Time Bargains: Making Time To Get Fit

There is an easy way to get regular exercise; and it can be done in no time at all!

15 minutes (But you’ll get hours back when you’ve read it)

Most of us want to get fitter. We start to put on weight, find ourselves breathless climbing the stairs or running for the bus (or don’t try either any more). We remember how much better we felt when we did regular exercise. It’s an odd thing: most of us know that exercise would make us healthier, that it helps keep our minds active, that it improves our mood and adds to our life expectancy, and yet we can’t find the time.

Most people who take out a gym membership just dont go.

In fact, lack of time is the most commonly quoted reason for not exercising regularly, in a list that includes (ironically) not being fit enough, the cost of a gym membership, a dislike of gyms, family commitments (time again), not enjoying running and not liking to go out in inclement weather. Wouldn’t it be good if we could get our daily exercise, starting right now, without buying any new kit or even using up any of our valuable time?

Fortunately, there is one activity that will let us exercise regularly and avoids most of our pet hates. It doesn’t involve any of the costs, commitment to others and required levels of fitness to start, and it can make an enormous difference to our physical health, well-being and mental health (mood, stress levels and sense of well-being). This magic elixir is simply fitting in a short walk as part of your day. And, best of all, you can fit in regular walks without using up your precious time- a technique I call “time bargains”. Time bargains allows you to get your recommended 30 minutes exercise a day without spending 30 minutes doing it! This astonishing feat is achieved by building a walk into your everyday activities.

In 2005, I was hired as Head of Promoting Walking, for Britain’s walking charity the Ramblers. Two million people in the UK go on a country walk at least once a month, and the Ramblers work to keep the countryside open and welcoming to walkers. But 36 million people in the UK don’t do the Department of Health recommended minimum of 30 minutes exercise a day, and until my team was formed, there was no organised programme at the Ramblers to encourage people to get their exercise with a daily walk. I started a program called Get Walking, Keep Walking which got thousands of people walking independently for transport, recreation and health.

We found that most people don’t know that walking is the perfect exercise: it is easy to do, you can start from your doorstep, it’s free and it makes you fitter. In fact spending time walking adds to your life expectancy. But, many people just ‘don’t have the time’ to walk more. Well, I can help you find time to walk with the magic of Time Bargains.

How I discovered Time Bargains.

I had a meeting away from the office, and realised that it would be an enjoyable walk, and take about 50 minutes. I looked up the journey on a trip planner and found that it would take 47 minutes by bus, as there was no direct route. I couldn’t be late for the meeting so, given the unreliability of buses in traffic, I would have to allow an hour to be sure that I arrived on time. So, I set out on a brisk, sunny day and walked to my meeting in 52 minutes, including stopping to check my map, and back in 45 minutes as I now knew the route. I had several more meetings at the same place, and so each time I enjoyed 2 x 45 minute exercise sessions at no cost in time to either me or my employer! (In fact I saved time as I would have had to spend more time using public transport).

It occurred to me that there must be other journeys where this would be possible, and so I experimented with a number of enjoyable ways of including a walk into my regular journeys and Time Bargains were born!

It takes me about an hour to stroll through several parks to my favourite supermarket, Lidl, or about 40 minutes on two buses. So for 20 minutes extra I get an hours exercise, thus getting 40 minutes of free exercise! So this is how Time Bargains work; you get the exercise you want, and by fitting it into a journey you are making anyway, you get it in less time.

If you have a journey that takes say 45 minutes on a bus or train, you see if you can replace all or part of the journey by walking. You calculate how much longer it takes, and how much walking you get to do. You are not looking for the quickest way to get somewhere, you are looking for a built in opportunity to walk. For example if a journey takes half an hour longer by walking for an hour, you’ve got an hours exercise (the optimum daily dose) but only spent half an hour to get it. So, 30 minutes of your exercise cost you no time at all.

Anne takes a train each morning, and then a bus the last mile and a half to work. She waits an average of five minutes for the bus, which in London’s rush hour traffic takes about twenty minutes, then she walks five minutes to work. That’s 30 minutes for a mile and a half. One day after work Anne walked back to the station with a colleague, and found that it only took them thirty-five minutes. So, she discovered that for five minutes extra she could fit in thirty minutes more exercise than she was getting before. Anne soon found that as she continued walking back to the station in the evening, she cut the journey time down to 22 minutes. By giving herself 25 minutes, in case of a few lights against her, she could always catch the train she wanted, the 5.55, whereas when she took the bus, she often missed it by a minute or two. So, Anne gets a more pleasant, stress free, journey home, AND some brisk exercise, for less than no time at all! And, if that’s not a bargain I don’t know what is.

Another example is Vereena. She doesn’t have a way of using her journey to work to save time for walking, so she looked an alternative. She used to eat at her desk, and work through, and found that she often had a mid-afternoon slump around 3-4 pm. Now she goes for a brisk 30-40 minute lunchtime walk 3-4 days a week and on nice days stops and eats her sandwiches in a park. Sometimes, she invites a colleague, and they sort out a work problem as they walk. She finds that she usually can relax and get perspective on her work as she walks, usually not by thinking about it, but merely relaxing, and often she spends the last five minutes of the walk planning how to best spend the afternoon at work. She has found that her productivity has gone up, she less often needs to stay late to finish up her work, and her supervisor has commented on her cheerful and effective working habits.

This exercise is in her lunch hour, which she usually worked through. So, she gets fitter, and works better, at no cost to her schedule.

The principal is to look for ways of fitting at least 30 minutes of activity, usually walking, into your everyday activities. These examples involve building a walk into our daily commute, or other regular trip. It might take a bit of experimenting, but most of us have trips that can be modified to include a walk, and what’s better, can give us a useful period of exercise that costs fewer minutes than doing it as a stand-alone.

The great advantage of walking is that it can be fitted into almost every day. Especially, when you realise that 3 x 10 minutes is just as good as 30 minutes straight. I can often get in 5 or more minutes walking up and down the platform when waiting for a train (in otherwise wasted time), or check on the next bus due, and use any waiting time to walk one or two stops. Another advantage of walking is that on regular journeys, you can soon accurately predict the time the journey will take, and don’t need to build in extra time in case the bus is late, or you have difficulty finding parking etc.

Another way to get exercise without using any time is cycling. I can cycle to my friend Bob’s house in 20 minutes, but it takes 40 minutes on the bus. So I get 20 minutes exercise, and save 20 minutes too! I also climb escalators instead of standing, and usually take the stairs instead of the lift: both excellent exercise and neither costing any more time. Interestingly, an hours’ exercise adds more than an hour to your life expectancy. So time spent exercising is a very efficient use of time, both in the short term, and the long term.

When to walk

Any time is good! The advantage of a morning walk is that, if you have to postpone it, due to extreme weather, you still have plenty of time to get your thirty minutes in later in the day. Getting in exercise on the way to work is easy to plan, and it involves a consistent journey for most of us. There is also evidence that people who do exercise before work are wider awake and more productive. However, if you have a flexible approach to exercise, you may like to mix adding a walk to the morning commute with occasional lunch time walks and building a walk into the journey home or after work. The key is to exercise regularly and frequently; if possible, every day for a minimum of 30 minutes.

Dealing with the weather

You don’t want to get to work wet. However, you’ll find that it rains on your walk to work less often than you expect. But, if you commute at a fixed time, you will occasionally be faced with rain. Carrying a lightweight raincoat and/or an umbrella should keep you dry on all but the wettest and windiest days. Some people chose to carry a change of socks, or even walk in comfortable shoes and then change into their work shoes when they arrive.

When you realise how much better you feel from walking more you may add other enjoyable walks to your day, and appreciate life much more. As my physio told me at 70, when I said I wanted to get fit again after an accident: “You are never too old to get fitter!”

Most of us know we should do more exercise. But most people just can’t find the time. So, now you can exercise, get fit, and save time as well!


A few links to supportive evidence

Participants who walked 1 h or more per day have a longer life expectancy from 40 years of age than participants who walked less than 1 h per day.


Many other studies have found that walking helps lower blood pressure, keep weight down and improve mood. Substantial amounts of strolling have also been linked to slower memory decline and reduced risk of some cancers.


Walking your kids to school improves their life chances and academic success



Walking improves life expectancy, and reduces health costs (as you are less often sick as well!)

A shipwreck merchant’s tale

A tale of shipwreck in 300 words

5 minutes

“As you see sir, our wharehouse is filled with a ship’s necessities. Come join me in a tumbler of this most excellent rum, while your Bo’sun secures your needs.

“If I’d payed attention to my father’s words, I’d have left the village when those navy spies were spotted, and missed the press-gang that took off every sea-faring man to serve in the fleet up against Bonaparte. To keep together, we villagers volunteered for the Indies, thinking to get French prize money, and to return rich men. But one night a great storm with towering waves brought down the main, and drove us onto a lee shore. We were wrecked like Robinson Crusoe; but unlike that lonely soul, we were a half dozen survivors, all villagers, plus an officer. Though this officer made the grave mistake of believing his writ still held. He drowned quick enough when held down in a tide pool, begging your pardon, sir.

“The beach was littered with cases and timbers from the wreck. We salvaged all we could find use for, and perhaps to later sell. As practical fisher-folk we were quick with building shelter and at reaping the sea. We soon had time on our hands and fell to seeking out what might prove to be profitable when rescue came. We were a hive of industry, making copra mats with the abundant cocoa-nuts, smoking fish and making pemmican. When we finally spotted sail, and attracted rescue, we negotiated passage to the Guyana coast for ourselves and our goods. Here we set up trade, and this is the prosperous state you find us in sir, six English merchants in this heathen land.

“I see you like the rum, sir, it is but 6/- a tun.”

[I’ve not published for several weeks, and am restarting with a shorter piece.]

Climbing in the Rain

The Case for All-Weather Climbing

1735 words/15 minutes

“In the Golden Age of climbing, before the ascendency of the rock jock, no climber worth his salt would allow a little rain to deprive him of a days outing. A pint, or six, at the end of a day on the rock is to be encouraged. But it must be earned.” Totter -A Climbers Creed

For the past year I’ve managed to go climbing on almost every club trip I’ve attended, but often I’ve been a part of the only party to climb, on at least one of the days. Usually, after a less than promising start, the weather has turned out fine, with at most a light sprinkle of rain. Only once have I climbed in close to miserable conditions (with wind blown drizzle in Stanage) and then, with four other members, we had a great day climbing V Diffs in walking boots. And we had one of the greatest crags in Britain to ourselves. Once, British climbers would go out for the day in less than perfect conditions. Why do we now only climb on dry rock with no threat of rain?

Perhaps a look at old-school climbing style might throw some light on this question.

Dave Spart remembers one of his trips. “We hitch-hiked to North Wales in a milk cart, and after 15 pints at ‘Ye Olde Pigstye’ (the only pub that allowed climbers in the door) nine of us wild camped in a two person army surplus tent on Orendus Fawr. It rained all night, drenching us completely, so we were ready to get out of the tent in the morning for a go at Manky Crack. There were the nine of us on fifteen feet of rope we’d found in a cow barn…” [Thank you Dave, that’ll do for now.]

This highlights some of the reasons so much climbing was done in the “Golden Age.” Climbers were happy to leave an over-crowded, and often sodden, tent, they had no transport of their own and, badly hungover, the only free activity whilst waiting for the pub to reopen was to be found on the local crags.

By contrast, a modern climber drives in luxury to a full-facilities campsite, spends a comfortable (and generally sober) night in a waterproof expedition tent, actually sleeping in a dry sleeping bag on a comfy mattress. Next day, inclement weather suggests innumerable possibilities; with gear shopping, cappuccino, and the local climbing wall looming large. (And whilst not at all deriding the progress made in climbing comfort and convenience, too many options can make it hard to see the rock in front of your face).

Secondly, most people nowadays start climbing on a climbing wall and few spend as much time climbing outdoors as in. And climbing outdoors can be a shock after the comforts of an indoor wall. It is bad enough having to deal with route-finding on an outdoor climb, but even finding the start of the route can be an ordeal. And that is just the beginning of your problems. The bloody rock is always different and it’s half covered in vegetation. The routes often aren’t doable in a single rope length and you have to multi-pitch, faffing about setting up belays and transferring kit; there are no bolts so you have to place your own gear; there are tricky descents, night-fall approaches…. It all seems quite enough without having to deal with the WEATHER too. Going out in inclement weather simply does not compute for one brought up on the comforts of the Castle [east London’s premier climbing wall].

Thirdly, there is a tendency nowadays for the unsportsmanlike behaviour of “training”. Modern climbers attend gyms, and run or cycle regularly, as well as frequenting climbing walls. In the best British tradition, training took place in the pub.

Fourthly, there is a natural inclination to assess one’s improvement by the highest grade one can climb, and see a speedy progress through the grades as a solid mark of progress. But it is easy to get overly concerned with grades. When climbing in imperfect (wet, slippery, slimy…) conditions you will need to climb at an easier grade. If you are climbing at VS and dream of leading HVS, it may seem frustrating to climb a V Diff in the rain. But if climbing is about challenge and problem solving, you can find plenty of both on a wet V Diff. And, you will improve your climbing as you develop new techniques for the manky conditions. This will require you using your feet differently and sometimes managing to get up when you don’t trust your feet at all. If you want to improve on rock, you’ll do it faster on the rock (wet as well as dry) than on an indoor wall.

Benighted in a hailstorm with Fortesque on le Grande Fromage at Brie, Totter is credited with remarking that it reminded him of many enjoyable weekends climbing Tryfan in Welsh conditions. But it is not all pain and suffering. Here are just a few recent examples of great days in the dank and troublesome outdoors.

Last year Richard, Ken and I went to look at Wheelbarrow [a crag in the Lake District- an original home of UK climbing] after a night of rain. When we arrived at the crag, the rock was wet and the weather doubtful. We decided to wait and see, and sat chatting under the crag for an hour before Ken said, “I think its dry enough to climb.” We then had a fine outing on a pleasant climb, made doubly enjoyable by knowing we had squeezed in a days climbing by the skin of our teeth.

[The Lake District is 6 hours drive from London, and the club visits this part just once a year]

On the way to Scotland for the Easter meet, we stopped off in the Lakes. Richard, Jon and I climbed again at Wheelbarrow, on a cold day, on freezing rock. We climbed in hiking boots, Richard doing the early crux pitches. I led through and sat on the top of the crag, belaying the others up, with fine views up the valley. I watched a snow flurry develop with exquisitely swirling flakes which were spaced widely enough that I could see through them. Marvellously, as I belayed, the wind whipped and whirled whorls of snow up the face- allowing me to actually see the wind!

Most recently, on the Cornwall trip, Richard and I were rained on under Bosigran and decided to return later (encouraged by having, between us, left a complete rain kit at camp). But we couldn’t quite leave and sat on the grass half way to the car park until we noticed a patch of blue sky. There followed a fine, rainless, if windy, day on that superb crag.

So, I advocate a return to the traditional climbing style of yesteryear. Climb, whether threat of rain or shine. Not because that was how I used to do it, as I too have been a fair weather climber until my recent conversion. When living in Vancouver, to avoid a wasted drive on doubtful weather days, I used to phone the McDonald’s in Squamish, which usefully overlooked Canada’s finest crags. Deceitfully claiming to be a regular customer, I would ask whether it was raining, and if they could see anyone climbing. If it was raining we went another day. On trips to Joshua Tree, California’s off-season crag of choice, on wet or windy days we would head to town for Margarita’s, a Mexican meal, and the hot-springs.

Since returning to England, with the crags so much further than the hour long drive I was used to in Vancouver, or the 5 minute walk in Joshua Tree, and committed to a weekend away, I have been disappointed by the number of trips when I didn’t even climb once all weekend. Several other members share my fixation on climbing, rather than joining the ardent walkers, and there is now a small group within the club -the all weather climbers.

Often we’ve been the only club party to climb on a day rain threatened or was predicted. and most of those days have turned out rain-free.

Some more reasons to climb on marginal days:

-You get to climb on the classics without the crowds

-You will be learning techniques essential in mountaineering, where changeable weather and wet rock occur in all seasons

-It is perhaps best not to have your first experience climbing wet rock when caught out by rain half way up your first HVS [5.10]

-If climbing is about problem solving your way up a bit of rock. You can certainly have a challenging time climbing a damp V Diff in walking boots

-It’ll improve your scrambling

-You’ll enjoy climbing on a sunny day even more!

-You’ll find out more about the many different types of rock by climbing them under a variety of conditions

-You’ll develop new techniques to deal with times/rock types where friction is poor

-There is a great deal of satisfaction in squeezing in a great days climbing between two rainy nights in the tent

-A classic V Diff with swirling cloud and the occasional blustery shower takes on the air of the North Face of the Eiger!

-By not just climbing on sunny days you get to climb a great deal more often and may be surprised at how many days it looks as if it will rain but doesn’t (or doesn’t much!)

Surely, if the intrepid walkers can set off in all weathers, towards wind-blown summits, we climbers can risk a damp day on the crag. Oh, and I’d appreciate it if you’d drop into the pub after lunch and tell me how it went.

Put More Coal On, Boys!

Adventures in a 24/7 Casino Kitchen

2475/15 minutes

Harvey’s Resort Hotel in winter

In July 1968, soon after my 21st birthday, I cruised into Lake Tahoe, Nevada, riding in a Porsche coupé with Chet, a Midwesterner on his first trip to California. He’d picked me up hitch-hiking on the freeway in Chicago and had been miraculously travelling to the only town where I had a contact- Art an American I’d met in London. On the way across the US, Chet had stopped at rest areas and slept in his car and I’d thrown my sleeping bag down next to it. I’d spent three days with Chet and he insisted that I join him in the casino when we breezed into town late in the evening. He got a motel, which came with two double beds at no extra cost. We both had a much needed shower, and set out for a night on the town. I was almost flat broke, and didn’t need to gamble to become penniless, but when I told Chet I was not interested in gambling, he wouldn’t have it. “Here’s $20,” he said, “You’re in Nevada, you’ve got to gamble!” I tried to get rid of the money as quickly as possible so that I could relax and enjoy the free cocktails.

I spent a couple of days camping with Art and his pals in the hills across the state line in California, and found a job at the Burger Pit, a quality hamburger joint. After several late nights waiting for Art to finish his shift at the bar to get a ride back to the camp, I realised I needed to stay in town. Luckily Ted, a co-worker, had a rented room not far from the Burger Pit, and agreed to share. I offered to pay half the rent if he’d let me sleep on the floor of his tiny room. He thought that it shouldn’t cost half the rent to sleep on the floor, but I insisted. After a day or so on the floor, Ted got a job on the night shift, and said I could use the bed. Even better, as I’d stocked the fridge with beer, he let me use his high-end hi-fi to play his excellent collection of rock records.

At the Burger Pit I worked the afternoon shift from 2.30 to 10.30 pm, as a busboy, and my job was to clear the tables between customers, keep the condiment bottles and serviette dispensers filled, and also to clean the floor, and the toilets. And when the restaurant closed, to clean the BBQ pit and scrub the giant aluminium cover to the pit and take out the trash. American employers certainly know how to keep you busy. The Burger Pit made excellent burgers, braised on coals, entirely unlike the horrors of the English Wimpy burger, which was boiled in grease, and I really enjoyed my free burgers each day.

For some reason, it doesn’t work that way

I wanted to make money as quickly as I could, to fund my summer in California, so I got another job on the early shift at Harvey’s Resort Hotel, the biggest casino in Tahoe. Harvey’s restaurants served food 24/7 so the gamblers had no need to leave. I worked from 6am-2pm, and then jogged the mile and a half to the Burger Pit for my 2.30 start. This, rather stupidly, stopped me from taking the free meal I was owed at the hotel, or the other free meal at the Burger Pit, so I had to to buy my lunch (often a mediocre burger I ate on the run), and miss out on two free meals.

I spent a week or two working an eight hour shift, seven days a week, at each of two different restaurants, until Harvey’s moved to two 12 hour shifts. My job at Harvey’s was on their vast, twelve-man, dish-washing machine. This mega-cleaner was a great triangle, with a conveyor making an 80 foot circuit. There was a 20 foot loading area, where I worked. Two of the team wheeled in trolleys from the restaurants and four of us unloaded the trolleys and stacked the machine; the dishes disappearing into the maws of the monster, before turning the first corner. After exiting 40 feet later, there was a 20 foot unloading area, with four more staff taking the dish trays off and delivering them to stacks for the restaurant staff to take away. This allowed two staff to take a rolling break and the machine never needed to stop.

At the loading bay, dishes arrived in plastic basins, stacked on trolleys. Our job was to slide the remaining food off the plates into oversized bins, and dump the soup, cola and coffee, then stack the dishes, cutlery, cups and glasses in trays and lift them onto the conveyor belt running into the machine. Most dishes had plenty of uneaten food and many meals were almost untouched. We got the dirty dishes, from three eateries; a cafe, a family restaurant and a top end restaurant, which were all open 24/7. I had a hard time throwing away these tons of food, and in spite of getting my three free meals a day when I was working the eight hour shift and four meals a day when working twelve, I ate a lot of the food off the plates I cleaned. This spoiled my meal breaks, as by then I wasn’t hungry, but I found it difficult to resist browsing.

My co-workers on the gargantuan machine were all men, mostly students doing a summer job, and turnover was high. Many of them gambled when off shift, and if they had a big win, we’d hear of it from a co-worker, or they would drop by after quitting to flaunt their success. There was not much of a work ethic, and a lot of joshing and disruptive activity. Now and again, someone would purposefully put a tray onto the conveyor so that it got caught in the machine and caused an alarm. The machine then ground to a halt until its innards could be accessed and the blockage sorted out, which gave us a few minutes break. Due to the near continuous messing about, a lookout was kept and when our manager, a silver haired gentleman of advanced years, (the ‘old fella’) came by, all hands would be working at top speed.

The old fella, would pass by frequently and encourage us with homilies from a previous age: “Keep those wagons rolling boys!” he exhorted, perhaps remembering his journey on the wagon train when he’d first arrived in Nevada as a boy. But he wasn’t entirely unaware that times had changed since 1868 and appeared to also remember the age of the iron horse, with a request we “Put more coal on, boys!”

The old fella’s exhortations were met by seeming compliance in his presence, but derision in his absence.

I did not participate in the general messing about, and instead went into a semi-trance. I’d been working 16 hour shifts for two weeks, and zoned out; keeping a steady pace, with the occasional brief pause to take a bite of an untouched pork chop, or a spoonful from a neglected sundae. So, when the alarm was called, I maintained my steady speed, and stood out as being slower than the amazingly fast work being done around me.

My semi-automatic work method didn’t impress the old fella, and he warned me that if I didn’t speed up I’d be demoted to pots, the lowest job in the kitchen. “Keep those wagons rolling boys!” he exhorted as he left.

In spite of our rigorous workload, I found time to get to know the waitresses during my breaks, and chatted to the prettiest and got a date. This caused a stir among my co-workers and a lot of expectation. We’d moved to 12 hour shifts, so I now had time off and Claire took me to a drive-in (my first ever) in her little red MG, and I foolishly brought along a gallon of red wine. Claire declined the wine, as she wasn’t impressed by my $1.49 a gallon Red Mountain, and I was wary of joining her for a toke as I knew it made me paranoid and tongue tied. The film she’d chosen was the newly released The Valley of the Dolls, and I sat in the confines of her tiny car, a gear shift between the bucket seats, watching catty Valley Girls and feeling confused by this new cultural experience. This led me to perhaps consume more wine than I should have, rather more than half of the gallon jug. Unsurprisingly, this did not lead to a second date, and it was embarrassing the next day facing my fellow dish slaves.

Nor did my hangover help my working speed, and our wagon-master took me off the dish washer and took me across the kitchen and deposited me with the day-shift pot scourer. My new boss, Al now head pot-scourer, quickly showed me the basics of the job, including scraping off any residue and the wonders of pre-soaking. With two of us working hard, we had quite a lot of free time and so I showed Al the matchstick game, and we spent time each day competing to make the other take the last match. After a few days, Al went off to a wedding, and I was left to run the pots alone. He was due back in 48 hours, so I didn’t get a helper. By improving my efficiency, and without any distractions, I could just barely keep up. I had several exhausting days, but soon I could again take short pauses, and look over the vast kitchens. The cooks were under constant high-pressure and stress and I watched as this led to some severe arguments between the cooks, including a threat with a knife, and a sacking mid shift. As I was pot cleaner for all three restaurants, there was a lot of competition for my time. I responded immediately to any request for a rush job, and was soon popular with the cooks. I was rewarded with gifts of a lobster leg, a piece of fillet steak or other delicious goodie, and even the occasional glass of brandy. Without quite realising it, I went from lowest person in the kitchen to well respected worker, kept sweet by all the cooks. This went on for a week, as Al didn’t return, with me working near constantly, developing more and better ways of getting the work done, and making time to overlook the kitchen from my raised dais.

Kitchen hustle

When we moved to 12 hour shifts, I took the day-shift from 8-8, and each morning there was a stack of pots from the early breakfast rush. Even though there were two on the night shift (which was much quieter than the day-shift), they left me a backlog, so that my first hour was spent getting rid of their left-over pots as well as the breakfast rush. It was a curious feeling to know that I was part of a continuous 24 hour kitchen, that never stopped. As we were working seven days a week, whenever I wasn’t working, the other shift was. And it would be my turn again soon.

After my 12 hour shift, I occasionally dropped acid with one of the chefs, and we wandered around the casinos, enjoying the free drinks. The casino became phantasmagorical with pulsating lights and garish melting one arm bandits, and the greed and sadness of the punters was even more glaring when seeing their haunted faces on acid.

It looks even more garish on acid

On one night out with Art, we met up with a school mate of his, Dr [Name withheld] a recent PhD maths graduate who had mastered counting cards on the 21 tables. After six months of application, he could now count not only the tens but also the nines, eights and sevens. This allowed him to regularly beat the house. Winning as he did, he had to be very careful not to get noticed. He made a point of changing tables frequently, and changing casino every couple of hours. He lived in LA and spent his weekends in Vegas, Reno and occasionally Tahoe. He had made over a hundred thousand dollars in several months, and was six thousand up already on his weekend in Tahoe.

After I’d spent a week of solo pot-wrangling, I was joined by another failure, demoted from the gargantuan dishwashing machine. Charlie was a happy go lucky young chap, and ready to learn from a master pot scourer. After a short training period, I could rely on Charlie handling the workload and was able to spend some time enjoying my new position as head pot scourer. The old fella would pass by several times a day, and when I had sufficiently trained my assistant, I would stand back when I saw him approaching and share his wisdom with Charlie: “Keep those wagons rolling, boy,” I’d intone, “Put more coal on, Charlie.” The old fella didn’t quite know how to deal with this homilising of his words, and hurried away. We saw less of him after this.

It strikes me as curious that I accepted the situation for so long; going from deputy pot scrubber, the second of two; to head pot scrubber, the first of one; doing two peoples jobs for no extra pay. But, I was too busy learning how to stay ahead of the mountain of pots to complain. Anyway, I was young and fit and up to the challenge, and I was just planning to work for a month or so and couldn’t afford to risk losing a few days pay between jobs. Better still, after a week I was head pot scourer and gaining invaluable management experience exhorting my own team. In fact, my pot cleaning technique was a key stepping stone in my career development, and even got a mention on the application for my first professional job as a youth worker.

Explaining my environmental credentials in 1978, I claimed that “I recycled and bicycled,” and on the issue of helping create a positive experience for people living communally, I shared my discovery that most problems in communal living centre on the kitchen. “Having worked 16 hour shifts on a twelve man dish-washing machine and single handedly cleaned the pots and pans in a resort hotel with three restaurants, I am confident I have the necessary experience to help resolve any issues in a kitchen shared by just twelve people.”

And, it goes without saying, my back-ground managing my own team on the pot dais developed leadership skills which have lasted a lifetime.

Emei Shan

Climbing China’s sacred mountain and Buddha’s fire

15 minutes

A mountain view

I was visiting Taiwan in the spring of 1983, when I first heard rumours that China was open to travellers, but nobody had met anyone who had actually been there. When I got to Hong Kong, I asked around at the hostel, and was shown the bunk bed of a woman who had just come back from China. I waited impatiently for the chance to meet her, and when I finally did, Jackie was a down to earth and well informed traveller from Manchester. Over the next several days, she lent me a book on the way the Chinese government fooled foreign sympathisers, went with me to see a newly released film from China, (the marvellous True Story of Ah Q) and gave me the low-down on getting a visa. Whilst the Chinese embassies around the world were only giving visas to people on organised holidays, in Hong Kong you could get one from a single travel agency within 48 hours, and for $50. This kept the low budget visitors to a minimum, and allowed the Chinese government to learn to deal with the low-bagger crowd. For me, it was an opportunity too good to miss.

When I got to China, I found travelling was difficult, as the Chinese were more or less forbidden to talk to foreigners. Students would often come up to me on the street, and we would have a short conversation. But they would refuse to join me for a meal. When I did persuade someone to come with me for a beer, they were interrogated by a Party snooper, and reported to their work unit. A big part of the pleasure of travelling is meeting local people, and this was almost entirely blocked.

Also in 1983, foreigners were only allowed to visit a limited number of places, and were restricted to a short list of cities and a few tourist sites. Fortunately, the system was so new that it was possible to get off their beaten track and explore. I was particularly interested in getting out of the city and visiting the mountains, and decided to hike the pilgrim route to the summit of Emei Shan, a 3,099-meter-tall (10,167ft) mountain in Sichuan province, and the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China.

I was looking forward to clean air, exercise and mountain views, but in the hotel room I shared with five other travellers in the small town near the bottom of the climb the news seemed bad. Two travellers who had hiked part way up the day before, and spent a night in a temple, were adamant: it was a muddy misery, following thousands of endless steps, the food was uneatable and the hostelry unclean. I had the temerity, not having yet been, to question their opinion. This didn’t go down well as it broke the expected solidarity of the traveller; to share the common suffering, constant complaint and pride in our endurance. Of my five room mates, three were sick, so I went out and bought food and medicines for the unwell. I also got a split bamboo basket/backpack, and a broad rimmed grass hat at the market. They were simple, traditional artefacts of the poor, and the vendors had tried to explain that they were not appropriate. But I liked their hand-made simplicity, and ridiculously cheap price. After tending to the infirm, I packed a change of clothes, a notebook, my mosquito net, and some warm clothing for the top, leaving my backpack in the hotel storage. I took a short bus ride to the first temple in the foothills, where for a small fee I got a permit to climb the mountain.

[Add image of permit]

After visiting the temple, it was already early afternoon when I set off on the walk through the foothills to begin my ascent. The next temple was over a covered bridge, and up steps through an arched gateway with a beggar at the entrance, the first I’d seen in China. It was a splendid temple complex with twenty larger-than-life Buddhas and their demon protectors, all brightly painted in primary colours. Continuing up the narrow traffic-free road, I saw two men coming off a track. I followed it up, through fields planted with potatoes, corn and beans, past large, well-built wooden farm houses, with vistas of the plain below, disappearing into the haze. On the way I stopped off at another wayside temple which had primitive but fascinating terra-cotta sculptures, great Buddhas, and a tall bronze roofed pagoda.

Between temples, a mountain stream filled a sun-dappled pool of clear water crossed by a stone arched bridge. Across the stream, terraced fields climbed to deeply ravined rainforest covered hills, the summit of Emei Shan hidden in the clouds. A pleasant afternoon stroll past numerous tea stalls led me to the temple hostel at Chinko, where I spent the first night. There was a large colour television in the otherwise undecorated dining room, and the loud rat-a-tats and explosions of a Chinese war film blasted through the silence as I ate.

Day 2

The next morning I walked up a narrow, steep sided valley alongside a tumbling brook. The trail climbed and fell, mostly stepped with large half finished stones. Many of the walkers were coming towards me, returning from Juladung or the summit Jinding. Occasionally, small temples provided noisy stopping places, but there were many more tea stalls which appeared in ones and twos around almost every corner. People of all ages were making the pilgrimage: and among them were several families of Tibetans, the first I’d seen, wearing their traditional clothing, boots with upturned toes, and the women strung with numerous necklaces and bangles. The trail climbed and climbed, leaving the stream and entering subtropical forest, with broad leaved evergreens, conifers and scrub bamboo. The air was damp, and chill when not climbing, but perfect for remaining cool when clambering up the rough trail. I was wearing strong shoes, but many of the other pilgrims were wearing cheap slip-ons or sandals. Children as young as five or six walked uncomplainingly up the steep rough trail. Occasionally a frail elder is carried down in a seat slung between two porters on a bamboo pole. Sharp, loud, bird-song cackled and chirruped in the surrounding forest.

Miles of rough steps, through a damp forest, ever upwards

I met and re-met a family of three generations climbing slowly and steadily upwards. I overtook them, but made frequent stops for tea, snacks or temple viewing, and they passed me by, to be met again soon after. The trail passed more temples. Less ornate than the ones I’d seen yesterday, they were none the less interesting stopping places- and a good excuse to take a break from the hard climbing. The tea-houses of yesterday were replaced by small food stalls selling rice porridge, soft drinks, and hundred year eggs. At the temples, restaurants served complete meals. With many stops, I climbed on through the cloudy weather, the vistas hidden. At four I got to Xianasi, where I bargained for a bed. I had a room of three beds to myself. Later (after a snooze) I had supper with the family group I had met on the trail. Two of the men mentioned that I had two empty beds- so I invited them to stay the night. (All this done in Chinese or sign language).


Next morning, the room boss screamed at my room-mates and locked us all in the room- so they climbed out of the window into the corridor. When he returned to chide or chastise them further, they had gone, and I had paid, so I shrugged my shoulders and politely raised my hands before also leaving to carry on up.

Today feeling better, I pushed up much more quickly, even though the steps were steeper. The way went up through the clouds and along sections being rebuilt where the going was rougher. Along the trail, there was a great spread of flaming red rhododendron. In spite of several stops, I got to Jinding, the 3,099-meter summit (10,167ft) in the early afternoon.

Mount Emei is traditionally regarded as the bodhimaṇḍa, or place of enlightenment, of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra, who is known in Mandarin as Pǔxián Púsà (普賢菩薩).

Jinding was cold and wet with rain. I again met my companions of the trail; a family of grandfather, son and grandchildren. We ate together, conversing without words; laughing and sharing food.

Day 4

The morning brings more rain. There is a special treat called Buddha’s fire, but we will not see it in the rain. I wait the whole morning, from dawn, standing on the viewpoint in drizzle or sipping tea in a small tea stall. At 11, the sky clears to a thin mist and a half-blinding light dazzles as the mist glows in a stunning illumination!

What joy. It lasts just a minute and is gone.

Then as the cloud clears further, I can see to the Tibetan plateau, and decide that the looming peak in the far distance is Gongga Shan (Minya Konka), a gigantic 7,556m (24,790 ft).

Blessed by the light of the Buddha and a sight of Tibet, I leave to descend, happy at my luck.

I am elated with my time in ancient China, away from roads, away from constant control, far from crowded streets. Here, rich or poor, old or young, you must walk, climb, strain, to reach the sacred summit. And to be blessed by Buddha’s light is a wonderful extra delight.

On the way down I wander off the main trail and get delightfully lost in paths through farmers fields and quiet places off the beaten track.

Gongga Shan on the edge of the Tibetan plateau.

Here is a recent blog on climbing Emei Shan. Four travellers walked up, but met the tour buses on top.

From https://blog.goway.com/globetrotting/2018/06/night-emei-shan-one-chinas-4-sacred-mountains/

The Golden Summit sits at the top of one of China’s four most sacred mountains. People come from all over to pray for good fortune or leave a locket symbolizing love. Most come by tour bus – few ever walk. By the time we reached the top, the feeling of intimacy between the four of us almost vanished immediately. Our little group was thrust into the noise of throngs of domestic tourists scrambling for position to take their sunrise photo. Parked side by side were the large motor coaches you see everywhere in China.

As you can see below, I was lucky to get to see Emei Shan before it was swamped by day trippers.

A Hard Rain Over (the other) China

2000 words/15 minutes

[After a year running a youth project in Canada’s NWT…where I lived in an uninsulated cabin in temperatures of -40c, I was travelling around the world, in 1983. I got a crack at being a journalist again, and this time, I actually sent off some articles.]

Slightly smaller than Switzerland, Taiwan lies 150 km off the coast of Mainland China. With a population of 18 million, it is one of the most densely populated countries on earth. The tropic of Cancer crosses the middle of the island, and the winter is usually sunny, but by March it had rained almost every day.

With over two million people, the capital Taipei is the fastest growing city in Asia. Although the newer parts of the city have wide avenues, they are a maelstrom of darting cars, smoke belching buses and kamikaze motorcyclists. Parked motorcycles (one for every five people) block the side walks, jammed with street vendors and food stalls. Taiwan claims the most stores per capita in the world; it probably has the most restaurants too. Imagine your local high street with five motorcycles for every car, a dozen careering buses, a thousand people and two hundred street vendors. Do the same for every street in town and throw in near continual rain and an incomprehensible language, and you have some idea of Taipei!

Most of the city is new, built cheaply since the fifties, and yet it is Oriental. There is a fascination in the street markets and the people maintain their dignity and calm. China is wonderfully puzzling.

I met many kind people. They took me to see temples, their roofs a surge of coloured dragons. Inside, large crowds pray in a haze of incense to a pantheon of terrifying gods. I saw the Sun Yat-sen memorial, in tribute to the founder of the Nationalist party and the General Chiang Kai-shek memorial for its long time leader. More impressive for their size than their good taste, these vast mausoleums are designed to awe, but leave me cold. Giant statues dwarf the visitor. Such totalitarian architecture attempts the manipulation of history, by making the just-dead larger than life. Both monuments are surrounded by parks, two of the few in the city.

Chaing Kai-shek memorial gateway- mausoleum in distance

On Sunday, I arrived at Chiang’s mausoleum just before noon. The towering door was open showing a vast hall, empty except for a statue of the great man. Two immaculate soldiers marched to the front and crashed their rifles to the floor several times in perfect unison. Their brilliant helmets, shining like showroom chrome, were perched absurdly high on their necks. Three more guards arrived, and they changed the guard in a ballet of exaggerated, precisely timed movements.

I wandered out of the building onto a wide raised platform at the top of a painted concrete slope between two flights of stairs leading down to a wide walkway, and in the distance a five-arched gateway with a blue tiled roof. On both sides lay wide formal gardens abloom with azalea. Though only moderately sized, it is the biggest park in the city.

I noticed a young man with two young children leaning on the railing next to me.

“Do you speak English?” I asked

“A little,” he said, holding his finger close to his thumb.

He asked me where I was from and then said, “Welcome to Taiwan.”

On the walkway below, two lines of young people practised some movements.

“What are they doing?” I asked, pointing.

“It is high school students practising a folk dance. They have no room to practice, so today is a holiday, they come here.” His children, a girl of six and a boy of four, began playing on the slope below us, between the two wide staircases.

“Did you come here many times?” I asked

“No, I live in Taipei three years. Today is first time here.”

“Do you like it?” I asked

“All this big garden,” he pointed to the lawns between the azaleas, “but we cannot have a picnic.”

“This place is not to enjoy,” I said, “it is to look at. Totalitarian governments want you to be impressed.”

“What do you think of this, as a foreign visitor?”

“I think it is a big building just for a statue. Today, I went to a hospital, it was very crowded. They could build four hospitals instead of this.”

I turned around and looked up at the massive windowless marble structure, its great doorway rising sixty feet. Inside, the eighty foot high room contained nothing but a vast statue of Chiang Kai-shek. The two chromium plated sentries, now immobile, stood behind a braided cord barrier. In front, a dozen visitors were overlooked by three cameras mounted near the ceiling.

“I do not like to see giant mausoleums built for the just dead.”

“Now he is dead, his son is president.”

“Was he elected?”

“They say elected,” He turned back to lean on the railing.

Below, a man was shouting at the children to get off the slope. My companion called to his children to move to the side.

“I do not think it is good, when the dead are more important than children.”

“You are right,” he said, “they say we are free country.”

“Free for capitalists, you understand?”

“Yes,” he laughed, “I understand.”

Taiwan was settled from the mainland after it was made a protectorate of the Chinese empire in 1206. In the 17th century, the Portuguese called it ‘Ihla Formosa,’ the beautiful island, and fought the Dutch for control. In 1661, the Ming general Cheng Chung-kung brought an army from the mainland and restored Chinese rule. The island was then relatively free from interference until Japan colonised from 1895 to 1945; building railways, extracting resources, and creating a modern system of education. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek, retreating from the Red army, arrived with almost two million people. Whilst the many professional and business people came voluntarily, the often bootless peasant conscripts of the defeated Nationalist army often had no choice. Martial law has been in effect ever since, and the military are visible everywhere. The government hurls invective across the Taiwan strait, threatening to invade the mainland, which a barrage of propaganda describes as a prison camp. Wall posters on the side of a down-town military centre, depict Red guards beating patch panted peasants, a corpse hangs from a tree in the background.

Until the early 70s, Taiwan represented China in the United Nations, and had a seat on the security council. It is now officially, ‘an internal problem of China.’ But foreign consulates remain, calling themselves ‘trade missions,’ and the US will supply $800 million in arms this year [1983]. Taiwan flies in US senators and congressmen on expense paid trips. We must not suppose this influences their voting back in the US. Taiwan’s new budget will spend 41% on ‘defence and diplomatic expenditures.’ Multi million dollar foreign investment and “favoured nation” status at US customs has stimulated rapid growth. Building on the Japanese legacy, the economy still grows. Unemployment is rising, but remains under 3%. Taiwan now has the second highest per capita income in Asia.

On my first evening in Taipei, I went to a small restaurant near my hostel. A couple and their twelve year old daughter cooked for and served about 40 people. I was quickly greeted by the father, who returned almost immediately with a cold beer. I pointed at the plates on an adjacent table, and requested some snacks. He brought me delicious crispy dried seaweed and a translucent green ‘hundred year’ egg. Soon after I ordered another beer and a main course. It was remarkable how they successfully served the ever changing diners, whilst a baby slept in a cot next to the kitchen.

I made a short trip around the island. The road down the east coast has dramatic scenery, especially south of Suao., where a one way system alternates north/south traffic hourly. The system is not entirely efficient, as we met several northbound trucks as my bus hurtled around blind corners, the first vehicle in the southbound convoy. I travelled along the East-West Cross Island Highway, touted as the most dramatic road in NE Asia. Blasted out of the mountains at a cost of 450 lives, the road follows the Taroko gorge, under towering cliffs. Then it climbs, snaking and tunnelling through sub-tropical forest, with eyrie views over temple roofs below.

Taroko gorge- there were no railings in 1983

I walked a part of the gorge, up a series of switch backs, under cliffs of marble and limestone. Waterfalls cascade right onto the road littered with fallen rock, and intermittent thunder storms drove me to shelter in dripping tunnels. On the few occasions the clouds parted, I saw tremendous views of mist swirling in deeply cut valleys and over distant, thickly forested ridge-lines. Small temples lined the road and a series of youth hostels, a days walk apart, provide cheap accommodation and meals. As the only guest in one hostel, I ate in the kitchen with the staff. The warden Mr Chao, put a dozen whole pickled garlic onto his plate, and loaded them onto my plate too. They were delicious, but I mimed that I would drive away the other passengers on the bus the next day. (The rain had made me curtail the walking trip). Later, Mr Chao made delicious Oolong tea and showed me how it cleared our powerful breath. Later we played Chinese chess, and I was allowed to win one game. The Chinese know how to treat a guest.

Next day, I bounced sickeningly in the back seat of the bus, as we passed innumerable rock slides and edged along sections where part of the already narrow road had slid into the gorge. The bus was delayed for hours by a serious rockfall, with rocks the size of cars. A small bulldozer cleared the route, and after a narrow passage was opened, just wide enough for cars, I hitched a ride. Later, I saw steep hillside orchards of apple, pear and blossoming cherry tied to bamboo supports. That night at a cheap hotel I spent an hour talking to the receptionist, who spoke English remarkably well after only three years of high school English. As I left to go to bed she asked me, “You want woman tonight?” Thinking she meant a prostitute, I said no. If it had been her, I’d have said yes. I found Chinese women beautiful, with a curious and tantalising sexuality.

The Taiwanese cannot get passports easily, so the few tourist spots are packed. 140,000 people a month visit the Taroko gorge and tens of thousands walk through the bamboo forest preserve at Chi’tou. When the rain slows to a drizzle, enormous crowds flock to the paved walkways dressed in their Sunday best. At Chi’tou I met a holidaying teacher who invited me for a tea ceremony. We sat for hours, making and drinking myriad tiny cups of delicate, aromatic tea. After five days of rain, I returned to Taipei.

Chi’tou too


On my last night, I met a business woman in a restaurant. I showed her an article I’d written for my local paper in Canada. She asked me where I got the figures for unemployment in Taiwan. “From the newspapers,” I told her.

“Information and education are controlled by the government,” she said, “the figure is not true. Do not say I said it.” She looked serious, “we have only one party, outside the party they will arrest you. My friend is sent to prison for twelve years for politics. Now I keep silent.”

Later she said, “the only good thing in Taiwan is the the economic development.” I understood her pain, but also remembered the kindness of so many Taiwanese.

Outside the restaurant, the rain continued to fall.


A physical comedy

20 minutes

It was the annual Festival of the Glorious Ewe, the patron saint of Mordek, and the capital was thronged with visitors. Kopek, chief spy of the Pimpleknuckle Confederation, surreptitiously mingled with the crowd disguised as a peasant on a jaunt to town, though his monocle and well waxed handlebar moustaches jarred slightly with his shepherd’s smock and slouch hat. He kept his eye on the guests arriving by coach or litter, climbing the great stone steps of the great Gothik town hall, to the crowded ballroom on the second floor.

Eustace Claricorne, deputy assistant to the Master of the Back Stairs, had dressed carefully for the grand reception and proudly wore the Mordek tricornered hat on his tousled head, and his myriad medals and badges above his ceremonial green and purple sash. He looked out of his turret window, high in the east wing of the town hall, with views of the spires and turrets of the town and of the vast throng filling the square below. It was vital that he do well today not only for Mordek, but for himself. Unfortunately, the day before had not gone well, accompanying the Master on a surreptitious visit to the Hedgehog embassy on a mission to promote an alliance against the threats of an invasion by Pimpleknuckle. Carelessly tripping over the embassy carpet, he had knocked over the ambassador’s portly wife. Today Eustace had strict instructions, in a note from the governor, to be on his best behaviour. The guest of honour at the grand reception was to be the irritable ambassador from Mordek’s warlike neighbour Pimpleknuckle himself. Pimpleknuckle claimed the border village of Gok, population 3 persons and 14 sheep, and sought a pretext to invade. It was important that the ambassador was not provoked, as a slight to his august person could be used as excuse for aggression.

As Eustace descended the back stairs from his quarters a trumpet cavalcade sounded from the steps of the Great Hall signalling the arrival of the Pimpleknuckle emissary. Eustace stuck his head into the grand ballroom. The mayor and alder folk were dressed in elegant costumes of lambs wool, with ewes horn hats, to honour the Grand Ewe. Eustace looked down the imposing grand staircase which swept from the ballroom to the mezzanine and down again to the grand entrance hall. Resplendent in his finest court regalia, he hurried to join the Governor by the great front doors. At the top of the grand staircase, he noticed his left shoelace was undone, and stooped to tie it.

A fall from grace

As he bent over, a waiter carrying a tray of empty glasses backed out of the ballroom, colliding with Eustace and knocking him forcefully forward. Eustace landed on his head and rolled over the top stair. His speed was such that he continued to the second stair, and here (now going faster) over the third. At the bottom of the 26 stairs, as chance would have it, he collided with a large statue which slowed him down considerably. However, this wasn’t enough to stop him bouncing over the top step of the main staircase down to the lobby, again bouncing slightly faster onto the next step. By the time he hit the hall below, his descent had been observed, and a footman ran to close the great door, but too late. Rolling down the hall at a terrific pace, Eustace bowled over Madam the Governor who flew into the air and landed forcefully on top of the newly arrived Pimpleknuckian ambassador. Out the door Eustace shot! Bouncing down the top step at quite a speed, and progressively faster down each of the 12 stone steps, the deputy assistant to the Master of the Back Stairs, medals clashing against his gold braid, rolled into the main square, now gaily decorated for the festivities. He continued to roll across the great square, through the thick crowd, miraculously only bowling over the occasional surprised personages as he passed. Exiting the square, he tumbled at great speed down the steep hill that led to the town gates.

Upstairs in the reception room, there was a wave of incredulity. A half dozen near the door saw the Plenipotentiary, in all his well polished regalia, roll over the edge of the first stairs, and then suddenly reappear, glinting under the great candelabra, as he shot over the top step of the mezzanine. They relayed this astonishing sight to those standing near, and then a cry was heard from the crowd by the windows “Eustace is rolling down the square!” What to do was the question on many lips. The chief of police and the fire chief arrived by the mayor’s side from different directions. The police chief indicated by a small movement of his head that the fire chief should speak first. “I believe it would be opportune to go and investigate,” she said to the mayor. “Perhaps you will join me,” she added to the police chief.

These two officers, resplendent in their ceremonial uniforms, one bright red, the other a deep blue, hurried down the staircase, picking up a couple of members of their respective forces as they went. Unfortunately, though on official business, one of the firemen had over indulged on the delicious sweet wine. He was a large man and he followed tipsily along, slightly behind the others, and when he tripped on the top step he fell against the two policemen a few steps below him. The policemen fell, like well trained skittles, knocking both the fire chief and the chief of police off their feet and into a tumble down the stairs.

The only one not to get knocked off her feet was the second fireman, who bravely grabbed at her colleague’s arm, getting a good grip as he went past. The first fireman being of large proportions, and she of slight build, this did not slow him down. Instead it jerked her into the air, feet straight out behind her, and she joined him in his revolutions. At the bottom of the first flight of stairs these officials bounced, each in their own particular way, as they rolled across the landing, bumping into several footmen who tried to arrest their fall. Instead they all, now including two footmen and a maid, continued at high speed over the top of the first stair of the main staircase. Downwards, a melee of colourful uniforms, they bounced from stair to stair. Onwards they rolled, like giant cheeses, or hogsheads of claret, across the entrance hall and, unfortunately for protocol, over the prostrate Pimpleknuckian ambassador and his retinue. They bounced on through the still open door and down the great stairs into the main square.

This too of course was seen from above, and a multitude of the guests proclaimed their shock and horror, or went for a strong drink, or sat down stunned, or all three of the above. However, the rush of the more practical to help was a tonic to see. Two dozen guests, including many of the nations leading officials, dashed to the stairs to go down and assist the victims. In their rush out of the ballroom, the crowd swept the first of the aid party brusquely over the top step. As they stumbled, a few managed to regain their footing, but those behind them, shoved in their turn by the surge to help, toppled them again and they joined the others, cartwheeling down the stairs. On the landing they met little resistance, it having been swept almost clear by their predecessors. However, they did add a minor duchess, who had been unmolested by the passing of the emergency personnel. Onward they rolled, a great tumbling mass of dignitaries and lesser members of officialdom, all now united by the wonders of gravitational attraction.

By now the Eustace, the first to fall, had left the square and was rolling with some speed through the town, causing some collateral damage to the occasional latecomer. He first collided with Esmeralda the lady librarian, who most unfortunately had just lifted her front foot when struck, and pivoting on her back foot, she too began to roll with great speed, and given the loveliness of her bright red dress, great effect. The Tardy-Jones family, perennially late, were just entering the road from a side street and got the full effect of the rotating red dress alongside the man spinning in his gold filigree court dress. “Bravo” they cried, impressed with the elegant display. As it was an important festive occasion, extra guards had been deployed, and the town gate was open. Out they rolled, ornate gentleman and brightly dressed lady librarian, past an astonished gate guard who shouted to his friend on the parapet above. The tower guard heard a cry and looked down. “No,” shouted the gatekeeper, “look to the road”. The tower guard turned around to the road outside the gate, and saw the astonishing sight of a man rolling along at high speed accompanied by a lady in a brilliant red dress. “Stop in the name of the Governor”, he called, but to no apparent effect.

By this time those embodiments of public order, the chiefs of police and fire, and their attendant minions, were rolling expeditiously across the main square. Given their number, and in several cases large mass, they wrought more havoc, or to put it more scientifically, had a greater material effect, upon the body of revellers than the passing of the deputy assistant to the Master of the Back Stairs. With an accuracy that would have greatly improved the town’s chances in the recent national 10-pin bowling tournament, they cut a wide swathe across the square. Their inverted V of well-aimed blows and clouts upon the assembled personages caused a profusion of response vectors as each individual reacted independently to the strike force imposed upon them. But, marvellously undeterred by any extraneous contact, the mass of officials rolled, and frankly bounced and hurtled, towards the steep hill leading to the town gates. Before the crowd had begun to recover, or even had had a chance to reflect upon their condition, a third wave of personages came streaming down the great steps of the town hall and added their portion to the general confusion.

This last wave was made all the more elegant by the presence of a, even if minor, duchess, her diamonds glittering charmingly in the afternoon sun. They too bounced and hurtled, through, over and across the by now largely supine crowd, thwacking one here, thumping another there, and generally clobbering the last of those still standing. Generally, those struck by the passing ‘rollers’ were flattened, but some instead joined the mass descent of the hill below the square. The specific reasons for one response or another is a field of great interest to science, and has been the topic of considerable conjecture. We will leave this inquiry to others and merely report the facts as they are known. Apart from the first two rollers, the second group began with six or seven officials, recruited two footmen and a maid upon the first landing, and lost one member in crossing the great hall. As they crossed the square, however, their numbers were replenished by a balloon seller, a toffee apple man, three brave, if foolish, policemen, and several visitors to the festivities, whose positions in society are as yet unknown (though one was reported to have sported a handlebar moustache and monocle). This large group swept a large swathe of persons off their feet who either collapsed or cascaded into others, so that by the time of the arrival of the third group, by then numbering seventeen officials and dignitaries, and a glittering duchess, their route through the square was largely clear of those still vertical. Of interest to physicists, but unfortunately beyond the scope of this reportage, was the fact that several persons who had been sent hurtling off towards the extremities of the square rebounded and in their turn discombobulated the trajectories of several members of the third, and by far the largest, group to hurtle across the square.

Unknown to Mordek, it was not Pimpleknuckle that was the great threat. The small but efficient army of the neighbouring statelet of Grimchek had been dispatched to attack Mordek some weeks earlier. The Grimchek troops were under the leadership of the notorious General Handlebar, the hero of the Great Chicken War. However, due to a misunderstanding of map craft in the Grimchek Ministry of War, the map of Mordek had been printed upside down with north at the bottom. By diligently following the wrong directions the Grimchek forces had spent quite several weeks lost in the woods of lower Mordek and were unaware of the recently agreed truce. Now, after their myriad difficulties in the woods, they were finally approaching the town, climbing the long and steep road towards the town gates led by a marching band, featuring tubas, ukuleles, and penny whistles, playing martial airs.

As the army of Grimchek climbed the road, they were met by three successive waves of ‘rollers’, an event known to the world as the ‘Descent of the Mordek Patriots’. There has been some quibbling in the media, that the physics of gravity would make it impossible to manoeuvre around the corners on the long descent to the deep valley below the town. I can only state the facts. In spite of, or perhaps due to, the winding nature of the road the numerous rollers swerved around the corners and kept to the road. This is of course apart from a few unfortunate exceptions- the naval attaché for example became stuck in a thorn tree on the first bend.

Eustace and Esmeralda swept majestically down the steep hill, defying the small-minded notions of foreign physicists, taking the corners with ease and elegance as they swept ever faster past the magnificent views of the verdant valley below, backed by distant mountains catching the afternoon sun. Eventually, they turned a corner and sped down upon the advance guard of the invading army. They arrived so unexpectedly, and with such speed that they were met with no resistance, and swept through the company, elegantly bowling many of them off the roadside cliff. Before they had time to recover from this first pair, the advanced guard was almost immediately struck by a larger body, in both senses. The oversized drunken fireman, wobbling as wildly as he rolled speedily, crashed through the remaining upright soldiers. He was quickly followed by his many companions of the fire service and police during this second assault, who having dispatched the advanced guard, swept on towards the main body of troops.

General Handlebar, riding his great black stallion Coltrane, rode at the head of the main body of his army. Eustace and Esmeralda passed, one each side of the mounted general, each taking out a line of troops. The general, astonished by this hideous new weapon of war, turned to bark an order, but was immediately driven off his horse by the portly fireman, now advancing at a most warlike rotation. The general’s horse, panicked at the sudden loss of his commander, now turned tail and joined the rout caused by the first wave of gyrators and added considerably to the confusion. Dropping their guns, abandoning their cannon, leaving their tambourines and ukuleles scattered across the road, the army fled, though not fast enough to avoid the arrival of the majority of the second wave. There was little left for the third wave to topple, and the diamonds of the duchess shone impressively in the late afternoon light as she hurtled over the now largely prostrate figures.

[To be ended shortly]

Meeting Jacques Ngoun

2187 words/15 minutes

Jacques in white shirt, his wife on right, and three kids in front right

I first met Jacques Ngoun, a Bagyeli Pygmy from south Cameroon, at a IUCN run forest conservation conference, on the first few days of my first visit to Cameroon in February 1999. The conference, took place at the Yaounde Hilton, a vast, vastly expensive, and entirely inappropriate location for a discussion on forest policy, poverty alleviation and social justice.

I stood talking to Simon Counsel of the Rainforest Foundation-UK and Margaret of Forest People’s Programme (FPP) outside the conference room, waiting for the Cameroon Minister of Forests to open the conference, which was scheduled for 9am. After two hours, a bevy of military, holding semi-automatics, ushered the minister into the conference room. The minister gave a short, empty and trite speech, with armed soldiers standing menacingly behind him and others guarding the door. Having held a hundred or more people up for two hours, he swept out with his armed guard. The other speakers were no better: a foreign expert on how villagers must be educated to protect the forest, a technical expert on some arcane aspect of forestry law, a World Bank official on conditionalities and development loans.

Tragically, tropical rainforest logging, legal as well as illegal, is the root cause of rainforest destruction in Africa. Villagers are not consulted about whether logging takes place, and do not benefit from it, (though the local chief may soon be driving a brand new 4×4 courtesy of the logging company). Their forest is mutilated, and the game hunted out to feed the loggers, who have cash. The logging operation quickly moves on, leaving the consequences, but few if any economic benefits. This is far worse for Pygmy peoples, who do not farm in second growth forest, but live, hunt and gather in old growth. A conference that ignores this, describes technical issues, and blames the villagers for the problem is clearly worse than useless. Most logging is simply monetising a local resource that provides benefits (food, medicines and other non-timber forest products) to the local population in perpetuity into a quick gain for a international logging company and corrupt officials, local and national.

The fact that logging was corruptly controlled by government ministers and senior generals, who used it for personal enrichment and ignored all legal and ecological regulation, and that the presidents nephew was the biggest concession holder in the country, was not mentioned. We were told the problem was caused by ignorant villagers. Jacques, who talked about the relationship of Pygmy peoples to the forest, “without the forest, we will die as a people,” was the only person who spoke at the conference who was not compromised by being paid off or employed in the corrupt processes involved in logging Cameroon’s rainforests.

I was introduced to Jacques by Margaret of the FPP. We got on instantly, and he invited me to visit him near Bipindi 230 kilometres south of Yaounde. Margaret then asked me if, while I was there, I’d evaluate a FPP proposal to purchase a satellite phone for Jacques. I was happy to help a local activist get access to resources, and later I got a briefing on the proposal and its budget of £6,000.

Next day, after Jacques returned home to Bipindi, I met with Didier Amagou of local NGO Planet Survey, who had an office in Lolodorf, en route for Bipindi. A few days later, I made my way through the very early morning darkness to meet Planet Survey, but through one delay or another we left Yaounde at almost 6 am and the roads were already crowded with people walking into Yaounde in the dark. Terrible driving is one of the perennial dangers of working in Africa, but I was far more concerned for the men, women and children walking along the edge of the narrow roadway in the dark to get to their fields, jobs or schools, as we hurtled past lurching across the road to avoid the potholes.

This was the first time I’d been out of Yaounde, the first time I’d been on a “field visit” in Africa, and I was excited at getting out of the hotel conference, international expert bubble. We drove for an hour along the Douala road, and turned off at a busy crossroads filled with small food stalls. Street traders and fruit sellers crowded around overcrowded buses stopping for a break on their journey. In another hour or so, we were at Lolodorf, a small German colonial town astride the Lokoundje River. I was given a tour of the Planet Survey office, and got to meet about a dozen local staff.

After lunch we set off again, on a field visit to a Pygmy encampment. This was a first contact visit, with Planet Survey introducing themselves and identifying what services the camp might need. It seemed a rushed affair, with Planet Survey doing a brief introduction on their work and leaving little time for discussion before hurriedly returning to Lolodorf. That evening I went out dancing with many of the Planet Survey staff in a bar with a stereo, some red spotlights, and plenty of choices in beer. It was a great night out. We created a real party atmosphere with just fifteen people; and the director of Planet Survey had some mean dance moves.

The Planet survey staff in Lolodorf, Didier Amagou on left

The next day Planet Survey offered to combine taking me to Jacque’s house with a field trip to the Bipindi area, so I contributed a tank of gas for the jarring 45 km drive down the rocky road which followed the steep Lokoundje river gorge to the small town of Bipindi. There we visited the Foire, a Catholic school for apprentices, where Jacques had once worked. An hour later I was dropped off at Jacques house, four miles outside Bipindi. I got a great, enthusiastic greeting, and met Jacques wife and numerous children.

Jacques with some of his family outside his house

I stayed for three nights with Jacques at his house, eating wonderful meals of game meat, manioc and delicious sauces made with fresh ground herbs and spices. We made trips into the surrounding fields to drink palm wine straight from the palm tree. The owner of the wine palm was a local farmer called Simon too, who was introduced to me as my homonym Simon.

Jacques and my hominym Simon and the wine palm

Jacques told me about his history- he is a Bagyeli but was brought up by a Bantu family. He wanted to show that the Bagyeli were responsible people who could live in a ‘proper’ house and live like a Bantu. This acculturation seemed sad to me, but I was new and held my counsel. Each day we swam and bathed in the river, met Jacques neighbours, talked about life in the village and about CODEBABIK, the Bagyeli organisation which Jacques represented as director of programmes.

Jacque’s son was about twenty. He’d recently qualified as a carpenter, in a college in Kribi on the coast, but was unable to work as he hadn’t the money to buy the tools he needed to set up a workshop. (I had questions about his future as the Bagyeli used the most basic furniture, and lived from hand to mouth, and about who among the people in Bipindi could afford to buy hand-made furniture.)

Jacques wife and daughter in theri kitchen behind the house

Jacques himself was neatly turned out, but his children were dressed in filthy, torn rags. There was a small piece of soap in the house, used to wash hands occasionally. But there was not the money to buy soap for all to wash themselves and their clothes. I struggled to understand the economics and cultural background that made all this happen.

Walking along an old logging road to the forest village

On the fourth day, I joined Jacques and his wife and the baby on a walk along the dirt road out of the village, and through the second growth forest for several hours. We turned off along a track into the forest to a Bagyeli village, where a dozen Bagyeli greeted us. Two of Jacques children were already there. Jacques held a meeting with the men and his wife with the women while I wandered around the huts and into the surrounding forest and took pictures. That night there was music and song by the fireside. I slept in a palm hut under my mosquito net.

At the Bagyeli village with Jacques
Enjoying a night in the village

Most of the villagers were further into the forest at a hunting camp. I hoped to join them, but it was not possible as Jacques had to return to Bipindi for a meeting with CODEBABIK. Next day we returned to Bipindi and my first field-trip finished with a walk through the fields and forest to a dugout ferry across the Lokoundje to Bipindi and the bus to Kribi on the coast.

Before I left to return to the UK, I heard that the Rainforest Action Network-RAN was attending a planning meeting near Munich, and had invited Didier Amagou of Planet Survey. I persuaded their Africa project coordinator, for whom I had done research in Cameroon, that both Jacques and I should attend too. The evening I got to the meeting, near a lake south of Munich, I discovered that the itching in my big toe that had been troubling me, was caused by a maggot growing in my foot. I asked my Cameroonian colleagues what to do, and was told to get hold of a single-bladed razor. I asked the volunteer going into Munich the next day to get me one. It was very difficult getting through the night, and all of the next day, now that I knew that the itch was caused by a live maggot in my toe. That afternoon, the volunteer returned and gave me a packet of razor blades, which I took to Didier and Jacques. They led me outside, looking for a small stick. The razor blade was to sharpen the stick! Unable to find a suitable stick in the immediate vicinity, we went back in, and Jacques cut a small nick in the middle of my big toe and prised out the maggot. I still have the occasional shooting pain from this cut, twenty years later.

Though I was invited into all the sessions of the meeting, many were of no direct interest to my work, and so I spent some time helping the volunteers who were setting up a small bar serving the local Weiss bier for the evening. They showed me how to pour Weiss bier, gently down the side of the glass, then swirl the last few ounces around to collect the yeast and pour it quickly into the glass. I was so impressed by this, that I felt I had to invite all my Cameroonian colleagues to the bar after the evening session finished and show them the technique. They too were impressed, and we ordered fresh bottles so that each could try. We spent a very entertaining evening perfecting our technique.

After the conference, I invited the three Cameroonians into Munich for a bit of a tourist adventure before they caught their planes back to Cameroon. We went into a high ceilinged beer hall and I ordered a large stein of beer for each of us. As Didier drank, he discovered that there was the bottom of another broken glass inside his beer! I called the waiter over. He was unimpressed. He offered to replace that one beer but none of us felt like finishing our beers at this point. Without any German, and in what was now clearly a hostile environment, I was forced to pay up for three of the beers and leave. Sadly, I think this was no accident, but a disgusting racist act. It really spoiled our trip around Munich, and soon afterwards I put my friends on the bus to the airport.

When I got back to the UK, I wrote up my proposal for Jacques Ngoun and the £6,000. It seemed to me that after what I’d seen in Bipindi, Jacques would not get much value out of a satellite phone. He had nowhere to charge the battery in his village, the equipment was delicate and sensitive and would probably quickly deteriorate in the humid environment. As the problem was being able to communicate with Jacques, and vice versa, I thought there was a better solution. Instead, I proposed that Jacques get a small motorcycle which he could use for his work, and also to drive to Lolodorf each week. There I proposed he pay for a desk at Planet Survey, as well as a computer, office supplies, and one day a week’s secretarial help. This would make CODEBABIK a partner, as Jacques would be paying into Planet Surveys office costs, and have his own small budget for gasoline, telephone, secretarial help, office supplies, and the occasional trip to Yaounde, over two years, all for £6,000. This I thought would be a better use of the money. Sadly, the £6,000 was speculative and never funded, so I did not get to see how this, my first local project proposal, would have worked out.

Club Ideal Daze

Cameroon’s premiere spot for the savvy traveller

The alluring hills of Yaounde

2760 words/15 minutes

I went to Cameroon in January 1999 to attend a conference in the capital Yaounde. Or more accurately, I went to a conference in Yaounde to get into Cameroon. Cameroon doesn’t encourage visitors, and so getting a visa to Cameroon requires an invitation from a local person or organisation. In 1999, due to the horrendous civil war in the DRC, almost all of the international institutions that had a Central African operation had moved from Kinshasa to Yaounde. This included the World Bank, and various UN organisations such as IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature). A major IUCN conference on conserving the Congo basin rainforests, which would have otherwise been held in Kinshasa was going to be held in Yaounde in February 1999. I had secured an invitation to this conference on logging and poverty reduction, which was incongruously being held in the Hilton hotel, and the more important invitation letter necessary for obtaining a visa. My contact at the IUCN had also offered to book me a reasonably priced local hotel and send a driver to pick me up at the airport.

Cameroon’s national airline, Camair, had recently gone bust, and so there was no direct flight from London. Instead, I needed to fly to Paris, Brussels or Zurich and change planes. To connect to any of these flights involved a ridiculously early start from Heathrow, and a minicab at 4.30 am.

Most of the funding for this first trip came from the remains of my salary for work I had been doing to stop rainforest destruction in Canada. I had previously set up a semi-formal organisation called TREES (the Temperate Rainforest Environmental Education Society) and so I merely changed a word, and I had another organisation fit for purpose. The new TREES (now the Tropical Rainforest Environmental Education Society) had $2,000 Canadian left in the budget (which was left from not taking all my salary the previous year) and I had $2,000 more in savings. I also got a couple of small donations from people who had supported my work in Canada, and wanted to help me get started in Africa. I spent four months in the UK doing background research about the Congo basin rainforest, meeting up with rainforest campaigners and researching at SOAS and the British library. I lived for very little as I stayed rent free with my family or with my good friend Bob in London. Soon I found two small contracts for undercover work in Cameroon and was ready to go.

When I arrived in Yaounde airport after dark, it was a melee of shouting and gesticulating people, and I was happy when the IUCN driver found me and escorted me through the customs confusion. The driver took me straight to the hotel, but they had no record of a booking, and worse they were full. We drove around to several other hotels, but they were all full too. Finally the driver, Edouard, said that he knew a small hotel that was cheap, but not up to standard. Perhaps I could stay there the night and sort out something better in the morning? When we got to the hotel Ideal, they were cleaning the rooms, though it was now 10pm. This didn’t ring any alarm bells, so I reserved a room and went for dinner with the Edouard, who took me to Club Parallel, (which became my place of choice for a special night out) where we ate well and drank a couple of beers. We got back to the Ideal at nearly midnight, and I was absolutely exhausted as I’d been up since 4 am. We drove down a ramp to park in front of the lower level rooms. Edouard promised to come back at 10 am and take me to the IUCN offices, which were hidden away in the back streets. I was given a room on the lower floor which was dank and slightly mouldy, as the back wall was a bathroom and toilet, and had no window and the front window was shuttered. There was a fair bit of coming and going, and an incident in the night- a woman shouting insistently, a door slamming, a man shouting back and a car driving off. I was occasionally woken by the coming and goings in the other rooms, but I quickly fell back asleep. There was a knocking on my door really early, but I was exhausted and ignored it. I got up at 9am, and waited until noon for the driver, but realised that the dawn call must have been him.

Hotel Ideal, lower ground floor, mainly used for hourly rentals and balcony rooms on the first floor

The extensive facilities at Hotel Ideal

Next day, I moved to the upper floor. Stairs climbed past a small reception to a long corridor with a a blank wall on one side, with the occasional brick lattice patterned opening. This was an excellent sound barrier and I didn’t realise until later that this blocked the heavy traffic noise from the rond point Nlongkak, one of the busiest junctions in Yaounde. On the other side of the corridor was a row of doors. Each small room had a shower, a hand basin and lavatory in a cubicle, an almost double bed with just one sheet and a blanket, an overhead fan, a hanging bulb, and a small bed side table. Double doors led onto a tiny balcony, which had a table and a small stool. Many of these items were in poor condition or broken.

Many of the toilets had no seat, and the shower was right beside it. It was advisable to have a pair of flip flops to avoid walking barefoot on the bathroom, or really any other part of the floor. Some of the washbasins were cracked or detaching from the wall. The bed sheet was white and crisp, but it did not completely cover the mattress, and there was only one sheet, meaning you would also touch the dubious blanket if you used it. On rainy nights it was chilly and I needed the blanket, so it was fortunate I had brought my own sheet too.

I was lucky that the first night was in the dive of the lower ground floor, so I felt that things had improved dramatically when I moved upstairs. The Ideal cost 5,000 fcfa, (Central African francs) which was a fiver (£5 or $7). The mid-priced hotels that would be used by Cameroonian professionals, and even by economical ex-pats, cost 15-18,000 fcfa. The cheapest room at the Hilton cost over 200,000 fcfa!

The price of a night at the hotel Ideal

Using my room as an office

The balcony was the rooms saving grace, as if I was writing or reading I spent much of my day sitting out on the balcony, overlooking the dusty gravel parking, with its large mango tree in fruit. Beyond were the tin roofs of houses, a busy street with little yellow taxis distantly beeping their horns, and the forested hills to the north of town. When it was too sunny, or raining, I could work lying propped on the bed with the balcony door open, and not feel hemmed in. Each of the balconies had its own small table and stool, though most were broken. With some sly reorganising of the furniture, by hopping over the low wall between balconies, I could get a four-legged table and an unbroken chair, and if I was around for more than a few days between field trips, I gravitated towards the corner room, which had the biggest balcony, and was the farthest from the road. With my own sheet and mosquito net, my laptop, a baguette, an avocado or tin of sardines, some fruit and a bottle of water, I was set for a days work writing up whatever research I was working on.

The Ideal was also well placed for eating out. If I’d been able to afford a swanky hotel, I would have also been limited to either the hotel restaurant, or the few expensive restaurant opportunities in the neighbourhood. The Ideal was surrounded by food choices. Half a dozen reasonably priced restaurants were within a few minutes walk. When I felt flush, I could afford to go out and eat in a local restaurant and have a couple of beers for about £3. And there were also numerous street stalls making breakfast omelettes and baguette or a delicious thin maize porage. In the evenings, they served braised chicken or mackerel with baton de manioc, a hand-made cassava stick, for 50p. Good beer in the local bars came in 65cl/24 ounce bottles and cost less than 50p, so I was able to afford a couple each night.

I wasn’t tempted to find anywhere cheaper than the Ideal, as I liked having a room with a balcony, found basic amenities just outside the door, and was on a number of taxi lines. But later, when I visited someone in another hotel which was slightly cheaper (4,000 fcfa instead of 5,000) they had a dingy room, with a small window high on the wall overlooking a narrow alley way, and so a real sense of confinement, and no outdoor space at all.

I became fond of the hotel staff, and especially of Emo Achille, who was a big part of the pleasure of living at club Ideal. Emo was wrestling with his sense of purpose and the meaning of life. I enjoyed the fact that he would ask fundamental and profound questions as conversation starters. It was refreshing, coming down from a day working in my room, or in from a day of meetings, or a few beers to get straight down to discussing god, the meaning of life, the differing beliefs of our two nations, responsibility, duty and other deep topics with Emo. I was improving my French at the same time as getting an insight into a Cameroonians belief system. And while it is harder to communicate your beliefs in a second language, it forces you to express them carefully, and encourages a more thoughtful response.

Emo on left

Emo had plenty of time to think on the job. Staff at the hotel worked 12 hour shifts seven days a week. In order to get a day off, they would do a weekly double shift, and get the next day off. So, they were working an 84 hour week!

The Ideal was a full service establishment. There was a phone box in the reception area. You gave the receptionist a number, and they put you through. They also allowed me to use the internet to send emails, by disconnecting the hotel phone and letting me plug in my modem at the reception desk. This was complicated a bit by being in the way of any other reception activity, though by mid-evening there was just an occasional hourly room rental.

The hotel also had a laundry service, but it was rather curiously priced. Anything, from a shirt, to a pair of socks cost the same, a thousand fcfa, and so a weeks wash cost me as much as four nights at the hotel. I soon bought soap to wash my clothes in the sink and hung them on the back of the chair or the railing on the balcony.

I met fellow guests from Niger, the Central African Republic, and all over Cameroon, in town on business, or for a training course. On many evenings three or four of us gathered in the tiny reception area, or out on the steps. I began to call these gatherings “Club Ideal.”

I felt that with our new name, we might perhaps need some further services for the guests. There was already a social space – the gravel floored courtyard in front of the reception, with a television set up at night for guests to watch the current soap opera at 6. But our ambition was larger, and soon we were inventing further facilities for the club. We needed more excitement and entertainment, and so we created the attractions of Club Ideal. My fellow guests, and the staff enjoyed the conceit, and together we developed the plan. I proposed a pool (a basin of water in the small courtyard in front of the reception), and a potted palm tree or two; cocktails would be served to tables under broad umbrellas.

The other staff members included Freddie the manager and owners nephew (and I later discovered, PhD student). Freddie was a budding businessman and was able to provide services like changing money at a better than official rate, and organised the extension to my visa for me.

Freddie the owners nephew, manager and Ph D student

Outside the Ideal, Auguste sold cigarettes and chewing gum from a small portable stall that stood on the wall of the hotel. Most of his business was in selling single cigarettes, or a single stick of chewing gum. Auguste was a pleasant and helpful guy, and I’d stop off and chat for a while whenever I saw him. He was often helpful in finding local services, and sometimes he would do small jobs for me.

Auguste with me and my fiancee Judith

There was an internet cafe on the rond point, and there was also a small office services place, which would do photocopying. If I was not going to be back in time, Auguste would pick stuff up before the place closed. He consistently did what he said he would, and I came to rely on his help. Sadly, he didn’t drink, so whilst he had a few soft drinks with me, he was not up for an evenings drinking. So, many nights, I drank my two beers alone, and spent the time writing letters, or reading the local papers or reports on rainforest conservation to improve my French.

Ideal was also easy to get to and from, which was important as I was exploring the local NGOs, going to the main post office to pick up and send mail, and going to roadside bus parks to set off on field trips. I could comfortably get a shared taxi back late at night, as the rond point was on a number of taxi routes, and I could safely walk the last few yards on a busy well lit street. In fact from early to late, taxis were swirling around the rond point in a melee. There was a bar/restaurant on the hill above the rond point, up 40 steps to a veranda with a great view of the the Ideal and the forested hills to the north of town. Sitting on the veranda, I saw seven taxis careering side by side around the roundabout. At night, starting at around ten, vast overloaded logging trucks tore around the rond point, bellowing their horns to clear their way. I managed to get some good footage of this for Greenpeace, and counted the trucks several nights until late, to get an idea of the scale of logging in the east of the country, all of which came through Yaounde, and passed the Ideal.

Hotel Ideal – the long white building in the foreground, and rond point Nlongkak from the veranda of the bar opposite

I made a number of field trips; to visit Jacques Ngoun a Bagyeli Pygmy activist; to the forests of the east province, where I met Etienne a Baka Pygmy and spent five days in the rainforest; to an oil rig for my report on the Central African oil industry’s threats to the rainforest; and to see Mount Cameroon which was erupting. Each time I left town on a trip I would leave my stuff in the small space behind reception. There was always a room for me on my return, as at a certain hour, at least one of the rooms on hourly rental could be kept for me. But, usually I was lucky, and got a room on the first floor, though the next day I might have to move to a room with less broken furnishings, and again begin scavenging a usable table and stool for my balcony.

As you can see, the hotel Ideal lived up to its name. Or at least, where not yet ideal it could easily be idealised. After about ten weeks, I returned to the UK, but I had found a niche in undercover research and had a plan to return as soon as I could pull together a few new contracts and funding for a small project I’d developed. On my next visit, I spent five months at Club Ideal. Why are some people so lucky?

Note: all the events in Cameroon took place in French. I hope the reader will make allowances for the translation.

Woodstock Memories

The Internation Times’ Man On The Ground at Woodstock.

Excerpted from California Daze: from Haight to Woodstock

There was also the free acid too…

1466 words /15 minutes

We woke up on the Friday morning surrounded by naked people. I ate granola outside our tent revelling at the sight of a naked man having a conversation with a lone and rather lost looking uniformed policeman. We’d arrived in the dark, and by chance pitched our tents on the festival’s lakeside nude beach. After breakfast, Andy and I set off for ‘an hour or so’ to look for a story as I was on ‘assignment’ for IT, London’s underground paper the International Times. Andy didn’t have a camera, but I had a pencil somewhere and was enthusiastic about writing up the experience. The music hadn’t started, and people were still arriving in their thousands. As we walked up the grass verged country lane towards the stage, there were cries of ‘weed’ and a man with a cardboard tray hanging on a string around his neck, filled with tabs of acid. Already Woodstock looked like being a memorable event.

In the spring of 1969, I was living in an apartment in the Mission district of San Francisco with my old lady June Ball, her friend Susan ‘Hoot Owl,’ Susan’s old man Michael Bear and sometimes four sometimes five kids. A friend who wrote for the Berkeley Barb told us he was off in July to Woodstock, a festival in up state New York. I needed a break from poverty in the big city; ‘if he is going,’ I thought, ‘why not me?’ So I got the phone number of the Woodstock media team and told them I was from the International Times, thinking that it would be impressive whether they had heard of England’s leading underground newspaper or they thought it a big international journal. Over a few calls I increased my request to tickets for a photographer and for both our ‘old ladies’ June and Susan. Michael had to stay home and look after the kids, so my ‘photographer’ was Andy, a Scots traveller I’d met recently. I didn’t have much money, but it seemed I was the only one to have any at all, and I had to pay the $25 for the four of us to join a car share to Chicago.

From Chicago we split into pairs and hitched to New York and met up in the apartment of a friend. The next day we hitched up to the festival, getting a last ride from a NY radio station’s media bus, which dropped us off in the dark a mile from the site when it got completely stuck in traffic. By now we knew that the concert security had collapsed, and you didn’t need a ticket to get in, but I thought ‘what the hell’ and went to collect the press passes anyway. Everything was hectic in the media area, as the generators weren’t running and the media team were trying to deal with the world’s press under the hiss of gas lanterns. Happily I was on the list and got four passes. We continued on in the dark through a large crowd, looking for a quiet place to camp. Soon June and Susan were complaining about the long walk and we turned off between the parked cars and nearly walked into a lake!

As Andy and I walked in towards the stage on the Friday morning, we came across two teenagers from New Jersey, sitting by the small road who offered us a can each from their 24 of beer. As we drank the proffered beer, sitting on the sunny grass verge, and watching the unhurried movement of the thousands walking past, one of the teenagers claimed the Brits couldn’t hold their liquor. Andy took exception to this and draining his can took another, and the competition began. After an hour the two young dudes fell asleep and, cracking a fresh can each,we left them passed out by the side of the road. Several people were offering free acid to the passing throng, but we declined. We heard Richie Havens start the music in the distance, but by now we were wandering around looking for a joint. It started to rain, and we managed to get under the stage for shelter, and listened to Ravi Shankar playing a raga as the rain beat down. When the rain stopped, Andy and I climbed the supports and got onto the stage, then using our press passes (which didn’t allow us onto the stage, but were good enough to get us off it) we strolled over the backstage bridge to the performers area and warmed ourselves by one of the fires. I chatted to several of the security to find out how things were going for them, and from then on they saluted me as I passed.

There were plenty of joints and pipes passing around among the performers and hangers on, and we soon got ludicrously stoned. From here on, I have a series of images, but no memory of the sequence of events. I have no idea which day what happened, or in what order. It was a drug and booze fuelled rampage, with a soundtrack. Andy and I were back on the stage to watch Ten Years After. A film crew rudely ordered us out of the way. It was their rudeness that did it, so we refused, and they couldn’t get the angles they wanted to film. Backstage again, I joined a small group around Johnny Winter, and was passed the joint when it came around. Andy was standing behind me, so I passed it back to him. Johnny was pissed that his joint had been Bogarted, and muttered ineffectually to his manager and hangers on. We enjoyed a good hour or so helping a couple of guys polish off a bottle of Tequila. With my vast afro, and Andy’s Union Jack shirt, we made a striking pair. There was an announcement from the stage that the brown acid was bad. Who would make brown acid? At some point I discovered that the purple acid was really good. I made a visit to the area just in front of the stage, but I can’t remember who was playing. I thought Janis Joplin needed cheering up, and I decided I was the one to do it. But before she showed up backstage for her gig, I got so wasted that I had to crawl along the road to get back to the tent.

On the Sunday morning, I was standing with my feet in the lake, dealing with a thick head and June flew at me and wrestled me into the water. I realised what a prick I was being spending two days getting wasted with Andy and ignoring June and Susan. I changed into my last set of dry clothes and the three of us spent a great day on the beach, dropping the orange acid (which was also good) and swimming around the lake. Coming from San Francisco, and having spent many weekends at the free concerts in Golden Gate Park, Woodstock wasn’t a great surprise. I was used to large groups of people getting on with each other, sharing what they had, and enjoying music together in the open air. I also shared the prevailing opinion that the police weren’t necessary for crowd control. Trouble wasn’t stopped, it was caused, by the violence of the Pigs. But the massive scale of the event, spending four days without the need for money or the presence of invasive authority, in peace and comradeship with so vast a crowd was still a very special time. I’d like to say it was memorable, but frankly I was so fucked up most of the time that this is about all I can remember. I regret that I didn’t write up my experiences for IT, repay my debt for the tickets and maybe even kick start a career in the media. But finally here is my report from Woodstock and a quiet thank you to the International Times after all these years.


I met a beautiful and vivacious woman four years later in London, but she showed no great interest, in me. Talking to her I found out that she had recently been working at a school in Ibiza. “My brother is going to a school in Ibiza.”

“What’s his name?”

It turned out that they were good pals, and I was in with a chance.

After we got together, we discovered that we had both been at Woodstock. In fact, she had her fortune told there. “Your future husband is an Englishman called Simon, who is here at Woodstock!”

We never married so, so much for fortune tellers.

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