The beauty of a harebrained scheme

It took us several tries to find this place without a map.

Travel has become so much easier now that we have all this technology. Everywhere has wifi, you can use your data for free abroad, Google maps will navigate you around any foreign city without you even having to look up from your phone. It’s so simple.

And yes, having that technology is great. But you lose something at the same time. What might once have been an adventure becomes a pre-packaged trip; a pick and mix of interchangeable identikit elements.

I was reminded of this difference the other day. My long time travel buddy and I were in Amsterdam and he’d been told of a great bar in the North of the city. We tapped the address into Google maps and set off on foot. Three miles into the journey we became doubtful. We seemed to be walking through an unfinished housing estate, and I couldn’t envisage that there’d be a cool place to drink at the end of it. Filled with doubt and nerves, we almost turned back several times. When the paved road ran out and we emerged at a junction filled with gravelly holes, I really thought we’d blown it and were going to have to walk three miles home again. But then, between two lines of low concrete sheds, appeared a gate with the cafe’s name painted over the top. We walked through, and suddenly we were in hippy paradise. Tables in boats, floating man made islands, giant rocking chairs and rope swings.

I sipped my elderflower wine and laughed that I’d ever doubted we would find the place. I also felt a tiny bit sad. The harebrained scheme used to be a mainstay of my travelling adventures. A good harebrained scheme should involve the grain of a good idea swallowed up by a morass of questionable decisions. Essential aspects of the trip should be overlooked, and there should be a general air of danger, and a feeling that the whole enterprise is somewhat held together with spit and glue. This is the kind of travel that makes you feel alive.

To wit, my travel buddy and I once drove around the entire country, 1300 miles, without a map. We took off in the car with two dozen carefully curated mix CDs and a set of directions printed from google maps. We discovered at the first roadworks that the map in the back seat was in fact an A to Z of London. In these pre-smartphone, pre 4G days, we just followed signs for the north until we got back on a recognisable road. The same trip also involved an out of date map of Dundee that managed to send us into a questionable housing estate, a flood on the M90, conditions on the snake pass so bad that he had to take off his tshirt to mop the inside of the windscreen so we could see more than 18 inches in front of us, and some hairy moments in the Scottish highlands.

On another occasion we accidentally ended up sleeping rough in Leipzig train station because we failed to realise our overnight train from Frankfurt to Berlin was in fact a one hour train from Frankfurt to Leipzig, a six hour wait at Leipzig and then a one hour train to Berlin. When McDonalds opened at 5am it brought about a feeling of deliverance like the parting of the Red Sea. Astonishingly that wasn’t even the only time we slept rough on that trip.

Berlin at 7am arriving off the “overnight” train

A couple of years later, we embarked on a journey to canoe coast to coast across Scotland. Again, the trip was a mixture of careful planning and vague assumptions. We camped on beaches under the astonishing Scottish stars, and hitch-hiked with friendly Irish men to get to the fish and chip shop and the pub for a well-earned drink one evening. No one had a torch so we walked back by starlight. It was wonderful, it was haphazard, and it was a world away from the sterilised world of technology-aided travel that we knew. Wild camping meant no electricity (or showers or toilets for that matter) which meant no phones to guide us if we went wrong. None of us actually knew how to canoe, and it took most of a day for me to convince the others that it did in fact help if you rowed in time (“otherwise why would they do it at the Oxford and Cambridge boat race!”).

In a memorable incident, one of the guys accidentally kicked the other in the face, and it was left up to the medicinal whisky and small first aid kit to patch up the wound. It was unexpectedly 27 degrees, and we all burned and melted in various degrees. We had not anticipated that portage (moving the canoes around lock gates on the canals) would be so gruelling, and hadn’t rented a portage trolley. When it rained, it poured, and we were reduced to bailing out the boats with half a milk bottle. It was glorious.

no biggie, we just woke up to this view in the morning.

That’s what you miss in this new world of sanitised travel. Adventure. It doesn’t matter which part of the world you end up in if you’re sitting on your iPhone posting elegant Instagram photos of your perfectly made up face. There’s no adventure. Adventure requires taking a leap, putting your faith in a slightly harebrained scheme. I’m not going to pretend it always works out; sleeping rough in a train station is awful. But we sat up all night and talked about things we’d never talked about before, stone cold sober, huddled in our sleeping bags. And living life with a few more rough edges helps you to realise that the greatest moments aren’t the glamorous ones, they’re the harebrained ones, the gaps in between.


Why are drugs illegal? A trip to the DEA museum in Virginia

There’s a very interesting article in the Guardian today which asks “Why are drugs illegal?“.

Yes, these were given to children.
Yes, these were given to children.

According to the article’s author, a drugs expert, drugs aren’t illegal because they’re dangerous or cause harm – if everything which was dangerous or caused harm was illegal, we wouldn’t have alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, or guns, along with many other things.  In a very large part, the drugs which are illegal are illegal because it’s convenient for them to be so, and because it suits the interests of tobacco and alcohol corporations to ensure that their mind altering products stay on top.

I’d urge you to read the full article, because it’s very interesting, whether or not you agree with that assessment.  It also set me to thinking about the weirdest museum I went to in the States – the Drug Enforcement Agency museum, located next to the Pentagon in Virginia.

I’m a sucker for esoteric museums – the weirder, the better. There’s a museum in London called the Grant Museum of Zoology which is attached to the University of London.  I spent an amazing afternoon there gawping at the pickled jars of moles and penis worms (real things!).  So when I read in the guidebook that the DEA had a museum, I immediately wanted to go.

It’s a short hop on the subway from DC, and it’s free to go in, so we took a look.  We’d been warned that while most museums in DC at least try to strive for some balance, the DEA museum is full on propaganda from start to finish, but that didn’t really prepare us for what it was really like.

Film poster from the 60s
Film poster from the 60s

Despite the fact that several states in America have recently taken steps towards legalising marijuana, and that heroin is derived from a legal drug (morphine), the museum made no attempt to discuss rationally whether or not this was a good thing.  All drugs were evil – pure and simple.  The DEA were the brave agents of righteousness, crusading against the evil drugs which aimed to pervade society, encouraging family breakdown, and the valuing of individual desires over what is “right” for society.

It was a strange message – and it felt even stranger when contrasted with the historical artifacts and explanations for their use.  We saw “cocaine tooth drops”, suitable for teething infants, and read about Sigmund Freud’s belief that cocaine was a miracle cure for the horrors of heroin addiction.  We read that heroin was once believed to be a miracle cure for opium addiction.  We read that people who were interested in jazz music took heroin because it was cool, and all their heroes were doing it.  We read about “reefer madness”, and the violence caused by cannabis – even though this has been widely debunked as a racist scare story.

This photo was captioned
This photo was captioned “executive cocaine user”. Look at the emptiness in his eyes.

It was clear from the stories, and from history, that drugs caused terrible deprivation and suffering in many American communities, particularly in cities such as New York, and Baltimore.  But in the museum, I couldn’t help but feel that the message that all drugs are evil, without exception or nuance, wasn’t in fact part of the problem.  If you’re told that smoking cannabis is as bad as smoking crack, if you try smoking cannabis and it doesn’t harm you, might you not feel like trying crack would be okay?  Surely, a more honest approach might help people realise just how much more harmful some drugs, like crack, can be.

The influence of the alcohol industry, particularly after the end of prohibition, was particularly shocking.  Alcohol companies didn’t want to be public enemy number one, so they made sure that drugs could be neatly slotted into the public’s mind as the scourge of society.  Prohibition clearly failed (as it has with drugs – I read recently that 3 million UK adults took drugs last year), but alcohol remains a dangerous drug.  It’s one of the few drugs where detoxing can literally kill you – the body can’t cope, and the heart gives out.  Being too drunk is far easier than being too stoned, and the tragic deaths from alcohol related illnesses or accidents are in the thousands in the UK.  In my old university city of Durham, three students died falling in the river drunk last year.  If they’d died falling in after taking drugs, the outcry would have been far larger.  It’s a shame that this is an area so fraught with tension that we’re willing to risk more harm to more people rather than take on the prevailing narrative that you can drink as much as you like but if you touch drugs you’re in trouble.

I've just written about how dangerous drinking is, but one old fashioned couldn't hurt, right?
I’ve just written about how dangerous drinking is, but one old fashioned couldn’t hurt, right?

The DEA museum unsurprisingly didn’t tackle the legalisation campaign in America – it doesn’t quite fit with the narrative!  It is an interesting museum, and if you like a quirky museum, or are interested in the subject, I would recommend you visit.  Just don’t go looking for subtlety or the voice of reason – after all, if drugs were legalised, what would the DEA do?  (Just kidding – clearly they would be the regulators & tax collectors “ma’am, your weed is 2 inches too high for your shed, that’s a $100 fine”)

Washington DC is a communist dystopia

As a Brit, everything about Washington DC seems designed to confuse and intimidate.

First, there is the sheer scale. Individually, the buildings are no larger or more impressive than London’s great landmarks – the British Museum could take on any of the museums of the Smithsonian, St Paul’s Cathedral is far more beautiful than National Cathedral, and Buckingham Palace is grander than the White House. And yet, in London each of these architectural treasures is crammed in amongst buildings so you can hardly notice it until you’re right up alongside it. In DC, each building stands alone, forcing you to take note.

But it’s not the buildings themselves which seem designed to shock, it’s the way they interact with each other. London is an organic city; fire on conquest on flood on war on misguided architectural project has left the city with a medieval street plan, sixties offices and glass towers sharing space with georgian churches and edwardian terraced houses. It’s unplanned, organic, and although London means many things to many people, it doesn’t stand for anything in particular,

London is just London; somewhere to find yourself, somewhere to lose yourself, somewhere to overcome, somewhere to become a success, somewhere to run away to, somewhere to run away from. It’s all things to all people, because it doesn’t impress its identity on anyone, rather letting them impress their identity onto its ancient streets. What does London mean to you?

(to me, it is sunset over London Bridge after an autumn day at work, crispness in the air, swirling crowds of people, and the sun glinting over the river. To you, it will be something else).

By contrast, DC knows exactly what it is: a monument to the American dream, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Tours of the Capitol are repeatedly told that this is where the spirit of liberty could not be extinguished – by the English in 1812, by the Civil War in 1861. Here, great men gathered to debate high ideals of philosophy and politics. Here, they began a brave experiment in democracy that’s lasted until this day. It’s enough to make you feel a swelling in your heart, even as a Brit.

But the truth is somewhat darker. Those great men who founded this blessed republic owned slaves, considered women property, and never would have dreamed of allowing the working classes into their midst. And the great city they founded was made possible because of two centuries worth of the most brutal ethnic cleansing imaginable. The American dream is a lie, built on the suffering of millions.

And DC, gleaming in the sunlight, doesn’t want to think about it. It’s true that nowadays some of the horrors are beginning to be discussed (but only beginning, mind). The Museum of the American Indian, an architectural treasure forming one of the latest additions to the Smithsonian, tells the full heartbreaking story of one of America’s greatest shames.

A trip across town shows how far America’s reckoning still has to go, however. We crossed from the Capitol to Chinatown, past the Federal Court building. It was the middle of the downtown area. I’d been warned that some of the suburbs were plain dangerous and we saw plenty of ruined and abandoned buildings in Baltimore from the Amtrak train zooming into Union Station. But this was the city centre; this was a five minute walk from Congress, for crying out loud! Somehow, we still managed to stumble upon a homeless shelter and needle exchange. Bleary eyes watched us with mild curiosity as we tried to walk normally through the underpass and over the concrete bridge.

Seeing the darker side of life always seems scarier in foreign surrounds – you never know really how a city works until you’ve lived there for at least six months. And if you’re totally new in town, you have no idea if you’re working through a rough patch and will end up in a nicer area, or if you’re walking further and further away from the areas tourists are supposed to end up in.

It was undeniably shocking, however. Seeing DC as this great Capitol, the City on a Hill, and then arriving and finding that the depth and breadth of poverty was greater than you as a Brit could possibly imagine was more affecting than I thought it would be.

The contrast between DC’s lofty aim and its gritty reality reminded me of nowhere so much as Beijing. The same impression of space, of a city created to worship a country and a way of life. The same double-think, as those suffering from the diseases of addiction and mental health disorders were left to rot on the streets while diplomats lived two miles uphill in $4 million houses. It had very much the same feel of a state which needed to rally its people to its cause so they would believe in their country so much they wouldn’t see the lie they’d been sold.

On our last night in DC, we went for a special dinner at the Georgetown restaurant where JFK proposed to Jackie O (we didn’t spot anyone getting engaged in that booth, alas). We sat outside and ordered $30 entrees. Across the road from us, a homeless man sat on a bin and held a loud conversation with himself for the entire time we were there. No one else so much as glanced at him. Why, if he only pulled himself up by his bootstraps, he too could be part of this shining City on a Hill.