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Fieldnotes from the Scottish Highlands

31 May

I’m on fieldwork at the moment, with intermittent data reception. I joined the Hillwalking Society for a weekend on the Isle of Arran and have now been based in Kinlochleven for a few days (leaving tomorrow). My fieldwork consists of joining hillwalkers to observe how they perceive Scottish landscapes as sites of health and danger. Basically, it means I get to hike all day! I then sit in my little tent and type up from memory everything they said.

Since I therefore don’t have much time or space in my head for normal blogging, I thought I’d share some of the fieldnotes I just typed up from yesterday’s hiking adventure. I don’t know how often I’ll be able to share fieldnotes in the future, but in this case there is no ethical issue as the photos are my own and I have permission to recount the stories I was told. The following piece has not been edited into academic writing and is more a stream of consciousness. I am also including more (personal) photos that have not gone into my research notes, just to give you a taste of hiking in the Highlands and perhaps of my work… I hope you enjoy!


I wasn’t thinking of doing a massive walk in Glen Coe today. My plan formed spontaneously during breakfast, as I decided to try to find the Lost Valley. I hadn’t informed myself enough on the munro route, but I packed enough for the day to be flexible. I drove Rumi and myself out to the Three Sisters because the Lost Valley had been on my list since I had heard about it. The WalkHighlands website advised to reach the carpark early as it would fill up quickly throughout the day. It also mentioned the bagpiper who was regularly there. He was.


It took a while to find properly, so when I bumped into a Dutch father and son who said they were going there too, I hung around them for a while until they told me their plan was the munro circuit. I followed my own path and found the Lost Valley. It was an impressive expanse between towering munros, and I contemplated on the tragic irony of Clan Macdonald hiding cattle there only to one day hide there themselves. I thought about the Highland Clearances and recent reports of archaeological findings of human remains. I saw pitched tents – probably some folk had camped overnight in the valley – and a group of school children rock climbing with helmets. I felt this was an excellent celebration of this spectacular thought. I also thought about how Highlanders had been portrayed as lazy and greedy thieves, and how the walk up had been nothing for a lazy person. If anything, the beauty and industry of the walk could be a testament to the dedication and pride behind those living there and walking it.



Thistle growing in the Lost Valley

Following half an hour looking down at the Lost Valley and walking around in it, I was just about to head back to the car when I bumped into the Dutch father and son again: George and Brahm. Their route had taken them to the Lost Valley after all. They confirmed that they were still planning on bagging the two munros and I spontaneously asked if we could join them. They accepted.


The walk was fairly straightforward until the ascent began between fields of snow. It was an incredibly hot day so standing beside snow in shorts and shirts was bizarre, almost unnerving.


I wrapped up just because I felt it may be bad luck to enter snow in summer clothes. The first ascent was almost vertical, with deep footprints for us to follow and walk in, but nonetheless somewhat frightening as the slope was at more than a 45 degree angle and the view back was giving me vertigo. I focused instead on the task and tried not to worry too much about Rumi dancing on the snow. She seemed (and was) in control.

At the top of the snow were some muddy rocks. I had been excited about the rocks because they signalled more security than the soft snow on a mountain slope, but with the mud, the rocks felt unsteady, and both foot and hand grip didn’t feel secure. I was beginning to worry, especially as we couldn’t see footprints to follow in the next snow field. I suggested that the path up must therefore be over the rocks. We could see the ridge quite close, so it was only a matter of choosing to go left or right. We chose left.

What seemed like a straightforward scramble turned out to be an almost vertical rock climb. I don’t know how Rumi got as far as she did. I was terrified for her and for myself. I had constant moments of Fear and the greatest battles were to not look down and to not give in to the fear. I had to press forward. What encouraged me was that a 17 year old was leading the way, Rumi was managing (struggling slightly, but managing), and no one was expressing fear. However, I swore that if we got out of this, I would never, ever put Rumi in such a situation again. The climb must have taken about 5 minutes, not much longer, but it involved applying grips I had practised in bouldering, and moments of little grip, using the feet to push myself upwards. Brahm reached the top first and shouted, exhaling loudly, which greatly encouraged me to push forward. We really should not have done that rock face without a belay. Brahm later said: “I have never shit my pants so much,” to which his father laughed appreciatively. He later posed for us beside a block of snow under which he believed the original path to be.


In a way, this climb became the bonding moment for us. We sat on the pass for a while, looking back, expressing disbelief, and trying to understand where the actual path was.  Following this moment, George and Brahm began asking me more questions. A camaraderie developed such as I had felt on the Isle of Arran. We began to share stories, speak carefree and laugh a lot. We shared coffee and cookies.

Father and son told me that they loved hiking. Brahm hated city tourism and prefered to travel to hike because in hiking in the Netherlands wasn’t possible. Brahm later said, “Here I have to think about where to put my feet. There, I just walk.” He also said: “The views are the reward. This is so much more rewarding.” Father and son had flown into Edinburgh the day before – “Yesterday we were still in the Netherlands, and on Monday I have to go back to work! But now, we are in this hot weather in Scotland enjoying the views!” George said – but they hadn’t visited Edinburgh city. George hoped to see it at least once, if briefly. They had immediately rented a car and driven out to Ben A’an. After Bidean nam Bian, they planned to drive to Skye to do the Old Man of Storr, and then to the Cairngorms. It amused me that they had no interest in visiting the cities of Scotland and had only come for hiking. 


Brahm posing for his father on the way down

George was very excited to reach the summit of Bidean nam Bian. It was to be both their first munro and at each cairn they wondered if this was finally the summit. When we made it, George looked to me for confirmation then bellowed: “Yes! My first munro!” An elderly Scottish man with an excellent moustache who had been there before us and was just leaving, turned in delight as he heard this and said: “Oh well done! And hopefully it’s the first of many!” 



George asked me what I did and I told him about my research project. He nodded appreciatively: “I had Lyme.” He told me he had been bitten by a tick in the Netherlands and had developed not the bull’s eye but an entire rash on his leg. At A&E he was put immediately on antibiotics. I mused to myself about how everyone had expressed they had “had” Lyme disease even when they had been put on immediate antibiotics and the disease had therefore not had the opportunity to spread. How long before someone has something? Do you have to suffer from it for a longer period of time before you can say you have had an illness? How do people who actually live with Lyme disease understand “having” a disease, and what do they make of people who say they “had” it when it was immediately tackled by antibiotics?

Brahm told me a story from boys’ scouts. They were at a camping retreat playing hide and seek, and he was always been found. Fed up, he decided to go a different way and lay down in the grass. He wasn’t found, but later his back was covered in “a hundred ticks!” Usually, he told me, when a tick is removed, a circle is drawn around where it was and the ticks are carefully numbered so that if the rash develops, the infected tick can be identified. In this case, the group leader just drew one big circle over the whole of his back. Both Brahm and George laughed uproariously at this story.

On our descent, we spied the elderly Scotsman with the excellent moustache again and again. His bright red backpack became a guide for the path we should follow, especially since the path down wasn’t marked for the first 600m. It was a tedious scramble down and I had several moments when I felt fed up, wasn’t enjoying myself at all, and just wanted to get off the mountain. I thought I would give munro-bagging a break. I asked Brahm how he felt about munros and he laughed, “It’s doable!”


On the descent, we passed by a river and saw the Scotsman just getting up from where he had been sitting on the riverbank. He came up to me and said, “Drink from that river. You won’t taste anything better this side of heaven”. I told George and Brahm this and we filled up our water bottles. Indeed, it tasted otherworldly. I had filled my bottle with tap water from the campsite and was now drinking glacial water, fresh from tumbling over mossy rocks. The difference was astonishing. We enjoyed the drink as much as we enjoyed the description that had come with it.

The descent was long, if beautiful alongside a waterfall that tumbled over steps of red rock.




We took occasional breaks sitting down, and Brahm and George measured our altitude, the distance we had walked, and how many calories we had burnt. We discussed with walking with poles would be beneficial. And we kept returning to the vertical wall we had climbed, and laughed in disbelief. We stood atop Stob Coire nan Lochan and tried to make out where the rock climb had happened.


Barely visible: The footprints in the snow and the scramble upward.

Once down, we walked in a haze in the car park. We kept looking up at the hills before Bidean nam Bian and making sounds of disbelief. Our legs were exhausted. George praised Rumi, impressed by her fierce attitude at tackling two munros.


My fierce puppy. Photo taken by Brahm.

I stared in disbelief at where the route to the Lost Valley had begun, all those hours ago, and as my eyes wandered across, I relived the route we had walked that had led us up a munro, behind the hill, up another munro, and down the other side of the hill. It seemed such a large arc.

At the car park, we sat down and looked up at the mountains again. Brahm and George changed shoes and we shared some bags of crisps. Brahm spoke in disbelief of the many tourists who arrived, took photos of the Three Sisters, and then got back into their cars and drove off. Considering the hike we had just completed, such an attitude seemed incredible to the three of us. I mentioned that that was the good thing about the car park: even though it filled up quickly, no one stayed for long, so the car park was in a constant state of flux and finding a parking spot was only a matter of time when the next tourist car pulled out. The things those tourists were missing… The incredible hike we had had… The walk had been more than a walk; it had been an adventure.

And one we had shared. I gave George my contact details and wished them both fun and luck on the continuation of their journey. Getting into my car and driving off, I felt a sense of sudden… emptiness? It felt so strange to just drive off, knowing I won’t see them again, after having shared such intense hours together. In the end, we were still strangers to one another, who knew nothing about one another beyond what those 8-9 hours of walking could reveal. But leaving them made me aware of the intense connection I had felt with them. Like on Arran, we had a collective experience that we had shared with one another, and memories of that munro would always be linked with the people. I was reminded of my backpacking days, where shared journeys became more than the kilometers we covered, but a deep connection we would always have to one another. But backpacking, I thought then, was more self-centered. After all, many people go backpacking in order to find themselves, and the journey is less about what you see and more about who you are and how you develop. Hillwalking and hiking seemed just as intense a time, with the focus very much directed outwards towards tackling the mountain. The companions may not be paid much attention to in the beginning, but by the end so many stories are shared that they become intricately woven into the mountains we climbed. I thought back to Frazer’s delighted grin at saying, “But it’s exciting” when there was a sign of danger. The only positive thought I have about that vertical climb is that we made it, but in reality, we were afterwards especially bound to one another because of it. We remembered it all the way down to the carpark and laughed like old friends about it.



Brahm and George with the peak of Bidean nam Bian behind them

Back at my campsite, I met two men walking the West Highland Way who told me what they enjoyed the most about the experience. “It’s the people you meet,” they said. Even though I know nothing about them off the mountain, our shared experience made me believe they were good people, and I hope Brahm and George stay in touch. 


PhD, Qayqa, and Love

16 May

The Meadows, just behind the main University of Edinburgh campus

Two days ago, I took this photo. It was an incredibly hot day and I was wandering around the Meadows with my dog Rumi to quietly celebrate. I was about to sign an acceptance form for a full scholarship, provided by the Carnegie Trust, to do a PhD on Lyme disease in Scotland, in the field of Social Anthropology, at the University of Edinburgh.

I can’t tell you how overjoyed I am, so I want to tell you the story, but FIRST, I want to reply to the lingering questions about Qayqa, because the PhD and Qayqa are siblings in a way.

As you may remember, I launched a crowdfunding project to fund the publication of my novel Qayqa. So many of you supported me, gave me so much love and trust, and I thank you to this day for even when I give you Qayqa, I will remain indebted to you for believing in me and trusting me. But that was over 5 years ago and you haven’t received the book yet, so let’s rewind a few years because I want to give you insight into what happened.

My intention at the time, the motivation for the crowdfunding project, was to get Qayqa out as quickly as possible. It was no longer about publishing her; I wanted to expel her. I felt that I was suffocating in her, drowning under her weight, and I was beginning to to desperately tear around me to get out. This was of no fault of her own.

The stories we write are intertwined with our personal narratives, and Qayqa – whose autobiographical elements are “limited” to my interests in anthropology, ethnobotany, circus arts and Andean cosmology – will always be linked with my partner at the time, Mark Klawikowski. As I was realising that Qayqa was not a short story but an actual long-time project, he and I were realising our love. All the conversations I needed to have in her creation, I had with him. All the mischievous secrets of her development, all the solitary nights writing, all the characters growing – all were a world we shared and grew together. His imagination intertwined with mine and together our thrilled and breathless minds grew a forest in which we ran wild. He sketched the exploits of the characters that I described. He found the real-life Mama Ti in a restaurant in Peru and ran back to tell me. He stayed up all night, inspired by the idea of the potato Ochoa, cutting up his old bed mattress to make Ochoa as a puppet.

Describing this, tonight, I need to laugh and cry. I’m sure you can feel it in my words. The end of the relationship was more than just that; it was the unravelling of these worlds we had grown together. The slow and respectful dismantling of a forest in which fantastic creatures had been born, had lived tremendous lives, and who knew where they would live now. If they would live.

Understandably, it took Mark over a year to finish the illustrations he had promised for Qayqa. Being the man he is, he honoured his promise of our artistic collaboration and continued to work on them. He met with me to discuss them, sent me photos when I was away, and created incredible art on A6 or A7-sized paper. He exhibited them at one of my crowdfunding parties, and I know that party felt more like an end than the celebration of a birth.

I left Germany when it ended. I needed to rebuild myself, so I went to the roots: I returned to my country of birth, Peru, and volunteered in Cusco for a total of 5-6 months. It was there that I wondered what my next step would be, and decided I would return to university to complete my Bachelors. Choosing anthropology as a career path was not a difficult one. I was instantly drawn to it, so I packed up my last things in Germany, thanked Mark for everything, and moved to Scotland.

I was sure Scotland would just be a 4-year thing. I was determined to keep my roots in my suitcase and leave once the Bachelors was done. Go back to being an artist, continue writing, and who knows…

But I fell in love with anthropology. The more I learnt, the more I was filling up my glass, and the more I felt I could add to the forests in my head. I became fascinated by the minute creatures of anthropology, the zoonosis, and decided I needed to know more. I applied to do a Masters in Science in Medical Anthropology and the University of Edinburgh accepted me. And again, the worlds unfolded and I dove deeper and deeper.

For my course on Contagion, I wrote an essay on Lyme disease and in the subsequent tutorial, the professor stated it could be a PhD topic and asked who had written it. I raised my hand. He later sent me an email: “If you’re interested in doing a PhD in this, come see me.” I wasn’t interested in ticks or Lyme, but I was tremendously excited by this email offer, so I went. We spoke casually and he told me to think about it. I decided I’d be a fool not to try, and since zoonosis was my thing anyway, hell, why not?

Weeks of drafting and re-drafting proposals followed. Researching potential interview partners, pouring through newspaper articles, books, emailing potential supervisors. I applied for four scholarships, and then I hit ‘send’ and tried not to think about it. Everyone asked me what I’d do when my Masters was done. I’m superstitious like that so I said, “I’m looking at options.”

My dream was to stay. I’ve fallen in love with Scotland, and I fell in love with the potential of Lyme disease as a research topic (more on that another time). I love exploring Edinburgh, the new friends I have met, and through Rumi and our many hikes and walks, I feel I am witnessing a Scotland that I yearn to get to know better. I don’t want to leave, not just yet.


Rumi exploring the Hermitage of Braid, Edinburgh


At Rosslyn Glen with friends, Edinburgh

The day the email arrived offering me a scholarship, I lost my voice. I still can’t believe it. I can explore this beautiful country so much, calling a year of stomping about the Highlands fieldwork; I can attend conferences and learn so much more from my peers; and I can remain at one of the best universities, learning from internationally-admired researchers. I have vowed to work as hard as I can with this tremendous opportunity.

But there’s something very important I need to wrap up before that, and that’s Qayqa. I never intended to share my sadness over the end of that era in this blog, but it is the only way to honestly and openly explain to you – you who have trusted me – why it has taken so long for her to come to you. It was, and is, difficult to go back to her. I remember Mark’s voice over the phone when he called me to say: “I finished the last painting”. It was one of the greatest relief and a quiet sorrow, as we both let go of that last strand.

Years later, standing in different places in our lives, I hope to release Qayqa with the joy with which I wrote her. I am sure Mark will be thrilled that his beautiful illustrations, which he poured so many sleepless nights into, will finally be seen. My plan is to release her to you in August-September 2018, after my Masters dissertation has been handed in.

Thank you, endlessly, for your patience and your trust in me.


This is my girl Rumi. She’s a Miniature Schnauzer named after the Sufi poet Jellaludin Rumi, and if you like her face, follow her on Instagram: @belovednonhumanother

The Politics of Plant Magic: a Discussion of Knowledge Production and Knowledge Ownership in Peruvian Ayahuasca Tourism

7 Apr

I am delighted to preface this post with the exciting news that I’ve been invited to present my paper on how the Plague and Tuberculosis influenced morality and art at a conference hosted by the University of Newcastle in the summer!

Anyway, this isn’t that paper. This is the one I promised, on ayahuasca tourism which was accepted for publication with the Elphinstone Review in 2016. I hope you enjoy and I look forward to your feedback. I’ll go break the text up with pictures now.

The 1986 publication of the influential collection Writing Cultures: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, co-edited by J Clifford and G Marcus, signalled one of many turning points to come in the discipline of anthropological theory: understandings were challenged by the concept that not only are cultures and societies anything but stable, they are also under considerable influence by observing external parties. In an era of globalisation, one of these implicated parties has come to be the tourists who wish not only to view a culture but also to partake in its rituals. This essay will examine the effect tourist involvement is having on traditional authenticity and cultural ownership, with the example of ayahuasca tourism in the lowlands of Peru. The importance of this discussion is, however, not restricted to the perspectives of anthropological theory; tourist participation in ayahuasca ceremonies has had fatal consequences for tourists, thus showing the need for such a discussion among the anthropological, indigenous and tourist communities alike.

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic concoction produced in the northwestern regions of South America. The unique pharmacological combination of ayahuasca consists in the combination of Banisteriopsis caapi, a liana containing an MAO inhibitor named harmaline, and psychotria viridia leaves, which contain DMT. The human body’s natural production of MAO would, under normal circumstances, break down the vision-inducing DMT, yet with the introduction of harmaline into the blood stream, DMT can cross into the central nervous system and trigger the visions standard of ayahuasca intoxication. The indigenous groups who ritually ingest ayahuasca believe it “can free the soul from corporeal confinement. (…) The soul, thus untrammeled, liberates its owner from the realities of everyday life and introduces him to wondrous realms of what he considers reality and permit him to communicate with his ancestors” (Schultes, 2001: 124). Ayahuasca is prepared and administered to patients by a shaman known as an ayahuasquero, a position which is acquired through years of “strict apprenticeship” (Schultes, 2001: 127) involving, among others: a specific diet, expansive plant knowledge, and learning the icaros, sacred ceremonial songs which are sung during an ayahuasca intoxication and serve to guide the patients’ visions and spiritual journey[1].

Anthropologists have observed two dominant purposes for indigenous ingestion of ayahuasca. Firstly, it is employed as a “great medicine” (Schultes, 2001: 127) for “prophecy, divination, sorcery, and medical purposes” (Schultes, 2001:124). Its regular use has led to the observation that ayahuasca’s presence is “so deeply rooted in native mythology and philosophy that there can be no doubt of its great age as a part of aboriginal life” (Schultes, 2001: 124). This reinforces the understanding of ayahuasca as having a long-established tradition within the communities. Interestingly, its age and establishment has not led to a unified recipe for the production of ayahuasca; instead, “many plants of diverse families are often added to the basic drink to alter the intoxicating effects” (Schultes, 2001: 124), leading indigenous peoples to have different names for the variations. We see here that tradition remains fluid throughout groups and is subject to personal needs and preferences. Already in its creation, ayahuasca is a tradition with variation, essentially guaranteeing that each ayahasquero will produce a concoction of different ingredients and dosages.

Its second purpose lies in its role in society. Ethnobotanist Richard E. Schultes observed that “partakers, shamans or not, see all the gods, the first human beings, and animals, and come to understand the establishment of their social order” (Schultes, 2001: 127). Ayahuasca thus aids to justify and maintain the traditional construction of indigenous societies of the Amazon. While Western mentality is to overpower nature, ayahuasca intoxication teaches lessons in humility and respect: the visions frequently show jaguars and anacondas humiliating the person, “because he is a mere man” (Schultes, 2001: 126). Thus, we can conclude that while ayahuasca is undoubtably an instrument for social order, it is not one of control over nature. Instead, it is an instrument of revelation, highlighting the importance of man’s submission to nature.

This complex relationship is elaborated by Peruvian artist and ayahuasquero, Pablo Amaringo, as exceeding medicinal and socially-beneficial purposes. He identifies the concoction as: “a spirit, she is love, she is a teacher, and she is female” (Amaringo, 2011: 11). Lovingly called a ‘teacher plant’, ayahuasca is revered as the source of indigenous knowledge: “in the practise of traditional indigenous medicine, this is normal: plants teach” (Amaringo, 2011: 13). Plant knowledge is acquired through ingestion, which is understood to provoke both mental and physical changes in the human body, thereafter enabling a sick person to heal and cure others. Ayahuasca thus becomes a technology through which indigenous peoples minimise their distance to nature, “humanising it” (Ingold, 2000: 314) to the form of a guiding teacher and a protecting mother.

The ingestion of ayahuasca, however, is not without its side-effects. It is known to cause “nausea, dizziness, vomiting” (Schultes, 2001: 126). This standard demands a level of mental preparation for the effects, which can be terrifying to the unprepared tourist. Shamans usually recommend strict diets in preparation for ceremonial participation, including abstinence of alcohol and sexual activity. Preparation by following a strict diet serves to control the chemicals within the human body which could react negatively with the variety of plants included in the concoction.

Interestingly, globalisation has made ayahuasca ceremonies available around the world, so the high numbers of tourists willing to undertake the expensive journey to South America shows that the primary attraction is the desire for an authentic experience in the Amazon setting. The question is, of course, the effects commodification has on the authenticity of a ritual.

Whatever the political or social background of the tourists, their perception of indigenous peoples is often formed by an idealisation reminiscent of E.B Tylor’s perspectives of a unilinear evolution: as guardians of an original state of knowledge and harmony with the earth, which tourists have lost in the commodification and commercialisation of the West: “not only the plants, but the Amazonian peoples themselves are seen as spiritual and wise, and holding the answers to our problems” (Fotiou, 2010: 95-96). As knowledge production is one of the primary reasons for a tourist’s participation, we are reminded of Heath’s exploration of techno-eroticism as “being in sync with certain technological extensions of our mental-physical selves” (Heath, 1997). I suggest we call the tourist form of knowledge production ‘knowledge-eroticism’: the desire to belong to a group of ‘enlightened persons’, whose perception and understanding of the world has been expanded through the ingestion of ayahuasca. It is therefore understandable that knowledge is both the source of tourism, and the first to undergo changes.

The first change in knowledge production can be found in the technology of neoshamanism, defined as “a form of shamanism that has been created at the end of the 20th Century to re-establish a link for Westerners in search of spirituality and, thereby, renew contact with nature” (Jakobsen in Fotiou, 2010: 93). Neoshamanism has had the effect of transforming the social position of the ayahuasquero into a profession of “cultural capitalism” (Harry, 2006: 1): today, ayahuasca ceremonies are commodified in major tourist destinations around Peru at the price of “$700-$1500 a week’” (Proctor, 2001, in Fotiou, 2010: 119). This has, unfortunately, led to great competition and animosity between the locals, who seek to attract the highest number of tourists to their facilities. They will often resort to spreading rumours about their competitors, which can challenge the social construct of the society and certainly does not help in ensuring tourists make the safest choices when selecting a shaman.

The change of the ayahuasqero from a person of knowledge and social standing to one of providing a commodified service, transforms the very nature of knowledge production and knowledge owners – reminiscent of Sakai’s observation of molecular biologists: ayahuasqueros “are being turned into industrial workers” (Sakai in Heath, 1997). Their knowledge, no longer acquired through years of discipline and understanding, is now transmitted as quickly as possible as “received knowledge” (Sakai in Heath, 1997), leaving little room for personal expansion. The commodification process thus transforms knowledge and a former social status into a trade good, causing it to lose its original social values. Peruvian shaman Eduardo Calerdón goes so far as to call them “clowns in a New Age circus” (Joralemon 1990, in Fotiou, 2010: 135).

This will have two primary consequences for the shaman: firstly s/he may no longer be doing so for the purposes of healing or maintaining social order, but for economic gain: “(the number of shamans) has multiplied, not because of a search for knowledge but rather as a way to obtain money” (Arrévalo in Dobkins, 2005: 205); and secondly, not all shamans will have undergone the year-long processes to obtain knowledge, as either the demand for economic security, or the lack of genuine interest in plant knowledge, may not allow such a dedication: “before, if one wanted to be a shaman, one had to go on a diet for at least a year. Now, people don’t want to try to arrive at such a high level” (Arrévalo in Dobkins, 2005: 205). This is leading to a poverty in the once-rich ayahuasca tradition, where we must differentiate between ‘knowledge’ and ‘information’: information is the poverty of knowledge, wherein a Neoshaman may understand which plant to use, but not why or how: “it is up to (the shaman) to be able to keep the patient from going crazy. A person who is not in control of these energies can cause grave consequences to the patient” (Dobkins, 2005: 205).

As knowledge production undergoes changes, commercial shamans become aware of the tourist necessity for authenticity. This had led to an emphasis on the location of a ceremony: tourists will consider a jungle retreat or lodge the most authentic – which is ironic, as Fotiou’s research shows: “locals will drink (ayahuasca) in the city” (Fotiou, 2010: 136). Goffman’s structural division of social establishments into a ‘front’ and ‘back’ becomes applicable: the front as “the meeting place of hosts and guests or customers and service persons” (MacCannell, 1973: 590) is the ayahuasca ceremonial room; the back as “closed to audiences and outsiders, allows concealment of props and activities that might discredit the performance out front” (MacCannell, 1973: 590) is the place where the shamans may keep their daily materials (jeans, a can of Coke, etc) in order to conserve a state of mystification. Ironically, back rooms may not always be places of mystification, and are yet made inaccessible to tourists so as to imply secrets. This shows a fluidity between front and back rooms, with which local shamans freely play: rooms which will be given the appearance of being back rooms may in reality be front rooms of performance “totally set up in advance for touristic visitation” (MacCannell, 1973: 597). An example of this can be the residential home of the shaman’s family, or the location of ayahuasca preparation. For those who consider “the term ‘tourist’ (to be used) as a derisive label for someone who seems content with his obviously inauthentic experiences” (MacCannell, 1973: 592), accessing – or believing to be accessing – a back room will increase a tourist’s sense of authenticity in that “being ‘one of them’ means, in part, being permitted to share back regions with ‘them’” (MacCannell, 1973: 592).

Secondly, authenticity can be performed in the body habitus. As Mauss claims: “the body is man’s first and most natural instrument” (Mauss, 1992: 461). The body can be understood as a place of performance “of appearance, displace, and impression management” (Csordas, 1994: 2). How we dress is a performance on how we wish to be perceived and what social group we identify with. As Fotiou has observed, shamans of different ethnic groups will buy clothes with Shipibo symbols in local markets in order to perform authenticity (Fotiou, 2010: 136). Equally, tourists expect a shaman to wear clothes that is in line with their perspective of unilinear evolution, and would consider their experience less authentic should this performance be refused. This demonstrates that the performance by locals is expected by tourists.

However old the ayahuasca tradition may be, anthropological theory understands that traditions are in a constant and fluid state of invention and reinvention. As Hobsbawm examines, traditions may gain the garment of age through repetition, as this “implies continuity with the past” (Hobsbawm, 1997: 1). The effect this implication has is that the tourist will assume that due to its age and repetition, it is safe to consume. Yet the changes whereby a tradition becomes reinvented does not render the tradition inauthentic; in fact, if tradition is understood “to be an invention designed to serve contemporary purposes” (Hanson, 1989: 890), then the reinventions will show the changing purposes of that contemporary society. Tourists should not forget that a tradition may be reinvented because its predecessor was found to be unsafe, and that safety does not make an experience less authentic.

Hobsbawm argues that changes will occur more often “when a rapid transformation of society weakens or destroys the social patterns for which ‘old’ traditions had been designed” (Hobsbawm, 1997: 4). An example of such a transformation in our case would be the opening of cultural boundaries through globalisation, industrialisation in developing countries and a greater influx of tourists to formerly inaccessible areas. A reinvention will then “legitimate or sanctify some current reality” (Hanson, 1989: 890); in our case, the increased availability of ayahuasca to tourists. We could argue that this commodification renders the tradition inauthentic – but how can we know this to be true? Shamans have undoubtably always been paid for their services; albeit not with capitalist means, but an exchange will have undoubtably followed. In the quest for authenticity, we must understand that we cannot discard a tradition simply because it has obviously been invented; it is precisely the need for it to be invented, which makes this tradition interesting. Understanding that “producers of inventions are often outsiders (including anthropologists) as well as insiders” (Hanson, 1989: 898) allows us to acknowledge that while traditions are in a constant state of change, the aforementioned implicated parties will play a role in producing a new authentic tradition. Thus, when a tourist participates in an ayahuasca ceremony, it is their very expectation of an authentic experience which is changing the future authenticity of the ceremony. Their participation sets a norm for a new authenticity, which, in a few generations may become the undisputed form of ayahuasca ceremonies; and the what the tourist experienced today, may later be a discarded version of the tradition.

As individuals and communities meet the demand for ayahuasca by reinventing the tradition to the form of cultural capital, the question arises as to the ownership of this indigenous tradition. The effect of individuals handling a common good, in this case the necessary plants to create ayahuasca, can be discussed in reference to Hardin’s Tragedy of Commons, which states that “a finite world can support only a finite population” (Hardin, 1968: 1243). Ayahuasqueros and tourists alike must remain aware of the ecosystem’s sustainability of ayahuasca tourism, particularly if it continues as uncontrolled as at present. An ‘over-grazing’ of the commons could have devastating effects for tourism, livelihoods and the ecosystem alike. The question of restricting the use of ayahuasca to indigenous peoples, however, would not be accepted by the international community. At the Psychoactivity III Conference in 2002, Fotiou observed the consensus to be that Westerners should be not be restricted in their use of ayahuasca, as “these powerful plants give access to universal knowledge and are there for all humanity to use” (Fotiou, 2010: 140). The West may accept indigenous ownership, but certainly not a use restriction to indigenous peoples.

The fundamental question remains: who owns ayahuasca knowledge and may therefore make decisions on how to guard and distribute it? Hardin, in fact, proposes a solution of the common remaining public property but with an allocation of the right to enter. Implementing such a law on the Amazon, however, would discriminate shamans from poorer backgrounds who may be dependent on ayahuasca ceremonies for their income. Hardin’s further proposal of the common to be administered on a first-come first-serve basis would most likely lead to queues, bribery and over-population in some areas, and the illegal production of ayahuasca in others. Of course what is equally controversial is who may implement and be responsible for these changes. Governments are not always the most honest of custodians, raising the old question: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who shall watch the watchers themselves?” (Hardin, 1968: 1245-1246)

Activists and lawyers will demand an implementation of intellectual property law over ayahuasca, but unfortunately “intellectual property law does not make property out of culture in the same way as it makes property out of technical knowledge” (Leach, 2010: 159)[2]. There are Western-based bodies in place, offering protection of indigenous knowledge, such as World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Yet while international bodies may be in place to protect indigenous groups from bioprospecting[3], this case highlights the under-examined fact that bioprospecting also occurs from within the community. The difficulty is, of course, that indigenous peoples will claim ownership over land and their products: “if I tend a tree and it grows, then it is mine” (Leach, 2010: 133-134), and it is customary to make decisions concerning such produce with the family, and never individually: “everyone in the family must hear of it before we can sell to another. (…) It may be yours, but not yours alone” (Leach, 2010: 140). Often, this custom passed down through generations will have the social standing of a law, which is applicable to both tangibles, like the liana banisteriopsis caapi, as well as to intangibles such as the icaros and plant knowledge itself: “spirit voices were discovered in dreams by our ancestors. (…) If a dreamer wants to sell to another person, the whole family must hear and agree first” (Leach, 2010: 143). That knowledge is not restricted but will be passed down through generations is understood, but there is always a consideration of reimbursement for the group: “when you give this power (of plant knowledge) to a nephew or grandchild, he will be wealthy with food. So everyone must think and discuss what kind of payment they will be happy with in return” (Leach, 2010: 144). The issues therefore arises as to the definition of the ‘family’, and when a person or persons decides to make a sale without this family’s consent. The payment for knowledge ownership is defined as being beneficial to the family, so keeping it for personal gain may cause further social challenges.

In examples of bioprospecting in North America, tribes have been shown to win court cases based on their internal regulations and laws[4]. An internal organisation of sovereignty over cultural property is becoming mandatory. This demands, however, a unification between groups which may be one of the biggest challenges in the Amazon when we consider that throughout the research, groups have not taken responsibility for Neoshamans and their actions, nor shown any sign of creating commercial bonds with other groups. The changes brought about by the commercialisation of ayahuasca demand, on a whole, a new way of thinking from indigenous peoples: a consideration into intellectual property rights[5]. For many, this novel form of considering knowledge as property may signify a a fundamental change in their relationship to ancestral knowledge[6], which may have further unknown effects. These changes may best be undertaken by the group, as they decide how to face the new era.

Finally, this knowledge should be made available to tourists wishing to make intelligent decisions on how to partake in ayahuasca rituals. Ethnobotanical research has long shown certain forms of ayahuasca can have a lethal reaction to chemicals in the human body: “if the tourist has taken other pills, even an antibiotic, yet another toxicity can poison him and even cause a cardiac arrest or other symptoms” (Calderón in Dobkins, 2005: 205). As previously shown, ingredient choices vary depending on the shaman, so the skipping or misinforming of the preparatory diet may have fatal consequences for the tourist. Unfortunately, this can be the case when a shaman has not undergone the traditional apprenticeship, for reasons explained above. Yet throughout the research, shamans have placed the responsibility for ceremonial consequences on the tourist, and not on their fellow shamans. This may be out of a variety of reasons: a lack of kinship between shamans, perhaps due to the magnitude of the Peruvian nation, the lack of technological communication between groups, and the diversity of languages between groups; that traditional shamans do not consider the Neoshamans their ‘fellows’; or that these ceremonies are simply not meant for tourism, and the tourists are ingesting ayahuasca at their own risk. Whatever the reason, the responsibility is placed upon the tourist: “when I asked Pablo if he had any advice for Westerners wanting to learn from ayahuasca, he said that the quality of the shaman was paramount and it was preferable to work with an indigenous one” (Cloudsley in Amaringo: XIV). How a tourist, who is new to the country and is faced with competitors spreading rumours about one another, is meant to ensure the quality of their shaman, he does not say.

In the vicious cycle created by the commercialisation of ayahuasca, we see that more must be undertaken from the indigenous community in terms of responsibility for Neoshamans, control over knowledge ownership and what constitutes traditional ayahuasca authenticity. This must be done not only for the conservation of an integral aspect of their culture, but also for the preservation of tourist lives. A dialogue between indigenous groups and tourists is of great need, and it will benefit greatly from the active participation of the anthropological community.

Bibliography & Footnotes

Amaringo, P., Charing H. G., & Cloudsley P. (2011) “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo”. Vermont, Inner Traditions.


Brown, M. (2003) “Who Owns Native Culture?” Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.


Csordas, Thomas J (1994) “’Introduction: the Body as Representation and Being-In-the-World’ in Embodiment and Experience. The Existential Ground of Culture and Self” (ed). Thomas J. Csordas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 1 – 24


Dobkins de Rios, M. (2005) “Interview with Guillermo Arrévalo, a Shipibo Urban Shaman, by Roger Rumrril”. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Vol. 37 (2), pp. 203 – 207


Hanson, A. (1989) “The Making of the Maori: Culture Invention and its Logic”. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 91, No. 4, pp. 890 – 902


Hardin, G. (1968) “The Tragedy of Commons”. American Association for the Advancement of Science, New Series, Vol. 162, No. 3859, pp. 1243 – 1248


Harry, D. & Kanehe, L., (2006) “Asserting Tribal Sovereignty over Cultural Property: Moving Towards Protection of Genetic Material and Indigenous Knowledge”. Seattle Journal for Social Justice, Vol. 5, Issue 1, pp. 27 – 66


Heath, Deborah (1997) “’Bodies, Antibodies, and Modest Interventions’ in Cyborgs & Citadels: Anthropological Interventions in Emerging Sciences and Technologies” (eds). Gary Lee Downey & Joseph Dumit. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, p. 67 – 82


Hobsbawm, E. & Ranger, T. (1997) “The Invention of Tradition”, Chapter 1: “Introduction: Inventing Traditions” by E. Hobsbawm. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Fotiou, E. (2010) “From Medicine Men to Day Trippers: Shamanic Tourism in Iquitos, Peru”. Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Leach, J. & Nombo, P. (2010) “Reite Plants: An Ethnobotanical Study in Tok Pisin and English”. Asia-Pacific Environment Monograph 4.


Linnekin, J. (1991) “Cultural Invention and the Dilemma of Authenticity”. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 93, No 2, pp. 446 – 449.


MacCannell, D. (1973) “Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Settings”. University of Chicago Press, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 79, No. 3, pp. 589 – 603


Mauss, Marcel (1992) “’Techniques of the Body’ in Incorporations” (eds). Jonathan Crary & Sanford Kwinter. New York: Zone, p. 455 – 477


Schultes, R. E., Hofmann, A. & Rätsch, C. (2001) “Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers”. Vermont, Healing Arts Press. Pp. 124 – 139

[1] The biography Wizard of the Upper Amazon: the Story of Manuel Córdova-Ríos by Frank Bruce Lamb depicts the path of the ayahuasca apprenticeship, as well as the encyclopedic knowledge which a shaman must master before being able to cal himself an ayahuasqero.

[2] In his book “Reite Plants: an Ethnobotanical Study in Tok Pisin and English”, anthropologist J. Leach explains why they published a book that would become an object whose idea could be used without infringing on the author and Reite copyright. He clearly debated the issues of whether such knowledge should be compiled and made available to a wider public. This shows the anthropologist’s hesitation of ethnobotany being used as a tool for theft, and shows a wider hesitation and scepticism of freely passing on knowledge.

[3] An example: “In 1991 Costa Rica’s National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) signed a contract with the pharmaceutical giant Merck that allowed the latter to search for medically useful compounds in exchange for immediate compensation, transfer of sophisticated equipment, training of Costa Rican scientists, and participation in any future royalties” (Brown, 2003: 100)

[4] “Under the United States Supreme Court’s 1981 decision in Montana v. United States (…), the Court held that tribes retain inherent sovereign power to exercise civil jurisdiction over non-Indians in two circumstances. First, ‘a tribe may regulate through taxation, licensing, or other means, the activities of nonmembers who enter consensual relationships with the Tribe or its members, through commercial dealing, contracts, leases or other arrangements’. Second, ‘a tribe may also retain inherent power to exercise civil authority over the conduct of non-Indians on fee lands within the reservation when that conduct threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity, the economic security, or the health or welfare of the tribe’.” (Harry, 2006: 40)

[5] And the knowledge that once this expires, the knowledge will enter the public domain and will thereafter no longer belong to a certain group: “While the offer of some benefit back may be appealing, the tribes should consider that there could be some unanticipated impacts from benefit-sharing arrangements. For example, once IPR (Intellectual Property Right) protection expires, the protected subject matter goes into public domain. Once released into the public domain, the Indigenous knowledge is no longer considered tribal property, and, consequently, the tribe loses the ability to control its use because it is considered public knowledge” (Harry, 2006: 53)

[6] “(The action of participating in the commercialization of their Indigenous knowledge) is likely to sever the historic relationship the tribe previously had with aspects of its cultural heritage because ‘to sell it is necessarily to bring the relationship to an end’” (Harry, 2006: 53)

Fall In Love Outside Your Culture, Don’t Read The News With Apathy

22 Jan


Photo 07-01-2015 12 08 42

Where we were


As the attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were happening, we were on a layover in Amsterdam. We had just gone into the city center, checked out the prostitutes and marveled at Amsterdam’s open communication about drug possession, and were back in the airport when I started reading the news.

Where were you?

Like many of you, I followed the news breathlessly, checking my news apps day and night. Probably like many of you, I had many discussions about extremists, the Islam religion, the Christian Crusades, and freedom of speech. Like a few of you, I drew angry comparisons between the media coverage of Charlie Hebdo and the lack of interest on the Boko Haram massacres in northern Nigeria. Read The Guardian’s article “Why Did the World Ignore Boko Haram’s Baga Attacks” here.

"I am Charlie. Don't forget the victims of Boko Haram"

“I am Charlie. Don’t forget the victims of Boko Haram”.

Following all the arguments, opinions, publications and blogs online, I want to say that as a writer, of course I believe in freedom of speech; but especially as a writer, I believe that it is a unique muscle which must be exercised with caution.

As a circus-fitness instructor, I can give you a million warm-up-your-muscles-carefully metaphors, the point of which being: I am happy that the muscle of freedom of speech has (so far) been exercised with such caution and such lack of prejudice in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

I don’t like the idea of Charlie Hebdo making fun of the Prophet Muhammed and I understand Muslim outrage at this. Of course it should never lead to murder. There is a fine line between freedom of speech and inciting anger. Could Fascist caricaturists say they were using their right of freedom of expression when they depicted Jews in anti-Semetic ways?

Or Hergé's portrayal of Africans in "Tintin in Congo" - a great discussion of censorship, literary change, race theory, etc

Or Hergé’s portrayal of Africans in “Tintin in Congo” – a great discussion of censorship, literary change, race theory, etc

(My boyfriend has great arguments against mine. As a law student, he has had so many vivacious discussions with me with opposing opinions, which are really helping us sharpen our arguments & beliefs. For this, I am endlessly grateful to him.)

I believe there is a fine line between FREEDOM OF SPEECH and RESPECT. I would not poke fun at the Prophet simply because I respect the Islam belief that he should not be depicted nor made fun of. That’s okay by me. Yet this line is so fine and so fragile, I am sure we will have many more discussions about it.


Does it?


In the aftermath of the massacres and the great holding up of pens, I tweeted:

I understand that many people hearing about the massacres in don’t feel affected because they don’t know anyone. Well: you know me.

This message highlights a belief that I think about often and don’t yet have a suggestion of solving for.

Most of us will read the news with empathy, but admittedly with distance. After our layover in Amsterdam, we were greeted at Aberdeen Dyce Airport by a bulletin that read: “COMING FROM WEST AFRICA? There is a new epidemic called ebola…” and the information continued. We sarcastically remarked: “Oh, new, is it?” Ebola has been around for years, but now that it is reaching Europe, it is suddenly a topic of conversation.

But this cannot be critised. At the end of the day, most people won’t be concerned by the massacres in Nigeria or the Ebola in Liberia, because there is an international opinion of Africa as a poor, devastated continent on its knees, where terrible things such as AIDS and Ebola simply happen.


I want to confess: When the war in Syria was at its peak and the death tolls were raging through the news, I didn’t read it for very long.


Because Syria does not affect me. And why?

Because I don’t know any Syrians.

If I hadn’t grown up in Nigeria, my perception of the country would most likely be a wild place where terrible things like this happen – and nothing more. The following is from the excellent film Hotel Rwanda, a drama based on a true story during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Joaquin Phoenix is a camera man filming the genocide for the news.

A few months ago, a young man called Peter Kassig (or, after his conversion to Islam, Abdul-Rahman Kassig) was captured during his humanitarian work in Syria and beheaded by ISIS. When I opened Facebook the morning after, it was filled with a good friend’s outrage, pain, anger and sorrow. She had known Peter. They had met in her home town Beirut, he had stayed at her house and she had even met his father. She posted pictures of him chilling on her sofa, mid-laugh, enjoying a cigarette. She raged about ISIS, about the state of the world, about how gentle and kind he had been. I read all her posts and I cried with her.

This really brought the ISIS beheadings home to me. I spent hours on the internet researching Peter’s humanitarian work, ISIS and the ISIS victims.

How do we connect this world? How do we raise a generation that doesn’t watch the news with complete apathy? – Or, god forbid, doesn’t watch the news at all.

It is the people we know.

I read the news the way I do because I have friends in the U.S Army & Air Force; in Lebanon and Israel; in Germany (thinking of PEDIGA rallies in Dresden & Leipzig); in Vienna; in Nigeria; in Peru, etc etc etc. When an earthquake happens, a massacre, a riot – I have people I contact on Facebook to see if they are alright.


That affects how I read the news.

My only idea so far is to urge everyone reading this to adopt a godchild; one living in Egypt, Liberia, Nigeria, Syria, Lebanon, Peru, Belgium, New Caledonia – perhaps in the country that affects & interests you the least – and then we’ll see how people read the news.


We CANNOT afford to separate ourselves from the terrible or joyful events happening in the world. We cannot afford ignorance or separation. I am happy we live in this internet-era of great digital connectivity. People argue that it is making us lose touch with one another – and yes, I’ve sat in cafés where no one speaks because everyone is on their phone – but the internet is connecting us, and the more we travel, the more we care about countries, people and fates.

I would urge everyone to travel to countries that don’t interest them, to make a connection and then see how their interest in the news changes.

Before we became a couple, my boyfriend knew very little of Peru and nothing of Nigeria. Now he is becoming an expert on indigenous civil rights and Ken Saro-Wiwa… and I am reading Václav Havel and Jiří Weil.

Travel, make friends, fall in love outside of your culture, adopt a godchild. Don’t read the news with apathy.

At the John Lennon Wall in Prague, Jan 2015

At the John Lennon Wall in Prague, Jan 2015

The Shocking Experiences of University Students with Britain’s Health Service

13 Jan

If you’re planning on moving to the UK, this is something you need to read. And if you don’t like reading, I made you a video:

This morning I was awakened by my friend’s pleas for help: her bladder infection had worsened overnight and, becoming too painful to ignore, she needed help getting to the Foresterhill Emergency Care Center in Aberdeen. As students, we cannot casually afford hiring taxis, so we met on King Street and undertook the long walk to Foresterhill. For the kind readers unaware of this distance, on a good day, this walk takes 40 mins. Walking with a lady with a painful infection, it will take up to 1 hour.

Photo 13-01-2015 14 34 01

When we finally reached the double doors of the emergency room, we were exhausted from walking and my friend was in worse pain. We quickly told the receptionist the problem and were almost settling to sit down and wait, when she replied: “I’m sorry, but we don’t accept bladder infections. That’s a problem for your GP.”

For the non-UK residents reading this: a GP is a General Practitioner, your local doctor. When you move to the UK, you can only register with the GP center in your living area and you will be provided with free service by the NHS (National Health Service).

Now the receptionist was turning us away because, as we understood it, we were arriving at the emergency room at an hour when all GPs are open. Therefore, why should the hospital accept us when doctors are open?

To say we were shocked would be an understatement. I repeated our request to the receptionist, adding: “But we are here now. We just walked for an hour to get here and my friend is in terrible pain.” The receptionist bounced off to ask a doctor on his opinion, and when she turned, she confirmed our disbelief: we would not be attended by a doctor in this emergency room because GPs are open.

At this point, the receptionist broke into a broad sunny smile and joyfully said to us : “Have a nice day!”


You could argue that now that we’ve learnt a further rule of the NHS, we won’t bother making the 1-hour walk across the city to the hospital if it is daytime. The issue at hand is not the appalling fact that in United Kingdom, treatment can be refused to you in a hospital; the issue at hand is that the NHS functions according to several rules that foreigners moving to the UK are simply not prepared for.


Firstly:  It’s Not That Easy To See Your GP 

After being turned away by the ER, we discussed doing as the receptionist had suggested and seeing my friend’s GP. The issue is that GPs don’t accept walk-ins. A GP will only see you if you have an appointment. Requesting an appointment can put you on a 1-2 week waiting list.

In the case of an emergency, you can request to speak to a doctor and leave your phone number. The doctor will then call you, ask about your symptoms and prescribe medication over the phone without ever seeing you in person. I am not exaggerating. I went through this process in September 2014. In fact, the doctor requested that I provide a urine sample in a case I could pick up at the pharmacy, (and I quote) “pop it in the mail and it will go straight to the microbiologists”.

British mailbox 928



Secondly:  An Emergency Does Not Mean the Ambulance Will Pick You Up

Last year, my former flatmate fell down the stairs at the university. She immediately called the emergency and requested an ambulance. She was denied one because (and I quote) she was conscious. As long as she was conscious and not bleeding heavily, the ambulance would not pick her up. Demanding how she should then get to the emergency room, the NHS replied: “Call a taxi.”

Without any alternatives, my flatmate called a taxi only to be told (and this is unfortunately quite common in Aberdeen) that all taxis were busy until 6pm. Almost crying with frustration, she finally got in touch with a friend with a car who drove her to the hospital.



Is this the message the United Kingdom, and Scotland, wish to portray to international and European students? By offering free higher education with an open scheme, Aberdeen is an attraction choice – but what if the medical service cannot take care of these students? For at the moment, the message we university students are receiving, is that we may receive excellent higher education, but there is no guarantee of efficient health service; no guarantee of being examined by a doctor; we may be prescribed medication over the phone; and/or be turned away by hospital emergency rooms.

I did not move to the UK in order to critise it. I enjoy living in Scotland greatly: the University of Aberdeen teaches at a high level, I have a great job here and an international array of friends. Of course as a foreigner I must learn the rules of the public sector – but speaking for many other students I must say: We fear becoming seriously ill in the UK for we don’t believe the NHS will provide an efficient service.

I therefore request that when the university tells its newly-enrolled students to register with a local GP, they also explain all the hoops the students will have to jump through in order to actually receive health care. Don’t let us find out these hoops on our own, when our health is in critical condition.

These Are the NHS Rules I Know: 

  1. Don’t bother going to see your doctor when you have a problem. Call the GP on the phone and request to speak to a doctor.
  2. Don’t bother going to the hospital during GP opening hours. The hospital will refuse to let a doctor see you.
  3. Forget ambulances. Make friends with someone who has a car. No one else will help you.
  4. When you’re healthy, make an appointment to see your GP and only then will you be able to speak to them about the health issues worrying you. The receptionist at the GP couldn’t understand why I wanted an appointment when I was perfectly healthy, so I told her: “I prefer making an appointment when I’m healthy than being turned away when I’m sick.”


And Finally, I would like to add a personal remark to the receptionist who attended us this morning. You may work as part of a medical health system that we haven’t fully understood; one which thinks it justified to turn away patients in pain; one which doesn’t consider the pain and frustration of having to return home on foot, walking for one hour, after a futile mission to a health institution you trusted would help you. But at least have the decency and basic human compassion to not smile in our faces as you slam shut the reception window, wishing us “a good day” when you know that you have just denied a person in pain her right to see a doctor and are sending her on a painful walk home.

If you’re going to work in a hospital, at least have that much basic human compassion.

Thank you for reading this. 

With Love, for Jenny. 


8 Dec


I used to absolutely despise Christmas. That was something I was very well known for among my friends. Everyone knew to not wish me a merry Christmas, get me any presents or expect any from me, and, when I was working for SWR Television, my boss knew it was me on the phone, telling her: “If you have work during Christmas, call me. I’ll be on duty for you for all the days.”

I was generally in an awful mood those days. When a friend introduced me to this song, I felt understood.

That was simply my mood. I just wasn’t a Christmas fan.

A week or so ago, I posted the following picture on my Instagram account:


We’re going from Lisa Hannigan’s solo straight to that. A friend commented: “You used to hate Christmas, now look at you!” And I have to confess that this post is very much a response to this singular comment, because since she wrote it, it’s been bugging me. So, girl, this one is for you!

This is also a post about why we choose to celebrate certain events. It’s not necessarily about what Christmas means us personally, but about why we celebrate at allTo my friend’s comment on Instagram, I replied that I was taking every opportunity life gave me to celebrate LIFE.

And yet the question didn’t seem fully answered, because her comment continued to resonate in my mind.

I think, ultimately, what happened is the United Kingdom. I’m going to go about this analysis as an anthropologist would, because my question is essentially as socio-cultural one.


Point 1

Being a university student, I am strongly exposed to the world of social media. I know in Germany most of my friends don’t use Twitter, few have Instagram and some are still resisting Facebook. To the UK, that sounds a bit Middle Ages! All our circus society news is shared on our Facebook page, such as impromptu trainings or hilarious/beautiful pictures from our last sessions. I communicate with all my university friends on Facebook (because I’m in the Middle Ages and still don’t have a cell phone); I hashtag vicariously and hey! I blog.

Living half my life on the internet, one of my guilty pleasures is googling memes. Memes can be as smart, stupid or delightful as you desire, and in the midst of all the memes, I found one that is just my sense of humour, touching upon my touchiest topic.




People don’t know this, but I am terribly attracted to grumpiness. Again an SWR Television anecdote: a colleague called me to inform me that I would, unfortunately, be working with a certain camera man who I shall only call P. I asked her, “Why ‘unfortunately’?” She replied: “Because you’re such a ball of sunshine and he’s more on the grumpy side.”

I hide very well just how grumpy I am, because I’m usually sitting behind a book somewhere chanting Pacha Mama, Pacha Mama.

Hell, I loved working with Patrick. YES I SAID IT. Much like Garfield, he acted like he had bathed in dark matter, wore dark clouds as rings under his eyes, and when working with him, I knew to always bring him coffee. I adored him; he was sharp-witted, straight-edged, said what he thought and didn’t suck-up to the journalists. I respected him greatly for it. Here is a very old photo of us with a fellow camera man, at the firm’s Christmas (ironic) party. And yes, my sweater had the fattest stripes.


But back to Grumpy Cat.



In a world where Grumpy Cat exists, I think I can deal with Christmas just a little bit more.



Point 2

After spending the majority of 2012 in Perú, a country where every second week a new national holiday is celebrated, I moved to Scotland. Scotland is cold. During the winter, the sun begins to set around 3pm. And in the midst of all this darkness, I became exposed to a fine British tradition. Tacky Christmas jumpers.

Photo 08-12-2014 00 59 25

And these really aren’t the tackiest. I will try to hunt some tacky ones down and photograph them for you.

The best part is that it’s mostly men who wear these, so we have grown men prancing about our uni campus sporting the most appalling jumpers, so cringe-worthy, that they are nothing short of brilliant. When one of our circus members showed up to our Christmas dinner without wearing something festive, we dressed him up in this:

Photo 08-12-2014 01 05 10

When you rock Santa’s belly, he HO HO HO’s endlessly. We did it non-stop.

Considering this new level of self deprecating humour on behalf of the Brits, you really can’t hate Christmas because you will burt into laughter just walking aroun campus. And if that isn’t enough, there’s always the ostentatious-creative side to it.

Photo 08-12-2014 00 06 40


This is what she means: Photo 08-12-2014 01 12 56

Yes, you can get them on Ebay:

Celebrating in Germany was never as mad as this. We were always quite calm, with hot chocolate.

This, on the other hand, is what a Christmas tree looks like in Peru:


So perhaps I genetically sign up to the mode of living that is 50% more lavish, more ostentatious and, well, more mad.

But how to celebrate in Scotland? My friends at Studio 202 suggested I fill my Christmas tree up with X-Men figurines, aerialists and pole dancers. A friend of mine decorated her entire flat, including the bathroom, with Christmas decorations to the point that we diagnosed her with OCD, Obsessive Christmas Disorder. And just when we thought we had seen it all…



These are people who are having so much fun with Christmas – and by that I don’t mean Christmas-carolling about how peaceful the world is (here’s a link to BBC News), or how silent (lend an ear to Ferguson, or to the entire country of Syria), or how much they’re going to let it go, let it go, the snow never bothered me anyway – because that’s what I enjoyed about Lisa Hannigan’s version in the first place: it wasn’t hypocritical. It was explaining how people actually feel during Christmas, and the shocking truth that not everyone is jolly on Christmas. A lot of people are alone, don’t want to / can’t see their families and avoid public spaces because they can’t stand the Christmas jingles anymore; many people suffer from depressions, suffer silently, and pray these days will be over soon and the world will go back to normal. We really need to think about these people more.

No – these are people making fun with Christmas. Just as they ignore the nay-sayers who state Halloween is merely a commercial byproduct of the United States, and get all dressed up nonetheless, they’re celebrating life. They are making fun with what they’re given, and I want to be a part of that fun.

I must conclude that I, the project subject, have started enjoying Christmas due to the influence of what “celebrating Christmas” means in the British socio-cultural environment.

And I can’t wait to see what Grumpy Cat does on Easter.


The ChristmaSassy Idea 

So I’d like to end this post with a small idea. Wherever you are, however you’re spending Christmas, JOIN ME and post up your very own ChristmaSassy Memes. You can go mad on Photoshop/Gimp (a free, OpenSource version), or you can download a meme-creating app onto your phone like MakeAMeme+

You can make as many or as few as you like. Send them to me via Twitter/Instagram @rittisoncco, or If we get a decent collection, I’ll post them up on my next post! You can always google for inspiration; you’ll see they can be whatever you want.


Another way to Make Fun With Xmas: here’s a silly Christmas Drinking Game I heard about. Put a Christmas hat on your tv. Every time someone wears it, take a shot.


And yes, I’m aware that all this is very First World Problems. That just happens to be where I am at the moment. So wherever you are, whatever you want to say – say it & send it to me. I look forward to it very very much.

Now, I really should get back to studying for my exams.

Aerials at Crathes Enchanted Castle

26 Nov


University started back up with a bang. 3 months ago, I was in Peru with plenty of time to blog, structure Qayqa and social-medialise.  Since my return to Aberdeen, however, I’ve been living a demanding, well-structured life full of exercise and aerials. I teach 4 times a week.


Mondays, 7-9 pm:  Acrobatics at the University of Aberdeen

Tuesdays, 7-9 pm:  Flexibility class for working professionals at Studio 202

Thursdays, 6-9 pm:  Aerial Silks & Trapeze for students at Studio 202

Fridays, 7-9 pm:  Aerial Silks & Trapeze for working professionals at Studio 202


I’ve had a few people tell me they stumbled over this blog when they were looking up aerial classes in Aberdeen, and either accidentally bump into me at Studio 202 and make the connection later; or write me and join my classes. So if you’re out there, eager to start aerials or have a good stretch, this is my routine. Come to my classes!

Last week, however, all my classes went on hold because the Circus Society had been booked by Crathes Enchanted Castle to perform for 5 days – and I had been booked with them, on my aerial silks for the very first time in Scotland.

4 performances a night… for 5 days… In November.

I agreed to this in July, when I couldn’t imagine what “cold” felt like. By October, I was terrified. I woke up the morning of the performance at 6am, genuinely scared. I went to an Outdoor Adventure Clothing store and paid a ridiculously high price for thermal underwear.

I’ll philosophise about the Role of the Cold in my life in a bit, but first I would like to show you some pictures of the event. Here are a few I took, but I also strongly encourage you to visit the website of the event’s official photographer, Martin Parker, here. He has some stunning photographs of the castle and its grounds all magically lit up, like this:

Crathes Castle. Photograph by Martin Parker

Crathes Castle. Photograph by Martin Parker

Crathes Castle Grounds. Photograph by Martin Parker.

Crathes Castle Grounds. Photograph by Martin Parker.

Meanwhile, here are a few I took of our team on the first night. Missing only is a picture of Sandra, but you’ll find her in Martin Parker’s collection.

Big Man Barnaby

Big Man Barny

Hannah firebreathing while Emma hoola-hooped

Hannah firebreathing while Emma hoola-hooped

Emma's Mysterious Frolicking Creature, anything from Gollum to... a goat

Emma’s Mysterious Frolicking Creature, anything from Gollum to… a goat

the view to my office

where I danced

My area had Talking Trees, who discussed one another’s growth spurts, the fashion of the audience, and spiderwebs. This was the first time I didn’t have music for my performance, but the conversation of trees instead. It was a challenge. I spent the first 2 days fighting for music, but by the end of the 2nd day, friends assured me that not having music added a somewhat mystical value to my performance. I remembered that a lot of circus performances have begun to take place in total silence, and I accepted the challenge.

did get feedback that it would have been even more surreal had the trees stopped talking entirely while I performed. Personally, I have to agree. Total silence would have been nice. But towards the end of 5 days, I barely even heard them anymore.

I’ll let YOU decide, dear ayllu, and tell me what you think. Here is a video of my performance amongst slight raindrops, courtesy of My Special Man:

There’s a brilliant anecdote to this video.

This evening was was the very first time my man saw me perform live on the silks, so afterwards, I ran to hug him and hear all about it. I was so eager to hear his thoughts. “Did I scare you, in the end?” I asked excitedly, “When I dropped suddenly, did I scare you?”

“Oh, I knew you were always in control,” he bluffed.

“Seriously?” I was so annoyed with myself. “I didn’t scare you?”

“Well, the truth is…” he slowly began to admit, “I kinda missed the drop…”

“What? Why? What were you doing?”

You see, in the seconds before my final drop, my proud boyfriend had turned his back in order to take a selfie with his aerial girlfriend. . .

. . .When suddenly, the crowd shouted in surprise, and he turned, wondering: What? What did I miss??? 

The Selfie

The Selfie

This performance was not only my very first aerial performance in Scotland… It is also my goodbye to my red silks. Over the last 5 years, we’ve worked so well together: in short films, hanging from a 10 meter crane, teaching my very first students in Aberdeen how to fly… They are well over their retirement age and have certainly lost a lot of elasticity. Silks are usually used for 2-3 years; mine are over 5 years old. It is time to say goodbye to my darlings.

I think this was a more than worthy farewell.

During the performance, knowing that this will be the last time we work together, I became aware of how much I trust them. How I reach for them without looking, because I know they are where my hands expect them to be. Before every performance, I touch them gently, look up at their securing point and whisper Please take care of me. We’ll do this together. And they’ve never let me fall.

This is the most beautiful, heart-stopping view to me.

Photo 20-11-2014 00 44 06

Here are a few more images from the nights at Crathes Enchanted Castle:

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my favourite by Elsie Liontou


And favourites by Martin Parker:

copyright Martin Parker

copyright Martin Parker Photography

copyright Martin Parker

copyright Martin Parker Photography

copyright Martin Parker

copyright Martin Parker Photography

Now I wasn’t too delighted at performing in the cold. If anything, most aspects of my life in Scotland revolve around The Art Of Not Feeling Cold. I arrived in Scotland complete with a UV light therapy gadget. My man has nicknamed me “the Firefighter” because of my winter fashion.

Other girls and me

The cold usually makes me very bad-tempered, unhappy and generally super bitchy.

Photo 21-11-2014 13 31 13

And if you’re wondering where I’m getting all these pictures from, check out this great page: 27 Things Girls Who Are Always Cold Know To Be True. Story of my life.

So I find it interesting that the one time I perform on the aerial silks in Scotland, it’s in the dead of winter. Barefoot. Or that the one time I decide to go to university, it’s in the north of Scotland. Etc etc ad infinitum.

You have to admit that Life really is throwing almost a lot of the things at me which I happen to despise the most. And yet, I’m enjoying my time in Scotland so much.

Life, in its Infinite Wisdom, is throwing the things at me that will challenge me the most. And thanks to that, I am learning.

Learning how to stay warm for 5 days and not get sick afterwards.

Finally buying thermal underwear so I don’t freeze.

Finding the strength within me to suck it up and perform barefoot.

Maybe living in a country that has four seasons (my main complaint) isn’t so bad for the value of the lessons I’m learning. Because after the 3rd night of performing, when it was windy and freezing, I heard myself say on the 4th night: “8 degrees? Wow, it’s warm!”

This is how we change.

Or maybe Life just has a sadistic sense of humour and loves picking on me. I prefer to believe the former!

Yes We Can!

We Can Do It!

Dear ayllu, in 2 weeks, we university students have our winter exams. After this, we’re away on our Christmas break and I will be able to blog more and tell you all about Qayqa. I skyped with Mark today, who is in Cologne, also performing, and we quickly discussed the last bits and pieces. I’ll keep you informed on the process.

Finally, I would like to leave you with a short clip I shot just for you, for this blog. I’ll explain: for 5 long nights, opera music was put in an endless 5-hour-long loop to accompany the hoola hoop fire performances. Pleasant as it was, it didn’t take very long to exhaust everyone’s eardrums. I once did the entire walk through the Enchanted Forest, looking at the lit-up trees, hearing the bizarre and spooky sound effects, and I commented to the sound technician: “If you took LSD then walked through that forest, it would the trip of your life!”

He joked back: “Then maybe on the last night we should have a rave!”

On the last night, after the audience had left, the gates had closed and everyone was taking down their stuff, he put on delicious trance beats that fit remarkably well to the projections on the castle. I just had to film it.

So here it is, from me to you, sending you love from Scotland.

Flying Over the Andes

28 Aug

Every manual for writers encourages us to write as much and as often as possible. The idea is to become familiar with your word flow, your inner thesaurus, and to become masters at describing the most mundane of elements in everyday life. When you can successfully describe the poetry in the mundane; when you can linguistically re-create scenarios everyone knows from daily life – then you are exercising your writing muscle. It’s an exercise I love doing, and that I don’t do enough.

This is what I wrote in my diary as we flew from Lima to Cusco. This is the view that inspired me.

These are quick thoughts from which more descriptions and metaphors can be born – completely work-in-progress!!!

Photo 21-08-2014 16 19 49

I can see the beginning of the Andes. The sirus clouds that cover the city of Lima reach only to their knees, like white wave lapping brown ruffles. They become minor, unimportant. It thrills me Such brown desolation, sharp cuts. No one lives here. On the horizon I see white peaks rise, white towers coming closer. How awed we all must feel when flying over Peru!

Photo 21-08-2014 16 24 23

Oh but the white is a crown for the brown mountains that made is so high. An act of distinction. A mutation of height.

And now the clouds that inhabit the space over these mountains begin to manifest. Thicker, they hang over the brown ruffles with a view to their lower cousins, the one who blanket Lima and lap at the knees of the brown ruffles. Solitary bodies, these thicker clouds cast large solitary shadows over the brown plateaus. How they must smile fondly at the Lima blankets, covering a world they neither see nor care about.

Photo 21-08-2014 16 29 36

The horizon becomes more jagged, interesting. The ruffles have now calmed into a plateau; the height has been conquered. These mountains now cover the world; their high plateau is no white base of the world, the point of origin from whence all life begins. And indeed, between the valleys, in every benign ridge, sparkles of rooftops appear. Brown tin, as though its inhabitants were camouflaging from fearsome sky predators.

Tired of plateaus, the mountains now rise again, resume their wild jagged nature. Their shapes are obviously restless, the existence as plateaus has obviously bored them. They rise to meet the clouds which now become tangled in them. They want another crown, another mark of distinction. Plateaus and valleys only served to become populated. No, they want to be wild again.

Photo 21-08-2014 16 51 05

And where they sink, they fall into the sirus clouds again, and it looks like that is where the world ends: the cliff over which mountains fall. They disappear into the grey-blue smog, over which thick solitary clouds hang as though patrolling, seeking the mountains that had fallen in.

Photo 21-08-2014 16 43 33

At the edge of the sunken world stand the mountains looking black. White tufts of clouds hang onto their sides like children afraid to venture. The horizon is empty again. There is a valley here where mountains do not belong, cannot exist. We leave it, turn to look at the rest of the world.

The mountains have matured. They are no longer light brown ruffles in the world but dark brown, almost black, serious creatures. They have reached new heights, have broken the hymen of clouds and are now peaked in white. Almost deadly, they stand adjoined in fraternity. They have survived the sunken world into which mountains fall, they have matured, and looking over the peaks of lower mountains, they see one another.

Photo 21-08-2014 16 52 49

I am so close to them, I can almost touch them. I don’t. Something must remain holy.

Photo 21-08-2014 16 53 56 (1)

The valleys widen now. What mountains the Incas crossed to found Cusco! How easily we fly over them today.

We are descending. I have written for almost an hour and a half. We are descending to the landing strip I know so well because I used to live close to it. I watched planes arrive and leave all the time and was happy I was only watching. Now I am landing myself and in a few days, I will take off again and return to descend into the blanket over Lima.

Photo 21-08-2014 16 31 22

that’s not wine; it’s chicha

About My Book:

For reasons I understand, Mark is now inspired to paint more for Qayqa. I think it’s the fact that the pressure is off his shoulders. Now that he’s illustrated what we agreed, he feels more relaxed and can start creating again. Ironic, no? He sent me a few illustrations today, like this one I didn’t understand myself at first – and I wrote the damn book! Mark knows my images better than I do.


I’ve been struggling with the damn blurb for almost a week now. I decided to break all expectations and rules and go with what I like. I published my work-in-progress blurb on my Tumblr and asked for feedback. You can also give me feedback here! Tell me, does this sound like something you want to take home with you?

“You’re a fool if you think we work the fields. The fields work us!”

This foreboding riddle could have led Damian to be more careful with the earth, but not much makes sense when you have knots growing out of your head. As a young man on the road he finds work at a circus of flying people, learns about medicinal plants from the Obeah cook Ti, but continues not understanding his knots.

When Damian completely loses his balance and falls over the horizon, he lands in a desolate world where the Earth sees him as a seed that refuses to grow. Only by striking up a friendship with a charming but cheeky potato, battling the demons living within the Earth and digesting a storm of ghosts, can Damian hope to open his knots and return to his side of the horizon.

Rooted in Peruvian mythology, Qayqa is a novel about the living energy of the universe, a fairytale about finding yourself.

Until we meet again, I hope you enjoyed the thought-jumbles from the plane.

always on a plane

always on a plane

Love, Ritti

Now Someone Has To Write the Blurb (and I Don’t Want That Someone To Be Me)

19 Aug

As I type this, I am listening to a fantastic soundtrack recently shared by a friend. She told me she is listening to this while she translates Qayqa into Spanish. I’ve added it so you can listen to it while you read!


Dear ayllu,

As you might have seen in my excited tweets, the basic formatting of Mark’s illustrations into my novel Qayqa is DONE. Is all the page numbering… the dedication… the “other books by the author”… as well as a very proud page that says THIS BOOK IS A CROWDFUNDING PROJECT. TO THE FOLLOWING I GIVE MY ENDLESS THANKS… And then your names.

I didn’t have all the names in my head so I went back to my StartNext page and went through every single supporter, re-read your comments and re-saw how much you supported my book project. Oh you guys… It was an incredible feeling writing all your names into the opening pages of Qayqa, seeing how much you BELIEVED in my baby. Thank you, again and again and again.

I spent the rest of the evening remembering the crowdfunding time. That was one of the most exhausting periods of my life. I don’t know how much I let it on at the time, but I felt like I was running from one exhausting, disheartening event to the next. I had no energy, no self-belief, and no more fucking desire to go through with it. I just wanted it all to end – and I felt so horribly ungrateful for thinking that because I had so many people writing me, believing in me and giving me such good advice – which only served to exhaust me more.

If I didn’t let it on that the time, it was because I thought I would seem ungrateful. So I’m admitting it now.

Photo 19-08-2014 15 09 39

my face today feels so clear and happy in comparison to the exhausting time I’m describing

I had a lot of help at the time. A pixie showed up to support me endlessly and regardless that we’ve since gone our separate ways, I will always be grateful to her for this. I also hired a Power Ranger to kick my ass into working. (Essentially she is my PR lady but we needed a nickname for her because power rangers like to hide their identities.) She did a great ass-kicking when I most wanted to give up. For this above all things, I recommend artists build a PR team when they’re about to publish.

At the time, I thought I would never want to do a crowdfunding project again. I can’t express how utterly exhausted I was. Every day was a battle and I couldn’t even blog a proper THANK YOU.

Now – I would do it again. I’ve learnt a lot and one of the things I most learnt was to keep at it with my GUT. People will have a lot of well-meaning advice, and mostly they’ll be right – but it has to be done according to what *I* feel is right. So now, if I do a crowdfunding project again, I will prepare myself for it as though I were going into battle.


Since Qayqa is now formatted, I turned her into a PDF and sent her to Mark. He is the visual artist, so he’ll give Qayqa an eye-over and we’ll get on Skype in a few days and discuss what he thinks of my layout.

Formatting his illustrations into my book were all about adding narrative dimensions. Sometimes other ways of looking at the world I’m describing… Or times added emotions. They’re not illustrations; they are dimensions Mark adds to my world.

I don’t know if you know what I mean?

small part 2Ochoa isn’t really running in that part of the book. In fact, this bit takes place under the earth and he is represented by one of his potato roots. This image, to me, just represents Ochoa’s playful, joyful nature. When Damian touches him and says: “There you are, my brother”, this image represents how Damian’s words must have made Ochoa feel.

At least that’s how I see it. I’m very curious to hear what you’ll say when you’re holding the book in your hands.

Which, by the way, is looking like this at the moment…! (It might still change.)

my book's skin

my book’s skin

What do you think?

As you can see, I’m hiding from the blurb! I’m reading all the do-it-yourself websites like this one, which make me feel like I’m doing self-therapy!!

The blurb and the author’s biography are scaring me the most. I don’t know what the hell to say! I might just write some nonsense that feels right to me, because it won’t be nonsense, it’ll be the thing I can most represent instead of the conventional author nonsense. A bit like Neil Gaiman’s: “One day I’ll get a real job. Until then, I’ll keep making up stories.” That feels more real and right than “Ritti Soncco was born in…” I think that’s the thing that gets me the most about blurbs or biographies: writing in 3rd person. Like we all don’t know exactly who is writing this!!

writers blockIn the meantime, I’ve reactivated a lot of tweeting and posting about Qayqa and I must confess I’m amazed at all the responses and interest I’m getting! Having time in Lima is really helping, as I thought / hoped it would. Lima is, after all, the place I wrote The Backpacker Poem and started its around-the world-project. Some places are best for extroverting (like Cusco); others are best for introverting (Lima). Know your geography!

I feel filled with energy now: to prepare Qayqa properly, slowly… to make Facebook pages… to tweet… all that jazz. Thinking about the crowdfunding time, I remember thinking I wasn’t cut out for the artist life because I couldn’t deal with it then. I sincerely thought I would never have energy again.

It took time – but it’s filling me up again.

I want to leave you with two brilliant videos I think you simply have to see. Two weeks ago, my pole fitness friends from Studio 202 (where I teach aerials and learn pole) participated in the Mister & Miss Pole Scotland 2014 competition – and they took 1st and 2nd place!!!

I simply need to share these stunning & touching videos with you. These are kind, sweethearted and generous people I train with often, who always took the time to teach me, to chat, to hang out. They taught me to do this:

handsprings // pole fitness

handsprings // pole fitness

I am proud to call them my friends, and so endlessly proud of their success!!!

Taking 2nd place for Mister Pole Scotland 2014: James Denholm!!!


And winning 1st Place for Mister Pole Scotland 2014:  Theo Robertson!!!


Now… To tackle that blurb…



The Making Of Of Qayqa

11 Aug

photo 2

Work at the institute is going well. I finished a rough cut of the final material and ran into the weekend feeling I had accomplished something. But the city of Lima is driving me nuts and with Peru being so large, it’s hard to get very far with only a weekend to escape. So I complain to friends who raise their eyebrows and snigger: “Ritti, that’s the life we’ve been having for years. It’s what life is like if you’ve got a normal job.”

I did not know that.

The most normal job I’ve had is working at regional television with spontaneous working hours… And cafes / bars. I’ve never done a 9-5. Currently I’m doing a 7:30-4:30 job. In Peru’s winter. What the hell was I thinking.


The Making Of… Of… Qayqa

Last week I requested on Twitter for people to send me questions about Qayqa and my life / work as a writer. The reason for this is that I’m currently preparing a Qayqa Making Of book: a side-project which is designed to keep me sane (and motivated) while I walk Qayqa through the last steps of her birth. I got some excellent questions from a friend and stayed up way past my working-hours-bedtime having fun answering them. I found them to be so insightful and delicious. Here are 3 that made me snigger with delight:

We know that your life at the circus inspired elements of Qayqa, such as the Flying People, but how did your work on Qayqa have an influence on your work as an aerial artist?

Are there elements of Qayqa that you wrote knowing they would give away a lot of yourself, and if so, how did you manage to trust your readers and your audience enough to open up to them like this?

Many people are looking forward to learn more about The Flying People, do you feel like the great interest of people on THEIR story is somehow betraying Damian’s journey and HIS story?

Insightful, ey?

Some people will be receiving the Making Of book as their reward for supporting the crowd funding project. I’m going to print a limited edition and sell the rest during my book tour. So grab ’em while they’re out!

Chatting with a friend in Lima, I mentioned that I couldn’t think of a good title for the book. “I can’t really call it: the making of of Qayqa, can I?” He stared at me and immediately gave me the best idea. It’s brilliant because it’s to short, explanatory… and references X Men. I love X Men. This is how much I love X Men:

at Universal Studios in 2008

at Universal Studios in 2008

at the "Days of Future Past" premiere in Aberdeen

at the “Days of Future Past” premiere in 2013

I’ll be calling the making of book QAYQA: ORIGINS.

Get it?


My friend was amazed that I hadn’t thought of it myself.

I’ve sent Mark some questions for the book as well. I’m hoping it will give you an insight into the thought processes, the stories, the coincidences that all came together to make my first novel. And perhaps a sneak-peak into Munay, the sequel.

I spent the weekend finding my ideal café where I could write and go over Mark’s illustrations.

by Mark Klawikowski

by Mark Klawikowski

I also wrote for Munay. I realised (again) that she is much more done than I had thought. I’m connecting her dots and it’s so much fun to re-read all the old sections I wrote, knowing where I was in my life at that time, and where I was traveling too.

While I was seeping through, I discovered a passage that I’m not so sure will stay in Munay any more. I wrote it in Cusco two years ago, after a lovers quarrel, and now I realise it’s out of place in Munay. I may change my mind, but until then, what to do with it?

Put it in the blog, I thought.



“How Women Argue” by Ritti Soncco 

Allow me to generalise without apology: the trouble is that women are not as accustomed to sidestepping, not as accustomed to waiting with the patience of cavaliers. We do not harbour as little judgment as men who seem born with the knowledge that we must accept what is given and never demand more because “woman are fundamentally different, my son”. Instead, we are creatures of passion whose cries of strength and cries of insecurity sound identical. Who want “everything is fine” to mean “stay here and talk to me because nothing is alright”.

And so we fall into the dilemma of being a woman. A dilemma we ourselves do not approve of. We do not want to stand in a corner overcrowded with clichés. We despise the confrontation of man versus woman; the one which ends with the evolutionary argument that we are fundamentally different. What rubbish. We prefer the school of thought “everything is only as complicated as you make it”. We insist that we are not complicated.

And so we find ourselves increasingly demanding a sphere of our own. Why should the ionosphere be as unarguable as this and have all the fun? Where is our world where the rules of gravity and air agree that we are in the right? One sphere to call our own, into which the world can enter and understand what we meant when we said _______________; understand why we needed that hug to last longer or those extra words of praise. Understand that we weren’t being needy, we weren’t feeding a cliché; we will not be branded and used as an example of Venus.

Breathe the air of our sphere and you’ll know how a woman feels. Fly around in our wind and you’ll understand why we fall so hard in love, why it makes us feel insecure, perfect, insufficient, and divine. I tell you if we could have a sphere of our own we would never be cornered with clichés again. We’d be an aerial fact, something to be measured. Rational minds would agree on the degrees of feminine passion, the knots of feminine insecurity and the average speed of feminine stability.

Was my anger in our last fight a moderate gale or a deep depression? I meant it to scatter the clouds but I fear it called forth a storm instead. In my passion, as analysed by the Beaufort Scale and therefore measured by observed conditions on land or sea (you choose), we are now flying over the India of my love and experiencing a moderate tropical storm. According to the anemometers this is the average wind speed for a monsoon. You know what to do.

A sphere for our emotional weather, where women can remain as understandable and elusive as the clouds of every other sphere.


If you have any questions you would like me to include in QAYQA: ORIGINS (snigger), write me! I’m here for ya.