I don’t expect anyone who drops in occasionally to this site to make sense of the daily plans and monthly schedules of a novelist and travel writer (I worked out the other week that within two days I had been at polar opposite ends of Europe – from a speaking event about my new novel in St David’s, the UK’s westernmost city, to research for a forthcoming feature about Slovak musical heritage in the hills of Central Slovakia, i.e. there is ostensibly no sense to make of it.)
But as much to excuse the paucity of recent posts as anything, it’s worth knowing I have been in South America on research for much of the last three months: from May to June in Peru and from now until early September in Ecuador.
As usual, it’s between the Andes and the Amazon that I have divided my travels. And also as usual, I have had some truly unique new experiences to take away, despite having been coming to these regions on countless occasions over the past fifteen years.
Since first being commissioned to write the Andean and Amazonian sections of Lonely Planet’s Peru guide in 2009, South America for me has been a hypnotic blend of these two extremes: the rugged high altitudes of the Andes and the sweltering discordance of sights, sounds and smells that is the Amazon jungle. In a day’s work (the adventurous route from Cuzco down through the cloud forest to Parque Nacional Manu in Peru and the road from Quito over the bare paramó via Papallacta to Baeza in Ecuador spring to mind) I will regularly be journeying between these two utter contrasts. And there is something addictive about this swift, spectacular ecosystem switch that ignites the imagination; whets the creative juices.
I keep mulling over the fact, too, that the best of those one-of-a-kind experiences have happened whilst utterly detached from technology. It should come as no surprise that only in these moments does one carve out the time and space necessary to reflect on what is meaningful. So hiking Peru’s Choquequirao trek, a two- to three-day odyssey from Cachora down and then up the other side of a stark 3000m-deep river gorge to Inca ruins that for me far surpasses Machu Picchu, was not about the act or the destination, but about buying 48 hours or so to truly, purely observe one’s surroundings; contemplate what is good, bad or average in one’s life. The same with my last few days spent deep in the Ecuadorian jungle: less for reasons of ticking boxes of weird and wondrous birds or animals encountered (although there were plenty) and more about contemplation. With no Internet to dawdle over or distract one, thoughts surface and start to rule the roost.
It is no coincidence that my first novel Roebuck garnered its inspiration from the jungle. In wilderness is absence; the blank page many of us strive to attain for ourselves so that we can set down boldly and distinctly a new idea.
No coincidence either, that, to quote from the head of the Norwegian Arctic Research Institute in Svalbard when I asked him recently for his thoughts about the future of the Arctic in the light of all the damning evidence of its disintegration: “I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy of late.”
Perhaps nature is cleverer than we give it credit for. Perhaps it is teaching us to think not just for our own benefit but so that we sufficiently advance in order to be better equipped to save it.