An Andalusian Adventure (1)

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It wasn’t my first trip to Spain, although it was a long time ago now. I walked into Malaga with a rucksack on my back and followed the signs for ‘Centro’ until I found myself in the crowded central district of older narrow streets with three- and four-story shops and cafes, guest houses and cheap hotels. The second hotel I tried offered me a perfectly adequate room on the third floor at a very good price.

The hotel was old. The wooden floors of the corridors were worn and polished by the passage of countless feet, and everywhere seemed gloomy. It gave the impression of having more nooks and corners where light never penetrated than it should. But the only light came from the occasional bulbs hanging from the ceilings, and other than by returning to the street, the visitor would only encounter daylight once they had reached their room and opened the curtains.

The bed was old, and sagged a good deal more than it should, and the furniture was so dark with age it was difficult to make out the grain. As a base for a few days, I decided it would suit me fine. As I unpacked and settled in, I suddenly heard a violin being played. It sounded quite close, and I opened my bedroom door to investigate. I had just decided the sound was coming from a neighbouring room when it stopped, and then a door opened. A man about ten years older than myself emerged and stopped when he saw me.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Did I disturb you?’

He introduced himself as a German who I shall call Matthias, although I am no longer certain that was his name, and who immediately invited me to go for a beer.

It would have been rude of me to refuse.

Matthias was meandering around Europe, he told me, and supporting himself largely by busking. Later that week I was to see him playing in the street and be surprised at just how many passers-by threw coins into his hat. It seemed a particularly enjoyable way to travel. Over those beers and then over a few more later in the week, we talked travel and philosophy, music and religion. When I meet someone while travelling, I find it interesting how I often have less constraint than I would when I meet someone for the first time in more familiar surroundings. Frequently, I will reveal things about myself I would never dream of doing to someone I meet perhaps for the first time at a friend’s house, or at my writing group. I presume it is the unspoken knowledge we will never meet again.

Beside the entrance to the hotel was a little café where I made it my habit to take a breakfast consisting of strong coffee, sometimes with slices of thick white bread dipped in olive oil, sometimes with fried eggs. It was a good place to sit and watch Malaga waking up. Its clientele were a broad mixture of workers all grabbing a quick breakfast on their way to office, shop or building site. Mostly they sat in silence, reading the morning paper and smoking, other than to give their orders to the waiter. On the bar a tiny transistor radio chattered away in speech too indistinct for me to make out more than the occasional word. In a way, though, that only added to the atmosphere. Despite it being a familiar situation, there was enough of the unfamiliar and the foreign to make it feel a little exotic.

I wanted adventure, I wanted to explore. I’ve wanted to do that for as long as I can remember. I travelled in those days with a few changes of clothes in a rucksack and a minimum of half a dozen paperbacks, which invariably included something by Hermann Hesse and at least one poetry book.

That, at least, hasn’t changed much.

I liked to travel light (other than the books, of course), so I had no camera with me and probably very few of the essentials most people would think to take on a Spanish holiday. No swimwear, for example. I don’t do beaches, at least not in that way.

But I had come to Malaga because I had a peripatetic nature, and my itchy feet were troubling me. After a few days I decided to take a walk out to the little town of Colmenar, to the north of the city. I would take a room there for one night and return to Malaga the following day. Any other destination would have done just as well; the purpose was the journey, and the journey was the purpose. I chose this route simply because while wandering around the outskirts of Malaga I saw a narrow road winding up into the hills with almost no traffic on it, signposted to Colmenar. The morning after I had made the decision, I packed my rucksack and checked out of my hotel immediately after breakfast.

Part 2 to follow

The Joy of Unknowing (2)

As soon as I had written my last blog post, I thought of this piece I wrote quite a long time ago which offers a similar take on travel and navigation. I am tempted to tidy it up a bit and perhaps update it to mention GPS, but instead I’ll leave it as it is.

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When I was a teenager, I began to use maps, although in rather an ad hoc, hit and miss manner. They were there for me when I was really stuck, or just wanted to know which general direction something lay. It would be a very long time before I began to use them in a careful, detailed way, able to predict the exact lie of the land, navigate in the fog or the dark, find my way through complicated landscapes with the map and compass. And, do you know, since I’ve learned to do that, I feel as though I’ve lost something rather magical, although I don’t suppose that I can blame it all on that. The maps that I was using as a teenager would tend to be the Bartholomew’s touring maps, small scale with little detail. I would feel, as I headed along a Cornish footpath, that I only knew roughly where I was going. It felt like an adventure, an exploration.

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Now, I need to be more and more remote to get that feeling, and even then it does not always work. Having just spent some time in Ladakh, in the Himalaya in the far north of India, I was surprised at just how easy all of my walking was. Setting off with map and compass, I always knew exactly where I was, only confused at times by the multiplicity of tracks criss-crossing the landscape. Even then, reference to mountains and villages with map and compass would invariably allow me to set my position. It doesn’t mean that I wanted to get lost, just that there was a small part of me that said ‘even this is all tame!’ Equally, I can be put off, by using the map, by the knowledge that over the interesting looking ridge that I was heading for, lies a motorway or building estate, and so I spend ages trying to plot a route that I try to get perfect, rather than simply heading off in the direction that I want to go and exploring as I go, correcting my course as I travel.

Nothing can tempt me more than a track leading tantalisingly into the distance, perhaps meandering through Mediterranean scrub towards a notch in the skyline, perhaps leading through a glowing archway of trees. Even now, when using map and compass to navigate, I often have to resist the temptation to ignore the map and head off to follow an interesting looking track. I think that this must be a part of my ‘I wonder what’s over the other side of the hill?’ nature. It is another reason why I’ve never been able to lie on a beach – apart from the fact that it seems a particularly pointless pastime in any case. Any time that I’ve tried it, it never seems to be more than a couple of minutes before I begin to think ‘What’s round the cliff?’ or ‘If I head back up the river, I think I might find a way through those hills.’ And then I just have to go to find out.

Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside!

A standalone excerpt from a work in process – a series of linked poems with the overarching title Breeze.

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You see, I never do things by halves. Unfinished novels, short stories and poems, too.

I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day.

On the late season sea-front we press our hats to our heads,

And shout to make ourselves heard.

The rain stings faces, and dribbles miserably down necks

It hoses noisily up and down abandoned streets,

As we struggle to stay on our feet between the chip shop and the variety theatre.

 

‘Shall we go for a drink?’

‘What? I can’t hear you!’

‘I said…’

 

Cables beat maniacally, ringingly,

Against rusting and white paint chipped flagpoles.

 

Piles of deckchairs like collapsed marionettes shift uneasily

On the shingle among the lolly sticks and sweet wrappers,

The bladdery seaweed and the old egg sacs,

Beneath the rounded overhang of the promenade;

Their fabric thrumming and whirring

And flapping.

 

The weather forecast said a thirty percent chance of rain.

 

An empty drinks can follows us noisily across the road.

 

‘That’s better.’

‘Gosh, that wind’s strong today!’

‘It’s almost like winter.’

‘What’ll you have?’

‘Better make it a strong one!’

‘Yeah. Make that two.’

 

Leaning on the bar, waiting for the drinks.

Staring gloomily out of the window.

 

Darting gulls,

Silver light,

Drinking silently,

Glancing at each other.

 

‘Tell you what. Why don’t we just go home?’

Bob on Holiday

Just in case you were wondering where he was, Bob has been on holiday. He’s back now, though.

And actually, he’s rather cross.

Now, lot’s of people return from holiday having had a wonderful time and feeling a bit tetchy that they have to come back to the daily grind, but it’s not like that.

No, Bob thinks we’ve all been lied to.

He went away to a holiday enclave in a West African country – or so he says. Bob’s sense of geography being what it is, I wouldn’t be too certain of the destination without checking his passport stamps first. And I wouldn’t do that. So I’ll take his word for it for now.

‘Now, I’m no fool,’ he said, looking at me.

‘No, of course not, Bob,’ I replied. ‘Absolutely not. Anything but. In fact, anyone who says…’ My words died away as I heard Bob’s wife, Gina, laughing somewhere behind me. ‘Go on,’ I ended, lamely.

‘Well, we read all the time that this is one of the poorest countries in the world,’ he continued, ‘yet I’ve never been to a nicer place! The hotel was really luxurious! Food was brilliant. All the staff were wonderful – they were smartly dressed and they couldn’t do enough for you! There were masses of security men all around the perimeter, mind you, but I don’t know what they were there for. And the beach was fantastic!’

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‘Was it just you on the beach?’

‘No, there were dozens of us.’

‘Any local people?’

‘No, they don’t go there, apparently. They don’t like sitting around on the beach like we do.

‘Did you go outside the hotel grounds at all, Bob?’

‘Yeah, we went to a village to see local artists at work. I loved the village. It’s such a minimalist lifestyle. They don’t waste time or money on all those pointless things that we think are so essential in the west.’

‘Like what?’

‘All that rubbish we don’t need!’ he said, heatedly. ‘They live a simple, healthy, lifestyle, and what matters to them are the things that are really important.’

‘Like what?’ I repeated.

‘Well, simple food, for example. It’s much healthier, you know. You don’t come across any of the locals there who are overweight.’

‘What is this diet, then? Do you know?’

‘Well, mostly they make a sort of porridge out of some local grain, apparently.’

‘Is that it?’

‘Oh, no. Of course not! They usually have it with, er beans. And onions.’

‘It doesn’t sound very exciting.’

‘Food doesn’t need to be exciting! It’s there to keep you alive!

It was a side of Bob I’d never seen before, and, to be honest, it was a bit scary. I never realised he could be so evangelical. At least, not about things like that. I’m used to him banging on about how wonderful a new beer is that he has discovered, or about his favourite pizza topping (which I’m not going to talk about here, but…pineapple on pizza…how could you?), but now he had all the fervour of a fresh convert to some extreme religion.

‘And then there are the houses they live in,’ he continued.

‘The houses?’

‘Yes. Gloriously simple and uncomplicated!’

‘As in small and built of odd pieces of driftwood and plastic sheeting?’

‘Exactly!’ He smiled warmly. ‘I love the way they make use of what’s locally available to build with. It keeps the costs down, and reduces the environmental impact of transporting thinks like bricks from far away. Simple.’

‘But would you want to live in one of those?’

‘I wouldn’t mind. I mean, what else do you need? Just some sort of bed in there and, oh, a table, I suppose. And a couple of chairs.’

‘But you just told me how luxurious the hotel was, and how much you enjoyed it.’

‘Well, I wasn’t going to turn it down, was I? But apparently it’s because us Westerners are all just so soft and pampered. The native people don’t live like that at all.’

‘So you say. Does this mean you’re going to change how you live, then, Bob?’

‘Well, I don’t think it’s particularly practical in the West.

‘I suppose not. Tell me about the artists you went to visit, then.’

‘Ah, yes. Mainly carvers. Lovely wood; mainly animals and masks. I bought a couple. Look, that’s one of them.’ He pointed to a beautifully carved and polished elephant in black wood, standing on the mantelpiece. ‘It cost the equivalent of about two pounds in our money.’

‘That seems very cheap.’

‘I know, but it’s a lot to them. And it’s putting money into the local economy.’

‘Who did you give the money to? The chap who carved it?’

‘No, there was a bloke who showed us round. Nice guy in a suit. Looked very smart. We paid him.’

‘I don’t suppose the carver was in a suit.’

‘Of course not! You wouldn’t wear one of those while you were working, would you?’

‘Describe him, then.’

‘Well, he was wearing a pair of shorts.’

‘What else?’

‘Nothing else. That was it. they could have done with a wash, though, I must admit.’ He put his head to one side and stared into the distance. ‘And a bit of sewing.’ He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘Really, he could have done with a new pair of shorts. They were pretty ghastly.’

‘Maybe the nice man in the suit will buy him a pair.’ Bob smiled happily.

‘I’m sure he will!’