7am. We sit in the canoe waiting to leave camp like grizzled army vets about to be extracted from the theatre of combat. “Man, the things we’ve fuckin seen here! Life will never been the same,” says Menna, hands trembling as she rolls a cigarette. “We ain’t the same people who came into this jungle five days back,” mutters Arthur, his blue eyes emptily staring into space from under his bandana. Matilda scowls and twitches, tests the edge of her knife with a thumb, snarls at her reflection in the water.
It’s true, we’ve been deep. Those sunset swims with anacondas. The swirl of bats overhead. That boat trip after dark where we shone torches down into the water and found ourselves floating right above a giant black caiman, silent and menacing; as long himself as our ten-man canoe.
We’ve stood our ground to marauding monkey troupes. Our blood has nourished more winged and slithering creatures than we can count. We have floated weightless while the river was lit up like a black mirror in lamplight and every branch reaching upwards had a skeletal counterpart stretching down to a dark sub-aquatic world. We have bared our souls to the shaman in a smoke-filled hut while thunder boomed outside.
As we sit in the boat we are weary, saturated, still processing crazy visions. Goodbye to the Amazon! I am somehow deeply sad. We are leaving this wild crucible that seems like the heart of the world. We may never see such things again. Perhaps in a few decades much of this will be gone. I have my bags by my feet and my poncho folded neatly on my lap.
The Ecuadorian girls behind me start scuffling, they stand suddenly rocking the canoe, their voices go high. We are used to this, they are of a nervous disposition. Diego looks over and his sharp intake of breath is much more worrying. Diego is the most calm and implacable guide you can imagine. This inhalation is the only sign of worry I have ever seen him exhibit in the whole week.
“This, my friends, is the Banana spider that I have told you about” he says, “Also known as the Brazilian Wandering Spider. Will, perhaps you can move slowly away.”
Diego has indeed told us about this spider. Aggressive, fond of humans and one of the most venomous creatures in the entire jungle, it now sits on the gunwhale of our boat, some centimeters from my thigh. It was not there moments before, because it has only just emerged from within my poncho.
(I tuck this fact away for later, promising myself to spend some late nights visualising scenarios of what might have happened had I put that poncho on)
I shuffle away and watch as Diego carefully inches forwards, places a paddle underneath the beast and flicks it away.
In balletic slow motion the spider tumbles in a low arc, turning two or three times in the air before executing a perfect landing with all eight legs on the river surface. It them proceeds to run lightly over the water back to the boat, where it disappears from our view, climbing somewhere up onto the underside of our hull.
We have now pissed off a highly poisonous spider who is hiding, biding its time, waiting for revenge somewhere on the boat. None of us is going to relax much during the three hour journey downriver.
And this is our jungle farewell. The Amazon breathes and moves and whispers all around us. “You see,” it sighs, “I could have taken you at any time. Run away back to your civilisations now, you foolish mortals. But be sure to dream of me.”
“Symptoms may appear within 10 to 20 minutes after the bite, and death within two to six hours, where severe pain radiates to the rest of the limb, systemic effects include tachycardia, increased blood pressure, vertigo, fever, sweating, visual disturbances, nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing and paralysis.
Today we have left the motoroised canoe behind and we are progressing upriver Indian style, by paddle, at dawn. We are on the trail of the giant Amazon river otter.
Diego has a lead. He has heard of a suspected otter nest a few miles upriver. We will approach it by stealth, paddling silently through the swamp waters and hopefully catching a sight of this rare mammal.
The giant otter is the largest of the mustelid family, a beast that grows to roughly the same length as Menna (though at 35kg, it is somewhat more svelte). Over the last few decades the population of giant otters has been decimated. It is the usual story of encroaching humanity: fur hunters, mercury poisoning, loss of habitat. It is now listed by the UN as an endangered species.
A ‘few miles upriver’ turns out to be a couple of hours of hard paddling. It is a fairly intense early morning workout. We make our way up the main Cuyabeno, then we branch off to follow a section of smaller tributaries and channels deep into the jungle. Branches hang down all around us, bromeliads spurt up from the banks, occasional orchids hang down and there are some bright red flowers I don’t recognise. We find ourselves paddling through wide muddy pools then punting our way through interconnecting passages that are really no more than muddy ditches.
“Quiet!” says Diego, as he so often does. Our kids are arguing and hitting each other, they need a swift kick. There is a hoarse shouting sound somewhere up ahead. “We are close.”
We pull through a curtain of branches and suddenly there they are: dark shapes rearing out of the muddy water, spinning and slithering around in the sunlit shallows. It’s hard to count them because they are in constant motion, but there must be five large adults and a couple of tiny pups.
The otter group spots our canoe and they collectively freeze for a second. Then a delegation of three males turns and heads over towards us.
Otters are like pretty much the cutest animals in the world right? Furry, intelligent, playful. They float on their backs and hold hands. They slide down mud banks. They have expressive eyes and funny whiskers.
But not these frickin otters.
These ones are large and scary.
Diego mentioned the other day that the giant otter could take on a jaguar, but I didn’t really get the implications of this. Now I very clearly see what he means.
They come straight for the boat, rearing up out of the water like aquatic prairie dogs, barking and shouting in a very unfriendly way. Their teeth are yellow, their eyes are red and and their claws look sharp enough to rip your stomach open with a single swipe. The Spanish name for the giant otter is lobo de agua, the water wolf.
“We are too near the pups. We will back off gently,” says Diego quietly. “They can attack the canoe from underneath and sometimes they are strong enough to turn us over.”
Images of the seven of us thrashing around in the dark waters while sinewy fur streaks slip and swirl around in the gloom, scratching, biting, butting. Blood clouds, bubbles, piranhas clustering, alligators slipping in from the shores.
We retreat back some meters and then the otters all submerge, and unsure whether we are about to get torpedoed from beneath, we brace. The rest of the family melts away back into the mangroves. The sounds of the forest return. No otter faces emerge and we are left in stasis, silent, slightly shaken, awestruck by this close-up encounter with such an magnificent mammal.
Onwards we paddle down these lost waterways, heading deeper into the wilderness, or so it it feels though I have no cardinal reference points. Have we crossed into Colombia or Peru? I have no idea how Diego can navigate in this world, so far away from our lodge, where trees are dense and prolific, where water and land merge into unsubstantial floating vegetation, where secret channels hide beyond curtains of hanging foliage.
We push our canoe through gaps between tree roots and bushes, we duck low branches. “Careful!” Diego whispers, “Don’t touch!”
There is a seemingly impenetrable wall of leaves that Diego wants us to pass through at one point. We paddle the canoe straight for it and then like magic we glide right through to find ourselves in a deep and silent black pool encircled by the most ancient looking buttressed trees. It is the stuff of fairy tales. As we look around awestruck, absorbing the enchantment, there is a noise. A yelp, hoarse and high, then another louder one. What is this?
It takes me a moment to realise that this cry is not an aquatic mammal guarding its territory, but my daughter. She is sobbing in high gulps and tearing at her top. The foliage that we just brushed through is home to a colony of fire ants and many of them are now trying to colonise Matilda. They are roaming inside her clothes, biting and stinging her back and chest. She screams.
Then I feel it too. I have several inside my collar and they really fucking hurt. The bites burn, like, like… fire!
We settle, we moor up, we console Matilda, we scratch our wounds. We are tired from paddling so we fish for piranhas, using old bacon on handheld lines. The fish are too cunning for us though. Within seconds of putting the line down into that febrile water, there are tugs and shivers, the bacon is surgically stripped away, but the hook keeps comes up empty. Down in the murky depths beneath us there is a lot of movement.
Matilda is still whimpering and writhing. Menna is bent over her like a mother chimpanzee, stroking her, grooming her, pulling off ants. We have spotted a huge spider lurking immobile on a tree root right next to our canoe and it’s mildly freaking everyone out. I need the loo. We are stiff but we cannot stretch out, any attempt to leave this small craft means stepping into a hostile quagmire, sinking down into a seething mulch of hungry creatures.
This right here, I think to myself, is what exploring is really about. Unimaginable beauty, true wilderness but it must be paid for in the currency of discomfort, fear and danger. I feel proud that my children have paid the price and will take these moments back into the world with them. We go adventuring to collect vivid memories and experience the rush of extreme sensations, but it is not always fun in the moment. No-one is relaxed in our canoe right now – except Diego who is impervious to discomfort.
On our way back we come across another otter lodge. This time we are at just the right distance. Close enough to see the full antics, far away enough not to pose a threat. We see the otters climbing up the bank and slithering down, playing, messing around. They are submerging themselves and rolling, wallowing in the muddy shallows. Sometimes they appear to be laughing.
Humans are not well equipped to deal with the nocturnal environment. This becomes ever more apparent as we grope our way along the jungle path; leaves, creepers, spider webs tickling our faces in the darkness. We inch forwards following the intermittent light of Diego’s torch somewhere up ahead, weaving through tangled silhouettes like a willow the wisp.
We have seen frogs and spiders tonight – lots of spiders – mainly venomous. Scorpions too. We have watched seething lines of ants devouring cicadas on a thorn tree. I have come face to face with a snake (type unknown) that uncoiled itself and slithered away between the tree roots with impressive speed, leaving me frozen, crouching in an awkward unbalanced position, unnerved and very glad that it had chosen not to insert its fangs in my unprotected nose. There were slithery movements in the rivulets that could have been caimans or anacondas or perhaps they were just forest rats.
Despite Diego’s requests for us to stay together and stay silent, the two Ecuadorean girls in our party are doing a lot of nervous whispery chatter and occasional screams. I am worried that their noise will scare away any of the more interesting nocturnal sightings: armadillos, tapirs, big cats.
Diego stops to give a hushed lecture about a chrysalis and I wander on a few paces ahead. I slip round a corner and then I am alone. I hold my torch clenched in my fist, so my hand glows red and thin spears of light emerge out from between my fingers. It is dim enough to protect my night vision but just enough to make out a ghostly path.
I can still hear the group talking behind me and I have an urge to get away from the voices. I push on down the track. I have this vision of slipping away and communing somehow with the forest, silently becoming part of the ecosystem. A witness to prowling shadows as they slip through the glades. Perhaps I will come face to face with a jaguar. We will look into each others’ eyes and share some timeless moment of mutual understanding. I will come back wiser and wilder, with the faraway look of the forest shaman.
And now suddenly the daydream is real and I am totally alone. No sounds, no lights. I switch off my torch and stand there silently in the utter darkness. I can see a few faraway stars through gaps in the canopy, but their light does not penetrate to the forest floor. I wait to see the jungle come alive.
And all around life surges forward.
In the absence of sight all noise is magnified and takes on a layered texture. Slithering, rustling, croaking, calling, twitching, scratching, trilling, growling, chirping. It’s like a three dimensional world builds suddenly outwards, like a radar view or a heat map. A contoured living landscape all around me, seething and moving.
Then a heavy foot cracks a twig not far away and at the same time there is a significant squelching sound to my left. Something else runs across the back of my neck and immediately all my zen is lost. I am suddenly very scared. Everything around here is predatory or poisonous. I am the only creature here without decent teeth or claws. I have no finely calibrated flight reflexes. All I have is a finely-tuned imagination and it is going wild right now.
I remember Diego’s story about a guide who took a wrong path and was lost in the jungle for three weeks. He emerged like a skeleton, half-deranged, with broken fingers, fungal infections and supporating insect bites.
I switch my torch on and shine it around wildly. Too fast! Was that glittering the reflection of eyes in the torch beam, or was it moisture dripping off leaves? I run back down the track. But is it back? Which way did I come from?
And then I round a curve and I have found a kind of safety, clattering into the group who are now discussing a fungus. “Shhh!” says Diego. I pant and edge my way into the safety of the herd.
“Are you scared Daddy?” Says Matilda. “It’s ok. You can hold my hand”
Diego played a trick on us yesterday. “Press this root to your forehead,” he told us, handing around something like a small spongy potato, “You will feel a tingle, but then the ancient wisdom of the forest will flow into you.” This morning we all have indelible purple stains on our foreheads yet none of us are any wiser.
It seems that we must seek the wisdom of the forest elsewhere. So today we will go to see the shaman.
There is an indigenous community that lives half a day’s hike away, deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. There, away the flow of modern life, Siona tribesmen and women still maintain the old traditions.
“But will we corrupt them with our gadgetry and western free-market ideology?” I whisper to Diego. “They are not children. And they are not so isolated any more,” he says, “they go to upriver to the town sometimes when they have money, and the government have even given the village a computer with internet to educate the kids. Also los petroleros are often there.” “Really? Oil men? I thought this was a nature reserve” “Yes, it is. But still there is drilling. Much of the forest here is supposed to be for the indigenous communities but the government is greedy, they squeeze the territory and the oil companies come in. You know about Texaco?” “I know they have a load of gas stations in the UK.” “They were the big oil company here, they built Lago Agrio, the town that we passed through. They drilled in the Amazon for many years and during this time they spilled many millions of gallons of oil in the forest and created crazy amounts of pollution. Toxic waste pits, villages abandoned, whole rivers contaminated. In 2011 there was a law suit against them and they were ordered to pay nine billion dollars of damages for the pollution they had caused. But they had already pulled out from Ecuador. They left nothing behind except mess, and still not one dollar has been paid.” I have not seen Diego angry before.
We head out of the back of the lodge, straight into deep vegetation. We cross a tributary river in a small canoe, Arthur and Diego acting as ferrymen for the rest of the group. Then further and deeper into the forest we go. There is muddy path and there is marshy path, and there is the quicksand path which Diego tests with a stick before deciding to take a detour.
It is humid as we walk – oppressively so – we are soon sweating. Mosquitos and flies attack. The jungle buzzes and trills and rustles all around. We must be careful never to grab branches, even when we slip. There might be thorns or poison ivy on those branches, there might also be bullet ants or fire ants, tarantulas, wolf spiders, eyelash vipers, vine snakes or bushmasters. This place is beautiful but deadly.
At one point Arthur screams and we all freeze. He has kicked at a branch that lay across the path, and a cluster of fine thorns have punctured his Wellington boot, going straight through the rubber into his toes. He cannot take the boot off, it is literally pinned in place. Diego has to remove more than twenty needles before Arthur can wriggle his bleeding foot out. I consider what protection our feet have from snake fangs if thorns can slip through so easily.
We make the village by early afternoon, damp with sweat, muddy, scratched. We find a rudimentary set of wood buildings randomly placed around a grassy clearing, some wooden canoes tied to a jetty. Most of the huts are thatched but some have aluminum roofs, “Given by the oil firms” mutters Diego. The local kids run and hide when they see the rabble of muddy ecotourists that have invaded their village. We hear them giggling from behind bushes and outhouses. Someone throws a tamerind over at us.
Diego leads us to a long building in the village centre. There are no windows and it is dark and smokey inside. Despite the heat outside there is a fire burning, red embers heaped up and glowing upon a raised platform. The air is thick with smoke, we see tendrils curling up to the roof illuminated by sparse light beams that pierce the thatch.
An amerindian lady is waiting for us in traditional dress. She says some words of welcome then promptly puts us all to work. Under her grave instructions we pick yams, we peel, wash and grate them, sift and pat the flour into balls which are then flattened out and cooked over the open fire. The result is a dry chewy cassava pancake, which we eat with tuna salad and chili sauce. It’s really good.
The shaman comes in after lunch. He is small and stocky but light on his feet, decked in jaguar claws and floral wreaths, his face lined with druidic wisdom and years of ayahuasca. He takes his place in the centre of the hut, and we, poor sinners, arrange ourselves cross-legged at his feet.
The shaman talks long about the spirits of the forest and cures to modern ailments that might be found in realigning the spirit and balancing natural energy flows. Diego translates for us. He speaks about his peregrinations in time and space. He touches upon Covid and how it ravaged the Indian communities and then he shows us the antidote that he has concocted. A dark jar is passed around in which lie various roots and leaves, some foul smelling liquid, the body of a scorpion. It has stopped the infection and saved many lives we are told. We may buy a bottle for $10.
The shaman shows us his art. He performs purification rituals on many of us. It is a eerie process involving chanting and dancing, hand movements that channel the air around, gentle beating with sticks and leaves, then a finale that involves an iron grip on my temples and long rasping inhalations, as if the shaman is sucking evil vapors right out of my skull. I have crazy tingles running down my spine.
We are all given a thimble full of ayahuasca from another brown bottle that the shaman passes around. It tastes of bitter cough syrup. He tells us about the role of this powerful psychedelic drug in the indigenous community. It is taken as part of a ceremonial passage of manhood and it brings truth and self-knowledge to the tribesmen. As a healer he takes ayahuasca regularly to diagnose conditions of the spirit and understand hidden illnesses. We are not given enough of a dose to trip out properly, no-one journeys to the ethereal plane. The kids are disappointed not to even have any mild hallucinations, but we have a long jungle hike ahead and I suppose it’s for the best.
The shaman asks if anyone among us needs healing. Arthur’s hand shoots up immediately; the shaman gives him a long silent look. “What ailment troubles you child?” he asks wordlessly. “I have… a bad knee,” Arthur says and limps over to the healing stool. The shaman looks grave. He stands behind Arthur and peers into his soul for a while. Then he starts to chant, placing hands upon Arthurs leg, drawing out the evil. He pulls out a selection of herbs and leaves from his bag, which he ties up into a bouquet. Then he proceeds to beat Arthur’s leg and knee, softly at first and then harder and harder, singing loudly. For a long time this goes on until Arthur is grimacing in pain and his eyes are shiny with tears.
Later outside Arthur shows me his leg. It is red and sore, covered in grazes. The astringent herbs have left a violent rash of raised white bumps like nettle stings all over his knee and thigh. “It burns!” he tells me. “Artie, I never knew you had a bad knee,” I say with sympathy. “You managed that hike well.” “Huh, oh yeah. Well. It’s pretty painful.” “Even worse now I bet!” “Yeah!” “You made it up to get some shaman magic didn’t you?” “No.” “Didn’t you?” “Ok. Yes.” “Foolish child! You thought you could trick him? His ancient eyes can read the secrets of your soul as if it were a kid’s comic! Of course he knew you were faking it. He has beaten you with poison leaves to teach you a valuable lesson in life. Neverlie to a shaman!”
When morning breaks we are stiff and grumpy. We have been tossed around on dirt roads all night, jolted over speed bumps, woken by angry motorbikes buzzing past us in the darkness. We’ve passed through roadblocks and forded rivers, squirming all the while, trying to find comfy positions in the back of the bus while the children’s heads loll like pendulums with each turn. I feel like every spring of that worn seat has scored its curved imprint into my buttocks.
We all spill out into the village at dawn. Buildings on stilts list heavily over the river, peeling paint, warped boards, lianas tangled round gables. The water moves past, thick like treacle. Somewhere above us we hear the metallic skiffle of iguana claws on corrugated roofs.
We eat breakfast in a dusty wood space looking out into jungle: rice and beans, guava juice, a small cup of instant coffee. Talk is limited. There is an outhouse with a toilet back in the woods, but it doesn’t flush and everyone needs to go.
Deep in the Putumayo region, somewhere near the Colombian border, this village has no name on the map. It is merely a stop off point on the Cuyabeno river, a jump-off point into the Amazon, a backwater in the truest sense of the word.
A motorized canoe glides up and moors on the jetty. We board clumsily. We are handed lifejackets and ponchos, our luggage is stowed under tarps. I look around at my companions properly in the daylight. There is my family, looking dazed and pale, two Ecuadorean girls chattering, a young looking boy from Norway and our guide, Diego, a slight, elfin character, alert and bird-like. At the tiller is Carlos, our local riverman. He has broad impassive indigenous features, a wide white-toothed grin, bare feet.
Then we cast off and we enter a new world.
The river is bronze and torpid (“Café con leche water, rich in tannins and sediment,” says Diego) but then we skim through patches of black ink (“Agua negra, poor sediment. See how it is thin…”). All traces of mankind disappear behind us, we see no more villages, just thick curtains of leaves. The canoe glides along with a growl, banking around the bends in smooth lazy curves. Occasionally we cross another canoe and sometimes Carlos waves or shouts a greeting in local dialect. Mainly the river runs slick and silent around us, bubbling and swirling, merging into low hanging branches and shrubbery that in turn blend up into endless stories of green primary growth.
We see many wild things on that first voyage. Diego runs a low commentary, voice rising to signify the rarity of the target, pointing and calling, directing Carlos from one side of the river to the other, doubling back for a missed monkey troupe or to investigate a rustling in the bushes. Six or seven types of monkey we spot, deer, Ananinda birds, ancient prehistoric turkeys, kingfishers, spiders an eagle? Arthur wakes up, becomes more and more animated, pointing and chirping like a little cricket: “Is that a white-throated toucan Diego?”
At one point the grey skies above us open up and we cruise on through a deluge, everyone scrambling to put on black rubber ponchos, peering out from under dripping hoods. All sounds recede beyond the drumming of droplets on wet tarp. Birds disappear, movements on the river are masked by the splashing. Carlos grins and guns the boat forward through vertical sheets of water.
Our lodge is a fairly rudimentary affair. A boathouse by the riverside with a couple of hammocks and some bare wooden steps. A raised duckboard trail leads around a square of cleared grassland wherein lie piles of lumber, home no doubt to various highly venomous snakes. There is a feeling of jungle torpor, the smell of decay and lethargy. A basic canteen area houses a long single table and benches. There is a row of thatched cabins with dormitory style rooms. We have a double bed and two singles in our bedroom, each tented with a mosquito net. The walls are bare, there are no shelves, no chairs, a basic bathroom out back. No electricity of course, except for two hours in the evening when the diesel generator is switched on to charge cameras and essentials. There is no phone signal, no hot water, no WiFi. This is the Amazon. “We are explorers!” I tell the kids, “Not poolside lounge lizards.” Matilda gives me one of her most lizard-like looks: “I am not an explorer,” she says, flicking out a forked tongue, “long live lounging!”
We’re back in the canoe a few hours later, venturing down sinuous tributaries, spotting an anaconda curled on a submerged branch; pink river dolphins breaching in the distance; a mother sloth with cubs on her back. “Is it a Hoffman’s two-toed sloth Diego?” asks Arthur. “Show-off” I mutter.
And then we round a bend and we’re at an unexpected lake. It is vast, lost somewhere deep in the forest, encircled by ancient woods. A flood plain, Diego tells us, those floating bushes we see are actually the canopies of tall submerged trees. We dive off the canoe and swim. The water is sweet to the taste and I imagine it rich and dense, teeming with a million bacteria, microbes, nematodes, wild diseases that they don’t even have names for yet. The sun is setting and the lake water is dark around us. We see dolphins breaching in the distance, I am sure that they are not the only creatures splashing here. Arthur and Matilda turn into river otters, they dive in time and time again, duck each other, scream, laugh, try to pull Diego into the water, dive down to find river weed. I am happy to return to the boat after a few minutes. Menna does not go in.
Later over dinner, Diego asks us to guess what creatures were swimming with us in that lake.
Piranhas? “Of course! The piranhas are everywhere in the river. Maybe we will go fishing for them tomorrow.” Crocodiles? “Caimans in fact. Especially the black caiman. It is the largest one – up to six meters long. He will grab you with his jaws then twist and roll to break your bones. Then he pulls you down under to drown. For large mammals like you, he would probably store you underwater a while to rot before eating. What else?” Anacondas? “Yes too. They will be hunting once the sun falls. We saw one once the length of three men, round as a barrel in the middle where it was digesting something… big. There are many snakes there in the water too, coral snake, water moccasin, maybe boas.” Beavers? “No. River otters though, very aggressive. Will fight a jaguar. Other reptiles? “On the mud bottom you will find electric eels. They use low voltage electricity to sense and to hunt, kind of like a radar. Then they can generate a high voltage charge, enough to stun a tapir. They have a suction bite so they clamp on to their prey, then they can shock again and again. No charger needed!” Oh good. What else? “The most dangerous of all… the candiru, the toothpick fish. Never pee in the Amazon! He will swim up your urine and right up into your, ahem… penis! And he sticks out his sharp umbrella spines so you cannot pull him out again. Then my friends, he will start to eat…”
When the conversation dies down we go to bed, for there is nothing else to do. It is dark and there are no lights in our cabin. Despite the overnight bus ride and the long day we have just had, sleep does not come easily. We lie for some time under our mosquito nets listening to the sound of the jungle around, imagining snakes on the floorboards and tarantulas under the pillows, feeling river-borne parasites squirming in our guts.
Our dreams when they come are slow and heavy: brown waters and submerged coils, shadowy shapes moving in the murky depths, the lighting flash of the electric eel, that first agonizing bite of the bloody toothpick fish…
We pace around the van discussing next steps as the sun sinks in the west. All options seem to involve me trekking off alone into the sunset, either up or down the mountain, for 20km or so. But before I can set off, salvation arrives. And salvation looks like an old and battered pickup truck full of melons. I place myself in the middle of the road and flag it down enthusiastically. It grinds up the road at a walking pace and eventually clatters to a halt pretty much at my feet. Two small Inca faces peer up at me from under woolen bobble hats, eyes barely visible above the dashboard.
“We have a problem! The car is broken. Much smoke, much bang bang! It won’t start any more” I tell the driver in a rush. “Ah,” he says and nods. “And our phones do not work here!” “Oh,” he says and blinks. “Do you think you can help us?” I add. He gives me a cautious look. “But I am not mechanic…” “But you can take me up there to the village. Perhaps I can find a mechanic there who will help.” “I am not sure. I don’t think so,” he turns his dark eyes towards his wife and a look of reluctance passes between them. This gringo will only cause us problems, the look says, we need to get our melons to market. “The village is very small,” he tries.
There may not be another car for hours and the sun is falling fast. The melons will keep. I open the back door and hop in. “Let us try!” I say brightly.
I look out at Menna and she gives me a small nod. “Don’t be too long!” she says in that cheery voice she uses when she finds herself stranded in the mountains as darkness falls but is trying not to worry the kids.
Conversation doesn’t exactly flow in the melon truck as we rattle our way slowly up the road. My attempts to engage my rescuers are met with grunts. I find out that the driver’s name is Edgardo, or maybe Gerardo or Eduardo, his wife does not have a name. She mutters quiet things to him, occasionally dials numbers on a cell phone and holds it to his ear, while he grunts and nods and says single syllable words that do not correspond to any version of Spanish that I know. They are heading to a place that sounds something like Loochattychooga. I cannot find it on my map.
It takes us forty minutes to reach a small collection of adobe plaster houses that is the nearest village. We cruise straight on through. “Wait Edgardo. You are not stopping! I need to get out!” “Small village. No one here to help you.” “But where we will go?” “There is another town. Will go there. My brother can help.” “Help how? Is he a mechanic?” “No. But… a friend… a truck”.
Another half hour later we are parked on the roadside in an equally tiny town. I am not sure what is happening. No-one is saying anything.“Is he coming Edgardo?” “We will see him soon I think.” “My friend, I am a little bit worried because I have had to leave my wife and my children on the mountain and it is getting dark and it might be dangerous.” “Yes.” ”Is it dangerous you think?” ”Yes.” ”When do you think he will come?”. He thinks a little. “Ahorita…”
Ah, ahorita, ahorita, that word so beloved by the Latin Americans. It means now-ish; a little while ago; soon perhaps; at some vague point in the future or in the past. When did your car break down? Ah ahorita… When will you rescue your stranded family? Peroahorita! When will you grow up William? Beh, ahorita?
Five minutes pass slowly. “Edgardo, I think I might leave you now and see if there is anyone else who can help.” “No-one else.” “I just feel that I must go back to my car before it gets too dark. Maybe we will leave the car and get a taxi back to our hostel” “A taxi?” “Is there a taxi here do you think?” “No.” “Ok, maybe I will just go and talk to some people. See if someone will give me a ride,” I get out of the car and look around the deserted town for some people to talk to. There is a sad looking guy sitting on a bench across the road and that’s about it. “Where is the best place to go and find help?” “Is ok Don William. Tranquilo. My brother…help you.”
Edgardo whispers something on his phone and passes it to his wife. He gets out and walks across the road to the man on the bench. They exchange a sentence or two, then they stand in silence for a while, looking at the floor, both nodding slightly. Then he walks slowly back to his melon truck.
“Soon now.” “Oh ok. Are we sure about this? How do we know?” “My brother’s friend… the truck.” “He will come… Ahorita?” “Si. Ahorita!” “So your brother will come together with his friend in the truck?” Edgardo looks confused. “My brother is there Don William…” He waves a hand at the quiet man on the bench opposite, who looks back but does not make any sign of acknowledgment. “Oh, I see.”
I have lost control of the situation. My family is abandoned on a hillside far away and I am kicking my heels in an empty town, waiting for a melon farmer’s brother’s friend to arrive in a truck – probably some ancient beast. And I don’t see how a truck is even going to help anyway, unless it contains a new minivan engine. We need a mechanic. Or a taxi. And I don’t like being called Don William, it makes me feel colonial. I consider abandoning Edgardo and… what? Walking another 20km to the next town?
A small group of ladies come walking past and attracted by the pile of melons they stop and cluster round the van. There is some excited chat. Edgardo’s brother comes across the street and the men stand together in silence while the nameless wife haggles sharply and sells a few melons. “Hey at least you’ve got rid of some melons hey Edgardo!” I say, feeling isolated, wanting some chat. He looks at me, then says something to the crowd and there is a burst of chatter and laughter. For the first time I see my new friend smile. “Not melons Don William.” He says with an exaggerated slowness, as if taking to an infant, or a naive western tourist clearly out of his depth, “They are squashes!” And the laughter erupts again.
Then with a sudden roar and a cloud of dust, a tow truck bursts onto the scene. It is like the cavalry sweeping into town. The truck is shiny white with polished chrome, exotic wing mirrors and the name “Rafaelita” written in ornate Italic script on the windshield. RESCATE! it shouts from the door panels – rescue! It gleams with the promise of salvation and redemption. A powerful winch is mounted on the yellow flat-bed. It is driven by a gum-chewing lad of about fourteen.
Knowing now that I will return victorious to my family, riding this roaring chrome beast, I swell up with emotion and gratitude. I try to press a twenty dollar bill upon Edgardo but he throws his hands up in horror, refusing to take it. “No necessary Don William!” So I pump him by the hand and give it instead to his wife, whose hand flickers out like a cobra and secretes the note away before I can blink.
I feel even more like a colonial now. I doubted the locals, I did not trust them. I was unable to understood their quiet patient rhythms. All those secret muttered calls, that silent brotherly communion, discrete SOS messages pulsing through the mountain network. As I thought myself lost and neglected they were working to save me! Rescate!
The fourteen year old driver is called Mario and he is has a welcome no-nonsense attitude. After a brisk negotiation we settle upon a $70 pick up fee, and off we skid, waving fond goodbyes to all of my new friends.
And so, some forty minutes later, I return to my family riding high in the pickup cab, like a returning general at the head of an armoured artillery column. And they haven’t been mugged or murdered but are sitting playing I-Spy in the car, Arthur’s bush knife placed on the seat within easy reach, just in case.
In no time at all Mario has expertly winched up the minivan onto the back of his truck and we are homeward bound, roaring confidently round sharp bends, back to the hostel and our safe beds. Matilda and I drive with Mario in the cab and Menna and Arthur get to ride up back in minivan, swaying around the corners and giving us excited smiles and thumbs up signs through the rear view mirror.
As we drive we watch the last of the sunset disappearing in lurid blazes behind the immense peak of Volcano Cotopaxi. “Sky like this, Don William, we call it is the Ecuadorean flag,” says Mario, who I realise is not chewing gum at all, but tobacco.
He points out at the sunset “See! The bands of gold and blue and red. Like the flag.” He thumps his chest. “This is our country. This is Ecuador”
The Quilotoa crater lake is mind-blowing. It glows with a strange blue luminescence as if some nuclear reactor lies hidden beneath that menacingly still surface. Perhaps it hides the subaquatic lair of some supervillain. Perhaps it truly is a bottomless gateway to the underworld, as the locals believe. We trek right down the crater to make sure, but it does appear to just be a lake. We have a picnic beside it and try not to think too much about the impending hike back up the sheer goat path to our car at the top. We are at over four thousand meters of altitude here and breathing is not easy.
Eventually we have to face up to our destiny. The hike up the cliffs is every bit as lung-busting as we feared. Every hundred meters we halt and pant and suck on one of the old Lifesaver sweets that I have found in my jacket pocket. Around one bend in the path we come across a toothless old indigenous lady brewing tea. She commutes here by bus from a far away town, she tells us, and walks down the mountain to this lonely path every day – with all her cooking equipment on her back – to sell refreshments to passing hikers. This is how Ecuador works. We bought a couple of cups of coca leaf brew with my last dollar, and thus fortified we find strength to make the summit.
You can trek the Quilotoa Loop over about five days. It is a meandering circuit through a string of traditional Andean villages that encircle the crater. We are short of time though, and we have wheels, so we decide to drive around the loop over the course of an afternoon.
The landscape is fascinating in the way that photos and descriptions can never quite capture. It’s something about the altitude, the beauty, the excitement, the lack of oxygen, the proximity to the sun. It all combines to give a bubbly visceral feeling, a heightened sensory awareness. Or maybe it was just the coca tea. The pastures are greener than we have seen before, the canyons deeper, sudden drop-offs loom where there is nothing beyond the road-edge but air and gravity. We take in winding rivers, winding roads, huge birds of prey, prismatic sun effects. We pass through tiny villages of white plaster where livestock wanders out of yards and onto the roads. We see men in traditional dress working those chilly sunlit mountain top fields
For a couple of hours we meander along hairpin roads where every turn shows the mountain in new light, folded like origami, some faces bright, others in shadows. We roar down steep descents and then inch up long climbs, grumbling in the low gears. Vultures float on the updraft. The wind roars.
Then we hear a new sound through our open windows. A throaty gutteral whine, a cry of distress and pain. It grows louder and more urgent.
Our van is singing a sad song, choking and shuddering. The whine becomes a roar, a scream, then a metallic death rattle. Smoke pours out of the bonnet. There is a grinding vibration, a cough, a muffled explosion.
The engine cuts out. We coast in sudden silence. Birdsong flows back in through the open windows. Acrid fumes of burnt oil and solvents float around us.
The wheel gets very heavy in my hands and I have to drop one shoulder and wrestle it. We roll back down the hill and onto the verge, leaving a mess of oily tracks smeared on the tarmac. The wheels crunch over gravel. Then we stop.
We hop out and take a look under the bonnet, as if we understood engines, as if we were going to perform some miracle roadside repair using twigs and stones. All we see is a mess of black pipes and pistons shaking and smoking and smelling, a fan still turning, oil dripping down onto the road.
We are in a fix. This is remote mountain territory and Menna’s phone has no signal (mine has not worked for weeks). Our map shows the nearest village is about 20km away and the bunched contour lines suggest that this will be a steep uphill trek. We are on the equator, so the sun sets just after six o clock every day. It is now approaching five. We know that darkness will fall very quickly once the sun drops below the mountain line.
Ecuador is not the most dangerous of all the Latin American countries but it is certainly not somewhere you hang out alone on the roadside after dark
There is a shared memory that floats unspoken between Menna and I. We have been here before. It was back in 2005, up in the northern Nicaraguan badlands near the Honduran border. That day we had driven down from El Salvador, twelve hours straight, with still another four hours to go before we made Managua. Darkness was falling then too when I crashed our jeep into the back of a truck which had abruptly stopped on a hill top and had no brake lights. The impact left our front grill and radiator smashed, the bonnet crumpled, the axel off kilter. The truck had no plates either and it took off again soon after, once the driver had given me some frank opinions on my driving.
We were left deep in bandido territory with all of our worldly possessions in the car. There was no other option but to leave Menna guarding our stuff – armed with our machete and an iron bar we carried for security – while I headed off down the road to find help.
This time we have no iron bar with us, nor a machete. Arthur has his bush knife though. This will have to do.
The river surges around us like angry whipped chocolate. It is muddy, foamy, bubbling, fast. There are grey skies and driving rain above, grey rocks and churning water below. Either side of us the river cliffs loom up into steep forested banks that then fade into mountain mist. We are somewhere on the Rio Pastaza, at the edge of the Amazon Basin, bumping along in an inflatable dingy.
There are six of us in the boat. I’m up front with Spanish buccaneer, Fernando. Menna and Arthur sit in the middle, Matilda and Captain in the rear. It is the end of the rainy season and the water is high and fast. There are no less than three rescue kayaks around us.
We received instructions and a safety briefing before we set out. When the Captain says paddle we must row as if our lives depended on it. Fernando and I must shout time: ‘One-two! One-two! One-two!’ to set the tempo. If any of us should go under water then there is a rescue protocol: don’t panic, float on our backs until the kayak finds us, wrap arms and legs around the nose of the kayak so as not to flip it too. Allow them to transport you to safety. It all seemed easy on dry land. None of us thought to ask what happens if the boat capsizes and all six of us are floundering around in the rapids.
“What is the minimum age for this tour anyway?” I had asked when the minibus picked us up from the hotel at 5am. “Well. How old are your kids?” “Arthur is ten and Matilda is nine.” “Oh. Have they done rafting before?” “No.” “Can they swim?” “Yes. No! Well sort of. In a swimming pool they can swim fine, probably not in a fast moving river.” “So they can swim. It is ok. They will be fine.”
Now, as we hurtle between rocks and the raft bumps into the hollows beneath standing waves, I can barely maintain my balance sitting up on the hull, one foot hooked under the central thwart. How will Matilda manage? Every time I turn around she looks frozen in fear and misery. She has given up paddling all together. The captain gives her words of encouragement but she just nods dumbly, unhearing, bounced around like a doll on a trampoline.
One member of our rescue team is a real kayak virtuoso. He hits the rapids with gusto, spinning and pirouetting, finding unexpected lines through the waves. He is also our photographer. We see him putting himself right into the middle of the most frenzied torrents, then flicking his kayak around so he can take pictures of us as we come hurtling down towards him. “Cheese!” He shouts as we paddle in fear of our lives. “Cheese!”
We go into a long section of waterfalls and whirlpools where all is noise and motion: ramping up wave faces, scraping past rocks, spinning one direction then another. Then we are in the calm of a pool and we clash our oars above the boat in the ritual high-five. We drift. Arthur behind me whoops and cheers, a huge grin plastered across his face. Is it river water on Matilda’s cheeks or tears?
The youngest member of the rescue team has been flipped though and remains inverted, trapped upside down in the water for a long half-minute, his kayak bobbing around in the rapids. Eventually his helmeted head pops up, spluttering, further downstream. Abandoning his boat he splashes over to shore and crawls into the shallows coughing. He looks scared. “This one is Pancho” Says Captain indulgently, “It is his first time.” Our rescue kayaker has never done this before?
The other two safety boats set off to retrieve the loose kayak, now drifting off downstream. Captain beaches our raft in the shallows and has some stern words with Pancho in some Ecuadorean dialect I don’t understand. We rest for a while before setting off again. “We have no support now,’” growls Captain. “Be careful.”
On we go through smooth passages where we glimpse egg shaped stones scattered like treasure beneath the water, then through angry, ugly sections where craters and boils appear, boulders jut out and the water surges up in white columns, spray and chaos. The rescue team swarm around us again.
We haul ourselves through a whirlpool where waterlogged trunks roll around like turds in an endless flush, and here Pancho somehow smashes one of his blades. He holds his paddle aloft helplessly, shouting out something which I interpret to mean “I can no longer turn! I am scared! Help!”. Photographer is up ahead, he turns and butts his way back upriver like a salmon leaping against the flow. He pulls alongside Pancho and swaps paddles, then skims off again with bravado. Having only half a paddle doesn’t seem to diminish his abilities, he changes his grip and uses it Indian style, holding the good blade down and deploying it one side of the boat then the other. “Cheese!” He shouts, taking a photo over his shoulder as he surfs down a rocky bank.
There are patches of river far ahead where the horizon is a blur of spray and mist and rain so sky and water are indistinguishable. It is the end of the world. There could be some epic waterfall there, white curtains roaring, smashing into dark rocky basins. Perhaps this is Captain’s surprise finale! I imagine our raft floating down white cascades like an Indiana Jones movie: gravity washed away, icy river water in our faces, lives flashing before our eyes.
We survive another heavy section of river. “That was grade IV,” says Captain with grim satisfaction. “From here on we can drift. You have made it. Well done!”
Pancho has a final trick for us. We hear his cries and turn around to see that he has managed to lose his new paddle and has grounded his kayak on a rock in the middle of the rapids. He sits there miserable, while the wild waters churn around him, unwilling to rock himself off his perch and fall back into the seething white foam.
Captain shrugs. We all laugh. “Hey Pancho!” shouts Photographer, pointing his camera, “Cheese!”. And even Matilda manages a little smile.
“There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
We drive up to Alausí to ride the fearsome Devil’s Nose train. El Nariz del Diablo is a hairpin, switchback railroad that winds its way up a vertiginous cliff. The turns, they say, are so extreme that the train must be shunted off into sidings then backed up certain stretches before being refitted to the track. As you inch your way up the solid rock face you stare down into the precipice then outwards down the Avenida de los Volcanes, stretching away to a jagged horizon.
“Over 2,000 people died building this section of track,” I tell the children with relish, “Their bones are buried beneath the pilings. You could say it’s a real ghost train…” I permit myself a macabre laugh to underline this classic Dad joke. The kids are both glued to their screens and don’t respond. “We might be able to ride up on the roof if we bribe a guard,” I try after a pause, “but if we fall off, then we too will join the ghosts! Forever…’ Still nothing. I nudge Menna for a reaction, but she is not listening either. This is how conversations go some days.
We arrive at Alausí around sundown. It is a misty little town where pavements glisten and a hazy sodium glow sits round the streetlights like St Elmo’s fire. We see no humans at all as we drive through it. There is a huge statue of Jesus looming high above the town, he looks down sadly at the deserted streets, singling us out for a forlorn glance.
Our hostel owner is an old-timer from another century, dapper with neat white hair and a courteous welcome. He is assisted by a simple lad who charges up and attempts to sanitise us with a giant insecticide pump before we enter. We shoe him away, it is chill and damp enough already without being spritzed with cold disinfectant spray. “Es por la Covid” he mutters.
Señor Marco was a renowned marathon runner in his day and now coaches running clubs and schools around the district. His high altitude training programs produce top champions, he tells me. I prop up the bar and listen to his stories while Menna and the kids unload the car. He shows me a wall of black and white photos – runners grimacing, winners with arms aloft, grinning skinny kids brandishing medals while Señor Marco towers beaming in the background. There are many beautiful routes that we can run around here, or even – looking critically at me – walk. But we are not here to run, we are going to ride the famous train I tell him. A look of consternation crosses that rugged brow, his moustaches twitch.
“Pero señor William, ahora el tren no circula mas…”
“But the website says nothing about it being closed,” I protest, “they are selling tickets! Google Maps says it’s open – and, and Google knows everything!” I feel betrayed. Señor Marco shrugs apologetically and makes a gesture that somehow encompasses the untrustworthy nature of websites, the impossibility of train schedules, the transient nature of the world. I nearly join in on the punchline that I know is coming: “¡Es por la Covid!” Of course it fucking is.
“The ghost train is so ghostly that it’s no longer physically here,” I tell the kids. “It’s off running routes in the spirit world, carrying the souls of dead Ecuadorean labourers.” We have driven many miles to this damp little ghost town for nothing, I don’t add.
That night nothing is open in Alausí except a far-off pizzeria, which itself is pretending to be closed. The lights are off and tables and chairs are piled up high against the glass doors like a barricade. We order a couple of pizzas from a suspicious face in a trapdoor, then walk home in the rain, the boxes getting soggier with every step.
“The train is not all that there is here,” says Señor Marco thoughtfully over coffee next morning. He stares into space for a while, trying to remember what else there is too. I hold my breath. “There is a path!” He nods many times. “A path to where?” “A path up into the mountains. To a high mirador there where you can see condors. The views are maybe better even than from the train. It is only a short walk.” “So, how long is that?” “Short!” ”Short like say, half an hour?” “Short like say, three hours,” “Ah. I see. Short.”
Señor Marco leads us over to a large topographical map on his wall. He makes a large sweeping gesture that seem to encompass hundreds of square kilometres of mountain terrain. “This is where you will walk. I will take you there in my car.”
We argue briefly amongst ourselves. Matilda doesn’t want to go on any walk. Menna wants to get away early and is in some kind of stress about lunch. Arthur would like to scramble up the tracks of the defunct Nariz del Diablo train.
Señor Marco frowns and shakes his head, he does not think that any of these are good ideas. Too lazy, too dismissive, too steep, too many ghosts. His walk is the right option. Better, fresher, the views are the most magnificent. We will see condors, he reminds us, and that is that. “Let us get in the car.”
Señor Marco drives us over derelict rail tracks out to the edge of town. Alausí is griddled with rail line that run along the roads and score the squares. Tangles of tracks and sidings, roadside platforms, empty signal boxes. A couple of old style train carriages sit in the plaza mayor. Jesus is still looking mournful and we try not to catch his eye. In the daylight he appears to have moss growing on his face.
Menna is worried that we will get lost in the mountains, like we always do, but Senor Marco crouches down and traces a map in the dust with a stick. It is simple. We must follow a wiggly line that curls around a small pebble, then jerks upwards, twists to the left and ends in a clump of grass. We cannot go wrong. With this reassurance, we are gently shooed along like wayward children. Off we scamper, up the mountain trail pointing at butterflies and tripping each other over.
The Andes are truly stunning. Even after several weeks here, a sudden turn round a corner brings new perspectives that hit you viscerally. The far off pinnacles above are much higher than the Alps, less rounded than the Rockies. Peaks behind peaks, ravines within valleys. Rail lines score the greenery far below, zig-zagging up the opposing slopes. It is sunny and the birdsong is loud.
“Senor Marco is right!” we say to each other “Senor Marco knows”. We leave the damp town of Alausí behind us and trek upwards into sunlit pastures. We find the ridge, curl around the mountain top looking down upon folds and creases, following topographic swells where huge tectonic forces have rippled the bedrock, gullies where running water has eroded the granite. The ghost train moans it’s way up the opposite escarpment but we hardly notice.
For three and a half hours we trek. We find the mirador, it is a stone promontory jutting out over huge heights. There is a goat shack there and some locals are playing loud pan-pipe hits through a portable speaker. We buy bottled water and hot chocolate while women in ethnic dresses giggle at us. We hang out for a while with our binoculars ready, waiting to see those huge birds with the largest wingspan on earth.
The condors are away with the ghost train though, their mighty shadows circling overhead as it chugs its way over bone and cinder tracks in the dusky netherworld. Here in the sunlight there are only green finches and swallows, a distant falcon wheeling and circling above the valleys below.
We are not disappointed though. We are above the damp despair of Alausi, we have turned our back on sad Jesus. We have done with our legs what thousands of labourers died to mechanise. Between us unspoken is the oldest of all traveller cliches: it is the journey that counts – not the destination; never trophies nor trains nor condors. It is escape and freedom and all those ephemeral things that make kids roll their eyes when we talk about them.
The clouds are rolling in now and it looks like rain is coming, so we turn around and make our way back down the mountain.
A city visit is like a cardio blast in our otherwise fairly low-impact workout. This week we have two planned. We’ll go in, hit em hard and get out quickly. Maximum activity in a short burst: pounding the streets, circuits of the historic centre, galleries, squares, promenades, fighting beggars, hustling coin, running from the cops, that kind of stuff. It means wearing real shoes, and somehow they seem to be intolerably constrictive these days.
Two days we spend in Guayaquil, the bustling port in the south. It is Ecuador’s largest city, a place of size and verve with a one-way system that you can orbit for days, circling your destination in concentric circles that never quite arrive.
Sometime long ago in another life, I worked all night to grind out an essay on Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. The book is a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, describing the strange and fantastic cities of Kahn’s Mongol empire. “Cities like dreams,” says Marco Polo “are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
This is certainly a city of confusing perspectives and hidden vistas: folded over and backwards, layered above itself, running over hills and along the curves of the river. Raised pedestrian walkways float over dark docklands, streets are placed in geometrical grids that abruptly unwind into mounds of spaghetti, a picturesque hillside of coloured houses, when viewed up close, cracks into a network of alleyways and open doorways where voices call us from the shadows.
The heart of Guayaquil is the malécon, the boardwalk, recently refurbished and hailed as a blueprint for Latin American urban regeneration. It is a concrete snake that meanders along the shoreline, looking inwards at high-rise towers and outwards over an estuary where floating clumps of river weed drift like wraiths in the murky brown waters. A cable car is strung like a washing line between the two banks. There is also a giant Ferris wheel onto which we dutifully traipse, then inch our way around a giant hazy arc that gradually exposes all the circuitry of this sprawling urban motherboard. We complete the malécon, then climb a hill, then a city stairway , then a lighthouse for good measure (Menna always finds us a lighthouse to climb)
Satisfied we have reached the highest points of the city we descend to its bowels. We mash up the centuries in the Museo of Anthropologia y Arte Moderna (the MAAC dude!). There are dim rooms where mysterious pre-Colombian figurines glow under spotlights, ancient fertility statuettes loll around with voluptuous curves and spread legs. Deeper we go; further back in time: we find shamanic totems humming with malevolent power; obsidian blades to flay a man alive, shrunken heads grinning at us.
We round a corner and we are wrenched back into the twenty-first century: light, white walls, a pandemic-inspired multimedia portraiture exhibition, video exhibitions, a frenetic mosaic of faces. When finally we are spun around and ejected back out into the sunlight, the kids are inspired, chattery, dazzled.
We roll out of Guayaquil next day and take the switchback road over the mountains. We drive into cloud and thunder on an ominous stretch of road of where rockfalls and avalanches have obliterated the tarmac in several places. We join a ghostly convoy of cars in the mist, edging our way round the destroyed sections, the mud and rock piles worryingly fresh (are there survivors interred within?).
When we finally drop below the cloud line we find sunshine and eagles and all of the majesty of the Andes spread out beneath us. Pastures ripple off into the distance over huge geological folds. We pull over the car and stand in the biting cold, silently looking out at this amazing view. We wind our way down through countryside where great rocks surge out of the fields and llamas (yes llamas!) sulk on the roadside. We arrive at Cuenca, jewel of the south, home of the famous Cuenca Chicas, a renowned girl band of the early millennium years.
Cuenca is a leafy colonial town cut from a conquistador template that has been applied throughout Latin America (Antigua in Guatemala, San Cristobal in Mexico, Granada in Nicaragua…). Think balustraded arcades and walkways, arched squares and fountains, baroque cathedral domes, courtyard gardens behind shuttered walls, ornate street doors, shady pleasure gardens by the river.
“Traveling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents” mutters Marco Polo somewhere in the distance.
Again we spend a day walking the stone streets. Another art exhibition, at the Museo Municipal de Arte Moderna (the MMAM, ma’am). The spectrum is the theme here – we walk through rooms of green, cyan, magenta that are designed to follow the rainbow, though I am off on a nostalgia trip of the ZX Spectrum colour palate (64bit). We immerse ourselves, we touch, model, paint, we get our hands messy, take insta-friendly shots. We find the permanent exhibition and find more traditional art, primitivist Latin American landscapes with their stick figures, glossy leaf work, flat dimensions and complex textures. They are mesmerising and beautiful.
Menna can’t find a lighthouse so far inland but she takes us on a long walk along the river in search of another museum (closed!). She homes in on the cathedral instead, dragging us on circuits of the sacristy, dodging the beggars and asylum seekers that seek sanctuary in the doorways, trying to breach those great neo-classical towers. Fortunately it is too late, and the doors are bolted, we cannot climb up. It is siesta time.
And then we call time on the cultural tour, the urban diversion. We are going to head back out to the mountains now, see condors, find wild places. “Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased” says Calvino’s Kublai Kahn, and so here is our testimony. We will ride out from those great Ecuadorean cities in search of new adventures. Onwards, upwards and outwards we go.
“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”
“Maria!” calls Angel in a high falsetto. “Hola! Maria.” There is the sound of water trickling over leaves, wind in the canopy, far off birdsong. The forest is breathing around us but of Maria there is no sign. Arthur and I shuffle awkwardly but Angel gives us a reassuring smile. “Sometimes she is far away. She might need some time. Oh Mariiiia!” He cups his hands at his lips and lets out a mournful quavering hoot. “Venga, venga, venga!”
We walk up and down the forest trails following Angel. He rattles the tub of maggots, our gift. He makes his haunting calls. A perplexed note enters his voice, “Maria ¿donde estás? Yesterday she was just here,” and he indicates a thicket of vine leaves, as if we might pull aside that glossy curtain and find Maria crouched there, a wing coquettishly folded over her eyes. You found me!
“Who or what exactly is Maria anyway?” murmurs Arthur again. I shrug, I have no idea. Twice I have asked Angel this but he always responds in his birdwatcher’s whisper which, together with the thick Andean accent, makes things difficult. We should have done our research before the tour. “He just said something about pitta,” “Do you think you can just call a bird and it will come like a dog?” “It doesn’t appear that you can.”
Angel seems crestfallen. Our sighting of the prized Andean Cock of the Rock was only a flash of scarlet tail feathers and now Maria has let him down too. The tour is going badly. Angel Paz is a titan of the birdwatching world and he has a reputation to uphold, even if it’s only in front of two gringos who clearly know little about birds. We might still write disparaging things on Trip Advisor. He mooches along for a while, then he pulls himself out of his gloom, he smiles. “There is still the quails to see,” he says waving at the wooded ridge above us, “We will find the dark backed wood quail here. Very rare. Very beautiful. Come, come!” Onwards and upwards we trek.
But wood quails will not come out to play today either. They are away with Maria. We squat for a long time on a little mountain trail above a clearing where they ‘always’ come. Angel makes new bird calls; lower with staccato throat sounds.
Arthur and I have a moment of mild excitement when it seems that his calls are answered. The response draws closer. The creature that emerges from the bush is no quail alas, but clearly cut from Angel’s genetic cloth. Stocky, dark, dressed in forest green, eyes like woodland pools. “Mi hermano Rodrigo”, Angel mutters to us, and they converse for a while in low voices, pacing, shaking their heads. Then Rodrigo melts back off into the jungle, his clucking and whistling soon lost amid the leaves that rustle in the wind.
It is nearing ten o’clock now and we have been out here in the woods since half past five. Slow dawn hours watching for birds, but all we have actually seen so far is a single fleeting blaze of red tail feathers through a gap in the trees.
We have not had any breakfast yet, no coffee even. I am getting grumpy and Arthur is bored, snapping twigs and hurling pieces into the undergrowth, badly imitating Angel’s bird hoots. Angel himself is reduced to showing us videos on his phone of other more successful tours when rare and beautiful quails pecked around camouflaged ankles as real ornithologists tower serious and awkward above them, bristling with long lenses and military-grade optics.
After we have had enough of staring at leaves we drive up to the mountain lodge and Angel’s wife brews us a coffee. “We have a bird watching hide somewhere over there,” indicates Angel sadly, “perhaps you might see something. There are plenty of tanagers and hummingbirds who come. They are not rare of course but they are pretty…”
The bird hide blows our mind. Strange crucifix wood sculptures are staked out in the woods with bananas tied onto them. A vivid blizzard of birds swarm around, wheeling, landing, jousting, swooping; fighting balletic midair duels for a peck of gloopy banana. We see a toucan barbet, tanagers of all colours, golden orioles, a fairywren, cotingas, trogons. I fumble around with Menna’s camera, which I have borrowed, but the autofocus can’t cope with the frenetic motion and I give up quickly.
Later Angel and Rodrigo march us back into the forest, down to a gully where to their delight we see both Shakira and Beyoncé. We are told with some reverence that they are rufous antpittas: small round brown birds, neckless, tailless, long blue legs; quite plump and cute as they hop around on the forest floor, but perhaps a little unflattering to their namesakes.
Arthur and I try to look interested but really we just want to go back to that rainbow glade, sit with a coffee, watch those hypnotic streaks of colour shoot across the mottled green like a Jackson Pollock painting in motion.
Angel sits himself down on a stump and a kind of calm settles on him. We have seen antpittas. He has delivered. The trip has been redeemed. Now it is time for a tale. It is about a child from a poor family, one of seven. He has little schooling and is destined for a life of labor in the fields, but a love of birds saved him. A tourist paid the young urchin ten dollars to lead him into the forest to find the Andean Cock of the Rock. A dream was born. A business was started
Then one day tracking deep in the mountains, our hero spotted a strange bird. A giant antpitta. So rare! So misunderstood! “I decided this bird with long legs and a big beak should be my friend” says Angel dreamily. So a strange courtship began, Angel calling and singing deep in the forest, bringing gifts of worms; shunned at first, his resolve tested, before the relationship began to bloom. “The forest was my new home. Day after day I try so hard to make friends with her…”
I later look at Angel Paz’s website where this exact story is repeated almost word for word under the bold heading Antpitta Man. He has built a life and an identity around this small nondescript bird. He is famous in ornithological circles. He has created a bird sanctuary on reclaimed farming land. A true legend of the cloud forest.
I look at Angel’s crucifix necklace and think about his faith, his acts of devotion deep in the woods. “You named her after the Virgin Maria?” I whisper, “Because of her purity, her spiritual nature? She is a miracle!” “No! Maria I am naming after my wife. She is like this bird!”
I nod solemnly, appreciating the gesture. No greater love can man show his woman than to name a small fat bird after her. God willing I too may one day bestow this honour on my wife.
“I learn something every time I climb a mountain,” said Michael Kennedy before he skied into a tree and died. Today we are climbing a mountain and we too are learning something: about preparation and planning, about lackadaisical approaches, about extreme weather. We are learning that mountains are cold places. “I learn something every time I forget my jacket…”
Our travel philosophy is simple: we seek out new things, we throw ourselves after adventure, we plan as little as possible, we let luck and impulse guide us. It doesn’t always work of course. We arrived in Brazil in the middle of the world’s worst Covid spike. We got lost in the desert with no water. We found ourselves surfing with sharks. I nearly bled out in an isolated jungle lodge. Now we are trekking through snow on the slopes of the Pichincha Volcano with no boots, no gloves and only thin anoraks. At least we have covid masks to keep our cheeks warm.
And somehow now we’re in Ecuador. A blurred night and day journey. Natal to Sao Paolo (Gol Airlines, check-in chaos, arguments about surfboards, no food) Sao Paolo to Panama City (Copa Airlines, 2am takeoff, heads lolling, sunrise over the sea, congealed egg breakfast), Panama City to Quito (Chatty pilot, bumpy flight, The Andes! Hair-raising landing).
It’s our first day here and full of naïve optimism we have taken the teleferico up from Quito. Just on a whim. A simple cable car ride that will take us to the mountain top where we might go for a stroll and drink in the view. It is pleasant and sunny when we climb in the bubble car, but weather moves fast in the mountains and as we clank our way upwards, clouds come rolling in all around us. They look heavy and menacing.
Quito sits 2800m above sea level, the second highest capital in the world (the highest is La Paz, a little further south in the same mountain chain). Now after climbing another kilometre in the cable car we find ourselves at some four thousand meters of altitude, up in thin air. There doesn’t seem to be enough oxygen to fill our lungs.
Our arrival coincides with some kind of cosmic tantrum. The clouds close ranks, the visibility deteriorates, a flurry of snow veils the landscape. Then a heavier spray of hailstones and then a full electrical storm erupts. Lightening bounces off the cloud ceiling above us; percussive booms of thunder make us jump. We splash through slush in our trainers, icy waters drips down our bare necks. We stuff our hands into our wet jeans’ pockets, tuck in our elbows and hunch forwards against the wind.
Matilda is scared of the lightning and after ten minutes on the trail, she is whining hard and so the girls turn back for the lodge. Arthur and I goad each other reluctantly onwards, putting great emphasis on completing our quest. Maybe we have some kind of summit fever. There is a swing somewhere ahead that a taxi driver has told us about. It is positioned on a cliff top, so you can take photos suspended in mid air, high above the plateau where Quito lies spread out, a faraway Lego town on a creased rug, the white bricks smudged and dirty from overuse.
It is only a twenty minute tramp up to the swing but they are the coldest and wettest twenty minutes in recent memory. Our ability to deal with the cold has been diminished. We’ve been softened up on tropical beaches. We make it to the swing at last, panting like dogs, soaking wet, toes numb, Arthur is shivering violently and thinks he might have altitude sickness.
Neither of us fancies actually sitting on the swing – the wooden seat is dripping with slush and the chain is icy. The weather has cleared enough to make out a ghost town below, so I take a quick snap of Arthur standing beside the swing and we agree that this is enough of a summit trophy for us.
We run back down the mountain to safety, squinting into the snow, slipping and sliding in the slush. We find the girls sipping hot chocolate in the cable car lodge, and breathlessly we tell them our heroic stories. Arthur saw something that might have been a mountain hare! Daddy slipped over on the flat path! How wild is it that two days ago we were in the desert and now we’re in the mountains!
Ecuador is going to be a different type of travel experience we all agree, and we head down the mountain to find a camping shop where we can buy some warm clothes.
“There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment…”
We are deep in the desert. We left our car some way back and now we are toiling forwards on foot. We have no water left. It’s about 40˚C and the air roils and shimmers with oily heat. Menna raises a shaking finger to point out some mirage on the horizon, but it is already too late for Matilda. She lets out a long gasping moan, drops to her knees, then collapses dead to the floor.
“I think your death rattle should be louder.” Says Arthur, “Like gargling and choking at the same time. Let me try.”
After we have practiced our desert deaths, we climb pyramids and race down their faces, bounding, falling, rolling, sliding, filling our pockets and pants and ears with sand. We take perspective shots of Matilda holding tiny people. We carefully dig up the bones of a dead snake like paleontologists unearthing a ichthyosaur. We climb the highest dunes and stare philosophically out at swirling sand vistas.
There’s something primeval as we look out on the dunescape, no evidence of civilisation in any direction. We talk about nomadic people – Bedouins, Aborigines, Touaregs, Berbers, Tusken Raiders – and imagine their harsh existence. A slight frisson of fear grips us all. We are deep in the desert and we have no water left. Something could easily go wrong: the car might not start; Arthur might break a leg; I might have to stagger back to civilisation with the snake-bitten corpses of my family draped over my shoulders.
It is films that have shaped our perception of the desert. We have all cried at that bit in English Patient when he leaves her in the cave and treks off for help across the sands. Those nightmares I got after watching Frank Herbert’s Dune are still buried somewhere deep in my cerebellum. Arthur remembers droids wandering in that endless desert of Tattoine, carrying Leia’s hologram onwards to Luke. “How did we get into this mess” C3PO whines, “We seem to be made to suffer”.
The car does start. It’s like a furnace inside though and we nearly pass out before the air-con kicks in. We still have no water left but it’s ok, we’ll top up in the next town. It’s only ten klicks away. First we must navigate this worn sandy B-road though that winds around the edge of the desert. It’s tough driving – the sort I was born for: slaloming the pot holes, swerving drifts, hitting the sand bank with my back wheels to skid the car pleasingly around that tight corner; off-roading round ridges of sun-buckled asphalt. I judge my limits by the colour of Menna’s knuckles as she grips her roof handle. Faster! Find the apex! BRAKE!
A dune has swallowed the road. It is of a size that will not be summited by our fake SUV that shamefully doesn’t actually have true 4×4. Can we go around? I watched Laurence of Arabia when I was a kid, I found it long and boring but what stuck with me is the immensity of that desert landscape. Once you were in it, it went on forever.
We leave the car and scout on foot. We test the firmness of the terrain. All around us are ridges, folds and valleys of soft fine sand that sink underfoot and probably hide the rusted skeletons of a whole junkyard of sunken vehicles. A small patch of tarmac re-emerges on the far side of the dune but it leads only to the foot of another sand mountain, and after that all traces of road disappear. The highway has been entirely reclaimed by the desert.
It appears we have no option but to retrace our steps for a good 30km and then take the long road northwards around the desert. It will add three hours onto our journey, which was already due to take up most of the day. Our mouths are dry and it’s annoying that we have no water.
But what is this? A saloon car in the distance, pulling off the highway, taking a direct line into the heart of the desert. Madness lies ahead! We roar forwards, flashing headlines, waving, honking. The desert traveller stops and slowly reverses. A creased hardboiled type emerges from the driver’s door, all burnt skin and wild hair. Shadowy faces peer out of the darkened rear windows. We talk.
‘We are lost. The road disappears. We cannot go on! Is there another way to Natal?’ I say in Spanish.
The response comes in fast, elliptic, take-no-prisoners Portuguese. It is entirely incomprehensible. His hands move with his words though and I try to read their story instead: ‘There is a path,’ they seem to say, ‘It is long and dangerous. Listen carefully. You must go somewhere over there, then curve at this point here. Make sure not to take the wrong fork when you see this. Go on for a long way until you come to that. And then you will be safe my friend. God speed.’
Then he climbs back in his car and zooms off into the desert.
‘Obrigado!’ we shout. We wave, then we turn to each other and have a hurried conference. A decision is made. We leap back into the car and set off at full speed on the tail of our newfound friend. We have no idea where he is going, but we know that we don’t want to lose him. He is a local Bedouin, a man of the desert, and he alone can navigate these shifting sands. We, on the other hand, have no water and if we get lost here we will certainly die.
For an hour or more we wind our way deeper and deeper into the desert. We follow a winding path between sand drifts, just firm enough to support our vehicle but with no room for error. Our wheels spin at times when we stray too wide on a curve and sink into soft sand. We have to stop and rev in order to make it over ridges. Conversation dries up inside the car. We are all fixed on the guide vehicle, floating somewhere ahead, a ghost in the shimmering heat.
In the Good the Bad and the Ugly, Clint Eastwood is a prisoner dying of thirst, dragged deep into the scorching sands by an outlaw with a pink parasol. His cracked face is like a desert landscape in itself as he slowly dries out with every step. And here we are, hitched to a white sedan, lines of thirst starting to etch themselves on our faces too, as we are driven deeper, deeper into the desert.
We see skulls half buried in the sand. We have no water. We neither know the way forwards nor nor the way back. Onwards we go, following strangers down invisible roads, our destination unknown, our time running out. Small players in some grand sweeping epic.
Where do we go, we who wonder this Wasteland in search of our better selves?
It is Mother’s Day. It has crept up on us out of nowhere. We had hoped to buy Menna exotic gifts, overwhelm her with massages and beauty treatments, plan activities and sentimental demonstrations of our love. Everything is shut for hundreds of miles around though, and we’re on a roadtrip. So we haven’t actually got any presents and the main activity today will be driving.
Matilda gets very stressed about these events. All festivities are important to her but no reality can ever match up to the rarified aesthetics in her head. Consequently event planning for her is always a bitter exercise in disappointment mitigation. Today we fall particularly short.
I watch sleepily as Matilda creeps out of bed at six, clears her bedside table, places it at the foot of our bed, then carefully arranges a selection of cards and a fortune teller together with flowers that she has picked from bushes in the garden. She has not anticipated the rotating fan though and every time it swings around the cards flutter down to the floor and petals float away in the breeze so our room soon has the dreamy aspect of snowfall. I watch her silently rearranging her composition several times, getting crosser and crosser before she thinks to switch off the fan. Good problem-solving, I think to myself and drift back to sleep. Whenever I open an eye, Matilda is pacing around anxiously in the gloom waiting for her mother to stir. It takes a long while.
The kids were up late last night frantically sketching cards and in lieu of actual gifts they have crafted a paper fortune teller. When the fortunes are revealed – surprise! – they turn out to be Mother’s Day treats. I helped with the origami, but have not overseen the fortune writing and consequently the little rats seem to have put me on the hook for most of them:
#1: “Daddy will book the next three places we stay in!” #2: “Daddy will buy you a bottle of champagne when the bars open!” #3: “Arthur will try his best at school all week!” #4: “Daddy will do all the driving!” And so on…
Mother’s Day breakfast is the same as all of our breakfasts. Eggs declined, lots of fruit, a straw-like cassava pancake the Brazilians call tapioca and speak of with disproportionate pride, guava jam, weapons grade coffee. We fill ourselves up and plan the day.
We have now learned that Jericoucoura is effectively shut to us. Yes, we can drive there, but their lockdown is the strictest in this region – that is to say no shops, restaurants, no bars. No beds for the inbound traveller. Beach restricted. Roadblocks and identity checks. A hostile environment.
This was to be the zenith of our arc and now a thousand kilometers into our trip we are trying not to feel deflated and directionless. We turn southwards instead towards Pernambuco where there is a point break we want to surf. I book accommodation for the night at a random town that doesn’t even make it into our Lonely Planet.
It is unusually hot today, even for Brazil, and Pernambuco is as boarded up as a borehole, boarded up as an abandoned boardwalk, boarded up as all the other boring boarded towns we have been to recently. The surf is great though, a nice little pealing right hander that breaks on a coral reef. They can’t board that up.
The girls wallow in a rock pool while Art catches waves and I chat to a French guy in the surf who wants to air his grievances about the referee in that morning’s rugby match between our two countries. The Six Nations tournament is a hemisphere away and a mental shift too far for me right now and I am only able to nod stupidly and agree that the ref probably had been bribed by the English. Deprived of a decent argument with the Rosbif that God has delivered him on this of all days, the Frenchman drops in on me and steals my wave with Gallic insouciance, then surfs all the way into the beach and disappears.
Mother’s Day lunch is a bit of a flop. The only food in town seems to be spit-roast chickens which are being illegally sold in plastic bags out of a garage. Menna is in one of her vegetarian phases and will not compromise. “You go ahead, I’m not hungry anyway,” she says in her martyr voice. I am painfully aware of Fortune #6 (“Daddy will buy you a lovely lunch”) and feeling my shortcomings I make us tour around for ages, hot and hungry, looking for vegetarian options for Menna, ignoring her protestations (“It’s Okay! I’ll just eat the crackers”), and eventually letting the heat get to us. Suddenly everyone is hungry and tired and sweaty and shouting at each other. Angry words float around the car together with the greasy aromas of roast chicken, hot tarmac and sweat.
In the end I find a filling station supermarket and send Menna in with my credit card to buy herself pitta and tomatoes while I simmer away outside. With Fortune #6 technically completed, we find a beautiful beach and sit in the shade under a mango tree. The kids and I tear into the roast chicken with our fingers, covering ourselves in grease and sand. Menna daintily nibbles at a pitta a few feet away. We are all happy again.
As we get back into the car we receive an email from the hotel cancelling our booking for tonight “por causa do COVID!”. I always like it when they capitalize the Covid, it makes it feel like a military acronym: “Collapse Of Vast Irradiated Deathfarm!”. Shit, we better not stay there then!
We now have nowhere to sleep tonight. As I am driving for the next five hours (as per Fortune #4), then I will need to default on Fortune #1 (“Daddy will book the next three places we stay in!”). It is another Mother’s Day fail. Menna starts wearily tapping on her phone. I try not to catch Matilda’s eye in the rear view mirror.
That night we take Mother out for pizza in the bar near our new hostel. At some point we have crossed a state line and no-one here cares about Coronavirus. The town square is full of kids engaged in complicated courtship rituals. We watch emissaries scurrying backwards and forwards, carrying messages between gangs of teenage girls and boys on opposite benches. Couples kiss in the shadows of doorways and emerge from behind curtains of bougainvillea, the air is full of romance. It is an ideal place for Mother’s Day dinner. There are three flavors of frozen pizza on offer in our restaurant and one of them is vegetarian – this is going well! I enquire gallantly about champagne, mindful of Fortune #2, but the guy just laughs. We get two Mother’s Day beers instead.
We spend the morning trying to solve the key conundrum. The sullen guy at our car rental company is approximately nine hours away and it is a Saturday. We agree that he is unlikely to be our knight in shining armour. We go and talk to a smiling lady who seems to be part of our hostel and ask her to find us a local locksmith instead. Maybe something got lost in translation because the guys who show up a couple of hours later are carrying a hammer and chisel.
We watch with some consternation as the lads set about levering open the top of the driver’s door with a screwdriver and then force in a wooden stake. Lots of slips, lots of grunts, a fair amount of sweat, this is not the refined lock pick I was expecting. A long wire (coat hanger?) goes in and then an hour of fumbling around, poking it down into the car, trying to hit the unlock button on the driver armrest. The alarm goes off long time before they hit jackpot and this is the soundtrack to the morning. It brings various onlookers and advisors from the road, so there is soon quite a crowd.
The lads force their way in eventually, but leave some wicked dents and scratches on the roof. It is a brand new rental car and these seem very conspicuous. I pay them $20 and they lounge around the hotel drinking coffee for many hours, hooting with laughter, telling stories of hapless tourists.
We are long past checkout at this point so we agree to stay on another night in Icari.
Menna has heard of some huge sand dunes nearby which hide exotic water holes. These will be deep and clear, she tells us, like an oasis in the Sahara. They will be surrounded by shady vegetation where we may string up hammocks and relax after swimming with the frogs in the agua dulce.
So off we head, in search of this desert mirage. The rural hinterlands of Brazil’s Nordeste region is not where Google Maps excels but we don’t have any alternative. Iguanas and ibis meet red herrings and wild geese as we blunder our way down back roads that are really no more than muddy tractor tracks. We drive through wind farms and cattle farms, down white grit paths, into little shanty towns. We inch past wobbling bicycles loaded with family members, we stop for goats on the road and we end up totally lost.
Eventually after squeezing several kilometers down a narrow flint track we find ourselves at a little house made entirely from flotsam, sitting among a mess of fishing nets. Various astonished dark-eyed children peer at us from hiding places in the shadows but no adult appears to offer help or directions. I am faced with a long winding reverse back up the track. Ahead through a plastic-strewn yard is an open gateway then a blue ribbon of sea.
I make a silent decision and gun the car through the gate before Menna can tell me not to. Down a small step we bump and then we are on the beach, dodging rocks, slaloming our way down the wide hard-packed sand, wheels spinning a little. Menna is freaking, thinking we’ll get the car stuck, the kids are screaming: Go faster! Hit the dunes! Drive into the waves! I turn up the Brazilian House Grooves album which I am seriously digging at the moment. And along we fly.
Eventually the sand gets softer and deeper and I feel there is a real danger we’ll sink our wheels so I bring the car to a stop. We spill out and run around, eat a late lunch up on a dune, vaguely worried the tide will come in and cut off our escape route. We find a giant bleached turtle shell and some skeletal flipper remains. In front of us the sea stretches away to Africa and behind is a never-ending landscape of undulating sand dunes and towering white windmills. We are ants lost between endless horizons.
We finish lunch and turn the car around then drive three kilometers at full speed along the flat sand, over rivulets, waving at fishermen and kids in the dunes. Some wave back, most ignore us.
As we rejoin the tracery of cross-country trails that lead homewards (we hope), we can’t help trying a few other blind alleys in search of these mystical pools. We take service roads that lead us to rows of silent monolithic windmills. We go and lie at the base of one, looking upwards, watching huge blades whirling silently against the hard blue. With no peripheral reference points this creates an optical effect, it feels like we are rotating too, lying on shifting ground, moving through immense orbits. Gravity ripples and slips. Stretched out in the dust we gently swing like Focault’s pendulum, proving the earth’s motion.
“The lakes in the dunes?” asks the smiling lady when we get back to the hotel, “Oh, but they are only there in the wet months. Perhaps in December you will see them – if you come back!”
Over a takeaway dinner that evening we teach the kids the meaning of the word quixotic: Committing yourself whole-heartedly to wild escapades, we say. Being idealistic but naïve. Chasing impossible dreams. Tilting at windmills.
The hotel breakfast is egg-intense (they always are) but we are saved by a fruit backup, dry rolls and some decent coffee. The kids are corralled and restrained for schooling which takes place in some strange stairwell turrets by the pool. I have a Zoom interview for a job that I am not very keen on. I embellish my achievements for a couple of hours then run outside and jump in the pool. When the glow of self-promotion fades, I am left with a vague resentment. A portal to a forgotten world briefly opened up in our bedroom – a bloody wormhole! I didn’t like what I saw.
We go for a walk around Canoa Quebrada. It is a hard-baked town, shimmering with trapped heat. There is a busy tree-lined central street and not much else. It has a melancholy feeling – not of faded grandeur, but of motion stilled: an empty bandstand full of litter, cavernous municipal buildings with dark windows, beachside hotels all boarded-up, masonry gently crumbling in the sun’s glare. We see a moon and star motif repeated on stonework and mosaic pavings throughout the town – strangely Moorish. We perch up on the cliffs and watch a lone Kitesurfer far out at sea, a yoga class, dogwalkers on the beach. The kids carve red face sculptures into the crumbling rock face (‘Mount Sandmore” they call it). We eat leftover pizza for lunch, then we drive on.
Another six hours in the car gets us 350km further north. We pass through small hostile towns and skirt by the city of Fortaleza where we know that Covid is bad and the lockdown is severe. We keep the windows up, the air-con set to max, and listen to His Dark Materials on audiobook. We turn off the central highway and head back towards the coast, the vegetation changes outside, shrubs and dust are replaced with palms and grassy marshlands, cattle egrets hide in the reeds. We get the car fully airborne over a hidden speed hump as we enter Icari.
We have booked a basic cabin for the night. There are a couple of table fans but no air-conditioning. The garden is lush and green with flowering almond trees, there is also a small lagoon with an ominous cloud of mosquitos flickering like static fuzz above the water.
We dump our bags and then head out to town for an evening beach walk and dinner. Except all the restaurants and cafes and kiosks and bars are shut. Again. We are learning that Covid restrictions are decided at municipality level in Brazil and it’s impossible to know what they are until you arrive somewhere. What we do know is that they are getting more severe as we head North. This does not bode well for our road trip.
We knock at doors, we ask advice, we wheedle and beg at the only proper hotel in town (we can see guests laughing and clinking glasses on the beachside veranda, lounging under fairy lights and flowered trellises) but we are too late, or too shabby or there is some covid regulation that means we are not welcome.
We turn away into the darkness. “Daddy, what will we do if we can’t find any dinner?” Asks Matilda in a tremulous despairing little voice, as if we were desperate migrants on the edge of collapse.
Eventually we find a lady who illegally feeds us shrimp tacos and beer down a quiet alley. We sit around an upturned barrel and congratulate each other, agree that it is the best food we have ever had, point out how romantic the setting.
We head back to our hostel and as I tuck the kids up Menna bursts into the room, wide-eyed and gigging but sort of moaning, and she is twisting her hands together in that way she has when she’s done something bad.
She has somehow locked our only set of car keys in the boot.
We are still in Brazil. We don’t have any means of escape. The mercury sits somewhere over 40˚c. The Covid statistics have not improved, if anything the crisis here is deepening. Somehow we have found our rhythm though and relaxed into our new home. Pragmatism has kicked in.
We know where to find iced coffee and where to pick up croissants or emergency icecream. The swimming pool keeps us cool. There is a gnarly surf break just beneath our house. It’s great for an early morning session but the paddle out is hard and the waves are a little too intense for Art, so most days, once school is done, we end up driving twenty minutes down the coast to a mellow point break that he loves. He catches wave after wave there and messes around with small Brazilian surf kids in the water, swapping boards with them, clowning around.
The bay curves away off into the distance, tangled vegetation dark against a creamy cliff with pink layers like a slab of cake. It is known as Praia Madeira and so there is a kind of linguistic familiarity. We have already explored the Portuguese Island of Madeira, stayed in the Nicaraguan town of Maderas, climbed Volcan Madera, now we surf at Praia Madeiras. The Portuguese Madeira (or madera in Spanish) means wood, as in ‘you can’t see the wood for the trees’ or better, ‘we are not out of the woods yet’. The backdrop to this beach is a crazy forest that runs up the sheer face, palms clinging tenaciously to the rock.
Today the sea is glassy, the waves are clean and the bay is full of dolphins. They surface next to us as we sit waiting for the set. Menna and Matilda go for a long swim and find themselves in the middle of a pod. There are fins and rounded sleek backs, then once in a while a spray of frantic fish that skim like stones on the surface, then a dolphin surges right up behind them, effortless, predatory, grinning. That explosion from the deep is unnerving when it happens close by, but then we get used to it. Dolphins are great surfers.
We went for a hike in the nature reserve on the cliffs above Praia Madeira yesterday morning very early. We followed woodland trails looking for snakes and armadillos and then we came to a point where the woods fell away and we found ourselves out on a promontory, looking down on our point break all empty in the early morning. Between the break of the waves we could see shadowy shapes skimming around in the water that we at first took for rays, but then one came up for air and we realised they were turtles. Our surf break was also their hunting ground. There must have been ten of them at least, illuminated by the early morning sunlight, surprisingly agile under the water.
Now we are in on the secret. We know we share these waters with turtles too. They are underneath us somewhere, flitting around, leaving bubble trails like jet streams. There must be sting rays and lobsters as well, baracuda, eels, maybe sharks. A hidden world of muted sounds and vivid textures always beneath us as we float over the reef.
And so it is that we unbend a little more, integrate a little closer, worry a little less. We chat to people. We book a couple of quad bikes in the afternoon. It is one of those ultimately selfish activities (like jet-ski) which are super fun to do, but intensely annoying for anyone else around. I am normally averse but today we’re in a ‘whatever’ kind of mood. It’s a release. We scream around cliffs trails, the kids gripping on tight to our waists. I try to leave skid marks in the red sand, aim to get all four wheels off the ground. The wind stings my face. Matilda screams and whoops behind me. Our blood is up, we stop at a deserted safari lodge so we can ride horses and shoot things with air rifles and bows and arrows.
As we drive back home, we see this little stretch of coast from a different angle. The sun is stetting now and from our vantage point up high the landscape has a new geometry. Euclidean planes in red sandstone, surging cubic structures, recessed cliffs like scalloped teeth-marks, undulating lines of sea-sculpted sand.
If we’re going to be stuck anywhere in Brazil, it may as well be here.
It’s hot here and humidity is building. It feels like a storm is on its way, Despite the air conditioning in our apartment I am sweating as I sit in my boxers at the breakfast bar.
Menna and I exchange glances for a second, then we both look away, go silently back to our tasks. I’m jabbing away at my iPad, supposedly checking flight sites but secretly writing this, she’s scrolling on her phone looking at visas requirements. There’s a figurative thunder cloud in our apartment, mirroring the real ones that are amassing outside. The kids are laughing away down in the pool all oblivious, but things are pretty dark indoors.
Our arrival in Brazil went pretty well, all things considered. We completed three flights over a thirty hour period. None were delayed. We only got charged $200 for the excess surfboards. We didn’t take our masks off for the whole period except to swig water and cram airline sandwiches down our throats. The kids mainly behaved themselves. Menna ferociously sanitized our hands at half-hour intervals. We were all forbidden to touch surfaces, people, seats, our own faces. Our hire car was waiting with roof rails as specified, so we could tie on the surfboards. We didn’t get kidnapped or hijacked on drive from the airport. We made it our hotel and ate a celebratory dinner, tired and happy, congratulating ourselves on a new frontier.
The headlines that greeted us on our first morning gave us a shock. Brazil had set a new record for pandemic deaths on the previous day.
“Experts warn Brazil facing darkest days of Covid crisis as deaths hit highest level” says the Guardian, March 3rd.
We field a flood of messages from far-off well-wishers, politely wondering whether we had taken total leave of our senses. When we booked our Brazilian tickets things seemed to be in a better state, we say. We had met travelers returning from Brazil with inspiring tales. We had talked to locals here. The forums spoke of sustainable travel, wild landscapes, rural communities far from the lurid highways of commerce. We wanted to show our children a different culture. Our main concern was crime not coronavirus. The Covid stats were flat, we repeat.
We leave Natal and drive to Pipa Beach where we have booked an apartment. The sullen heat takes our breath away but the condo seems like a nice place to spend our first week. It is spacious, a little run-down, bougainvillea is entwined around the balcony. It seems safe.
“Brazil’s Covid Crisis Is a Warning to the Whole World, Scientists Say” The New York Times tells us, March 3rd.
This theme is repeated across most of the international press. The eyes of the world seem to have turned upon Brazil. Judging from all the reports, we are in pretty much the worst place that one could be right now, the epicentre of the viral maelstrom, the birthplace of a deadly new variant. The hospitals are in crisis, the president is negligent, people are dying in their thousands – and we have chosen to travel here!
Menna is in tears. We have an argument: “I told you we shouldn’t have come.” “You didn’t tell me. We both made this decision!” “Not really! It was you who wanted this. I feel totally unsafe. I want to leave!” “We discussed this for days before we bought the tickets. We’re in this together! The road less travelled remember, that’s what we do. A life of adventure!” “I want to leave.”
She has a point and I have to acknowledge it. It feels like we’ve (I’ve) led the family into unnecessary danger. As a state, I keep telling myself, the Covid rates per capita here in Rio Grande do Norte are way better than the UK and most of the world. Brazil is a federation that is two and a half times the size of the EU. You can’t treat it all as a single country – you need to assess the situation at a state level. But it doesn’t work.
“Brazil’s variant breeding ground is a threat to the entire world” Washington Post, March 4th.
Friends send us medical journals and papers. They point out statistics around mortality rates, hospital capacity and access to oxygen. They speak about government policy and vaccine hesitancy. There are no vaccines here anyway we say.
After our argument I know I need to make this right. I pledge absolute cooperation enforcing strict hygiene protocols with the kids and moreover that I would find some early exit options from this plagued nation. With admirable foresight I have bought us return flights here instead of the usual one-way ticket, so I know I have this get-out-of-jail card in my pocket. If things get too hot we will simply bring forward our return dates, flee back to Mexico, then find somewhere else to go where people won’t feel the need to send us concerned messages and call us crazy.
“There is a tolerance for death’: Brazil battles fresh Covid storm” Financial Times, March 8th.
Outside our gates it doesn’t feel like the people are battling Covid storms. They are strolling around without masks, laughing. The streets are full, there is a roaring trade at the empanada kiosk, the surf is pumping and social distancing seem to mean a 20cm gap. Pipa Beach is a famous beauty spot and the weekend warriors keep rolling in from the city. Perhaps there is a tolerance of death here.
I am normally overly optimistic about danger while Menna is overly cautious, but now we both find ourselves nervous and hesitant. We can’t relax. We shrink back in the street as a laughing group of surfers approaches, we use contactless card to pay for our coffees, I entirely disinfect when I return from the supermarket, we don’t eat out. We go for long family walks along deserted cliffs and surf away from the pack. Arthur scampers around as always, picking things up, climbing on anything he can. We chase him around with alcohol spray.
“Brazil’s hospitals close to collapse as cases reach record high” British Medical Journal, March
When Biden reverses Trump border policy and bans all inbound travellers from Brazil, even for transfers, it renders our return tickets (via Dallas) completely invalid. My exit plan evaporates like smoke. The rest of the world quickly follows suit. No-one is keen to welcome travelers from Brazil with their tolerance for death and their exotic variants.
I comb the internet when our patchy wifi allows. There is a brief ray of light when I manage to find some alternative flights to Ethiopia and I get very excited about throwing a crazy twist into the adventure, but there appears to be some kind of armed uprising going on there. I reluctantly move on. Menna is keen on Tahiti, but then overnight the island goes into full lockdown.
Together under storm clouds of our own making, Menna and I sit silently, side by side, tapping on our screens, hoping for answers. Outside is a nation ravaged by infections. Mutations are bubbling away all around us. Thunder rumbles and the smell of tropical rot lies heavy on the air.
After five days of searching, we can find no realistic way to get out of this country at all.
Enough fussing and whining! How much longer will the crying go on?
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, after two straight days of record COVID-19 deaths in Brazil. March 5th.
We end up staying in Cozumel for an indulgent ten days. Not because it is the best desitination we have been to, but we simply don’t know where to go next.
Arthur and I find a surf spot that we like at Chen Rio on the east coast, it is big and choppy, and to enter the break we have to wade over a coral forest that lacerates our feet. There are three or four local surfers that we meet there, tough older guys in their fifties, but they welcome Arthur and I into the pack and help us find the exit point on our first day so we don’t get smashed into the reef. Even so I kick a sea urchin coming out of the sea and Menna has to dig many deep spines out of my toes that night.
One Sunday we picnic on the beach besides the break and get sunburnt. As we pack up Menna spots a crocodile wallowing in a swampy stretch of water inland, right by where we have parked the car. I edge down the sandy bank to get close and take a good photo as it lies immobile at the waters edge. Suddenly it lunges up into the air to snap at a dragonfly and it scares the absolute living daylights out of me. That scrabbling dash back up the sandy bank is the stuff that nightmares are made of.
We manage to finally go on the snorkelling trip that we were supposed to do on Matilda’s birthday. We get a boat to the outer reefs and spend a long time floating serenely above coral cities that surge out of the white sands. We see an eagle ray, turtles, octopus, lobsters and multitudes of brightly coloured fish that I don’t recognise. After various different snorkel sites we are taken to a lunch spot where the lagoon extends for miles at waist height and the water is a crazy toothpaste green. We stand in the sea eating ceviche and guacamole with cold beers.
Then suddenly a dark shape appears.
It’s a Manta Ray!
We potter around Cozumel in our little rental car, exploring wild litter-strewn beaches in the south and rock shelves where the sea is forced up through geysers. We drive down through mangrove swamps to the north of the island and park up on a desolate muddy marshland. An obese boatman offers to take us ‘over there’ for one hundred pesos, gesturing vaguely at a sandy spit across the water. “What is ‘there’?” we ask. “What is anywhere? There is a playa muy bonita there.” ”Take us there,” we say. We find ourselves on a deserted promontory where the remnants of a resort hotel decay gently in the sun. The palm fronds have moulded off the beach huts. There is an old wooden scaffold in the shallows where hammocks once hung, it is now a sea gull perch and for a short time our climbing frame. A troupe of racoons hold dominion in the empty bar. We play there alone until sunset when our boatman drifts silently across the estuary to take us home.
It’s hard to tear ourselves away from this little Caribbean corner, but we must keep moving onwards, we cannot stagnate. But Menna and I are unsure where to go next. The clock is running down now on our grand tour and we just have a couple of months left. We need to maintain momentum and that means moving onwards from Mexico – but where to? Asia is still shut, most of South America is quarantined, USA is too western, Canada is too cold, returning to Europe feels unadventurous.
We find ourselves immersed again in that familiar nocturnal morass. Beery nights in hot apartments whispering about visa requirements while the kids sleep; analysing Covid stats and lockdown policies that change daily. For a long time we try to find a route to visit our friend Nico in the Caribbean, but key flights are canceled and we can’t make the connections work. We try to get to our friend Dan in Colombia but the quarantine rules there are getting tighter.
After five nights of circular discussions we have decision fatigue, so when one of us throws a curveball (I can’t remember who), it sticks somehow. Brazil! Yes, that could work. it was pretty terrible in the early days of the pandemic, but the covid caseload seems to be flattening out now. Besides, it’s a huge country right? And when you look state by state, there are areas that are doing way better than most places in Europe. And the climate is great. There’s no quarantine. The surf is epic. And we could learn capaoiera. And it’s fuckin Brazil man! Home of samba, Pele, the Amazon rainforest, Ayrton Senna…
And so it is, late one night in the dying days of February, ignoring all the horrified reactions and earnest advice, we book extremely expensive flights from Cozumel up to Dallas then onwards to Saõ Paolo and finally to Natal up in the Brazilian Noreste region.
Once the tickets are paid and the commitment has been made, the kids are over the moon but Menna and I find ourselves in a strangely emotional state. We have made an grand gesture for freedom (we think), we have found impetus and forward motion (we hope). We are taking the road less travelled and renewing our commitment to the adventure (right?).
There is an ominous drum beat though somewhere in the background. Slow now but gaining tempo.
Another port. Another ferry. Another stumble along the docks loaded with bags and boards. Another island.
This is Cozumel: dusty squares, ferry ports. mermaid statues, dive shops, empty benches. There is real beauty here but it is hidden away below the waves. Coral cites, cliffs and craters, underwater landscapes stretching away into the world’s second largest reef system. This is is a famous scuba-diving destination. It is also a key stop on the Caribbean cruise circuit – except in this pandemic era there are no cruises of course. So it’s pretty much just us and the locals.
We aren’t here for scuba – I have scarred ear-drums and the kids are still too young. We are here for a more important event and detailed requirements have been specified some months in advance. We will need an apartment with three bedrooms, a swimming pool, hammocks, a big tv, an oven, balloons, various ingredients. There must be great snorkelling, lots of chocolate, no hiking, no bugs. It is Matilda’s birthday.
Making a small girl’s birthday special is going to be a challenge. She has no friends to call on, no space in her backpack for bulky new presents. She has been reluctantly trailing around beaches for the last nine months so a trip to the seaside won’t cut it. She is someone who cares deeply about birthdays – particularly her own. We feel pressure.
Matilda has specified that she would like to go on a snorkelling trip for her birthday treat, but as luck would have it there is a storm coming, so the tour boats aren’t putting out. Menna and I have a stressful night trying to cobble up an alternative birthday activity. In the end we find a fallback: dolphins! Who doesn’t love dolphins?
The 19th February arrives. We serve hot chocolate in bed, facilitate various birthday zoom calls, guide Mademoiselle down to the dining table where we have been extravagant with balloons and breakfast patisserie. The condo manager has even rustled up a Feliz Cumpleanno banner. She opens her home-made cards and then the motley gifts: a fish guide, snorkel kit, clip-on earrings, Mexican voodoo dolls, swimming costume, baseball cap. Everything is going well.
We pile into the car and head off to find the dolphins. They are waiting for us in a vast hotel theme-park complex that is clearly aimed at cruise ship hoards. We screech into the car park at 11am and pile out of our little rented Clio, leaving it looking lonely in the huge acreage of shimmering tarmac.
Matilda and Menna are signed up for the complete ‘Dolphin Discovery Package’ whereas Art and I are basically tagging along. To get there we must pass through many entry gates, cordons and check points where we realise we have entered an efficient money extraction system, designed to impoverish you through a thousand smiling fees.
We sign forms, receive wristbands and resist various attempts to upsell us into buffet ‘n’ cocktail combos and deeper more meaningful interactions with marine creatures. I get a little grumpy with the lady who tries to offer us the ‘Chat with Sea-Lions’ package. We don’t spend dollars to have a photo with the naked Mayan warrior sitting bored in the courtyard. We don’t sponsor a porpoise. We don’t get a dedicated photographer. We divert the kids away from the gift shop.
Despite all our dodging, Art and I are still made to pay a hefty dockside access fee and coerced into a ‘bronze-level’ endless buffet so we may accompany the girls to lunch. We are many dollars deep already and Daddy’s birthday smile is getting a little tight. Somehow along the way I find out that we have unwittingly signed up to a ‘Manatee Encounter’.
Bright atriums echo and miles of decking stretch away empty in the sunshine. Mariachi music plays. The quayside bars flutter with white table cloths and happy-hour cocktail offers, the fountains run dry. In the end there is no buffet anyway (“because of el Covid señor!”) so we all sit at a table on the dockside and order from a waiter. The food lives up to its bronze-level billing, but birthday girl sees off her burger with gusto. I make Menna drink three beers.
The girls are whisked away for a lecture from a world-renowned dolphinologist before being ushered to the marine arena. Art and I are led to a side pool to pet the manatees. They are big slobbery creatures covered in a slimy algae, but somehow they steal our hearts, particularly Edgar. We look into each other’s eyes as he slurps a lettuce out of my hand and I feel strangely sentimental. Then five minutes later we are done, escorted back to the dockside, forbidden from taking photos or straying out of our cordoned area.
The waves are picking up and a storm cloud lies dark across the horizon. I watch the girls over on the other side of the marina, surrounded by cetaceans. Two faraway dolls being flipped into the air then caught, caressed and nuzzled by their new dolphin friends. I can tell that they are laughing and squealing. I take some illegal photos but it is too distant for my cracked phone camera and the results are blurry. Arthur is soon bored, he steals Matilda’s new snorkelling set, slips the barrier and floats off to look for octopus in a small coral reef near the shore. The sea is getting wild.
I sit alone in the face of the oncoming storm, torn between the spectacle of my wife and daughter being tossed around by dolphins and my son being dashed onto the rocks by waves. In the end I just go to the bar and order a bronze-level beer. The endless buffet has now ended, I am told. That will be fifty pesos please.
Matilda cannot stop talking all the way home. They were so soft! And silky! But they were so powerful when they pushed you along in the water. Her favourite was Bright Star (that’s not his real name Daddy but that is what I called him). “The dolphins were all rescued,” she says dreamily, “And loved, and very well looked after.” How beautiful the hotel was! How amazing the food!
As her chitter-chatter washes over me the words become indistinct like birdsong, leaving the same warm afterglow. It takes a kid’s eyes to strip away the cynicism sometimes. ‘What a great day out!’ I say vaguely. Then after some moments of groping, searching back absently for what exactly it was that had been so great… ‘That Edgar! He’s the king of themanatees!’
Tak Be Ha is one of many windows into the land of the dead. From here we may enter the first of the nine layers that make up Xibalba, the ‘place of fear’, the Mayan realm of the underworld.
We climb down through a narrow opening in the ground and find a wooden ladder in the subterranean gloom. After the heat and dust of Mexican midday, the cool darkness is a shock, we shiver away on a rocky platform. Then we must submerge ourselves into the cold clear waters below, sinking down under the surface, ritually dying.
From above the water looks flat and still, a milky azure, shimmering gently in the darkness of the cave. Once we dive under the surface though a dramatic jagged landscape of underwater mountains and crevasses suddenly appears. There are stalagmites and columns lit up by hidden phosphorous lights. Deep ravines fade into midnight black far below us. The underwater world here is far wider and more expansive than the size of the cave above should allow. The limestone walls slope far away beyond the upper chamber and they seem to go down for ever. But beware! If you explore too far outwards you can’t surface for air – the roof traps you underwater. Spectral wraiths slither out from caves far below us in the darkness, lit up by underwater lanterns. We think they are scuba divers silently exploring the deeps, but who knows?
Tak Be Ha: syncopated hard syllables that evoke a brutal ancient language, Tak, a chopping sound. Bay, the exhale cut short. Haaa, a whispering sigh as the soul is released. There would have been sacrifices here without a doubt. There must be bones, daggers, gold, ceremonial masks lying undisturbed down in those dark crevasses, but we are only equipped with snorkels and goggles, so we float on top of the world of the dead. Our time has not come. We will not journey to the deeper layers.
This is one of many freshwater sinkholes in this part of the world – one of thousands even. Some are as large as lakes and open to the skies while others are just holes in the vegetation, narrow shafts with subterranean chambers branching out from them. There is no standing or running water on the surface of the Yucatan peninsula, no rivers or lakes, instead rain has dissolved away the limestone over centuries, and the water table permeates below the surface in underground chambers and channels that riddle the bedrock.
The Mayans named these cenotes, ‘sacred wells’. They were not just a vital source of water but a crossroads between the worlds of living and dead. Here at the gateway to the spirit world Mayans could communicate with their gods, perform religious ceremonies, carry out burials and conduct sacrifices.
We have already visited Cenote Azul, a pleasant system of outdoor swimming holes, rock jumps and picnic spots where fish nibble your toes as you dangle them in the water. It was well-run and the entrance fee was reasonable. We saw none of the gods amid the nicely maintained wooden walkways and recycle points but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Tak Be Ha is a very different experience though. We have to find our inner Indiana Jones as we enter. The underwater landscape is scary but spectacular and for hours we flap our way through underwater caves and limestone labyrinths, Matilda’s little white legs writhing like underwater snakes ahead of me in the turquoise gloom.
We are very into Mayan mythology at the moment. We have already ritually sacrificed Matilda on a stone altar to Ix Chil, the moon goddess. This was high on the cliffs in the Mayan ruins that overlook Tulum, the city we call home this week. Now I am wondering if we need to make another offering to Yum Cimil, the Lord of Death, down in this subterranean cave. Arthur would be the obvious choice.
In the end we risk the gods’ displeasure and return to Tulum with a full car, even squeezing in three hitch hikers, for somehow Avis has sent us off with a minibus instead of the SUV we ordered.
We are enchanted by the magic of the underworld though – silent, cavernous, cool and blue, a sanctuary away from the heat, dust and searing light up on the surface – and so we end up seeking out a second cenote in the afternoon. Cenote Calavera is a single bat-filled cave sitting in a stretch of jungle just outside Tulum. To enter the cavern one must jump through one of three holes in the ground and plummet down into the water below. The drop is about five meters. It is a leap into the dark in the truest sense.
It takes Matilda a long time to pluck up the courage to do this, but once she is initiated, the magnetic lure of the deep is established. She and Arthur spend the whole afternoon throwing themselves into the fathomless waters time and time again, trying ever wilder jumps and dives.
There is a hysterical American lady who takes on the role of sacrificial victim. She spends half an hour hesitating, moaning, unable to pluck up the courage to jump (“Um gonna do it! Um gonna do it! Oh gawd, uh can’t!). Various onlookers scattered around are chanting and cheering her on. Roll back the centuries Oh Ixtab!
Matilda appears beside her to offer advice, an ephemeral spirit-guide in a pink swimming costume, showing how one might enter the dark waters of Xibalba with a neat pencil dive. She has become emissary to Camazotz the Mayan bat monster I think. I see it in her red rimmed eyes, those sharp little teeth, that insatiable yearning for blood.
It is a deep and mystical week we pass in Tulum. We are steeped in legends of bloodshed and sacrifice, of psychedelic gods and shamanic rituals. We visit the incredible Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and sit before the great pyramid that was built in homage to Kulkukan the God of the Wind. Then onwards we go, to the nearby Cenote of Ik Kil, which is not wild and spiritual at all, but run like a soviet swimming pool complex. At its heart is a deep well shaft that has been reinforced by concrete walls where trailing creepers hang, so we feels like we are floating in a giant abandoned nuclear reactor.
We visit next day the cenote of the Dos Ojos, two pools each with a central island that is ringed with dark glittering water like kohl-stained tearful eyes. We commune with the dead one final time here and then we come back to the surface and walk away. We are done with cenotes.
We go back for a last night out in Tulum before we move onwards. Menna and I flirt with Acan, the Mayan god of intoxication.
After a couple of nights in Cancun we’ve had enough. We move on to Holbox, a small Caribbean island off the Yucatan peninsula. A ferry leaves from a scorching port and twenty minutes later we are a little wooden shanty town where the roads are just sand and clay and the only mode of transport is golf buggy. It seems a little desolate at first, in the way that poor Caribbean communities can do – corrugated iron shacks, stagnant pools of ground water, rusted car skeletons – but then we emerge into a charming little town square, tree lined streets of restaurants and bars, a white sand beach thronging with travellers, kitesurfers and fishermen. We see dreadlocks and beards, fire spinners, a guy doing a roaring trade selling organic empanadas on the beach. The tattoos are soulful, feet are bare. It is the antithesis of Cancun.
There is no conventional surf on the island, the coastal shelf is too gentle, but the winds are strong, so Arthur and I are going kitesurfing. Arthur is a total beginner and while I used to kitesurf a fair amount, it is about a decade since my accident on Lancing Beach and I haven’t been back out since.
It is a burning day when we walk round the island to get to kite school. On that long hot walk, I can’t help dwelling on the accident, obsessing over it perhaps, so it starts to feel like I am trudging towards some kind of reckoning.
We are back in our Brighton flat. It is Father’s Day and there is a new, loud baby boy in our lives. Menna is telling me something, laughing and crying. She is pregnant again! We drink champagne. And to celebrate my heroic contribution she will take me kitesurfing. I haven’t been out on the water since before Arthur was born.
The conditions are not so different on the day when we rock up to Kite Beach in Holbox though the sea is warmer here. The wind is blowing about fifteen knots or so, the waves are rolling in, there are white horses on the lagoon. Arthur gets led away by chatty Cathy to learn the rudiments of wind theory. I end up with a laid-back Czech guy called Henrik for my refresher session. I tell him I am nervous. He eyes me up and down and tosses his dreadlocks. “Ach, you will probably be ok,” he says.
I have two kites – A 9m Cabrinha and a 13m Slingshot. The wind is strong and the smaller one is certainly right for the conditions. Somehow while inflating it I pull out a strut, or a valve blows or something. It deflates rapidly and is useless. I can either to go home now, or take the bigger kite and be over-powered for the session.
Henrik and I set up the kite on the narrow spit of beach between the lagoon and the thorny bank of brushwood. He’s putting me onto a 17m, even larger than that time before. Kite technology has come on some way in the last decade, he tells me. There is more power in the new shapes but you also get much more control. I nod and smile insincerely.
I’m not a great kiter but I have just sired a new offspring and I am feeling invincible. And as soon as I set off I know it is the right decision. The water is cold bottle green, whipped by crisp winds, the sky pale blue. I am screaming along, clearly out of control, hitting waves, crashing, relaunching, wiping-out spectacularly in the deeps. I shout a lot. Life is great right now.
Arthur is out on the water already before we have even set up our kite. He suddenly looks tiny underneath the huge clouded sky, bobbing in the waves, attached to a green kite that is straining on the lines. He is too young for this, I think to myself, how can he possibly take on the elements? How will they catch him when he gets blown away over the sea’s face like an abandoned crisp wrapper?
After an hour on the water it is time to wrap up. Quit while ahead. Menna is feeding our baby up on the headland, her face is turned to the horizon in that way that wives look out to sea, waiting for their absent seafaring husbands. I will ride in and perform a stylish stop in the shallows for her. Perhaps a little jump to finish off.
Henrik surfs the rig out to our launch spot on the sandbank, leaving me to walk across the lagoon to meet him. It is a slow wade through chest-deep water in my harness, helmet and the annoying lifejacket he insists I wear. I make the far sandbank and am transfixed by a group (school? platoon?) of five or six stingrays that are hunting there, gliding along in perfect formation in the turquoise waters. They skim beside me as I walk over to where Henrik is waiting.
Of course I wipe out on Lancing Beach. That is how the universe works. My board catches an edge in the shallow water. I flip face-down into the shore break. Undignified, but no immediate harm done. Except that as I fall, I unleash a combination of factors that dramatically change my situation: Firstly I pull hard the kite bar, putting my too-large kite in the maximum power position. Secondly the kite drops in the sky, finding a 45˚ angle downwind of me, an area known as the Power Zone. Thirdly a major wind gust happens to occur at precisely this moment.
“It is a big kite,” says Henrik in the present, “so you will let it do the work. Keep it high, do not drop it too low. If you go too much downwind past the buoy there, then you must come back in and we will walk back upwind on the sandbank. If you go past the end of the spit we are in trouble, for you will get blown out to sea. Ok you know what do do. Off you go and I watch”
It is the closest I have known to true flight. A sudden whiplash acceleration upwards, legs pedalling, mouth gasping, eyes wide. In a second I have achieved a crazy stomach-lurching height, Lancing Beach is stretched out far below. Then the upward force dies and there is a weightless moment at the apex before gravity reclaims me and the rocks rush up. Blackness.
I look mutely at Henrik but his face is bland, expectant, it reflects none of my fear. Alone I must go into the wind and waves, still reverberating with that long-ago bone-shattering impact. The kite strains at its apex pulling greedily at me.
Then we are moving and the breeze blows the past out of my mind, salt spray washes the worries away. I am pulled into the present, floating on turquoise waters, smooth and slippery as a sting ray. The kite hangs above me silently, capturing the power of the wind. We find a balance between the force of the kite, the position of the board, the pull of gravity, the angle of the waves. It all works perfectly for a minute or two, then I hit a trough and the equilibrium disappears. I wipe out.
I recover, set off again and next time I crash harder. I smash the kite down into the water and struggle to relaunch it. I drift fast downwind for many minutes with my kite twisted and shuddering on the sea’s surface, swamped by waves. The lines are taut and tangled, attached to my harness, pulling at me. People can see I am struggling and shout things at me from far off, but I can’t hear them.
Somewhere far away back towards the coast I see a small boy suddenly plucked out of the water by his kite, then there is a big splash. I nearly smile.
I feel the fingers of panic gripping my gullet and the bitter taste of self-recrimination – of dreadful inevitability. That sense that I have put myself in jeopardy once again. Why do I seek pursuits where the highs are overshadowed by fear and disaster? I am treading water, swallowing water, the lifejacket is bunched around my neck. How do I find these situations? I drift towards the end of the spit, the point of no return, alone, the vast open ocean waiting beyond. I shout impotent insults at the kite and at myself.
Finally the wind picks up a little and ponderously my kite turns over, then lifts. I finally get it up into the power zone and perform a desperate and humiliating body-drag back into shore. I trudge a long way back up to Henrik who smiles and shrugs, takes the kite from me and zips off in search of my board, floating somewhere far out to sea.
Then minutes later we start over. Again the fears of the past fade, replaced by the rush of the present. Lessons float away unlearned, for while it is true that disaster seems ever waiting, there is a corollary that I also know to be true: it always works out alright in the end.
Soon I am up and riding again, hollering, crashing, skimming, laughing, flying, drowning, wading back time and again to receive Henrik’s quiet advice.
But this time I do not snap my humerus in two like a twig, I don’t damage my shoulder socket, there is no morphine, no surgery, no titanium implants, no year of rehab.
Just wind, waves and the spectre of imminent disaster, riding beside me like a shadow. Like an old friend.
I sign myself and Arthur up for another session tomorrow.
The higher the hill, the stronger the wind: so the loftier the life, the stronger the enemy’s temptations.
Many other things happened in Nicaragua but it’s late now and I am weary. I’m peering back at distant memories. The stories here have lagged some months and thousands of miles behind the present moment: a sweaty armchair on a veranda, the equatorial humidity of Brazil, a worried and trapped family right in the Coronavirus epicentre.
What we need now is a cinematic montage to wind up the Nicaragua chapter, a happy mashup of the highlights and magic moments of those last three weeks, set to a uplifting electro-pop soundtrack. Something with meaningless lyrics that would fit almost any situation. Empire of the Sun perhaps.
We are always running for the thrill of it, thrill of it Always pushing up the hill, searching for the thrill of it
First is a soft-focus arrival shot in the city of Granada: A small taxi draws up, comically overloaded: surfboards tied to the roof with string, a boot which will not shut over a pile of luggage. The Nicholls spill out, hot and sweaty after a two hour drive without air-con and with many of their bags on their laps. The camera sweeps back to reveal the colonial majesty of the town square as they unload their belonging into Selina Hostel, a baroque villa dosshouse, all hipster graffiti and leafy inner courtyards.
Then we go aerial to take in the whole of this beautiful city, shining white and crumbling gently in the tropical heat. Pillared facades, walled gardens, old cathedrals, balustraded walkways, covered markets, tree-lined squares. Then higher still, a majestic sweeping shot: the backdrop of mountains and volcanos, the endless lake to the east.
There is a time-lapse sequence of the Nicholls attacking the city of Granada like Pac-Man chasing eggs around a maze. They traverse the streets from the port area to the mountain side, scuttle up the bell tower, disappear into no less than three museums. We see them marching back and forth, occasionally finding themselves in dangerous areas and doubling back again to safety. They stop to refuel – papaya smoothies, green tea, cinnamon buns.
A meal sequence next: breakfast plates of waffles dissolve into pittas loaded with falafels for lunch, tacos al pastor, quesadillas. Now they are cramming in burgers, cakes, more smoothies, then a steak restaurant! Chins glistening with grease, tomato stained shirts. Have these guys not eaten for a week? Fade to black, music swells.
On and on and on we are calling out, out again Never looking down, I’m just in awe of what’s in front of me
Another comical taxi ride! We’re bumping through the countryside past huge smoking volcanos, Mombacho to the left, Massaya on the horizon. There are roadblocks. Money is demanded for no apparent reason. A new arrival – and where are we? Laguna de Apoyo! A cerulean crater-lake some 10km wide. As the camera pans slowly across, the otherworldly colours shimmer and we see prismatic light effects on the water that then blur into white. Casa Marimba comes into focus, a terracotta hostel nestled on the slopes of the lagoon amid wood-groved terraces full of hammocks and loveseats. The light is dappled through a venerable old tree in the courtyard (is it a ceiba?), the movement of monkeys and mot-mot birds brings the canopy alive.
There is a floating platform out on the lagoon and our heroes swim out there for a slapstick sequence of dives and bellyflops, near-drownings, kayaks borrowed, left untethered then lost in the fierce wind. There is laughter. There are tears. We see Will and Menna on a sunset run around the lake (way too cheesy – cut!).
A long walk around the lake and a montage of rainbow bird sightings: an oropendola de Montezuma, parakeets, trogons, an osprey, lots of motmots – the national bird of Nicaragua -, various types of large kingfisher. The music dips and we hear Arthur’s reedy little voice solemnly listing them out: Great collared! Amazonian! Rufous!
Now it’s changing all the time Living in a rhythm where the minute’s working overtime
That taxi sequence again – a sped up two hour cross-country dash, ending in a dusty one-road fishing village that looks like it hasn’t seen any development since the forties. Suspicious locals peer out from dark doorways. The taxi pulls off the Nicholls look worried. But surprise! The bare walls of the Miramar surf hostel are unprepossessing from the street but look inside: there is a skate park, racks of surfboards, a yoga platform, sun decks, swimming pool, flags. Everything is made from local timber, palm fronds, bamboo. A perfect wave breaks on the reef just in front.
The place is run by some a crew of charismatic Brazilians and each is frozen for a moment on screen with their caption: Sergio, ‘the Comedian’; Rafael, ‘Spear-Fisher’; Leandro, ‘Skateboard Guru’; Eduardo, ‘the Philosopher’. We have a party shot – wives and children, beers, music, a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. There are no other actual guests in the camp, but the hosts are larger than life and the the Nicholls are pulled into their extended crew. We see shots of surfing, yoga, fishing, Arthur gutting a barracuda to make ceviche, Will surfing right into the rocks, wrecking his board and his feet. There is a birthday party, a boat expedition, a spear fishing trip. Ten days of sunshine and great waves.
Don’t stop, just keep going on I’m your shoulder, lean upon So come on, deliver from inside All we got is tonight, that is right ’til first light
The final taxi sequence takes us into the sprawling urban grit of Managua. A grey filter is subtly introduced and it bleaches the colour out of the scene. The music winds down into the final repeated lines of the track. The Nicholls are holed up in a shady motel in the slum area of Managua – fussing and packing, discarding excess weight, piling up bags. The room is bare. A small fan rotates noisily in the corner. They will get up at 4am to catch their flight the next morning
And here the montage finally fades to black. There is long and arduous travel ahead, at the end of which the family will find themselves in Mexico. And that of course is a totally new episode.
Final refrain and credits:
We are always running for the thrill of it, thrill of it’s Always pushing up the hill, searching for the thrill of it On and on and on we are calling out, out again Never looking down, I’m just in awe of what’s in front of me
We are on the island of Ometepe to climb a volcano. Though the kids are still small and the volcano is big, we have decided that it is one of those elemental experiences that we should go through at some point in our travels. Unknown to Matilda we have been training her up for just this moment. Those long cliff top walks, that 15,000 daily step target, the steep forest trails. We have chosen Volcán Maderas, the smaller and more dormant of the two volcanos on the island. It is going to be a ten hour round hike with an elevation of around 1400 meters.
When we awake on the big day we find ourselves enveloped in a blanket of cloud. It isn’t quite raining but it certainly isn’t dry either. Our guide Abel waits for us in reception. He is clearly a man of the mountain, slight, weatherbeaten, his eyes dark portals to another dimension.
Breakfast in the lodge comes slowly and perhaps we are not as organised as we should be, so we leave an hour later than planned. I sense Abel’s disapproval at the delays and the many rounds of pancakes we have eaten, but we laugh it off. By eight o clock we have shouldered our packs and we set off into the gloom.
The trails are overgrown and we are barely out of the gates when Abel already has to pull out his machete and hack a path through vines and shrubbery, much to Arthur’s delight. We march through a densely wooded valley and then up through coffee fields and abandoned cocoa plantations on the shoulder of the mountain. Then the climb starts to steepen.
There are various microclimates stacked at different altitudes up the mountain. All of them involve varying levels of moisture and low visibility. I imagine we are working our way up inside different cloud banks: first the nebulous mists of the low stratus layer, then into the dim white glow of cumulus. Higher up it is humid and dense as I imagine cumulonimbus to be. Then we hit a new kind of rain with a sharp wind that chills our sweat, and I figure we must have found cirrus, as this is the last kind of cloud I can remember.
The terrain underfoot changes from grass to dirt tracks and fallen leaves, to ferny vegetation, then mud, then rolling rocks and scree. For an hour Abel leads us up a stream in full flow, hopping stone to stone, splashing through muddy pools, crawling through rock tunnels, ducking under snatching branches. Matilda is the only member of the team who has proper hiking boots, the rest of us push on in wet trainers.
Abel turns out to be a guide in the minimalist sense: someone who is simply there to indicate the path to a destination. He is not a tour guide, we do not learn about the history of the island, the eco-system, local traditions. If anything he is like a silent spirit guide, floating in and out of the mist ahead of us, leading us along some metaphorical inward journey. He shows no signs of tiredness, he never stumbles. He slips away to scout the path ahead and some minutes later we round a corner to find him squatting immobile on a rock, face raised, communing silently with the ancestors. He pushes a fast pace.
I am using behavioural psychology tricks picked up over some years in sales management to motivate my poor daughter. We have anchored past successes (remember that time you climbed the cliff in Madeira with hardly a moan). We have engaged a sense of competition (and you got there before Arthur…). We’ve visualised the route ahead, we’ve established intrinsic motivators, we’ve set goals and we’ve quantified rewards (gummy bear every half hour, bar of chocolate at lunch, two puddings tonight). Now she is powering up the mountain, bouncing along chattering away to Abel who doesn’t say much back. She has found a ski pole in the lodge and she fiercely stabs it into the mud with every step. In fact it’s uber-fit Menna, who runs twenty five kilometres without fail every week, who is the first to start struggling. She is sliding around and lagging behind the group, sweating and frowning fiercely.
Arthur’s style of movement is not slow or steady. He jumps and bounces, slips and crashes, tries to make difficult jumps, falls a lot, wastes energy. He is always in danger of turning an ankle. He cycles through emotions from elation to dejection and offers a constant running commentary on his progress. He is the next to crash.
When it is my turn to hit the wall, it is intense. We’ve been climbing solidly for about three hours, I am wet through and I have a dull percussive ache in my quads which flares every time I have to lunge up another thigh-high rock. My backpack contains eight litres of water, it digs into my shoulders and catches on tree branches as we squeeze through gaps. My breath is short, my heart is hammering, my feet squelch. I am very glad when Abel calls a halt and I wolf down half a pack of peanuts and a secret handful of gummy bears.
We make summit just after one pm. There are no life-changing views or blinding moments of self-revelation, my spirit animal fails to materialise. Instead Abel indicates a point of cloud-covered rock like many others and tells us that this is the highest point. We nod and puff, then wind our way between various smokey outcroppings before sliding over the other side, through a series of steep and slippery faces, down into the crater.
An hour later we have reached our destination. We stand around uncertainly at the edge of the crater lake which stretches away into the mist like a grey shroud. A few stakes reach up ominously out of the water. Abel won’t confirm that they were used for ritualistic sacrifices, but one has an old skull on it, an oxen I think. We half-heartedly throw a in few stones, which land with muffled plunks and stir up some sullen ripples. We have literally no idea how large the crater is, how high the walls that surround us. How deep are the netherworlds that lie beneath that lifeless surface? We stand in a cold wet marshland with the silhouettes of mossy trees and bromeliads above us.
I was expecting Abel to light a fire at this point, start chanting and brew up the ayahuasca, but he just stands around wordlessly. It is too wet to sit so Menna and I crouch down and make sandwiches on a tree stump, then we all stand around in a circle stuffing in ham and cream cheese, chorizo, mango, oranges, chocolate. Abel doesn’t seem to have any food with him. No doubt he was intending to lunch on dew and wild berries, or perhaps just to chew on hallucinogenic tree bark. We feed him a sandwich or two, then he transmogrifies into a bat and flies away to the spirit world for ten minutes while we digest.
We haven’t managed to sit down at all, so our trembly tired legs are hardly rested when we have to shoulder our packs and turn back for home. Abel clearly thinks we have energy to spare so he takes us on a longer, more perilous route out of the crater that involves a long stretch of hand to hand climbing up a mudslide. We complain but he no longer hears us, he is tuned into the low rumblings of the volcano, drawing energy from magnetic fields deep beneath us. He floats across the slippery mud face, each touch gentle and tender. We lumber after him, stumbling, sliding, occasionally screaming, making a chain with our hands so none of us slip into the abyss.
Then we are over the summit and back into the cirrocumulus landscape. The return journey is not the gentle downhill ramble we had hoped for, but a slippery losing fight against gravity where each downward step places stiff demands upon tired knees, the falls multiply, the chatter dries up.
I have nothing much to say about those three nightmarish hours. Arthur spots an armadillo, Matilda doesn’t once moan and Abel himself slips over a couple of kilometres from home, which cheers us all up immensely and gives us the psychological boost we need to complete the trip.
The next morning we are greeted by the manager of our lodge in a state of high excitement. He tells us that as far as he is aware, Matilda is the youngest person ever to make it up to the crater lake and return alive.
To get to the island of Ometepe we have to take a ferry from Rivas, a dangerous and ugly port town all sprawled out and gently cooking on the lakeside. After a long and bumpy ride along country roads, our taxi drops us right in the danger zone – that is bang in the middle of the docks – and we are instantly swarmed while at our most vulnerable: sweaty, disoriented in the midday sun, a huge pile of bags and surfboards anchoring us down, unable to move, unsure where to go.
Tour sellers and porters pluck at my arm, men compete to sell us cheap ferry tickets, people edge forward and pick up our bags – presumably they are porters, though who knows? Money-changers wave rolls of bank notes at us. Somehow, unasked, we acquire a fixer. He hauls away our baggage into a kiosk, shoos off the beggars, marches me up to a window to buy tickets, procures us a table for lunch and paints a picture of various breathtaking excursions that he alone can organise on the island. I manage to escape without booking any expensive tours, but he extracts a $5 tip and a promise that when we return from the island he will arrange our taxi transportation onwards.
The café on the dockside looks rough and not particularly hygienic but the chicken, beans and rice they serve taste great and the tough old proprietress dusts off a cracked smile for Matilda. We pile our luggage around our table so it feels we are bunkered down in a foxhole. Occasionally an arm appears over our barricade, hand outstretched. The children judge how needy the supplicant looks, and hand over an appropriate amount of coins from a small pile that we have accumulated.
And then action! We all load up with as much luggage as each can carry and jostle our way onto the Che Guevara ferry, winding our way between hooting pickups and revving motorbikes, floating amid a sea of brown faces, jostled by old ladies with live chickens, making space for toothless men with enormous sacks of grain on their backs. We stash our surfboards and skateboards on the car deck and heave everything else up to the top floor, and there we sit triumphantly in high winds and fierce sunlight.
The passage is rough. Wind-swell rocks the ferry, white horses race us as we plough across the lake. I am seated by a huge open barrel of water that is being transported to the island and I get periodically sprayed as the boat lurches.
Lago de Nicaragua is huge – it has about the same surface area as Cyprus. It is inhabited by one of the only fresh water colonies of bull sharks in the world. These were once prolific and such savage predators that for years the lakeside inhabitants refused to learn how to swim. Now of course the sharks have been overfished to near extinction. Chinese demand for shark fins led to a booming trade back in the sixties when a hundred or so boats competed on the waters here and delivered their catch to a dedicated shark processing plant in nearby Granada. The fins went to China, the skin was used for leather, shark liver got made into supplements and the meat became dog food.
As the stock depleted this became a game of diminishing returns and the whole operation was eventually shut down after the revolution. Sharks were finally protected by law but by then over 20,000 had been killed. Nowadays there are whispers of illicit nighttime shark fishing trips, big game hunters on high speed launches – Chinese and others; corrupt officials bribed to turn a blind eye. And so it goes.
We don’t see any sharks on our journey, but there are some elegant storks that fly across our bow. We have dosed Matilda with sea sickness tablets and she flops around drowsily in the sun. The crossing lasts for forty minutes and then we are on the volcanic island of Ometepe. A pickup truck sits waiting for us at the dockside and once we have loaded the baggage, and our son, into the rear, we roll slowly across the island, down roads lined with lush shiny-green foliage, into little rural villages, through coffee plantations and up steep hills. Then at last the day’s journey is complete and we are at Tenorio Lodge.
Humankind has depleted the oceans and destroyed coral reefs. We have hunted, fished, polluted, driven many marine species to extinction. But sometimes the fish fight back.
Today was such a day.
The normal way of things has been inverted: a human has been hooked by a fish. More specifically a small girl has been pierced by the barb of a sting ray.
I am listening to a podcast on the beach, not quite asleep, not quite awake, digesting my lunch in the sunshine. Menna, Matilda and Arthur are somewhere out in the waves. Then somewhere in my half-dream, screams of pain intrude, jarring with the mellifluous but self-righteous tones of Sam Harris.
And now I am awake, up and running towards the sound. Menna is first on the scene and gathers Matilda up out of the waves. As I approach I can see her left leg stuck out rigidly, the thick trickle of blood glistening on her heel. I awkwardly receive her from Menna and carry her back up the beach. She screams and sobs and a crowd gathers. Everyone wants to give advice and practice their English or just be part of this exciting event.
“What happened?” ”¿Qué pasó con la muchacha? “Was it a barracuda?” “A sting ray no?” “¿Una raia dices?” “You have to take her to Emergencias right now.” says a lady with diamanté earrings and a no-nonsense voice. “I’ve seen this before.”
This is not a great option for us. We are a couple of hours from the nearest hospital, which will probably be riddled with Covid, and we don’t have a car. This doesn’t feel like the kind of injury that justifies an ambulance. “No problem guys. Is fine. My husband can drive you.” She cranes her neck and looks around, but husband has slipped off. “Our buddy Josh got hit by a sting ray in Costa Rica” I said. “He was ok after a short while. I think he peed on it or something.” I’m aware that it sounds like I don’t care much about my daughter’s wellbeing, like I’m just trying to avoid the hassle. I catch Menna’s eye and am relieved to see she is thinking the same.
‘You must put her foot in hot water’ says another woman in a yellow swimming costume, a wealthy Managuan lady down for the weekend I think. “Like real hot. It’s going to hurt, sure, but you gotta stop the acid. Is it hurting now honey?”. Matilda howls and nods. “That’s it. Hot water! No pee needed. That’s what we’ll do,” I’m liking this scenario more and I give a thumbs up and an encouraging smile to Yellow Costume. There are three or four kids watching the scene, chattering away in Spanish, laughing. A huge muscled American surfer with a tiny head wanders over. “Hey man, was that a sting ray? Nooo! I got stung by like five of them last year. That shit hurts so bad! You got to dig out the spine. Hey, look at this” hopping in a circle to show us all a scar on his sole. “Got one went right through my foot here.” “Take her up to the bar, they’ll have hot water,” says Yellow Costume waving a well manicured finger. We all troop up to the beach bar.
“The barb snapped off inside me so they had to dig it right out with a knife. I was just sitting there, like crying and hollering and drinking rum. Man! So bad!” says Muscles. “It’s early for sting rays. They only come when the water is colder.” Diamanté is seeing her authority diminish. “Was there blood? Perhaps it’s a scorpion fish, or a jellyfish. How do we know? She should go to a doctor. Don’t you worry sweetie, my husband’s gonna to take you. It’s gonna be ok. Where is he now?” More urgent head swivels but husband is still lying low. “Was there blood?” she repeats. “I don’t think it’s too early for rays,” says Muscles. “the hurricanes messed up all the currents so it’s running colder than usual. You should go down to Marbella beach, there’s always loads of sting rays there. They like to, you know…”, he mentally tests out options, “…breed, in the bay.” We assure Diamanté that there was indeed blood. She looks a little sour like we’ve conspired against her. “She still should go to a doctor in case there’s an allergic reaction. No se sabe! We gotta truck, it’s big. My husband gonna fit you all in.” We are English, we specialise in polite but firm. “It’s alright thanks, my wife is a doctor. Maybe if we just sit her down for a bit.”
We put Matilda down on a sun lounger at the beach bar. She sobs, hides her face away behind the crook of the elbow, embarrassed about the attention. Menna inspects the wound for snapped-off barbs but Matilda is jerking her leg around wildly. “There was another time I landed on this piece of coral,” says Muscles. “Sliced open my calf through here, under the tattoo. You know that coral can grow inside you? I saw it happen once to this guy. He was like a human cactus! I didn’t know if I was gonna wake up one day with like stalactites growing out my skin.”
The waitress from the bar come up with a bowl of hot water. She’s seen this drama play out before. We put Matilda’s heal into the water and she screams and jerks it out. The waitress gives a little smile, like ‘they always do this…’ Yellow Costume is in the ascendency. Diamanté has faded back to the second ring of onlookers. “It’s got to be as hot as she can bear,” she says, “that’s the only way to neutralise the acid”. She makes the waitress add further boiling water to the pot. “Or are they stalagmites? Which ones are the ones that go upwards? Though I guess they would have grown straight outwards really, so could be either. Like a dinosaur!” says Muscles enigmatically.
Matilda will not submerge her heel in the water and is converting her pain into rage. She howls and spits like a little wildcat, tenses her leg upwards, kicks out. I test the water temperature, it is really very hot. But probably bearable I think. She can do this. “Come on sweetheart,” I say, “let’s just give this a go. The hot water will take the venom away. It’s hurting right?” “Go away!” Matilda screams at me, “You’re hurting me!” “I’m not touching you darling but you do need to put your foot in that water. Otherwise we’re going to have to take you all the way to Granada to a hospital there,” I say, really working on my calm tone.
Morwenna does her doctor thing. “Let me explain from a medical point of view why we need to do this Missy,” she says in a soothing but matter-of-fact voice, “you’ve been injected with a venom that is irritating your skin and working it’s way up through your blood.” Matilda screams again. “We need to flush out the venom with hot water. It will take away the sting and reduce the risk of infection.” Menna gently pushes Matilda’s foot into the water. “I don’t care! I don’t care about venom in my skin.I’m not putting my foot in that water,” says Matilda kicking her leg high into the air. “You see your nervous system is getting agitated by the toxins,” Menna continues. ”And we’re getting agitated by your screaming,” I add. “It can’t hurt that much surely.” “It gotta to be real hot honey or it don’t work,” cuts in Muscles, “they actually poured water from the kettle onto my foot when I got stung. I got blisters all over afterwards, but hell, even the burns were better than the stinging.” “I bet it won’t hurt anyway. I’ve checked the water and it’s fine. Look! I’m putting my finger in now. Hardly hurts. This is a great chance for you to practice being brave!” I say with a smile. I try to hold her hand. “Shut UP Daddy! You’re making it worse! You don’t know what it is like!” screams Matilda through clenched teeth, snatching her hand away. “You’ve never even been stung by a sting ray.” “No you’re making it worse.” I snap, calm voice lost, “You’re making such a fuss. And we’re all going to have to drive all the way to Granada and hang out at a bloody hospital if you don’t put your foot in that water. We’ve all spent enough time in hospitals already. Come on!”
Yellow can see that I’ve lost control of this situation. She squats down next to Matilda and grabs her hand. “Look at me girl. Your foot needs to go in that water to get rid of the stinging. It’s gotta happen. I don’t care if you shout. Shouting’s fine. You shout at me all you like, but you get your foot in there at the same time. This is for your own good.” Matilda has never experienced a complete stranger ordering her around in a tough-but-warm-hearted American-Nicaraguan accent and is unsure how to respond. She’s taken aback and stops screaming for a second. “That’s right girl. Now put that foot in the water. You look at me. You look into my eyes. You’ve got this honey.”
“Yeah. That’s what I said. Good stuff!” I murmur, feeling kind of displaced. Matilda lowers her foot into the now-cooler water. She jerks it out again theatrically, and then allows Yellow Costume to gently push it back down again. She writhes and makes some extraordinary grimaces but keeps it in there.
Yellow costume has prevailed. She owns this situation now. “You gotta watch out for an allergic reaction, like if she gets bumps or something,” says Diamanté quietly. It is a last gesture, she knows she is defeated. “Come on honey, we got to go find Daddy.” A shape detaches itself from behind her and we see she has a girl with her, about Matilda’s age, who has been literally hovering in her shadow. “Hope you get better now,” she says to Matilda and they walk off down the beach. “I broke my leg one time,” I say to Muscles, “snapped the femur clean in half!” “What, surfing?” he says. “Nah, on a scooter. Crashed into a lorry.” “No way!” he says.
We huddle around the invalid for the next twenty minutes. Some people drift off . The amused Nicaraguan waitress periodically tops up the tub with hot water, Matilda groans and writhes, puts a weak hand upon her brow. We bring her fries and ketchup and horrifically sweet cherryade. People put damp towels on her head and shield her from the sun. Yellow Costume talks to her the whole time in a low monotone, murmuring encouragement and words of wisdom. Menna hugs Matilda tight and whispers in her ear. At some point Arthur wanders up with his surfboard under his arm to see what all the fuss is about. He’s impressed with the injury but he’s made a friend in the waves and after a minute or so he runs off to play with him.
After a while I see that my presence isn’t required and I go back and finish off my podcast.
Arthur and I are going fishing today with our buddy Josh. All the charter fishing companies in San Juan del Sur have terrible reviews – but they are cheap! – so we have chosen one that seems a little less terrible than the others, or perhaps a little cheaper. It is called Hog-Tide Fishing. The logo features a pig in eye-liner winking.
We have a 5am rendezvous in town, which means an early taxi for Arthur and I. It’s one of those annoying meetings where everyone is late and then you do a lot of aimless hanging around anyway, grumpily calculating how many extra minutes after your 4:30am alarm you could actually have got up. Arthur does not say a single word for two hours, which I suppose is a kind of silver lining.
The three of us are joined on this expedition by Jason the boat owner, a scrawny surfer called Simon with lots of facial hair, and Candy who is together with one of the two guys, though I’m not sure which. It looks like Josh and I are bankrolling this expedition and the others are on a freebie. Lastly there is Capitán – real name not given, definite article not required. A silent, competent local who is there to do the work.
The owner Jason has been described in many of the Trip Advisor reviews – sometimes admiringly, more often not – as a real ‘character’. He is certainly larger than life, with a lumbering swagger, a range of eye-opening opinions and a good southern drawl. He has a beloved pet pig back home in the States it turns out, hence the shop name. I think about the bondage reference, the sexy pig logo, and various questions bubble up – but it is too early in the morning.
Jason hits us up for the payment straight away – cash only please – and we have to fumble across a large pile of notes. He then asks for another $50 as a tip for Capitán, his paw thrust out insistently. He’ll make sure Capitán gets it later, he assures us. I would prefer to give him a tip directly, but Jason is very firm on this point. The fifty dollar bill disappears into his pocket.
As we finally set off to sea, there is dark line stretched across the horizon. Arthur and I have barely seen a cloud since we’ve been in Nicaragua, but now we watch the front advancing towards us with a sense of inevitability. The rain is cold and insistent when it hits and instantly brings a nostalgic memory of wet days mackerel fishing on Plymouth Sounds. I have only brought a t-shirt and I’m soon soaked through, so for warmth I pull Arthur into a bear hug and refuse to release him.
This has been billed as a day of sport fishing and surfing. We will catch big fish then catch big waves, anchoring at hidden reef breaks that are only accessible by boat. It soon turns out though that we are not going big game fishing in the true sense, more coastal trawling. We potter backwards and forwards along the shoreline in our stubby little vessel, a couple of lures strung out behind us, eventually hooking a bonito which Josh pulls in. We all pose for pictures with it.
We nose up to a couple of beaches and reefs up and down the coast but the surf is flat and blown out and our boards stay in their bags. Jason suggests a swim, but none of us wants to get in the water. We stay on the boat, sliding around on deck, telling stories to warm ourselves up.
Simon is a real character. He alternates between moments of stillness and sudden uncoiling position shifts. To chat with him you must be light on your feet, spinning and twisting to follow his moves. “I fast every Sunday, it makes you feel great. Complete digestive flush.” he tells us from a lotus position on a locker, “but Monday, it’s like Disneyland” – squatting on the cabin roof – “I’ll eat just about anything! Ice cream, burgers, shrimp you name it.” Big hoot of laughter as he twists around a stanchion. “For the rest of the week I’m vegan.” The scion of a rich Armenian family, he has bought land in Ecuador and built a yoga and surf retreat that is also a cultural collective, a local community centre and various other things. He has a ski lodge in Colorado, he is negotiating a land deal up the coast here in Nicaragua. Soon he is talking about potential investments we might consider together.
At one point we stop the boat and drop handheld lines. It’s like crabbing off the pier. Jason catches a baby grouper which he conscientiously throws back in, only to see it flap weakly for a while on the surface before being snatched up by a gull, which is in turn attacked by other gulls, so the rescued fish is literally pulled apart in mid-air above us. Scales and fins rain down onto the deck.
I haul in a red snapper. “That’s a nice catch” Says Jason, “That’s one of the best fish you can find round here.”
There is a lull when none of us catches anything for half an hour and Jason suggests cutting up the Bonito. He makes some rudimentary gestures at Capitan, who silently guts the fish, cleans and filets it with precise knife-work, then adds soy, lime and chilli. We crowd around and eat it with our fingers, directly out of a plastic tub, stuffing spicy raw fish into our mouths. It is eight in the morning and it tastes fantastic. We look like savages, huddled around in sodden clothes, chomping away silently with soy stained mouths.
Jason comes to life after the first couple of fistfuls of bonito sashimi. “I first came down here for a bachelor party – that was some event I can tell you. You met the girls here?” He gives us a leer and a wink that for a moment replicates uncannily the winking pig logo he’s got embroidered on his chest. “It was so good I went home and sold up. Hauled my ass back down here and got me a boat. And since then… Good times.” He indicates the ocean expansively.
Arthur catches a large grouper with his handheld line, pulling it in himself. His grin is enormous and the sun comes out at the same time. The mood on the boat improves.
“It must have been hard getting a business up and running in this environment” I say to Jason. “Oh yeah. No shit. No tourists means no trips. It’s been drier than a bone in a box round here last couple of years. I had to sell my car!” He says. “But you know, you can live pretty cheap round these parts.’ I guess it hasn’t all been good times then.
Jason is off and running. He outlines various contentious views about the government here, the females, the intelligence of the locals. “Don’t worry about him” he indicates Captain, “he don’t understand a damn lick of English. Most of em don’t. Me n him, we got our own sign language we use.” “He does speak English” Arthur whispers to me. “He was teaching me how to gut the fish earlier.” Jason offers us a beer.
Capitan reels in a macarela. “That’s the jackpot that is.” says Jason. “Tastiest fish in the sea. You guys got lucky!” We all pose for pictures with it.
After a three hours on the boat we have caught five fish and we are ready to go home. “You guys can keep all the fish.” Jason tells us “And hey listen, y’all should drop around to the shop some night, I do fish fry-ups in the evenings sometime. Bring along some beer and join in the fun. I do like free fishing trips too, just for my friends. You’d just have to pay the gas. And a tip for Capitán. It would be pretty cool” I think Jason is lonely.
Back on shore I ask Arthur how it was. I feel the trip hasn’t lived up to expectations, that it wasn’t the sun-soaked marlin chase in deep seas that I had described. Arthur looks up at me, soggy and tangle-haired, splashes of soy sauce on his cheeks. “It was brilliant Dad! We’ve got to hang out with Jason more. Can we go out with him again?” I think back on the other fishing trips we’ve been on – rainy mackerel hunts in Plymouth, casting lines from various jetties in Spain, trawling from a boat in Greece, crabbing in Norfolk. We’ve never actually caught anything before. Well, nothing we could eat anyway.
The bag of grouper and snapper feels heavy in my hand. We will go back, throw it down on the table. Arthur will gut it. The girls will cook. There will be a feast. We set out for the high seas at dawn like real men, and now we will return home, wet and salty, laden with our catch.
We are sitting on the beach of Majugual watching frigate birds gliding far overhead. Their silhouette is unmistakeable: a long crucifix shape, wings raked back to a point. They are motionless as they circle the thermals, but when they dive then their tail opens like a swallow’s, so they can fine-tune their trajectory, finding the optimal angle to hit the water and seize the fish beneath.
We’re not the only ones watching the birds. Every time they leave their distant circuit and start their long dives, an old man emerges from a patch of shade above the beach. Fishing rod in hand he bounds down the scorching sand. He is surely some way into his sixth decade but he still has an impressive turn of pace. He charges straight into the water, wading out to where the waves are breaking and starts casting lures into the area that the birds have indicated. He reels them in furiously and casts again, and the again, until he is rewarded.
We’ve watched three ventures so far and each time he’s landed at least one fat fish – they look like bass from where I’m sitting. He then runs back up above the water line and buries the still-flapping fish in the sand, before returning to the breakers. On this cue, a little old lady comes trotting down in her apron (they are all so energetic!). She digs up the catch and whisks it back up to the little taverna tucked up in the tree line, the simply, but appropriately, named Foods-Drinks. Sometimes there’s a man with a net who jogs down too if the shoal looks abundant, but he’s a less urgent runner and always seems to arrive too late.
This is quite a show and I sit there watching for a while. There is a mildly slapstick element to the sprint down the dunes, the fully-clothed plunge into the sea, the frantic speed of it all. Over time it becomes apparent that this is serious work though and smiles give way to admiration. The silent crouch under the palm tree reading the frigate birds, the sudden explosion of energy in the midday heat. This is a family team, I decide, they have fished these shores all their lives. They use the wisdom of their ancestors, following the birds to find the shoals, grilling their fresh catch on charcoal fires with wild garlic and lime. This interplay between man and nature feels primordial, maybe it has beeen passed down generational lines over hundreds of years. I can imagine indigenous tribesmen, squatting high up in the meagre shade centuries ago, squinting into the blue, twining nets between their fingers, ready for the abrupt shift from stillness into motion. The sparse landscape around them would be exactly the same as it is now.
I try to talk to the fisherman as he trudges back up after one foray, but he is taciturn and unwilling to talk through his ancestral history with a random gringo in the heat. In any case the birds are falling again, right at the other end of the beach, and he’s got a long run to do.
We decide that we must go and eat some of that fresh fish at Foods-Drinks. When we sit down for lunch however we discover we have made an unfortunate misunderstanding about who was supposed to bring the bankroll (Menna for sure), and of course they don’t take credit cards. We managed to stump up about four dollars in change and so the family ends up sharing a quesadilla and some patacones for lunch. We cannot participate in the fish-to-plate ritual. We must remain voyeurs, observing the ancient tradition from the outside, uninitiated, reduced to writing about it in blogs. I saw little old lady delivering a plate of fresh sea bass to a nearby table though and it looked really good.
We have been tucking up the kids and Menna slips outside first. She immediately bounces back into the room, all twitchy and wide-eyed, jerking her head like a marionette. She’s got some kind of palsy, I think.
As I step out I immediately see him on our doorstep, waiting. There’s something primal that grips me then. A pattern recognition that fires up some ancestral protocol deep in the medulla and my leg muscles spasm before I even know what it is I’ve seen. I leap high. Then I land and the prefrontal cortex takes over: I laugh nervously; act nonchalant.
It’s the biggest fucking tarantula I’ve ever seen, there on our doorstep, waiting.
It is not one of those short-legged stripy tarantulas with the hairy abdomen that they call pica-caballo here. No, this is a much larger, better-proportioned arachnid with long muscular-looking legs. He is entirely black and sits motionless, coiled like some clockwork contraption that has been wound-up tight and is now ready to explode. Lit up by a single overhead light, each of his legs casts a stark shadow so it seems that there are sixteen of them.
Menna and I regroup a few meters away for a whispered conference. Through one of the two doors in front of us, our children are drifting off to sleep. Matilda is a committed arachnophobe, and to even suspect the existence of such a spider as this would catapult her to hitherto unseen levels of hysteria. She must never know of this nighttime visitor who sits on our doorstep, waiting.
What to do? I have a lifelong rule never to kill animals unnecessarily, except for flies and mosquitos (and occasionally fish which I intend to eat later). Furthermore this tarantula is – despite that visceral first reaction – a truly majestic specimen. He has mesmerised us and now we can’t take our eyes off him. He crouches there with a malevolent calm, an ancient predator from an older time: ageless, impassive, alert. We are in his thrall. His legs are long and elegant, his low centre of gravity speaks of power and agility. He holds some legs flexed on the floor while others rest on the perpendicular stone in front to provide torque as he leaps. My vertical frame feels ungainly as I sway in front of him. I am too slow and clumsy on my single pair of legs.
To kill such a creature would be petty and mean-spirited. I could shoo him away of course, but I have heard that tarantulas are territorial. He would come back again later, and next time we might not see him there on the doorstep, waiting. Matilda might step on him with her little bare foot as she comes wandering through to our room to talk about some vivid dream at three a.m.
In the end I go down to reception to ask for help. There is no one there but I manage to find Silvio, the old cook, who we have befriended. He is a solid chap, sparing with words, face lined with unknown worries. A dependable choice for this task, I think. He doesn’t quite roll his eyes when I tell him that there I have a spider problem, and he manages not to snort derisively when I tell him that my preference is not to have this spider killed, merely removed to a good safe distance.
Silvio has clearly had a long day but nonetheless he will come and help. He wearily picks up a tub and a broom. We head back over to our cabin and find Menna still transfixed, eyes locked on the tarantula who stares back at her from our doorstep, waiting.
“Pero sí ¡Es grande!” Says Silvio and I feel vindicated.
Then we get to see how a local Nicaraguan deals with an oversize spider. Silvio bends down and in one gesture he sweeps the tarantula smoothly up into the ice cream tub that he is holding. Job done! He stands up and smiles at me. Young soft European lad, his eyes say, you still have much to learn.
I cannot help feeling that Silvio has committed a fairly basic oversight here, but I am not sure how to articulate it. Before I can say anything though, the tarantula simply runs out of the open ice cream tub and up his arm.
Silvio does a kind of reflex jump that is not so different from the one that I myself performed ten minutes earlier. When he returns to land the tarantula is no longer on his arm but is on his leg instead, all eight limbs locked tightly into the fuzz of his well-muscled calf. Silvio slaps at his leg and knocks the tarantula to the floor. Menna and I both leap back in perfect synchronicity. The tarantula runs. Silvio sweeps wildly with his broom. On his second or third attempt he catches the skittering creature and sends it scudding across our porch and into a bush.
We all take a couple of breaths and wait for our hearts to slow down. Silvio rubs a hand over his bald head and makes a kind of shrugging gesture. We thank him profusely and he potters off into the night. It feels to me that both he and the tarantula have been somehow robbed of their dignity in the exchange. Silvio’s native competence has been called into question. A lord of the ancient world has been humiliated.
I worry too that we haven’t really dealt with the problem. Somewhere in that dark bush an angry tarantula sits, biding its time, right by our doorstep, waiting.
We are staying in a hostel near San Juan del Sur, a beach town on the southern Pacific coast. It is a basic place and there is a certain simple harmony between its construction and the natural backdrop: open-sided wood structures, winding pebble paths, leafy vegetation, palm-frond thatching, wigwams, trees, the sea. A ring of surrounding hills funnel cool wind through the site. Loud marimba music plays at all hours of the day.
It is a semi-rural area in which we find ourselves, somewhere that is neither village nor countryside. Outside the hostel gates, there is a series of corrugated iron and wood cabins strung out along a muddy road, smallholdings mainly, where chickens and pigs scratch away at the bare earth. Eagles circle overhead and small ragged children peer out from the shadows.
We plan to stay here for two weeks and we are not going to rent a car, so our world shrinks down to the limits of where we can walk to (or rather, where Matilda will walk to), a few kilometres of road leading to Maderas beach in one direction and the Machete Bar in the other.
Improbably we have a buddy here. Manu is a cosmopolitan Chilean who runs a couple of surf camps under the Dreamsea franchise. We stayed at his camp in Cantabria, northern Spain, a lifetime ago (last July) and I went surfing with him on a memorable occasion. He is now out here in his Nicaraguan camp only a klick or two up the road from us. We go to see him a few days into our stay.
Manu take us on a tour around his elegant – and empty – surf boutique. We peek into tents on teak wood platforms, where Balinese carvings gather dust on antique chests. We admire the huge central palm-thatch tower, walk up the spiral staircase to the surf theory classroom and stare out from the lookout platform over the jungle canopy to the far off sea. Arthur enviously eyes up the gleaming racks of surfboards.
We can envisage this place in its heyday: warm nights with mojitos, Soul Wax beats and candlelight, laughter at the poolside, beautiful people floating around in swimwear – basically a Vogue advert. But now the pool is covered in old leaves, the bar is untended, the bongos are unbeaten.
“We have only been open for two years” says Manu, “One good summer, then we got hit by the political crisis and all our bookings cancelled. Then it seemed like things were getting better, but… Covid! After that Hurricane Eta hit us pretty hard. Lots of roofs off! Then came Hurricane Iota…” He smiles and gestures in an inshallah kind of way. “We managed to find a corporate booking for new year – so at least I was able to pay the staff a Christmas bonus.” Another grin, “But not so many came in the end, so we lost out on the bar. Though now I have a lot of tequila!” We are doing dry January, I explain hastily, a midday tequila doesn’t appeal.
Although the worst is over now, Nicaragua’s reputation remains sketchy and this keeps people away. “This country is totally safe” Manu insists, “You don’t see real crime here, only opportunistic stuff. You go to Costa Rica and you get proper planned crime, especially in the surf resorts. Theft, mugging, kidnap. All the gangs and cartels are there. Here in Nicaragua there is only one cartel in town, and that’s Ortega and his government. And he doesn’t want to fuck with the tourists!”
He has a theory too about the competition for tourism, a narrative strand that will get repeated throughout our stay. “The Costa Ricans have been watching Nicaraguan tourism grow, and they don’t like it. It’s like how they were during the boom years, but now they’re flatlining and Nicaragua is taking more market share. So they’ve used the excuse of Covid to shut the border. San Jose is the international hub, all the flights from US and Europe land there. Then the tourists travel overland up to Nicaragua and back. Now of course they can’t get back again, so they don’t come…”
After an hour or two of chatting we leave Manu in his camp and head out into the bright daylight for lunch. He is a bright and vivacious guy, full of traveller stories, but even he cannot shrug off an air of gloom about the current situation. We leave him tapping away at his MacBook in the shadows of his empty bar, writing business plans, building projects for when the guests come back.
We make more friends here over time: we meet Tim and Melissa on the beach and have dinner at their place, they introduce us to various other members of the Canadian diaspora. We talk to a Dutch family who have lived here a decade already. Our long-suffering friends Josh and Meg cross the border to come and join us. Again and again in conversation, we hear the same narrative of stunted growth and sinister powers, of Nicaragua’s great potential nipped in the bud.
Over the next week Arthur and I surf with Manu a couple of times. One Sunday he picks us up early and takes us off on a jolting ride across the countryside, down jungle tracks, to Yankees – a legendary remote break. There we watch Manu drop into barrel after barrel while Arthur, Josh and I misjudge our takeoffs and get pounded by the fast heavy wave.
It is a place that encapsulates all the glory of Nicaragua – a world class hollow wave, white sand beach stretching out to the horizon, lush jungle backdrop and not a soul for miles around. It is named after a covert CIA landing spot during the Contra War, so there is a bona fide revolutionary connection too. It is what the Canadians call legit.
I understand why everyone is desperate for the tourism to return, but myself, I quite like it like this.
It is with regret that we leave Costa Rica. In our six weeks here we have criss-crossed the country backwards and forwards. We know the dirt roads and potholed highways, the river crossings. We have seen the terrain change from jungle to swamp to grassy plains. We have eaten at roadside shacks on mountain passes and drunk coffee in townships under smoking volcanos.
To have come back here with Arthur and Matilda, and to see it all again through their eyes, has made this trip quite emotional for Menna and I. Particularly in a time of declining biodiversity. We often felt the shadow of generational guilt over the ecological uncertainty that we know our children will inherit. Now in a little minibus, rattling along the northern roads heading to the Nicaraguan border, we talk again about the wildlife and nature in this extraordinarily rich corner of the world. We make sure to preserve the memories.
The flock of toucans circling around our cabin, chattering and screeching, then sweeping down the hillside to attack a fruit tree below us.
An iguana making a suicidal dash across the scorching tarmac as we drive down the coastal highway. His feet flapping as though he was trying to run over water.
Poison dart frogs squatting on leaves, glistening with a strange sticky luminescence.
Dark shaded forests with strange mammals in the undergrowth: agoutis like great ginger hamster-dogs, their hind legs strangely pink and hairless; dark and muscular herds of tusked peccaries shouldering their way through thickets; elegant coatis and giant squirrels; spider monkeys linking limbs to make bridges between branches far above; mossy sloths hanging like green termite nests. Howler monkeys roaring at dawn.
There was an encounter with fer-de-lance, the most aggressive and venomous snake in the region. We passed a step away from where it lay coiled in the leaves, cold and unmoving like a twisted liana, only realising it was there when a park ranger behind us called us back. I wonder how many other snakes we have brushed past unseeing – or nearly stepped on – in all of our forest walks; how often we have unthinkingly grabbed branches from which they had slipped away silently only seconds before.
We leave with a whole mosaic of Costa Rican birds imprinted on our retinas: Tanagers, oropendulas, trogons. A trio of lineated woodpeckers at work high up on a telegraph pole. Kingfishers looping and dipping along the ocean shore. Scarlet macaws at sunset. Ospreys above a volcanic lake. A green toucanet in the Quetzales cloud forest, utterly still on his branch like a mossy outcropping.
We saw an anteater climbing a tree, slow and graceful, inhaling a trail of bugs as he went. It was a frantic morning and we were trying to pack up camp in a hurry, but he held us all transfixed, pointing and grinning, for ten minutes amidst the chaos.
Nature wasn’t always our friend. Matilda remembers being hit in the face as she trailed behind us in the Cahuita National Park. It was a heavy green fruit and the shock and pain of it made her scream. Then another fruit crashed into the sandy path right next to her, and suddenly they were raining down. There were no fruit tree above us though. It took us a while to spot the troupe of white-faced capuchins high up in the canopy. They were cackling and hooting, hopping on their branches, deliberately pelting us. Their aim was good and we had to run.
We have learned to live with the mosquito, the fly, the sea louse and many other biting and stinging creatures that left their marks on our skin. We have rolled in jellyfish tentacles in the waves, leaving acidic burns coiled around my forearm, angry red stripes across Arthur’s torso. I have had a cockroach run across my face in the dark.
We were excited to see a raccoon and her cubs wandering up to us once as we eat dinner outside. She was so pretty! As I stood to shoo her away, she held her ground and snarled at me, a row of needle-sharp teeth in her pretty little mouth. Then she stepped towards me! She was totally unafraid and I was not sure what to do. I wasn’t overly eager to get a raccoon bite then a series of rabies injections. So I sat back down ashamed and let her forage at her leisure. A long dark night of the soul ensued (faceddown! By a small mustelid!) as I was forced to question my place in the food chain.
On goes the memory game, as the miles roll past, trailing us through kingdoms and species, branching down taxonomic lines. Our minibus is filled with the sounds of the forest, with colours and smells, awe and excitement, with fear relived.
We will come home from this trip poorer, and re-entry will be hard. But converting our savings into the currency of memory and experience is something we will never regret.
We part company with our friends for our last two nights on the Caribbean. Josh and Meg stay in Puerto Viejo with a vague plan to head onwards to Mexico. The Nicholls retreat to an ecolodge in the jungle to ponder next steps. For us it is complicated. We had intended to make our way south through Panama and then on to find friends in Colombia, but both countries are now implementing pretty severe government restrictions of the sort that we don’t want to get wrapped up in. Mexico is a hotbed of Covid. Peru and Chile are no longer open to travellers.
Now we are not with our friends, all of our dwarves and goblins can come back out to play, those secret travelling companions of ours. Menna lives with friction drag – a dragon who wakes whenever she hasn’t eaten for four hours – and we must all tread carefully if we are not to get scorched in her devastating fires. Matilda has a host of little dwarves that travel with her – Grumpy, Sleepy, Lazy and Unhelpful are the ones we meet most days, though Disgusted often comes around at dinnertime.
Arthur gets possessed by a leprechaun if he doesn’t get exercised regularly; that is to say he goes all hyper and annoying, sings tuneless songs, asks a million questions, irritates his sister, breaks things.
I myself have wailing spirits trapped deep inside the bones of my battered body: broken shoulders that moan, the rebuilt femur that hums when the weather changes, a neck that won’t turn properly. There is the djinn of apathy too that rises in me in the early afternoon hours.
It is the money goblin though that has become the most insistent recently. He travels around most places with us now and has started to insinuate himself into our conversations in a most unwelcome way. ‘Everything is over budget here in Costa Rica’ he whispers as I drift in the afternoon haze. We had originally planned to eke out our money in various low-cost African, Indian and Asian destinations. Then Covid trapped us in expensive Europe for several months and now we are finding that Costa Rica is hardly the cheap developing economy we remembered. Last time we were here Menna and I would rent a house for $250 a month, but now we are spending that in three nights. We’re not good at tracking to a budget but we have a feeling that if we were, we would be looking at some worrying red numbers right now.
Once the money goblin is riding on your shoulder, he makes everything uncomfortable. ‘Does Matilda really need another set of goggles?’ He is outraged! ‘She has lost six pairs already.’ The kids are hungry and Menna’s dragon is starting to smoulder. ‘We can’t afford that nice restaurant on the beach though’ he wheedles, ‘Let’s head over to the backstreets and find a local kiosk where we can eat cheap. We’ve all got pretty tough stomachs now’. The little ecocabin in the trees where we are staying is lovely, ‘but there is a sweaty little concrete hostel in town where the rooms are half the price and they throw in the cockroaches for free’ he pleads ‘let’s move in there!’.
We have various late night conversations, Menna (safely fed), the goblin and I. And eventually we hatch a plan to get our spending under control. There is a place we know where there is some pretty heavy civil unrest and that is keeping tourism away. Furthermore they have recently been battered by two destructive hurricanes that have destroyed a lot of the infrastructure. You can only enter by land and it’s strictly a one-way deal, the borders back into Costa Rica are shut. Most of the commercial airlines have suspended their flights there. It’s one of the poorest countries in Latin America – in the world even! But the surf is great if you can get to the breaks, and it’s a place we know and love.
Everyone has warned us against it, but at this point that just deepens the appeal. We’ll go to Nicaragua.
We must not look at goblin men, We must not buy their fruits: Who knows upon what soil they fed Their hungry thirsty roots?
Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market
Nymph, nymph, what are your beads? Green glass, goblin. Why do you stare at them? Give them me. No. Give them me. Give them me. No. Then I will howl all night in the reeds, Lie in the mud and howl for them
Christmas is coming on like a freight train. Our festive plan was originally to skip across the border to Nicaragua, but everyone we speak to grimaces and shakes their head. Security is so bad right now, they say, hurricanes, revolution, covid, crime, poverty. So we’ve done an about-turn, and decided to go the other way instead. We will head to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean south coast for Christmas, then we’ll skip across to Panama for New Year. As we’re currently up on the Pacific north coast this will mean diagonally crossing the country – a 500km drive along some pretty poor roads.
Various bear traps lie in our path: our Costa Rican visa expires on Christmas Eve, so does our car hire agreement and our travel insurance too. We haven’t bought a single present yet, and perhaps more pressingly we have nowhere to stay. It is now the 21st December and time is running out.
Directionless and uncertain we start start bumbling our way cross country anyway, for we have been kicked out of our house in Playa Grande. We stop en route to spend a couple of days with London friends, Ohad and Yael, who are on holiday here, bravely travelling with a cluster of four small daughters. This is not a family who believes in relaxing on the beach. No, they have built themselves instead a challenging itinerary of volcano hikes and climbs in the rainy highlands and it is all laid out carefully on a spreadsheet. They are data scientists. We intend to insert ourselves carefully into this schedule for a couple of days as we work our way across the country. Overlay some of their order onto our chaos.
Our rendezvous is on Volcano Tenorio. It is a four hour drive and we rattle up in our dirty jeep, surfboards bouncing on the roof, only forty minutes late. We have an inflated belief that we are now Costa Rica experts and will be called upon over the next couple of days to deliver a series of impromptu lectures on local flora and fauna, offer some well-meaning snippets of advice.
Falling out of the car in our dirty vests and broken trainers, we immediately see that they are much better prepared for this expedition than we are. Stout walking boots, utility trousers, headwear, large camera, bulging backpacks, exotic kit (a UV ‘black light’ torch whose sole purpose is making scorpions glow in the dark!). Furthermore they seem to be very well researched and with some prodigious wildlife sightings already under their belts (tarantulas, crocodiles, sloths, something called a olingo that I have never even heard of). As we set off on the trail, we find ourselves upstaged: recipients of travel tips, students of wildlife facts.
It is interesting to be back with other humans again. Over the months on the road, as new landscapes have unfolded our social sphere has shrunk, particularly for the kids. Travelling families are rare; local kids don’t hang out at hotels or on jungle tours and when we do meet them Arthur and Matilda have only the most basic rudiments of Spanish and are shy and uncommunicative. So they hang out with us instead. All day, every day, in close proximity. Since arriving in Costa Rica three weeks ago, we have stayed in nine different places – hotels, tents, cabins, hostels. We have all shared a single room for seven of the nine. Now, reunited with their schoolfriends, our kids are suddenly flutter off like leaves in the wind. It feels like having a plaster ripped off – a sudden tear then the forgotten touch of air and sunlight.
Matilda and Shiraz flit along the trails, hand in hand, whispering secrets to each other like a pair of woodland ghosts. Arthur and Eden run, climb, shout, they hang upside down, try to outwit each other and fabricate animal sightings. Menna and I find ourselves deep in grown up conversation. We are rusty.
We trek along the trails and find the psychedelic turquoise waters of Rio Azul. The Ticos say that after painting the sky, God washed the blue out of his brushes in the waters here, but Yael tells us it is aluminosilicate particles expanding in the acidic volcano waters. We cross Indiana jones style rope bridges and see a bold coati that saunters past us like he owns the place. Further on we see an obese family feeding it chocolate bars. Ohad catches a lizard.
It is a new thing for us not to own our time and pace. We are swept along, passive to someone else’s agenda. In a busy 24 hour period we complete the Rio Celeste hike at Volcano Tenorio, then drive cross country over to Volcano Arenal. I blow out a tire on a mountain road and have to do an exciting pit stop with a local lad who is sitting on the roadside. We stay the night in a hotel that reminds me of the Overlook in the Shining, swapping kids between rooms so they can have sleepovers with their friends. We listen to Ohad’s statistical analysis of Covid lockdown efficiency and we play chess. In the morning we loop our way around the 17 hanging bridges of Mistico Sky Park (and spot a Motmot), we grab lunch in La Fortuna (and spot a toucan) then more waterfalls and a swim in the rocky pools (and spot a sloth with a baby on its back). Arthur and Eden are very taken by the big rope swing that drops into the rocky pool and do it time and time again, chattering with the cold.
All the time the spectre of Christmas looms. Yael and Ohad don’t celebrate Christmas and feel no stress – but we do, and our kids have picked up on it. They have no home address to put on their letters to Father Christmas, and are nervously asking if he will even come to find them in Costa Rica. At this point we can’t honestly say that he will.
When we were last here in Playa Grande we lived with a wild crowd. There was Rob, a Bahamian drug dealer who had done some fairly serious jail time in Miami. I forget his girlfriend’s name but she was pretty with semi-dreadlocks. She had lived through tough times and this had left her with a vicious streak and a tendency to hysteria. Then there was Benny, an alcoholic chef, flushed and vitriolic at work in the kitchen then soft and wet-faced in the early hours; he would occasionally proposition Menna and then pull me aside to apologise, sagging and spitting into my ear. There was another English boy there too at the time: Ollie. They called me posh, but he was posher. He worked as a hotel manager nearby. His parents would periodically send him food parcels and once a hamper from Fortnum & Masons, which he would consume unabashed, occasionally throwing tidbits to the crowd of ravening travellers lounging around.
Other surfers, punks and lost souls drifted in an out of Casa Iguana. We surfed and smoked weed, got loaded, played pool at Kike’s joint. Someone would come home with five bucks of fresh tuna from the fishermen on the beach and we would eat it raw with chilli and tequila shots. We hung Benny’s bike from a tree once while he was passed out drunk in a hammock. It stayed there for a week.
Now we are back at our old haunt. We are staying in Casa Iguana once again, but over the intervening years it has shrunk, the big sunny garden has been divided with a wall and gravelled; shaded by tall cycads and leafy rubber trees. The place is run by a neurotic South African lady. The ghost of Rob is still sitting in the corner though. “You wanna bump?” he asks as I unpack the bags and stack the surfboards.
“The beach is this way.” says Menna brightly to the kids, “Let’s go and watch the sun set.” We have been in the car all day and now we can hear the waves, or perhaps it just that we need to step out of this garden that is full of shadows and nostalgia. We head out into the dust and sunlight of the road, but the access routes have changed and we go the wrong way, down into the forest, past barking dogs, on a winding swampy path that leads us for twenty minutes to the estuary edge.
We finally emerge from the twilight of the trees. We find the river mouth lit up like tin foil under strip lights and I am rocked by a deep sense of déjà-vu. For a few months in 2005 we lived in Tamarindo, on the other side of the river, and we used to paddle our surfboards across this estuary every day to seek out the better surf break. Sometimes if the tide was coming in fast and the water was high, we would get swept right up-river when we paddled homewards at dusk. Menna and I would wind each other up with tales of the huge apocryphal crocodile which was said to live in the muddy river waters. It turned out the crocodile wasn’t so apocryphal after all. It surged out of the water a couple of years ago and took a bite out of an elderly man who was standing in the water. It mangled his leg pretty bad and he had to have it amputated. The victim was a high court judge and he took the town to court, won himself a big pay out. The upshot is that these days you can’t paddle across the river any more, but have to use one of the boatmen that sit like mosquitos on the water, whistling at you from their dugouts.
Today we don’t want to cross the estuary to Tamarindo anyway, we want to walk back around the headland to get home. The sunset is pretty much over and it wasn’t a good one anyway. The moon will be full tonight and we have a springs tide at its peak, running high and stormy. Waves are swamping the beach, throwing foam and flotsam right up to the tree line. We can’t walk around the point to make the main stretch. We get soaked trying and are forced by the waves back into the undergrowth. We clamber back over broken foliage, get scratched by brambles, sink into waterlogged sand. The ghost of Benny rattles dimly along the forest path behind the tree line. He is weaving erratically on his bike and shouting something I don’t understand. Matilda falls over and cuts herself. Dark is falling.
We finally make it back to our apartment, which is both hotter and smaller than we remember. We bargained hard on rent and in a last negotiation twist, the neurotic South African lady removed the air conditioning remote and will only give it back for another $10 a night. A thin phantom dreadlocked girl sits in the hammock and nods with a tight smile at this righteous manoeuvre. The kids don’t understand what is so special about this cramped apartment anyway; they are tired of listening to our old stories and don’t want to share a bed in a cramped room. Without the chatter of the ghosts and the film of drunken stories the place is just a rundown set of rooms. “This place is absolutely totally nowhere near as good as our last house” says Matilda definitively.
The surf is glorious though over the next few days, mellow and glassy, visible lines stretching right out to the horizon. Arthur and I surf morning and night. The break is near empty yet at the same time it is crowded with ghosts and memories. I fail to catch a cracking wave and watch as Rob slips silently into the barrel. “I missed so many good waves while I was inside,” goes his calypso lilt as he paddles back out afterwards, “Now I’ve got my freedom again man, I’m just gonna catch right up.”
And over there is Bob on his sky blue epoxy board, paddling and hollering. Behind him is the German man we call Jesus, with his flowing blond hair and Teutonic precision, his girlfriend on the beach applauding another text-book ride. There are those dark Mexican brothers with the perfectly trimmed beards and the film-star cut-backs. I can see that scary muscle guy with the neck tattoos who keeps snaking my waves. A crowd of ghosts live in this ocean and they are waiting for us every evening. Together we see in the sunsets, call out the sets, we fight for the peaks and float in the lulls.
But Arthur is out there too, my own warm little surfer boy, my flesh and blood; full of life; smiling and chatting non-stop, wanting to make sure that I’ve seen every single wave he’s caught. He silences the ghosts and pulls me back to the present.
It is a perfectly timed crime. Arthur and I are out surfing, the girls have just arrived on the beach, half hour behind us, bringing the school bags. Matilda is now doing spins on her bodyboard in the white water while Menna guards camp.
The light is perfect and the waves are good. Menna steps away – just a few feet down towards the water to take photos. This is enough. While her back is turned, they slip silently out of the mangroves, snatch both of our bags, and melt back through the wall of leaves and twisted branches.
We chase them of course, right out of the water, all bare-foot and salty. Or rather we chase shadows and the idea of who they might be. Menna and Arthur run over the rickety walkway back home to find our car and then tour all the coast roads, peering suspiciously at anyone they pass, checking in litter bins for discarded possessions. Matilda and I push into the mangroves and come across a tracery of overgrown trails that lead back into the darkness. We find the first bag ripped open and dumped just behind the tree line, our swimming costumes, goggles and towels not worth their effort. Of the rest of our stuff there is no trace.
We talk to a pair of lazy police officers, who are reluctant to leave their car, and we ask at Lola’s Beach Bar. This kind of theft is fairly common, we hear, there have been a few this year. Nicaraguans probably, or Colombians. Or someone from somewhere else anyway, indicates our waiter, smoothly shifting all blame to those symbolic ‘others’. “They will have been watching you” he adds ominously over his shoulder as he walks off to serve a new table. A local gringo emerges from the undergrowth, barefoot and carrying a machete, and is initially a suspect but then he speaks long and bitterly about the time he himself was robbed, and his theories about the thieves. “They dig holes in the floor man and they stash the shit in there.” He says, waving vaguely at the mangroves, “So you can’t catch them with your stuff. And then they’ll walk out all casual. Someone’ll come back later after dark to collect it all. Assholes!”
We hold a family council in Lola’s. The police aren’t going to help, the locals aren’t interested, we are on our own. The school bag contained a lot of stuff: two iPads, a laptop, a GoPro, Menna’s diary, the kids school books, pencil cases, suncream. None of it is covered by insurance.
We will head into the mangrove swamp, we decide. We will follow the paths and look for tracks, try to see signs of fresh digging. Perhaps they have discarded some of our less valuable stuff – the books and diaries will just be excess weight to them. Perhaps they are still in there and we still surprise them with a crafty little ambush. The hunter will become the hunted!
We buckle up with our remaining possessions and walk along the beach. We find an entry point and plunge into the mangroves. It is dense in there and there is lots of scratchy undergrowth, thorns pull at our shins and leave toxic scratches that burn long afterwards. It is nearing noon and the day is hot, but we have no water – they have stolen all but one of our bottles. Things move in the undergrowth and we wonder how many of Costa Rica’s twenty three species of venomous snake are native to the mangrove. I am only wearing flip flops. At the beginning we carefully note each broken twig, and stop to examine indentations in the mud. “Fresh footprints” Arthur mutters knowingly “probably half an hour old”, relishing his role as child sleuth. After while our conversation gets more sparse as we get hotter and more parched, then it dries up completely. We grimly fight our way onwards.
Sometimes we step ankle deep into swamp mud and pull back hastily, for who knows what is squirming away down there beneath that thin surface crust? The tracks twist and fork and I find them disorienting – the mangroves go back half a kilometre inland and run for several kilometres along the beach. Arthur and I get separated from the girls and then we quickly get lost. The impracticality of this quest is starting to weigh upon me. What if we do suddenly come across a gang of hardened Colombian thieves in their swamp hideout? What will we do then? Wave Arthur’s penknife and the one remaining water bottle at them, then perform a citizens arrest? Mosquitos bite our ankles and spiders get in our hair, magpies shout mockingly at us from the canopy.
We decide to call it a day and head blindly towards the sound of the ocean. The path has disappeared and so we must fight our way out through brambles and the clutch of dead wood fingers. We finally emerge hot and sweaty out of a thicket, right behind an elderly couple sunbathing on the beach.
We walk back along the sand to join the girls. Arthur and I have a deep discussion about materialism, wealth inequality and the ethics of punishment. But as Arthur sets out his case for knifing the thieves to death in the mangroves I am only half listening. I am distracted by a noise in the background, carried faintly on the wind. It sounds like a far-off chuckle, drifting out from the woods.
They are in there somewhere. In their underground den perhaps, beneath the hollow tree. They are reading Menna’s diary and listening to my playlists on Spotify. The kid’s drawings are pinned up neatly on their wall. They are writing this blog post on my iPad.
And we are not from Colombia cabrón! We are Venezuelan!
We finally escape hospital after a stressful settling of accounts. Our insurance provider has paid 90% of the costs but they are querying a CT scan and say I must pay it myself in full. I am confused, then angry and I have a wide range arguments that I am keen to put forward and escalations that I would like to make, but I come up against a wall of bureaucratic inertia which proves to be insurmountable. The hospital has already taken a large deposit on my credit card and the outstanding amount is simply deducted from this; my indignation is immaterial. It is a hit of nearly two thousand dollars and I loudly promise, in my poor Spanish, to take this up this at the highest levels, shaking a sheaf of invoices theatrically at the poor clerk, who shrugs and smiles helplessly.
We drive straight out of San Jose that afternoon and up to the cloud forest retreat of Monteverde some two hours away up in the mountains. It is an atmospheric and otherworldly place, mossy and beautiful, teeming with butterflies, hummingbirds and orchids. It is not perhaps the best location for a recovering patient however, perpetually cold, damp and covered in a fine cloud mist. Convalescence be damned anyway, I mutter to myself. The whole thing was over in a couple of days. I feel absolutely fine and slightly fraudulent after the whole hospital experience. Who ruptures a vessel coughing up peanuts? It’s embarrassing.
We hunker down in our hostel by the fire (a log fire! In Costa Rica!), eat pizza, shoot pool and play poker. Arthur is coming of age these days and busy developing a moody skater-teenager brand. He surprises us all by being quite the hustler on the pool table, prowling around, sizing up angles, flicking his blonde mop ostentatiously as he lines up a shot. I let him beat me first game and he gets very full of himself, I resolve not to do it again.
From the relative normality of this little hilltop village, Menna and I can finally look back on the last week with a sense of closure. The jungle wilds of Corcovado, slaloming down dirt roads, blood stained sand, macaws at sunset, choking nights, the rush for hospital – it is already unreal and distant, the emotional toll slightly excessive. It is a lurid scene from a badly written novel. I feel guilty to have caused so much fuss.
I am not allowed to do anything strenuous for two weeks while my lung heals, so I am left behind for the zip-line tour. This puts me in a foul mood. I have already done the zip-lines twice on our previous Costa Rica trip and I have spoken often and eloquently about them to the kids, embellishing and building up the experience until I have started to believe my own hype and now see the whole experience as the ultimate fusion of adrenaline and breathtaking wonder: swooping bird-like through the emerald forest canopy on a never-ending series of gliding descents, while quetzals and orioles soar alongside, monkeys await on the platforms and armadillos potter around far below on the forest floor (yes, last time we were here our guide did at one point dive into the mossy undergrowth and emerged with a timid armadillo balled up in his hands – this much at least was true).
Deprived of the role that I had envisaged – half fatherly guide and half giggling co-participant – I drop Menna and the children off sulkily and then mooch around town in the rain for a couple of hours, unable to find a good coffee.
The zip line tour was just amazing it turns out. Over lunch I sit with a fixed grin while I hear about Arthur’s many rides on the Tarzan swing and how Matilda bravely climbed up inside the hollow tree, Menna’s heart-stopping moment as she gathered dangerous momentum above the abyss. The rides went on forever! It felt like flying! Some of the lines were so long and dangerous that the kids had to be harnessed together or they wouldn’t have survived! They are all flushed and damp from the forest, talking over each other, reliving shared moments. I realise how much I hate to be left out.
Once we have made the decision to go to hospital it all becomes a race. We bundle everything into our bags, wolf down a coffee and say a hurried goodbye to a worried Josh, Meg and Marlowe who we are now abandoning alone in the middle of nowhere.
Felipe our hotel manager is full of exciting options: a helicopter airlift out of La Leona perhaps or a private jet charter from that little disused jungle airstrip over in Carate? We are carried along by this for a while – (Menna thinks I’m about to haemorrhage and wants a speedy extraction) but we lose enthusiasm when we understand that this will run to several thousands of dollars which we cannot claim back. There is always the internal flight from Puerto Jiminez to San Jose this afternoon, offers Felipe, a little deflated, I could fly ahead while the rest of the family follows by car. We work out timings and see that although the drive to San Jose will take nearly twelve hours, if we set off now we can arrive about the same time the flight does anyway. It will cost considerably less and we will all be together.
Felipe is disappointed but like a trooper he guns up the quad bike, hitches on the baggage trailer, and drives us back along the beach to Carate at full throttle. It is a hot and exhilarating ride and I forget for a while that I am supposed to be ill, taking selfies and spotting hawks along the way. We then clamber into our car, finding it hot and humid with a strange smell after five days parked in the jungle rain.
We drive three hours back to civilisation, jolting our way through the Osa peninsula over mud-drifts and trenches, fallen branches, rocks and rivers. We make it to Puerto Jiminez by midday and pick up a paved, though heavily potholed road. We then settle into an eight hour drive up to the capital, made much longer by the weekend traffic clogging up the roads into the city.
As long as I am upright I am able to breathe fine. I do much of the driving in a tripped-out half-awake state, while Menna taps up a network of medical contacts, gets recommendations for doctors, digs out insurance details (for several horrific hours we can’t find any record of my policy at all. Did the transaction not go through?). She evaluates hospitals, chats with specialists, books accommodation, checks my stats.
Menna is amazing in a crisis, I think to myself as I sing along to eighties hits on the radio, occasionally spitting blood out the window. The kids are unusually quiet and well-behaved throughout the long journey.
When we walk into Emergencias there is a nurse waiting for me and I am able to sink into the torpor and passivity that hospitals are designed to create. The check-in is like arriving at a hotel chain, they copy passport details, fill out forms, give me a smiling welcome and then take a large dollar deposit on my credit card. Then I get a blood pressure cuff on my arm, thermometer in my mouth, COVID swabs up my nose, cannula into my wrist. Blood goes out, pills go in, radiation goes through. X-Rays and CT Scans show a cloudy view of my inner landscape. Doctors mutter and confer and tell me half the story. Menna asks probing medical questions and they open up fully to her.
This is a well-rehearsed drill that I am familiar with, and as I am poked and punctured, I am able to lazily rate this hospital against various other ones I have stayed in over the years. NHS hospital have a certain flavour: they are bustling, full, usually slightly tattered but with an underlying sense of heart that I always find touching. They have cream walls with scuff marks, overworked stern nurses, those ancient iron wheelchairs, eclectic art, hidden interior gardens, children’s wards with peeling underwater murals.
I once stayed some weeks in an Italian hospital after a road accident, and it had a unique sense of Latin verve – constant bubbling volume, flamboyant and inefficient doctors, crowds of relatives chatting and eating pasta round the bed where grandpa lay dying, barely suppressed chaos everywhere.
The CIMA hospital in San Jose, on the other hand, is silent, clean, new, empty. Its spotless white and grey palette doesn’t seem to reflect the diverse and colourful country of Costa Rica. Everyone here speaks quietly and deferentially and you can’t see any of their features behind the layers of PPE. It feels like a hospital in a sci-fi film.
Eventually I am moved into a room on the top floor, overlooking the mountains. I am given a fetching set of yellow pyjamas. The doctors agree that my lung is full of blood, but they don’t know why, so I stay overnight and go into theatre the next morning for a bronchoscopy: a probe with a fibre optic camera is sent down my throat, deep into my lungs to investigate further.
It turns out that I have ruptured a blood vessel deep in my left lung and it is leaking like a burst pipe. The diagnosis is haemoptysis caused by extreme coughing. The surgeon removes the clots and hoses it all down to stop the bleeding, he squirts in some antibiotics to prevent infection, all while I slumber peacefully on the operating table.
I wake up a few hours later in my room, feeling surprisingly good. I have not eaten for 24 hours and when a nurse brings me a steak and ice cream I nearly burst into tears. It must be the cocktail of anaesthetics and sedatives still washing around my system I tell myself. My room is peaceful, the view is good, I am well rested, I can breathe again. Menna and the kids pop up for a visit, we do some homeschooling but then they disappear again on a mission to the skatepark. I settle back into bed and find a superhero movie on TV.
I ask the doctors if they will let me stay a couple more nights.
The blood coughs became more frequent over our stay in the Corcovado. I tell Menna but no one else. Her hypothesis is that I have a minor laceration somewhere in my lung. I managed to inhale a mouthful of nuts last week and I was bent double in an epic coughing fit that lasted around twenty minutes. Perhaps my lung tissue has been nicked by a sharp fragment of peanut. I like this theory, because we are a very long way from civilisation right now, so I certainly wouldn’t want it to be anything more scary like tuberculosis or lung cancer. Once I tell Menna about a medical problem there is a sense of delegation, a transfer of ownership, and I generally cease to worry about it. Whatever the cause, I have developed a deep melodious cough with a frothy gurgling undertone that isn’t entirely unpleasant, a bit like blowing bubbles through a straw. It brings a salty iron taste to my throat. The blood I spit out is profuse and shocking in it’s red glow; freshly oxygenated, it looks so vibrant – so healthy!
We go on a long jungle trek and see herds of peccaries in a hurry; they are being pursued, we are told, by an invisible puma. We see groups of coati with glossy black fur, striped tails held high, hunting the purple and orange halloween crabs that infest the sandy walkways at the forest’s edge. We watch a rare white hawk circling silently through the branches of a huge Guanacaste tree, flitting round and round like a jungle phantom. She was hunting howler monkeys, waiting until the mothers slept to snatch a baby from their grasp. We waded across rivers that may have been frequented by crocodiles, although we didn’t see any – which I suppose is the way with crocodiles, until they have a hold of your leg. At the end of the walk I take myself away quietly and cough for a while on the beach. Menna pats my back. Matilda comes up to us and is very disturbed to see a wet pool of blood between my feet in the sand. We pass it off as a cut lip. She nods silently and wanders off.
When we surf again that evening I am caught inside by a set of waves. Held underwater and unable to breathe for a long while, I splutter as I surface and then my gasping causes more coughing. I try to swallow down the blood as I am scared that I will attract sharks.
The fourth night of our stay in the jungle is the worst yet. I cannot lie flat without gargling and choking. I drift in and out of sleep propped up on pillows on my single camp bed.
In the darkness I relive old M*A*S*H tv episodes where sweating soldiers bleed out in tropical field hospital tents; I float down the oily jungle waters of Apocalypse Now in thrall to some undefined twilight danger, pulled towards horrific moments of dark self-realisation. I think of the descent into fever and tropical madness in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; I retrace Allie Fox’s tracks in Thoreaux’s Mosquito Coast, knowing that I too have dragged my family deep into the jungle on a wild quixotic quest that can only lead to death and disaster. I think of Kafka slowly dying of consumption and Yeats, Orwell (did Camus go this way too?).
I piece together fragments of poetry and worry away at scraps of lines: piecing together Dulce et Decorum Est in the early hours, dwelling on the blood that comes ‘gargling forth from froth corrupted lungs’, repeating the line over and over to myself. I remember the masked figure that moves silently through the ball in Poe’s gothic tale Masque of the Red Death. Prince Prospero and his men were hiding from the plague too, I remind myself, naively thinking they could lock themselves away and outlast the disease – but the chime of midnight brought darkness, ‘and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all…’
Menna is awake most of the night of course, watching me cough and bubble and mutter to myself, staggering up to spit blood into the loo and replace my damp clutch of tissues. There is no electricity in our tent and we don’t want to wake the kids, but when the sun rises at 5:30 she examines me. One side of my chest is no longer rising as I breathe, the lung is hard and full of blood.
We agree that it is time to get to a hospital.
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall… And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all
On our second day in Corcovado I wake early, around five am, and go down to the beach to look for nesting turtles before the sun rises. I walk for a couple of kilometers but see nothing, so I creep back into camp, grab my surfboard and paddle out for a sunrise surf. I make my way through the break and out to deep water, and then there is a moment when the sea softens and quietens, flattening like a mirror as the first rays of sun break over the horizon. I am totally alone in the limitless ocean and it is one of those quasi-religious experiences. It is briefly marred by another round of coughing, and there is the blood again. I spit it out in bright red swirls that float on the water’s surface. There is no pain and I feel physically fine, it is just like my body has decided to remove some excess ballast. It passes. I float on.
A couple of minutes later a fin slowly breaches the water dead in front of me, very close. It glides along silently for a few metres and then sinks back under the surface. I am mentally far-away in that moment and I watch it with detachment. Dolphin or shark? I ask myself. How amazing it would be if a bottle-nosed dolphin was to suddenly jump out of the water and maybe come to play. I lie down on my board and carefully lift my legs out of the water. I see the fin again a few seconds later, now five meters to my left, gliding smoothly away. It is a substantial fin, not sharp at the tip but slightly rounded, a deep charcoal grey and matte; sunlight does not seem to reflect off it. Then a third time in the distance it breaches again, still on the same bearing, heading away up the coast. I lie and ponder things for a minute, but then the swell picks up and the set comes through. I catch a long ride through many rolling sections, right in to the beach. It is a good enough wave that I decide to paddle back out for more.
I catch another three or four waves until I see Meg on the beach, waving furiously at me and beckoning. I can see that she is anxious and I paddle in hurriedly, thinking that one of the kids had been bitten by a snake. It turns out to be no less of a tragedy: Meg has seen an anteater being savaged by one of the guard dogs in the camp. The dog was pulled off, but the wounded creature has limped away along the beach into the undergrowth by the water’s edges to die. We can hear it panting and rustling in a nest of fig vines that tangle back into the sandbank. I am very keen to see an anteater and we attempt to lure it out with coaxing noises, thinking perhaps that we might nurse it back to health, tame it, adopt it. Unsurprisingly it does not come out.
After breakfast we meet Alvaro, a local guide who we have booked to take us deep into the Corcovado jungle. I tell him about my fin story and he chuckles. “Dolphin? No! A dolphin is swimming with leaps and jumps. No, no, no. My friend it is a shark that moves in straight lines with the fin like this,” Does a gliding move with his hand. “It is mainly bull sharks we have here, but he will look at you and think you are too big. He is going to the river mouth. A tuna or mahi-mahi is nicer for him. Bueno! It is worse for you if you get a crocodile in the sea moving between the rivers.”
Josh and I check this out on the internet later and got a stern list of shark risk factors: surfing alone, at dawn, near a river and various others. It seemed that I had broken every single rule. Nonetheless the three of us go surfing again that evening, but this time we take Arthur along as bait.
I never got a sense of threat from that smooth gliding fin, rather an insulting lack of interest, as I think back on it. There was no change of course as it cruised past me. We simply cohabited for a moment in the waves.
In surfing slang, sharks have many names: ‘the men in grey suits’ sometimes or the ‘Noahs’ (a cockney riff I suppose on ‘Noah’s arks’). My favourite term though has always been ‘the Landlord’. It has the gravitas that this apex predator is due. We humans are out of our milieu in the sea, we float and submerge ourselves temporarily for kicks, then we return to dry land. As unreliable short-term tenants of the ocean we might get our eviction notice at any point. We must know our place, make sure to pay our dues and never disrespect the Landlord.
Avoid swimming at dusk, dawn or night since some sharks are more active during these times.
There’s a dead macaw in the sand. Arthur finds him on our first afternoon and calls me over excitedly. He was damming a stream and suddenly he spotted the bird there, propped up on a tangle of roots with wings half-open, reclining. He has clearly been dead for a while and the vultures and coatis have been busy. Much of the upper body has been eaten away but his head is still there, attached by a length of vertebrae. His beak is closed, his eyes are open. We hook a long stick into the base of the skull and pick him up with it; he is surprisingly heavy. We take him ‘flying’ over to where the girls are sitting. Menna loves macaws.
After all the screaming is done, we start to feel bad about the desecration of such a magnificent creature, so we take him back, retracing the trail of vivid red and blue feathers to his final resting place. Earlier that morning I had been walking along the beach in the mist, searching for a wayward son. I was seized then by a coughing fit that came out of nowhere and surprised to find my mouth full of blood. I spat it out, and it made bright red frothy trails on the white sand. Now looking at the confusion of scarlet feathers I am reminded of that secret moment and then I wonder what it would be like to find yourself propped up, dying, on this beach. We place our Macaw upright against a tree, looking out over the ocean. The next morning he is gone, reclaimed by the jungle.
This is a wild land that we find ourselves in. There is nothing for several miles in either direction of us, just an endless sand strip that fades away into cloud and water, a dark line of jungle behind, large birds of prey circling above. Waves smash down on the beach with a relentless roar. It is haunting and obviously beautiful, not like a postcard scene, but in a lonely and savage kind of way.
Together with our friends Josh and Meg, and their daughter Marlowe, we’re staying in an eco camp out by the Leona ranger station on the edge of the Corcovado National Park, a place that National Geographic calls “one of the one of the most biologically intense places in the world”. All that separates us from this biological intensity is thin canvas, for we sleep in safari tents under the strangler figs. We must carefully shake out any folded towels before use, we are told, as scorpions or snakes often crawl inside. We seven are the first visitors to the camp since March and it seems that in the interim the jungle has moved to reclaim it: twisted roots and hanging lianas have swallowed the rearward row of tents; the spa cabin is now nothing but collapsed bamboo struts and palm shoots, and has been colonised by Capuchin monkeys; the hammocks are covered in moss and lichen. We have a cheery hotel manager and a cook staying somewhere on site. A food delivery comes daily by cart. The bar is empty.
To get here we had to drive to the southern outpost of Puerto Jiminez, an erstwhile gold-mining and logging centre, now a dusty jump-off point for eco-travellers wanting to provision before heading into the wilds. We handed over a large amount of cash there to a chatty big man with a tour-operator’s wolfish smile. He directed us onwards – three hours bouncing over potholed dirt tracks, driving fast against a tight deadline – to make a rendezvous with the pony cart before high tide. We forded several rivers, saw brown water pouring through our engine grills and agreed to forget the car rental disclaimers that very specifically forbade us from doing this. We crossed wooden bridges one car at a time. We stopped to photograph monkeys, coatis, toucans, caracaras picking ticks from oxen. We reached the end of the dirt road and abandoned our vehicles besides a disused airstrip in Carate, and in the driving tropical rain we set out on foot for a further five kilometres along the beach to find our camp. We were late and we missed our rendezvous with the cart driver, so we left our luggage piled up in a palm frond shack, not knowing if we would ever see it again.
Now we are here at the end of the world and as the sun goes down, everything bleeds into crimson: red-gold stains of sunset, a swirl of scarlet feathers, the veins of my eyelids lowered against the glare, secret blood streaks in the sand. There is single macaw that flies low across the beach, squawking, and I wonder if it is the surviving member of the pair. These birds are said to partner for life. She is calling out to her mate perhaps, wondering where he has gone.
When the eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber
Arthur and I are somewhere in Los Quetzales cloud forest, high on the mountain face. We are starting to wonder if we have made a mistake. A jungle after dark is a scary place, full of whispers and insinuation. Spider webs brush across our faces and we have no idea how large or how venomous are the weavers. Roots twist and curl under our feet – or are they snakes? Things fly at us out of the darkness. It has been raining most of the afternoon and the path is slippy, the undergrowth around is thick. Our head torches cast thin beams straight ahead, but the light bounces back off wet leaves and the shadows behind have the glistening fluidity of ink. Every time I look towards Arthur he dazzles me with his torch and I lose my night vision.
This is our first foray into the forest, and venturing out at sunset was misjudged. The girls turned back a kilometre ago and now Artie is starting to get that quaver in his voice that says that his courage is failing. But we are men! We don’t admit fear or acknowledge our mistakes. Misadventure is a burden we must bear. We are still on the trail at least, or I think we are.
“Do you think we should turn back soon Dad?” It is the opening I need.
Happy to go back if that’s what you want…”
“Is it what you want?”
“Well, I could go on a bit. But I don’t want you to be scared.”
“I’m not scared! I just feel a bit tired. Hungry I mean. Hungry and tired.” Next to us in the undergrowth something large suddenly rustles and I jump.
“Jaguar!” I shout. It is intended as a joke but I get the volume wrong and Arthur leaps like a gazelle. His sudden movement startles me, and then we are both running, slipping, slithering our way back down the trail, through the spider webs and over the snakes. We are both hungry and we are tired, but we are not scared. It is time to go home.
We take the trail again at 5:45am next morning. Walking through the forest at sunrise is a whole different experience. Although once again we are in near complete darkness when we start, it is not so terrifying. We can feel the house lights are being gradually raised, black turns to grey and then to drab green. Olive notes show through then mossy tones, it gets brighter, deeper, until finally around us is every shade of green imaginable. At a point we know that the sun has hit the canopy because the leaves are glowing and painted in impossible colours and some have gold lining. The bird song gets louder and wilder. There is a ticking humming, buzzing that seems to rise from the forest floor. We come across gullies and streams, deep clearings with mossy floors, pockets of mist, sudden sunbeams slanting through the trees. We see a toucanet, hummingbirds, a flock of large black and white birds. There are always movements in our peripheral vision.
After about an hour hiking we emerge from the forest at the top of the mountain and into the sunlight. We find ourselves in coffee and avocado fields. A huge valley stretches out below, vultures and eagles circle above. We walk back down the mountain like heroes and have rice and beans for breakfast.
This is the start of our jungle life. By the time we leave Cedrela Eco Lodge two days later, Arthur and I have done the 5km jungle trail four times. We are hungry for more off-grid adventuring. When Menna and I were last in Costa Rica fifteen years ago, our focus was firmly on surfing, bars and beach life. This time around we are chasing nature not waves.
We move from the highland cloud forests of Quetzales down to the humid tropical jungle of Manuel Antonio and see monkeys at last – capuchins and squirrel monkeys – a huge emotional moment for the kids. We meet a tribe of iguanas on a deserted beach, a ranger points out the deadly fer-de-lance, Costa Rica’s most venomous snake, coiled on the edge of a path we have just walked. Fat agoutis scurry past us like dog-sized hamsters. The skies are alive and the kids are constantly spotting new birds, thumbing through their field guides to call out bright yellow kiskadees, hawks on telegraph wires, red tanagers, cinnamon hummingbirds, a pair of lineated woodpeckers. Then – raising the stakes – a pair of macaws blazing a rainbow streak against a misty blue evening (Matilda), a flock of toucans lunching on a fruit tree (Arthur).
We move on to Uvita where we stay in a ramshackle tree house up in the forest and get up close with the darker side of nature. There are scorpions in the beams, we see a poison dart frog on the terrace, a crocodile head surfaces in the lake, huge spiders give Matilda nightmares. We surf on black sand beaches and see more macaws flying against the forest backdrop, blood soaked and screaming murder.
‘More,’ we shout after two weeks of gorging ourselves on nature, ‘Iguanas no longer cut it, monkeys are commonplace. We need bigger game!’ Where are the tapirs and sloths, the anteaters and pumas? Where are the jaguars? We are forest experts now, hardened to insect bites, tuned into to patterns and shapes against the foliage. Our footfall is muffled, we communicate with hand signals, we dress in khaki and strap things to our belts. We need to get into real wilderness.
In the Osa Peninsula, at the southern most stretch of the Pacific coast, there is one vast untamed tract of proper primary rainforest that is said to contain sixty percent of all the biodiversity of Costa Rica and this is where we will head. We need to go to Corcovado.
When I was younger I spent a year on Réunion, a volcanic island out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I remember it as a place of mighty green mountain-faces and cloud columns, battered by ferocious waves and patrolled by Great White sharks; full of creole superstition. I was young back then and impetuous. I got myself in some trouble and left the island with a broken arm and a hostile crowd at my back, my name bandied around on local radio.
I am a respectable man now but there is something about the cliffs and mountains of Madeira that is very similar. It brings back memories of that wild year and makes my heart run faster. Last time I was here, in the grip of island madness and suffering from blood loss, I accidentally proposed to my girlfriend on a mountain pass. Now I am back with her once again and our two children.
Madeira gives us a typical island greeting. We land into a thick sea mist and drive blindly across the island in fog and darkness, late-night reggaeton playing on the car radio, kids sleeping in the back. Overnight the mist becomes a squall and we wake to drumming rain and the banshee howl of the wind. When we venture out for breakfast our car is nearly blown off the cliff road. ‘Come to me!’ the Atlantic shouts at us far below, pounding the rocks in anticipation, throwing up spray as our wheels skid on the roadside. We have other plans though and we drive on; we eat breakfast in a warm bakery on the mountain top, then return to our house to do some half-hearted schoolwork and pace out the day.
By nighttime the storm has passed and the next day is absolutely stunning. We are high on a cliff, with ocean below us and mountains behind. A series of vertical escarpments curve around the headland like folds of green corduroy, each ridge slightly more faded than the one before until they melt away into haze and shadow. Kestrels hover over the gorge.
Some way down below us the village of Paul do Mar is a series of pastel bricks tossed down at hazard behind the sea wall. It is only about three kilometres away as the crow flies, and so we decide to stroll down after lunch, using the rambler’s trails that zig-zag down through the vegetation. For the crow a 25% gradient is just wind and freefall, but we however are chained by gravity. We set off on the hike full of excited chatter, but soon we are blowing hard and conversing in grunts. The views are amazing, but our legs are properly shaking once we get to the bottom – and that was just the walk down. It requires a cool-off period, some beers, passionfruit mocktails and a serious pep talk before we are ready to attempt the return leg. We make it home though and Matilda doesn’t even moan once. Encouraged by this we drive off to a waterfall, then on to a lighthouse for sunset.
This sets the tone for our week in Madeira. There are too many beautiful things to see and it feels like we are racing against time, trying to capture the island in a week. We march to the rhythm of invisible drums. It is a novel way to travel after months of lazy meandering down the Portuguese coast. The frantic pace becomes a game. How much can we do in a day? How many sights can we see? Schoolwork becomes shouted quizzes that take place in the car as we traverse the island.
We spend a day in the capital, Funchal, bombing down vertiginous streets in strange sledges pulled by goat-like men in straw boaters. We go swimming off the quay and dress up for a colonial tea in Reid’s Hotel for a special Matilda treat. We do a 10km hike to a famous waterfall in the interior and try to swim under it, but it is too glacial to stay in that dark mountain pool for more than a few minutes. We spot the mighty Madeiran Buzzard. We take a cable car down to a deserted ghost town in the northern tip of the island and we eat a picnic on the rocks, then get drenched by huge waves as we try to paddle. We climb up the kind of cliff path that would give Indiana Jones second thoughts, scrambling over rockslides and slithering along wet ledges where all that lies between you and the abyss is wind and fear.
Arthur and I go rock-climbing in the cliffs in the south and Arthur astonishes our guides with his monkey abilities. I don’t astonish anyone, except perhaps by not injuring myself, but the challenge of man against rock speaks to something deep in my soul, and I resolve to do daily strength exercises in future and climb El Capitán with Arthur before he is eighteen. Straight afterwards, still soaked with sweat, we hike up the highest peak on the island and Matilda treats us to a glorious meltdown at the summit.
Amid all this motion I find some hours one morning to hide myself away and have a long chat with a lovely lady from BA. Then at lunch I am able to casually mention to the family that I have bought us one-way tickets to Costa Rica next week. It is a complete bombshell and it sends everyone into disbelief then squealing and dancing. I am puffed with triumph at my own largess, the modern day hunter-gatherer of airmiles and companion vouchers. ‘We are going to Costa-Coffee Rica-pica!’ the kids sing as we rattle over mountain passes and along cliff roads in our pathetically under-powered rental car.
They are distracted now, their heads far away, but as we drive along every curve brings a new wonder and I start to wish I had held back the news until later. I can’t help thinking that even the majestic Costa Rican cloud forests may not top this wild and beautiful island.
Another month passed somehow as we meandered our way down the southern coastline of Portugal. Without the anchor points of the school dropoff or work, we were subject to some pretty surreal distortions of time. Some days were featureless and stretched out like old chewing gum, but then everything flicked into double-time and we couldn’t cram enough stuff into the hours we are awake. ‘What did we do that week after Aterra?’ I asked the kids, but whole sections of our recent past have compacted into a series of fragments and we can’t tease them apart, only watch the showreel and listen to that crackling soundtrack. And it’s bloody Bob Dylan of course.
Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial / Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while / But Mona Lisa must’ve had the highway blues / You can tell by the way she smiles.
A week in Vila Nova de Milfontes was disappointing. After many frothy recommendations from fellow travellers we were excited when we arrived, but our AirBnB was small, dark and expensive; we were in a boring suburb and we had to drive twenty minutes to find indifferent surf. The streets were too rough to skate on. On one beach trip we lost our beloved old Nikon camera, an inexplicable disappearance that puzzled us for days. We went standup paddling on the river mouth and got caught up in a gale so Arthur nearly got swept out to sea and was very shaken. We saw a man dying in the aftermath of a motorcycle accident.
I ain’t a-saying you treated me unkind / You could have done better but I don’t mind / You just kinda wasted my precious time / But don’t think twice, it’s all right.
Near Aljezur we found a crumbling old sun-baked mansion, perched on a hill that overlooked the sea on one side and estuary plains on the other. It was full of eccentric African ornaments and Swedish books and it flooded whenever it rained. We loved it. We extended our stay for over two weeks there. Menna and I dusted off old memories from a weekend break we took near here a decade ago and bored the kids with them (“Look children! That’s where we sat and drank vinho verde – or was it port honey? – and watched the fishermen come in!”). We threw a lavish Halloween party for all the family, that is to say, the four of us, project-managed ferociously by Matilda. The organisation took her nearly a week, what with all the baking (severed-hand pies!), inventing complicated spooky games (spider web dash!), choosing the perfect film (Adams Family!) and it culminated with everyone ‘sleeping over’ in our bedroom. We were all tucked up by nine, which is how our parties generally end these days.
Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet / We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it.
We hit the bottom of Portugal and turned the corner onto the south coast. Salema was a pretty little town that seemed to have been packaged up for winter hibernation. We walked the empty streets and spent some time observing a colony of stray cats living a enviable life on a abandoned mattress behind the recycling bins. Our nearest proper surf break was Zavial, a fast hollow wave that jacked up suddenly on a shallow sand bank to create perfect turquoise barrels. It was fantastic to watch and dangerous to surf. We went on a boat trip and standup paddle boarding with our friends Josh and Meg and explored the coastline from the sea. A section of porous sandstone cliffs, full of caves with shell-fossil walls and twisted stone columns rising up out of the waves. The boat trip turned into lunch, into dinner, into a birthday party that went on until nearly midnight. (Midnight! I know right?) I had my first proper hangover of the year next day. A night or two later the whole family awoke to intense strobe light in the early hours. We thought must be some malfunctioning streetlight, but it turned out to be the most epic electrical storm going off right above us. It felt like the world was ending.
Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line / Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine
As we drifted along, it felt like our time in Portugal was winding to an end somehow, but our future beyond was still misty and worrisome. Lockdowns were looming, but not just here, everywhere we looked. Menna and I had long muttered arguments on beach walks about where we could go if things got bad. Africa was dangerous, Australia was shut, South America was sick. We expended ever more energy into loving Portugal and some days we thought that maybe we could winter here and it would be ok. We would find a remote house on the clifftop and stock up with winter provisions, surf huge cold Atlantic waves, watch lightning strikes out at sea, go for wind-blown walks in the early light. These stone houses are built for summer but we could find one with a wood burner and we would huddle around it and read the Greek myths aloud to the children while the viral armageddon raged outside.
A worried man with a worried mind / No one in front of me and nothing behind / There’s a woman on my lap and she’s drinking champagne …I’m well dressed, waiting on the last train.
We are staying in a yurt. It is decorated like a Mongolian warlord’s tent with animal skins on the floor, carved wooden chests and iron candlesticks. A claw-foot bath sits outside under the stars. All the beds are draped with gauzy mosquito nets that look like a fairytale to Matilda but look ominous to me.
The kids are spinning around and Menna is jubilant. She has a thing about yurts and has been trying to engineer this for months, overcoming a wall of passive resistance from others in our party (me). Now she has been vindicated.
Our yurt sits nestled up above the tree-line overlooking a small valley. Outside we can see wigwams and cabins, gazebos, other yurts, outhouses with sawdust loos. Artful lighting illuminates key features in the dusk. Flaming torches reflect across the lake, willow trees are uplit with soft yellow spotlights, candlelight marks out the paths. There are peacocks shrieking, moving around like satin shadows in the twilight. It is a beautiful scene, though strangely devoid of people for such a grand site. It feels like a festival where they forgot to book the bands but no-one turned up anyway. Except us.
“Isn’t this wild?” I say, and no-one knows that I am secretly referring to the sort of wild that drinks from your ankles and buzzes.
And this is true. October has brought rain and insects. The kids have circular mosquito nets that provide good protection, but the one that hangs over our double bed is comprised of four overlapping veils that inevitably come open as we toss in the night, so it lets mosquitos in thentraps them inside! I kill twelve on our first morning, fat and ripe with our blood. Throughout the week we hear them whine past our ears, so we slap our faces in the darkness, hoping to catch one. One morning I wake up with insect legs and blood smeared down my cheek, proving that the strategy isn’t always ineffective.
We have arrived at the campsite the day after a staff wedding, our receptionist tells us as we check in, and consequently everyone is a little discombobulated. She is an Amazonian woman, tall and strong with high cheekbones and extensive tattoos and she doesn’t look at all discombobulated. Later we find out that she was actually the bride.
Through various conversations and clues over our stay we sketch the outlines of the event: a humanistic ceremony; the camp staff released from their duties to go wild; a small but committed contingent of international guests braving quarantines to attend; crazy decorations; extravagant outfits; several days of partying. Our imaginations shade in the missing texture: shamanistic vows, peacock feathers, bonfires and bongos late into the night, nude dancers emerging from the lake, copious psychedelics, Goa trance, tears and mascara stains. We used to go to parties like that, I think wistfully.
As we walk around over the next few days we find mementos of the great wedding scattered throughout the site like the relics of a lost civilisation. A plywood archway covered in peacock feathers lies overturned in the dust; a bottle of tequila sits among the cinders in the fire pit; hundreds of footprints swirl around the amphitheatre; in a far-off outhouse in the woods I find an enigmatic lipstick heart scrawled on the mirror while strange powders are smeared around the sink. A feather boa lies coiled around a eucalyptus branch.
There are no other guests for most of the week and so we eat with the staff each night, or rather ‘volunteers’, for as well as looking after the guests, they do eco work around the site for food and board. The wedding came right at the end of a busy season and everyone is tired and emotional. It feels rather fin de siécle. There are small flare ups at the table in Italian or German. Gardeners down tools and drape themselves over the sofas to smoke spliffs and mutter to each other. A blind dog hustles for scraps under the table. We lie next to a pair of volunteers down at the lakeside beach. They are having a long and indignant conversation in German and as I doze I hear fleisch emphasised heavily, salat and veganer. “Someone put meat in the vegan salad. Total nightmare!” I whisper to Menna knowingly. There is a mutiny on Thursday when the chef refuses to fire up the pizza oven and I think it will go to blows, but alas no. It is typical for the Nicholls to arrive just as the organ fades to silence and the drapes are thrown over the carousel I think. This year has been a bit like that.
While I am watching the staff for drama, the kids are spotting nature. The peacocks move in an intricate hierarchy on the ground. Up in the air there are buzzards and flocks of blue-winged jays, even a hoopoe looping through the trees. Menna claims to see a turtle in the lake, which I secretly doubt, but then Arthur goes and actually catches it, and brings it back triumphantly for everyone to see. We find a dead snake on a forest run. I walk headfirst one evening into a thick web and come eyeball to eyeball with the hugest spider I’ve ever seen, and I properly scream like a six year-old child. It’s wild.
Almost all of our time in Spain and Portugal had taken place during the summer holidays, and so when school term rolled around again in September it really disrupted our carefully constructed lack of routine. Menna and I had to call an emergency meeting on the evening before term started to take stock and build a plan.
We had some resources (various maths and English books, stationary, old exam papers, downloaded versions of the curriculum), we had amazing grandparents, generous with time, ready and willing to support via video link. One of Menna’s many jobs is as a senior lecturer for a london medical school, so naturally she would be headmistress of our little school and do the bulk of the teaching, while I would work on various side projects and pop up occasionally with esoteric and unsuitable ideas.
We will make this so much more fun than real school, we exclaimed, bubbling with good intentions and red wine. On top of the normal curriculum, the kids could learn astronomy, languages, philosophy, sculpture, bushcraft! With a few hours of dedicated coaching each week, Arthur will totally ace the 11+ exam he is due to sit in November. “We’ll call it SOMAD! The School of Mum and Dad…”
And on the first week it goes pretty well. We cover core subjects first thing while the brains are fresh, then we switch to project work. The novelty of the situation brings attention and enthusiasm from everyone. We cover fractions, refraction, prefixes and prepositions. We design a renewable energy strategy for our last campsite, Terra Sangha. The research and schematics are impressive, energy high, collaboration strong. The children present their ideas to a virtual audience that we have roped in on Friday evening. They are proud of their work.
Amazingly quickly the excitement wears off though. There’s a strange sullenness that creeps into the air on a Monday morning. A petulance in the voice. Slumped posture, fidgeting, window-staring. Tears might appear mid-lesson. Our gentle, well-modulated teacher voices falter and harden. “I’m sure you never cry like this in real school!” We hiss. “This isn’t real school.” comes back the sulky response. Emotions flare up rapidly and suddenly the air is heavy with barely-restrained shouts that might be unleashed at any point.
I realise that part of the issue here is the unease of redefining our relationships for those few hours on a weekday morning. From being easy-going parents we suddenly flip into being teachers. Where does this sudden new authority come from? How should the kids adapt their attitudes and responses? Our tolerance levels suddenly flick down into a much lower setting. We have unrealistically high expectations and we are instantly critical. We judge the kids on their ability to absorb what we are telling them; we judge ourselves on our ability to impart knowledge. All are found wanting. The kids probe us for weaknesses. It feels like this really matters, and that removes all levity from the proceedings. We become like two Victorian schoolmasters.
“No Matilda, I’ve told you this so many times. If you can’t take away from the tens, then you have to borrow from the hundreds column. Will you listen!… No, look. Now there needs to be one less in the hundreds. Cross it out and write it on top… No! Write it there… THERE! Now you have to add that to the number in the tens, Oh no – don’t just stick a one in front of it… I tell you what, just give it here. I’ll do it. Ah, that’s better. Now look how easy that was. I’m just going to do the next one too…”
“Arthur, if you spell ‘hopeful’ with two ‘L’s ONE more time, I swear I will make you write it out a hundred times! …LOOK! LOOK! You did it again! Right! That’s it my boy. …Well, yes, I know that says ‘meaningful’, but it’s still the same ending and you spelt it with two ‘L’s, justright after I told you! One hundred lines. ‘All words that end in ‘ful’ are spelled with only one L.’ – write it out. Well, no, yeah, Ok, that’s the exception. Good point! But ‘full’ is a whole word, it’s not an ending… No! I amnot writing it out 100 times. I know my spelling! Do NOT be cheeky with me!”
“Isosceles is the pointy one right? Hey, Menna, help me out. It’s the thin pointy one, isn’t it?“
Eventually after a few weeks we find our groove – well, a groove anyway. We chill out and stop caring so much. It’s only education after all. They’re bright kids, they’ll catch up. Arthur can do a B-tech in skateboard design, if such a thing exists. If Matilda doesn’t become a doctor, she has expressed a desire to be a baker, or run a leggings shop. Lesson plans start to become a little more fluid, that is to say they mainly get made up on the day.
Fast forward another month and somehow homeschool has morphed into the freewheeling non-curricular event-driven education that I had always dreamed of. We find a dead snake and bring it home to observe it decompose over the course of a week. Arthur embalms a dragonfly in a jar of hand sanitiser. We get a workshop in fluid dynamics by a local surfboard shaper. We see a live octopus while snorkelling and go on to study its lifecycle in depth using Netflix. To support Matilda’s project on teeth we extract the incisors from a dog skeleton we find washed up on the beach. We identify the zodiac constellations. We understand the atmospheric conditions that cause swell. One Grandpa does daily maths tuition, the other Grandpa does poetry workshops, the Grandmas read literature and host art sessions.
And for pretty much everything else, we have downloaded an app.
Our stay up in the São Mamede plateau was the closest yet to how we had imagined this year to be. Off the beaten track. Out in the wilderness. A simple life, miles away from the rush of the city – both physically and figuratively. It was an antidote to those moments of regret and mournful rhetoric about our altered plans (but we should be beside tropical waterfalls right now!) The self-pitying mindset is insidious and Portugal is an epic place.
The Terra Sangha project still felt in the early stages but was underpinned by a conscious attempt at slow living, traditional farming, sustainability, a rejection of digital life. It was a rugged and beautiful place, and it clearly took some work to maintain. There were olive groves, walnuts, figs and lemon trees to tend, terraces to clear, rutted paths to pave, irrigation channels to divert, log buildings that needed building. In one dusty terrace Ben had cleared a sparse vegetable patch where tomatoes, courgettes and pumpkins grew along with a few hardy flowers but full self-sufficiency still felt some way away. There were dogs, chickens and donkeys roaming around, and a fat pig called Madam Chestnut who captivated our children with her greedy charm. I couldn’t work out at first how she fitted in with the vegetarian eco vibe, but she was a long-term resident, not a food source, a survivor of the pig farm that once stood here. She reared up on her gate and grinned at us whenever we walked past and soon had the kids eating out the palm of her hand – only it was the other way around. Clever pig!
Aside from the domestic animals the place was teeming with hidden wildlife. There were the rooting marks of wild boars under the trees and we heard that pine marten and otters tracks could be found in the soft mud down by the river (though we didn’t see any). Porcupine quills and snake skins lay tangled in the scrub. We saw no traces of the Iberian Lynx but it was out there somewhere. We imagined a nighttime procession of creatures slipping and slithering down from dry hillsides to find their way to the river. Behind Ben’s farmhouse was a watching spot, a flat stone shelf by the water where he had an old mattress underneath dream-catchers, candles and other esoteric paraphenelia. He told me he had seen kingfishers there, hoopoes, egrets, a rare stork, golden orioles.
One day we drove out on a reconnaissance mission. Matilda called in an early sighting: red-green-orange swirls, gliding around and eventually solidifying into a flock of bee-eaters (or perhaps a cannonade of bee eaters). They perched for a while on a telephone wire overhead and we hung out there on the roadside beneath them, eating figs from a nearby tree and watching them through binoculars. Half a kilometre later we had to pull the car over again, as three Bonelli’s eagles (or golden eagles even?) emerged from behind a hillock right next to us, and wound their way up on the thermals, followed by maybe twenty huge griffon vultures, indistinguishable from eagles themselves but for their long necks. For a few minutes the sky was full of these huge tawny birds circling above our heads, and we were frozen there in awe, maybe a bit scared of talons and hooked beaks, like prey transfixed. We watched in silence as they drifted lazily upwards, until as tiny specks they were blown far away over the plains.
We drove on that day to Marvão, a mediaeval town perched high on the mountain top. It was a maze of glaring white houses, steep cobbled streets, a ring of churches and an old Moorish fort at the peak. There are layers on layers of historical masonry in this part of the world and this was another epicentre. Marvao was a breakaway rebel enclave in the ninth century, revolting against the moorish Emirate of Córdoba. It became a strategic stronghold through the Christian Reconquista, the war of the Spanish Succession and several exotic sounding wars I’ve never heard of (The Fantastic War! The War of the Oranges! The Peninsular Wars!). Away on a far off peak we can see another white mountaintop town, Castillo de Vide, flashing it’s battlements competitively at us. Perhaps there is a string of these fortifications all the way down the border, grimly holding back invaders.
High on the battlements of Marvao we found ourselves with views that stretched for hundreds of kilometres in every direction, and there again, against the hard blue sky, we picked out eagles patrolling the plateau below. We had been talking about how these stone ramparts were over a millennium old, but now it felt like this symbol of military power was undermined somehow by those overlords of the skies, circling, watching, enforcing their more ancient dominion over the land below.
Our week at Terra Sangha was over in no time. It was a proper adventure. Rough living. A fend-for-yourself kind of environment that suited us just fine. Crockery and cutlery were in short supply, there was no means of refrigeration, the water was suspect. The clean bedsheets waiting for us had disappeared from the washing line. The solar panels were out of action and we had no power. Although the website alluded to sunrise yoga classes, vegetarian dinners served by candlelight with homegrown ingredients, none of this seemed to be available and we found that we weren’t bothered. Instead of organised activities there were endless woods to explore, mountains to climb, a river that you could trek up for miles and stone ruins to poke around in. There was a a stone citadel where you could play guitar and watch the stars. The simplicity was part of the charm. Terra Sangha was a primeval place that and to have too many comforts would have diminished the edge.
There’s nothing like answering a call of nature as nature keeps on calling all around you.
We spend several days exploring Terra Sangha and the mountains around. We climb up ancient terraces that are carved into the hillsides and buttressed with lichen-covered stonework. Further walls criss-cross the land like a maze and the ghostly outlines of old, old buildings can be seen in certain clearings. From the hills above we can clearly trace the foundations of the Roman and then Moorish settlements that must have dominated this landscape for miles around. This was once the heart of a thriving civilisation, but nothing beside remains, only a stone farm with a few outbuildings, some olive groves and a couple of wooden hunting lodges that now house occasional travellers like us. Poking around under the ground we find pottery and iron fragments that we think might once have been arrow heads.
When one evening we climb the mountain behind us to watch the sunset, rather than risking snakes in the the bracken, we balance our way upwards on top of one of these creaking ancient walls. It is a simple thing of dry balanced stones with no cement, and clearly hasn’t been touched in centuries, but is so carefully fitted that four of us in succession pass up safely with barely a stone moving.
In this dry land we become obsessive about water, and from our cabin, the chatter of the river is a siren call. We find shade down at the river, we swim there to cool off, we use it to chill our milk and beers, we make complicated dams and stone towers. Arthur is in his element here and irrepressible as a water rat. He splashes, hangs from trees, throws stones, catches lizards and chases dragonflies, carves a bow, whittles arrows, makes elaborate snares in the bushes, diverts water into a series of fish catching pools. Matilda meanwhile sits on a sunny rock and sings to herself.
Our cabin has an outside tap with water that is pumped directly from the river. “Don’t worry. The water is filtered,” Said Ben when we arrived “and the pressure is pretty good right now because I’ve just changed the filter.” He turned the faucet with a flourish. It hesitated, shuddered, coughed out a spray and then subsided to a dribble. “So we can drink it then?” He thought a while. “No-o. I wouldn’t advise you to drink it. It can be drunk. But I don’t think your insides are ready for it.” Looking at our worried little faces. “Don’t worry though. We’ve got a spring on the site. You can fill up bottles from there. It’s very pure.” “Oh right. A mineral spring. Like your own Evian?” “Um yeah. Like Evian.”
We don’t want to use our car unless we have to, it seems against the subsistence ethos of this place, and who can argue with a natural mountain spring? Arthur is dispatched cross country to fill our water bottles every day. He doesn’t complain, but when I go with him to fill up at the spring one evening in the half light, I find it teeming with worrying wildlife and full of over-rich organic smells. You must descend down some steps to a dank pool that is full of frogs and mosquito larvae, thick spider webs and who knows what else. The ancient donkeys of Terra Sangha come to water here and the air is pungent with the smell of their piss. The precious spring water trickles out of a mossy pipe inches above this dark pool. Your water bottle must be slotted onto the pipe with some dexterity to avoid contamination with the stagnant water beneath, and then you must push downwards and submerge it in the slime to find an angle so the bottle will fill. You squat there for several long minutes, hunched in the darkness, waiting for the water to trickle in while sly reeds pretend to be spiders on your neck, frogs splash around and small biting creatures drone in your ears.
A few days into our stay I have a wild and feverish night, roaming and tossing in the darkness, creatures running over me in strange smothering dreams. For some hours I battle my demons until at 5am I give up and leave the cabin to wait for dawn. I wrap myself in the Indian rug that I call my bearskin and take myself down to the river. Crossing the stepping stones to the far side I wedge myself between two tree roots that trail over the water and settle in for sunrise, hoping to see kingfishers. I have a strange hallucinatory time there in the half light, immersed in the sound of the river. I find myself slipping beneath the surface to slither through pebbles and submerge myself in the silt. Reborn slippery and grey in the ancient coiled roots under the river bed I take on many forms. The kingfishers don’t come.
When Menna finds me some hours later I feel very cold and have a sickness deep in my stomach.
I face down the illness. I am determined that I will not lose a day with my family in this special place. It is just some food poisoning from the chicken kebabs I barbecued last night (they did taste mushy in the darkness) or perhaps a small stomach upset from swimming in the river, a germ from dirty hands. It will pass.
We go out walking in the late morning climbing up to the eastern peaks that face down onto the property. We have been told about a high viewpoint from which you can admire the topography of the São Mamede plateau. I lag behind on the ascent and sweat a lot. We make it up to a high point and see an undulating landscape of yellows, browns and deep greens. The trees bring life to this dusty world: sage colours of olives, walnuts and twisted corks up on the higher mountain faces, the deeper greens of oaks, limes, poplar, birch and hazel amassed around the hidden river below.
We try to make a homeward circuit and get totally lost up there in the hills in the midday heat. Our landmarks for safe return are strange rocks and twisted trees, a sunken path, a certain hilltop ringed with white stones. These milestones shift and change from different perspectives; similar features trick us and take us clambering up false paths. We end up following circular goat tracks that end in impenetrable thickets, always convinced we can hear the river close by and will somehow overcome the banks of thorn and brushwood to find it; that one true path home. We have no water and the whole thing is slightly nightmarish though I am determined not to indulge in further dream cycles of death and rebirth. One mustn’t panic in front of the kids.
We are on the mountain for a couple of hours until we find a path that leads to the river and finally we see the Roman bridge that means safety and I nearly cry. We make it home, bruised and scratched. It is 3pm and kids are hungry for lunch while I collapse into the hammock and pass out for hours. The kids take secret pictures of me asleep. It is a horrible sight.
Two days later Menna looks at our water bottle as it is illuminated in a shaft of light. There, in the ‘Evian’ spring water we have been drinking all week, are tiny nematodes, long as a finger nail, furiously alive and hungry. They coil and twist like malevolent worms. I feel mixed emotions: a resurgent nausea, vindication at a bona fide parasite to blame, slightly bitter that I was the only one to fall sick. Am I now the weak member of the herd?
We don’t drink any more water from the spring and when we leave at the end of the week, Menna doses us all with her most potent antiparasitic medicine.
The Serra de São Mamede is a spur of the Toledo mountain range, sitting high above the Alentejo, dividing countries and climates. On the eastern side you have Portugal and the Atlantic terrains, and on the west is Spain and the Mediterranean. We are staying deep in the protected national park that nestles on the Portuguese side of the mountains, and it takes us five hours driving cross-country to get there.
There is a symbolic aspect to the journey as we gradually leave civilisation behind us and wind our way up mountain roads into the wilderness. Towns become villages, vegetation thins out, roads get pocked and increasingly rutted until finally the asphalt ends and we bump the last few miles down a red dirt track, squeezing between rocks. Then we have arrived – that is to say there comes a point where we can’t drive any further and we abandon our car in a scorched sandy clearing and proceed on foot as the sun begins to set.
The domain of Terra Sangha stretches out over the hillside like a dusty crumpled blanket, seamed with dry stone walls and scored by a river’s crease. There is an simple farmhouse in the middle of it all and that is where Ben resides, cooking on wood and lit by candles. He has no power at the moment, the solar panels have been out of action ‘for a few weeks now’, but Ben does not let such worldly matters affect him. It won’t affect us either, he tells us as he takes us to our cabin, we didn’t have solar panels to start with.
After some months of relatively civilised living on the Iberian littoral, we are now going totally off-grid. That means living with no electricity, drinking water, flushing toilet, oven, shower, tv, window-glass, wifi, phone signal or refrigeration. “There’s a cool box somewhere if you need it. I can bring you ice.” Says Ben vaguely and disappears off into the dusk, leaving us alone in our glade.
Our car, full of the heat-sensitive provisions that we have purchased for this week, is about a kilometre away and darkness is falling fast. The evening is dry and windless, the temperature still sits obstinately in the low thirties. We have some work to do. “Does anyone know where the head torch is?” Asks Menna pointlessly.
We toil backwards and forwards to the car, laden with many (un-eco) bags full of (non-vegan) provisions, (unsuitable) clothes and (unchargeable) electrical items. We leave surfboards and bikes dumped on scrubland by the car. We climb walls, stumble over hidden obstacles, get scratched by tree branches and curse a lot. The night falls quickly once the sun has dipped behind the mountains and the darkness is complete and unequivocal.
Dinner is a basic pasta, cooked by torchlight outside on a rusty two-ring gas stove. Around us the night comes alive with wild calls and rustling that may be leaves in the breeze but may equally be prowling paws. The Iberian lynx still lives in these remote mountains I tell the kids, maybe bears too, certainly wild boar. They have both gone very quiet and don’t venture outside the safe sphere of light that the solar lamp throws over our trestle table. Matilda screams occasionally as flying creatures suddenly zoom past her head. This is a sanctuary for bats as well we remember, and our cabin has no window panes. They will come in and sleep in the rafters.
By ten o clock we are all tucked up in our single room, wide eyed in the darkness, listening to the forest breathing around us.
The best thing about arriving somewhere after dark is that you get to arrive all over again in the morning. Our cabin sits up on a flat terrace and when the dawn sun emerges over the shoulder of the mountain opposite, it throws beams between the tree tops and through our windows. The light illuminates the dust motes floating in our dark wooden room and falls across our faces of our sleeping children in their driftwood beds, making them look unwashed and strangely angelic. I stumble to the window and stick out a squinting sun-scrunched face to take in our new world. A glade of yellow grasses, a wall of poplar, cork and lime trees, the mercury flash of running water glittering in the shadows, mountains ahead and behind, forest all around us. Birds flitter through the foliage.
Casa Da Lagoa is hidden away behind a high gate on a nondescript side street. We wait in the road for a quarter of an hour, unable to get a response from the bell, our fat Audi squatting menacingly like a black toad, blocking the narrow, walled street. Then the gates swing silently open, and the proprietor is there to greet us, beaming and gesturing us in theatrically to hidden inner courtyards that are full of shade and olive trees, like a Moroccan riad.
Joao is effusive and clearly very proud of his place. With rights too – he and his wife have created a little eco-agri-boutique-guesthouse of great style and calm vibes. The house was his grandfather’s, he tells us, but they have now remodelled it all. The yards are cobbled with cream coloured limestone, the walls gleam brilliant white inlaid with traditional blue Portuguese tiles, and there has been a lot of careful artisanal work with hard-woods throughout. We’re sleeping in a little annex that used to be the granary, where a system of small windows and channels direct a cool airflow though the building.
On our first night Joao and his wife cook for us. We got a feast: homemade chouriço, ham, tomatoes and olives from their local farm, little grilled sardines, whole dorado in lemon and butter, courgettes and carrots. Steaks for the kids.
Clearly Joao does front-of-house duties while his wife does the real work behind the scenes. He talks us through the menu, still sweating from the grill, savouring the details. “This is the ham of porco preto, the black pig” he says with a flourish, “they are only allowed to eat the acorn or the seed of the cork tree. It is also a kind of oak actually.” “Kind of like the Spanish Pata Negra ham?” I offer. “No! No! This is the better ham. Most Spanish ham actually comes from Portugal anyway. We have more of the oak trees so we export the ham to them and they call it Jamón iberico – we are all Ibericos it is true! But the best, we save for ourselves.”
We are starved of good conversation and Joao certainly likes to chat. Furthermore he is knowledgeable and cultural and his English is great. He tells us about the farming, local history, the wine, the wildlife. We are surrounded by lagoons and marshlands so I am keen to see some birds. Joao is insistent that the birds here are very special, only his knowledge of bird names in English is a limiting factor, so we go down several cul de sacs. “There is a beautiful small bird. Red, very intelligent. I see him when I am reading in the forest. He always wants to understand who I am.” A Pipit, Redwing, Redstart? Surely they don’t have Cardinals here do they? “We call him the Passaros, I like him a lot”. Google calls him the Robin. “Yeah, we have him at home too. Anything more exciting? Maybe a Hoopoe – orange colour, crazy big crest, stripy wings…” “No.” “What about the kingfisher? The Rei Pescador?” I love kingfishers, but it is something of a sore point that despite growing up beside a river, I have never actually seen one. Menna and the kids spotted a docile king fisher in our local park in London (annoying!) and it sat on the branch for ages, being all picturesque, accepting photos, then gliding off on its way. It was literally the only Sunday morning walk I had missed. “No, there is not this one any more. Maybe when I was a kid but now it is too rare. But there is another blue bird, larger, always he would come to the farm in my childhood, and we love him. Very graceful. He would take away the acorns to hide”. This eventually turns out not to be a Roller or a Bee-eater, but a Jay, also fairly common. “And there are ducks! Many ducks!” The kids are squirming in their seats by now and it is time to go to bed.
The next day we visit the beach, we shop for sandles for Matilda and we consume lots more ham. Menna takes the kids on a bike ride around the lagoon in the afternoon while I write, but they get lost, cycle 15km further than planned and arrive back hot, thirsty and full of harsh words. Arthur is adamant that he has seen a kingfisher when he had cycled ahead alone. There is an undercurrent of skepticism in our response to this revelation. He picks up on this and it further sours the mood. I feel guilty – everyone seems to see kingfishers all the time except me. Why shouldn’t his sighting be true?
We set off the following morning on a proper expedition around the waterways. I bring my binoculars, penknife, birdguide and feel quite the ornithologist. Arthur leads us proudly to his kingfisher spot, telling the story of his sighting many times over, adding in various details with each telling. We stay for a long while but there is an extensive lumberjack operation in full motion nearby and they are converting large tree trunks into wood chips, generating a huge amount of diesel smoke and noise in the process. It is not the peaceful birdspotting environment we had hoped for and eventually we walk on discouraged.
It is a fairly uneventful trip, but a few kilometres later we do indeed see many ducks.
We spent a week camping in Galicia, right up in top left Spain, but round the corner now, staring westwards out into the Atlantic. Our campsite was pretty in a dusty, sun-dappled sort of way. We had a tent under the pine trees with four beds, a lamp and a fridge. It seemed to be a short stay campsite, all around us tents popped up and disappeared daily and a bubbling soundtrack of excited Spanish coursed around us like a stream around a rock. At the weekend highly dressed girls would emerge out of tiny tents to go and party, but they would be gone by 10am the next morning. We lived in the middle of all this movement and chatter in our own peaceful little world.
Apart from one night on the ferry, this was the first time that all four of us had all slept next to each other. There was a whole new range of nighttime whistles, snuffles and whispers to get used to: Matilda sitting up and giggling mid-dream, Arthur rolling out of bed for a pee in the early hours, breathing rhythms that rose and fell through the sleep cycles. The kids claimed that I snored terribly and did many lurid impressions, but I never sleep on my back so I found this unlikely.
The campsite was run by a father-son combination. There was also a mistreated old lady who did the cleaning, who might well have been mother. The son had big dark eyes like a water rat, and the same wild flickering gaze when he rattled through the camp commandments on our check-in. You notice eyes so much more now everyone is wearing masks. He scurried around the campsite, in a tight Homer Simpson t-shirt and short yellow trunks, conducting a fruitless war against the ants. Arthur found him hilarious.
“Dad, I just busted him crouching down behind our car. He looked at me and said ‘Ants you are too many. Die now’ and then he did this kind of dance and sprayed poison all over the floor. He’s so weird!”
The father ran the camp café. He didn’t like us and showed it by charging us a different price every morning for the same four croissants, two coffees and a loaf of bread. He only dropped his scowl once when Menna took him a red wine to uncork for us, and on seeing the label his eyes widened and he talked urgently and at length about its unique properties and then shuffled off to his living quarters to show her that he had this exact bottle himself. It was a very average wine that we had grabbed at the supermarket in town, but we sipped it carefully, trying to understand the hidden qualities that inspired such passion in the granite-faced old miser.
Our campsite gave straight out onto the beach. There was a large turtle shaped rock which the kids dived from and also used as a good vantage point from which to hurl seaweed grenades at their parents and other passers-by. Better still though was the next bay south, Playa Lanzada, a long beautiful beach which curved obliquely to the prevailing wind and swell. At the near end it was sheltered and calm as a millpond, but at the far end we discovered a break with beautifully spaced lines of waves that the offshore wind made steep and glassy. We surfed a couple of sessions there every day. I paddled so much that I tore the rotator cuff muscle in my left shoulder.
North of the campsite, after the end of the urban drift, there was a worn old boardwalk that wound its way out of town. We took this one day and wandered some miles through a series of deserted bays, through a landscape of evocative rock formations where sly faces and stray creatures loomed up in our peripheral vision. We came upon an old military site where artillery emplacements still pointed blindly out to the Atlantic. We ended up having our picnic down in a cove, right under the shadow of one of these rusted cannons. As we ate a sea mist rolled in around us and we were cold for the first time since arriving in Spain. We built a driftwood shelter and there we huddled together to warm ourselves awhile before wandering on our way.