The year of the dragon: a new adventure starts here

London's medal-winning "Thames Dragons" dragon boating team
Photo by Rosanna Lau

It seems that maybe a new adventure sometimes comes along when you’re not looking for one.

Since before I even went to deepest, darkest Norway on my Arctic Adventure, I was thinking about what would be next.  The idea of a desert motorcycle race came up, and I did some research into the Paris – Dakar Rally, but while not yet being able to ride a motorcycle would have added an extra element to the challenge, the whole thing was impractical.

After the Arctic, a coast to coast trek in Cuba was considered — it would be another fundraising expedition for Macmillan Cancer Support, but the total being a much more modest £4,500 (rather than the £6k I raised this year) and I considered it would be possible to raise the entire total solely with full-day collections in railway stations or outside supermarkets.

This idea, too, was regrettably dismissed — I don’t want my adventures to be defined by charity fundraising, and I didn’t want friends and family to feel they had to support me financially.

I wasn’t even thinking about a new adventure when I got an email asking if I wanted to go to a Dragon Boat racing event.  I’d heard about dragon boats and dragon boat festivals before, but never seen one — though it had sounded interesting.  So I gladly signed up for this one, once I’d established I could actually join in and race.

One event does not an adventure make.

It was a good day, a fun day of racing in a dragon boat against other teams.  My team came second out of four taking part, which was a good result.  We were tired and sore but happy at the end of the day. But I think what might separate me from others on the day is that I went straight home and looked up London’s teams.

I found several teams, found the team nearest to me (although the 2012 Olympic Games in London have meant they have been evicted temporarily from their home in the docks) and contacted them to ask if I could come along to train with them.

Their answer was enthusiastic, explained to me what days they train, and that I would be welcome.

You know when you’re onto something special when it requires forsaking a Sunday morning lie-in and cooked breakfast, followed by a lazy morning listening to the radio.  Instead, I was out of bed shortly after 7am and pushing through Olympic crowds to catch a train out to Hackney and the River Lea to join the Thames Dragons for their Sunday morning training.

The team this morning were reportedly a little light on numbers — but if that made the paddling harder, it didn’t worry me.

Training with a dragon boat team is obviously different to a corporate fun day. Where last week was a few short races, with breaks in between while other teams competed, today was serious training for a serious sport.  It wasn’t altogether unlike Run Dem Crew — whom I regretfully left for a variety of reasons, but the most serious being the pain in my knees — something tough, but also enjoyable.

It was less social than Run Dem Crew, there you got good conversation while you ran, but in my dragon boat you couldn’t even really enjoy the scenery while paddling as you had to be watching the front people to make sure you kept time.  Occasional distractions on river banks or other boats would be quickly met with stern shouts to keep our eyes in the boat.  It stands to reason: this isn’t just a fun day on the river and conversation would be hard while concentrating on strokes — even though there was plenty of good humour in the quieter moments.

It being my first time with a dragon boat team, there was lots I didn’t understand — but wasn’t expected to.  I was warned of it in advance, that there would be terms used and directions shouted, but the most important thing for me was to just keep the pace — otherwise you end up being an anchor to the rest of the team.

That tired, sore but happy feeling is back — though this time I also have blisters on one hand, and can barely left my right arm above my head.  And let this blog post be a record: a new adventure starts here.

I am joining the Thames Dragons, and by the end of the summer of 2013, I want to have taken part in at least one competition. This is the year of the dragon.

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me

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“He’s down,” said Motherball, mixing again, chopping some buds.

“How long, baby?”

“Long enough,” from Gnossos.

“Tell me.”

Gnossos said, “It looks like up is all.”

Richard Fariña “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me”

I found this book entirely by accident one day. I can’t remember when, exactly, but how I remember it is that I was a student and browsing in my university book shop one day as a first year undergraduate student.

Maybe I was looking for something in particular, or maybe I was just killing time in a bookshop, as I’ve enjoyed doing for so long.

In my memory, I saw this book on a shelf, and I was intrigued. I’d never heard of the book or of Richard Fariña, but I think something about the title appealed to me — as I had my bouts of depression at university, I liked the idea of being so far down that down begins to look like up.

The book is a semi-autobiographical account of a summer in the late 1950s when Fariña was at Cornell University in New York. I won’t retell the whole story or try and analyse what it’s really about, because what it’s about is adventure. I bet that surprised you — a story about adventure, in my blog about adventure?! Also, this post may contain some plot spoilers — so be warned.

The book opens with the protagonist Gnossos Pappadopoulis returning to New York, where rumours have been circulating wildly about his untimely death. He’s spent some time adventuring out in the real world, and I guess for many people in their safe university campus the idea is terrifying — anything could happen out there.

And it turns out nearly all of the stories shared about Gnossos’ death have been true, but obviously the victim wasn’t him — as in the case of the Pachuco gang — or a near miss. It seems almost as if nearly being eaten by a shark, and nearly being burned to death by a Pachuco gang, and nearly freezing to death in the Adirondack mountains or being eaten by a wolf is all part of the great adventure for Gnossos.

There is a lot of talk in the book from Gnossos about being immune or exempt, without the terms or their context ever really being explained. Does he think he is immune to the rules of nature, having cheated death several times? Greater minds than my own have suggested that exemption is “from the rules of society” but also “exemption from being required to care about the person on the other side of sex”.

The biggest of all Gnossos’ adventures is his quest for love. At one point, a friend criticises Gnossos for always expecting or hoping he might meet the great love of his life at the next party. Gnossos isn’t just hoping to fall in love, he seems altogether a little too eager to believe it when he finds it in a girl called Kristin McCleod. It’s a whole new adventure for Gnossos, giving up a part of himself he has always kept carefully guarded before — but it seems too quick, and too convenient. Whether or not the reader is meant to think this, it’s not clear, but Kristin does turn out to be manipulating Gnossos for political ends.

The political/sexual revolution subplot is interesting in that it’s an adventure that Gnossos entirely tries to avoid being involved in — he wants to stay out of the entire thing, just as at first he isn’t interested in joining his friend on a trip to join in the revolution in Cuba. Kristin manipulates Gnossos into getting involved in the student politics, and then effectively dumps him — whereupon he tries to deliberately get her pregnant, then joins the trip to Cuba after all.

The adventure in Cuba is a personal one for Gnossos, he’s less interested in the revolution and more interested in running away — and seeking a mysterious “Buddha”, a drug lord character, who forms yet another sub-plot of adventure — a kind of drug-fuelled quest for enlightenment, through opium, mescaline and pot. Gnossos seeks perhaps the ultimate immunity — a disconnection from the physical world, but he is warned by a friend “You can’t stay wherever it takes you, you have to come back”.

In many ways, the book is about an end of innocence — Gnossos’ friend gets killed, while Gnossos has his heart broken and gets drafted.  I like to think that Gnossos would have continued to have his adventures after the book ends. As I’ve reread the book over the years I’ve read different things into it and felt differently about Gnossos, much like with Kerouac’s On The Road.  At 20 I though the books and the characters were just about the coolest things ever. At 31, I see the characters flaws more clearly and like to imagine that in the years that followed Gnossos would have learned some lessons and done things differently.

It’s unfortunate we’ll never know what might have been, since it was Richard Fariña’s only novel: he died in a motorcycle accident a couple of days after it was published, although he released several records of folk music recorded with his wife Mimi Baez, and a post-humously published collection of his other writing — Long Time Coming And A Long Time Gone.  Check out that book, too — if only for his short poems on the idea of nothing.

10k Bootstrap Challenge

Last Friday night I was fortunate enough to see Rob Fitzpatrick present to Hacker News London on his 10k Bootstrap Challenge.

Rob’s talk was one of the funniest and most interesting stories I have heard in a long time — and it occurs to me that he is an adventurer of sorts himself. He might not long for grand treks across continents or ancient South American civilisations, but he is a man on an adventure just the same.

His challenge is quite simple: Rob is betting £10k that he can build a portfolio of products which is profitable enough to live off before he runs out of money.

Watch the video and see for yourself how the adventure is going:

Darlin’ won’t you come run away with me?

Darlin' Wont You Come?I’m late to the party with this song, and with Bob Evans in general.  I couldn’t even name you another song by the man — except that my MP3 player tells me that the Spider-Man theme from the 19070s cartoon is also by a man by the name of Bob Evans.

The thing is, this song says to me adventure. Although in general I think it’s more about wanting to be happy, and wanting the person you care most about to leave a place where you’re unhappy — lines like “I don’t feel this place holds a lot for me/
So darlin’ won’t you come run away with me” and “I’m done with this crowd and I’m done with this scene/And you’re the only one who believes in me” both to me reinforce this idea, and suggest an unhappiness.

But as I say, to me it plays into wanting an adventure — the line “I want to belong, but I’d rather be free” says they want to see what is out there in the world. They want to be free, but then again — don’t we all?

Free in this context does not mean alone.  I think it’s incredibly important that the song’s title isn’t “I’m running away” but instead “Darlin’ Won’t You Come” is an invitation to the person he loves, with every verse starting with the same line: “Darlin’ won’t you come run away with me”.

I once met a man, at a conference, who told me he was homeless.  He wasn’t begging for change or living on the street, what he meant was he didn’t own a home and he didn’t have a home he was paying rent on. He literally had no home address, he said because he travelled so much with his work that he lived his life in hotels.

I’m someone that likes to travel, and actively wants adventure — and yet I’m almost horrified by the idea of literally having no home, nowhere to go back to, nowhere that you can close the door and be in your own place.  I want to see the world, I want all the adventures I can have — but I also want that place that is home, and that person to run away with.

The fine balance between belonging and being free.

New Adventure Needed!

When you've seen how big the world is, how can you make do with this?
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“We were brought up on the Space Race, now they expect you to clean toiletsWhen you’ve seen how big the world is, how can you make do with this?”

Pulp “Glory Days”

With the Arctic Adventure truly over, and the notebook exhausted, we take a break to bring you this important message.

I need a new adventure.

I’ve explored North America on Greyhound buses and slept on pavements in southern California. I’ve hiked the Inca Trail to the “lost city” of Machu Picchu.  I’ve driven a pack of huskies across the frozen lakes and hills of the Arctic Circle and gazed at the Northern Lights.  Now I want to know what’s next.

You think about an adventure.  You play with various ideas until one sticks, and you tell people about it.  Maybe they’re admiring, maybe they think you’re crazy, maybe they’re envious — but it all excites you.  After too long of thinking about it and telling people about it, it becomes time to put your money where your mouth is and actually sign up.  Having dreams is one thing, but you don’t want to be the person that dreams and never does anything about it.

Once you take the plunge, it’s serious.  There is now a finite space of time between you and the adventure, and a seemingly infinite number of things to do.  But there’s the other end, too — this end of the adventure when you’ve already been back a month, and you’ve got nothing to train for, nothing to dream about or talk about, nothing to have mini freak-outs about on the way to work.

I signed up for the Arctic Adventure last July, and that was several months later than I ideally wanted to (because I was a bit dense and was looking in the wrong section of the website for the type of event I wanted). Now I have been back for two months, have completed the fundraising, and long for a new adventure.

I took on John Williams and Selina Barker’s “Screw Work, Let’s Play” 30 Day Challenge — after all, these two were influential in getting me to actual sign up for the Arctic, and last year were instrumental in getting me to start writing “Atlantic City” my zombie novel.  I thought great, this will get me started on a new adventure.  After many discussions with Selina, she encouraged me to focus less on the big ideas and to instead find adventures in the small things, every day.

Away I went.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to do, or afford, 30 adventures in 30 days but would do what I could and blog about it.  Have you noticed any of those blog posts? That’s because there have been no adventures.  I didn’t think the idea out carefully enough, and even some things that I thought I would do — go to a martial arts class, learn latin dance — didn’t happen.  Things seem less like “every day adventures” and more like…just doing stuff.

Now I’m in a kind of limbo.  I still want the big adventure, I still want to save the world — I want to help people after natural disasters or in war zones, even if it’s just picking up the rubble or painting walls — and be able to help further by inspiring others to help by writing about it and taking pictures.  As strange as it seems to me, there are also people out there who see no appeal at all in hiking the Inca Trail or dog sledding through the Arctic Circle — but these people like the opportunity to live vicariously through blog posts and stories about adventures.

There’s still so much I want to do, and no practical way of doing it.

As for the every day, since the Arctic I’ve struggled a little with a lack of purpose.  Nothing to train for, no big “adventure” to look forward to, to tell people about or sometimes worry over. My fitness has taken a nosedive, and I’m now taking on the challenge to better handle my depressive moods.

In the every day, things can be a struggle sometimes — but I’m trying to resolve that while there are some things I can’t change, I can take responsibility for how I react, and what I do about it.  This week, I have taken to Tribesports to give me challenges and an excuse to get some endorphins flowing — while I try and get a handle on what adventure means to me, and what I can do, while balancing it with all the things I love so much about being at home.

DAY 1: London – Olso – Alta

Gargia Lodge, Alta, NorwaySO. The Arctic Adventure.

After months of planning, months of training, and countless feakouts when I thought about what I was doing, it was no longer “next year”, or “next week” but instead…now.

To avoid an early-morning cross-London Tube journey with heavy bags, I chose to spend Sunday night in a Travelodge in west London near Heathrow airport. Despite walking the wrong way out of Hounslow West station to catch my bus to the hotel, the Sunday night was not time for adventure. I got up early Monday morning, showered, checked out and waited outside for my taxi.

Which it turned out the hotel staff had forgotten to book.

We were instructed to assemble at the Scandinavia Airwarys check in desk at Heathrow Airport, three hours before out flight was due to take off. It had been a similar set up when I went to Peru, but I remember that feeling slightly easier: I just had to look for people in hiking boots, Macmillan t-shirts and large rucksacks. But what did people look like when they were going to the Arctic?

Lucky for me, one guy was already there and waiting — while he might not have been dressed in a snowsuit, he did have that outdoorsy look.  People started to join us quite rapidly, with each new arrival asking “Across the Divide?” or “Dog sledding?”.  Before long, there was quite a group of us assembled — but no trip leader.  We began to wonder if we had been deliberately told to get there early so that the group could begin to bond with each other, or if it was a plan to get everyone to the airport on time.

Eventually, everyone was together — including the trip leader, the trip doctor and a rep from Across the Divide who wasn’t actually coming on the trip itself.  We checked in, dropped our bags, and killed time in the airport.

The flight to Oslo was short and largely uneventful.  I say “largely” because I was sure this was the first flight I’d ever taken that didn’t have a safety briefing — it wasn’t until our return flights that I realised there was one, but it was done entirely in Norwegian, so when I hadn’t been watching I hadn’t known what was being said.  Oslo airport’s internal transfers terminal seemed very Scandinavian: it was smart, clean, quite small, very expensive, and not worth noting for much more than that.

From my notebook: “7pm.  Alta from the air and in the rapidly-approaching darkness seems icy, snowy and rocky.  Dark lakes and fjords, reflecting a bright moon and stars.  The cold fresh air, and a feeling of excitement”.  We took a minibus from Alta airport to our first night’s lodge at Gargia — the main part of the town of Alta (for it seemed to cover quite a large area with not much to see) was quickly left behind to darkness, snow, and the occasional red-painted farm building.

The picture at the top is the Gargia Fjellstue lodge, our base and accomodation for the first night of the adventure.  There were half a dozen lodges, the main building which included the dining room, and the kennels for our 70-something dogs.  The first night was luxury; the lodges had under-floor heating, showers, electricity and there was a bar in the main buidling.  Dinner was cooked for us by our hosts, Cathrine and Pål — a delicious reindeer stew called something like “Beadle”.

After dinner we mainly rested and talked — until it was decided to check for the Northern Lights.  At first, it seemed like there was nothing to see, but then when you stood for a minute, faint misty patches in the sky that looked like cloud would begin to brighten.

Again from the notebook: “10pm. Aurora Borealis!!  Green sheets of light, appearing, brightening, then fading. My camera can’t capture them — but what a sight!”.  Yes, unfortunately, it seemed my compact Canon camera wasn’t going to be up to the job — I just couldn’t find a setting for long exposure, but seeing the Northern Lights was as good as capturing them on camera.  You could stand out all night watching them, but it was time for an early night — because the next day the adventure was to really begin: a 30km journey by dog sled from Gargia to Souluvombi.

Day 6: Winay Wayna-Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, PeruYou think you know Machu Picchu. You have seen it in guidebooks, in things to do before you die lists, in Facebook photo albums of various friends. You’ve seen it in high-definition technicolour. How can seeing it in person not be an anti-climax?

I thought all of these things, until I saw it. The lost city, that technically has no name, but is referred to by the name of the mountain: Machu Picchu.

And maybe it’s the altitude, and maybe it’s exhaustion, maybe it’s that you’ve been working towards this moment for so long: planning and training and fundraising and hiking — but either way, it’s a big emotional moment. I tell everyone the same thing: if you want to see Machu Picchu, you should hike the Inca trail to get there.

Sure, you can take a bus up the mountain from Agua Calientes, and arrive all fresh and rested, but where would be the sense of achievement?

The last day’s hiking started with an unexpected lie-in. When this became the plan, I don’t know, I was fairly sure it was meant to be an early start to be there for sunrise: but none of that mattered once we were awake and on our way. To tell the truth, the hike to get to Machu Picchu on the last day fades in my memory: because there was an enormous event waiting at the end, and everything else becomes over-exposed because of it.

 Inti Punku, the sun gateWhat I remember most is the stone steps up to the sun gate, from where you look down on to the lost city below. One more set of steps, except that lining the steps on both sides are the trip guides, the doctors, the porters you have become close to over the last few days. And they are all cheering and applauding. I raised an arm in triumph for a photo: I did it. On bruised and blistered and broken feet, I did it.

After the photo opportunities with mountain Machu Picchu in the background, we were encouraged to spend a few minutes in quiet reflection about why we were there and what we had accomplished. That’s about the time that the exhaustion and altitude combined to have almost everyone break down in tears. We were all there raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support, and all had stories about how cancer had affected the lives of people around us — or us personally. My aunt would have loved Machu Picchu and Peru, and it seemed like a fitting tribute to her memory.

What I don’t often talk about is the pain I was in on this last day. I’d been on a prescription pain killers all week to deal with the pain in my injured foot and in my knees, and had foolishly decided for the last day to start reducing the dose. Looking back, I could have waited another couple of days, but I under-estimated how much of a hike the final day would be. But you know what? Look at that smile. I was genuinely happy. In that moment, it was all worth it.

Among the ruins of Machu Picchu there are wild llamas just wandering around, and once you have descended the long, winding path down to the city you yourself just wander among the ruins and the grass: marvelling at the pyramids and the buildings, and the ingenuity of this long lost civilisation. Everyone there probably wishes they were alone to experience it without the slightly grubby hikers, like me, or the fresh faced tourists just off the air-conditioned bus. Just the same, you remember the feeling of the city and try to memorise all the details to report back later.