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a few small mysteries

1.   Why do fingernails grow more slowly on camping holidays?

2.   Why did HG Wells, who rarely washed smell reputedly of honey?

3.   Why does mixing honey into yoghurt make it go runnier than either the honey or the yoghurt?



cairo nights: the cave of the motors

Hirafiyeen is an area in Cairo just past the airport where they dismantle and sell car parts and parts of cars. I say this advisedly as one is assaulted at once by stacks and stacks of fronts and backs of cars sitting in the dust waiting to be welded onto a vehicle missing just such a huge and vital piece.

We were there to buy an engine, the second engine in a week no less, a Honda civic engine of the type D16Y6 no less, I had done my internet research and thought I knew what I was looking for. The first engine had been bought by a mechanic and turned out to be wrong, the mechanic was fired and now it was all down to me. The one before that, the original engine, had been destroyed by an over eager driver employed by us to take the kids to school who had poured water (the driver did this not the kids) onto the block to cool it down. You shouldn’t do that I told him and then the engine blew up. He was so embarrassed he fired himself from the job the next day.

I was there with my brother in law who is a judge, though rather young and not at all judge-like in demeanor, but that’s the Code Napoleon for you, and a faithful, if inept, Mr Fixit called Ibrahim who has been with my wife’s family off and on for twelve years now. Ibrahim is also known to be going mad. He talks to himself as he drives and provides a running commentary of any difficult driving manoevre he might make, “turning left, avoid that truck, turning into the entrance now…” It is all said sotto voce and appears highly nervous rather than mad, though everyone says he’s got worse. He supports a large family on meager wages earned teaching welding and doing odd jobs like buying engines for our family. Ibrahim is the only one who knows the labyrinthine dust roads stacked with car parts that is Hirafiyeen.

Yet he is soon lost and we are reduced to asking the way at all the brightly lit parts shops. Some owners barely acknowledge us and others speak excellent English and are very helpful. There are intelligent folk down here who fly to Japan and bring back container loads of spare parts to be cut up and sold. This is recycling at its realest and most efficient. I find it funny that we think it new and efficient in the West to recycle- it’s been going on forever in the mysterious East. For a start , instead of crushing all the good parts in a car the Egyptians take everything out and then cut up the body into reusable bits too. More complicated technology means that whole units are now discarded- our engine would have been rebuilt- twenty years ago- now that is too difficult and costly – better to replace the engine with one from Japan with a guaranteed less than 100k km on the clock.

So they say. Who can you trust here? I am assailed with feelings that were once very common and now only slightly less so, that everyone in Egypt is out to rip me off high and dry. This is very far from the case as I have found time and again. The problem starts though with both parties: the rip off merchants and the honest chaps behaving in the same casual manner. Both bad and good mechanics will talk glibly of fixing things only to achieve a veneer of realism once a few hours have been spent under the bonnet. Both good and bad will rarely explain what they have to do, will be reluctant to source spare parts and seem just too.. damn casual for something as awe inspiringly important as the all sacred automobile…but hold on I think as I stride through the dust glumly maybe I am the one who is wrong, I am too uptight, I should enjoy this, cars just aren’t that important…easy to say.

Finally Ibrahim and my brother in law settled on a slick talking chap whose English was good, incidentally, and who said he had just the engine for us in the cave of the motors a short distance away. He didn’t call it the cave of the motors but that’s what it was. After a confusing journey through more pitch black labyrinthine streets, on foot, through dust and tripping over stones, we arrived at what looked like a deserted tower block. The groundfloor was all shuttered up with rollup metal shutters. There was one street lamp across the street shining like the single glowing bulb you see dangling in front of a luminescent deep sea fish. Men, I now saw, we sitting on the walkway in front of the shutters, in front of them was a dismantled…something…oil reflecting the light from our mobile phones. For that is what we had been reduced to- entering Aladdin’s cave armed only with the pathetic light of a mobile screen. The shutters rolled up and our guide threw a switch and light illuminated the horde- a huge expanse of engines, pile upon pile of them as far as the eye could see in the gloom, the lights being unsurprisingly rubbish inside as well. We walked along aisles of black and greasy engines with wires strewn all over them looking for our model. Ibrahim periodically got down on his knees with my phone (the brightest) to read off engine numbers. In the end we settled for one that was not quite what I had intended but everyone said it would work.

Would it? 10 at night surrounded by darkness and metal and not knowing what to believe. In the end the slick seller suggests that if it doesn’t work he will take it back. I say that he better as my brother in law is a judge. He doesn’t act scared or that impressed. We buy with my sweaty roll of money that has been bulking out my jeans for the last few hours. Four hundred sterling pounds.

Ibrahim will pick it up the next day. He drives us home around the ring road, scene of many horrific accidents. We are all slightly lightheaded after the experience. Ibrahim mutters away to himself and I think- hey, you just bought your first engine.

A month on, engine dropped in and running well, and apart from a strange light that no one can turn off everything, Inshallah, is going very well.



zenslacker #1

Zenslacking is a new way to get your head around a cluster of age old problems- I’m stressed, I’m stuck, my life is bad, what can I do… Zenslacking says the answer is to do nothing, but do that nothing thing well. Most of our lives are spent doing nothing, sort of moving from one thing to another, in between time, down time, nothing time. When this nothing time is polluted by the rush and bustle of modern life you lose your bearings. Depression and anger vie for control of your mind. It’s time to chill, but your old ways of chilling don’t seem to work anymore. You just can’t seem to relax.

Doing nothing, badly, includes all that time you’re pretending to be doing something, thinking you should be doing something, feeling bad because you’re ‘wasting time’, feeling bad because the little you are doing fails to match your grand plans about what you could be doing.

I lived in Japan for three years and a kind of low key Zen permeates very many aspects of the culture. This isn’t to say that the Japanese are relaxed, most of them are just as stressed as we are. The standard way of letting off steam is to get blind drunk after work and throw up on the train home. But Japan is the home of Zen, which originally was an exercise designed to help people detach from their surroundings. It was practiced by ‘doing nothing’, often just sitting on the floor for hours on end. The low key Zen in Japan is simply the widespread knowledge that you have to be able to detach from things you really care about. From time to time. Without this ability to detach Japan would be even crazier than it already is.

It’s easy to get the work button jammed in the modern world. Or, rather, the way-of-working button. We get so attached to success we end up trying too hard. At everything. So, when we import something foreign like Zen, we contaminate it with our neurotic desire to try too hard. So part of Zenslacking is dropping down a gear in one’s approach to being detached. This is the slacking aspect of Zenslacking. This includes not seeing Zenslacking as a panacea. It’s really about taking bites, or even nibbles out of certain disabling states of mind. It’s not for everyone, and certainly not something you do all the time. But if the world is getting on top of you, Zenslacking is the way out…

So next time you’re doing nothing, badly, bear in mind


1.    Less is More


2.    More is Less


3.    No question the world is mad. You have to be able to drop out of that madness from time to time. Zen slacking is one such way. Conventional zen is about ‘just sitting’ and thinking of nothing, but in a Japanese way which means on a hard floor for hours which can be very uncomfortable. The zen becomes a macho exercise in enduring pain. Before you know it you’re starting to go mad again. My zen slacker teacher (my only bona fide Japanese one) was a Buddhist priest who drank beer for breakfast and taught me how to practise ‘just sitting’ in front of the television. I didn’t learn much from him at the time, but over time his example proved enduring. Zen slacking is about doing nothing, well,- but not in a noisy way, in a real way- what better place to do nothing than in front of the TV?


4.    My Zenslacking teacher never gave me any koans (tricky zen questions you have to solve to become enlightened.) All he ever said was, “You’re already enlightened- now you can forget about it.” His other favourite phrase was, “Zazen is easy, Zen is easy.” (Zazen is meditating and trying not to get attached to what you are thinking about and some people take it very seriously). I think what he meant was that doing nothing, well, involved not trying too hard. At anything.


5.    Don’t try harder, just give yourself more time than you usually allow.



prisons we make for ourselves

The funny thing is: self-made prisons creep up on you unawares. If they didn’t you’d run a mile- after all, who wants to voluntarily lock themselves up in jail? Self-made prisons can occur anytime, when you least expect it. Prisons constructed from expectations we are unwilling to let go of. The feeling is familiar: when you can't get away from yourself, from your everyday life. You're trapped with a 'you' you don't like. Through ill considered habitual actions we slowly create walls we eventually cannot skip over without the aid of drugs and then not even with drugs…

Take the highly addictive habit of inhaling nicotine- as an at-risk but reformed smoker I found it at first a way of feeling a bit high, rounding out a good experience; but sooner or later the smoker realizes he is simply smoking to try and feel normal. This is something of a generalization but at its heart is the knowledge that the drug is not getting you anywhere you want to be. And the cost in mood swings is too high. One of the too little remarked effects of habitual drug use is the magnification of personality defects- especially anxiety and quick anger. I’ve just come back from the desert with a tour guide who started each day with a spliff. That seems funky and cool when you’re twenty- but this man wasn't, at 35 he'd been chilling for fifteen years and now he was a dogmatic, inflexible man who was quick to anger and remained in a sour mood for days unless appeased. If you transpose the situation to someone who needs a drink before they start work each day it sounds more desperate but is actually the same- you have an alcoholic who can’t cope with living with his normal mental landscape. He is already in a prison.

The key to the prison is not drugs- which are like a rotting rope ladder you can throw over the growing walls until it eventually isn’t long enough, or simply snaps- but to dismantle the walls as they get built and to leave doors in those walls.

One of the first walls we build is the one which shelters our sore points and perceived inadequacies from view. We get our knocks when young(ish) and we face three alternatives: improve, ignore, or avoid those situations in the future. Someone with anxieties about their lack of higher schooling, for example, may avoid educated people or go on the attack when he meets them. After a while there develops, ready for quick deployment when needed, a misshapen self that reacts habitually, is running, in these situations, his life rather than the other way around. And its usually obvious to all. Who hasn’t met the argumentative critic whose slick contrarian stance hides both a lack of knowledge and a lack of curiosity? Because that is where building a wall leaves you: unable to move towards a thing, unable, because it puts you in an uncool and perceived as vulnerable position, to even ask a question.

It’s hard to knock a wall down that is growing day by day when you can’t even see it! You stay in your comfort zone like a prisoner in the yard- then one day you can’t leave the yard…

It creeps up on people as they get older and have to ‘take life more seriously’. They have to appear ‘dignified’, ‘in control’, or the modern variants: ‘cool’, ‘independent’, ‘dominant’, ‘alpha male’.

Humour is of course the real bunker buster when it comes to the wall we build around ourselves. Those who take themselves too seriously, who cannot laugh at another’s joke or even make one about themselves, they are, in the words of author Lisa Alther, ‘people that scare me’. I sense a good sense of humour almost like a water starved animal sensing where the water hole is- I know it when I smell it, but when I can’t smell it no warning bell goes off. I spend days in the company of humourless gits and think there must be some defect in me- well there is- you have failed to detect what these people are really like. They don’t supply that valuable nutrition known as laughter and fun- so either create some or move on- but don’t blame yourself.

My forester pal Mark Antcliffe always tells me, “you’ve got to have a laugh at least once a day.” A laugh means more than laughing, it’s doing something a bit crazy, a bit unusual, a bit different- stretching that envelope and knocking a wall down in the process. An adventure of sorts, a micro adventure.

But why does it get harder as you get older? Montaigne recommended that men over 40 should drink wine as they are usually so burdened with cares only getting a bit tipsy will enable them to see life without its usual attached concerns. And it’s true, when you have people depending on you things aren’t quite so funny. You might crack jokes about teen pregnancy but find it less amusing when it’s your own daughter. That said, when your responsibilities have been discharged, you should be again a light hearted soul- but alas, by then those walls are just a bit too high and thick.

In the midst of massive responsibility and pressure one must remain light hearted. Without prozac if possible.

Mixing with people who are lighthearted and have different cares to you (the much younger  and the much older) is a good way out of heavy heartedness. Your worries aren't theirs, theirs aren't yours. Another is, when you are with people who wish to ‘outcool’ you and have little sense of humour, is to deliberately be a prat. Be a shameless prat. Their ‘cool’ act is there to get the kind of attention they habitually enjoy. If you refuse them attention it becomes a kind of icewar. If you try to outcool them then you are heading for the place where they feel most at home. Far better to engage your inner prat and deliberately say prattish uncool things and even do a few too. Your reward is endless since the cooler and more disapproving their response the greater this is evidence of the success of your prat act. If they want to be the coolest you will aim for prat of the year award. Both of you win- how refreshing! It’s even more fun when you don’t let on that you know you’re being a prat- that really screws with a cool dude’s head. But remember no half measures- full on prattish comments all the time, and the more toe curling the better.

Of course you should assess whether this person will subsequently fire you or something but usually, in my experience, anyone who wants to shut you down occupies a zone you want to avoid in future rather than revisit habitually.




walking man #1

As a boy I loved army gear and as a teenage climber I thought the world of any gear tested to destruction on K2 or Kanchenjunga, but as a walker I can see that these ancestral gear-parents (climbing, the army) are worse than useless, in fact delinquent; source of many false, but widely accepted, ‘truths’ about outdoor gear.

Take rucksacks. Climbers have rucksacks because they need their hands free and they don’t want gear swinging around and destabilising them. Soldiers only have rucksacks when they have a ton of gear to yomp across some empty space. But walkers always have rucksacks- why? No reason except the brainless need to copy the mountaineering pattern. If you like bending down and picking up stones, looking at flowers, examining dead badgers- as I do, then a rucksack is your worst enemy. By bending you are putting yourself into a top heavy position – uncomfortable and unstable- so what you actually do is keep walking and simply admire stuff from a distance. Nuts to that. Wear a bumbag or waistbag, get the biggest size, and if you need to carry extra water carry it on a shoulder strap hung water bottle. I have great insulation covers that take a standard 1.5 litre evian type bottle- dead light and it stays cool- unlike the clearly mad camel back system.

So lose the small rucksack- walking the Pyrennees I saw that shepherds carried a bedroll slung over one shoulder and water bottle (probably full of wine) over the other. Some had the bedroll slung from their waist. And these were men walking all day long. Unless you have a big load- ditch the sack.

And ditch the heavy sack. Army Bergens are designed for carrying ammo in a war zone. They’re way over engineered for a non-combat role. If you need a backpack for multiday hiking get the lightest one you can find. The best ultralight sacks now weigh in at under half a kilo.

I did just buy a rucksack- a one kilo Berghaus 45 litre Arete climbing sack. I use it for training hikes and two or three day backpacking hikes. It’s OK, pretty light and has some nice features such as open pockets at the back you can stuff stones you find into without taking the pack off, but I still prefer a bum bag and separate water bottles for a long day hike.

Traditional peoples the world over make packframes when they need to carry a big load-and this is still a great way to shift bulky odd shaped loads. I have an old aluminium Karrimor packframe and hipbelt that is way, way lighter than the latest crappy bells and whistles backpack. Mainly of course you don’t want ever to be shifting loads more than 15kg but if it happens a packframe is a good way to go. Buy them on ebay or at car boot sales.

I wonder if the real attraction of a rucksack is that, on a solo hike, it becomes like a companion. I can recall walking into strange mountain villages being glad I had my big rucksack on. It vouchsafed my serious purpose for sure but it was also comforting, a home from home, a pal. Solo climber Reinhold Messner reported weeping when he ditched his rucksack on Everest, his mind wavering from lack of oxygen, causing it to focus on the emotional reality of the situation- he was saying goodbye to his last friend.




sands of death

Robert takes a look at the book Sands of Death by Michael Asher, which describes Paul Flatters' doomed attempt to become the first European to cross the Hoggar mountains and reach Timbuktu, for The Daily Mail,


A New Route Across Egypt's Sahara

Robert goes in search of a new route across Egypt's western desert to the cave paintings of Gilf Kebir, for the Times Online,