Monday, 17 September 2007

Love from Ljubljana

I find myself surrounded by dead animals.

I am writing to you from Pension Zaplata in Slovenia.

Pension Zaplata must be the place that vegetarians and animals rights activists who have led unwholesome lives go to when they die. Just about every animal from Slovenia can be found here, stuffed, mounted and proudly displayed, welcoming visitors with cold, dead eyes.

From the birds and deer in the hallway to the imposing Croatian bear that greets you as you enter, this place is a Republican's dream.

At first I thought I didn't mind it too much, but waking up this morning to be confronted by the bare white skull of a deer, antlers still attached, is more than a little nauseating. (Eat them, sure, but don't decorate your house with them).

Still - and I feel a touch of hypocrisy coming on - I did tuck into a hearty meal of deer medallions in cherry sauce earlier, followed later by tender young boar. Perhaps that's why a bull charged me today.

That Bulls Got Balls

Slovenia truly is a beautiful country.

A few hours ago I rented a bicycle and took a ride to a nearby village called Kranj, travelling down little used roads and past green meadows, fast flowing rivers and towering, cloud covered mountains.

After visiting Kranj, I hid my bicycle and made my way into the hills on foot to explore this beautiful landscape further. After a short walk, I came to a wire fence and, mindful of the fact that I was entering private land, I hopped over and began making my way across a field.

I soon ran into a couple of cows, who started giving me the daggers, so I stared back, being sure to give them a wide berth. Don't bother them and they won't bother you Andrew, I thought to myself. With that thought barely finished, there was suddenly a great crashing noise and moments later a huge bull appeared from nowhere and came charging towards me.

I turned and ran, jumping the wire fence, and began making my way down a steep slope, going as fast as my legs would carry me. Inevitably, I slipped and started sliding down the slope, ass first.

With the bull now completely forgotten, my only concern was to stop myself falling. I was grabbing at branches and small trees but I was moving too quickly to get a grip. After sliding about 30 feet, I went - quite literally - crotch first into a small branch.

Looking back, and at the time, it was quite comical. I was sliding so quickly, there was no time to be afraid. The fall wouldn't have killed me, but that little branch saved me from a few cuts and bruises.

Surprisingly, I experienced no pain at all and my crotch came out completely unscathed. I suspect, however, that Emily may now need to wait a little longer for the child that she so desperately wants.

Smiles and Sadness in Semic

Being in Slovenia, and writing this email, brings my life full circle.

This is my second visit to Slovenia; I was here two years ago today, in a small town called Semic, working with paraplegics.

Tomorrow I head to Kranj again, leaving the stuffed animals and my friend the bull behind. I will catch a train to Ljubljana and then head to Semic where I will spend time with the same Slovenian people I first met in 2005.

Being in Semic two years ago was very intense. There was me, a dozen Slovenian paraplegics and a few other international volunteers. We spent nearly all of our time in a house not unlike the Big Brother house. There was no TV, no Internet, just us in the house, talking, eating, playing chess and other games.

On the one hand, it was a great experience. The Slovenians were great people and nice to be with. But I had problems with the other volunteers. There was a man in his late seventies called Howard who was fine. My problems were with a Swiss girl, an Irish girl, an American girl and a French-Polish girl. They were nasty, small minded people, who should have been appearing in an episode of Big Brother rather than volunteering to work in Slovenia.

They spent most of their time gossipping (about me, unfortunately) and were all obsessed with sex.

At one point - and it's embarrassing for me to relate this but I will anyway - I walked into the room to find them engaged in a conversation about how they would refrain from eating a day before having anal sex so they don't open their bowels before doing the deed. This is the type of girl we are talking about here. They said some very nasty and hurtful things about me and ruined my time in Slovenia.

That is part of the reason I am going back, to banish the memory of those awful people.

But more than that, I am going to spend time with the Slovenian people again. Wonderful people like Rok, Stefan, Damjan and Joe Rabbit. Tomorrow I will return to that small village and history will repeat itself as my life comes full circle.

More Smiles and Sadness in Semic

Thursday 20 September 2007

I am writing to you from Semic. Its a little after eleven in the evening on Thursday 20 September 2007. Two years ago, to the very day, to the very minute, I was here, in this house, almost certainly in this room, with the people who are sitting across the table from me right now.

Rok is here, and Joe Rabbit, and Stefan and Damjan and many of the people I met two years ago. Very often, when I visit a place and then go back in an attempt to recapture the past, I am met with disappointment because things always change.

In the time that has passed since I visited Semic in 2005, nothing has changed.

The house is the same. The kitchen, the decor, the beds, the crappy TV, the trolley we used to wheel the food around on. Even the neighbours dog that barked all night long and kept us awake two years ago is still here, still barking.

The church bells still rings. The same clock still ticks. Sitting here, writing this, it is like those two years never passed at all.

I arrived in Semic from Kranj on Tuesday and the past two days have again been filled with smiles and sadness. There have been visits to the pub, games of chess, meals, conversations, laughter and moments of reflection.

Tomorrow the camp ends and I will leave Semic once again. But for now, for this moment, I am back in the place of a thousand memories.

My life truly has come full circle.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

More Kisses from Kiev

First Kiss - From the Capital of Craziness

One year ago, when I last wrote from the Ukraine, I mentioned that Kiev was a very westernised city, much like any other European capital.

My experiences during the past eight days have encouraged me to revise that opinion.

Indeed, in the past week I have witnessed much Eastern European craziness, experienced real Soviet backwardness and encountered such absurdity, such outlandish stupidity, that 24 hours ago I was standing in the centre of Kiev shouting obscenities at strangers who couldn't understand a word of what I was saying and who were continuing to go about their lives blissfully unaware that, in simple terms, this is just not the way that things are done.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Second Kiss - The Great Ticket Adventure

This particular adventure in Eastern Europe began on 4 September 2007 when I made my way to Liverpool John Lennon airport and boarded a Ryanair flight to Riga.

After a 3 hour wait in the capital of Latvia, I boarded another flight with Air Baltic which took me to Kiev where Emily was waiting for me, hugs and kisses at the ready.

That's where the craziness began.

From Borispol International Airport we headed to the central railway station where Emily attempted to buy tickets to Simferopol.

We were told that there were no tickets available and that we should return a few hours later at 6pm. So we searched for a place to sit and rest but, as a testament to the genius of Soviet planning, there are no seats on the lower level of the railway station. The seats are two floors up, where there is nothing but seats.

Unfortunately, the lifts were out of order, so we had to struggle up two flights of stairs with our suitcases. When we eventually made it, we were approached by two shady looking individuals who told us they could sell us two train tickets to Simferopol on the 'black market' for twice the usual price. We declined their kind offer.

Later, we realised the reason there were no tickets was because shady individuals like this had bought them to sell to needy travellers like us.

So, we waited. At 6pm we returned to the ticket office but were told that there were still no tickets available for that evening and so we bought two tickets for travel the following day.

With nowhere to stay in Kiev, we remained at the railway station for a few more hours. Just before we were about to leave, Emily and I joined another queue to ask again about tickets to Simferopol.

After a 30 minute wait, the woman behind the booth told us that there were indeed tickets to Simferopol available for that same evening but we would first have to cancel the tickets we had bought some hours earlier when we were told by another woman behind another booth that there were no tickets available.

So, we joined another queue, spoke to another woman and she cancelled the tickets. Then we returned to the first queue and after about ten minutes of waiting in line the woman put a sign in the window and went off for her twenty minute break.

These twenty minute breaks occur at regular intervals during the day and give the overweight women who work behind these booths the chance to go and use the toilet, fart, eat a sandwich, whatever. All people can do is remain in line and wait.

Eventually the woman returned and, after much fussing, fighting and farting, we purchased our tickets and at about 10pm we boarded a Soviet train that would take us to Simferopol in the Crimea.

But this was to be just the very beginning of our adventures in the Ukraine. Things would get much worse from this point on.

Third Kiss - Kisses from a Man in Kiev

For the duration of our 13-hour journey to the Crimea we shared a compartment with a young man called Roma. Roma was energetic, talkative and well on his way to becoming an alcoholic.

An hour into our journey Roma produced the customary bottle of vodka, and more to keep him quiet, I agreed to one drink.

One drink soon turned to five and hours later we were drinking to my health, to his health, to Emily's health, to love, to the memory of his dead cat, to his shoelaces, to the woman he had met on the metro in Kiev who had held the door open for him.

He was calling me his brother and kissing me on the cheeks (not altogether an unpleasant experience) but by 1am I was tired and ready to sleep. But there would be little sleep for me that night.

Roma went on and on, like Ariston, and even when I turned out the light and crawled into bed he came in and out of the compartment, called me his brother and told me jokes that did not translate.

At 4am we pulled into a station and Roma jumped off the train and somehow managed to buy a small blue teddy bear. He shook us awake to show it to us.

By 6am even he was starting to become tired and after spending forty minutes trying to remove his jeans, he clambered into the bed above me and quickly fell asleep, only to begin snoring minutes later.

At 1pm we arrived in Simferopol and, after more kisses, we bid farewell to the unforgettable Roma and made our way to Sevastopol and then on to a small town called Balaklava where Emily's aunt Olya and uncle Slava and their son Sergei where waiting for us.

Fourth Kiss - Memory of a Crisis in the Crimea

We arrived in the Crimea nearly one year to the day since I last visited this sunny spot in the Ukraine. I almost lost my life in Balaklava, when I became stuck on a cliff for more than 24 hours before being rescued by Ukrainian mountain rescue.

Thankfully, there were no such adventures this time round, just five days of sea, sun, sand and shashlik.

The Crimea is a beautiful place, bordering the Black Sea, with Turkey on the opposite side.

Balaklava is a town many tourists never reach. It was a nuclear submarine base during the Soviet era and was closed off. Even today, many local people simply don't know it exists.

I spent those 5 days in Balaklava staying with Emily's relatives. They are very nice, hospitable people and a real contrast to the Westerners I meet every day.

They live in a very small, cramped two room flat. For the duration of our stay, Sergei gave us his bed and slept on the floor in his parents room. This is normal in Belarus and the Ukraine. Can you imagine some Brit doing something like that?

Emily's Aunt looked after me, fed me, gave me presents and treated me like a son. One day we visited Olya's mother in Sevastopol, an eighty year old woman, and she was just as hospitable.

She prepared borsch for us and gave me some home made liquor (made from mixing vodka and rose petals) to take home to my Mum.

We sat and talked about the Ukraine, the negative impact the USA has on every country around the world, her life and her health problems. When it was time to leave, Emily was close to tears, and I was too, not knowing if we would ever see this kind old lady again.

We left the Crimea on Monday. Just before leaving Balaklava, I returned to the cliff where I spent the worst 24 hours of my life. When I was rescued last year, I tied my towel to a branch I had sheltered under during my ordeal.

On Monday I climbed down a little and was able to make out my little branch below but my towel was gone, perhaps taken by the wind, or perhaps by an intrepid climber who may have wondered why on earth there was a towel tied to a tree half way down a cliff in Balaklava.

Late Monday evening we left the Crimea behind once again and returned to the capital of the Ukraine where more Soviet kisses, more madness, awaited us.

Fifth Kiss - Crisis in Kiev

We arrived in Kiev at 11.30am yesterday and should have been met at the railway station by a woman from a flat agency who was to take us to an apartment I had arranged to rent.

Of course, this being the former USSR, she wasn't there, so we phoned her. We were told by her partner that she wasn't home and we were asked to call back in 20 minutes.

We waited and then called back. The phone was engaged. We called again and reached her. Through a mouthful of food, the woman asked us to call back in 5 minutes.

We called back and she told us to go and wait outside McDonald's near the railway station and that she would come and collect us in 20 minutes and take us to the apartment. So, we went and waited.

After an hour, it was clear that she wasn't coming. We phoned her again. From that point on she simply didn't answer the phone. The apartment was not available. The bitch had lied and lied.

With nowhere to stay, we headed to a local Internet cafe to try to find somewhere but there was nowhere and nothing available, other than hotels that were well out of my reach financially. We phoned hotels, flat agencies, hostels, everywhere, but there was nothing.

Eventually, we found two options. There was a hostel at the railway station where we could take a room after 7pm for $20 per night and one flat agency had a flat available for $120 per night.

We decided on the hostel, and went back shortly before 7pm, only to find that there were no longer any rooms or beds available. Everything was taken. So in desperation, we phoned the flat agency and asked to take the flat but were told that someone else had taken it less than thirty minutes earlier.

It was shortly after this that I started shouting obscenities at strangers in the street in Kiev.

I admit that in my own country I encounter stupidity, incompetence and a lack of common sense fairly regularly. But in the former USSR things like this happen almost every day and there are times when it all becomes too much to bear and something just snaps.

There was however a happy ending late last night when I managed to find a 2 star hotel (for $140 per night) far from the centre of Kiev.

But for now I have just about had my fill of the Ukraine. As I wrote when I began this entry, people just don't seem to understand that this is not the way that things are done.

Last Kiss - Kisses from Kiev

So this is my final night in Kiev. Tomorrow I will say goodbye to Emily's kisses and head to Riga where I will stay for one night before returning to the UK for ten hours and then travelling on to Slovenia.

I am not sure if or when I will return to the Ukraine. I have no plans to do so. I will however return to Minsk in Belarus again in November or December, and that's pretty close to the Ukraine, geographically as well as politically and ideologically.

Until then, and until Slovenia, it's goodbye and a kiss to Emily, and goodbye to the craziness and madness of the former USSR.

Onward to civilisation.

Take care all.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Messages from Minsk

Message 1 - Message in a Bubble

This entry comes to you from a city at the end of the world.

To reach this forgotten and isolated place, I had to travel thousands of miles by land and air. I also had to travel back in time, back to a time when the hammer and sickle ruled Eastern Europe.

I am writing from Mogilev, a small city of a few hundred thousand people close to the Russian border.

This is not my first visit to Mogilev; I have visited this off-the-map place many times. In fact, I lived and worked here for six months in a nearby orphanage when I was 26 years old. Now I am back, back at the end of the world, back in the USSR.

A few days ago I had a party in this flat with a Mexican, a dozen 19-year-old Belorussian girls and plenty of Soviet vodka. Written on the bottom of the cups we were drinking our vodka from were the words: Made in the USSR. On a shelf in this room are an assortment of books dating back to the early days of the Soviet Union. Believe it or not, there are also a number of magazines, dated 1990 - 1991, which appear to glorify Stalin (the covers show photos of Stalin meeting The Workers, Stalin hugging a little girl).

A few days ago I said goodbye to the Mexican as he boarded a train to Moscow at a station which has changed little since the days when Khrushchev and Castro were sharing vodka and missiles.

Perhaps this country's Soviet past is not so much in the past after all.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let me get back to the very beginning, back to where it all began.

Message 2 - Condoms for Breakfast

Picking up from where I left off, I departed Quito, the capital of Ecuador, on 15 February. I managed to have more adventures and misadventures during my final hours in South America.

I arrived at Quito airport with $25 to pay the necessary departure tax, only to find that the $25 tax had become a $32 tax.

I had a grand total of $31.75 in my wallet and my Visa Electron cash card which would not work in the airport cash machines. I was 25 cents short and the airport staff would not let me proceed through security until I had paid the departure tax in full.

I was facing being stranded in South America because of a tiny sum of money, and could well have been, had an American tourist not learned of my plight and stepped to give me 25 cents.

This little episode made me angry and so when, after proceeding through security, I was approached by a young woman who started asking me questions about why I was in Ecuador, I was more than a little rude with her. I was in no mood to explain I had been living with Indians in the Amazon rainforest for the past four weeks.

With a smile, the young woman asked me to follow her into a nearby room. She was going to exercise the little bit of power that she had and she was going to teach this angry Englishman a lesson.

She pointed to a sign on the wall, written in Spanish, of which I could understand just one word: NARCÓTICO. That one word was enough.

After putting my signature to a sheet of paper, I was instructed to drop my trousers and place a protective sheath over my private parts. I was then x-rayed to see if I was carrying any illegal substances in my stomach.

Of course there was nothing of any interest in my stomach, other than plenty of boiled and fried bananas, a liquidised Mars Bar, a rusty licence plate, the remains of a young female bather and a small wooden puppet going by the name of Pinocchio.

After an apology from the young woman, my stomach and I were allowed to go on our way and I finally boarded my flight and left Ecuador and the Amazon far behind.

Message 3 - Trials and Tribulations in Toronto

After another pit stop in Panama and a few days in Mexico City with my friend Cesar, I flew on to Toronto where I had a ten-hour wait for my connecting flight to London.

I had intended to spend the day discovering Toronto, but it didn't quite turn out that way. In fact, it didn't turn out that way at all.

I arrived at the airport with no cash. I planned to use my Visa Electron card but I could not find a cash machine that would accept it.

I spent five hours walking around Toronto, through slush and snow, in freezing temperatures, searching for that elusive cash machine, but I could not find a single ATM that would give me cash.

After almost being stranded in Ecuador, I could have been stranded in Canada too. Luckily the airport bus driver accepted my Visa Electron and so I was at least able to get to and from the airport.

After walking the streets for the afternoon I headed to the CN Tower where I had arranged to meet the infamous David Shakespeare, the star of many of my mass emails.

But David turned out to be just as elusive as that cash machine and we did not meet. (I found out some days later that David was waiting for me on the opposite side of the tower).

After an hour I headed into the tower. They accepted my Visa Electron card and so I was able to reach the top of the CN Tower.

Standing 553 metres tall, attracting around two million visitors every year, the CN Tower is an icon of Canada and currently holds the title of the world's tallest freestanding structure on land.

Near to the top of the tower is a glass floor which I stood upon and looked at all of the cars and crowds far below, smaller than ants, wrapped up in their lives, thinking about money and sex and family and money and sex, most of them unaware that the foreign policy of the world's major powers is endangering all of our lives.

Next to the glass floor is a sign which states that the glass is strong enough to hold 14 hippos (or three average-sized American teenagers) but despite this many of the people around me were still too afraid to walk onto the glass. People are such wimps.

After scaling the tower I made my way back to the airport to catch my flight to London.

Looking back, I did not enjoy my brief stay in Canada.

After a month in South America and a few days in Mexico, returning to a capitalist country was not pleasant and I found the people of Toronto to be rude and insincere. In fact, I saw little difference between Toronto and any US city, with people hanging around on street corners selling hockey tickets and the awful Support Our Troops posters scattered across the city.

A Canadian told me that Toronto is possibly the worst city in Canada to visit, and perhaps I am being a little too judgemental, but I really did not like Toronto or the people and I have no desire to return.

Message 4 - Perchance to Dream

I arrived at Heathrow the following day and boarded a coach that took me from London to Liverpool.

I arrived at my Mother's house around midnight and after unpacking and repacking I set my alarm and fell asleep at two in the morning. A little under two hours later the alarm woke me and at 4.30am my Mother, my brother and I made our way to a local bus stop where we boarded a coach that would take us to Ostend in Belgium.

By this point I was exhausted. I could barely think, let alone speak, and all of my energy was spent just trying to keep my eyes open.

In the past three days I had been to Ecuador, Panama, Mexico, Toronto, the UK and now I was on my way to Belgium. I had barely eaten, barely slept and had gone from unbearable heat in Ecuador and Mexico to six below zero in Canada to rain in the UK.

In a word, I was tired.

A day later my family and I arrived at our hotel in Ostend and I was finally able to get my head on a pillow. I closed my eyes and slept for more than fourteen hours - and woke up feeling tired.

Message 5 - Feeling Old in Ostend

Exhaustion aside, I enjoyed my time in Belgium and I was glad that I got to know my Mum, Jackie, and my brother Mark a little better.

I am not close to my family; we are very different people I think, and this was our first family holiday for years and years and a chance for us all to enjoy ourselves and spend some quality time together.

I enjoyed the holiday too, though spending my days with a bus load of people twice my age is not normally my idea of fun.

Still, they were pleasant days. I got to explore the beautiful city of Bruges and, after my ordeal in the Amazon rainforest, a short holiday in Belgium was a welcome prescription for rest and recovery.

My family and I returned to the UK on Friday and on Sunday I packed my bags once again and headed to Liverpool John Lennon airport where I boarded a flight to Riga in Latvia. Once there I made my way to Belarus and to the Soviet Union.

Message 6 - Back in the USSR

The Republic of Belarus really is an anomaly.

It is hard to believe that in the year 2007 this throw-back to the Soviet Union still exists.

Everywhere you go in Minsk there are reminders of the past: Statues of Lenin, Soviet symbols, the KGB - still called the KGB - driving around in their 4x4s, silently observing the population.

Belarus is stuck in a time-warp; it's not that things in Belarus aren't changing, they are, they are just changing very, very slowly.

A black hole in the centre of Europe, the Republic of Belarus is trapped, trapped in the past, perhaps a little afraid of the future.

Life is different here, different to any other country I have visited. Belarus is cocooned, protected by a bubble.

There is almost no unemployment, no risk of terrorism and very little crime. The problems we face in the West don't apply here. Life is safer, different, unique and a little detached from reality.

It's difficult to put into words, but this is similar to what life was like in the Soviet Union. Simply, people felt protected.

Unfortunately, because Belarus is still pretty much the same as when Gorbachev was in power, life can be frustrating. Nothing works and when things do work they mostly work badly.

Common sense could not get a visa for Belarus; bureaucracy rules, the transport system is a mess, things are old and getting older.

Belarus does, however, have one redeeming feature: its people. Belarus is home to the finest people in Europe, possibly the finest in the world. Warm, friendly and sincere, these are good people and they have not yet had their souls corrupted by capitalism.

But things are changing. But we'll get to that later.

Message 7 - Message from Minsk

Undoubtedly the most surreal moment of this visit to Minsk occurred when I went with Emily to the funeral of her uncle who had died some days earlier.

Emily had just buried her beloved hamster Pushok and she asked me to accompany her to her uncle's funeral to give her support. It was a bizarre experience.

It started with Emily and I meeting her uncle's grieving relatives outside his flat. After a long wait, his coffin was brought out and placed in the street on four wooden chairs. The lid was taken off and we took it in turns to place flowers on his body.

I had never met this man before and the first time I saw him he was lying in a coffin, his skin a horrible yellow colour, almost translucent.

I placed a red rose on his chest and the coffin was sealed and placed in a funeral car. We clambered into a Soviet bus and followed the coffin to the cemetery where Emily's uncle was cremated.

After the cremation, we made our way to a cafe where I sat for four hours, surrounded by the man's wife and daughter and grieving relatives, a stranger in their midst, as everyone took it in turns to stand up and make a speech about the dearly departed.

My God it was so awful! It was such a depressing experience and so weird, being there when I didn't know any of those people.

I hope that when I die my funeral is nothing like that; I don't want people to cry and tell sad stories about me, I want people to celebrate my life and the fact that I lived.

Other than that, that month in Belarus was one that I enjoyed; basking in Emily's love, visiting the kids at the orphanage, eating in restaurants, losing money at the casino and doing the normal things that I do when I visit the last surviving remnant of the USSR.

After the month was up I returned to the UK and tried to make some money. In early May I boarded another flight and made my way back to Belarus once again.

Message 8 - Message from Mogilev

On April 26, 1986 there was a huge explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine. A plume of radioactive fallout drifted over Europe. Most of the fallout fell over Belarus.

Mogilev - along with Gomel - was one of the cities in Belarus most affected by the accident at Chernobyl. When I first visited Mogilev in 1999, I was told not to drink the milk or eat the mushrooms.

Eight years later here I am back again in Mogilev and yes, I am drinking the milk. I try not to, but faced with a calcium deficiency or possible radiation poisoning, I usually opt for the radiation poisoning.

Besides, the girls of Mogilev drink it and they are beautiful, so I think I will take my chances with the milk.

It's just a shame it's in those damn bags.

Message 9 - A Mexican in Mogilev

Until a few days ago my friend Cesar was here with me in Mogilev.

He flew to Belarus a couple of weeks ago and we spent our time visiting classes at a local university so that the language students could hear native English and Spanish speakers in action and ask us questions about England and Mexico.

We invited most of those students back to our flat and have had lots of parties, spent lots of money, drank lots of vodka and played lots of drinking games.

My time in Mogilev has been enjoyable enough. The people in this part of Belarus are friendly, warm and communicative. But they seem to have changed since I first arrived in September 1999.

Back then if I visited a cafe with someone they would insist that they pay for themselves. Now people are more than happy to let me pay for them and, to be honest, I have gotten pretty sick of it.

It is not nice to go out with someone - both men and women - and have them order things from the menu and then just assume that I will pay for them. On the whole, the people I have met have been very nice, but because I have met so many, I feel now that a few have been taking advantage of me.

I guess it was inevitable simply because Cesar and I met dozens of people. Nonetheless, it has put on a dampener on what otherwise would have been a nice time. It never use to be like this; like everyone else, the Belorussian people are changing.

When I return here later in the year I will not be so foolish with my cash. I have been a little stupid, and next time I will be much wiser and more careful because these incidences have almost ruined what otherwise has been a nice fortnight in Mogilev.

Message 10 - Putting My Passport to Sleep

So, this is my final message.

I have just re-read this entry and realised that there was nothing much to report.

No getting lost in the Amazon rainforest, no great cliff adventures. I didn't even get arrested in Latvia.

Cesar is back in Mexico now, no doubt drinking his USSR vodka and, I hope, remembering the days he spent with me in this crazy country in a flat in a little city at the end of the world.

There are no lessons to be learned from this entry, no great wisdom shared. Just a tale of an Englishman who went to the USSR and came back a little poorer and a little older.

It's time to put my passport to sleep for the next few months. But it won't be resting for too long. There are many more people to do and things to see.

Until next time, take care, Emily. Take care, Cesar.

Thanks for reading this.

Skyler Black.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Adventures in the Amazon

Day 1 - Pitstop in Panama

Picking up from where I left off last time, I left Mexico City on January 15 and boarded a flight to Quito in Ecuador.

I enjoyed my time in Mexico City and look forward to returning. Never have I visited such a city of contrasts, where abject poverty goes hand in hand with great wealth, where old men on bended knee shine the shoes of young men dressed in designer suits.

My flight to Quito included an unscheduled change in Panama City, giving me the chance to become one of around 7,000 Britons who visit Panama each year and also giving me less than seven minutes to run through the airport to catch my second flight to Ecuador.

I was met at Quito airport by a man named Jose who drove me to my hotel. He did his job, making sure he ripped me off by charging me three times the normal rate for an airport pick-up.

I had arrived in South America.

Day 4 - The Sting

After three days in Quito, I was ready to head to the Amazon. I had taken a few Spanish lessons, learned a couple of words and got to know the capital a little.

I also got my head around the fact that the US dollar is now the national currency of Ecuador. I arrived in Quito just as the country was swearing in it's new president, the left-leaning Rafael Correa. Evo Morales and the great Hugo Chavez were in Ecuador to show their support for their new friend.

I met another volunteer in Quito, a young man named Ash Perrin, who was also heading to the Amazon. We had been in touch by email and arranged to meet in the capital. For reasons I will explain later, I shall refer to this young man as The Clown from now on.

Just before we were due to catch our bus, we popped into KFC where I mentioned to The Clown that in all my years of travelling I had never been the victim of theft or any sort of crime.

I explained how, although I have been ripped off and attacked in the UK, I have never had any serious problems on my travels. Even as I was uttering those words, I felt I was tempting fate.

An hour later and we were sat on a bus headed for Puyo, gateway city to the Amazon.

As we left Quito, three young men boarded the bus. One sat next to me, three sat behind. The one sitting next to me engaged me in conversation while occasionally looking back at his friends.

I knew something was going on, but my wallet and passport were in my jeans pocket, and my backpack was on the rack above me, so I thought that I was safe.

After the young men left the bus, a woman sitting across from me told me they had searched my backpack. They had stolen my personal CD Player and a mobile phone my Mother had borrowed me.

I was a little disappointed, especially about the CD Player as I needed it to listen to my language CDs, but the area where these young men left the bus was nothing more than a slum, and when people live in poverty it is inevitable that some will turn to crime.

The theft was soon forgotten as we continued our journey and the road grew ever steeper as we climbed higher and the bus zoomed along at break neck speed.

Occasionally I would look out of the window and see nothing but a small kerb separating the bus from a 200 foot drop into a roaring river below. I soon learned to stop looking out of the window.

We arrived in Puyo late evening and boarded another bus which would take us to the Arutam Rainforest Reserve. As the bus made its way along a dusty road, The Clown and I wondered what on earth we were doing. We had no idea what to expect. We didn't even know if anyone knew we were coming. We just knew that we were going to have to get off the bus, in the Amazon rainforest, in total darkness, without a torch or a box of matches between us.

Two hours later we arrived at Arutam and were met by friendly looking Shuar Indian named Ernesto who emerged from the darkness and took us into his hut. Ernesto owns the land around Arutam, all 2710 hectares of it. He is in his mid fifties and has two wives and 22 children, eleven boys and eleven girls.

After a brief introduction, I was shown to my living quarters, which turned out to be a hut a short distance from Ernesto's house.

The hut was quite possibly built by Homer Simpson. There were huge gaps everywhere and the walls didn't quite make it to the roof. My bed was five planks of wood resting on four upturned logs.

Before I went to bed, Ernesto recommended that I shake out my boots before putting them on in the morning in case a tarantula had made his home there during the night.

I turned out the light and was engulfed in a darkness I have never experienced before. Total blackness. The kind of blackness where your eyes never get used to the dark and you see nothing at all.

I lay there for hours, listening to the sounds of the jungle, expecting to feel something crawling up my leg at any moment, and eventually I feel asleep and had some very strange dreams.

Day 5 - Into the Amazon

It's Friday now, my fifth day in Ecuador, and I am writing this on a sheet of paper in my hut, to be added to my blog later.

From now on I will try to keep a regular record of my experiences so I don't have to write about them later.

Today I accomplished an ambition and ventured into the Amazon rainforest. It was incredible.

The Amazon is the world's largest rainforest. Larger than Europe, it stretches across eight countries, from Ecuador to Brazil, and is home to a third of the world's species.

Despite more than thirty years of deforestation, the Amazon is still about 70% - 80% intact. There are up to 70 Indian tribes living in the Amazon that have never had contact with the outside world. Many of these Indians still hunt with bows and arrows.

The Arutam Rainforest Reserve is a protected area on the edge of the Amazon in Ecuador. In one direction is the Andes, in the other, undisturbed rainforest stretches all the way to Peru and Brazil. It was into this rainforest that I ventured alone today.

I wandered along a trail that cuts into the Amazon for 6km. At one point I thought to myself: My God, I'm in the Amazon. Then I thought to myself: My God, I'm in the Amazon! There are jaguars, pumas and anacondas living in this forest! So I returned to the reserve, borrowed a machete and returned to the trail.

I spent four hours in the Amazon and didn't want to leave. Eventually it grew late and I returned to Ernesto's community where I played chase with some Shuar kids and ate a meal of mashed banana before returning to my planks of wood, where it's now time to turn off the light in the hope of finding sleep.

Day 6 - Problems with the Volunteers

A curious thing happened today. Other than myself and The Clown, there are three other volunteers here, one German boy of twenty and two 19-year-old German girls.

This morning I went to Ernesto's hut with The Clown and the German boy to tuck into a breakfast of boiled banana (the German girls eat in another hut) and both The Clown and the German ignored me.

They were both speaking to each other in English but made no attempt to include me in the conversation and when I tried to speak to them they were unresponsive. This has not happened to me for a long time. I have been nothing but nice to the volunteers, but it is clear they don't like me very much. They are spending a lot of time together and ignoring me.

The Germans girls spend most of their times talking about 'hot guys' and using words like 'awesome' and 'cool'.

Other than that, not much happened today. Tomorrow I do what I came here to do, starting work helping the Shuar in the reserve.

Day 7 - Chased by a Rabid Dog

Okay, so the dog was not rabid, but it was still pretty wild, and it did chase me.

After spending the morning planting trees, I headed into the Amazon again, passing Ernesto's hut to reach the trail, when a crazy dog saw me and went wild.

I think it was the fact I was carrying a machete; the dog saw me as a threat. It followed me along the trail for half an hour, barking wildly and running at me, only backing off as I raised the machete.

Drenched in sweat, I shouting obscenities at the mutt as I made my way backwards up the trail. It was only as I made my way deeper into the Amazon that the animal gave up the chase. I sat on a tree stump and took some time to recover before continuing on my way.

I left the trail today and explored the Amazon on my own terms. I returned to my hut early evening where I write to you from now. It's 9pm and time for sleep.

More tomorrow.

Buonas noches.

Day 8 - Secrets of the Shuar

I must say, I am disappointed with this project. I came here expecting to be living in the rainforest with Indians who walk around with their faces covered in paint and their penises hanging out.

Instead, I am living next to a road which cuts through the Amazon, with indifferent gap year students and Indians who wear jeans and t-shirts and who listen to Britney Spears on crappy hi-fi systems.

Until quite recently, the Shuar were amongst the most feared of all Indian tribes, famous for shrinking the heads of their enemies.

In the 1960s Christian missionaries arrived and introduced the Shuar to God. Today you can see many churches as you travel the 48km from Puyo to Arutam. Next week the volunteers and I begin laying the foundations for a church in Arutam itself.

Today, the Shuar living in and around Arutam are budding little capitalists. They want their microwave ovens and MTV. They still live much as they did centuries ago, in old wooden huts, surviving on a diet of manioc beer and fruit from the forest, but now they have fridge freezers, TVs and bicycles.

There are, however, still many Indians living in the forest who shun the outside world, who walk around with their faces covered in paint and their penises hanging out, and we should be thankful for that.

Day 9 - Lost in the Amazon

I have come to understand that the Shuar people are completely obsessed with bananas.

Every meal we eat together involves bananas, whether it's fried banana, mashed banana or boiled banana. I should be grateful however; today a banana quite possibly saved my life.

I was walking in the jungle earlier this afternoon when I urgently had to answer the call of nature.

I always carry toilet paper with me for these little emergencies. After finding a tree to hide behind, I did my business, only to find that I had left behind a perfectly formed, yellowish banana. It looked so real that I was almost tempted to try to peel it.

After leaving my banana in the jungle, I continued my exploration of the Amazon and followed the same route I took yesterday leading to a narrow stream. Unfortunately, at one crucial point I took a wrong turn and after about half an hour of walking, I realised, with total horror, that I was lost.

It's difficult to put into words how horrible it felt to be lost in the Amazon. I tried to retrace my steps but I couldn't find the way I had came and I ended up becoming more and more lost.

My vision became blurred as panic set in and though I was trying to think logically, I was so afraid, it was impossible for me to do so.

At that point, for the first time since I got stuck on a cliff in the Ukraine six months ago, I knew that my life was in danger.

I was lost in a rainforest larger than Europe, and even if I walked the equivalent of the distance from the United Kingdom to Germany, I would still find myself in that rainforest.

After an hour of walking, I spotted something which made me cry out in joy, the sweetest sight I have ever seen: There, next to a big old tree, was the banana that I had deposited earlier.

I was saved by own poo.

I knew then how to get back to the trail and I knew that I was not going to die in the Amazon. I was so happy to get back to the reserve and so happy to be safe that for a moment I almost hugged The Clown.

But it was only for a moment. And only almost.

Day 11 - Meeting Saddam Hussein

You will have to excuse me, for I appear to be going mad.

I am having some very strange dreams.

A few nights ago I dreamt that I was living in a big house and Saddam Hussein was employed as my butler. He went away to get executed, only to turn up for work the next morning. I tried to tell the world that Saddam Hussein was not dead, he was my butler, but before I could spread the word I woke up.

The following night I dreamed that Samuel L Jackson and I met Michael Jackson, who was dressed as a woman. Someone told Michael that my name was Peter Pan and he greeted me as Peter. Before I could explain that I was not Peter Pan, I woke up again.

Last night I had the strangest dream of all: I dreamed that I had become a God, omnipotent, and I could travel the world in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, I was being stalked by Howling Mad Murdoch from The A-Team who had also become a God. Before he could catch me the dream came to an end.

I think that the anti-malaria tablets I am taking are doing strange things to my brain. Or perhaps I am really am going mad in the Amazon rainforest.

Bizarre dreams aside, nothing much of note has happened in the past days. The German boy left the project which I was quite happy about. That just leaves myself, The Clown and the two German girls.

Tomorrow a new French volunteer arrives. I am putting all of my hopes in him, that he will be someone who will want to talk to me, someone I will be able to have an interesting conversation with who will not ignore me or find me uninteresting.

Until tomorrow, this is me, going mad, lying on planks of wood in a hut on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, wishing you well and saying goodnight.

Day 12 - The Discovery

The French volunteer has arrived.

He is a gap year student.

Day 15 - Pitstop in Puyo

For the past three days I have been asking myself one question: How much rejection can one man take?

The German girls left the project on Friday to go travelling and The Clown went with them for a week.

I was getting on well with the French boy (who from this point on I shall refer to as The Frog), when on Friday night two French ecotourists arrived. I awoke Saturday to find that The Frog had left for the weekend to visit another city with the ecotourists.

I was left alone with Shuar Indians with whom I cannot communicate as I do not speak Spanish (or Shuar), so I headed to Puyo for two days which is where I am now, writing to you from an Internet cafe.

Earlier I bumped into one of Ernesto´s eleven daughters, a girl called Cecilia who is studying in Puyo. I met her in Arutam. We spoke as best we could given the language barrier, until she asked me if I had a girlfriend. When I replied that I did, she became uninterested, she played with her mobile phone, she looked away.

I ask myself that same question once again: How much rejection can one man take?

Cecilia, you're breaking my heart, you're shaking my confidence daily...

Day 17 - Taunted by Tarantulas

Two days have passed since my last entry and all I can say is I was bowled over by the welcome I received when I returned to Arutam.

Not from the Indians, or The Frog, but from the insects and creepy crawlies that had taken up residence in my hut while I was away.

I found a bizarre, wood-coloured spider on my door which I only spotted when I tried to hang my coat on it. I tried to kill it but it moved with lightening speed and hid under my planks of wood.

Then I went to move my toilet paper and a huge black tarantula jumped from behind the roll, landed on the floor with a light thud and darted under my bed, where it probably ate the other spider. (You wait ages to see a tarantula and then two turn up at once).

Last night I was lying in my bed when a huge moth almost the size of my hand found it's way inside my mosquito net and started flying into my face. I tried to turn my torch on, but it wouldn't work, and all the time this black monstrosity was hitting me in the face. I ended up using half of my bottle of mosquito repellent killing one moth.

I am being taunted by tarantulas and attacked by giant moths. I have become a walking buffet for bugs. I smell. My clothes are ruined. The people here don't like me. What the hell am I doing here?

Day 18 - La Cascada / El Volcan

Today was a strange day. The day started with a three hour hike to a beautiful waterfall in the Amazon, a spiritual place for the Shuar, where the souls of the departed are supposed to find their peace.

Later The Frog and I had a water fight with a few Shuar kids and shortly afterwards The Clown returned (without the German girls, who have now left the project) and very quickly he started ignoring me again. As you can imagine, I was not happy.

I call the clown The Clown because that's exactly what he is - a clown.

He paints his face, puts on a red nose and entertains kids at parties. People like him because he's funny and good at making jokes about bodily functions (I am not funny and spend most of my time trying to control my bodily functions).

Shortly after he returned to Arutam he began ignoring me and today he did it again. A few hours later The Frog thought it was okay to be rude to me too. Well, after weeks of dealing with gap year students who have been treating me like crap, enough was finally enough.

I erupted.

I shook The Frog. I screamed at him. I told him and The Clown exactly what I thought of them. I went a little overboard, completely freaking out, and by the end of it they both looked terrified.

They both apologised, and although I still don't like them, I think it will be a while until I am treated like crap again, at least by them, until I meet somebody else who thinks they can treat me like crap.

Days 19, 20 and 21 - Two Feathers

These past days have been wonderful, some of the best of my life.

It is Sunday now and The Clown, The Frog and I have just returned from spending the weekend with an Indian family who live deep in the rainforest. The head of the family, a man named Jorge, met us at Arutam and took us on a gruelling five hour hike to his home, which included wading through a river where we hoped no hungry piranhas were waiting for us.

We spent the weekend bathing in waterfalls, swinging from vines, fishing and then eating our catch. We even got to eat some strange worm-like larvae living inside a tree.

Jorge's children, six girls and one boy, were amazing. The sweetest children I have met. All big brown eyes and wide smiles. I spent the weekend giving them aeroplane spins and playing chase.

When I was a child and I dreamed of visiting the Amazon, it was this weekend I dreamed about. Even the farting competitions and silly conversations between The Frog and The Clown couldn't spoil it.

We left the family this morning and returned to Arutam. As we were leaving, one of the little girls, whose name I cannot pronounce, gave me two little feathers as a parting gift.

I am not ashamed to admit that a few minutes ago I took out those feathers and cried a little to think that I may never see those beautiful children again.

I will keep those two little feathers for the rest of my life. They will always remind me of a beautiful weekend and the nicest children I have ever met.

Days 22, 23 and 24 - Isaac Newton with Stitches

As my adventures in the Amazon draw to a close, here is a brief summary of some recent events...

Two days ago I was walking along the dusty road that cuts through the Amazon and runs alongside Arutam when a large coconut type object fell from a tree and landed a few feet in front of me. Had it landed on my head, it would have left me with a serious injury.

I learned that Jorge will be visiting Arutam again next week and so I headed to Puyo where I bought some gifts for him and his family, including soap, sweets, toothpaste and lots of presents for the kids. I did not want to be like one of these moronic gap year students; seeing the poverty all around me and doing nothing, and so I am glad I have done something, even if it is something very small.

A few more volunteers have arrived and as much as I hate to say it, they are spending most of their time with The Frog and The Clown and I can find very little to talk about with them.

I have learned that Ricky Martin is the Prince of South America and Shakira the undisputed Queen. But that is not such a bad thing.

I have now seen five tarantulas, two parrots, one bat, two cockroaches, two giant moths, one grasshopper the size of a small bird and one very poisonous but very flat and very dead snake.

Day 25 - I'm Not a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here

So that's it. My adventures in the Amazon are over. Today I said adiós to the Arutam Rainforest Reserve. Its 9pm on Thursday and I am writing to you from a hostel in Banos, tourist haven and adventure sports capital of Ecuador.

None of the volunteers said goodbye to me. The Frog travelled to Puyo this morning for the day but rather than share a bus with me, he disappeared early, which meant he did not have to say goodbye.

I said farewell to the Amazon earlier and took a long walk alongside a stream. At one point I had to climb over a fallen tree trunk which was resting vertically against another tree. As I jumped off, the tree rolled and fell into the water with a thunderous roar.

On my way back to Arutam I came across a beautiful huge butterfly, easily as big as my hand, resting on a piece of wood.

It refused to move, and did not seem to mind my presence, and so I sat and watched it for a while. As I did so, it slowly stopped moving and passed away before my eyes. I realised that the butterfly had gone there to die, and that almost made me cry.

I left Arutam shortly after midday and some of the Shuar, including Ernesto, said goodbye to me and wished me well.

And that was my goodbye to the Amazon.

Day 30 - The Ultimate Adventure

This entry comes to you from Banos where I have been for the past five days. I think I have accomplished more in these five days than I have in any other five days in my thirty-three years on this planet.

On Friday I went white water rafting (only a Level 3 river, so quite wimpy and not scary enough) and then on Saturday I went horse back riding and ended up with a horse with a farting problem.

On Sunday I climbed the Tungurahua volcano, which erupted in August killing at least five people. I paid for a guide for the day who, funnily enough, turned out to be a young Shuar man.

It was incredibly gruelling, climbing into the clouds, but well worth it. We cycled part of the way back and on one very steep road my brakes failed, which could have been very nasty.

Later I hired a quad bike for two hours and went roaring around town, which was fantastic. I topped the day off with a Swedish massage at a nearby massage parlour before heading to a local restaurant and tucking into fried sea bass for less than $5.

Yesterday I went canyoning, abseiling down three waterfalls, one more than 45 metres high, and today I hired a bicycle for the day and planned what I thought would be a leisurely day but one that turned out to be another day when I risked life and limb.

I cycled towards Puyo until I got to a huge waterfall, the name of which escapes me. I took a cable car ride across a ravine to reach the waterfall but on the way back I thought it would be a good idea to try to climb the ravine myself. That was a mistake.

As I was climbing, I got to the point where I could go no further, and I knew I had to turn back. My backpack was weighing me down and so I let it go. It rolled and rolled. And rolled. And then rolled some more, until it almost rolled into a river.

I managed to get back down without too much trouble, but I lost quite a bit of sweat on the way and it brought back a few memories of a certain cliff and a certain brush with death.

I am back in the hostel now and this will be my last entry from Banos before leaving for Quito in the morning. By coincidence, an hour ago I bumped into a young Japanese man who arrived in Arutam the night before I left. What he told me filled me with horror.

It seems that the volunteers have given up on the project and many of them, including The Clown and The Frog, and their entourage, are coming to Banos tomorrow morning. Worse yet, they will be staying in this very hostel! My God! The horror!

To think that they will be here, using this computer, socialising and ignoring me. I will be sure to leave early tomorrow. I really need to wash the memory of those awful people from my mind.

Day 31 - Pitstop in Panama

So this is my final entry.

It's Wednesday 14 February - Valentines Day - and I am writing to you from Quito. Tomorrow I leave Ecuador, exactly one month to the day since I arrived in this beautiful part of the world.

At 07:40am I board a plane that will take me back to Mexico, with another brief stop in Panama on the way. After spending two days in Mexico City, I will head to Canada for a day, where I hope to meet up with the infamous and elusive David Shakespeare.

I arrive in London late Sunday and then early the next day I head to Belgium for five days with my mother, my brother and his girlfriend. I return on Friday and head to Latvia and Belarus on Sunday.

I have managed to spend this month in South America without making a single friend and I have been rejected by almost everybody I have met.

If I let it, this could really affect my self confidence. But I think I am stronger than that. And I am lucky to know people, people better than the morons I have met in the past month, who do like me and do find me interesting and do enjoy my company.

I really should not let these bastards get me down, although at times I have. It is unfortunate that I continue to have such problems with Westerners I meet.

This has been a difficult month and my time in the Arutam Rainforest Reserve was not a project I enjoyed. With a Laura or a Wyatt or a Cesar or a Craig, it could have been different.

Despite the difficulties of the past month, I did get a magical weekend out of it and I have two feathers with me as a reminder of those wonderful two days.

It goes without saying that I will return to the Amazon. When I was a kid and I dreamed of an Amazon adventure, it was always Brazil that I dreamed about. The next time the Amazon and I meet it will be in Brazil and there will be no Frogs or Clowns.

Thanks for reading this entry, which turned out to be a larger than a rainforest.

Take care.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

Monday, 15 January 2007

Madness in Mexico City

Ever since I was a boy I've dreamed of visiting the Amazon.

Some kids want to be astronauts. Some want to be firemen. But not me. I wanted to be an Indian, living deep in the Amazonian jungle with some unknown tribe, who would accept me as one of their own and teach me the ways of the forest.

I think a lot of that came from watching a film called The Emerald Forest based on the true story of a boy who was kidnapped by a Brazilian tribe.

It fascinated me then - and still does today - that there are Indians living in the Amazon who have never had contact with the outside world. Unknown tribes, who have lived in the rainforest for eons, and have never seen or spoken to a white man.

When I was twelve, I resolved to save up the money I was earning from my paper round - which was about £2.60 a week - and use it to visit the Amazon.

I guessed that it would take me about six months to save up the necessary airfare. When I arrived in the jungle, I genuinely believed that I would come across a tribe who would 'see the light of the forest in my eyes' and take me in as one of their own.

I planned to spend the rest of my days living blissfully amongst the trees, bathing in clear lakes and flirting with bare breasted young women. Yup, I was a strange kid.

Well twenty-one years later, at the grand old age of 33, I am finally on my way to the Amazon where I will spend the best part of a month living with the Shuar people in Ecuador.

This is the latest part of my travels. I left London Heathrow on Saturday morning and spent five hours in Toronto before boarding a connecting flight to Mexico. My time in Toronto was too short for me to form any impressions of the city, but I will return in late February, on the way back to the UK, which will give me a chance to explore Toronto and give me a taste for Canada.

I arrived in Mexico City at half past eleven in the evening on Saturday night where I was met by my friend Cesar, from my days in York, who remains one of the nicest people I have ever met.

Yesterday I spent a very nice day in his car and his company, exploring the sprawling megalopolis that is Mexico City, one of the biggest, most violent and most diverse cities on the planet.

We visited the ancient city of Teotihuacan, getting lost along the way, which gave me a chance to get a taste for the 'real' Mexico, as we passed through forgotten towns where old men in sombreros stood around, killing time and drinking beer.

We planned to visit a bull fight, but ran into some fajitas on the way, and arrived at the fight as everyone was packing and leaving.

I am not quite sure how I would have reacted to watching a bull fight, but very much regret that we were too late, as I would have liked to have experienced it just the once. I think that killing animals for sport is very cruel, and I may well have been the only person there cheering for the bull, but I would have liked to have watched it once nonetheless.

As we were late for the bullfight, we visited a restaurant instead, where I tucked into some dead cow, so it wasn't all in vain.

In a few hours time I return to Mexico City airport where I board a flight that will take me to Ecuador in South America, where I will stay in the capital, Quito, for four days before heading to meet the Shuar on Thursday. You wonder why I visited Toronto and why I am currently in Mexico if I am visiting the Amazon rainforest. Well, it was simply the cheapest way of doing it.

A round trip ticket from the UK to Ecuador costs around £600, but I was able to find a return flight from the UK to Mexico for £299 (sometimes it pays to spend ten hours searching Google) and flying from Mexico to Ecuador costs just £230, albeit with a dodgy Panama airline, known for losing the occasional plane.

It also gave me the opportunity to meet Cesar again (before he visits me in Belarus in April) and spend a bit of time in Mexico.

I will return to Mexico City for two days in late February, before heading briefly to Toronto and then returning to the UK. I travel to Belgium the following day and visit Belarus a few days after that.

I think that I have learned a very important lesson in the past few months, and my time in the Ukraine has been a big factor in that. What I have learned is that life doesn't have to be about problems or suffering, life can be wonderful too, if only you let it.

True, for some people life can be very difficult, if you are terminally ill for example, and we live in a horrific world, but still, life can be lived to the full, if you don't let the bastards get you down.

With this in mind, I am leaving my hotel in Mexico City shortly and putting my faith in Panama aviation, hoping that I will make it safely to Quito in Ecuador.

Tomorrow I have five hours of Spanish lessons, followed by four on Wednesday, and then on Thursday comes the most difficult part of my journey, when I leave Quito and board a bus that will take me to a province from where I must make my way into the Amazon and to the Arutam Rainforest Reserve where I will meet the Shuar people.

The Shuar were once regarded as the most fiercesome people in the Amazon and were known for shrinking the heads of their enemies. Today they are much nicer though.

I will spend the best part of a month living with the Shuar, helping them farm their food, teaching the kids English, helping the men hunt and learning how to make wooden baskets. I will visit other tribes who live deeper in the rainforest.

I only hope that on Thursday the Indians are expecting me and they don't take one look at this unshaven Englishman, who will at that point speak about three words of Spanish, and say to each other: "We don't understand a word this man's saying. Let's eat him."

Providing that doesn't happen, and providing I make it there and back in one piece, I will write to you again from Ecuador in mid February to let you know how things went. If you don't hear from me again, you can guess that things did not go well.

Until next time, if there is one, take care.

Thanks for reading this.

Take care, Cesar.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

About Me

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London, ENGLAND, United Kingdom
This is me. Read a few entries and they will tell you more about me than I can fit into these few paragraphs. Many of these entries started their lives as mass emails. That was before I discovered blogs. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for visiting my blog and reading about my life. Both a work in progress.