The late December snow and ice crunched almost rythymically under our feet as we approached the isolated dog kennel nestled in the backwoods of Whistler, BC. Dusk was rapidly turning into dark, but the fleet of Alaskan huskies designated to pull our sled were bouncing with energy like it was high noon.
"Don't let them lick you in the face!" shouted one of the tour guides as she approached us bearing an arm full of harness equipment. "They have a raw meat diet, so we strongly discourage them from licking people...you know because of bacteria and stuff." We continued petting the high strung canines weary of their "bacteria laced tongues" while our guide, Jen, gave us a brief history of dog sledding in the Canadian outback.
One of the first things you will notice about working sled dogs is the odor! In a species where pecking order is everything, a leader NEEDS to smell like a leader. It is a primal stench that will absolutely permeate any clothing you are wearing. The next thing you will notice is the size (or lack thereof) of your sled team. We had an 8-dog team and the largest dog was probably 90 lbs. Everybody else in the pack was more like 70 lbs. However do not mistake this lack in size with a lack in heart, endurance or determination.
I stepped on the skids jutting out of the back of the sled while Jen lifted the ice anchor out of the frozen soil. I then proceeded to use my right foot to lift the sled break out of the mounds of snow in front of it and said the one thing I had been dying to say my entire life......"mush!" One trite command and we were off wooshing and meandering through the dark, icy, evergreen tree lined trails of the Callaghan valley.
After about a quarter mile of intense mushing, "The Incident" happened. The crisp, clean, wintery breeze that was once blowing through my knit cap was now perfumed with the rankest stench that you could ever imagine. My brother Rome, who was playing camera man at the time, and our guide Jen gagged simultaneously as the awful smell circulated in their nostrils.
Apparently, sled dogs poop WHILE they are running. Not before the run, not after when the excitement has worn off and they have some time to themselves, DURING! Now, if the lead dog poops, that means every dog behind him has to trample through the warm, moist pile AND the sled has to run over it.
This is not your ordinary poop by the way. This is the poop of champions, laid by a hound that is much more primal and feral than any of the lap dogs lazy laying around 78.2 million American living rooms. This is the kind of smell that sticks to your ribs and leaves you debating rather or not you are actually tasting it as well as smelling it.
The guide explained to us that the dogs are discouraged from relieving themselves on the trail, but how can you stop something like that? We're talking about an animal that will run until his or her heart explodes if the musher doesn’t stop them on occasion and mandate a break. I've got to tell you, I have never been happier to smell doo doo in my life.I'm not writing this to discourage you from experiencing the joy of dog sledding yourself. I'm telling you this so that if you are ever in that position you will be prepared to enjoy the aroma of a champion. Godspeed!/p>
Old John Mellor, (look it up) had a point, happy people don't really create much. That is, they're not quite as motivated, nor is it as easy for us to quite grasp the point of it. Look, I'll give you a for instance: pain, addiction and mental illness gave us Crime and Punishment. Happiness and a contended life gets us The Adventures of Peter Rabbit.
I think a man on a Big Wheel in Vienna once said something similar, and said it better.
The point is that I’ve been late setting anything down because I am, quite simply, quite happy. Maybe it's a bit shameful that we rush to spread our misery, then go ahead and horde our happiness. Then again, maybe that’s just me. But, there you go and here we are.
In some ways, I'm back where I started, sat around in an old cricket jersey and shorts and looking out of the window. However, this time it’s a radically different landscape, one whose peak temperature today is predicted to be a giddy – 19, and that's going to be about it 'till well into next year.
I'm in a flat to the south of central Moscow, about forty minutes ride on the Metro to the centre. It's in one of the typical Soviet era tower blocks that are pretty much the standard here and that, to Western eyes, will always be viewed through the jaded prism of the Council estate. In truth, it's a perfectly decent way of living. I think, in the West, it was the bungled attempts at social engineering that accompanied their construction which marred the project. Then again, maybe not. It's not really my field.
I'm currently working at two vastly different schools; one to the far South of the city, (in the suburbs) and another that's so central I could throw a rock at the Kremlin wall from its front door, (not that that's a good idea). My classes are all at night, so I'm rarely home before 11pm, which, (other than lesson preparation) leaves the days my own.
It's still a surreal experience, finding yourself in Moscow. I think, back from the vantage point of my flat in Lancashire, Moscow seemed such a distant proposition. Exotic, very possibly. Romantic, definitely. The reality doesn’t disappoint. Let's be clear, I'm not talking about ‘romantic’ in the Mills and Boon sense, I'm hardly likely to go off and recount you with torrid tales of forbidden love on the Steppe, but ‘romantic’ is still the right word. I didn't really appreciate 'till I got here just how much of Moscow had been built from my imagination. I don't think I guessed how much of myself I'd already invested in this place. It's hard really to describe it, but if I'd gone back in time and allowed the six-year old me to be John Wayne, (a big hero) for the day, I'd be getting somewhere close. Only the six-year-old me would probably have more sense than to stop every five minutes to remind themselves that they really were John Wayne.
But it's worth reminding yourself. Otherwise, you risk taking it all for granted and that would be a crime. I mean, I live and work in Moscow. Surely that's amazing? That guy, whose daily commute to the office dragged him through the grey drudgery of the industrial Northwest, now commutes via the Kremlin walls. That guy, who might never of seen again, now stares out onto St Basils and Red Square. Please, tell me that’s not amazing. Because it is.
I didn't mean that last paragraph to sound quite as smug or self-congratulatory as it did, but there’s wonder everywhere here and it's hard not to get carried away. In what is gradually becoming Standard Operating Practice for this blog, I'll give you a ‘For Instance’. For instance, in, around, twenty minutes, I'm going to leave for my night shift at Kantemerskaya. The street light's have come on, so it's probably around -18 out there about now, (can the pedants hold back? I'm writing this in stages. The forecast referenced earlier was this morning, it's now SHIT I'M LATE!
To be clear, the bit above really was genuinely typed in the moment. Remember, I promised not to lie. Yes, I could easily have deleted but, but as a consequence of being late this evening, I made a mistake that’s going to be really good when I get round to illustrating a point later on. Standby. You'll be amazed.
That, and I think it's funny.
Where was I? That's it, Cold and The Metro. From the time I arrived, there's been a definite sense of ‘other’ about the people here that I'm still struggling to nail down. I can't put my finger on it, it's a little like a world that's run parallel to our own without ever meeting it. For instance, (see?) the mullet remains alive and well here, yet simultaneously, there's a sense of high fashion and style that would make the heppest of New York and London Hep Cats blush. We could go into it, but for now, just go with ‘other’. It's easier that way. Then, when the cold kicked in over the weekend, that sense of other suddenly became proof of the alien, which takes us back to the Metro.
I've always loved the Metro. It's where all of Moscow comes together and has to sit side by side. It's absolutely massive, too. Seriously, the tunnels can go down as far as half a kilometre and, at times, it feels like there couldn't possibly be any more of Moscow out there as there's so much of it in the Metro. One of my regular commutes takes me into Borovitskaya, where the crowds at the bottom of the escalators – pensioners, children and all – could rival any mosh pit in the world. Together, we cram into the cattle crushes like the world's slowest moving stampede; slow, intractable and, once inside, inescapable. You can't even move your arms. You simply stand, your arms pinioned to your sides, and let the momentum of the crowd carry to the escalator. It's an odd way to start work.
As I was saying, when the cold hit, this sense of ‘other’ became radically more extreme. Suddenly, people took on an entirely different shape. We're not talking about the odd fashionista bucking this year's winter trend either, we're talking about an entire city. Suddenly, every one's torso is grotesquely enlarged, either wrapped in enormous puffer jackets or shrouded head to toe in fur. Even heads have become enormous, as the Unshanka shifts from the exception to the norm.
In the Metro, the overall effect of this can be breathtaking. Suddenly, you find yourself in an entirely foreign landscape, populated entirely by aliens. Moreover, as – inevitably – your dressed in exactly the same fashion, (more on this later) you inadvertently become both observer and observed. For those of us from small islands in the West, it's entirely strange, foreign and – have I said it? – amazing.
Fur here is not so much a fashion choice, as a necessity. Really – and I'm sorry for the animal rights people, (I really am on your side) – manmade fibres just don't work. If you've never been here, it's hard to understand, but facing a day when the warmest it will be is -24, isn't something to be treated lightly. Yes, I know, that – for a day every few years – various countries reach extreme temperatures, but that's not really the point. The point is that an entire people need to live, work – and occasionally have fun in this – well, it sort of changes your perspective. Should I give you a ‘for instance’? Yes, let's. For instance, I was meeting my friend in Red Square on Sunday, (you have no idea how cool it is to type that) when she was fifteen minutes late. I mean, that's fifteen minutes, it's nothing. In reality, despite my expensive climbing gloves, five of those fifteen minutes were enough to leave me feeling like my hands had been dipped in ice.
It started with the feeling that my nails were curling back from my fingers, then ended with the loss of all feeling. That was fifteen minutes. That's how cold it is. I'll give you another; I was late for work earlier tonight, (ah ha!) so hadn't had time to eat before running out of the suburban Metro station at Kantemerskaya. I stopped at one of the many kiosks on the way to buy whatever I only had time to point to, then ran down the street eating as I went. This, as I said, was a mistake. By the time I arrived at the school, around half a mile away, my face and right hand were entirely numb. Out in the suburbs, with nothing but the tower blocks to halt the wind's progress, the cold is overwhelming. Even without the wind, it's like your skin is being daubed in acid as you move. For someone whose people have never spent anytime in these kind of temperatures, I'm afraid I just don’t have the vocabulary to really express it. Perhaps if I was a better writer, I might be able to paint a picture for you, but I'm not and I can't. You'll just have to imagine it.
But then, even the cold has its place in The Amazing. (I've decided to give it capitals). I never planned or wanted this to be easy, and the cold's part of that, just as much as anything else. There's a whole world out there and The Amazing doesn't discriminate on the grounds of temperature. I think it's all about experiencing it.
You see, rather than get wiser as I've got older, I've getting gradually more stupid. Seriously, (I'm sticking with the honesty promise) I knew more when I was eighteen than I do now and, no, that's not twenty years wasted. The certainty I always imagined existed in my elders and, so I was informed, betters, never really happened to me. Instead, every new piece of information I acquire generally contradicts the last one and, as I get older, I'm generally coming to see a bit of worth in each; which means nothing makes much sense. The point is, instead of the clear and polarised truths of old, I'm growing more unsure and more uncertain than ever. Less and less makes sense. More and more becomes unclear. But that's OK. Really, I'm fine with that. Because, with the loss of certainty comes a great mental and emotional cavern that can be filled with both awe and wonder.
You see, (and I'm going right back to the start here) I think anyone can do anything. I think that's going to be my spiel for a bit. If that imaginatively myopic Corporate type can do this, I think that leaves the field pretty much open to anyone. If that physically blind derelict from a few years ago can make it here and can see and experience this, then really, anyone can do anything. Believe me, I'm sincere in this; our possibilities are endless. We rarely, if ever, reach the end of our abilities. All of us are capable of so much more than the nine to five and the next mortgage payment. Don't get me wrong, I'm not disparaging that life, (not at all) I'm simply trying to say that there’s far more to any of us than the role others ascribe. You are not simply a parent. You are not an office worker. You are not managed or manager. You are all of those and far, far more. You can do anything.
After windy Surat Bay, I drove along the coast to Te Anau. Where famous sounds where. You know...the Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. Te Anau was a really beautiful place with a beautiful lake and the refreshing background noise make it even more beautiful. It is a little town, mostly popular in summer but now, in the winter, it was almost desserted. No worries though -- without the tourists it was even more beautiful :-)
The next day I headed to Milford Sound. 120km to the Sound and 120km back. The highway to Milford sound dates back to the 1930's but I was happy it gave me the opportunity to go there. I also wanted to go to Doubtful Sound but that was almost impossible....unless you have lots of money ;)
Milford Sound is New Zealand's most famous tourist destination and tends to be crowded.
I was warned about the big buses headed to Milford Sound and told me to avoid the mornings and late afternoons. But of course I didn't listen. In Te Anau it was pretty much desserted, so Milford Sound would be the same, right? I was totally wrong!! Lots of big buses, especially Chinese. Yeah, Chinese tourists are pretty much everywhere nowadays. But in the end, I did a pretty good job of avoiding them. Cheers for me. :-)
And it was a pretty amazing view. I didn't do a boat trip to see the sounds up close but the drive was well worh it. Alrighty and now back to Te Anau. Another 120km's and after that heading to the party and ski town called: QUEENSTOWN!