Hats off to Panama

Free-wheeling, fresh, dynamic, deprived, old, new, shady, sophisticated….Scratch beneath the surface and you can find what you seek in Panama. The hats are, frankly, old hat. Sun and secrecy have lured many a scoundrel and adventure-seeker to this skinny little isthmus that links the Old Americas with the New. Many a gamble has been made and lost in the pursuit of hopes, fortunes and even Scottish independence.. (Interesting historical side-nugget: Remember that mad-cap folly in the 1690’s by the Scots to colonise the isthmus, call it New Caledonia, and make enough money to keep the marauding English at bay? Result: it bankrupted itself and lost its independence in the process. What where they thinking? A less porridge-and kilt-friendly climate than Panama one could not possibly find!)

Porridge-free zone

In a bid to shake off its shady past/present, Panama is keen to remind us that its country is home to the most species of birds in the world (900 they say), and its city to the most important shipping lane in the world. The reality is contrast and contradiction, a somewhat confused identity. Look one way and see Miami and money laundering..

panama panorama

..Turn the other and see pre-Colombian art and endangered tree frogs. My trip to Panama was in search neither of hopes nor fortunes. Just a whiff of adventure, a few migrating whales, and some security training with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). And for adventure, you can’t beat the Canal for starters.

Miraflores Lock (and hotdog station)

Miraflores Lock (and hotdog station)

Considered one of the world’s greatest engineering triumphs, the unlocking of the 83 km gateway between the Atlantic and the Pacific.. but at what price? (Impressive statistics to follow:) 300 years, 3 failed attempts (Spanish, Scottish and French), 60 million pounds of dynamite, 27,000 lives.. (and that’s not counting the tree frogs). Apparently nobody seemed to have done their homework on basic geology, hydrology or health and safety. It finally took Uncle Sam with his big diggers and dynamite to finish the job. Enough earth and rubble removed to bury Manhattan by 12 feet, said the museum next to the famous Miraflores lock. (The same museum also pays passing tribute to human – and frog – lives lost in the endeavour). As I stood next to the now happily malaria-free canal eating a hot-dog in the sunshine, a proud Panamanian with microphone shared a few less contentious canal facts: 4% of world trade (16% of US trade) pass through it per year, a ship from NYC to San Francisco saves 7,872 miles it would have taken to go round Cape Horn, and 3 million gallons of water rush through the locks per minute.  And with all this water rushing about, what about the poor fish? Well, apparently they don’t know whether they are coming or going… because they are in a permanent state of coming and going..

Now, the humpback whale would never be daft enough to get tangled up in a man-made lock.

On a balmy day 2 miles off the coast, a small bobbing boat of us shared a private family moment as mum, dad and baby whale came out for a sunday roll as they migrated south…

Fabulous, majestic animals!

whale 1

First the hump…

Whale 2

Then the bump…

whale 3

And there she/he goes…! (hard to tell from this angle)

Not content with just a viewing, we then eavesdropped on their conversation with the help of an underwater microphone.  High pitched, excited squeaky one (‘look mum, I can do a double roll without getting dizzy!’), measured long-suffering mum tone (‘yes dear, now don’t tire yourself out, we still have 2,650 miles to go’), and deep, sonorous, mournful dad tone (‘pesky humans are eavesdropping on us again..’) And then off they went, flipping, flopping, slapping and splashing into the distant horizon.

Nothing like a whale sighting to remind you of your own insignificance in the grander scheme of things.

And then it was back to land to take on another large endangered species.  The UN.

Nobody is allowed to work for the UN, (even mere part timers like me) unless they have gone through almost 2 full days of online security training. If you can get through all 24 modules without losing the will to live, you clearly have the right sort of temperament to work for a UN organisation.

It’s all about scenarios and testing how you might cope in life-threatening situations.

Some of my favourites: How might I plan a convoy in a warzone?   What activities should you NOT do after night-fall? A chapter on ‘Dealing with hijacks and explosives’, and top tips like: do not wear sunglasses or jiggle your keys at checkpoints’, and ‘never take pictures of child soldiers’..

I scored 86% on ‘How to anticipate a threatening individual’ (growing up with a brother may have helped) a bit less on ‘dealing with hostile crowds’ (growing up with 2 brothers did not help) but now know how to ‘Build a safe haven for emergencies.’ (large heavy objects and tins of fish are key)

Helpful cartoon aids were at hand to ease the learning process…

UNDP training madness

..and anticipating that the stress of working for the UN might just tip you over the edge, there was a note of caution against what they called ‘maladaptive coping strategies’..: ‘Alcohol, caffeine, sex, and eating in excess are addictive and problematic. Spend time with friends. They can improve your mood and reduce stress.’  Not sure about this. I have friends that are both addictive and problematic, but then that’s another story..

Finally, certified to be let loose in a warzone…all I’m missing now is my blue helmet.



I can’t finish my Panama chapter without reference, and deference, to the dearly departed Rare Golden Frog, unique to Panama and now officially extinct thanks to an evil fungus spreading fast and furious through the frog world.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 11.02.01 PM

It was no ordinary croaker.  Rather than just ribbit like everyone else, it chose instead to wave, slowly and elegantly – at friend and foe alike. This is a frog that believed actions speak louder than words. Females would wave aggressively to test a partner’s resolve. Males, to fend off rivals. A weak wave, like a feeble handshake, would instil little confidence and consign our frog to the dark and desperate corner of the jungle dance floor, alone.

But for a fine act of firm waving, check out this Golden wonder..




Olympic Torture

Yes, while you lot have been basking in Olympiad Fever, I have been going through my very own very special Olympic exertions…of the worst, vilest, cruelest kind imaginable. And while it pains me to have to share yet another trauma, it needs outing, like a damn spot!

A Heptathlon of Hell. A Marathon of Madness.

Life was tripping along just fine until six weeks ago.  Minor local difficulty in the garden when my neighbour found a 6 foot boa constrictor strangling his daughters cat, but nothing out of the ordinary.

whoa, boa…

And then I fell into a deep place where the sun is silent.

I lost my body to a wild devouring monster from within. Red, raging, burning flames consumed me. Pale, freckly face turned red balloon, slim ankles tree trunks,  body leprous, swollen and enraged by an army of fire ants coursing across my skin day and night. For 6 weeks  I felt only 6 things: pain, itch, fright, frustration, horror and despair.    My spirits dimmed to their lowest wattage in living memory.

And then I knew what madness felt like.  I joined Dante. Maggots, wasps, lost souls, roaring beasts, fire and brimstone…  Nine levels of hell seemed about right.

Devil from the Deep

The road to recovery has been no different to the average road experience in Costa Rica. Full of pot-holes, complete absence of clear sign-posts, and with a warped logic known only to itself.

My first road sign pointed towards homeopathy. Convinced that 8 months of reliance on Big Pharma for slipped disc was to blame, I sought refuge in a diet of bee venom, strychnine and nettle juice. The doctor told me that my liver was ‘enraged,’ my lymph system and kidneys on strike and that nothing else would suffice.  When 2 weeks later I looked more lizard than Liza, I turned to God.

God and the Ozone Tent:   Maria Teresa came to me in the ozone room. Saintly and kind, she was in charge of zipping me into my blue ozone tent and switching on smooth jazz to soothe my soul. One look at my ravaged body and her eyes filled with sympathy. She took my hand in hers and said: ‘daughter of Jesus, you need a miracle, and I am going to ask God to send you one right now’. ‘Do you believe?’ she asked. Yes, yes, yes I said. In God, in ozone, in everything! So it was there that Maria Teresa blessed me as I sat shivering in a blue canvass bag pumped full of trioxygen. As it turned out, God and ozone work in mysterious, and painfully slow ways, so it was time to return to a more earthly plane…

Canvassing with God and Ozone

Plane C: Detox sanctuary and the healing hands of herbalist Jill Ruttenberg in a mountain retreat.  One week of vile Chinese concoctions, pins, holy basil, blue rays, tears, toucans, chanting and bells, and I felt a feeble stirring of the spirit once more.

Deviant Pot hole:  in the belief that time, tears and nature heals all, I hobbled home. But when three days later I still couldn’t see my face or put my shoes on, it was time to give into the….

Big Cuddly Pharma Hug: Blood tests revealed some alarming things (auto-immune disease in which the body decides to attack itself). Time to switch the GPS back on and take the shortest cut back to life and sanity.

Pillage and Purgery: And so here I am, back on 8 pills a day.  3 white ones for the itch, 2 pink ones to re-boot the immune system, 1 orange one to offset the damage of the pink ones, 1 green one to coax the liver back to life, and 1 to put me to sleep. Sleeping with the enemy once more, but it’s an enemy with fringe benefits.

So, in the Olympics of Suffering and Torment, I won my very own Gold medal! And I won it with no training, little preparation, and no performance enhancing drugs  – extraordinary really! I mean, how many athletes can say that?

But after the Sisyphean effort to overcome 10 months of back injury, to have the boulder roll back down and crush me once more was nothing short of cruel. The word ‘sabbatical’ has taken on a very different meaning this year. But I guess things could have been worse. The boa could have strangled me not the cat.

New Olympic sport

And as always, something to reflect on:

1. Accept new limits of self-reliance. Best friends come in packages of love, support and vats of E45 body cream.  Seek them out. Actively.

2. Beware (and avoid if possible) the utterly dispiriting diet of aloe vera fillets and raw veg smoothies. It might be good for you but it is for none but the bravest and/or most desperate. A lovely man I know got through hepatitis with a bag of jelly babies by his side. Secure your jelly babies.

3. Embrace both enemy and tree frog.  The former restores order, the latter, health. Wash every pill down with holy basil tea and a handful of flaxseed and fennel wedges.

With (I hope) the worst of the ravages behind me, I remain somewhat disconcerted that my freckles have taken fright and vanished. Scared away by the whole experience.

Life without freckles takes on a different complexion.

Time to find the sun again and coax them back out.

And to get back to writing blogs about quainter, curiouser and far more interesting things.

A rum old (new) world

When I arrived in the Dominican Republic, there was no-one to let me in. Not a soul at immigration, just a large ‘Welcome Visitors’ sign and a poster advertising ‘the best rum in the world’.  Well, if only you’d just let us in..I thought.  A straggle of weary visitors joined the queue for locals instead, but not before an over-heated American behind me nearly exploded in outrage, and tried to infect me with his steaming sense of injustice at it all. I told him I’d rather spend an hour stuck in immigration in a Dominican airport –  with the prospect of rum on the other side –  than in an American one, with the prospect of being arrested for carrying a granny smith apple (potentially infectious organic matter. Nasty stuff).  Not sure that helped.

To a degree destiny is predetermined if you are a Caribbean island. Geography insists you have tropical, palm-fringed pace of life, oozing heat, sun-bleached days and starry nights. History dictates that you suffered sugar plantation slavery, have Afro-Hispanic roots, believe in both Jesus and Vodoo, and share your island with beleaguered and impoverished Haitians.  And culture suggests you have rum, rhythm, tax-dodgers, drug dealers, and James Bond-esque bad guys in white limos.. On the DR’s Lonely Planet site a disgruntled local described his country as ‘drunk, corrupt, and full of people stealing each others wives..’  Bit harsh. I know a couple of other countries that could meet that description.The DR is much more, and less, than this. Five interesting things about it for busy readers with short attention spans..

1. It was the first European settlement in the Americas (1492). Christopher Columbus named it Hispañola and left his bed and chamber pot behind while he went off to discover the rest of the continent.

Colombus woz ‘ere

2.  It’s home to the oldest cathedral in the Americas (circa 1512). Like others in Latin America, it claims to have (some of ) Columbus’ bones under its flagstones. [Clearly the man was either very bony, or just had a lot of doubles..]

3. It is a producer of some of the best organic cocoa in the world. Dark, rich and moody. The locals are so proud of their product they even have a chocolate song… catchy, amusing and rather dubious lyrics such as ‘wave your pretty backside to the people’…

4. Herb-icide on a massive scale.  Otherwise known as the Parsley Massacre. The DR has had a vicious string of murderous and corrupt dictators (and this excluding its past Spanish, French and American occupants..) the worst of whom, Trujillo, (‘The Goat’ to his enemies, ‘El Benefactor’ to those who wanted to live) renamed mountains after himself and ordered tens of thousands of Haitians to be hacked to pieces (in an attempt to cover up the army’s involvement, no bullets were allowed). Haitians were identified by introducing the word ‘parsley’ (perejil) into the conversation. Regrettably for Haitians, this rather unexciting herb was tricky to pronounce, thus identifying them instantly to their enemy. Apart from the horror of imminent death, I can only imagine the poor souls being somewhat perplexed about why a stranger was engaging them in small talk about parsley..

5. Every village in the country has a cockfighting arena (gallera) and a licensed Cock Inspector. (cockfighting comes second only to baseball as a national sport) I met a man in a bus whose father had held this privileged title. ‘He inspected hundreds of cocks a year!‘  he told me proudly.

The temptation to lounge on a beach with a rum-addled brain was high. But I was actually in the DR for work, believe it or not. Three days in a conference centre ‘pathologically collaborating’ on issues of sustainable farming.  Whilst lively discussions were being had on farmer incomes and food security, outside the window, large white American tourists bobbed about on plastic lilos in the pool.  Inside, the producers; outside, the consumers, and ne’er the ‘twain did meet. Herein lies part of the problem.

Lots of interesting conversations were had. I met a Chinese food technologist working for Mars who had been researching blueberry flavinols for ten years and was slowly working his way through the rest of the berry family. (there is only so much conversation one can have on that subject, I discovered) Paul Newman’s daughter was also there (her eyes are just as blue as her Dad’s), representing Newman’s Own. (How does one make Newman’s Thousand Island dressing more sustainable I wonder?)

Ethically sauced?

Finally, it was only on my last night in El Capital, Santo Domingo, that somebody told me that Dominicans believe redheads do not possess souls. Apparently the devil has stolen them and there is little hope for salvation. This came as distressing news. Somewhere, someone was sticking pins into a voodoo doll with red hair. However, I decided that on balance, after 8 months of having pins stuck into my back, a few more couldn’t do me much more harm..

Pins for my sins

Silk ropes and serendipity

I checked into a hotel over easter that offered silk rope acrobatic classes.  What a brilliant idea! Though sadly in my current state the most I could do was to wrap  a strand around me and hang upside down for a while, like a rather folorn silk worm dangling off a mulberry tree. But it’s really quite a peaceful pastime. Yoga is so last decade – this is the new mind and body stretch that we all need!  I recommend trying it for moments when you have a lot on your mind. All the blood goes to your head and clears the blockages. The ‘man in the moon’ pose is my next goal after I’ve sorted the minor inconvenience of 2 slipped discs.

Easter week in a deeply Catholic country is either one to hide from frantically or to participate in fervently, depending on your spiritual predilections. I chose the former, and set off for the sea to seek my own personal form of renewal, in the little coastal town of Santa Teresa – my one concession to the religious moment. Casting an eye down the rather un-saintly, dusty little high street you wouldn’t have imagined that this would be the place where the likes of Giselle and Mel Gibson had chosen to buy holiday homes, but  it sort of crept up on you. Quiet, understated tropical paradise in all its glory – but plenty of guts too. At one end, everything a surfer dude might want (pizza, tattoo parlours, Bob Marley) and at the other, everything a wannabe superstar might be seeking (infinity pools, fresh mozzarella, mango bellinis..).  Somewhat conflicted, I ended up somewhere in the middle and indulged in a bit of both.  And while on the subject of that gorgeously sensuous and succulent fruit, the mango, I had no idea that it worked so well together with jalepeños, tequila and ice..truly the most exciting organoleptic explosion I have experienced for some time!  🙂

my mango magic

In fact it was my mango marvel that led me to the nice man with a syringe. A man on who I was to become dependent, and for whom I was to undo my trousers for the next five days in order to get my daily fix.

He was the man from the Red Cross. Apparently even men from the Red Cross have nights off to drink mango margaritas.  Until then I had been wondering idly how I was going to inject myself with my latest drug over easter with all the pharmacies and doctors clinics closed, but here, in a mad mango moment, was my saviour reborn!  And he proved true to his word every day, with the exception of one, when he got distracted by his home football team losing on telly and left me up-ended in a damp bikini on his stretcher for far longer than was decent, while he roared his outrage at the screen, shaking his syringe-filled fist. The rage had not quite worn off by the time came for my jab..It was an angry one..and I have the bruise to prove it!

From mad Mango Man to Californian Queen.. my second serendipitous encounter in Santa Teresa was with Jenny, a tall, slim, bendy pilates teacher, who had fallen in love with a local boy and moved her life to this dusty little town on the Pacific. She introduced me to her Cadillac, a purring, sophisticated stainless steel device with straps, springs and furry handcuffs that stretches bits of you you didn’t know you had….It was a classy piece of kit that would not have looked out of place in either a torture chamber or an erotic sex den..

It was while I was entangled in the Cadillac that she casually mentioned that Santa Teresa was rife with a highly contagious disease called Staph (or Staphylococcus Aureus – from the Greek staphyle, meaning bunch of grapes, and kokkus, meaning berries). Personally, I’d say rather more like some rather sour-looking grapes and a couple of cinnamon sticks…

Pretty deadly grapes

Airborne, gangrenous in nature, you could have a mild skin infection one day and  your leg chopped off the next. If that didn’t work, you could be catapulted into toxic shock syndrome and die of a heart attack. ‘It’s everywhere right now.. particularly bad this summer.’ she said, casually.

Things to avoid if you don’t want to end up  gangrened, limbless or lifeless : dust (as we watched swirling eddies of dust spin past the window..), damp towels, and public places..Marvellous. Time to find Mel Gibson’s secret villa in the mountains, methinks. (I wonder if Mel knew he had bought a villa in a flesh-eating town?)

I learned later that the Catholic church widely propagated the belief that that those who had not been to confession lately were more susceptible to staph. Dirty souls =  diseased bodies..! Time to say three speedy hail Mary’s and head back to the relative sanity of relatively urban life!

I arrived back home grateful and disease-free, and tuned into BBC Radio 4 – my source of equilibrium when all the world around seems slightly mad.  Tuned in just in time to hear that Pliny the Elder (generally agreed to be the author of the world’s first encyclopaedia) believed that tying fox genitals to one’s head was an unbeatable cure for a headache…Well, madness is all relative I suppose. [I subsequently discovered that given that the slang word for ‘fox’ means ‘prostitute’ here, the sharing of this particular factoid unintentionally elicits more than your average snigger in Costa Rica..]

And finally – we’ve had a run of illustrious old geezers lately in this neck of the woods..which makes a nice change from Ricky Martin. First Elton John, next up Bob Dylan, and then Bill Clinton, speaking on, of all things, Sustainability and Happiness…! Please. I think I’d rather hear Elton John sing on the subject in his 8-inch sustainably sparkly wedge heels. Or Bill’n Bob with their combined age of 140 years doing a duet perhaps..knock, knock knocking on heaven’s door…

OK, time to escape to the Dominican Republic for more sunshine and leave the geezers to it. Next report from the first ancient capital of the Americas…where Colombus was alleged to have tasted his first banana.

Such a serious chap to be eating such frivolous fruit

Mexican moles and mid-summer madness

When one visits a big beautiful country like Mexico, it’s quite unlikely that refrigerated warehouses or cabbage farms would feature in your top ten ‘Must See’ list.  Unless you are just weird, being paid to do it, or have a generally warped sense of adventure..(or all three).  Impressed with the stunning Mayan ruins of Chizhenitza? Well, wait till you see the world’s largest refrigerated warehouse belonging to the world’s largest retailer in the scruffy suburbs of Mexico City!  To lovers of Mexican food it may come as little surprise to learn that the country’s top food spends include avocados, chilies, tomatoes, onions and limes, but when do you ever get the chance to see 50 container loads of the stuff  all in one go? Guacamole heaven!

As the Eskimos have 100 different ways to describe snow..so do the Mexicans of their chillies..

Tired of the city and longing for an escape to the countryside to see real Mexicans with large hats snoozing under large cacti grasping a bottle of tequila? Why not instead try three days of delightful encounters with real, big, bronzed vegetable farmers..(who do anything but snooze under cacti) You will be surprised how little you knew about growing lettuces in a global warming-challenged climate!

Snoozing Mexican

And if all these rigours prove too much, there is always fried cactus, a cold beer and a Mexican mole to fall back on at the end of the day.  In fact the mole deserves more than a passing mention (and I am not talking about a small dark furry mammal wrapped in a burrito).

More accurately pronounced mo-le, this rich, chili-chocolate sludge allegedly originated from a 16th century nunnery, where, the story goes, a bunch of panicked nuns were compelled to whip up something at short notice in order to impress a visiting Bishop.  They were nuns of slender means, as I imagine most nuns were in those days. All they had at their disposal was a random selection of spices, 10 different types of chili, a bit of dry old bread, a lump of dark chocolate (naughty decadent nuns!) and a mangy old turkey.  There was a distant rustle of important-sounding robes in the dim, dark corridors.. the Bishop was fast approaching! The poor nuns, cobbling together the ingredients they had, including surprised scrawny turkey, were saved in the nick of time by divine intervention: an angel appeared with a recipe. The Bishop thoroughly enjoyed his turkey and chili-chocolate sauce and their souls were saved.

[Note: There is a competing theory that claims it was the Aztecs’, rather than the Archangel’s, recipe.  But apparently this version has very little grounds for credibility because the Aztecs never used chocolate in food,  only for worship. In other words it was akin to using communion wine in your cooking – just not the done thing. Personally, I like to believe the first story, because the mole is, in fact divine..turd-like though it looks in its original form]

Making a mountain out of a mole

Mexico City: not for the faint-hearted.  In fact, even the brave-hearted will probably struggle come the midday sun.  20 million strong, big, hot and hairy, the city is so huge that your average map, when opened out, will wrap around you at least twice.   But fear not, help is at hand. For every Aztec site, colonial palace or meandering market maze, you will find a Starbucks or a sleek air-conditioned mall to match, cleverly located at key ‘wilting points’ around the city.

There can’t be many places that can boast, within such a small space, such a huge span of history: pre-Colombian pots, Aztec ruins, Spanish castles, revolutionary monuments and stock exchanges..all within a square mile or so. A bit like having Stone Henge, Hadrian’s wall, Buckingham Palace and the Gherkin all within spitting distance of each other.

The splendid 24 ton calendar stone - not one for hanging on the wall

Aztecs were overly fond of signs. It was both their making and their undoing. The founding of Mexico City (formerly Tenochtitlan) took place after someone spotted an eagle sitting on a cactus eating a snake in 1325. The arrival of Hernan Cortez 200 years later was another sign. Poor old Moctezuma apparently believed the Spanish scoundrel was the re-incarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl and handed over his gorgeous green feather head-dress as a welcome gift..And thus was one blood-thirsty colonizer replaced by another..

How to turn heads at a party: 400 quetzals died in its making

The locals are a bit miffed that their city is no longer the largest in the world thanks to upstarts in China and India. But with an over-abundance of museums (150) a tendency to sink (over-wrought aquifers) wobble (seriously seismic seizures), and be home to controversial characters in history (Trotsky, Frida Kahlo), it’s still arguably the most interesting mega-city in the world. It also beat Boris to Boris Bikes and host to the Olympics..

And as for the Trotsky-Kahlo affair, well, therein lies a fishy tale..! In my rummaging around on the subject, I discovered that the two may never have met had Russia not threatened to impose a ban on Norwegian herring.  Under Stalin’s baleful eye, and with the prospect of losing a fat fish contract, Norway’s offer to give him asylum was meekly withdrawn. With the rest of Europe similarly fearful of retribution, poor old Trotsky had nowhere to turn.  He turned up in Mexico City with his goatee and tweed jacket (clearly hadn’t checked the weather forecast) and before long he and Frida were exchanging more than communist manifestos. Sadly it didn’t end well – at least for Trotsky – who was later found with a pick-axe in his head.

Trot, his missus, and the lady with the world's most famous eyebrows

On my last day in the city I was wilting in the cool marble shade of this lovely theatre waiting for a friend. Said friend was an hour late (Latin male), and in the course of this hour I was approached by no less than 5 consecutive gaggles of giggling students asking the same 5 consecutive questions in English.  Always the girls that did the talking, the boys too cool for school, lounging at the back, hands in pockets, flicking their Ricky Martin-esque haircuts.

La Bella Artes: Marvellous Marble

Where was I from? What did I like best about Mexico? What was my favourite Mexican food? Would I like to marry a Mexican? Why/Why not? By the third group I was getting bored, the fourth trying to hide behind the pillars, and by the fifth, had decided to turn the questions on them. Best thing about Mexico: The only other United States in the world. (Interesting) Favourite Mexican food:  My mum’s burritos (Sweet) Marry a Mexican: Maybe. Not if he’s fat. Yes if he can sing or cook. (Sassy!) The boys tried to look unimpressed with the girls’ answers but seemed a little edgy. Here was a new generation of confident young Mexican women expecting their men to be slim and accomplished..With a scary 70% of Mexicans aged 15 +  either overweight or obese I didn’t fancy their chances. Better get investing in those singing and cooking classes, boys!

I couldn’t help thinking of the plaintive remark made by one of the farmers a few days earlier.’trouble is with the young these days’ he said ‘they just don’t eat enough lettuce..’  I couldn’t agree more, I said.  Gotta love a farmer’s perspective on life. Simple, crunchy, wholesome. Just like lettuce in fact.

Let us eat lettuce!

A fruitful endeavour

There had been a run on yellow knickers when I arrived in the proud southern city of Medellin in Colombia in December last year.  So my taxi driver lamented.  Yellow being as close as one can get to gold, and gold being a good colour to represent imminent good fortune and all..

But I’m not sure anyone could look good in yellow knickers, could they?   Perhaps Johnny Depp could pull it off. My taxi driver clearly thought he could pull it off, if only he could find a pair!  And I was amazed, on googling my subject, just how many varieties of yellow knickers there are out there! Even Calvin Klein does a line..I think I found the best ones though.. and they come with nice matching clothes pegs too.. 🙂

golden kegs

Anyway, lest my story get overly distracted by such trivia..

Medellin is one of those cities that envelops you with its pride and energy.  ‘City of Eternal Spring’,  birthplace of stellar artists (Botero), presidents (Uribe), drug barons (Escobar) and a phenomenal metro system, it’s a ‘must do, can do’ sort of place.  The locals, or ‘Paisas’ as they are known, are the Geordies of Colombia. No messin’, straight-talkin’, big-hearted, heavy-fisted folk. Screw those Bogotanos, they say, this is where the action is! And arguably they’re right. Hard to believe this bustling, creative metropolis was, until 10 years ago, one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with one of the highest homicide and kidnapping rates worldwide. Thanks to Pablo Escobar, hero, saviour, monster, mastermind. The fact that its citizens have wrenched  their city out of such dark times in the space of 10 years is a testament to their sheer force of personality and sense of greater destiny.

The Killing of Pablo by Fernando Botero

The old drug baron has left his legacy, however, not least in hospitals, schools, and one grumpy old pet hippo called Orion…who was recently reported by local press to be suffering from toothache and in need of a dentist…

Brave dentist, having presumably taken the hippo-cratic oath

There is even a tacky tour that you can take for $100, courtesy of Pablo’s family, to visit his house, sit in his car, wear his hat, chat with his bodyguard, and smoke one of his favourite cigars!…I have to admit I was briefly torn between a sense of tasteless fascination at the idea and an equal sense of repulsiveness.. The repulsiveness won, thankfully. That, compounded by the outrage that $100 would be going straight into Escobar pockets…a name that was once in the position of being able to pay off the whole of Colombia’s national debt…

While modestly proud of their Escobarian legacy, the locals are far prouder of their modern marvel, the metro system.  People actually travel to the city just to experience it.  Speediness, timeliness, cleanliness, cheapness, quietness, whizzy electronic stair-cable for wheelchair access.. And the best bit, soothing, verging on unctious-sounding Clooney-esque announcements on your journey like ‘have you given up your seat for an old person today?’ and ‘remember to smile at someone on the Medellin metro..’  And people smiled! Anyone who has jostled for space only to be glowered at for taking a prized pocket of space under a sweaty armpit on the tube in London would marvel at this unabashed sense of civic pride…

But this was just the journey, rather than the destination.

My destination was a fruit processing factory in the outskirts of the city to see a young boy with a big heart and a smart head.  This is a boy who believes that if only cocaine-taking teenagers in Britain could understand the devastating effects of their choices on Colombian farmers and his community, they might think again.

The UK is the largest and fastest growing user of cocaine in Europe. We spend £30 million a week on one single Colombian crop, coca. Scary but true. And our cocaine users start young.

Thanks to a committed social entrepreneur I am proud to call a friend, the import of other far healthier and more fabulously exotic crops from Colombia in the form of fruit juices comes with a simple message:  don’t let cocaine become one of your five-a-day.  5% of the sales in the UK go back directly to the community. Farmers that previously had good reasons (or were forced) to grow coca now have better reasons to grow alternatives. Like the one that looks a bit like a hairy orange, tastes like a tarty kiwi-come-gooseberry and calls itself Lulo. Fruit trees, not FARC guerillas, are now paying for new schools, clean water and a renewed sense of purpose.

Lulo: a fruity alternative to cocaine

Selected as a youth ambassador for his community, this lad tells his contemporaries in the UK through video-conferencing and letters that their choices could  – quite literally – make a difference between life and death.Thanks to his fruity school friends (think pen pals with a purpose) and customers in Blighty, this lad has received a grant to go on to higher education. I am there to present him with his certificate, and he bursts into tears. I find it hard not to do the same!

In fancy UN speak, this is called ‘alternative development’ – reducing dependency on ‘illicit crops’ by encouraging sustainable alternatives. But this small, UK social enterprise (www.fruto.co.uk) seems to be quietly achieving what grand UN schemes are taking far longer to achieve – clear, tangible benefits for all concerned.  (And having experimented myself with more than one of these juices in a few fine cocktails in recent years, I can absolutely vouch for the end user benefits…:-)

Cocktail with a Cause

And speaking of fruitful endeavours generally, but less of the edible or ethical sort, I finally got to see lots of these in the jungle recently, and it was very exciting…

First person to guess what it is gets a free cocktail when I next see you… 🙂

Mountain cow? Mini rhinoceros?

OK, some clues: highly endangered species. Long rubbery nose which it uses to snuffle up berries and leaves. Won’t attack humans unless they are very annoying. Likes swimming, but prefers to sink to the bottom and walk on the river bed to allow small fish to pick parasites off their bodies.  Also rather fond of wallowing in mud pits to keep them cool and free of insects (a behaviour that, having shared the same habitat for a few days, I wish I had adopted too…) Closest relative is the ‘odd-toed ungulate’ and the rhinoceros. And, rather bizzarely, in Japanese mythology, this is an animal that was apparently said to eat ones dreams..

And finally – while on the subject of rare and amazing looking things…check out this frog! He looks like he’s eaten a bit of polystyrene and been on a heavy dose of pain-killers like me but this really is him, insides..out!


This is why I love the tropics.

In the course of my general awe and fascination with the glass frog, I read an article about Japanese scientists’ success in perfecting the art of breeding see-through frogs – a ‘humane’ response to amphibian rights’ activists concern over frog dissections. Marvellous – so rather than cutting them open to see how they died, instead they can just watch them die, live, organ by organ.. The ‘new line of frogs’ are said to be the worlds first transparent four-legged animals..

It got me thinking about how we humans might behave differently if we were transparent…

But that’s a subject for another blog.


Mugged, drugged, bound and gagged..

OK, so it’s not quite what you might think.  But the net result has been the same:

Pain, shock, anger, despair.. and, finally, acceptance.  Of a sort.

Not a chirpy upbeat start to the 2012 blogging calendar admittedly, but I feel the need to explain my lapse and to cathartically rid myself of year-end woes before I can move on to far more interesting and happier adventures with some fruity characters in former drug-torn territories, and other such profound reflections.

It all started after I jumped over some police cones in a pair of white pyjamas back in October.  A ‘warm up’ exercise in karate.  I say warm up, but when you’re wearing thick cotton pyjamas in 28 degrees of heat, frankly there really isn’t much more warming up one can do..

Killer Kones

Stupid bloody police cones.  It is because of them that I have spent the better part of the last 3 months crying and lying horizontal with searing lower back pain, slowly going mad. Mugged by my own body, drugged with the best that Costa Rican pharmacopeia can offer. But this was just the first ‘smash and grab’. Then came what I now refer to almost affectionately as the ‘tropical gangrene’ phase of the mugging – large volcanic welts that erupted and spread evil offspring over my body. A rare disease, ably assisted by a passing opportunistic parasite that likes to kick an immune system when it’s down, sending me into a further frenzy of hive-like itching and wailing…

Says it all...

This melt-down coincided just perfectly with my having to organize and deliver a monster project involving 12 countries, 60 top executives, 2 reports and a 3 day global summit on sustainable agriculture for the worlds largest food retailer. No finer, or crueller, example of sod’s law could possibly have been found.

I became a junky. My bag of drugs went wherever I did. I couldn’t count on my  behaviour if it went astray.. shakes, anxiety, irritation.. ‘ don’t you dare get between me and my opiates!‘ Remembering which to take when became an obsession. Each had their delightful side effects too – bleeding stomach, nausea, constipation, hallucinations…but all of these were mere distractions from the main event.

A small selection of treats

3 physios, 2 chiropractors, 2 GPs, 1 immunologist, 2 neurologists, 1 dermatologist, 2 X rays, 1 MRI scan, 32 injections, 3 stitches and 965 varieties of drugs, magnetic/laser/ultrasound/homeopathic therapies later…  I am well(er), wiser, richer in mind and poorer in pocket…

As ever, key reflections and adjustments to life have emerged from this dark painful place:

1. The Law of Entropy may well be an incontrovertible fact of life: we are all in a constant state of decay. But there is an important exception to this: the human spirit. It can fight on and become stronger through adversity.

2. Daily genuflecting in front of the basin to clean ones teeth for 3 months has been (still is!) a good workout for the thighs and would impress Catholic friends

3.  Costa Rica’s dirty little secret: this is not just a beach and jungle paradise.. it’s a prescription-free pills paradise.  For the heavier stuff, a mere email printed out from your ‘doctor’ (doctored as you wish), will, as I discovered, suffice.   Is it any wonder, then, with that sort of access to happy pills, that the country is still top of the charts as the most contented place in the world?

4. Lying on the floor looking at the ceiling is definitely more interesting in a tropical country. There is always plenty of action going on: spider versus gecko, gecko versus large flying bug, large flying bug versus smaller crawling bug…etc. Beats staring at a small house spider and a crack in the ceiling of a Victorian house in London.

5. As with life, so with pain and suffering. Throw everything at it – all the psychological, chemical, emotional, spiritual stuff you have in your toolbox. Get friends to indulge you by dropping food into your mouth as you lie horizontal on restaurant benches. Only choose restaurants with benches.

And at the end of the day, with the help of your friends (you know who you are), you will emerge from the dark place, cautiously, blinking into the sunlight again..

And if you don’t, this short video from a sanctuary down the road will at least remind you that if you’ve ever had difficulty in moving around, just thank your lucky stars you were not born a sloth!