Real Advice

The key to happiness is when you have gotten really good at being you

grey The key to happiness is when you have gotten really good at being you
The Jade Willow Chinese restaurant in Ulverstone is abandoned apart from two beer bellied men gorging on fried rice and Boags Draught in a corner, not somewhere you would expect to find the key to happiness. They scoff and swill frantically like prison inmates at the bottom of the pecking order. Occasional sounds from outside waft in from the main street; cars with oversized mufflers rev over the sound of “Party Rock Anthem” played on expensive twelve volt stereos, rattling the aged boots (trucks in American). Young people yell extroverted greetings to each other to hide their shyness. I am home and I really do like it here, mostly.

I sit across from a mate who I have not seen for over two years. Sascha and I worked together in an Italian restaurant throughout our studies, using the term ‘study’ generously. Nowadays Sascha is a very successful business man and a deep thinker, he wears a neat shirt and looks well pressed, most impressively he wears a shroud of self confidence comfortably, I envy him this coat. I wear a crumpled bright orange top bought in Kathmandu for $2 (when I couldn’t be bothered washing clothes), my messy Hasselhoff-from-nightrider hair is somewhat contained by a bandana. Outside appearances suggest that Sascha has evolved significantly over the years whilst I’ve been regressing, soon to crawl back into the swamp. Impressively though Sascha seems very excited and somewhat awed by my recent adventuring.

“You really went into the Andes with a donkey?”

“Yup”

“I respect that mate, I could do a day walk but I like staying clean”

“Yeah well, horses for courses”

“And you did that paintball paragliding thing?”

“Yeah man I loved that, happy days”

About thirty-seconds of quiet contemplation follows, I busy myself with my spring rolls as Sascha studies me, a changed creature sits in front of him, one which he used to understand. Sascha dislikes not understanding things.

“So mate, with all this trekking, climbing, diving, jumping, bussing, flying and exploring you have done in these last two years, do you think it has changed you as a person? Or are you the same person and this is just something you like to do?”

“Well…that’s a hard one, let me think for a while”

Both of us eat crispy spring rolls in contemplative silence.

“Dunno, really”

“Go on, have you changed?”

“Well I am more relaxed, I can now sit on a rock for hours without squirming. Have always loved mountains, and…stuff, God that’s a hard one mate”

This conversation really gets me thinking, have I changed? Am I the same person? Later that night after I have put out the dog and crawled into bed with a book, (written by my best mates grandfather about his time as a prisoner of war, The Long Way Home, look it up) the answer hits me like a falling roof beam;

“OPTIONS”

Two years ago I was living with a girl and her daughter, I had numerous loans, internet bills, water bills, electricity bills, a car, obligations, nursing homes to medicate, work, responsibility, thing to buy and pay for. I did not give credit to the options I had in my life and did not admit that – at that stage – I was not ready for all this grown up behaviour. However, I envied how this life seemed to be working so well for my friends and blithely forged on. I thought that this was going to be the Ben-story, the end.

Now I have more options and less stuff, this is the main difference, I now realise just how many options are available to me. I could keep traveling, work a bit, write or live very cheaply in my tent on a grassy hill talking to mountains. So many people just numbly go through the motions, like I was, without sitting back and truly realising that they have options, this makes me sad.

Everyone has many, many options but only one crack at life, think about it.

Now kids, if that is all too philosophical for you on a school night I am going to throw in some weird sex facts to tone down the hugging-around-a-camp-fire kind of mood I have set here:

500 Americans die from self asphyxiation annually.

1 out of 17 people worldwide have sex on any given day, what are the other 16 up to?

A dork is the actual name of a whales penis, the biggest dorks in the world are the ten foot long members of the blue whale.

The dragonfly has a shovel shaped penis which scoops out the semen of previous suitors.

Australian echidnas have four headed penises but only ejaculate from two at a time, they save the other two for next time.

Female monkeys raise their asses into the air, complete with dilated blood vessels causing a flushed cheek effect, and waft female hormones around the place as a sign that they are ready to mate. The males stop throwing poo at each other and pause to note the plumpness of the bum cheeks. A plump bottom shows that the female is well fed and able to support an infant. If the girl-monkey is sufficiently plump they will mate, if not, the male goes back to his poo slinging. (Type 1 fun for the thrower, type 3 for the recipient)

Now, some monkeys started standing on two legs and ass raising was no longer viable. Evolution sorted this problem by increasing fatty deposits around the mammary glands to mimic a plump bum attached to a healthy specimen.

Basically what I am saying is that bum-men are less evolved than boob-men.

Oh, and girls think about what you are mimicking when you put rouge on your cheeks and perfume on your neck…

I challenge you to make a bucket list for the summer

Please if you accept my challenge to make a bucket list for the summer, let me know. I’d be thrilled!

Fact: Everyone dies

Fact: You are part of ‘everyone’ there are no exceptions

Fact: No one lies on their deathbed wishing they worked more

My apologies, I just re-read those first three lines and it kind of sounds like that nasty drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket yelling at the troops, but hey, sometimes the truth needs a little yelling.

Recently it seems that all the cool bloggers are writing about bucket lists so, like in grade eight when I wore fluorescent hippy pants, I have decided to follow the cool kid’s lead and challenge my readers to make a bucketlist for the summer Some people may think writing a list of things to do before you die is a bit morbid and strange. You may prefer to not consider the possibility that one day you may lie on a bed with starched sheets surrounded by machines going “Bing” or worse still, suffer a fatal running-with-scissors mishap…Morbid? I beg to differ. I view my list as quite enabling. Writing a list of goals whilst considering that I will not be here forever helps me to step out of the ironing shirts and crying over uncut grass mode that many get stuck in. A while ago now I had a friend say to me

“Go up in a hot air balloon Ben…look down on it all”

At the time I was regularly vomiting up my breakfast (due to stress) and thought she had lost the plot.

“What balloon? How the Fuck will a hot air ride thing help me?”

However, what she meant was that I needed to stop fussing over the miniature and get a wider perspective. Miniature being where I was at the time, wider perspective being, “Not dead yet”

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t spend my days hunched over running away from the reaper or looking depressively at burning candles, quite the opposite. Since writing my bucket list I make all my important decisions based on one criteria;

“On my deathbed will I regret not doing this more than I will regret doing it?”

Hopefully, all this ramble explains why I am now working just enough to keep afloat financially, why I’m spending the other five days in the week learning how to paraglide and why I don’t bother owning a car (or furniture, knickknacks or many clothes). Any time I start to get crazy thoughts like “Maybe I should get a full time job and settle a bit” I open the old faithful Bucket list document and add another item.

I am going to propose a challenge…if you dare;

Write yourself a bucket list and send it to me. 

I will publish it on my website (if you want) and cross things off once they are done. I will be more than happy to add new things to your list as, like warts, the list will grow as fast as you can scrape.

It does not matter if your dream is to have a tidy tupperware drawer or to bungy-jump naked in Venezuela, to overcome a fear of spiders or to climb Torres del Paine…whatever your dreams are, they are valid. No one should judge or scoff anyone’s dreams.

So after much deliberating, here is my list (please don’t judge or scoff!). This is kind of scary, having only shown a very select few people I feel a bit naked right now. The crossed out ones have been done:  Bucketlist If you want more inspiration, check out the other people who have posted a bucket list for the summer on my site you may just get inspired.

 

Climbing philosophy, It does not have to be fun to be fun


I have just been researching future climbs on the Jagged Globe website and stumbled upon the climbing philosophy quote by mountaineer Andy Owen. The quote reminded me of a conversation I had with my mate Mal last October.

Two days before this conversation I crawled – almost in tears – over the 5150 meter high Larkya La pass in snowy, cold conditions. I was suffering rather explosive gastroenteritis, on the way I had a weird conversation with a German chap. He spotted me hiding behind a rock as every drop of liquid was purged from my digestive tract post haste, watching with interest for a while he said;

“Are you OK there?”

I looked up and saw only a silhouette, I forgot to mention that we faced a big day and started walking at around five in the morning.

“Yeah mate, I’ll be OK”

What I really wanted to say was;

“Fucks sake, what does it look like you fucking fool!”

Surprisingly though, throughout the crawl over the pass I never once wished myself out of this experience, sickness is just a natural part of trekking in Nepal, especially for idiots who accept the grubby nailed farmer’s offer to, “Come in for a cup of milk tea”. This is a classic example of type two fun, but I am getting ahead of myself…

I am getting to the conversation with Mal, promise! …two days later I was all but recovered and feeling rather proud of surviving this ordeal. The mood of the expedition had slightly changed, we were on an eight day trek back to civilisation after a very exciting climb, everyone was starting to get slightly reflective, borderline laconic. The adrenaline had all burnt off and we were winding down.

While wandering past the small township of Goa, through fields of wild marijuana, Mal turned to me. Wisdom gained from his years of slogging up icy mountains was showing in his eyes as he said;

“Do you know about the four types of fun Ben?”

“What’s that?”

“The four types of fun, never heard of them bro?”

“No idea mate, something to do with how hard you work to have the fun?”

“Well…”

We strolled along the winding valley and Mal explained his theory to me.

“Well Ben, type one fun is fun at the time and fun afterwards”

A classic example of type one fun is eating a ripe strawberry or dancing in your boxer shorts.

I once lived with a bloke called Simon Turk. Simon and I are great mates and we used to take great delight playing cruel jokes on each other. One time as I walked between the shower and my room with only a towel around my waist I made Simon look up from his breakfast with a cheery “Good morning”

Just as he looked up I dropped the towel, stark naked.

Simon covered his eyes but quickly did a shocked double take. I had done a ‘testie tuck’ or ‘manjina’ Simon’s expression at my apparent Barbie’s Ken-like lack of genitalia had me in fits of mirth, however, Simon took a few hours to fully appreciate this piece of comic genius.

This whole experience for me was definitely type one fun. Fun then and fun afterwards but for Simon it was probably closer to type two…

“Type two fun is not fun at the time but fun shortly afterwards”

Type two fun, like my crawl over the pass involves a relatively quick bounce back. Like rock climbing for the first time, it is certainly not fun as you desperately claw at grips while not trusting the rope to catch you. As soon as feet reach terra-firma again you realise that it actually was fun and want to go again. The more you partake in type two activities the more they resemble type one. Example: I have a terrible fear of public speaking but by actively seeking opportunities to do just this I have managed to make it morph into type one, however,

“Type three fun is not fun at the time but after months, sometimes years, you realise that it truly was fun and begin to consider doing it again”

Type three fun is the most rewarding. It generally means that you have launched yourself completely out of that cable TV watching comfort zone and have seen or done things which you never dreamt possible, or you have just done something plain stupid. Climbing really big mountains or running marathons are both type three activities. Also doing stuff which is just plain stupid…

In April 2011 got chatting to a short-ish, muscly Brazilian chap about his big surfboard bag while waiting to drop my bags off at the Santiago airport.

“Hey mate, how many boards you got stuffed in there?”

“Only two, and all of my clothes for the month”

“You off to Sydney as well?”

“Yeah, to see my sister, then to Bali for some surfing”

“Nice, Bali’s good hear”

“World class, my name’s Ian”

“Ben”

We dropped off our bags and wandered the international airport aimlessly, our journey linked by a six hour layover.

“Hey Ian, did you know you can pay fifteen dollars Australian and hang out in the VIP lounge?

“Really, I am keen”

“Well, free grog, food and wi-fi, let’s do it”

Five and a half hours later we staggered out of the VIP lounge reeking of whiskey to find our gate, we had drunk the best part of a bottle of whiskey and I was ready to collapse in my seat and sleep the flight away. Boarding passed in a blur. Ian swapped seats to be beside me. He relieved a grateful young redheaded girl originally seated by my side from being stuck next to this bearded, whiskey-smelling man who had been in transit for two days (My transit went from Marseille France to Rio to Sao Paolo to Santiago, Sydney then home. A quirk of my flight bookings it was cheaper to go this way than to sneak around the back). Ian all but passed out by my side, not before talking loudly right throughout the safety speech. I stared at the bloody seatbelt sign intently as we took off and made a mad dash for the toilet as it went out.  Waking briefly in New Zealand for our short fuel stop I then slept all the way to Sydney. Finally on home turf after ten months exploring I felt refreshed and in sync with the time zone change, if a bit dehydrated. Ian, however, was in a bad way. Once relieved of the plane he ran to a toilet and relieved his stomach of all its contents. I never did see Ian again, he was a lovely chap though and we occasionally send each the emails and I have a standing invite to visit Ian in Brazil, despite his suffering. I think Ian would agree that this experience was type three fun for him, it was more a type two for me.

“Type four fun is not fun at the time, never fun afterwards”

Anchors failing, paraglider wings collapsing, ending up in a wheelchair, avalanches, bashing your thumb repeatedly with a hammer and so forth. Nothing more to say, I have never experienced this type of fun, thankfully.

For me, fun it is most rewarding when a type is reduced; when something that absolutely terrifies me the first time is not so bad the second time. Personally, fun is best when it pushes me completely out of my comfort zone. This is what drives some people to fly further, climb higher and do what others may consider stupid or irresponsible.

Having said that though, if the fun-type of an activity reduces to the point of complacency many type two activities can quickly become type four. Which is best avoided.

Having shared all this philosophy, however, sometimes it is nice to just eat a juicy, ripe strawberry while dancing in your boxer shorts.

Manaslu expedition – lessons learnt

grey Manaslu expedition   lessons learntI had many important lessons when on my Manaslu expedition with Mal in October last year, not least of which are the four golden rules of good mountain communication:

1 Thou will not assume knowledge in others.

“The sat phone does not work on the hill babe, but we’ll be right”

2 Thou will always consider the other person on line.

“I’m in some tricky terrain man”

“Can you get back up to camp 2?”

“I’ll try” *Radio silence, Mal exhausted but starts preparing for a rescue*

3 Your voice changes at altitude.

“Is thith Yeh-the?”

“Yes, who is this? What has happened”

“Is thith Yeh-the…”

4 Thou will never assume the worst.

“Melanie, I am in Kathmandu, call me soon”

grey Manaslu expedition   lessons learntIn October last year I climbed a mountain called Manaslu in the Gorkha region of Nepal. Manaslu is 8162 meters high and quite remote, for me it was an incredible adventure and the fulfillment of a life long dream. I learnt a lot about what to (and what not to) tell loved ones before, during and after such a climb. I climbed with Mal Haskins who is a serial adventurer, world class paragliding pilot, professional mountaineer and (I am proud to say) a good mate. My experience is embryonic compared to Mal. Mal has had his head firmly in the clouds for years since he shelved a promising career as an electrical engineer with the Australian armed forces to, as he says; “Get into the hills Bro” He has guided in Nepal numerous times-most notably on Lhotse which is an imposing 8000 meter high lump of ice and rock very near Mt Everest. Mal has lead climbing trips in Peru and is constantly dragging paid clients around his now native New Zealand. For Mal a climb of New Zealand’s Mt Cook is just a standard day at the office. Me? Well, I have survived a ten day mountaineering course in New Zealand, climbed to just over 6000 meters in Nepal and turned back just below the summit of Cotopaxi in Ecuador due to bad snow pack conditions. Embryonic.

You are wondering, no doubt, what was I thinking when I signed up to tackle this intimidating beast with a small team of four climbers. Put simply, I love being on mountains, even without the plan of getting to that final pointy bit, I love prancing around in crampons, swinging off ropes and looking at the view from high places. Like many people I find peace in the hills. In big hills I find inner peace flavored with awe and wonderment. My initial goal was to climb to a camp at 7450 meters and to film Mal flying past me. On this mission Mal was planning to not only summit but to also launch from the top with a speed wing and skis. Speedflying is a sport where people use a small version of a paragliding wing and skis to zoom down mountains occasionally kissing their slopes with skis while reaching speeds of up to 120 kilometers an hour. In the thin air above 8000 meters Mal was expecting to go much, much faster than this and no one has attempted such a feat. On the climb I felt strong, conditions were not right for Mal to fly and he didn’t need a cameraman so I pushed on to the top. I would have been really happy to reach my initial goal of 7450 meters so when I found myself enjoying half an hour at the pointy bit gasping for air and snapping self portraits I was beyond ecstatic.

As little as I knew, my girlfriend and emergency contact Jette knew even less. While Mal and I were crunching onwards to the top Jette was frantically chewing her nails back in her native Denmark.

‘Thou will not assume knowledge in others’

When I sent Jette an email casually mentioning that the phone did not work on the hill I assumed that she would figure we had regular scheduled radio contact with base camp (base did have contact with the outside world should we need to order an emergency KFC bucket or even rescue helicopter). However, Jette thought that Mal and I were bumbling about on an 8000 meter high hill without any communications at all, this caused her significant angst.

The second communication law involves use of radios. Mal and I reached camp three fairly late in the afternoon, we were extremely tired after four big summit days, however I decided to continue down to camp two with the understanding that Pemba was planning to follow shortly with a load. I happily set off in the afternoon light and Mal crawled into his tent, comforted that I would soon be in good company. However, Pemba changed his mind and instead of descending with gear he went to bed at camp three, completely exhausted he didn’t tell anyone. This would have only meant a lonely night for me at the abandoned camp two…had I not got off trail. As the sun set I veered too far to the left and what started as ankle deep and supportive snow became soft, thigh deep snow. Each time I broke the thin, icy crust I would lunge, pull myself up, roll onto my belly and stand to take a few more steps. Every few steps the crust gave way and I fell back into thigh deep snow. Now, every time the crust broke and I broke through I was convinced that I would fall into a deep crevasse. After four days going up and one down I was understandably exhausted and very, very scared.

I sat in the snow watching a truly spectacular sunset paint nearby peaks while trying for about half an hour to get Mal, or anyone, on the radio without success. I gave up and prepared for a very lonely and cold night out in the elements alone. Survival is not guaranteed when outside overnight on big hills, even inside our highest camp with four people crammed into one tent we recorded minus twenty-eight degrees. Finally Mal, who unknown to me, had been trying to follow my progress visually without success, turned on the radio and we had a crackly conversation:

“Ben, you there? Do you copy Ben?”

“Mal, when is Phemba coming down? I’m a bit off the track and in some pretty deep snow…”

“Um …. it appears that Phemba is not coming down tonight bro … Can you manage your way back to the track and come back up?”

“%^**….$%^^% – I’ll try man….”

I turned off my radio to save batteries and backtracked, comforted that Mal was now aware of my predicament.

‘Thou will always consider the other person on line’

Mal grew increasingly concerned at my lack of radio contact and decided to send Sidi Mama (our other climbing sherpa) down to get me. In my own little world of pain I did not consider Mal and had not even turned on my headlight in the dusk light. I did not have the presence of mind to realize that a bright light on my head may help both Mal and Sidi to find me. Finally back on the trail I was met by Sidi who aided a very exhausted (emotionally and physically) me down towards camp two.

When Sidi reached me I still had not thought to turn on my headlight or radio and all that Mal could see was a lone headlight (which he knew was Sidi’s) going down to camp two. With the limited knowledge available to him Mal grew concerned that I had fallen into a deep crevasse and was in real trouble so he started quickly preparing his gear for a rescue. Finally down at camp two Sidi thought to radio Mal;

“Mal, this is Sidi – Ben and I are now are C2″

“Whew, thank F#$K, goodnight”

Sidi and I had a very cold, hungry night under a single sleeping bag at camp two. I was more than happy to only be a bit cold but in good company. When Mal came down to the following day he spotted the tracks from my little adventure and commented on how close to the trail I was. This brought home just how easy it is to get confused and scared when at altitude and beyond tired. Next time I’ll just stay at camp and drink a cup of tea. Lesson learnt.

Mal’s finance Sophie was stationed at bast camp where she radioed us weather reports and updated the expedition website (www.speedfly8000.com) with information, she also kindly offered to send Mum, Dad and Jette personal emails of our progress to keep everyone in the loop. During our descent Sophie was kept very busy retrieving useful weather information for us and with monitoring progress so for the two days of our descent she did not have a chance to contact the outside world with an update.

When I did arrive at base camp and despite telling her I would only ever email, the first thing I wanted to do was to call my normally unflappable girlfriend. At the time of my call she had not had any news for two sleepless nights and was at a conference, it is kind of ironic that the conference was about her employer’s safety protocols. Jette sat next to a mountain climber who spent the entire morning gleefully telling her countless stories of missions gone wrong on descent and with ensuring she was fully conversant with the fact that descent is the most dangerous part of a climb. Right before she had to do a role play about the dangers of staplers her phone rang and displayed “Manaslu Emergency Phone” Understandably concerned Jette grabbed her phone and ran into the hallway. This is where I managed to unwittingly upset her further. ‘Your voice changes at altitude’

Standing beside my tent at base camp I had bad reception and my voice was different due to exhaustion, altitude and emotion. Mostly my voice was unrecognizable due to a recalcitrant tongue. Numerous blood noses caused by the thin, very dry air had blocked my nose and forced me to mouth breath while climbing. With UV’s flooding in my mouth my tongue had become sunburnt and was swollen, red and sore. I sounded like a patient after root canal surgery. She did not recognize the voice that repeatedly asked;

“Is this Jette?”

I could not recognize the voice squeaking

“Who is this?”. Finally I managed to convince Jette that it was really me calling with good news of a successful climb. Lesson learnt.

The last communication lesson was not a first hand one. My sister Mel was relying on both our expedition website and on Mum for news. She had noted no updates for a few days during our ascent and had emailed Mum asking for news of her little brother. A day after sending this email Mel received the following message;

“I am at Kathmandu, call me now”

Mel immediately assumed the worst, picturing Mum in Kathmandu weeping over my corpse she found a teaching aide and left her classroom quickly to contact Mum. When Mum picked up she asked Mel,

“What size is your son wearing these days?”

“Why are you in Kathmandu? What has happened! Is Ben OK?”

“What, Yeah, I am just buying your kids some clothes, what size does Ameer take now?”

“Oh…thank F#$K, Kathmandu, the clothing shop, yeah?”

“Yeah, where else?”

‘Thou will never assume the worst’

My travel Angel

I maintain composure despite glimpsing desperation; a man, wearing his polished blue “Safety officer’’ badge, dashing past. There is a caustic smell creeping down the aisle but I am not concerned. Despite the inherent danger of fires on planes I feel safe, smugly cocooned in the knowledge that I have my own personal travel angel. This is a fact. His name is Gustav; I do not know why, it just is. Gustav works tirelessly behind the scenes to try to smooth my path and keep me from serious trouble, sometimes in a comically roundabout way.  He no doubt has a very good reason for steering me onto this seemingly doomed, Air France flight, AF442 from Paris to Rio on March 30, 20111

Every traveler has a personal travel angel even if they don’t properly realise it. Some people thank a higher power, some a system of give and take, some merely cite good fortune. I like to imagine Gustav as a thin man wearing brown slacks and thickly rimmed reading glasses circa 1960, he is calm and collected like a celestial accountant. He is without voice and toils quietly, beyond sight, without health benefits or pay. Whatever name or belief is attributed to this authority, every traveler can relate at least one story when they were gently steered out of trouble.

When I liquidated my life and set out to explore I did not believe in angels, but as anyone will tell you, travel can, and will broaden horizons. 

Earlier that year in November I missed a bus. Watching it pull out of the station without me I blinked away a cloud of belched diesel and cursed Gustav expansively. Slinging my red backpack over my shoulders I searched for another bus. A two hour wait in a stifling, chaotic depot complete with underhanded staff ensued. By slipping a sneaky ‘gift’ to an attendant I was first to board the next bus, nursing my faithful and now very dusty red companion I eagerly anticipated the adventure to come. I had always dreamt of trekking in the Andes alone.

In front of me a contemplative chicken on a lap strained its rubber neck and quietly studied my features. To my right an elderly chap wearing traditional clothing absently stared through a grimy window. We gave up on conversation before properly starting, having reached “where are you from?” my vocabulary dried up like the country’s healthcare budget. Our bus plunged deep into a lush valley while the Ecuadorian Andes poked through clouds, distantly following our progress.

My knees were bent far closer to my chest than they were designed, my backpack was taking up what little leg room the hard seat afforded. I abandoned my book and stared back at the mountains wondering if Gustav had forsaken me. The chicken vocalised my mood with a resigned “squwaaark” “What will be will be”. At one isolated stop I watched an arthritically bent figure fight his way up the stairs. He accepted with a smile when I stood with cracking knees and relinquished my seat.

A small green tinged child vomited all over my friend’s Sunday best just as he settled. The sickly boy extensively decorated the floor where my pack had sat seconds ago. My eyes met with the elderly chap as he toiled with crumpled newspaper and we chuckled. Some ironies do not require a common language. “Gustav is still here”. Our bus rumbled and bounced; squeaking and fuming further away from Westernisation we penetrated deep into the heart of Ecuador. The air, now tasted not smelt, held a zesty whiff of vomit lurking beneath body odour and diesel.

While gingerly negotiating a windy pass our driver stomped on the brakes and caused them to squeal in surprise. Peering through my window I discovered what triggered this stop. Despite the scratches, dents and greenery plastered across its battered red side, it looked like the one which left before us. Sitting mutely on its side like a discarded toy, was the bus which had abandoned me earlier. It was missing a roof. A drunken driver misjudged a corner and sent the bus hurtling over this mountainous pass. An extended Friday night binge claimed twenty lives that day, including the driver’s. I mentally apologised to Gustav for doubting him as my bus rolled sombrely on.

Weeks later I was to discover that travel angels do not work alone. I was labouring through an icy blue wonderland with my friend Vincent. Crampons in crunchy snow and impermeable pants singing a tired requiem. Vincent is an amiable Dutch medical student I befriended at my Spanish School. He had asked me with religious fervour to show him the mountains so we could share His playground.

We had turned back while climbing Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador’s second highest peak2, as snow conditions signalled avalanche. With aching bones we toiled to disembark the mountain, moving as quickly as fatigue allowed. Circling down the mountain we watched awestruck as the rising sun poured hazy violet over a new day. The cool blue which coloured our world for the last ten hours slowly warmed to pink. Behind me Vincent stopped babbling through his balaclava abruptly as the rope which connected our fates snapped taut. I looked back to see his slender frame cut in half. A snow bridge had rudely collapsed, plunging him unceremoniously and waist deep into a crevasse. Vincent cried out when I turned to run away. Forgetting the rope attached to his harness he thought I was abandoning ship. Throwing my weight onto the rope I pulled until our connection extracted my friend from a snowy grave. My Dutch friend slowly emerged, clawing grey faced at the ice like a frightened new born zombie.

Every downhill step calmed my friend but my mind was racing; What if I had chosen a different Spanish School? What if I had decided to go to the beach with the others, leaving Vincent to climb alone? I pictured Gustav silently scheming with a clog wearing angel, pointing out a particular “Learn Spanish” brochure on that rack as I passed; piquing my interest in this climb; tickling memories of rope rescue lessons just before Vincent fell

The safety officer with the polished blue badge finishes his scampering and sits apprehensively for landing. Two jumbo tyres explode on hot tarmac. Re-ticketing and company spiels cost me an extra sixteen hours before I excitedly arrive at my hostel in Rio. 

My titillation fades with the realisation that I have missed the party by eleven years. I go to bed early, a grandfather of the hostel. Drunken revellers return throughout the night, submitting to oblivion under threadbare sheets. 

At 2am I wake to find the dorm full of smoke. Neither extinguisher, fire blankets or lucid helper are at hand. A fire is licking upwards from a wall fan, gaining momentum by feeding on cheap plywood. I dash to rouse the slumbering receptionist who follows me to the fire, wielding a wet towel. I slowly make a connection and grab the wet towel away; electrical fire, no water. A dry duvet quells the flames. Three nearby bodies do not even pause their drunken snoring throughout the excitement. 

With the emergency abated I steal a well deserved beer from the communal fridge and sit, bug eyed on a balcony which faces a twinkling city. 

I sit alone on my hard seat and ponder in the muggy night air. I realise that, no matter how bad a situation may seem, wherever you may find yourself in a journey or the world, you are exactly where you need to be (I also discover that this hostel is infested with mosquitos). There is no point trying to force your will upon a journey, it will set its own course regardless. Maybe the whole point of travel is to show us how little, how insignificant, how utterly powerless we are against forces of chance and mishap. Fourteen months of travel have certainly subdued my inner control freak. Maybe we can all relax and trust our Gustavs a little more.

On behalf of the oblivious people sleeping in my room that night I thank Gustav for delaying my flight. I continue to quietly thank him; for hijacking my ride on that bus and for introducing me to Vincent, amongst countless others. Finishing my now warm beer I resolve to make his job easier by going home.

Even travel angels need a holiday. grey My travel Angel

Buy this book!

The Red Rucksack - Available now

This business partnership has expired.” Ben has no idea what adventures are in store when he sets out to discover what lies over that next mountain.

This week's popular posts

My favourite video

Sometime getting home is the best bit!