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Some of your tales of epic adventure!
While working in Ecuador, I bumped into a friend who asked me if I had any experience with horses. A day later, wearing borrowed boots, we set off to deliver a horse from a farm high in the Andes to another farm in the rainforest. The terrain was unmapped, the route trackless. The horse, we were told, was called Mimo.
We hoped to set off immediately but Mimo’s previous owner decided to extract one more day of work from his old horse. Eventually we set off at 3.00am stumbling blindly along a ridge under a crescent moon. We walked, dawn to dusk, dragging the reluctant old horse over mountain passes and down through sugarcane plantations. We bribed Mimo
with panela, the unrefined brown sugar bricks made in the tiny villages we passed through. At the highest pass was a village of cowboys. All night we heard the sound of horses galloping up and down the single street. We stayed in a huge dark house lit by flickering oil lamps and a kitchen full of children and scurrying guinea pigs.
Searching for a way down a trackless ridge into the rainforest, a man on a donkey took us down a near vertical chute of rock and dust. The gully was so narrow we lost Mimo’s load twice and at the bottom our momentum carried us sailing over the edge of a muddy bank. Staggering out of that, a rutted mule trail took us through miles of dense jungle and over suspension bridges high above green rivers.
Finally, we arrived at our destination, at which point
the soles fell off my borrowed boots and Mimo decided to make a bid for freedom. After searching the trail for six hours we finally found him hiding in the forest close to where we’d left him. A fitting end to our journey and as Mimo was led off to his new home we boarded a ranchero to Quito. What did I learn? Never underestimate an old horse, always wear your own boots and always say yes to any adventure that comes your way.
During my five-week stay in the village of Narosura in Kenya a statement was drawn to my attention on many occasions - “Education is the single most powerful weapon against poverty.” While helping to build a classroom for a small school in Kanunka (a neighbouring village) we were given the opportunity to interact with the school children; both teaching them and dancing and singing with them during their breaks. The children have so little in terms of material goods compared to us in the U.K. but in my opinion have so much more. They are happier and value what they have; people and education in particular. They are able to live the simple life that I often wish I had.
At the end of break one day I noticed Setian, one of the young girls from the ‘baby class’ standing still, not joining her classmates in the usual dash back to their desks. She was very upset and I realised that in the excitement of playing during break she had dropped her pencil. Despite its ridiculously small size I managed to find it in amongst the dirt on the ground. The look on Setian’s face when I returned it to her is something I will never forget. She smiled up at me in thanks before running back to her class. As each child treasures their own tatty pencil and the teacher has no spares returning without hers would have meant she would have been unable to participate fully in the next lesson. This little incident reminded me of all the times throughout my school years when a pencil was purposely snapped in half; or the tip was broken so class time could be wasted sharpening it at the bin; or simply just thrown out because it was ‘too small’ to be used comfortably. I love that something so important can be taken from such a simple event: we should not waste a moment of the education that we are so blessed to have.
The time I spent building for, and working with, the children in Kenya has been the best use of my time so far. They appreciated us sharing our knowledge, teaching them our songs and dances and attempting to learn theirs more than I could have imagined. Knowing that I have provided even just a few children with a small part of the education that they treasure means so much to me. I touched their lives and in turn they touched mine.
My first big bid for freedom, my first trip away from home, was to Australia. I was nervous, not least about the wildlife. A spider in the bath at home had me screaming for help, and as for wasps...! However it all went swimmingly. The rainforest was amazing. The spiders and geckos in the sleeping cabins did pose a challenge, which I met head on by wrapping my head in the sheet and pretending they weren't there. I held snakes, baby crocodiles and a bearded dragon, learned to kill millipedes by squashing them in a tissue rather than standing on them (they stink), and I was starting to believe I wasn't a complete wuss. Until Ayres Rock. From a distance and close up, the history and cave paintings, the whole experience was something else. Sleeping under the stars though was a nightmare. The stars were beautiful but after the recent rain the mouse population had exploded. As soon as the light faded they were everywhere; all over the camp, around the fire, in the sleeping bags, in the swags. Some people actually slept! I didn't. I lay rigid in the dark, except when I felt the scraping of feet and thrashed about to shake them off! I couldn't wait to get on the bus in the morning but they were still with us, under the seats and in our bags.
That was the point at which I recognised my limitations. I had some amazing experiences; climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge was a highlight and so was Melbourne- sitting in the botanics reading a book, and seeing Life of Pi at the outdoor cinema lounging on bean bags with a picnic. Byron Bay had the most relaxing atmosphere ever, and I'm not going to lie, meeting Karl Kennedy at the Neighbours tour was up there too. I've now been to Australia 3 times and I can cope with more than I thought, but life is too short to stress about bugs and rodents and after Ayres Rock all my sleeping has been done indoors.
Back in 1992, aged 17, I was obsessed with American culture. To the extent that I went on a high school exchange to California. It was an experience of countless stories, but one sticks out. I had a short spell staying with relatives in Orange County during which my late great Uncle Sid decided we were going to Mexico for the day. The freeway was full of those signs warning of people running across the lanes, and despite the gigantic wire fences, I did see people attempting it. Leaving the USA, nobody cared.
Arriving in Tijuana though, was another world entirely. Cars drove wrecklessly across lanes, people stopped you in the middle of the road to wash your windows and sell you stuff, people with ghetto-blasters on corners gesturing at you. Compared to Californian cities this place was diverse, immensely lively but impoverished. I admit I felt a little ill at ease. I’d heard stories about dodgy cops and bribery working sometimes, sometimes resulting in jail and somehow the threat loomed. It was a relief then when my uncle said, ‘You seen enough?’ We turned back. Only this time re-entering America wasn’t so easy. Now I’d already told my Uncle I’d left my passport behind, but he was confident I wouldn’t need it. ‘You boy’, the machine gun-wielding US Border cop commanded. ‘Let’s see some ID.’ Sid chipped in, ‘He’s my kin, he’s with me.’ ‘I don’t care. I want some ID.’ All I had was a fake NUS card – bad idea to bring that out. I tried to explain that I was a Scot on a high school exchange in California. ‘So which school you at?’ ‘Eh, San Marin in Novato’ I stammered nervously. With some delight he proclaimed ‘Nevada? Boy, that’s the wrong state. Oh dear oh dear, you best pull up over to interrogation. I’ll get me the super.’ All I could think was how to get out of this – surely it was the Mexican police you had to watch for. My heart was going like the clappers.
After what felt like hours, the cop came up to Sid’s side and saluted him. ‘You never said you were in the marines, sir. What action did you see?’ The two of them hit it off. This was surreal. He then gave a respectful salute again and we were back on the freeway heading home. I knew Uncle Sid was a military man – I didn’t know he had a US Marines bumper sticker beneath his brake light! What a fantastic journey home it was.