals, and from the layers of sand in my boots that still refuse to come out I may well pursue this strategy for the rest of the year.
The sun set tonight behind a stormy cloud formation, casting our beach, now beginning to teem once more with those amazing orange and purple crabs, in a vidid deep mandarin orange glow. We gathered about the four bowls and trangias one last time, for yet another treat (beans and rice provided by the landowner!) to take the last photos of the end of trek, and with it the Raleigh expedition. Even Jacob and I’s epilepsy-ridden, grunt-perfect rendition of Man In The Mirror seemed somehow tinged with poignancy.
Night has now fallen for good, as I write by what I once remember seemed the absurd red light of my headtorch, all those weeks ago in a bamboo bed in Piedras Blancas. It is, as usual with four grimy teenage boys, insufferably hot, and yet my instinct for comfort seems to have vanished, or else just given up. I want nothing more in the world than for that bus not to appear tomorrow morning. I do not want this experience to end. I feel older, more independent, more ideologically reserved, and yet far more socially dependent. That fear of darkness on Phase One may have morphed into a fear of solitude. I used to adore long hours alone with my thoughts, spending time weighing and pondering any thought, no matter how important, and I found some kind of satisfaction there. It is now with others that I prefer exchanging thoughts and ideas, which is why I find myself dreading the end of Raleigh.
Saying goodbye, to put it concisely, will hurt.
Day Sixty Five (and a little bit more):
“What would come, would come, and he would have to meet it when it did.”
And like Voldemort, the bus did come, and like Harry, we all had to meet it, that mechanised manifestation of the end of Raleigh. The drive back to Turrialba felt like a real shock; we were taken surprise by the sheer speed of cars, which I suppose we’d forgotten after so long on foot. We covered many days’ walk in just a matter of hours.
And then we were back, having reunited with the new Alpha Five of Piedras Blancas at a service station along the way. Back at Fieldbase, and yet the elated reunion of all the venturers seemed all the more emotional, because for some it would be the last time we saw each other for a very long time, perhaps, although I hope to God it isn’t the case, ever.
Back awkwardly apologising to each other in that stupid muddy container, back squeezed in under the roof of the resorts, back swapping stories with the others, back clustered around with Alpha One as we debriefed, ate the last of our trek salamis, and discovered somehow we’d managed to bring one of those orange and purple crabs all the way back with is. Deep cleaning and the Raleigh awards soon followed, where to the delight of just about everyone Manny was named Best Venturer. It’s all felt so rushed, these last few days at Fieldbase, but I suppose I can take comfort in the knowledge that a lot of us are all planning to head to the same beach town, Puerto Viejo to celebrate once it’s over. But here I am once more, gazing out of the resort one final time over Fieldbase. It’s really pretty horrible thinking about tomorrow, but somehow I know that this is in no way a goodbye, but merely a farewell until we all meet up in what I expect is likely to be a cushier setting, which I definitely can’t complain about. Farewell Raleigh, it’s been incredible.
“For always roaming with a hungry heart,
Much have I seen and known…
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever as I move.
How dull is it to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”
This particular part of Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson helped me a ton after I did finally come home. To all the Raleigh friends, even if I may not be very good at keeping in touch, rest assured that you’re in my thoughts a lot. Miss you guys a lot, and I hope I can see a ton of you at the hypothetical post-exam reunion bash in June sometime.
10th April 2016.
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