Nations Unknown: Tawantinsuyu

TawantinsuyuTawantinsuyu is the name the Incas gave to their empire. It means in Quechua, “Four Regions Together” or “Four Directions-under-the-sun United” – and reflects the expansion of the Incas from their homeland in the Cusco region of south-central Peru. By the time the Spanish arrived and took over the show, the Inca Empire had stretched north to Columbia; west to the Peruvian coastlands; south far into Chile and east into the Aymara lands of Bolivia. Of course, the modern nation of Tawantinsuyu doesn’t exist in any official sense and you will hardly find it mentioned anywhere beyond history books and the propaganda of some of the more ambitious American Indigenous groups. However there are some important elements to traveling through this part of the world that we couldn’t fail to see and thus begin to believe that these lands are in fact a nation unknown.

Tawantinsuyu shares a geography: The Andean mountain range which rises up in Colombia and runs for the thousands of miles south. On its eastern flanks are the Amazonian highlands – to the west, there’s the driest desert in the world stretching down the coast. This area shares a people: It was always the most populated part of South America and gave rise to many civilizations and cultures – it still has a large indigenous population whose style and look draws deep distinction with anywhere else on the planet. It shares a history:  From times before the Incas through domination by the Spanish and the struggle to survive in the modern world. And, also, they share the rainbow flag.

The Incan identity

But while the notion of Tawantinsuyu hardly exists, it is the legacy of and identification with the Incan Empire that is more visible in the minds and lives of the Andean peoples.  In search of a cultural tradition to either stand proud against modern-day exploitation, to repair the dignities lost in a colonial past or to forge new nationalisms, the concept of Inca is used wherever their empire stretched. So, in Ecuador, for example, the indigenous Saraguros people have increasingly built a self-identity with the Incas, naming schools and offices after Inca emperor –heroes and taking Quechua names as they take their place in the pan-Ecuadorian indigenous organizations that have formed to protect indigenous rights. On a grander scale, in Peru, the Inca legacy as a great empire centered on Cusco has been adopted on a country-wide level and used to build a national identity that is not simply to draw in the tourists. Equally in Bolivia, where the Aymara language and culture predates Inca control and the use of Quechua, the modern process of indigenous political emancipation and equality has employed symbols that have as much to do with conquering Incas as they have with any of the more ancient traditions.

No one is quite sure when the more organized cultures arose in this part of the world. Ruins have been found that date back to times before the Giza Pyramid of Egypt, some 5000 years ago – and the years since have been sketched in with the rise and fall of such civilizations as the Chavin, Paracas, Nazca, Huari and Tiwanaku. Many of these cultures held similar religious beliefs and managed the dry desert, mountain valleys or altiplano using the same technologies. It is obvious, of course, that there is a continuous evolution from the earliest to the later, culminating in the Inca. In fact, the Inca had only moved beyond their homelands to control this vast area in the century before smallpox arrived to ravage their population – followed within a few years by the Spanish. In the north of their empire, some of the regions would have had only a generation or two of Inca domination before they were forced to submit to the Spanish crown instead. Even at the center of the empire, Machu Pichu (that amazing feat of construction and engineering) was only completed a few months before the age of the Incas drew to a close. And yet, though there may have been only a mere flash of Inca right at the end of a long and industrious Andean culture, it is the Inca identity which is assumed by the descendants of their subjects.

Let’s perform a thought experiment: Imagine that Germany had won the First World War and had assumed control over Europe. A couple of generations later, then, imagine that the US had suddenly invaded and completely and utterly took control for the next few hundred years. In the distant future, an indigenous European people emerging from American dominance are searching for an identity by which they can promote their rights, preserve their dignity and take their place at the political decision-making table.  But instead of re-adopting the notions of French, British, Spanish or Italian, the Europeans are thinking themselves as the inheritors of a German culture – even if in reality they had only been forced to be German for a short while before being forced to be American.

The formation of an Andean identity

So why is this kind of what we see in South America? The first two answers to this are, of course, what happened during those years of Spanish control and what happened before, as the Incas built their empire. The Spanish Conquistadores were quick to destroy as much as they could of the symbols of indigenous identity that they found. Temples and buildings were torn down and recycled as churches, records were burnt and traditional practices were forbidden. The people were forced to dress differently and their whole society was rearranged to benefit the new rulers. And within these ashes the truths and facts of life before the Incas were seldom preserved.

But this process of forgetting was kicked off by the Incas themselves. As they expanded across the region, they practiced their own version of the classic “divide and rule” which they called mitmaqkuna. They transplanted conquered communities far from their ancestral lands so that their “federated” empire was a hotch-potch of different ethnicities. Going back to the example of the Saraguros in Ecuador:  Many of these people are descendants of a group that was forcibly moved there from Lake Titicaca, thousands of miles south in Peru, by the very same Inca conquerors they are presently working to identify with. This relocation of communities was performed all over the Incan empire and, once it fell to the Spanish, many people attempted to return to their proper ancestral homelands. The reality was a mixing, blending and unification of a large proportion of indigenous population… A second Incan effect was the spread of their own form of Quechua which quickly became a lingua franca throughout the empire. The Spanish were quick to use this single language to communicate with the varied peoples. And because of this it became easier for them to characterize the indigenous as a single cultural entity – a unification of identity that is still so evident today.

Which brings us to the modern nation of Tawantinsuyu.  The flag that I has been chosen to represent Tawantinsuyu is the rainbow flag known as the Wiphala. You set it fluttering proudly outside houses as soon as you climb into the Andes crossing south from Colombia. By the time you get to Cuzco it is deployed in the central plaza as the official symbol for that city, the former capital of Tawantinsuyu – and, in Bolivia, it’s alternate, squared version, has been adopted as the national flag, paired up with their traditional tri-color on police uniforms, government buildings and military aircraft. The Wiphala’s origins are pretty vague. It is known that the Inca employed a three-color rainbow combined with serpents as the crest for the Inca Emperor himself and remains of vases from the ancient Tiwanaku capital in present-day Bolivia also depict the squared pattern. But the very idea of a flag, fluttering high in the breeze and emblematic of a nation is a European invention and, so, we must examine what is meant by the indigenous communities, the length and breadth of the Andes adopting this re-vitalized motif.

In the north, the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador have long been fighting the commercial exploitation of their lands. In Peru, where they have brought in an “Indigenous Peoples Consultation Law”, to include the indigenous in decisions about mining or oil extraction,  they are now arguing who is truly indigenous and who is ‘merely’ a highland peasant. In Bolivia, Evo Moralas, the first indigenous ruler of a South American country, continues the “socialist” revolution and tries to make it acceptable to all the peoples of that divided country. The modern nations might be separate but the concerns are the same – that the original peoples have long been treated badly by outsiders and that they face a hard struggle to reconcile their situation with the rapidly developing world they exist in – even as they are afforded more and more rights. An identity, a background or a conscious history is an essential tool in this fight and they find that, by adopting an Incan identity and the rainbow flag, their heritage is actually a shared one that exists all over this region that was once called Tawantinsuyu.



Nations Unknown: Guna Yala

Swastika - ancient indigenous symbol

SwastikaOf all the nations unknown that Earthcircuit has visited these past three years, Guna Yala is the most established. It has borders, it has a language, a distinctive culture and an independently legislative existence within the Republic of Panama. You even have to pay $10 to get in.

Possibly, though, it’s one of the strangest nations; a thin strip of land on the north coast of Panama has almost no roads, as wild and inhospitable as when the Scottish first attempted to settle there hundreds of years ago. The Kuna people mostly inhabit the thousands of islands that lie just off shore, using hand built canoes and speedboats to move around, it’s almost like a waterworld of the future as much as an authentic vision of an indigenous past.

Guna Yala has, by and large, always maintained an independence. When Panama was part of Colombia, the area was known as the San Blas Islands by the outsiders who saw them as stepping stones  (and continue to do so)  from South to Central America. With support from the USA, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903 and, over the next two decades, the Kuna people began to be oppressed by the policies and institutions of the new leaders from Panama City.  By 1925 they had had enough and there was an armed revolution with the aim of establishing a truly independent republic called Tule. After a few months, after two dozen non-Kuna police were killed and with help from American individuals who supported their cause, they came to an agreement with the Panamanian authorities to lay down their arms in return for cultural recognition, rights and safeguards.

The swastika, of course, is an ancient symbol – representing to the Kuna, the four directions or winds. During the Second World War, the Kuna decided to drop that for a depiction of a bow and arrow under green stars in recognition of events going on in the world around them. Both flags are proudly displayed on pick-ups and boats.

The Kuna population is around 80 000 strong although a significant proportion of them live in Panama City where the women-folk are easily identifiable because of their distinctive dress. But it’s only out in the islands, of course, that you see the Kuna living in pretty much the way they always have…

The Price of Paradise

The province that separates North and South America

The province that separates North and South AmericaOur friend, Inti, was the first to come up with this phrase when trying to understand why there isn’t a road from Panama to Colombia, through the Darien – and to be honest it’s as good as an explanation as any other…

The Panamerican Highway comes in two parts: North and South. The north part, fresh from its 4-12 lane iteration in Canada, USA and Mexico, continuing as a purposeful hardtop road threading through the states of Central America, dies out somewhere east of Panama City, just a couple of hundred miles before the first proper roads in Colombia begin again. In between there is a thick, tropical jungle known as the Darien Gap. Getting your vehicle around this tiny piece of uncivilisation, using container ships, costs more than crossing that other, much larger, natural barrier known as the Pacific Ocean. For this reason, the Darien Gap represents something of a conundrum: Why does it exist? I can’t believe it exists. Why, when there are roads going everywhere, there are no roads here? And why the hell do we have to pay $2500 to get round it?

For it is indeed the price of paradise and always has been. But who has paid that price? And who receives the money? Let us start at the beginning – or, at least, the time when Europeans first heard of Darien. The seventeenth century.


Scotland's Darien - their price of paradise

The paradise for the Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch and French were the colonies – the massive land grabs that brought riches to those countries and ushered in the new world of empires. Scotland was then not part of a union with England and wanted desperately to join in this race for resources. They came up with the Darien scheme, a plan to send a few ships and over a thousand people to this thin ribbon of land between Panama and Colombia, to establish a colony and a trading company that would enrich the folk back home. And, if you look at some of the oldest maps there is a New Caledonia and a New Edinburgh located on the Darien’s Caribbean coast. But then they paid the price: the expedition was a complete failure. The indigenous people didn’t want them there, the Spanish gave them problems and the English refused to help in any way: Their food rotted, they succumbed to the heat, humidity and disease and only a few hundred survived after a few months. And, in real terms, the price was enormous for Scotland: a fifth of her wealth had been invested in the Darien scheme. It is generally thought that this disaster quickly convinced the Scots that their future had to be with England, to share in the benefits of being a world power and to be an integral part of the British Empire. A few years later, then, there was the Act of Union and the rest is history: this Darien, indeed, seems the price Scotland paid for paradise.

Inti wasn’t referring to Scotland, though. Of that I’m sure. He is from the Amazon. He saw his first ever road when he was ten years old and hitched a ride on the first ever truck he saw to a big city somewhere that he’d never heard of… After a career working for the military as an underwater welder, he has these last four years settled in Panama City. He’s done pretty well for himself here – his workshop profiting from the money-bubble that this international zone has become. Is this what he meant? Has the Darien Gap, a barrier that isolates Panama from the economic and political confusion of South America, contributed to the success story?

This does seem a realistic proposition. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the USA helped Panama separate from Colombia and remained to build and operate the Panama Canal. They wouldn’t have appreciated the difficulties that a land border with Colombia would have brought: That they had annexed part of an independent nation could be dispelled by the fact that Panama had always been geographically cut off from the rest of the country. In general, in more modern times, the popular idea is that a road would have brought an increase in drug and human traffic but, I think, more importantly, it would have brought distraction for the Panamanian/American authorities whose attention was focused on linking the oceans together rather than being a through-fare for revolting banana republics. One the one hand, then, the Darien Gap is a buffer-zone; a good example of the colonial custom of divide and rule. On the other it is the price Panama pays for its paradise.

But, no, Inti was referring to the price we are paying to get to the paradise of the South America that he knows; the Amazon, the Andes, the original New World and his home.

So who profits now in the twenty-first century from the Darien Gap? Who actually receives money for its continuing existence? The price that we paid for our paradise, our slow orbit of the earth is nearly $4000 in all – to ship the vehicle, to transport ourselves, to exist in hostels while we wait for the return of our home at the port in Cartagena, Colombia…

Last year there was talk of a new ferry route that would have provided a much cheaper option for both the gringo overlanders and the thousands of Latin Americans who want to travel between north and south. After many press releases, advertising and even the opening of a booking office, the ferry remains a dream, the boat itself still docked in Greece. As others have put it, the idea seems to have sunk under the weight of bureaucracy or, at least, because of the lack of ferry-terminal facilities in both Colon and Cartagena. But one thing is obvious; those who profit from the continuing situation are those who happily reside over the remaining travel options: Copa Airlines mostly, who charge $350 for an hour’s flight over the jungle, but also the Guna Yala people (who have paid their own bloody price for this paradise – LINK) – they too must profit from the small amount of people who prefer, like us, to travel by speedboat around it.

But is it right to demand that a road be built through the Darien? Through a pristine, original growth jungle? A road is just a road, after all, and can be constructed with those green bridges and tunnels that encourage wildlife to cross safely and minimizes the disruption to the continuum of the surrounding environment. It could be a showcase road – an example to the Brazilians where their jungle roads are simply tools for the land clearing, destruction that spreads like a disease through the Amazon – capillaries that feed the cancer of a disappearing rain forest. Could that ever happen? Could the Panamanian authorities resist the corruption and self-interests that bedevil good intentions? Probably not. So this is the price we all pay for one last piece of paradise: maybe the Darien should always remain a gap…




Carbon Credits in the Garbage

Rescued from the landfill

Rescued from the landfillWhen I think about offsetting the carbon footprint for flying from the UK back to Costa Rica, the image of footprints all the way across 8000 km of Atlantic Ocean comes to mind. That’s a lot of footprints. I’m glad I’m not walking.

According to an online calculator, I am going to produce 1470 kg of CO2 which is nearly 15% of my total annual carbon footprint – if I was an average UK citizen. That’s a whole load of hot air, to be honest, just for 14 hours of travel – probably a Tican family of six would burn that much in a year of sitting in the traffic around San Jose; further north in Nicaragua, my single long haul flight is the equivalent to an average family’s entire annual carbon footprint. In the UK, meanwhile,  it’s the equivalent of how much an average citizen generates in a year just for feeding themselves. And get this: it’s more or less identical to how much an average UK citizen releases on heating in a year. See the connection? Instead of fighting the British weather all year – get a flight to the tropics! It’s the same!

Anyway, that online calculator invited me to offset my flight by paying $18. Apparently some of that money will get to projects around the world such as reforesting or getting people to use more efficient pots. Projects in places like Costa Rica and Nicaragua, I presume, thinking ahead to next week when we finally arrive back to our mobile home hidden away in the jungle. I was just coming up out of the tube station, the wind howling down the High Road and cold, dark slush underfoot. The brightest thing around was the supermarket, offering respite in so many ways – through its glass walls I could see the place was full of customers, their pit stop on the commute home. Hungry myself, I nipped round the back to the bins (where there are less queues) and pulled out my dinner for the night: Two strawberry trifles and a massive angus beef and red wine pie.

And then I had my epiphany. Why not have more of these carbon footprint offsetting projects in the places where they are producing all the stuff in the first place? Wouldn’t that make more sense? Wouldn’t it even be better to have a project which reduces the CO2 being produced in the first place rather than planting trees for the future? You can think of it this way: If all the collective UK carbon footprint was offset, how’d that work with these projects they’re offering? You can imagine the whole of Costa Rica being densely reforested – even the wonderful runway at their International Airport by the time they’d finished. Or maybe the Nicaraguan houseperson crying, “No más!” as the guys from the Climate Care nonprofit NGO org corp turn up with another few pots to add to the collection piled up in the kitchen. It just couldn’t happen of course – this carbon offsetting thing might encourage worthwhile projects and real changes in behavior but, as a collective illusion, it has no future as it stands now.

I had, in my hand, 1 kg of food that I had rescued from the supermarket’s garbage. According to the biogas people 1 kg of  ‘municipal solid waste’ will produce 100 g of methane when 50% of that waste is made up of food. So my dinner represents 200 g of methane that would have been produced if the supermarket had had its way and sent that beef pie and trifle to the landfill. Methane is over 20 times more of a problem, more of a greenhouse gas, than CO2 – this is the thing: Eating the pie and trifle produces CO2. Letting it rot in landfill produces methane. So, now, that 200 g of methane is worth 4 kg of CO2… You can imagine, then, the mess being made with all this food getting dumped – especially the thousands of tonnes that get thrown out the back of those behemoths of consumerism while the consumers inside stand frozen into non-action under the bright lights.

So with that one act of casual dumpster diving I generated minus 4 kg of CO2 which I’ll put towards the flight next week. That can count for one or two footprints from the watery trail to Costa Rica. Of course, this transaction is a completely imaginary one in my head – because there’s no system out there for me to actually trade in my self-made carbon credit. This is the epiphany. This is the problem. There should be a system of carbon credit trading for individuals and their individual actions. That, surely, is only fair – it’s like saying you can’t use money unless you become a company and register with the financial authorities. I think it’ll come, for sure, if this global warming thing really gets out of hand. Everyone will be making money by recycling, reusing and adopting low-carbon behavior. Not only will you save $5 by cycling to work, you’ll make an extra $1 to offset your weekend trip out of town. People living communally will have a distinct advantage of course. Oh shit, they banned squatting.

Well, let me take the photos of me eating the Angus Beef Pie with Trifle (on the dangerous side of the sell-by date) to the offices of one of those trading company wotsits downtown in the big, shiny buildings. Better still, I’ll take the packaging and plonk it on the counter: I wanna trade in the 200 g of methane I saved from the landfill.

Food waste versus group size

[P.S. You just used released a tenth of a gram by reading this page]


The Truth About the End of the World

Waiting for the truth

So last week was scheduled the end of the world according to the lost Mayan civilization. Their complicated methods of keeping time all came to a head as the Mayan Calendar got to the end of the 5125 year long count and started again from zero.

Of course, this event got loads of people around the world excited with all manner of apocalyptic predictions.  As the decisive moment approached, the kind-of-ex-communist countries, Russia and China led the way in panic buying. For the Chinese, half of whom believed literally the film 2012, an ark of some kind was the purchase of choice. The Russians thought candles would see them through and bought up whole shed loads of them. In the West, meanwhile, the event came at the weekend and there were thousands of special End-of-the-World parties.

And in turn, all the scientists and other level-headed people queued up to talk down any chances of mega-disaster, to explain that it was just a calendar re-setting – just like our New Year’s Eve.

And pretty much all of them – ivory-tower professors, media reporters and survivalists, hiding behind stacks of dried food, alike – have missed the point: What exactly happened 5125 years ago that kicked the whole thing off?

Even in the Mayan heartlands – south-eastern Mexico and the Guatemalan highlands – the New Long Count was seen as a moment to celebrate the Mayan culture and reaffirm their identity. After hundreds of years of oppression the Mayans understandably want to look forward so there wasn’t much talk about the long forgotten past.

So then what happened? August 11th 3115 BCE. Well, no one knows do they? And, as the earliest evidence for this calendar, found so far, of course, is an inscription on a stone in Chiapas that says the equivalent of 36 BCE – it could well be that the people who came up with this calendar weren’t too sure either.

I don’t know; I just thought, with the amount of web pages being published about it, frenzied consumerism and all, someone may have wondered what happened back then the last time there was a Mayan End of the World. Could be somehow relevant, no?

So let me introduce you to the Holocene Impact Working Group – a bunch of scientists working tirelessly to ascertain whether there were any asteroid or comet collision events during the last 12,000 years that may have, you know, altered the course of human history. I was idly reading one of their member’s papers (The Archaeology and Anthropology of Quaternary Period Cosmic Impact by W. Bruce Masse) when something made me sit up. Outside were the sounds of laughter coming from my friends who were constructing a kind of Amazonian shamanic shrine, around which we’d perform some made-up generic ritual as the Mayan New Long Count drew close. Just for fun. Inside I had just read the words, “The group claims an impact event off the coasts of Australia and Madagascar around 3000 BCE created an underwater feature it calls Burckle Crater.” 3000 BCE, huh? Isn’t that, like, closely related to 3115 BCE? I frowned and read further: Masse was hypothesizing that it was this event spawned the hundreds of creation myths around the world that involve flooding and darkness, falling stars and so on. One of those was from the Popul Vuh, what we understand to be the Mayan holy book, where it says the “sky was in suspense, and the earth was submerged in the water”. Such stories are generally brushed aside by historians who might say that it’s all a metaphor for the political power struggles of the time, or some such rubbish. Fanatics believe them outright along with the gods that are postulated, while scientists rightly affirm that such fantasy is impossible. So, why then did all those flood myths, and the start of the Mayan calendar happen just when they did?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the end of the world I fear. It is the lack of interest in wanting to understand all the previous ends of worlds. There – didn’t even mention Noah.

Squatting Culture Becomes Criminal

 Traveling around the world overland very slowly is a pretty incredible cultural experience – you get to see something of the planet and her people every inch of the way – you also bring something of your own culture with you. What I didn’t expect is that, in the time that we’re away, my way of life back home, has been criminalized and from today I can be thrown in jail for doing something I’ve been doing for twenty years.  This isn’t some little hobby or other that we’re talking about, that has fallen under health and safety laws, say, or legislated out of existence. This is about how you choose to live, where you live and the people you live with, and it’s a full scale attack on a whole class of people. They have made squatting [in a residential property] criminally illegal; a little piece of the English culture that travels with me has died.

I’d like to expand on this whole topic – you know; the history; the present situation; talk about the common misconceptions and cover the issues; the reasons why squatting is beneficial to society and the reasons why, one day, it will save the planet. Soon I will and post it all here – until then I just want to say I am very, very sad, disappointed and thinking about my friends and family, and the thousands of people back home who woke up last week to find they were criminals.

Back in April 2010, we left the UK a few weeks before the General Election that brought in the first Conservative government for 13 years. We joked that we wouldn’t return until they had gone and the ever-so-slightly nicer Labour Party had been re-installed. Not so much joking now…

[I would just like to add that this one day it will all be legal again; you can’t keep a good idea down and you can’t kill the Spirit – below are some links to some of the campaigns against this completely daft law-change: Fight the Good Fight!  ]

The World in Hot Water

Steamy hot water on a frozen day.
This photo was not taken in Panama.

If taking a break from Panama City is a good thing to do; driving up to the cool of El Valle, around 200 klicks back west, and immersing yourself in the hot water pools of Anton Valley’s Agua Calientes, ranks as a very good thing to do. Some overlanders told us that some scientist living in the area believes the famous pools are, in fact, artificially heated and the mud, that you put on your face, is imported. Well, the water could do with a tad more heating, to be honest – and it wouldn’t be a bad thing that they wouldn’t be 100% naturally hot spring fed. I mean, sure, such waters are generally loaded with minerals and prized because of that – but the heat of the water is something else: All over the world, people like to get hot and wet. Whether that’s achieved electrically, by burning wood, pouring water on hot rocks or utilising the heat of the planet itself –  energy that derives from the web of gravity twisting and turning a billion billion tons of earth around the sun…

The universal custom of immersing the body in hot water, or the feeling of sweating liquid all over the skin, can be seen the world over. Saunas, of course, can be as dry as a Swedish bastu to as steamy as a Native American sweat lodge and on to the complete submersion of a hamam, jimjilbang or, indeed, a bath.

However, they all seem to serve the same purpose in society – to cleanse, heal and relax the mind, body and community.

Six notable hot water types of establishment from around the world:

Krazy Korean. The Korean jimjilbang comes in a wide variety of guises from neighbourhood bath house to 24-hour entertainment complex.  A good example of a modern establishment is the World Cup Stadium Spa tucked away under the World Cup Stadium in Seoul.  $7 buys entrance to the spa for 4 hours. First, you’re in the grooming, washing and heat treatment zone which is sexually segregated. Everyone is wandering around naked; first they have shower and relax in the hot tubs, dipping periodically into a cold pool. Here there is also infra-red dry rooms and big muscly people ready to give you a rub down or massage. After this, they spend a while having a shave, haircut, manicure, etc where most of the tools and products come free. Then you put on the orange shorts and t-shirt that you received on the way in and proceed to the mixed section where you have the chance to relax in front of the TV in a big communal room stretched out on the heated floor or upstairs reading something from the library. There’s also an internet (sorry, World of Warcraft Zone) and a canteen. For a few thousand Won more, you can even doze off and stay the night – some establishments even have communal sleeping rooms, bare, floor-heated rooms with wooden brick-shaped pillows. Basically people spend hours in there.

Spiritual Sweat Lodge. Coming from the native peoples of America, a sweat lodge is a tradition with great spiritual significance and ritual. In Central and South America it’s known as a temazcal and examples of have also been identified in ancient Greece, Ireland, in Celtic  lands and many other cultures. There are very few public sweat lodges of any kind because of the enormous ceremonial significance that they have – and the dangers involved in the extreme environments found within. Participation is usually by invitation and the emphasis will be on respecting the local traditions. Some will be held in silence, some with drums – some will be in darkness, some with a few candles. The ideas behind a sweat lodge have, of course, been adopted by certain New Age groups – a phenomenon criticised by some  indigenous and First Nations, welcomed by others. This uneasy appropriation reached its nadir when a few people died in an inadequately constructed and supervised sweat lodge at a retreat in Arizona in 2009 that occurred after the group had undergone various other extreme New Age practices such as fasting in the desert.

Temple Hot Springs

Hot spring fed. The most basic of hot baths found all over the world wherever geothermally heated water manages to bubble to the surface. The waters generally have a mineral content unique to that area and thus individual baths become renowned as having powers to heal. The best natural hot springs are located in a beautiful, remote area close by a river so that the extreme temperatures can be ameliorated by adding cold water, like the ones at Big Bend in California. For this purpose, stone pools are constructed at different levels down a gradient so that the water flows from bath to bath becoming cooler until it has fully mixed with the river or creek. (photo – and link to blog). This is what’s called a wild hot spring although plenty are now part of some establishment with proper buildings built over tiled pools and you couldn’t really tell if it was heated by man rather than the planet. The weirdest are the temples, where they worship the stuff. In Parvati Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India, the Hindus believe that the hot water results from the hissing of a serpent god, sent to pacify Shiva. The water there comes out hot enough to cook rice.

Scandanavian. The sauna, of course, is found everywhere but it’s the Scandinavian and Russian forms of it that people have in mind, when they think of people sitting inside a very hot wooden box. Traditional forms are heated up with smoke from a fire that is allowed to dissipate before people come in. Any lingering smoke is thought to be helpful, as is the gentle whipping of birch that they like so much in the Russian banyas.  Saunas in Germany and Austria are almost always same-sex, nude affairs – swim wear is usually the norm in other countries where males and females are together.

Hammam. The Muslim’s world form of sauna also focuses on actually getting clean; scrubbing and rinsing out the dust and dirt of a hot day…Water, and the large amounts of wood required to heat it, are valuable commodities in countries like Turkey, Egypt and Morocco – and you’ll find one of these communal bath houses in every neighbourhood., often attached to a bakery which shares the heat for its ovens. Inside a hammam, there are warm and cold rooms to help the body adjust its temperature but most of the action takes place in a central area where the people get clean. The scrubbing is particularly abrasive and you will lose a few layers of skin if you succumb to the attendants’ advances. If you’re tattooed, their unconscious aim may be to remove it. As you would expect, hammams are segregated, most usually men and women use the same facilities at different times of the day.

Go private. Of course, if you’re too shy to be partially or completely naked in front of others – maybe, it’s just a bit too weird to be suddenly doing your bathroom routine in public – do not fear that the benefits of the world in hot water are lost to you. Simply build your own; a little, electrically heated box in the shed or garage; a hot tub with jacuzzi controls for those who prefer an outdoor submersion under the stars; a DIY sweat-lodge  at the end of the garden. The point is that, even if you are alone, you’re doing something humans have always done all over the world…


Why do some countries drive left and others right?

Driving on the right in Panama.

Driving left side or right?

If you’ve been studying our website closely you’ll know that our truck, Jigsaw, is right-hand drive and it was designed to drive left. Which means that this entire Earthcircuit is, for us, happening on the wrong side of the road.  “No!” Americans will say, “It is you Brits who drive on the wrong side, just like the Aussies and Japs. Everyone else drives on the right side of the road.” Well, I’m going to explain why, indeed, most of the world drives on the right side even though it is the wrong side – and why a few select countries drive on the left side which is, in fact, the correct side.

For those who can’t be bothered to read this entire article, I’ll sum it up here: Are you right or left handed? I’m guessing right – and that’s why you should be driving on the left – simple, no? But how did we reach the current state of affairs? And does it really matter which side any particular country chooses to organize its traffic?

So let us go back in time, before there were any cars at all but not before there were cities and roads. These ancient metropolises sometimes had worse traffic jams than we have now. Ox carts, horse-drawn carriages, chariots, peasants pushing barrows, slaves carrying their masters and hundreds of street people forcing their way through the mêlée that was the typical scene in any town or city.

The chaos was made worse, of course, since usually there were no enforced traffic regulations of any kind – a situation that persisted right up until the twentieth century even in some European countries. However, more enlightened authorities ruled that traffic must travel on the left side of the road – there is evidence that the Romans practiced this and, too, in the bustling cities of ancient India where the geometries of clockwise motion (up the left side and back down on the right) held religious significance.

Drive on the left side even before there were cars

Before the modern age, you see, there is an important thing to consider: traveling on the left side forces anyone coming towards you to pass on your right side. And for the majority of people this means that they can more easily attack or defend themselves using whatever weapon they are holding in their right hand. Or, if violence is not your thing, moving on the left, means you can more easily shake hands or high-five a person coming towards you with your right hand: Mounting a horse is generally done with the left leg first. To do this safely, standing by the side of the road and not in the middle of the traffic means that the traffic should be moving on the left side of the road (try this with your bike). Sitting on a horse or on a cart behind a horse means that to use a whip (with your right hand) you must be traveling on the left hand side of the road if you don’t want to get caught up with pedestrians as you raise your hand back to strike (try that on your bike, too).

French Empire in early 1800's
Napoleon’s Right Sided Europe

So, originally, we can say that everywhere in the world had a traffic system like the UK does now. Well, what happened then? Basically the French started changing things around. In the eighteenth century, two things happened. First, there was an increase in large wagons being pulled by several horses, designed to carry big loads across this massive country. The driver of such a transport generally sat on the left rear horse so that he could apply his whip (in his right hand) to all the horses in front of him. This meant that he preferred to travel on the right so to check for clearance with oncoming traffic. Secondly, there was the French Revolution. In France, it was the aristocracy who used non-commercial horse-drawn vehicles – and they, in keeping with the natural way, travelled on the left side. It was the peasantry, walking on foot, who passed on the right hand side so that they had a better view of the oncoming travel – much as pedestrians are advised to do all over the world today when there is no safe sidewalk to use. This rightism became a symbol of the revolution, so that everyone was obliged to travel on the right in the same way as a horse-less peasant, including the aristocrats keeping a low profile.  A few years later, along came Napoleon who conquered much of Europe – wherever he went, he pressed the new right-side form of travel into law.  It is thought, too, that, with his massive armies marching up and down all over the continent, traveling on the right would reduce the opportunities for inter-regimental fighting as the columns of soldiers passed each other. Napoleon, too, was left-handed.

So for another hundred years, until the birth of motorized locomotion, the states, and their colonies worldwide, that had been conquered by Napoleon travelled on the right. The others, namely Portugal, Sweden and the British and Austro-Hungarian Empires and their colonies kept to the left.

In the case of the US, while it was still under British control, people generally kept to the left, too, in the busy cities – although in the vast, undeveloped areas, there was little regulation. The introduction of great big wagons pulled by a fleet of horses and controlled from the rear left horse, like France, forced much of the inter-urban traffic to travel on the right. And then, when America won its independence, they made the switch permanent, in a move to severe links with the British, but also partly in response to the many immigrants who were used to right-side travel having come from those Napoleon-conquered states in Europe.

For mainland Europe, Hitler forced Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary to switch to the right where they remained after the Second World War; China and Korea switched to the right, once free from Japanese control (where the custom had, of course, long been to travel on the left.

For the rest of the world we can say that most countries travel on the right in an effort to conform to their neighbors while much of the former British Empire continues on the left. In the case of Pakistan and India (which had been traditionally left-siders before the British arrived), they felt that to change would bring too much disruption, not least to camel trains that often plodded on through the night, on the left side of the road, while their drivers slept. Another notable exception was Myanmar where the superstitious president ordered a change from left to right on the advice of a wizard.

So then, there we are, most of the world now travels on the right, and the roots of that stem from political reasons rather than any practical reasons. And, unfortunately, there could be a price to pay for this disregard of the natural, instinctive norms of a right-handed humanity. There hasn’t been much research done on whether it is safer to be a leftist or a rightist – such an experiment would be enormously difficult to design: where would we find a population who were completely used to driving on both sides in order for genuine comparisons to be made? How could we distill the effect of the side of the road from all the other cultural aspects of driving, the design of roads, the proficiency levels, the efforts of traffic police and deterrence effects of the judicial system between one country and another? We can look at the experiences of Sweden which made the change from left to right in 1967; traffic accidents went down dramatically for a while after the switch but returned to more or less the same levels as before once the public had got used to the new system and were less cautious. But there is not much to learn there, except that it is much more important that you drive with careful attention.

Right-siders reminded to use the left as they enter Kent, UK We can identify a few advantages to driving on the left. The dangerous part of the road is, of course, the center where vehicles pass in opposite directions. The energy of impact is more substantial there – the time necessary to avoid an impact is a fraction of what is available to avoid impacts with people or objects on the side of the road. It might make sense to have your good hand on that side, to be sure – humans also have ocular preference where the majority favors their right eye over their left. This feedback between your eye and your hand on the steering wheel is the crucial moment of safe driving. Consider, then, sitting on the right hand side of your car – you keep your good hand within this feedback loop, while your left is free to operate the gear stick, as you turn a corner, say, or fiddle with the radio. The gears, the buttons on the radio, etc. are generally digital switches – on or off, one, two, three, four, and so on. The point is that the hand remaining on the wheel is in an analogue control mode and should demand much more of your brain power to keep it good than a mere switch. Another point to consider is when you are reversing and you look over your shoulder, through the rear window to see where you are going:. If you sit on the left hand side of your car, your bad hand remains on the steering wheel and is forced to become part of the analogue feedback loop…

Of course, the real world is much more complicated: in cultures with relaxed driving habits, it may well be better to use your right hand for operations around the interior of the vehicle, like finding a radio station, drinking coffee or retrieving a dropped mobile phone. Using your good hand for this may reduce the time that there is only one hand on the steering wheel. One particular nation might extensively employ dual carriageways which separate the traffic directions, while strictly enforcing speed limits on more dangerous single carriageway roads. There are many, many more vehicles with manual gear shifts in Europe than North America, too, for instance. But consider this: The UK, which drives on the left, has consistently fewer road accidents and casualties than the rest of right-driving Europe.


Drive on the left
European Road Casualty Per Million Population

“Visitors are informed that in the United Kingdom traffic drives on the left-hand side of the road. In the interests of safety, you are advised to practise this in your country of origin for a week or two before driving in the UK.”
— United Kingdom Ministry of Transport


Sambo Creek Radio Comunitaria

Garifuna map and location

The Garifuna peoples live on the Caribbean coast of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras and Roatan, an island that now belongs to Honduras. There are communities in St.Vincent and in the largest of North American cities, notably New York. Theirs is an interesting, intriguing story – and an invaluable part of the American landscape after the turmoil of colonization, slavery and suffering shook everything up for a while.

History picks up the story in 1635 when Spanish ships with captured West African people were ship-wrecked close to St.Vincent. The indigenous Island Carib people took them in. St.Vincent , at that time, was not colonized – in the late eighteenth century, Britain was awarded the island by some deal or other with the French. In 1797, Garifuna surrendered to British forces, deporting 4000 Garifunans with the blackest skin first to a nearby island and then to Roatan. Half of these people died during that journey and their new home could hardly support the rest so they got permission from the Spanish authorities to settle on the Central American mainland coast.  Since then, they have managed to prosper and have always remained a free people preserving their unique way of life, traditions and language which is a blend of two Carib indigenous languages with many English and Spanish words. Their number system sounds like French.

It is a story full of questions about their time on St.Vincent. At first, it seems they were enslaved by the Caribs living there but then some inter-breeding and cultural synthesis took place. And then, the British made their cruel attempt to divide the society that had evolved…

Garifuna Semana Santa at sambo Creek, Honduras

Happily, today, the Garifuna Nation seems strong and well connected – celebrating together in April every year, their arrival on the Honduran mainland from Roatan and other important cultural events. They have a particular form of music and dance, traditional medicines, food and drink, all of which make their existence on the Caribbean coast an important component of each state’s push for tourists – while many of the people themselves are returning from life in New York, L.A. or London or, at least, have family members there.  I was surprised to see such a firm identity surviving the Spanish-speaking hegemonies of the area, not least the problems Central America has suffered – I shouldn’t have been. The Garifuna know who they are.

Sambo Creek Kids

Sambo Creek Radio Comunitaria

Guifiti: Herbal bitters from the Caribbean

It’s not every day that you come across an alcoholic beverage that’s (a) said to be beneficial for the health, (b) descends from a mysterious and secret indigenous tradition and (c) hits the spot. Guifiti is such a drink, made by the Garifuna from rum, herbs and roots – a medicinal concoction designed to promote well-being and cure all kinds of ailments as well as getting people (locals and travelers alike) relaxed and mellowed out.

Infamously, it is also laced with certain herbs and roots that aren’t quite legal – you won’t find a bottle in the shops although it is fairly ubiquitous along the Honduran Caribbean coast where the Garifuna people live. They brought the recipes from their homeland where they had co-existed with the indigenous Caribs, each family having its own particular way of making it and passing the method down the generations.

Guifiti belongs to the class of drinks known as ‘bitters’ which are made by steeping the herbal ingredients in alcohol. They originate from various places around the world but became more popular in western cultures after a German physician first commercialized a Venezuelan version that was adopted and adapted by Great Britain’s Royal Navy to be a cure for stomach problems and sea sickness.


I have always liked the taste of bitters, my favorite being the Czech varieties such as Fernet and Becherovka. Unicum is a Hungarian version that is almost undrinkable to most people and Guifiti tastes very similar. Possibly this is why I like them – one’s enjoyment is unlikely to be diminished by having to share the stuff. Of course, you can add a spoonful of sugar or mix them up in a cocktail. This is what the good people of Wolfenbuttel, Germany did with Jagermeister and it has become one of more popular brands worldwide.


Jagermeister is made from 56 herbs and roots which, if you think about it, is quite a few more natural substances than you could probably name unless you had your herbalists’ hat on or the internet at hand. I always figured that, out of 56 ingredients, the chances are that there must be one or two that really synched with my synapses so I was very happy to come across Guifiti which makes a point of playing with your mind…

In Sambo Creek, then, a Garifuna community on the coast of Honduras, not far from the tourist-diving meccas of Roatan and Utila, I managed to score a bottle of Guifiti. The mama of the family wouldn’t tell me what was in it – my questions met with a big smile and a laugh. Of course, this is completely right and proper – the individual recipes are kept secret, passed down through just one member of each generation – knowledge is power, of course, and, for the Garifuna, their hard won heritage can be closely guarded. Descended from a unique mix of African and indigenous Caribbean traditions, Guifiti is fundamentally a medicine and, as with all medicines, they work better if you don’t know how they are made; think herbalism backed up with voodoo and a good dose of the placebo effect.


Consequently, there is not much public information out there about Guifiti. Here’s a list of the typical ingredients:

  • Garlic
  • Cloves
  • Cinnamon
  • Palo de hombre
  • Coconut
  • Marijuana
  • Allspice
  • Jicaco Negro
  • Dead Man
  • Manstrength
  • Noni
  • Rum (the cheaper the better, apparently)

I can’t guarantee that some of these are just duplications in different languages or imported varieties of locally available plants, however. The only people who would talk to me about the stuff were invariably people who hadn’t received the family secret – invariably, too, they’d already had a couple of shots. The one thing that everyone agreed upon was that Guifiti was an excellent aphrodisiac (I think that’s the Manstrength one). I can certainly attest to this and the tingly feelings that arrived after I had a few glasses. However, as with all alcohol based aphrodisiacs there is a law of diminishing returns in this regard – better still to savor the general feelings of well-being, after a meal of fried chicken and plantain, take in the Caribbean sunset, the distant sounds of Reggaeton – because, unless you come here, you won’t be tasting Guifiti anytime soon.