It’s the earliest hours of the morning, and I’m laid on the floor of a concrete shed halfway up a volcano in Costa Rica, waiting to be murdered.
It started out nicely enough. This place belongs to my partner’s father, built on an isolated patch of family land, and it’s a gorgeous spot to watch the sun go down, with a mindblowing view of the Central Valley region.
But no no no, you can’t sleep outside, I’m told. Too dangerous. Bad people maybe.
Fair enough. And I really should be respectful of everyone’s wishes, including my partner’s. Don’t die up there, she advised as I packed my rucksack, and I intend to honour her request (mainly for selfish reasons, I confess.)
So when it’s time to sleep, I draw the shutters on the meshed, barred windows, and swing closed the steel door that wouldn’t look out of place on a submarine – and that’s when things get scary.
Every ten minutes or so I’ve almost nodded off – but then a tiny sound from outside wakes me. The crunch of leaves underfoot. The drip of water. The grating sound of a rusty machete’s cutting edge being sharpened to lethality. Low, evil laughter. Stuff like that, or at least fairly similar, I’m sure.
Every time the noise of the outside intrudes, it makes me remember how utterly alone I am in here.
My true awareness of Costa Rica as a friendly paradise of lovely people with a remarkable record on sustainable energy is fading away and being replaced with something fear-based, primal, completely unfair, and probably a bit racist.
Oh god – only 780 miles* to the east is where Narcos was filmed! And we’re basically in the Caribbean here!
(I’ve made the mistake of recently watching the final season of Black Sails, and now the silence outside sounds like a lot of pirates trying to be really quiet.)
It’s a gorgeous night out there – but I’m in here, wishing I was lying on a beach in England, getting rained on. You know where you are with English rain. If it’s going to kill you, it’ll probably take months and involve consumption, laudanum and a week in an iron lung. But this place? I could be a goner before I put my spectacles back on.
Round and round I go with all this. I nod off – there’s a noise outside – I lay there quivering with fear in the dark. This cycle repeats itself maybe a dozen times.
Somewhere around 2AM, a kind of reckless madness takes over. I wriggle out of my sleeping bag, drag my trousers back on and yell through the wall:
“RIGHT YOU BASTARDS, I’M COMING OUT. THIS IS YOUR CHANCE TO DO YOUR WORST. BUT I’M NOT GOING TO MAKE IT EASY FOR YOU!”
I throw the door open with a bang.
Outside, San Jose shimmers and glitters – a vast carpet of streetlights that begins a few miles away and spreads to the deeper-dark line of volcanoes and mountains on the horizon.
It’s breathtaking. My breath is utterly taken.
I stand there for a few minutes, waiting for death – but it doesn’t come, and my feet start getting cold, so I go inside and put the kettle on.
Then I come back out with my sleeping bag, climb into it, lean back against one of the shed’s outer walls and drink my tea, watching the rippling lights. It’s like watching the sea: always-changing, always the same.
I feel part of the world again.
The night may be dark and occasionally filled with terrors, but it’s also filled with beauty, with fireflies and other nocturnal life too timid and human-averse to show its face during daylight, with this mesmerising web of streetlights mapping out the daily lives of 340,000 strangers, and far above the orange glow of the city, with a sky of constellations hanging at all the wrong angles for my English brain to comprehend.
I finish my tea and shuffle-hop back inside, closing the door behind me- but this time, I open the shutters wide, letting the night air in through the bars, so I can see and hear everything.
I fall asleep in minutes.
It’s a weird thing, this idea of the “Inside” we’ve created.
Glance up from wherever you’re reading this, and look around you. Are you inside or outside? There’s a good chance you answered that without thinking.
Now – look at the nearest place where one turns into the other. A doorframe, for example, or a window. What exacty happens there?
We have many “insides”, like when you’re inside a sleeping bag. But there’s also that general overarching Inside where most of us (the most fortunate and privileged of us) make a comfortable home for ourselves – and it’s almost always the opposite of the outdoors.
Go back just a few centuries and you’d find a polite society that was terrified of the outdoors. Take the English countryside, which for hundred of years was a place where all the carefully-made rules of society fell apart and the absolute worst was possible. A place of vagrants, lunatics, death and despair. It was where Nature could tear you to pieces – and it’d be entirely your own damn fault for being foolish enough to go there in the first place.
So you retreated Inside, to where everything was controllable, predictable and safe.
And that’s where a whole bunch of modern problems started.
There’s the polluted air in our homes, our places of work and even our classrooms. There’s the lack of a distant horizon to lift your spirits and make you feel everything’s possible. There’s the lack of Vitamin D from sunlight. There are the ailments and biological malfunctions associated with indoors activities (like sitting). On and on the list damningly goes.
So when National Geographic says “This is your brain on Nature“, what it’s really saying is “This is your brain when you’re not Inside.”
So, the solution’s obvious, isn’t it? This is just about getting outdoors more often, like Scottish GPs are prescribing right now? And if you’re sleeping badly, you just sleep outside every once in a while, right?
Not so fast.
I’d say that’s the quick-fix version – but it’s like the most commonly-lauded solution to our modern problems with tech, nicknamed the digital detox. Venkatesh Rao calls this “Waldenponding“, an example of where something is presented as an idealised solution to the demonized problems of its opposite – and the benefits of a balanced approach are completely ignored, along with any worrisome consequences a polarised approach brings. (Specifically in this case: “retreating from information flows is just a different way of having your attention hacked by others.”)
The solution isn’t to say the Outside is great and the Inside is terrible.
Maybe it’s to find a way to rub out the line between them, before it does even more damage to our sense of being in the world – and feeling part of it.
It’s late autumn in 2013, and I’m laying on the beach just south of Bridlington, East Yorkshire, waiting to stop getting rained on.
Well, this is certainly an appalling hobby I’ve created for myself. Great job. What the hell is wrong with me? I should be doing this halfway up a mountain somewhere warm, say, I dunno, Costa Rica? God, you’re so stupid, Mike.
In one sense I’m OK, because I’m inside my bivvy bag, and I’m discovering it’s marvellously waterproof. (Terrific things, bivvy bags. Don’t get me started.)
But in every other sense, I’m laying in a sack in the open (like an idiot, Mike), alone on the beach during a rainstorm, because everybody with a scrap of good sense is indoors right now. There’s no hiding this fact. I open my eyes and there it all is, just beyond the dripping drawstring hood of my Hunka. It’s terrifying.
But then suddenly, it isn’t. It’s just weird.
And around 3am, two surprisingly dry hours into the storm, it’s become a delicious mixture of exciting and hilarious.
If I was looking for an opportunity to laugh at myself, this is certainly it. And there’s the thrill of the hissing sea and the roaring rain and the lights of Bridlington being just there. I can see everything – including anyone approaching. Against my training as a modern human being, I feel perfectly safe.
And then I fall asleep, in a way I’ll one day struggle to do in a concrete shed half the world away.
A lot of our love of the Inside is about fear. Fear of what strangers are capable of. Fear of the unknown. Fear of what can’t be controlled, and what isn’t ours.
Travel is all about confronting that fear head-on. As Gary Arndt says on Tim Ferriss’s blog:
“Many people are afraid of the world beyond their door, yet the vast majority of humans are not thieves, murderers or rapists. They are people just like you and me who are trying to get by, to help their families and go about living their lives. There is no race, religion or nationality that is exempt from this rule. How they go about living their lives might be different, but their general goals are the same.”
What is the same is true with our sense of what’s inside and outside? What if we didn’t fear what’s on the other side of it?
What if that boundary became more porous to our curiosity about what’s out there, enough for us to actually go find out, instead of imagining the worst?
What if you can hide away any time you want – but you never have to feel alone?
Take your home. Who are your neighbours within a couple of hundred yards in every direction? How are they living their lives? If you don’t know, why not find out, under the pretence of, say, having baked too much fruit cake and I was/we were thinking would you like some and I can’t believe this is the first time we’ve said hello considering we only live just across the street oh isn’t that so odd?….
Maybe one way to tackle this is hanging out in places that feel less Indoors-y. Wooden sheds are ideal (concrete a little less so, unless you leave the window open). Tents in fields are pretty good. Bivvy bags on hillsides are magnificently alarming. And so on.
Get creative. Explore the edges. Sweat a little.
Find out what it does to you when you’re somewhere that’s neither In nor Out – or incredibly, phenomenally Out, but with that sense of security and comfort you’d normally associate with being indoors, except with an added thrill of raw connection with everything around you that feels well worth exploring…
Or you could just fall asleep. I wouldn’t blame you for that in the slightest.
*The distance from London to Madrid.
Images: Mike Sowden