That really reminds me of this time on my Gap Yah...

A lot has changed in a year. I remember a conversation I had with Ed Pilkington in May, we were trying to make sense of our time in Pisco and we came to the conclusion that perspective only comes with time. Why things happen a certain way might never be understood but we often get a better grasp of things when we are able to look back in hindsight.

I've just come back from a really encouraging time at Momentum and one of the quotes that resonated with me is the following: "Rejection is something that others do to you, bitterness is something you do to yourself"When things don't go the way you planned it's easy to be resentful or feel as if there is nothing as worthy to aim for. The truth is you never know what God has planned and in order for him to build you up, often you need to be broken down first.
Ed, Joe, Tim, Rupert, Helen, Lucy, Laura and Poppy


This time last year I was boarding a plane for Samos where I would be spending the next 2 months working on the waterfront. A beautiful place with beautiful people, I will always be grateful of my time here.


The 25th of October 2011 was one of the most significant days of the year. It started with a phone call about not doing the ski season with my old company and it ended with a rough plan to travel the world with one of my closest friends. In the months that followed we bashed out a plan for flights, applied to an organisation for volunteering in Peru and had multiple injections protecting us against all the exotic diseases that we would come into contact with.

In this time I had the privilege to work for Boodles; A special company who are doing great things. I also had a month of family time in Sydney, chaired an MUN conference with an old school friend and completed my SATs for America. 

Inca Trail

I've already said a lot about the 20 weeks on the road. It was the focus of the year and I often jest that I've come back like an old man. I don't want to come across cynical just because things at home often seen trivial in comparison to what I've experienced. It's easy to criticise things for what they aren't and not appreciate things for what they are.


Here is a jumbled mess of the highlights from my travels:
Pisco Sin Fronteras, living in Hollywood, Machu Pichu, 'The Slingshot' in Cusco, eating dog in Laos, Coke World, elephant riding, sunsets in the pacific, building a park, Halong Bay, Six Flags, Chungking Mansions, American food, Fijian rugby, Ugandan church, NBA Playoffs, the Inca Trail, making bio diesel, learning to motorbike, sand boarding, Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, white water rafting, Pisco Sours, War and Peace, red neck football, Hong Kong skyline, descending San Salvador volcano, the Amazon rainforest, San Francisco, riding a Mutatu, an alleyway haircut in Vietnam for 75p, the boda boda tour, colca canyon, tubing in Vang Vieng, rickshaw rides, papusas, Tuk Tuks, Inca Kola, overnight trains, getting lost multiple times, paragliding, crazy temples, Lake Titicaca, Fijian beaches, dorms for $3 a night, the Golden Gate Bridge and of course, meeting many strange and wonderful people.

It went fast. You start to expect strange things. 5 people on one motorbike is acceptable transport. Barbecued snake is a good Sunday lunch. Typhoid is treated like a common cold.

Kalmoe
Returning home seemed sudden and within hours I was on a train to London to pick up my uniform for the Olympics. I remember as a 7 year old trying to stay up as late as possible so I could watch the Sydney Games in 2000. I've been hooked ever since and when I realised there wasn't really a sport for me to compete in, I happily applied to be a volunteer. The two year application will probably be the longest of my life but it was worth the wait.

My 3 weeks at Eton Dorney stood out in the 12 months. It was a rare honour to see the depth and integrity of the athletes behind the television screen. I have many enduring memories of my time there. The humility of Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase after winning their Silver will never be forgotten and I hope to one day understand the nature of committing to something that much. It wasn't just British athletes, it was great to see the USA W4X medal after getting to know them over the previous weeks. With Eton hosting the Rowing World Cup next year, I may well be seeing a few familiar faces again.

The whole year still feels raw and fresh. I feel equipped for the challenges of university but mainly for the challenges of life. Life is rich and too often we let ourselves get in the way of realising that.

Final thoughts?
Live adventurously. Live humbly.


Joe and Myself

Uganda, Part Two

This was a great week to end on. PSF was one of the main highlights of my trip and this experience reminded me of why that time was so special: working with a motivated, interesting group of people on a project that you care about. 

We met up with the volunteering team from Equipe on the Saturday which was headed up by Joe's parents. There were two main projects: one was teaching based at a school and another was a pastors conference. While Joe went to the latter, I spent my time at the school. At Pisco I was involved in 3 different teaching projects which made me interested to see how the system in Uganda compares.

While the facilities were more modest than what I found in Peru, the teaching was more structured and the children were genuinely interested in what you had to say. My work here was also more demanding as I found out when I was ushered into a class of 30 gaping 10 year olds and was instructed to teach them about some obscure part of English grammar that I hadn't heard of. You can do this without a TEFL course but in the future I would try and complete one before I went away as they are a useful tool in structuring information that you can then more easily pass on.

Geography and some pseudo economics were more fun to teach, sport was an easy crowd pleaser and music was particularly popular in the younger toddler classes. One disappointment of the system here is the complete lack of teaching for the humanities and arts. I can understand why you would want to prioritise maths and science but to not have history, geography, English literature, music or art in the timetable is a strange and short sighted decision. Humans aren't machines, they are creative and stretch far beyond the imagination of science and maths. Abandoning these areas of study, which underpin much of our identity, will be to our detriment in the future.

For most of the week we helped the PE teacher with preparations for their sports day which was the following week. Some of the favourites were on the list such as the sack race and egg and spoon race while some more cultural events included the slightly hygienically questionable race of 'bottle filling' which involved the child to carry water in their mouth to fill up a bottle that had been in circulation for a number of years. At least everyone seemed to be enjoying it!

As soon as I arrived into Manchester on the Friday I would have to get a train to London to pick up my accreditation and Olympic uniform in preparation for training the next day. Organising this didn't allow much time to reflect on the past few months but it is something I will consider more over the next week. I really enjoyed spending time with the team in Uganda and it's disappointing I can't stay any longer with them. Africa is a place that I will have to return to in a few years. It was also far more complex than I ever could have imagined. In Uganda, there are 33 tribes which make up the country and they all have their individual chiefs or kings. Combine this with most of the towns then having a separate mayor and finally add the president at the top. You are left with a very difficult power struggle which doesn't look like subsiding any time soon.

I think most humans have an inveterate desire to explore and travel. After 20 weeks on the road it is something that I would happily recommend to anyone. Just don't have a fixed idea of what you want to find.

Uganda, Part One

"Uganda is safe, but at a price", this was the amusing but accurate message we were told by Walter, our Boda Boda driver, as we slipped the army soldiers a few thousand shillings to 'see us on our way'. This is a country that I want to love but through various contrasting messages I'm struggling to fully understand its identity. Ideas of wealth are recurrently more central in a society where there is little and where they can see that we, the west, have comparably more.


The last point is particularly important. In a conversation with Joe we talked about the problems of aid. The aid in itself isn't generally an issue but the attitudes that change with it are what you have to be careful of. Yes, complacency and over-reliance are the two things that are most talked about but moreover, the messages that the west are promoting within the action. The message translates to false views that western societies have it all figured out and also the idea that 'wealth' is something that they are lacking and that is something that they need.


On the third day in Kampala we went for a Boda Boda trip ride around the city before getting a boat to an island on Lake Victoria. A Boda Boda is basically a motorbike which people use as a form of taxi. I would say that driving styles are similar to Vietnam except in Uganda you have the added fun of 50cm pot holes where ever you go. That's no exaggeration and some approach a metre deep, it's probably the first place where I've seen a car get stuck when in the middle of the road.


It was an interesting day which exposed us to many different aspects of Ugandan life. Our visit to the killing tunnel was one of the most haunting experiences of the trip. Under the former president Idi Amin, made famous by The Last King Of Scotland film,  over 300,000 Ugandans were tortured and murdered in this underground bunker. The bloodied hand prints and scratch marks are still on the wall as visible reminders of the horrendous conditions they died in and how they were trying everything they could to escape. The sheer numbers of his killing operation are put in perspective when you understand the reason for not simply shooting his targets was that he didn't have enough bullets in his armoury. Therefore he resorted to starvation and suffocation as two easy ways to kill his enemies. 


After driving to the lake we paddled across to the island on a highly questionable small wooden boat. We were given a machete armed guard who guided us to the peak of the island before taking us on a leisurely walk through the Ugandan bush back to our boat. On the walk we casually pointed out all the chickens that freely roamed the island, our guard told us that we were able to buy one for about 15,000 shillings (£4). Sensing a solution for lunch we negotiated which bird we wanted and were witness to our lunch being prepared from start to finish. From trapping it, cutting its head off with a machete, plucking it and then roasting it; I finally saw how some of my Sunday dinners had really been prepared. For the first time in my life I could maybe, almost, just about understand vegetarianism. 


Another key concept I have learnt over the past few days is 'Uganda time'. Similar to 'Fiji time' it involves you agreeing a time to meet someone and then adding on 3 hours to the time agreed. 3 hours is a rough average but it can extend to as far as 5 or the person not turning up at all. It keeps life interesting but it is something I won't be too sad in leaving behind.

Singapore

Another big city, an urbane Hong Kong; I liked Singapore. We didn't have long enough to experience everything, money also played its part but overall I appreciated what I saw.

It was a clearly defined and efficient city. Sky scrapers were present but not on a Hong Kong scale. The elegance of Marina Bay Sands epitomises the image Singapore are trying to project. It is potentially isolating, as Joe said everyone on the underground is glued to their smart phones and the endless malls bring an alienating feel to the streets. Modernity has sacrificed some character and charm which isn't a problem for the locals but diminished it in my eyes. It is provocative through its ideals making it noteworthy but not endearing.

The botanic gardens were a brilliant antidote to the metropolis. Beautifully kept and deftly designed; I spent an afternoon exploring the area. They were definitely worth a visit.

Less cultural activities included Nandos and a 4am viewing of the European Cup Final. Chelsea players bringing it to the biggest stage once again. I'd also like to take this opportunity to clarify a few common misconceptions about football fans outside of Europe. As a result of stringent empirical evidence, I can safely say that Chelsea are the dominant player in the worlds fake football shirt market. Even in Asia, Chelsea had 3 times the presence of United. City may as well not exist and Liverpool were a distant third.

Our long haul flight to Uganda with Qatar Airways lived up to our high expectations. Five films were seen: Chronicle, The Book Of Eli, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Young Adult and John Carter. Jason Reitman has never disappointed and EL&IC merited its Oscar nomination. The rest were a bit mediocre except for the start of Chronicle.

Uganda has been enlightening so far, not in all the ways that I had expected. I will bring thoughts soon.

Singapore Botanic Gardens

North Thailand

After crossing the border into Chiang Khong we started to work our way down to Bangkok where we would catch our flight to Singapore. I was in Thailand for a few days last year and visiting the more 'cultural' North was something I had been anticipating.


In Chiang Mai we visited the Maesa Elephant Camp. I would cautiously say that I enjoyed the experience, the elephants are well looked after and are inherently playful animals. We went for a ride through the jungle and then watched as they skilfully showed off their painting, football and dart skills. While I wasn't completely comfortable with everything that went on, I think the camp is putatively better than the alternative; Which can either be more severe captivity (such as circus work) or into the wild (where insufficient protection exists to insure their safety). After spending the morning with the Elephants we visited the nearby Tiger Kingdom.


If the Elephants were borderline, Tiger Kingdom sprinted past the lines of acceptability. It is hard to write this and not appear particularly moralistic but I think, on some things, the issue of right or wrong can be fairly clear. Tiger Kingdom is a business where people pay money to take photos with the animals. The smaller the tiger the more you pay. People are able to get near to the Tigers as they have been heavily drugged which leaves them lying lifeless on the floor. The owners try several tricks in order to try and get the the tiger to lift their head off the ground, they do this so the tourists can get a photo which creates the allusion of the tiger actually being in a normal state. The tourists, when prompted by the owners and sadly also by their own initiative, take advantage and do various things which humiliate and degrade the prone tiger. These include pretending to bite the tail and by straddling the animals back. While others from our party went in, we looked into the cages from the café on the side. We were there for a couple of minutes before deciding to wait in the car park instead.


The View
It's not one of the things I will have fond memories of. I hate feeling powerless to stop something such as this. They are amazing animals and have had their dignity stripped away from them. As Thailand is one of the most popular destinations for my peers, the least I can do is raise a bit of awahness.


As is our wont, we visited several different wats and palaces during our time in the country. The White Temple or Wat Rung Khon was unique to anything we had seen before. It was pristine white and dotted with crystals and glass. The most quirky aspect was the wall of hell which I briefly mentioned last time; It had a fat, happy buddha at one end and a wall of hell (featuring anything remotely western) at the other. Its message is that through consumption of our converse shoes and superhero movies we become corrupted and are therefore unable to reach 'enlightenment'. I guess the monk we found conversing on his iPhone 4s is treating it as a work in progress. Other tourist check points included the Grand Palace and the worlds largest recling buddha at Wat Pho (he was huge). 


Moving past the everyday pad thai we experienced two extremes of the food scale during our time in Thailand. We had a representation of both its cultures, the traditional meal of roasted insects and a glowing tribute to the western world with its fast food on steroids. Two highlights from the latter were the double big mac from Mcdonalds and then the triple outlaw from Burger King. The double was literally two big macs one on top of the other, the outlaw was a triple whopper with onion rings and bacon squeezed in between. Needless to say, both were incredible. The insects, however, were foul and were only consumed on the basis that it was a 'cultural meal' and therefore it had to be done. Joe distinguished himself during the ordeal as we each worked our way through seven different weird and wonderful insects. The grasshopper was the final straw for me but Joe nobly went on and finished the brutal cockroach. 


Words:
Wont - An established custom
Putative – Generally considered to be

Laos


I have naively in the past collectively called all the 'temples' temples. Of course there are many nuances that I have failed to pick up on which are crucial in separating a pagoda to a wat. However, for the time being there were mainly pagodas in Vietnam and there are mainly wats in Laos. We visited several of them in Vientiane and then more later in Luang Prabang.


To say the wats were particularly inspiring would be an aggrandisement. I thought they were interesting but at the same time I found the ostentatious nature of them slightly ironic given they  represented a culture that stresses its displeasure with western ideals. The white temple 'wall of hell' is something I'll talk about next time but for now I'll tell you Kung Fu Panda, Neo and Converse Shoes all featured.


We spent a couple of days in the infamous town of Vang Vieng, where the priggish traveller is confronted with the hedonistic explorer. Thankfully it isn't mutually exclusive and you can enjoy the 'tubing' without taking 'happy milkshakes' and admire the incredible scenery without wearing an anorak and a superior frown on your face. Tubing is the divisive activity which everyone talks about. It involves renting out a rubber ring, drifting down the Nam Song river and stopping off at various bars as you go.


It was a great day, we went with the group of people we were travelling with and had our first real experience of monsoon torrential rain. You tended to drift down as a group and at one point we had over 40 tubes all connected, meandering its way through the landscape. It was one of those surreal moments where you looked around you and struggled to believe you were actually there. Mountains and never-ending green forests lined the river on either side while you seemingly drifted into the middle of nowhere watching the sun go down.


After a couple of days in Luang Prabang, which included our brilliant Snake and Dog barbecue, we caught a long boat to travel along the Mekong river heading for the Laos/Thailand border. It was a relaxing couple of days with stunning scenery following us as we went. The time was spent honing my  cribbage skills against Joe and reading The Great Gatsby which was subtlety provocative. We have a few days in Northern Thailand before heading off to Singapore.


Words:
Aggrandisement - The act of increasing prestige or power
Prig - A self righteous overly moralistic person

Vietnam

A country is special when you find its most simple activities as beautiful as some of it's most lauded natural wonders. It was austere yet overwhelming. A place where everything appeared chaotic yet strangely peaceful. People just seemed to be content.

We roughly followed the Top Gear route starting in Saigon and finishing in Hanoi. As a general rule there is usually a distinct difference between the rural areas and cities of a country, each having a different vibe and a antithetic set of people. Vietnam felt different, there was a mellowing stream following us up North. The peculiar allure of the hustling cities was found in equal measures in the distant countryside. The flow of the traffic meandered into never ending paddy fields.

We only planned our time here half way through our trip and I'm really glad we did. It felt cultural but youthful at the same time. A country with strong heritage and a young population - the average age being 27.  Every place had something slightly different to offer in addition to the usual museums, temples and markets. Freedom to explore the dusty, country roads was something I thoroughly valued.

Learning about the severe realities of the Vietnam war was a humbling experience. I was embarrassed I knew so little. I don't understand it. Ignoring the highly questionable motives, the use of Agent Orange, amongst other chemicals, was one of the most cruel legacies the war left. It broke international law and it still effects babies today - over 40 years after it was deployed - as the chemical damages and disfigures up to the 3rd generation. 

As we explored we met happy and optimistic faces. Yes, the Americans and French aren't welcomed with completely open arms but any resentment and bitterness has been replaced with a desire for a better future. Countries often begrudgingly focus on their past, Vietnam is looking in the other direction.

Over night trains were something we were new to. Apparently we stayed in first class although I was never truly convinced. Ignoring the insects and cockroaches it had two traveler luxuries: 1) Relative Comfort 2) Privacy. Lying in your own secluded cabin you could happily ignore the noisy, bumpy train ride and put the Kindle to full use. Taking a break from novels I have caught up with some of the periodicals I keep track of, The Atlantic and The Economist being my favourites.

Highlights from the last 11 days include ever riskier ventures into the world of street food, serene bike rides into the country and the expansive Halong Bay. I hope Laos and Thailand match the high standard set in Vietnam as we continue to travel through SE Asia.


Words:
Austere - Basic or simple, Stern or severe
Antithetic - Sharply contrasting

Hong Kong

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness" - Mark Twain

It is near impossible to go away travelling and not have your mind opened to scores of new ideas and ways of life. The juxtaposition of the different places we have visited has polarised the individual cultures that we have been fortunate to encounter. A clear example of this happened last week when we moved from the tranquillity of Fiji to the mayhem of Hong Kong.

Negotiating intense public transport, classic tourist points and obscure food made up a lot of our time. Going to Stanley in the South of Hong Kong island was one of my favourite excursions. It was one of the few places where you could see the British influence and this picturesque market town was a great escape from the main city.

The architecture in Hong Kong is not presented in a grandiloquent way but simply through size and stature. Thousands of incredibly high buildings packed tightly together with an unspoken acknowledgement of its own gravity is enough to create a slightly domineering effect. Impressive in one sense, it lacks poise and eloquence in another. Getting lost in the city has again made me realise that it's the idiosyncrasy of home which I value more. Black and white Tudor buildings, cobbled streets, crumbling Roman walls and a lazy river provoke much warmer feelings than the intimidating, grey and antisocial background I often found in Hong Kong.

The food is not something I discountenanced but it will take me longer to fully adapt to the Asian cuisine while I still have a bit of a hangover from America. The fun game of Chinese roulette gave us some interesting meals but without wanting to demean this culinary genre, most meals fall into two general categories: meals with rice or meals with noodles. Having made this initial decision you move into the more varied meat section which on a good day has a wider choice of four: chicken, pork, beef and shrimp. These eight meal choices weren't sufficient to sustain me for all three meals so I often retreated to the global safe haven of McDonalds. McDonalds shares a love/hate relationship with travellers. On one side you are cheating the system and not fully engaging in local culture (although you will find the majority of the locals in there) and on the other side it represents guaranteed 'decent' food, cheap prices and free wifi. On most occasions I unashamedly fell into the latter category but on every day I risked my health on at least two street food meals.


The first two nights we couchsurfed in Kennedy Town, in the West of the city. On the second two we stayed in the infamous Chungking Mansions. This was recommended to us by a couple in Fiji and while they said it was terrible they also said it was a must to do. We decided to overlook the terrible part and decided to stay in this rabbit warren in the heart of Kowloon. Home to over 120 nationalities, the place is constantly full of activity and people. When we arrived at the airport with all our items intact and with our health in relatively good order, I can look back and call it a positive experience!

It was enjoyable to explore the city and no doubt I will return to it equipped with a more cultivated perspective. Next stop is Vietnam.


Words:
Idiosyncrasy - A peculiarity
Discountenance - To show disapproval

Fiji

Travelling can actually be quite hard work! We were fortunate to be able to stop off in the Pacific to have some time off the road and prepare ourselves for the busyness of Asia. A diminishing bank account prevented the standard Gap Yah island hopping to the Yasawas and instead we stayed on the quaint coral coast on the South of the main island.

Of course we couldn't escape a bit of culture and we spent our first 2 days in a place called Viseisei which is the oldest village on the island. We were staying with a traditional Fijian family and despite waking up to stinging bites it was an enlightening, enjoyable experience. On our first day we had the privilege of being invited to have Kava with the chief and the village hierarchy. Kava is the traditional drink of Fiji and it had both the taste and appearance of muddy water. Of course it would have been a major faux pas to reject it and with a feigned smile I downed my overly generous portion.

Our second taste of culture came a few days into our stay on the coral coast. A local Fijian, who worked as the barman, had been encouraging a few of the Westerners to accompany him in supporting his village's rugby team. They had reached the island cup final for the first time in their history so 'Nasikawa' were thoroughly determined to enjoy the occasion. After persuading 6 of us to come, we started the day with little idea of what would await us. We quickly worked out that our role in the days proceedings was to provide the petrol money; In return we were accepted as part of the Nasikawa family and were 'treated' to the craziest forms of transport I had experienced on my trip so far which was no mean feat. 53 people crammed into the 15 seater truck on the way there and we were soon hurtling down the dusty, bumpy Fijian roads at top speed. Mentally and physically drained we then watched the match which was being held  somewhere in the North of the island. It was a whitewash victory for my team with the Fijians being as brutal and relentless as you can imagine. After a lengthy Kava ceremony we found out that we had been upgraded for the journey back. Our transport this time taking the shape of the raucous team bus. Fiji continued to have different interpretations of transport capacity to the West and after making sure there was no more air to breathe or space to move in we set off for home. The players were in high spirits and were eagerly passing round a lethal home made liquor. With no exaggeration all 6 of us agreed it was the worst drink we had ever tasted, even worse than Kava. House music was pumping out of the surprisingly decent sound system and the players were taking it in turns to show off their adventurous dance moves. If Carlsberg did team buses...

The rest of the week was spent recovering from this and making ample use of the snorkelling and kayaks. It was an enjoyable week and it was good to get some time to reflect on the previous few months as well as plan for the upcoming Summer. The best acquisition of the trip has easily been a Kindle Touch bought in San Francisco which, apart from relieving the burden of books from my bag, has given a much needed new focus for my spare time. War and Peace, the acme of all novels, has comfortably been the best thing I have ever read. I'm nearing the end of it now having been working my way through it for the past month and I can recommend it to anyone who is willing to persevere and reap its benefits. 

Hong Kong is in sharp contrast to the slow way of life we have just come from. With our batteries charged we are looking forward to the hectic challenge of over month in South East Asia. 

Los Angeles

LA is over hyped but it still is a quirky place where you can do much more than your average American town. We were couchsurfing in Hollywood which meant we could have a place we treated like home. This was a big factor in us being able to have a more chilled week.

We made sure we did at least a few novel things each day and thanks to help from our host we were able to live more like locals rather than tourists. It's indubitable that I've mentioned food too much but as it is so engrained into the culture it would be rude not to get familiar with it. Chilis, Carls Jr, Baja Fresh, In N Out, Jack in the Box and IHOP were this weeks selections. All were incredible. Special mention has to go to Roscoes: a restaurant chain in LA dedicated to the dual service of chicken and waffles. In case you were wondering, no, they don't go together.

As a former proud holder of an Alton Towers annual pass, going to 6 flags magic mountain (the best theme park in the world) was a highlight of mine. I forced Joe to go on all the rides even X2 which was apparently a 5th generation roller coaster - how is that even possible? In typical American fashion the descriptions for all the rides provided a lot of amusement as we left wondering how 5 of the rides could all be the fastest, tallest and longest in the world. 

Living in Hollywood, the wall of fame and sign lost it's impact after the second day. Venice beach, however, on a Saturday afternoon was crazy. Bohemian and hippy central it had pretty much everything. I was the only white witness to a 'historic rap battle', the street basketball players would probably have all made it into the GB team and the cyclists would have gladly killed anyone who dared to step into their lane.

On other days we were in the audience in a Hollywood studio for a late night talk show. The late late show with Craig Ferguson on Tuesday May 22nd was our claim to fame. We saw a premiere, chilled on long beach and went to the Getty museum. The Getty museum is definitely worth a visit. A billionaire left most of his money to a trust who were instructed to build the best art museum they could and with a few billion you can do a pretty good job. He also only liked pre 1900 European art which gave it a reminiscent feel of the National Trust.

The biggest news of the week of course came on Saturday afternoon with the Champions League final. Watching it with 3 Germans gave it added intensity which was probably to blame for my slightly excessive 10 minute celebration. It was a fitting end to 19 years of 'so close yet so far', although it was a shame I couldn't enjoy the moment with my Liverpool and United friends back home. It was an enjoyable end to our time in America and having crossed time zones we have now arrived in Fiji. 

San Francisco

I was still in a South American mindset arriving into San Francisco and adjusting to the suddenly foreign Western norms took longer than I thought it would. Having this slightly unsettled mind was frustrating as it was undeniable that San Francisco was a fantastic place to be in.

We spent exactly a week in and around the bay area. Alcatraz was fascinating, the Golden Gate bridge was just as striking as it had been made out to be and the orange bay skyline didn't disappoint. Following the basketball in Atlanta we were fortunate to experience two more American sports: baseball and arena football. Unsurprisingly both had an abundance of unnecessary razzmatazz which was a staple part of any American sports event. We first watched the San Francisco Giants lose to the Brewers and then later saw the San Jose Sabre Cats beat the Utah Blaze. The latter Arena Football game was particularly noteworthy as the start consisted of the standard over exuberant national anthem, a guy in leathers riding out into the middle of the pitch on a Harley Davidson and then finally the Sabre Kittens giving the obligatory pre-game cheer leading dance.

Joe had a predilection for root beer and was busy tasting every variety he could find. I had happily settled for the triple combination of mountain dew code red, A&W cream soda and cherry coke. On the food front we continued our assiduous devotion to all things American. Conquests this week include Taco Bell, Chipotles, A&W and Quiznos. As well as this we went to the specialist stand alone shops Ikes Place and Bi-Rite Creamery. They were voted 1 and 2 in California which was, from our limited experience, a fair assessment. In other words the sandwich was probably the best I had ever had.

My time here has already answered several questions. The main one being that while I like life in the states, I had heavily underestimated the UK. I'm looking forward to returning to it with a new appreciative set of eyes. Following our trip to San Jose we caught a bus to LA where we will spend the next 5 days.

El Salvador

Neither Joe or I had any expectations for El Salvador and what met us was a strangely rewarding place. Quirky in it's combination of outstanding natural beauty, it's Americanisation and the dramatic juxtaposition between rich and poor.

So heavy in it's American influence, the people of San Salvador haven't completely caught up with the new language  and culture. This being shown when despite the menu of Wendy's being fully in English, a request for a double baconater and fries only drew vacant stares. This wasn't a problem for us as it gave us a final  few days to practice the Espanol before returning to confusing native English speaking people with our obscure and stretched vocabulary.

Another observation from our time in El Salvador was how much we had progressed since the start of our trip. From sheepishly catching taxis in Lima we were now mixing it with the locals on the crazy and unpredictable El Salvadorian public buses. This also pushed our Spanish to the max and while my grammar still prompts laughter from my more learned friends, my conversational level still exists and along with some expert hand gestures and I can mostly transfer my message across to the wary locals.

While we didn't get as much done as I would have liked, we were still able to get a taste for El Salvador. Our best day was when we descended San Salvador's ever looming volcano. Most people when they go to the Boqueron park simply go to the viewing point, take a few photos and then leave. But the fact there was a 'path' that went to the centre was enough to persuade us to try it. Strangely, all the warnings given by local people as we headed down the track turned out to be fully justified as we attempted to clamber down the fairly perilous route. Being the only people doing the walk that day, we were able to make our mark on the crater which was tiring but fun.


On the way back to the hostel we had a chance encounter with only the second group of Westerners we had met. A group of 7 American girls got onto our bus and after a bit of conversation we were invited to theirs for tea. They along with 4 guys were doing some mission work in the city and we had an fun evening discussing the fallibility of American accents as well as proving my worthlessness at FIFA. Losing 3-0 as England to an American as the USA was one of the low points of the trip so far. They also introduced us to the delightfully named Pupusa which is an El Salvadorian food favourite. Worth a try, but it's no kebab.


After a quick visit to the art museum our time in El Salvador was up and we headed to San Francisco with high expectations due to the gushing remarks of many Americans at PSF. El Salvador was definitely worth a visit and if I was ever passing through again I would stay for another few days.

Thoughts from Pisco


I've never been good at ending things. Saying goodbye is a weak point for me and usually it is only the start of a process where you have time away and adjust to whatever meets you on the other side. Knowing what's ahead of you can make things easier but my experiences at PSF were too big to be forgotten easily.

My friends from Richmond have just ended their ski season and will be shortly starting their work in Samos again. They are never far away from my thoughts and thinking about that reminds me that some things will persist to be as raw and vivid now as they were then. While this can sometimes be painful it is useful in that it can continue to positively influence you long after the initial event occurred.

Sitting in a quiet hostel in San Salvador makes the colour, noise and buzz at Pisco ever more apparent. I leave it more humbled and grateful but also more inspired and optimistic. I've been fortunate to meet some fantastic people and I look forward to seeing them again.

Pisco Sin Fronteras, Week Four


I’m going to write about my last few days at PSF now and then talk more widely about the 4 weeks in a few days. This week has been an enlightening experience due to a lack of power and water; I won’t detail the often severe consequences which that can entail! The absorbing PSF atmosphere and constant busyness hasn’t really given me a chance to think about the fact I am actually leaving this place tomorrow, it doesn’t seem real and I don’t feel ready for change.
One of the daily features at PSF is the ‘Rock Off’ after every meal. Instead of simply washing your own dishes, gambling to escape doing your own at the expense of having to do all of your fellow competitors is one of the key aspects of PSF life. It can be intensely competitive and anyone who plays can safely assure you it is mainly a matter of skill and not luck. Now a seasoned player of 4 weeks I like to consider myself as a professional in the sport and I quietly boast a glorious win/loss ratio. Standing on a table playing Rock, Paper, Scissors with over 40 people wildly cheering will be one of the obscure but most enduring memories from PSF.
This week has been typically active and, after 4 weeks, there is still so much to learn and to give back. Highlights from the past 7 days include starting a modular home project, building a bridge for the playground and cooking some impressive BBQ chicken and chocolate brownies for all 50 volunteers. Friday was also my last day at Ludoteca, which is the children’s centre I have been involved in over the past month.
It’s going to be hard to adjust from what is considered perfectly normal here to the norms of life back home. Yes, chicken and rice for lunch has slightly lost its impact but Pisco hasn’t. I haven’t even had enough time to digest and properly understand it. Maybe it was too ambitious to think that this was possible and I guess its true meaning will come in hindsight.
Five years after the earthquake, there is still so much good work going on here. New projects are always starting whether this is biodegradable toilets, modular homes or community centres. Making the blurred transition from disaster relief to community development, I assume will always be relatively difficult. So far, so good. I’d be interested to see how things have changed in another five years.

Pisco Sin Fronteras, Week Three


Over the last week our 50th day on the road passed by, it’s gone so quickly and already I’m looking ahead to volunteering at the Olympics and beyond to Uni at Edinburgh. For now though, there is plenty in Pisco to keep me occupied.
Since coming here I have been involved in over 10 different projects, taught English at 3 different schools and have gone from being a disgrace to the DIY world to reaching a solid mediocre level. One of the biggest achievements involved inspiration from home as Ed, Joe and I cooked a 3 course evening meal for 40 people. As 5 days have gone by and there have been no reports of Typhoid, I can safely say it was a great success. If any of you are interested we made a classic sausage and bacon casserole. We are doing it again on Thursday so any suggestions would be appreciated!
Outside the kitchen there has been a range of interesting projects taking place. New ventures are happening all the time so there is a great opportunity to get acquainted with several. The earthbag project is the construction of a community centre made out of sustainable and earthquake resistant dirt bags. The dirt is mixed with concrete and water and it is designed to move with the earthquake if such an event occurs. Its hard work and it is where Joe has spent the majority of his time.
FMB is the generic nickname given to most wood work projects. Ed and I have been building some stations for the exercise part of the park including chin up bars, tricep dips and sit up benches. It’s a shame they have only just been put in place for my last week but at least Ed should be able to get some deserved practice after his shocking personal best of 2 chin ups today.
The final project I will talk about is the Aceros wood collection. PSF gets the majority of its wood for free from the massive steel factory about an hours drive away. You get to experience Peru’s public transport at its worst (best?) as we catch a ‘colectivo’ to get there. A colectivo is basically the same size as a small people carrier in the UK with up to 35 people crammed on to it. Breathing is a luxury in such vehicles but for 38p for a 50 minute ride I guess you can’t complain. You then load a truck with various bits of wood, tyres and whatever else you can find before climbing up on the back and enjoying a precarious ride home on top of your recently collected haul.
I hope that through reading between the lines you can tell that all of these have been great fun and hugely rewarding. I would highly recommend this place if you ever find yourself in South America. One more week to go and it’s going to be sad to leave this place!

Pisco Sin Fronteras, Week Two


The variety that exists here allows 40 people - who are all distinctive and unique - to be fulfilled and happy with the life, work and surroundings. But it is much than simple diversity that creates this satisfaction. 
The PSF bubble allows an engaged eclectic group of people to come together under a unified purpose. It is something they believe in and this belief is enforced by similar thinking from all their peers and by the hard work done in the day which gives a greater feeling of achievement. I’m not saying this isn’t good and without doubt this bubble and sense of purposeful accomplishment sustains the people here with motivation and passion; but ultimately it would be wrong to say this, or anything like this, is any more meaningful or significant than life at home. We like to glorify things and put things on pedestals. This can lead to a general perception that a life here or in similar circumstances is a more noble pursuit than a life at home in our western culture. This in turn can give people who live such lives an unjust sense of superiority. That they have somehow beat the system and triumphed over the people ‘back home’. The truth is, everybody is human and equally fallible to succumb to anger, jealousy, arrogance. Which is what we should measure things by, if we are going to measure at all. While actions and ‘end product’ are more visible tools to measure output; ultimately it should be the slightly surreptitious measure of attitude and heart that should define us. 
I don’t think the work here in itself makes you any more purposeful, directed or significant. It doesn’t give you some kind of immunity to the many corruptions in this world. But what is refreshing is the fact that through life here people are given a different perspective and from this their attitudes change. I don’t think anyone could come here and not be shaped to some degree. There is something about PSF which brings out humanity in people. There are less worldly distractions and influences. Is it easier to be good when faced with adversity? Especially with such a positive atmosphere?
There are things to be learned here that here that are easily forgotten at home. I can happily say that it’s been a privilege to be able to come here and it’s a shame that I can’t be here longer. So two weeks down and two to go. Next time I will actually say what I’ve been up to!

Pisco Sin Fronteras, Week One


Having been here for just one week, I think it’s a shame that many people have and never will do something like this. I’m not talking about it in the polarised selfish way that volunteering often gets tainted with. I’m not talking about paying thousands to be placed in a relatively comfortable environment just so you can say ‘you’ve done your bit’.
What I am talking about is being engulfed in a environment where you can’t help but be humbled every time you step outside. A place where humility is the norm and a place where you have the unquestioned knowledge that people have more enjoyment in helping others than themselves. Just reflecting on this and the past 7 days here, it’s frustrating and painfully clear how weak and fallible I am in this regard. I want to be better. Pride is killer and I hate it.
I spent each of the first 5 days here doing something different and learning about all the various projects and work the organisation does. This meant I did mixture of community work (such as teaching in local schools) and construction work. I think I will continue to do both but stick to only a few projects.
My favourite project is probably the building of a park in the district of Vista Alegre. It will take a few months to fully complete but we already have a modular building to work as a community centre and the requisite swings and sea saw to form the start of the park. Ed and I went down to the park after finishing our construction project for the day and it was amazing to see close to 30 kids playing on the 4 swings and 2 see saws. They were probably between the ages of 3 and 10 and they were each fully equipped with a big smile and plenty of laughter. Before they had what we would call a small shed to be their house and a big dusty space to occupy themselves. And now for barely any cost they have a park to come and play in with their friends and also an area for them to come together as a community. Happiness doesn’t come in different qualities. It is the same in every country.