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How to Eat Alone Podcast

Episode 5 - Lonely Mountains with Gareth Wright (International High Altitude Mountain Guide/Former British Army)


An interview with mountain guide, Gareth Wright, about backpacking, what mountains mean to him and how being alone can be an important tool.

by Julia Georgallis

3 months ago


 

For more information about hiking Antigua's volcanoes, here are some blog posts I thought were a good read.  There are three volcanoes surrounding Antigua - Acetanango, Fuego and Agua, with some others nearby.  Antigua itself is a bit of a haven for backpackers who like a good adventure - 

Volcano Ascents in Antigua - Lonely Planet

Acetanango - Destination Less Travelled Blog 

I've offered you two recipes mentioned in the podcast - one for this very small but very powerful Breakfast Banana Bread, which is sure to get you up a 4000 meter volcano and the other for some Blue cheese and asparagus pupusas, served with curtido - not strictly for one, but at least it doesn't make a massive amount - perhaps enough for dinner and a lunch time leftover snack the next day. 

Transcript of interview with Gareth Wrightinterviewed by Julia Georgallis -

JG

Hello, welcome to the How to eat alone podcast, with me, Julia Georgallis. I’m a baker, I write about food and I currently run edible food museum, The Edible Archive. 

This podcast is about being and eating alone. I’ve been talking to different people about their own experiences of solitude and solo dining.  With every episode, I’ll share a recipe or two, designed to be cooked and eaten by one person and one person only, because I find that most recipes are written for two or more people, so you can cook along whilst you listen - think of this podcast as a bit like a dining buddy. 

This episode is about backpacking.  I’ve always thought backpacking was quite a strong part of the culture of wealthier English speaking countries like the UK and Australia and America - it’s an acceptable thing for young people to do when they reach a crossroad in their lives - to pack a bag and leave home and explore either their own countries or other parts of the world before heading back home and settling down. To take time out and find yourself, to get some fresh perspective about what the next step might be is a real luxury. It kind of reminds me of The Grand Tour - which was a 17th and 18th Century custom where young, upper class Brits would take a trip round Europe when they came of age. It was kind of a rite of passage and I think it’s the ancestor for backpacking today. I travelled a lot in my 20s by myself and on one of my longest backpacking trips, I ended up unexpectedly in Guatemala, where I met Gareth Wright, my guest for this episode. I met him in a place called Semuc Champey, which is nestled deep in the Guatemalan jungle and it’s full of these really beautiful, bright blue natural pools. When I travelled, I met so many people travelling for so many different reasons and a lot them were travelling alone like me - I think there are lots of different types of backpacker and I often try and put them into categories. There’s The Hedonists, who travel to party - you might find them at a full moon party in Thailand or partying at Rio Carnival. Then there’s The Wellbeing Hedonists, who I think are probably like modern day hippies - they take just as many drugs as the hedonists, but you might find them on a yoga retreat in Goa or Oaxaca. There’s The Corporate Escapees, those people who have a burn out after working in finance or something else in the corporate world for too long and just want to sit on a beach. And then there’s the Modern Day Explorer, and I met so many of these when I travelled around Guatemala - if they’d been alive 200 years earlier, these might have been the people to discover things and travel to unknown parts of the world - I think this is loosely where Gareth fits in...  Guatemala is such an adventurous place, there’s so many amazing trails and activities and... there's Lake Atitlan which attracts a more hedonistic backpacker, but outside of that it is a place for hikes and treks and jungles and Mayan monuments… and, of course, it's also the place for volcanoes. 

Gareth is from Salisbury and spent a few years in the British army. When he left he started travelling the world by himself and quite quickly got bitten by the travel bug. When I met Gareth, he was about to start a new life as a High Altitude Mountain guide, to guide people up the Guatemalan town of Antigua’s neighbouring volcano, Acetanango and he was a few months into a 3 year long trip around Latin America, starting on the in Mexico and ending in Patagonia. 

I’ve been following his journey, completely fascinated by life on top of a mountain, what it means to be a mountain guide so I got in touch with him and asked him whether he wanted to chat about his life as a mountaineer. 



JG

I kind of wondered if you would remembered me because it was such a long time ago


GW

I know and with the amount of times I’ve been there and been back there, everything sort of gets wrapped into one time - was it 2016?


JG

Yeah, cos I did this big backpack then. I was only supposed to be in South America for 3 months, and I ended up travelling for 7 months… well. I made it as far as Cuba really… 


GW

(Laughs)

That’s pretty good going.


JG

I skipped a lot of Central America but Guatemala was my favourite place, I loved it. 

Was it Tikal that I met you? Can’t remember where it was. 


GW

So I thought it was Semuc. In that hostel wasn’t it?


JG

The amazing hostel with the views! With the brilliant views - It was definitely Semuc Champey. I don’t know if you remember this, but there was one night where everyone had gone to bed and there was two people… um… having a ‘nice time’ on the top bunk of one of the bunk beds and it fell and squashed the person underneath - it was so bad


GW

Yeah I do remember that! 


JG

I tell people htat story sometimes and everyone’s like no, that’s like a hostel nightmare story, you never hear about stuff like that happening, but I remember that happened then. 


GW

Now you’ve said it, it’s just come back… 


JG

So how comes you ended up in Guatemala?

 

GW

So I was sort of doing a trip - in fact that time, I was going back there to work in Antigua on the volcanoes that surround Antigua, but Guatemala had come up a couple years before that I was on a trip, probably reverse to what you were doing, I was going from Mexico south down to Patagonia. And I planned for one year to do this trip and then after six months I left Mexico (laughs) 

 

JG

Wow, Mexico does that to you I think 


GW

Yeah I planned for a few weeks in Mexico, then 6 months later. What I hadn’t realised with Mexico was the snow peaked mountains and ice to sort of climb and got into that, then got to Guatemala, I soon knew that this trip was gonna be a lot longer and the time I met you there I was on my way to Antigua - Guatemala’s definitely one of those places right, it just tries to draw you back - The time that I met you there, I was heading back to Antingua. Guatemala’s definitely one of those places right, it just tries to draw you back - it’s just such an amazing place. You know it’s the people that make places right and somewhere like Antigua which still has this rich Mayan heritage 


JG

That took me by surprise, actually. I didn’t know much about Mayan culture or Mayan history - it doesn’t get taught right. You kind of hear about the Aztecs but not the Mayans. I really liked that aspect of Guatemala a lot.  


GW

Yeah it completely opened my eyes - I’d heard of Mayans but I was just thinking Mexico and then what you don’t realise that there was no border and Chiapas was both countries. About 30% of Mayan civilisations have been discovered - it’s still wrapped up in jungle. And the wildlife’s still around there, right, it hasn’t been fully excavated.


JG 

Yeah it’s really amazing. And so, is that kind of what drew you to Guatemala, was it the wilder side of it?


GW 

You tend to hear a lot about Costa Rica and Colombia but I wanted to take my time in Guatemala, and Honduras, El Salvador, and sort of see the nature side of things, it’s very easy to go along the backpacker trails but I do remember being on a couple of busses, going through villages and some of them are like 10 hours long and 3 hours in we’d go through this really cute little mountain village and I’d ask the driver to stop. I got my bag off the top and I got off there and I sort of knew that there would be busses coming past daily and whenever I wanted to get a bus I could go. I just sort of spent time in those villages and felt was the real side to Guatemala.


JG

That sounds like something not a lot of people would do. 


GW

It was always on my mind, wherever I’d travelled or worked to do something like that because although backpacking is a great way to travel you are on these buses, you’re seeing these few spots which are beautiful and well worth going to, but you already have an expectation of this place, either because of social media or because of other backpackers so to stop somewhere random that you’ve never heard about and make your own mind up about a place is something that really appealed. 


JG

For sure and so what lead you to that big trip?


GW

I think I’d had time in the army. The army was great - I joined at 16 - I was on a few dodgy postings but also on a few really really good postings so it really opened my eyes up to different countries, different cultures whether that was Greenland or Botswana or even somewhere like Canada. Before I was joining the army, I’d only ever been to France and Spain on family holidays. So, yeah, it sort of opened my eyes up to travel and different cultures but obviously being in the military, whether it was operational or not you were still in uniform, there was a detail to what you had to do - be there at this time, you’re doing this, you’re doing that. So when I ended up leaving, which was about 2003/4 it became a thing at the back of my mind, I want to see part of the world, but on my own terms, to stop where I want to stop, all the selfish things you want to do when you’re by yourself and you’ve got no plan. So I worked for a couple of years doing labouring, window cleaning and then I’d do small trips - 1 month in South East Asia, Europe, North America. Then it become 3 months and then I think I went away for 6 months and then I was like, right. Yeah, it sort of escalated. There’s so many cliches flying around about how you can get addicted to travel and post travel depression and it just sort of snowballed and I thought, ‘well ok I’m gonna go to Mexico and that would be the start…’ the end? I wasn’t even concerned about and my plan was just to head south to Tierra del Fuego in Patagonia, and that was my only rough plan - my plan was to stick to the mountains - mountains and volcanoes... 


JG

Why… why?


GW

I think it’s just, for me it’s what they bring to me. The solitude. I dunno, I found it always cleared my mind, being on mountains, just felt like it was always a good way to travel, at that point I wouldn’t describe myself a mountain guide or mountaineer, it was only later, after that I did my qualifications. 


JG

Did you do that in Guatemala?


GW

So I’d done a little bit of mountain rescue in Canada, volunteering and basically if I gave my time to them and helped with mountain rescue they were going to put me through my International Mountaineering qualifications to lead at high altitude, so that kind of put me on that path then it was a case of exploring the mountains but the first time I went to Guatemala it wasn’t to work it was just backpacking.


JG

And then you realised there was a really big volcano on there...


GW

Yeah. Exactly - all the volcanoes, I got up there and sort of explored. I think subconsciously the trip was also about the fact that I’ve always been fascinated by the Andes, so although the Andes doesn’t start until Venezuela and Colombia, I felt like if I could make a few contacts here and there just to help with work further down the line, I mean it's certainly done that, I started work on this trip which is why it took me 3 years to go from Mexico down to Patagonia. But it was just how the mountains made me feel, like all that energy, whether it's literally, so you got volcanoes, glaciers, avalanche, it’s all… energy. 


JG

That’s true… But they're also all quite lonely places aren’t they and they are always perceived culturally as lonely places - but it sounds like you don’t think they’re that lonely really.  


GW

Yeah. I think the one thing about communities within mountains is that's exactly what it is, it's a community. For so many different reasons - people have to look after each other because you are an isolated community.  You only have to look at things like the Inca trail down in Peru, the trail was only there so communities could communicate with each other, take food to other communities, and exchange food whether it be quinoa or coca plants and then use trails to get back - in some places it still goes on. I just felt like the communities in the mountains, they’re the people to see and go to and just how heartfelt they are, they’re happy to see you, have you around. But it wouldn’t be long before I want to get out and really explore by myself but having that understand of the local culture there before I get into - some of it is farmland and everyone in Central America who’s farming has a machete so you wouldn't want to go up the wrong trail and meet a man with a machete at the wrong time of day, so people would give me great information about what parts to avoid. 


JG

Cos I remember when I went there everyone was like ‘are you nuts?’ cos it is less safe did you ever feel like you were not safe?


GW

No no, definitely not in Central, South America, sometimes in city you get to a hostel and you’d check in people were like avoid this area of the city but also being gentle with the local people so they can see that you’re just there to enjoy nature, you’re no threat to anyone. I guess it's a little bit different for female solo travellers, I do know that. I very rarely have anything too valuable on me and and people stopping me, if they see you that you don't much they’re gonna leave you alone. I mean I don't doubt that there are dodgy people out there that could get yourself into a dangerous space but I always try and just look on the positive side of going to these places and really ninety nine percent of the time I’ve seen nothing but love from people, and kindness. And I know it doesn’t always work out that like and I think I’ve been lucky with the travel thing not to end up in too bad a scenario but there's definitely a few sketchier moments that I've had in different parts of the world.


JG 

So with mountain guiding and being on the volcano, what did your job involve? 


GW

You have groups, clients, couples, sometimes families, sometimes school groups and like on most mountains, especially today on social media, with it being an active volcano in Guatemala people just want to head straight up there, they’ve seen all these photos - it’s just sort of assisting people, leading people, up to these basecamps and summits so they can fulfil their dreams. I mean I’ve been up there many times but one thing is always the same for me is how I feel when people get to the summit, because I know what it looks like up there - the sunrise or sunset and a lava spewing volcano so I’m anticipating the reaction of the client, after a 2 day slog up a mountain at high altitude, you know we’re going up 4000 meters, particularly in Guatemala, just to get to the summit and see people you know embrace, they’re crying they’re emotional but happy. 


JG

That must be really nice.


GW

Oh, it’s really where I get my buzz, my excitement from my job to see people fulfill their goals of getting to these summits. For a lot of people, you know 4000 meters is very high so for a lot of people this is the highest they’ve ever been and probably the highest they’ll ever go. There’s obviously the hardcore few who do a little bit more but it’s certainly a great feeling to see their reactions on the summit. 


JG

I mean it’s a hard trip to do. What are the practicalities of it?


GW

It’s everything. I’ll get some paperwork through beforehand it would detail everyone’s experience, their age and we’ll have a pre trip briefing, let them know what to expect but also just to put their mind at rest because like I say, it is high altitude, so naturally at high altitude if you’re at 3000 meters, there’s 30% less oxygen, again at 4000 it’s 40% less oxygen - nature’s giving you less and your body’s crying out for more air, just from exerting yourself with a backpack. And then what can happen with altitude, so headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea. 1 in 4 people suffers from altitude sickness at 4000 meters, just and also there’s things like nosebleeds that people will have at basecamp at 3000 meters, but just so that they know that this is completely natural as we head up a mountain. Just covering everything and obviously theres 3 active volcanoes, 2 which we’ll be close to if things do go awry what to expect and how we would evacuate, covering the actions on someone breaking an ankle.


JG

How do you get them out?


GW

There’s no helicopter rescue in Guatemala so I’d call a guide from the village - the trailhead in La Soledad and someone would come up with a mule and then onto the mules and one of the guides will walk down with them to the local town or village. But thankfully there’s not been anything too stressful with injuries and incidents. 


JG

Well that’s good to hear. Do you feel the altitude sickness?


GW

Not at 4000 meters, no, but I’ve climbed up to 7000 - Aconagua, which I done solo on that trip, when I got down to Argentina. But I soon learnt that for me to do something solo like that it becomes all about acclimatization so, yeah, took me a few weeks to summit, to sort of hike up to second base camp and then you hike down and sleep at the first, the next day you hike up to the third and you sleep at the second - so you go up and down up and down, sort of staggering it so it's the best way to acclimate. 


JG

And. This is a cookery podcast, so I guess I have to ask this question - What do you guys eat when you’re trekking up a volcano?


GW

There’s a lady at the basecamp hostel in town and she would prepare pasta and vegetarian pasta sauce with local herbs and then tortillas… maiz tortillas and then things like quinoa, couscous. We really think about it and try and change it up. And we’ll have baked banana bread for breakfast with peanut butter - we’d have that every morning - everyone sort of goes for that. Marshmallows round the fire in the evening, some mulled wine heated up on the fire.


JG

Sounds like the way to do it really...


GW

There is, actually, one of my favorite places in Antigua. So everyone will ask as we leave the volcano where’s a good place to eat in town and there’s this pupuseria in Antigua.  So it's a couple from El Salvador that run it. I'd always recommend going in there for a feast after and they done these pupusas with asparagus and blue cheese and, my god, whenever I go back there that’s the first place I go to. This little pupuseria, you’d go in and have this chalkboard and they had so many flavours, you’re talking 50, 60 flavours, yeah the asparagus and blue cheese was definitely my thing. 


JG

I’ve got so many questions for you… there’s just so much about being on a mountain that I hadn’t really thought about before, but what do you do when you’re not guiding, when you’re not working…what do you like to do?


GW

Outside of work, when I am away I like to explore and research trails and do my own thing so... if I’m not working, it’s all about coffee, maps and getting on the ground and actually seeing an area for myself. In essence, I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what that 3 year trip was - me sort of exploring really, but I definitely know without that time alone I wouldn't be as good at my job as I think I am, so it’s that alone time that sort of prepares me, whether it's physically or psychologically in my mind, when I am working. My time off and my alone time in the mountains when I'm out definitely prepares me for that. And I think the same for coming home. I do enjoy being by myself but I also, you know, love coming homeland being with family and friends but I feel it’s a really good version of myself to come back home and see everyone because I’ve had that time by myself


JG

Because you appreciate it. 


GW

Exactly and I probably don't tell my friends and family you know how much I do miss them when I’m away. I really haven’t seen my family too much, probably since 2011 - it’s been 3 or 4 months every couple of years. Las year I was hoping to see a few more people, but obviously Covid put a stop to that - it’s not much time but I always feel like the time is absolute quality. 


JG

Well that’s the best way to feel because I do find that if I dont have my time alone then the time with people kind of becomes diluted. And I don’t enjoy it and I don't like not enjoying it...


GW

That’s it - you can feed off how you feel and people will as well so if you’re ready and you feel good about it then it’s gonna show, to be excited to see somebody and spend that quality time with them that’s what it’s all about right?


JG


That is what it’s about - quality time over quantity of time spent with other people.  I love the idea that Gareth suggests, which is that aloneness is a tool that people can use to make time with other people even better. I really respect people like Gareth, for the way they can just untie themselves from society and go off and do the things they want to do - I think it’s quite brave not to be afraid of not being close to your friends and family and to just go and explore.  That’s what appeals to people about travelling I suppose - that you can just check out from life. And in Gareth’s case, he still keeps in touch with people, he still makes time for his friends and family, but he does it all on his own terms.  I think you need a really good dose of confidence and perspective for this, it seems like he gets both of those things by being high up, in mountains or on volcanoes.  


A big thankyou to him for talking to me, I really could have chatted to him all day. I’ve left you with two recipes, one for a very small but very powerful breakfast banana bread, which absolutely has enough energy in it to get you up a 4000 meter volcano. And I’ve also added that recipe for those blue cheese and asparagus pupusas that Gareth loves so much. Probably this is a good time to explain pupusas - so, I first had them in Mexico but they are not Mexican or Guatemalan, they are in fact from El Salvador… or Honduras, depending on who you talk to but Gareth mentions the Salvadorean couple who owned the pupuseria in Antigua. Pupusas have a kind of empanada vibe, but the dough is fried like fritters and instead of the filling being sandwiched between dough, it’s kind of mixed in instead. They’re actually really easy to make, I was quite surprised and I’ve also added some links to the ‘How to eat alone’ recipe blog that takes you to some actual Salvadorean people telling you how to make them as well, because I am absolutely not from El Salvador and so can’t offer you a 100% authentic recipe. Usually pupusas are served with curtido, which is like a Central American version of kimchi, it’s kind of like a cultured slaw. And I really love that a Salvadorean recipe has made it onto my podcast, via a man from Salisbury by way of Guatemala - I love it when things end up in funny places, including recipes and you don’t hear too much about Salvadorean food in the UK. You can find both these recipes and more information about this podcast at theediblearchive.org, just scroll through to the How To Eat Alone section of the website, and I’ve also put up some information about hiking Acetanango in Guatemala, in case you ever find yourself there in the future.  You can find more about this project on instagram and facebook, the instagram handle is the.edible.archive. And of course if you like this podcast, please share it with someone who you think might also like it! Thank you for listening to me and supporting this pod. I hope you enjoyed being alone with me and I’ll see you soon for the next episode of How to eat alone... 





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