Bolivia 2015

From Parque Monticulo your eyes easily capture a panorama of La Paz.  Huge eucalyptus trees adorned with declarations of love frame the crenelated mountains on the horizon.  A Sacre-Coeur of rock silhouetted against the summer sky, the yellow teleferico whispering by in the middle distance.
Eyes drop down to the intensely packed houses clinging to every bit of buildable land.  Mondrian colours decorate an apartment block injecting primary colours into a sea of brick red.  The spread of La Paz stops only where building is impossible.  The valley has long since been filled, and El Alto, hundreds of metres higher on the flat Altiplano above La Paz, is the spillover.

A classical fountain, currently dry, sits in the middle of the park, shaded by complex branches of evergreen trees.  Birds flutter limb to limb singing their songs into the contemplative afternoon. Andean mountains push skywards, desire manifested in pink and beige and grey-green forests, the white snow on Illimani aristocratically towering above all that surrounds it.
I´ve spent 6 weeks in La Paz in the last two years, not very much time really, and yet I feel at home here.  There´s a peace to the place that fits its name.
Street art springs into view everywhere – it is only a matter of seeing it.  Walking down from Monticulo I glance at some graffiti on a hoarding by a construction site … “art is everything and for everyone or for nobody” … and then I notice the tag “Mujeres Creando”.  Of course.  Mujeres Creando – the fearless anarcha-feminists who contribute so much vitality to the spirit of La Paz.  And Madie, the always smiling, always friendly fixture of Virgen de los Deseos, the downstairs café of their wonderful casa in Sopocachi where I am once again staying.  My little room, with its hard mattress and shared bathroom, is a long way from those predictable hotels in the colonies of consumption where I spent my business days and nights.  It feels warm, loving, welcoming.  What is true luxury if not this?
I walk into the café and see Maria Galindo, activist extraordinaire, sitting at one of the tables, deep in conversation.  Her eyes are aflame like Che Guevara´s in Korda´s iconic photo, broadcasting clarity about a Latino future without macho patriarchy, a future of freedom, electricity buzzing in the air around her.
Freedom.  That´s the word.  It´s what I feel in La Paz.  Even though it´s a city, freedom is right there in my field of vision – the high mountains are no more than an hour away.  Wordsworth, writing in the English Lake District not far from where I grew up, found freedom in the mountains and the seas.  For me too that´s been a fairly clear thread through much of my adult life.

“Two Voices are there; one is of the sea,
One of the mountains; each a mighty Voice:
In both from age to age thou didst rejoice,
They were thy chosen music, Liberty!”
William Wordsworth
But what is true for one person is not necessarily true for others.  My friend Sylvia has a different response to La Paz.  She notices pollution, overcrowding, litter, traffic – none of which is easy to dismiss.  She feels an energy and atmosphere in the city that makes her ill at ease. 

Her truth and my truth are different, but equally valid (or invalid).  Like in Baudelaire´s The Double Chamber, both beauty and horror are always present – our perception is all we can go on.  What each of us sees is true for us.  Our accumulated life experience builds those doors of perception – Roland Barthes´ insight that we each read our own novel regardless of the intent of the author is much more than merely a piece of clever literary criticism.  For thousands of years the high Andes have been a place to cleanse one´s doors of perception … and duly cleansed what we see remains relentlessly our personal version of truth.  That being the case, isn´t the idea of objective truth a conceit born of scientific reductionism, or the detritus of a world view anchored in religious hierarchy?  It hardly matters which.

So today I will sit back and enjoy the subjective truth of my perception of La Paz.  I´ll add honey to the camomile tea on the table in front of me, and give thanks for this delightful afternoon, these beautiful people, this gentle city sanctuary, this wonderful life.
“An infinitesimal odour of the most exquisite choice, mingled with a floating humidity, swims in this atmosphere where the drowsing spirit is lulled by the sensations one feels in a hothouse.  The abundant muslin flows before the windows and the couch, and spreads out in snowy cascades.
And this perfume of another world, whereof I intoxicated myself with a so perfected sensitiveness; alas its place is taken by an odour of stale tobacco smoke, mingled with I know not what nauseating mustiness.  Now one breathes here the rankness of desolation.”
The Double Chamber, Baudelaire

Doing nothing, slowly

I lie in my cabin watching the sky lighten, feeling the tropical air pushing across my body from the small fan overhead.  After a few minutes I get up and pad quietly along the side deck to a hammock.  It´s almost sunrise.   The air is motionless, the sea too.   Birds move between trees on the small cay we are anchored next to.  I hear motion from Kathy´s cabin, and soon she is on deck in the other hammock. 

Queen Cays
Sunrise announces itself as a burst of molten yellow.  In an hour it will be too hot to not be under shade, but for now the birth of this new day is all about peace and calm.  Nothing is said, nothing needs to be said.  The only movement will come when one of us feels the urge to make coffee.

Kathy blinks first, and the smell of druggie ground coffee coming up from the galley easily wins out against my well-intentioned instant decaf, purchased as the only decaf possibility in the coffee growing country of Guatemala.  I accept my fate and succumb to the drug.

Otra Vida is anchored at Queen Cays, Belize, three tiny white-sand-and-palm-tree islands each looking like something ordered up from central casting for a shipwreck movie or an advertising shoot.   We are 20 miles offshore and the water here is a few metres deep … a mile to the east of us, outside the barrier reef, it is 1.6km deep. 

Belize is sometimes referred to as “The Land of No Mondays”.  The calendar says it is Monday.  What does the calendar know?

There´s nothing to “do” on these islands, no one lives here, nothing to buy, nothing to trade.  Think or Swim … Write or Paint … Listen or Cook … that´s about the sum of it.  Well, at least until cocktail hour, following which the list of options is shorter.

I decide to paint (badly) for a few hours.  Kathy decides to read.  Later in the day we go ashore with the dinghy. Walking the circumference of the middle cay takes perhaps a minute, and only that long because of stepping over a couple of palm trees brought down by hurricanes past.  We snorkel over coral gardens, entranced by delicate purple fronds and brightly coloured tropical fish, try to frame the perfect photograph of the cay, take a rest from this exhausting day in the shade of a coconut palm, and then tidy up some of the floating plastic trash that has washed ashore on the island.

Full moon over Queen Cays
Back on board Otra Vida later in the afternoon simple Peruvian Sopa de Quinoa heats on the stove.  We resume our positions in the hammocks, reading, readying ourselves for sunset.  As the sun gets lower in the sky I make cocktails and we toast the end of daylight, giving silent thanks for a day of life lived in the present tense.  The air cools, the stars come out, we chat, and time stops.

Really, what does the calendar know?

          “Those moments of love, freedom, serenity, 
            play – what power has made us believe 
            these are but respites from real life?”
                   – Charles Eisenstein

Valle de Sensaciones

“Elsewhere”. The sign was on a tree in the middle of the pista –  a koan written using twigs – leaving no doubt I was now in the Valle de Sensaciones.

Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters memorably set the destination of their bus to “Furthur”, a one word subversion of some of language´s structures and strictures.  The straight jacket of syntax and spelling, obviously, but they did indeed go further, further, further – right up to that wall of impossibility we all crash into when trying to describe the numinous directly in words.  “Elsewhere” has the frisson of subversion too, an invitation to liberty, born of grace and beauty in this special part of the Alpujarras in southern Spain.

As I walk a little further into the Valle, the koan still buzzing around in my mind, the magic unfolds.  Straight lines are few and far between in the Valle, literally and metaphorically.  Windows and doors are framed by tree branches. Broken pottery mosaics add to natural colours, channeling Gaudi and a hint of Hundertwasser.

Where to sleep tonight?  A tree house that moves gently with the breeze? A cave burrowed into a cliff?  A geodesic dome?  A suite built from clay, straw and found wood, with a floor of river boulders?  A bed in the open air in a bamboo forest?  A tepee?  Those are just some of the choices.
Valle de Sensaciones ecovillage was founded by visionary traveller and intentional community veteran Achim Burkard 15 years ago in a steep sided canyon close to the tiny village of Yatór.  It is almost invisible – this is not somewhere stumbled upon in a one week rental car tour of the hills around Granada. Abundant sunshine grants solar power and warm afternoons of contemplation, and a stream provides for the pool and the shower.  Exploratory and experimental programs run in the Valle each year, one of which, as I later found out, is titled “Elsewhere”, the genesis of the sign.

A window in one of the sleeping rooms

“We are enriched not by what we possess, but by what we can do without” Kant

At the Valle you do without grid water and grid electricity.  You do without mass produced food.  You do without TV, radio, broadcast media of any type.  You do without pretension, without façade, without status, without competition, without organized religion, without coercion to conform.  You mostly do without money. Freedom is always present, softly pervasive, largely unspoken because nothing needs to be said.  It´s a seductive inversion of mainstream consciousness demonstrating another way to live.  Connection, honesty, community, love, trust – these are the currencies of the Valle.
The mealtime gong provides percussion to the gentle flow of each day.  Cooking and housekeeping are shared communal activities, each selecting how to contribute in accordance with their mood.  It works, contrary to the fallacy of “economic man”, because it is powered by a deep desire to contribute rather than by a socially constructed competitiveness to own and “win”.

The compost toilet building

A day might include reading in one of the hammocks, creativity with wood, clay or paint, helping complete the naturally built moon temple or some mosaics, sitting on sofas in the “living room” energised by conversation and eating almonds, a celebration of the equinox in the medicine wheel, or floating on an air mattress on the pool gently drifting under an olive tree with the light breeze. (Needless to say, the pool is not sterile, blue and square – it is circular, built with rocks and love, filled by continually flowing stream water).

But for all that I am writing about place, the Valle de Sensaciones is not primarily a place – it is something beyond place. It is a philosophy of how to live an engaged fulfilling life in harmony with the planet, crystallized into a material physical form.  A manifest example of psychogeography, where every moment is part of an extended non-urban dérive (and, significantly, without the need for abundant alcohol to lubricate the flow of magic).  Conversations here run deep and wide, and no subjects are off limits, the constricted and calculated semi-communication of bourgeois society having been left on the tarmac road outside.

It´s Sunday evening. The full moon rises over the fig tree bright and clear in the starry Andalusian sky.  Later on its journey it will transform into a blood moon for few short hours.  Ribbons of Johanna´s sweet rainbow songs soften the air, Achim´s accompanying drum beat tasting of freedom and Africa.  The smoke rising from the campfire blends with lingering pirouettes of cactus, the glow of faces with cheeks aching from day-long perma-smiles immanent in the warmth.  I reach up to the vines growing overhead and we feast on grapes.  Looking around slowly as everything merges, thoughts vanishing, my heart spiralling off to a place beyond words … an eternity or a moment, what does it matter … how could this be any more perfect?

From the Rio Dulce to Tamera

May: Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Amerindian man in a cayuca, Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Approaching the Rio Dulce means stepping back into the world of jungle rivers, a world of great beauty that I finally tired of after three months of muddy water at the end of 2014.  Five months distance from that last jungle river in Guyana, though, and things feel different.  Entering the Rio feels like coming home.  I´ll follow this jungle river for just 20 miles, and it´s a little different because it has cliffs and rainforest towering 100m above the river.  But it also feels so very familiar – all the experience gained in the three Guyanas from trying to feel Otra Vida´s way along uncharted rivers comes back, and this river is so easy in comparison.  It´s reassuringly familiar.  Progressing upriver the world suddenly explodes with life: yellow butterflies, white egrets, jungle sounds, lush vegetation, the bird life – oh the bird life!
Rainforest and local houses, Rio Dulce

In the last few days anchored at Roatan I´ve been devouring Naomi Klein´s “This Changes Everything”, which makes the case rather well for the incompatibility of neoliberal ideology with continued human life on earth.  Last night out on the open sea, looking up at a full moon and the stars beyond it, realising that we have screwed up – perhaps irrevocably – the only planet we are certain we can inhabit, feeling the immensity of the universe, and what a wasted opportunity it has been … we blew it for the right to have commuter flights, cheap boozy weekends away, SUVs to go to the shopping mall, jet skis, inexpensive imports from low wage countries.   I´ve been guilty of everything on that list except jet skis, and more too, most of all the insane overuse of commuter flights during my years in business.  And here and now, in this lush, fecund, green, living jungle canyon, the hard truth of the impending environmental catastrophe seems incomprehensible.
Roatan, Honduras

July: Tamera intentional community, Portugal

Fast forward two months to the Alentejo hills in southern Portugal, on a one week introductory visit to the eco village of Tamera.  Tamera was started in 1995 by a small group of German intellectuals dedicated to exploring ways in which people can live peacefully with each other and with the planet and now has 150+ residents.   It´s a remarkable place.

Tangible progress on reversing desertification
Environmentalism is an important part of the project.  The Alentejo is suffering from desertification primarily stemming from deforestation, and the Tamera community is repairing the land on which it lives.  Lakes have been built to capture the abundant rain that falls for a few months each year, which otherwise runs off the hills cleared of undergrowth.  The water table has been raised significantly, and scrub under cork trees is being reintroduced with mulching to capture residual moisture.  Tamera´s site is now noticeably greener than surrounding areas. 

Energy autonomy is another area of research.  Tamera is reducing the human footprint on the planet and empowering people in remote areas with innovations such as simple solar ovens (the mirrors are made from recycled printer cartridges) and localised biogas production using vegetable food scraps.  Both are practical options for anywhere warm, i.e. most of the third world.
Early morning mist over one of Tamera´s lakes

A permaculture philosophy is followed when growing crops, and animals are worked with cooperatively to assist with farming.  For example pigs are used to plough new areas of land.  The community is mostly vegan out of choice, although this is not mandatory.

All of these aspects of Tamera are impressive and humbling, and they flow from a core philosophy of moving beyond competition and separation to community and cooperation.  At the centre of the core are human relationships – the area where most communities and groups in the past have foundered. 

Tamera´s founders had a specific vision of how to build a new model community: elimination of fear in an environment of trust.  In the context of everyday society these words are so devalued we no longer consider them to be anything but platitudes. 
Part of the Stone Circle at Tamera

Tamera´s definition of peace is living without fear.  Living without fear of violence – yes, of course.  More than that though – living without fear of rejection, of judgement, of censure, of ridicule, of shunning. 

Imagine a situation where you could express any thought or desire without fear.  Then imagine that in doing so you are not saying it only for yourself but on behalf of all humanity with yourself as a specimen.  You and a group explore your feelings and thoughts, as a particular instance of the universal (or at least the everyday), and see what can be learned.  No judgement, no rejection.  A beautifully open interchange where people recognise and acknowledge the same thoughts and feelings in themselves.

Tamera´s Anti-War monument
There are many things we don’t express because socialisation instils in us that doing so will release dangerous energies in ourselves that cannot easily be contained.  Unfortunately these thoughts, desires and emotions don’t go away when they are repressed. To name but a few: power, greed, jealousy, sex, love, control, religion.  Mainstream society tells us these areas can only be expressed in a very limited way regulated by strong social controls and sanctions.  Edmund Burke´s requirement for an external authority to impose discipline talks to this, as do the darker consequences of Isiah Berlin´s concepts of positive and negative liberty.  Tamera rejects these views resoundingly, seeing them as both the cause and the result of much personal trauma and social strife.

The experiment in a different approach to living has been underway in Tamera for 20 years now.  The difference is quickly evident.  People smile, people are friendly, there is much more hugging and eye contact than in the outside world, people are happy to talk with each other, there is trust between people – trust in motive, trust in action.  People cooperate with each other very naturally.  Working together flows easily. People seem genuinely happy and content.  Tamera is perhaps known most for its free love philosophy, and certainly this is an important element in living without fear of judgement and rejection, but in reality it is but one aspect of a whole philosophy of freedom.

Helping the next generation : a yurt at Tamera´s school for children
So, is this just a utopian dream?  Well, it is utopian, but it is not a dream.  It is real and it is on the ground in southern Portugal.  Tamera continues to be a community with almost no interest in money or power – it has not lost its vision.   Perfect?  No, of course not.  Minor issues come up from time to time.  For example, there are no locks anywhere in Tamera, and there have been a handful of minor incidents of theft.   There is a little too much adulation for the founders for my taste, brilliant though they are.  But 20 years into the experiment it is a community that, to me, is by far the best functioning one I have come across.  It is a tangible real world example of how life could be different and better for us all, proof that The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible is more than the title of a book.
Leaving Tamera and re-entering the mainstream world is when the difference really hits home.   Suddenly you notice the extraordinary lack of connection people have with each other, the walls that people erect around themselves to avoid connection, the averted eyes, the lack of physical contact, the isolation, the lack of trust, the fear, the atomisation of society.  It is stark and sharp and painful, like a volley of arrows hitting your newly sensitised soft skin. 

Within a week the magic starts to fade as the lifelong conditioning kicks back in. You start to separate yourself from others, start to let those walls of protection rise up again.  You stop looking people in the eye and smiling.  Trust fades like the morning mist in the Portuguese hills. You begin to see Tamera as just a dream, a pleasant excursion into a fantasy world, a utopian illusion.
But it isn’t. 

Useless Land


It´s Tuesday afternoon on a passage between Jamaica and Honduras, and in the shade of the bimini I am nibbling the last of a decent Camembert purchased 3 weeks ago in St Martin and sipping a glass of tolerable Montes Cabernet Carmenere.  This is unusual, as I essentially never drink alcohol on passage, but yesterday was my very good friend Jeff´s birthday, and I promised I would drink a toast to him at sunset last night … hence the open bottle today.

Sunset 20th April toasting Jeff´s birthday, gennaker still intact
An hour after opening the bottle for yesterday´s toast to Jeff´s birthday my gennaker abruptly shredded.  And it really, really shredded.  I presume it must have torn near the top of the sail.  The whole of the sail seemed to have unzipped down both sides leaving just two tapes running to a small patch of sail near the sock and halyard, plus a mass of sail in the water.  It was almost dark, and with the lack of forward movement from the lost sail the boat was rolling significantly.  OK, on with the harness, drag the remnants onto deck, secure it overnight to hopefully dry a bit, and then up with the genoa, a considerably smaller sail.  Repacking the sail in daylight, the level of destruction I saw makes me wonder if the gennaker is even worth repairing, but I will wait until talking with a sailmaker, hopefully in Guatemala, to make a decision.
It will take a bit longer to get to Honduras but this is not a problem.  It is several years since I stopped trying to sail to a schedule – a futile activity resulting only in distress and regret.  Passages have to be flexible in time and to some extent destination, and Otra Vida is now moving along at a leisurely 4kts rather than the 6kts that the gennaker would have given, but life is fine indeed with a glass of wine and a bite of cheese, and a playlist of Lou Reed, Crass, Ani di Franco and others playing in the background.

Underway with regular sails, at this point slowing down to arrive in Honduras at dawn
One afternoon in the 1930s Bertrand Russell, by then in his 50s, was staying at the house of a friend in France.  Sitting in the garden, quite possibly with a glass of wine and a piece of camembert, contemplating life, he noticed an apricot tree.  His sparkling mind thus stimulated, he decided to spend the afternoon learning about apricots, and among the facts discovered that apricot has the same root as precocious because it fruits early in the season.  He learned many other things about apricots that day, and commented that at the end of the day the apricot tasted all the sweeter and more enjoyable for the knowledge he had gained.  That idyllic day became a part of one of his wonderful essays, “On ´Useless´ Knowledge”.  It is a classic Russell essay, an argument for education rather than training, for a festival of intellectual growth and discovery as a pleasurable and worthwhile end in itself.  (One can only wonder what he would have made of the celebratory anti-intellectualism prevalent in many areas of contemporary western life.  I think it can be said with certainty that he would not have remained on the sidelines).

Apricot trees in a garden in France might at first glance seem a long way from the fairly remote part of the Caribbean Sea I am now on, or from the jungle rivers of the north east South America, Otra Vida´s sailing grounds in late 2014, but there is an interesting parallel in the concept of uselessness.

Almost all the land of French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana is useless.  The rivers that run through the land are mostly useless.  And this part of the Caribbean, a hundred or so miles west of Jamaica, several hundred miles north east of Nicaragua is most certainly useless.  Too deep for hydrocarbon exploitation, and far less useful for fishing than the shallower banks south of Jamaica.

It is specifically uselessness that has allowed these places to remain largely pristine and flourishing, undamaged by the prevailing economic system.
Sunrise on the approach to Roatan, Honduras after 5 days at sea

 “Sign and signification, activity and culture, living and understanding are dissociated … activities devoid of meaning are organised according to the model of the machine, a model whose purpose lies outside itself, which does not question that purpose.  A mechanistic economy, whose principle is the search for an optimal relation between expenditure and production, is imposed as the rule of all activities…”  – Jean-François Lyotard

In first world countries useless land is often assigned some sort of designation: National Park, Wildlife Refuge, Wilderness, Tribal Land, Reservation, and so on.  Sometimes the initial move for classification and protection was by visionary individuals with genuinely high ideals, in other cases by indigenous people desperate to stop cultural genocide.  But sadly high ideals and moral appeals are insufficient when there is economic activity at stake.  In a number of cases, as soon as some economic use for the land was found there were concerted efforts to chip away at protections.  Several particularly cynical political figures come to mind, loudly proclaiming their green credentials for “protecting” land that was considered useless, then promptly fighting that protection when oil, shale, gas, “useful” timber, or some other means of economic exploitation is found.  Remember “drill, baby, drill“?  And should anyone be imprudent enough to protest this, the time honoured tradition of incarceration is invoked for the unforgivable crime of camping in a place inconvenient to the establishment.

Guyana´s wealthiest town, Bartica, where Otra Vida spent some time at anchor, is a gold mining service town.  Wealthy is relative, and no one would call Bartica a wealthy place by western standards, but by Guyanese standards it has money flowing in abundance.  The town is gritty and edgy, a frontier town of short term profiteering, feeling like it could become violent quickly, although it remained calm while we were there.  The gold miners, legal and illegal, come into town from the goldfields to reprovision, sell their gold, and let off steam in the bars and brothels.
Gold trading in Bartica, Guyana
What does this type of gold mining look like?  Well, a large barge, say 25m x 10m, will have a huge dredging pump on it, driven by an equally large diesel motor.  The dredge, somewhat similar to a monster-sized vacuum cleaner, sucks up the sediment and grit on the bottom of the river and passes it over a series of riffles which allow the gold dust to separate out from the mud and grit.  The mud and grit go back into the river at the back of the barge, while the gold is collected by the miners.  A typical barge will consume 1100l of diesel in 24 hours, employ two dozen or so miners on a share basis, and produce 20-30oz of gold dust a day.  In other words 1100 litres of diesel (5 large drums) and a huge amount of river bed torn up yield less than a handful of gold dust.  One can only imagine the impact of this on the local ecosystem, not to mention the environmental costs of production, transportation and consumption of so much diesel.  For a handful of gold dust.
Bartica, wealthiest town in Guyana

The upper parts of the rivers are now no longer easily navigable because of the spoil piles.  The jungle nearby is being destroyed when a natural depression is found as gold dust is likely to have accumulated there over thousands of years.  The first thing is to clear cut the depression, then dam and flood it, and then use the same dredging technique, but with the equipment brought in on large ex military vehicles on one-time-use roads cut through previously untouched jungle.

Local tribes who have lived in the area from pre-Columbian times have from time to time objected to the destruction of their land.  They have been threatened and sometimes killed.

All of this makes complete economic sense – it is profitable.  But from any other perspective it is insane. The desperate focus worldwide on GDP growth hides within it many situations which are utterly nonsensical viewed in any other context.

The jungle will recover – islands in the Essequibo River, Guyana
Thankfully the rainforest jungle is resilient and regrows quickly.  Islands that had houses are quickly overgrown when people leave.  Hopefully, if nothing else “useful” is discovered, in a generation or two gold mining will be just a traumatic memory.

It is such a privilege to be able to see and experience “useless” places on the planet.  Get a hundred miles offshore and you are usually in a world unchanged by man.  Follow a jungle river upstream and you find untouched nature.  Sail to an economically useless island and it remains pristine.  In 1899 the last unclaimed lands, the terra incognita, were annexed by the then dominant empires, and the real frontier died.  Jerome Fitzgerald, an interesting and somewhat controversial sailing author, talks about cruising on a sailboat as the “last viable frontier”.  On the best days, in remote places, it is easy to agree with his view.

Time for another glass of wine.

(Oops, a couple of seconds after that first picture a wave hit beam on, knocking me just enough off balance to let the bottle fall over, hitting the wine beaker, splashing wine over the camembert and making my leg look like I had been crushing grapes in a vat.  The Kindle is thankfully OK.  Such is the sailing life).

Puerto Rico

The view from the hammock is of gin-clear turquoise green water to the reef a few hundred meters in front of Otra Vida.  The sea beyond pushes whitecapped waves to break on the reef, and after the reef the water is only lightly rippled by the friendly trade winds from the east.  The anchorage is tranquil.  There is a wooded headland straight ahead, and on the horizon the bleached rock of Frenchcap Cay, part of the US Virgin Islands, looks like an iceberg in the afternoon sunshine. 

Ensenada Dakity, Culebra

I am not much of a fan of the Eastern Caribbean islands.  The atmosphere and style of living immortalised in song is long, long gone, mostly replaced by resorts, hotels, contrived bars and uninspiring restaurants catering to short term vacationers and cruise ship visitors.   There is nothing wrong with this – people are making a living – but it doesn’t do it for me.  Sailing up the chain this time I chose to skip most of them, visiting only Grenada, St Maarten and Puerto Rico.

Thanks to everyone in the last months who said “use a
pink squiddie” – a tuna caught on the approach to Culebra
Otra Vida´s short stop at Grenada, anchored off Hog Island, was delightful and surprising.  It is quite unlike Trinidad to the south or the Grenadines and other islands further north.  Sunday afternoon at Roger´s Bar on Hog Island is legendary, and rightly so: the stuff that Caribbean dreams really are made of.
St Maarten I knew from 2011, and it is what it is : a superb provisioning and refitting stop with a large yachtie community that congregates around some rather good yachtie bars.  It is mostly long term yachties, and the atmosphere is agreeable.  I like St Maarten, but wouldn’t choose to stay there more than a week or two.
The view out to the anchorage at Boquerón
Culebra, though, is special, and perhaps is what the Caribbean was like when Jimmy Buffett and Herman Wouk wrote about it.  Uncrowded, with mostly long term cruisers anchored in the bays, some local boats, and a few larger sport boats of wealthy Puerto Ricans from the mainland having a weekend away.  There are a handful of bars and restaurants, all of the barefoot variety, many with small docks to tie up your dinghy.  Everyone is friendly.  Even checking in with Customs and Immigration was a delight.
Culebra´s only claim to international fame is Flamingo Beach, rated 3rd best beach in the world by someone who keeps count of these things.  It is a lovely spot, a curved bay with perfect palm trees, turquoise water, soft white sand.  Naturally it is a bit more commercialised and a bit more crowded, but not excessively so.
Flamingo Beach, Culebra
Flamingo Beach aside, the rest of Culebra is a very special place, thankfully not yet of international note.  The Dinghy Dock bar is the centre of yachtie and shoreside social life and is never dull.
On the western end of Puerto Rico is another gem, Boquerón.  A place that could actually pass as Margaritaville, rather than the Margaritaville theme park feel of the Virgin Islands.
The sun falls behind a hill a quarter mile aft of Otra Vida.  The sky changes quickly to dusk and the first stars appear in the sky above the stars created by sailboat masthead lights in the anchorages.  The loom of St Thomas, an orange-yellow flare into the sky in one spot to the east, is in distinct contrast to the lack of loom from the necklace of lights along Culebra´s tiny main settlement at the head of the bay.  An hour or so later the full moon starts to rise, orange-yellow too but much cleaner and brighter, gradually lightening to cream as it rises.  A few strategically placed small clouds complete the picture.   To the left the insistent sound of crickets in trees, to the right the soothing sounds of waves gently breaking on the reef.
I could easily spend longer here, but this time I cannot: I am on a mission.  My mother had a significant stroke in February and my sister and I continue to work on her rehabilitation.  The only reason I am sailing now is to get Otra Vida to a safe place before hurricane season. There is another 1100nm of sailing to be done in the coming weeks before I return to the UK by plane from Guatemala.  There is no conflict in this decision – my place is in the UK with family.  Nonetheless, I wish I had come across Culebra earlier. It would be a worthy destination to point the boat at when crossing the Atlantic.

The Guyanas

December 2014, Lau Lau Island, Essequibo River, Guyana.

Sunset on the Essequibo River, Guyana

It is a warm moonlit night here.  There is a gentle breeze – presumably attenuated trade winds – whispering against my neck.  The full moon is shining on the water, a silver path to the future.  Clouds are in the sky, and there are far more behind than ahead, symbolically as well as literally.  I feel, for the first time in months, that my creativity is slowly starting to come back and that life is becoming balanced again.

Typical jungle river navigation

The last quarter of 2014 was spent exploring three rarely visited countries in northern South America:  French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana.  Each country is distinct, having its own culture, history, and selection of languages, but there are similarities too.  Most of whatever development there is lies along a coastal strip, and the interior of each country is relatively untouched – truly a paradise of unexploited rainforest.  The primary means of access inland is using the rivers – roads of a reasonable standard exist pretty much only in coastal areas.   Being on a sailboat allows the rivers and the smaller settlements to be explored in a way that would be very difficult using scheduled transportation.

Iles du Salut, French Guiana

There is real pleasure in exploring these almost unvisited places – in some cases Otra Vida was the only boat that had visited in several years, in other cases one of a few boats each year.  People ashore are not jaded about cruising sailboats, and there is genuine interest and friendliness.

The sun and humidity mean the focus during the day is escaping the intense heat, but the payback is lovely lazy evenings in the hammock, reading, contemplating, being.  Most of all just being.

Thorny tree trunk

This concept of value existing in “being” is something that has been appreciated in philosophy right the way back to Socrates, but it is something that economics seems unable to comprehend.  Sure, there is a history of looking at different types of value.  Marx´s economics was built on the foundational work of David Ricardo and his concept of use-value and exchange-value – itself built on Adam Smith´s idea of value.   (A friend once dismissed Marx as a “minor post-Ricardian economist” who got almost everything wrong.  Hmmm.  While his political solutions are discredited, it does seem to me there is something in his view of economics and his analysis of history).

For all their brilliance I do wonder if Marx and Ricardo, being city dwellers, missed something in their deliberations about value.  Surely there is more to value than just use or exchange – there is value that cannot be exchanged and which has no use.  It is the value that something has simply by existing – the value something has when witnessed, and for that matter when not witnessed.
Jungle canopy

A few of the more contemporary Marx-inspired thinkers seem to have picked up on being-value.  Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem of Situationist fame had their derivés.  When you strip away the Situationist jargon,  a derivéis a kind of convivial extended pub crawl with interesting thinkers and artists in a francophone city.  Derivés were all about being-value  – enjoying the pleasures of the location, the people, the architecture, the conversation, each city´s unique energy.  (I suppose there was also some use-value and exchange-value in derivés too in their enthusiastic sampling of each and every local alcoholic beverage).

Local fauna

There must have been some special evenings in Paris and Brussels in the late 60s if you happened to stumble upon a derivé and were not too intimidated by Debord to join in.  Malcolm McLaren managed to tag along with the Situationists and it set him on his path.  Roger Scruton found himself in Paris in 1968 too but as far as I know did not engage with the Situationists (he anyway would have tut-tutted, disapproving of almost everything that came after the Victorian era except himself).  McLaren went on to energise a generation of youth with a punk worldview, oversaw the birth of the Sex Pistols (packed with  Situationist references), and along with his then partner Vivienne Westwood popularised punk art and fashion.  That feast of ideas and outlooks still resonates and inspires today.  Scruton for his part went on to inflict screed after tedious screed on us, writing at times about wine, sex and music, and managing to make even these delightful subjects dull and boring.

Sunset, Iles du Salut, French Guiana

Dull and boring the three Guyanas are not.  There is little of “use” and little to “exchange” from the land here.  There is, however, magic to be experienced in just being here and being alive.  Magic that comes from contemplation and slowing down enough to appreciate the passage of time and witness the daily rhythm of nature.  Anchored off one of the many uninhabited (and uninhabitable) islands in the rivers, lying in a hammock, listening to thousands of birds, monkeys, frogs and other unidentified animals in the evening and at dawn is special indeed.  This is being-value writ large and it is intensely real, even if it cannot be quantified in our economics obsessed zeitgeist.

13 years after 9/11

Everyone´s experience of 9/11 is personal.  (Can such a defining event be otherwise?)  13 years later it still remains a watershed day: there was life before it and life after it, they are different, and we never regained the comparative innocence of the late 90s.

This is my story.

Until a year before the attacks I spent a day or two each week in the area around the WTC, and still had client relationships which led to short trips every few months after that.  My main client there was AIG, the preferred hotel was the Marriott WTC, client meetings over dinner were often at Morton´s Steakhouse on West St across from the corner of the WTC, our breakfast meeting spot of choice was Windows on the World, the top floor restaurant in one of the main towers, and evening decompression drinks were often at the Tall Ships bar at the Marriott.   All these are now gone, although technically AIG lives on in name if not in spirit.

In Vino Veritas anchored near Isla Vedra, Ibiza.  Still innocent.  Early morning 9/11/2001.

On 9/11 I was a few weeks into a 2 month solo sail in the western Mediterranean, my form of therapy following the split from my ex-wife.  From the anchorage in the shadow of Isla Vedra at the south end of Ibiza it was a few hours of sunny sailing to San Antonio, Ibiza.  Arriving in town around lunchtime I popped ashore for a newspaper and a small lunch in the club nautico.  On the way back to the boat I received a rather incoherent call from my mother saying there had been a big plane crash in America.

Turning on my heels and heading back ashore I saw pictures on a Spanish TV channel of the WTC attacks.  My Spanish was nowhere near good enough to understand what was happening, so I went searching in San Antonio´s multitude of English bars for news in English – with little success.  While most of the world was transfixed watching the events unfold, most of the English holiday pubs were showing soccer.  I finally found one bar with a news channel on, being watched by a group of young British guys already very drunk by mid-afternoon, and cheering each time the planes were shown hitting the towers.

With a better understanding of the events I was sure that people I knew had died.  The consulting company I worked for had a regional HQ in Boston and the Boston-NYC shuttle was a regular commuter flight for colleagues.  There were plenty of people I knew at AIG who commuted from New Jersey on the PATH train, terminating under the WTC.  It was eminently possible that some colleagues or clients were having a breakfast meeting that day at Windows on the World.  To the drunken Brits in the bar this was all a long way away, perhaps comparable to the Bhopal disaster years earlier, but for me it was personal and present tense.  It was only 2 months since I was last there.

I don’t think I ever felt as alone as I did that Tuesday afternoon in Ibiza.  Surrounded by my countrymen, feeling absolutely nothing in common with them, indeed even questioning their humanity.  I know that they are not representative of Brits in general, but something in me changed that day.  It was the tipping point on a journey fuelled by the liberating freedom I felt living in the US compared to the oppressively congealed UK, and I went from being merely indifferent to my nationality to being estranged from it.   At a political level Blair´s subsequent actions, with the passive support of most British people, added to that sense of estrangement.  Thirteen years later, with the help of Elgar´s oh-so-English music in bright Peruvian sunshine, I have slowly started to rebuild bridges to my nationality.  But there is a long way to go.

13 years is a long time, and 9/11 is less painful now than it was say a decade ago, but the best words and music from that time still hit something deep inside.  Two pieces stand out for me.

The first, Land of the Living by Lucy Kaplansky, is a sublimely human meditation on the events of that day.   (Ignore the embarrasingly literal video that someone has added…)

The second is Ani DiFranco´s raw, angry, thoughtful poem/polemic Self Evident.  Time has dated a few of the references, but the feelings about 9/11 still ring true even now. Maybe more so now, with the blood of countless Iraqis and Afghans running together with the blood of coalition soldiers.

As it turned out I was mercifully wrong about people I knew dying in 9/11, although plenty I knew at that time were directly caught up in it.  Some have never talked about the day, others told it as a story over beers that always seemed to lead to bourbon shots, and one colleague left the US within half a year, unable to live with the altered view of the Manhattan skyline from Hoboken as a daily reminder of his lost friends and colleagues.  Everyone deals with it somehow, and life goes on, many living perhaps a bit more in the present.  And just maybe that is a gift hidden within the pain of 9/11.

Bolivian Food and the Claus Meyer connection

Bolivia´s food has a reputation of being uninspired and not particularly good.  I don’t share that view at all – to me it has been a fascinating discovery.

A few of the many varieties of potato

There are many new ingredients, interesting flavours, unexpected combinations.  The fresh produce is of a high standard, and is produced in a real way … vegetables and fruits have things not often encountered in first world supermarkets, such as blemishes, irregular shapes, and flavour.

Potatoes are a key part of cuisine here.  There are dozens of varieties on sale, different shapes, sizes, colours, some multi-coloured, not forgetting too the interesting chuño and tunta.  These are small potatoes that are left outside for four days, drying in the bright sunshine during the day, and freezing at night (tunta is soaked in river water for 3 weeks first).  Potatoes so treated last for many years, and have a more pronounced taste and a denser texture when cooked.

One comes across differences in meat and fish too.  Llama and alpaca are a regular features on menus, pleasant enough meats but nothing special in my view.  They are also salted and dried to produce charque, the original form of jerky.  Lamb is lovely and intense, more like middle eastern lamb than northern European.  Trout from Lago Titicaca is wonderful, and it is particularly gratifying that it is properly cooked here, moist and tender, not the overcooked, dry trout that one comes across so often in other places.  Plenty of tropical river fish are also used here, such as the delicate white fish surubi, a close relation of catfish.

Chuño at the back and tunta at the front

Given this great base of ingredients it is not surprising that the traditional cuisine is lovely.  The markets are the best places to find it.  Soups are a major feature and are fantastic. They are hearty, beautifully balanced, and obviously made with proper techniques in a traditional manner.  Caldo de pollo for breakfast is a staple and is right up there with the finest chicken broth I know (from the simple Jewish-Hungarian restaurant Kádár in Budapest).  Also caldo de cordero (lamb), caldo de cabeza (sheep´s head, very good), caldo de cardon (bull´s penis), and plenty of others.

There is an interesting strand of cuisine which mixes sweet and spicy flavours.  The classic example is salteñas, empanadas or pasties made from sweet pastry and filled with a spicy stew.  Not really to my taste, but an interesting combination.  Another, more to my taste, are humintas.  These are triangles of corn-based fruit cake dough with sultanas, hot chillies and cheese, wrapped in corn husks and baked.  They are lovely, sort of like triangular tamales.
Extraordinary caldo de pollo

Bolivia has a thriving microbrew industry with a dozen or so breweries producing craft beers of usually excellent quality.  Wines are made too, nothing that will make headlines in the wine world, but decent quality, well produced wines that stand up well to mid range Chilean and Argentinian products.

The local distilled spirit, singani, is made from grape trash in the same way as grappa or marc de cava.  The primary grape used is muscatel, and the result is a clean, sharp, floral spirit that is pleasant after a meal.  Again I don’t think the marketers of eau de vie and grappa have anything to worry about, but singani is certainly a good addition to the lineup.
A licuado stand in Sucre market

Fruit licuados, which I had come across previously in Mexico, are taken to a whole new level here.  Licuados are made with pretty much any fruit, with either milk or water, and are uniformly delicious and addictive.  A typical market will have dozens of stands offering licuados as well as elaborate fresh fruit salads, enticingly presented and topped with an extravagant tower of whipped cream.

All this comes at a price of course, and in Bolivia that price is incredibly low.  One can easily get spoiled with 10Bs breakfasts (€1.10) and 15Bs (€1.65) lunches in the markets.  A large licuado, the perfect dessert, is under €1.

In La Paz there is a small but blossoming foodie culture.  There is Hallwrights, a good wine bar, offering hand crafted locally produced cheeses, cured meats and bread, accompanied by Bolivian, Chilean and Argentinian wines.   There are great little shops too, like the artisan bakery and deli Arco Iris opposite Sopocachi market, selling interesting bread, pastries, charcuterie, cheeses and local pates.

However, in contrast to the markets, which have been consistently good, restaurants are mixed. There are places catering primarily to tourists, offering the standard fare of pizza, Mexican food and burgers – nothing more needs to be said.  There are local restaurants and some of these are good, but many struggle to get past acceptable.  There are a few international restaurants aimed at the diplomat/expat community, generally OK but nothing special.

Then there is Gustu.

Gustu stands head and shoulders above any other restaurant I have been to in Bolivia.  Indeed it stands above any restaurant I have been to in the last two years, except perhaps for Aponiente in Spain.  It is, in my view, certainly 1 star and more likely 2 star Michelin, and achieves this entirely with Bolivian products and Bolivian cuisine.  Clever, inventive, modern, intelligent, very well executed dishes.  For example, a Bolivian traditional dish is remade into a take on fettucine carbonara, with “fettucine” of palm hearts, a poached egg yolk, desalted deep fried alpaca charque, and beurre noisette.  Spectacular.  The prices are, by Bolivian standards, stratospheric.  By first world standards they are modest for food at this level.

But clever food is only the end product of Gustu, extraordinary enough though it is.  What makes Gustu even more special is that the kitchen and wait staff are primarily Bolivians from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds (all are indigenous, most were street children).  They have been transformed in just 18 months into capable world class kitchen and front of house staff.  How?  Through the work of the charitable foundation Melting Pot, set up and led by Claus Meyer.  Yes, that Claus Meyer – the one who co-owns Noma in Copenhagen. 
Gustu: palm heart fettucine, crispy alpaca charque,
poached egg yolk, beurre noisette

The funding for the cooking school, restaurant and food laboratory has come from his own foundation, the Danish government, and several NGOs.  And it is not just about doing magic with Bolivian food: hundreds of lives being changed in the process.  The restaurant´s manager explained how the intention is to phase out the half dozen or so foreigners leading the restaurant today (including a young Danish superstar chef, Camilla Seidler, just voted best chef in Latin America) with Bolivians, and they feel confident this will take no more than a few more years.  In addition to the training in the restaurant, Melting Pot also runs a cooking school for indigenous poor in El Alto, the sprawling low income area of La Paz.

Sitting having lunch at one of the simple stalls in the market in the lowland city of Santa Cruz, we finished our tasty and ridiculously cheap food, and were chatting over a glass of chicha, the local corn drink.  A small boy, maybe 7 years old, approached us, eyes downcast, and quietly asked if he could have the rice left on Maret´s plate.  Not asking for money, or gifts, or anything else- just leftover rice.  He proffered a plastic carrier bag to put it into.  Of course we gave it to him, and he was gone in a flash, before we could offer something more.  The gap, the almost unfathomable gap, between the first world and the third world is a part of everyday life in some parts of Bolivian cities, and it is into this world that Melting Pot / Gustu stepped, working to make a difference.

Gustu is an act of total generosity on the part of Claus Meyer, empowering disadvantaged Bolivians and putting Bolivia firmly on the foodie map.  It is entirely consistent with the New Nordic Cuisine philosophy, which always was about more than just a local foraging approach to food.  Noma might be getting the limelight, but I would venture that the real story of the New Nordic Cuisine movement is being played out in the mountains of Bolivia (and also in the prisons of Denmark, another Claus Meyer initiative).

For me the experience of Gustu was humbling, a piercing insight into the nature of true generosity and the empowerment of others, and how much further I have to travel in those regards.

As for Bolivian food being uninspired: not at all.  I have long felt that the magic in life is rarely found in the safe middle ground, and that is certainly true for Bolivian cuisine. 

The Glass Bead Game

28 years ago: Wasdale valley, Cumbria, England. A sunny summer day with 2 friends, sitting looking at Great Gable rising like a pyramid at the head of the valley, the lake water reflecting the sky and a few decorative clouds, the scree slopes opposite in hyper clear detail, the curve of the hills.  Seeing the world so vividly, feeling how alive the earth was, how we were part of the planet, how everything was just as it should be.  Grass so green, looking at rocks like one reads a book, the gentle summer breeze caressing my cheek.  The reducing valve of the mind opened a little more.  Coming home to somewhere we´d never been.

Wasdale wasn’t the only magical time that summer.  Diamonds in the night sky, seen from a friend´s garden in Preston of all places.  Dawn on a sea wall looking out over reclaimed salt marsh, the sunrise feeling like the first morning of creation, warming the earth and giving it life, warming me and giving me life.  Bach as the sound of the universe.  William Blake, Roger Waters, Jim Morrison, Van Gogh, Goya : reports from their travels. Long conversations between friends about Rimbaud, Hesse, Nietzsche, Huxley … naïve young minds struggling beyond their limits, stretched, never to regain their old shape again.

28 years later:  A walled garden in the Valle Sagrado, Peru, a deep valley surrounded by mountains dotted with Inca ruins and terraces, bright sunshine, thin air, clouds scudding by high overhead, an infinitely changing tapestry.  A curandero sings gentle icaros and shakes a chakapa.  A dog runs across the grass, golden hair flowing, impossibly fascinating.  Flowers almost ready to burst they are so full of life.  Mountains alive, breathing, living.  Hours slipping by while time stands still.  Sunset listening to Enigma Variations, tears rolling down our cheeks, the best classical concert of her life according to Maret.  The doors of perception opened once more, overseen by a stand of benevolent cacti. 

Coming home again.  Coming home again.