“Excuse Me, I Am Going Out To Find Myself. I Shall Return Shortly’

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The journey

It seems a tired and cliched path, the one you take to find yourself. And when you go ‘travelling’ there is something embarrassing and revealing about the priority of ‘you’ in the face of new cultures, people and geographies. And so, I have avoided writing about my ‘journey’ or else I have side stepped it, unable to write in a way that does not evoke an uneasy toe curling.

When we travel we are making our way through ‘the strange’ (people, places, circumstances) and respond for better or worse. But in daily life we don’t do that, we adapt to the situations we find ourselves in every day, we act and over time we make a mask. The mask is fashioned and painted in such a way that we believe is acceptable to those around us, it keeps us safe and eventually it is so familiar we believe it is who we are. In my current half-life, my mask is not fully formed. This is good.

One thing I currently am is a newspaper scavenger. Guests buy them at the airport on the way here, they lay crumpled in rooms and on transfer day they are abandoned. When I find them at 08:00 on a Sunday morning, already tired from 3 hours of work. It is hard not to plop down on a bed and spread them. One morning I did (banishing guilt) and began reading an article Suzy Greaves had published in the Sunday Times ‘Style’ supplement. She introduced the concept of ‘wilderness therapy’, the physical and emotional journey where you can reconnect with ‘your own true self’ (the one without the masks) using nature as the mediator.

Interesting, especially in relation to ‘the journey’. And in the challenges that she and her interviewees suggested the wilderness presented, I saw the mountain.

“The only obstacle to the mountain is your mind,” a wise man (nee Motor Engineer, Dave) recently wrote. I wondered at his intuition (motor engineers are not widely known for intuition) because then the mountain was one huge obstacle to me. It was excruciating; my legs burned, my neck and head ached from impact after impact, and it was frustrating; inside, the mountain made me rage, I was desperate to let go (give up). And even worse, as I rattled down the piste an awful thought took shape; ‘this is what I am’. Damn the mountain.

This is what I am:

Distrustful of myself: I judder along a lumpy piste or grate down a hard packed slope. The first thought comes: “can I do this?” And then the second, “no”. My legs buckle, I catch an edge or I slip backwards. Whatever, I meet solid ground with an unsuitable part if my body (incidentally, other than feet are any parts suitable?)

…And others. We might go out two of us or five of us in a pack. And we’re all different, what we want to do on a board or skis, what we can do, nobody is more important than another; I believe this when I’m in an objective frame of mind. But when I’m on a slope trying to keep the coloured outfits of my colleagues (friends? on Facebook yes, for good, I’m not sure) in sight. I am terrified I will lose them, they will abandon me. So I bump down the piste, my legs juddering like an Elvis, broken from acceleration and emergency breaking, the rest of me wet or bruised from the last crash. My physical and emotional journey is not taking me anywhere near a true self I am keen to know. Which brings me on…

My boundaries are drawn by fear. Ben Howard tells me this fairly regularly during the imaginatively titled ‘Snowboarding 1’ playlist. But in general I think it is quite natural to be wary of the hard packed snow meeting my padded (in some places) body at speed or the suffocating stuffing and dragging of the deep off-piste drifts that I become planted in. But if I could take away the fear and sprinkle on a little belief I could be bouncing over lumps and untouched snow with a huge smile on my face. I know my mind is the only difference. Thanks Dave.

And, since I began writing this, I have done it. It is typically un-British to celebrate in this way but what the f***…I I love snowboarding. I came here to be a child again, to climb onto my metaphorical skateboard everyday, ask my mates if they’re coming out to play and stay out late. The board has become part of me, for the very impermanent ‘now’, it is what I do. I look down at it smile because it is mine. And somehow I have found that belief in the speed I can go and the small jumps I can land – where belief in everything else remains as fragile as ever – and I have that smile. So with a little pain (currently a stiff knee and bruised coccyx) and some slightly disturbing realisations my wilderness therapy seems to be working.

So ‘huh hmmmm’ (uncomfortable British throat clearing) long may ‘the journey’ continue!

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Christmas Day, 2 December 2012

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Our Christmas Tree “Santa’s been!!!”

What is wrong with this picture?

“Jo, Jo, Santa’s been…”  Belated gasp of delight and shock from me.  Meanwhile, it takes several seconds to connect the kids’ excitement with the laborious task the night before interspersed with my completely off the mark critique on Strictly Come Dancing – incidently, I’m not wrong, the judge’s comments are rigged.

December 2.

So, Santa hadn’t actually been.  It was me all along – ho ho ho!

On my last weekend in the UK I decided to hold an early Christmas party for our families.  It seemed like a good idea at the time, then later that day, not so much.  And there were times when I had to ask myself whether I came up with the idea simply to ensure I got a good stash of presents before going away – a serious case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ syndrome?  Or worse, the spoilt child, always raring to get out?  But surely not, I am an independent 33 year old woman.

“Oh yes, I met her yesterday.  Too many piercings for my liking and I don’t think I got to see them all…”  My dad, christmas hat askew, between sips of Old Speckled Hen, reflecting on meeting my brother’s new girlfriend.  He grinned and pursed his lips, savouring the discomfort he’d served.  Everyone else – my mum, Mark’s mum, the children, my brother – bore silent witness.

To be able to declare (finally) that I felt I had walked into a scene from the Royle Family was the only way I could diffuse the situation or at least the spiral in my own mind and the gaping chasm of my upbringing yawning across the table and consuming my boyfriend, but mainly his mum.

And after that, a change of subject: “Oh, Mum and Dad, I don’t think I told you Mark’s got a new job now.”  Rumblings of partially articulated congratulations, expressed through pork and apple sauce or gurgled through wine; apart from my dad’s contribution:

“Oh well done Mark.  That’s a change.”  He lets the cryptic statement hang.  “I always used to get the sack at Christmas.”

Cold days of discomfort and anxious murmurs filled me.  Cold cars and long drives.  Visits to relatives and friends of my parents at Christmas, me and my brother small, only just entertained in one strange living room or another while around us swirled the words that became my apparitions: redundancy, mortgage, savings…REPOSSESSION.

But it was only for a second I stopped, let them in again.  I was too busy.  I expressed my horror and turned and told Jess to get on with her dinner.  When I turned back my dad was dissecting one or another celebrity from Strictly, her assets weren’t in the right place apparenty.

And that’s it really, my dad broke into song on ocassion – loud song about dustmen.  Discomfort wriggled across everybody’s face, all but the kids’, my brother text his girlfriend until he got harrangued by Jess into being a human climbing frame, my mum failed to hear stuff, we played games and I got lots of presents…

…for which I am extremely grateful.

But finally, Mark suggested I should not miss out my parent’s post-dining malaise.  Before they put their coats on 10 minutes before the taxi arrived for fear that it may turn into a pumpkin should they be only one second late, they sat planted in Mark’s leather sofa and from there they bemoaned the son without ambition or a pension, the daughter, leaving the country, without a home.  My dad’s response to this stress: “do I have time for another beer?”

It has taken me a long time to get to where I could make the decision to go away.  And in part, that is because it was a decision that would not get everybody’s blessing, especially the people who bought me up.  But, it’s nearly time to go and actually, I think they are proud.  And it was a good idea.

Piece of Mind

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You can’t buy peace of mind, not about the world, life, what you will be, your job, what your children will turn out like, whether your (current) relationship will stay the distance, whether [dramatic pause] your dreams will come true.  But for the smaller, financially quantifiable things (be they sundry or catastrophic) there is insurance.  That reads like an ad or an Insurance Institute text book.  In fact, it is a sexed-up, paraphrased version of the Principles of Insurance text book, if my memory serves; I’ve worked in the industry over five years, I have the qualifications and even the t-shirt (no, I really do, and a fleece and an umbrella!).

But this hasn’t helped my month long search for the right travel insurance for my trip.  Usually when I go away I insure with my employer because if things go wrong I think I know which limbs to twist to get me home.  You don’t have that luxury with a faceless firm you found on the internet.  But my employer does not have the appetite for this kind of trip, and I’ve found that neither do a lot of other insurance firms.  I have also found that I am in the hinterland of ‘young’, the upper limit being 35 for some firms.

Anyway, I know how important it is to have a good insurer, not just a cheap one.  You’re buying the cover in case something bad happens, the last thing you want is not only for something bad to happen but then to be messed around by a company that trains its claims staff to look for every which way not to pay for your bad event (or it is quite blatantly excluded and you did not read the policy).  You are paying a travel insurance company to safe-guard your health (or the financial consequences of your health going wrong), so for someone like me, risk averse and with my forehead permanently wrinkled, I am not going to take a punt on a company that suggests the principle selling point of its policy is its low cost.  So, I set out wanting something ‘reassuringly expensive’ – another ad rip-off?

Insurance interlude: Insurance is all about risk, so the riskier the pursuit or subject of the insurance, the more money you have to toss into the pot to guard against the financial implications of something going wrong.  This makes sense.  So, it makes sense that winter sports cover comes at a premium, you have more stuff than the average traveller, it is more expensive and you are more likely to break yourself than the average traveller.  This equals more English Pounds.

I began to look at companies (avoiding anything with ‘cheap’ in the marketing material or any companies with names that implied quickness or cheapness) and soon came to realise it was simply not that simple.  The basic risk assessment of my trip identified two main problem areas: the first, that winter sports issue, because while my employer insures me against the risk of an injury on the slopes and the associated medical expenses, there is the risk that I become injured and cannot continue from France to Malaysia, Nepal and Thailand and my employer does not insure that.  The second is the trekking; slips, trips and falls in rural locations at altitudes in excess of more than 5000m and the potential for altitude sickness.  In grave, serious circumstances you might even need a helichopper to get you to medical attention, but wait, can you pay?  No money, no chopper.  So, I need a policy that covers me from December to August with four months winter sports and trekking.  Then, to avoid making life too simple, there is that pre-existing medical condition.

Now, despite identifying trekking as my major risk, it did not occur to me to think that it might fall into the insurance box of ‘hazardous activity’- it’s just placing one foot in front of the other, surely?  Some activities that do: abseiling, BMX riding, climbing, fell running, football, gliding and team building (if you insure with the Post Office).  An insurance policy wording is a great list of all the amazing extreme things out there that you might want to try.  Eventually, I came to realise that trekking often featured on these lists.  In fact, lot of insurance companies will cap the height to which you can trek: it might be standard to trek up to 2000m and thereafter it might be considered hazardous to go between 2000 and 4000m, so you pay an extra premium.  But the Annapurna Circuit goes up to 5514m and a lot of companies will simply not insure it.  Tempting just to take that risk – insured at 4000m, not insured at 4001m.  I can see myself dancing gleefully over that imaginary line, backwards and forwards – insured, not insured, insured, not insured.  ‘What’s 1500m?’  The Shoulder Devil mutters.  ‘You break your ankle at 4075m, who will know?’  Shut up, Shoulder Devil.  This sadly ruled out a number of reassuringly expensive insurance companies.

Most insurance companies cover winter sports but you always pay an additional premium.  And yes, it about doubled the premiums I was being quoted.  It was not until it came up in conversation that I realised that a lot of companies will only provide a maximum 28 days cover.  Faced with this and frustrated by another complication I asked how they knew that you had only actually spent those 28 days on the slopes.  Receipts, that was the answer.  And without receipts (given I will have a season lift pass and be too poor to actually buy anything on the slopes)?  What, my honesty?  And before the Devil started up with his silver pound saving (you can spend it on a new hat) tongue started, I ditched that idea…

Finally, the pre-existing medical condition.  Once more, I found that all companies treat this differently.  World Nomads, for instance, will simply exclude any condition related directly or indirectly to a pre-existing medical condition.  Now, I have asthma, and this is never a problem for me but then hiking to 5500m is not something I do every day.  A normal person may suffer breathing problems at 5500m and I knew for me, while any problem I might have may not be asthma related, World Nomads would exclude it.  Other companies adopt a different approach and will ask some basic questions to rule out any potential problems, while others have dedicated health screening lines, one of which you immediately paid an additional premium for having called at all, even if the screening was clear…have headache coming on.

In the end, I realised it was not possible to buy my peace of mind.  With quotes exceeding £1000 (approaching the cost of my flights to S E Asia) and others around the £500 mark, all unsatisfactory in some small way, I decided I simply could not insure the winter sports.  If I get broken doing some kind of knarly death slide (not a recognised snowboard term) or more likely slip going out the front door and this stops me going to South East Asia, then I lose the money.  And for £205 the trekking to any height is covered, as are the medical conditions and with a company that has a reasonable reputation in the industry.  I would call that piece of mind, not peace of mind.

The main problem; I found it so hard to compare like for like cover.  If only there was a website…oh, there is?  Seriously, given the complicated nature of what I was looking for GoCompare (or any other good aggregator site) would not have helped.  For one, I think they are all about price.  My only source of information, other than what the company wanted to tell me, was reviews (reviewcentre.com is good for this).  Some made my forehead wrinkle: ‘I am writing this from my hospital bed…’  This is not going to be good, nobody gives good feedback from their hospital bed.  One made me laugh though, a review of the Post Office Travel Insurance entitled ‘Keen to take your money, but not keen to pay out’  The story unfolds: the guest reviewer was ‘the victim of fraudulent activity’, a game of dice no less, authentically named ‘thimblerig’, which the unlucky man (because I assumed it was a man) was forced to play against his better judgement, thereby losing 250e.  He was shocked and astounded that his travel insurance would not pick up this unfortunate depletion of his holiday spends.  One star!  The first item in the comments section?…

‘You plonker’.

Impatient and Rabid, UK (still)

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Just under a month ago, I began to worry about diseases.  Yep, my concern for my own welfare, having decided to expose myself to the world, as it were, was somewhat late.  While obsessing about the where and when of my trip, I gave little thought to what was waiting for me when I got there.  In my case Rabies, Japanese Encephalitis, Hep A, B, Typhoid, Cholera, Diptheria, dot dot dot.  Vaccination was a distant concept and the NHS the obvious solution.  I ignored the vague disquiet about this solution (for I am always vaguely chattering inside) and the reasoned voice that suggested that the strained NHS might have global trotters stump up for their own protection against the exotica.

And it all went smoothly at first.  I called my GP’s surgery, politely explained that I was going travelling for nine months and I was aware I would need some injections before I went.  Answer: you fill in a form.  Of course you do.  And so I did.  And I was proud to find said form on the website, then satisfied with the message that it had been ‘successfully completed’.  One more summit conquered on the travel quest.

I waited for the telephone call.

I waited some more and I was not surprised that I did not hear anything for a few days.  I am patient.  The NHS is busy; I know that.  But somewhere I read that you have to start these vaccinations eight weeks before you go away and (because characteristically I left it to the skin of my teeth) the disquiet begins to be distinctly not quiet at all.

‘Er, hello, my name’s…..I completed a form recently for travel vaccinations and I haven’t heard anything.’

‘Where are you going?’

‘Well, Nepal and Thailand are the ones I’d need vaccinating for.’

‘Oh, if you’re going to more than one location then you need to go to the vaccination clinic.’

‘Right,’ meaning, ‘and you are telling me this now?’

And she reads my mind – which is what GP’s receptionists are trained to do, if only to dash hopes – savagely: ‘It was on the back of the form you filled in.’

And because of this predatory desire to disappoint, I know how important it is to remain civil.  ‘Yes, well I guess I wouldn’t see that because I filled it in online.’  Have it.

I wait for an acknowledgement (her having it, as it were).  Nothing.  So I ask for the number and ring off.

The clinic tell me in the most straight forward way that yes, they can do all the vaccinations but they will charge me.  GP surgeries do this a lot apparently – referring people to a private clinic for vaccinations that they could provide for free.  ‘Go back to them,’ she said, ‘there are some they will give you for free.’

So, I ring back for round two.  I remind the lady who I am.

No, we can only do vaccinations for people going to one location.  It’s how we weed out the work (I agree this is effective, but imply it is ridiculous and inconvenient), the nurse does it for free, you see – voluntary.  It’ a lot of work for her.’  Requisite guilt on my part.

But Nepal and Thailand require the same vaccinations, it almost is like going to one place (hear pleading).  The best she will promise is for the nurse to ring me.  In four days.  FOUR DAYS.  My eight weeks is shrinking.

Hastily Googled, I dial another local surgery.  Yes?  You do vaccinations?  That’s no problem, I’ll come down and register now.

I race over shabbily dressed from working at home all day, full of anxious optimism.  At the desk, I explain I have come to register and book an appointment with the nurse for vaccination.

‘When do you go?’

Blah, blah, blah.

Cue look of delight (sure I was not mistaken about that).  ‘Oh, well it’s too late, you need an appointment eight weeks before you go.  You won’t get one.’

I like to think I have the monopoly on negativity.  I am tempted to try to out negative her, a duel of barbed words and opinions, but no, I am aware of my surroundings, this is the GP receptionist; treat with caution.  ‘Okay, but I need to try.’

‘And, you can’t book an appointment today, you’re not on the system.’

‘What?’  F**k caution, ‘computer say no?!’

‘Yes.’

I slink over to a quiet corner to fill out the forms, pass them back and tell her I’ll call tomorrow.

When I do, fingers crossed and praying I speak to someone else.  She gives me a date six weeks before departure.  Will that be ok?  I want to know.  You usually start at eight weeks, do you know why is it usually eight weeks?

She didn’t.  A nurse would.  She would have to get a nurse to call me to discuss it.  She could give me a time slot – five weeks before departure.  Do the maths.  So, I give up and hang up, picturing my rabid self, driven crazy by clear liquids, becoming paralytic and dying.

But seriously.  The NHS do not vaccinate against rabies, you do have to pay.  It is a three course vaccination, each 7 days apart.  Nor do they provide Japanese Encephalitis or Hepatitis B (among others).  My advice, from lessons learned; read the NHS website and get in touch with the GP as soon as possible.

And finally, even if you do want to pay for the Rabies vaccination (advised) you can’t, there is a WORLD shortage at present…MY CONDOLENCE!