An Andalusian Adventure (2)

Part 1 can be found here: Part 1

It was a long way to Colmenar. I was walking up into the Malaga Mountains, with no map and no directions other than a road sign at the edge of Malaga suggesting that by following this road I would eventually reach my destination.

I suspect I have undertaken other journeys where I have been better prepared.

But the day was perfect for walking, with high drifting clouds and a light breeze to keep me cool, and having done little for several days other than eat, drink and wander around Malaga, I was feeling fit, fresh, and eager to get going.

As the hours went by and I slowly gained height, the clouds began to build up, and the temperature gradually dropped. About an hour from my destination, it finally began to rain. Immediately the temperature plummeted, and I rapidly went from merely chilled to decidedly cold.

Usually, we approach rain all wrong. Buddhists would say unskilfully. If it begins to rain, we hunch ourselves up, both physically and mentally. We fear becoming cold and wet. We need to let go of this fear. It’s a good lesson to learn. Stop. Take several long, slow, deep, breaths, and let go of this feeling. Let go of this need. We act as though hunching ourselves up will keep us dry and make us warmer. It doesn’t. Unless one can find shelter, it is better to accept the rain and finish the journey.

It is a cliché to speak of heightened awareness, yet that is also a by-product of this letting go. We remove our focus from the rain and instead allow it to go elsewhere, where it is really needed. We should throw back our heads and embrace the rain, enjoy the freshness of the rain on our faces. Listen to the sound of the rain on the ground and the leaves around us.

Back then, I hadn’t learned that lesson. I hurried towards the town as fast as I could.

One of the first buildings I came to was an inn. I went into the bar and asked for a room. The room I was given was reached by leaving the bar again and walking around the side of the building. The door to my room had a gap at the bottom of an inch or two, but otherwise fitted the door frame well enough. It was locked and unlocked by the type of huge key frequently described as a jailor’s key. The room was furnished only with a bed, a chair, and a small chest of drawers. There was a mirror above the chest of drawers and a crucifix above the head of the bed, but other than those the whitewashed walls were bare. There was a small window which was shuttered. The floor was of flagstones, with no carpet or mat. To use toilet or bathroom it was necessary to leave the room again and continue still further around the building to reach a very basic room. But again, it was clean. And there was a toilet that worked, and a sink with a cold tap. There was also a shower set into the ceiling I could have braved, but it felt much too cold for that.

Later, I would occupy rooms like this in many other places, in many other countries. Simple, perfectly clean, and usually very cheap. I am not sure whether it is because they appeal to the minimalist in me, but in many ways I prefer them to more comfortable accommodation.

Whenever I have stayed in one, I have always felt I was carrying too much baggage with me. I have been beset with the feeling I should be throwing out some of the items I have in my bag – do I need all those clothes? All those other items? It has been a recurring regret of mine that I have never managed to live a simpler lifestyle than I have. I have never enjoyed the frenetic hurry and clamour of modern urban life, and I hate how easily my life can become complex and filled with what feels like unnecessary fuss.

Here, even the spartan contents of my rucksack seemed too much. Perhaps I had too many books with me…

But now I was here, I changed out of my wet clothes and opened the shutters so I could look out at the low cloud and misty horizon. The rain drummed comfortingly on the roof and I settled down to read a book for an hour or so. I was content, and that’s a good place to be.

I cannot remember what I had for supper that night, but I do remember I drank a bottle of cheap red wine with it. Perhaps that is the reason.

I rather think I slept well, too.

And as in all good stories, the morning dawned bright and clear, the sun shining low in a clear blue sky. Before I left the town, I passed a couple of shops and bought a few items for my lunch: bread, a huge tomato, a hunk of cheese, a couple of apples, a bottle of cheap wine.

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With the improved weather, and the fact I had more downhill stretches that day than uphill ones, I allowed myself the luxury of returning to Malaga slowly, including a stop for lunch of about an hour. Compared to the UK, Spain is a large country and the rural population is comparatively small. Although I was not far from the city, I saw almost no one else on my walk and I meandered along slowly through a mixture of low trees and bushes, many of them in flower – the distinctive Mediterranean maquis vegetation – rocky outcrops and clumps of flowers, and the occasional lone farmhouse. The ground was dry and dusty, as though the rain of the previous day had never happened, and the sun was hot. With my lunch consisting of about half a bottle of wine as well as the food, I was feeling extremely weary and footsore when I reached Malaga again. I found the hotel I’d stayed in before and got a room on the same floor. After showering, I finished the bread and cheese and decided all I wanted to do was read my book for a while and then have an early night.

There was a knock at the door and when I opened it Matthias was standing there grinning.

‘I saw you arrive earlier. We go for beer, now!’

Supermarket Gripes

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I haven’t had a good rant for a while, so best I put that right.

I had cause to go into a large store of a well-known supermarket a while ago.

Make that a very large store.

An extremely large store. Obscenely large.

It was like a medium sized city inside.

Or possibly a large cathedral, which would feel more appropriate, since these things are the glorification of the worship of money. How so? This store, like most others of its hateful ilk, does not simply sell food, any more.

Oh no.

It sells clothes. It sells white goods. DVDs and CDs. Computers and accessories. Mobile phones. Books, stationery, and greetings cards. Items of furniture. Garden items. DIY stuff. It has started its own bank and offers everything from insurance policies to bank accounts. The list seems endless. If I had wanted a lighthouse or a wolf they would probably have got me one from out the back.

There seems to be very little that it does not yet sell, although I have no doubt that it will only be a matter of time before those few gaps are filled.

Its business plan is simple – put every single other type of shop out of business, and corner the market in everything.

I had the strangest feeling – the feeling that I was somehow diminished, just by being in there.

And the food items? The reason I went in there in the first place?

Apparently it is essential that we are able to choose from well over a hundred types of cheese which particular one we need – strong, very strong, beat your brains in, mild, sliced, grated, chopped in cubes, turned into string, low fat, no fat, cows’ milk, sheeps’ milk, antelopes’ milk, crocodiles’ milk, virtual cheese, and all produced by four or five different companies.

And that’s just the cheddar.

Its website tells me that it sells 343 different cheese products. I’m all for choice, but, good grief!

Interestingly, looking at a website for a rival big multinational, I find they sell 344 of these products. Perhaps I should go there, instead? I wouldn’t want to miss out on a shopping opportunity. They might be able to offer me a better ‘shopping experience.’ For my ‘shopping solutions.’

Why do advertising agencies have to come up with that drivel?

And that brings me to another interesting thought.

There is the push to encourage all shoppers to use the ‘self’ check-outs, but at least they seem to have reined back a little on the verbal persuasions. I was standing in line at my ‘local’ small branch last year, when I was approached by a member of staff who suggested I use a ‘self’ check-out.

‘No thanks.’ I said.

‘It’s okay,’ he told me, ‘I’ll show you what to do.’

I can see perfectly well what to do. I don’t intend to use it.’

‘Why not, sir?’

‘Because it’s sole purpose is to take away your jobs.’

‘That’s not so…’

‘I suggest you look at their website, then. Because I have. It clearly states that is one of the advantages of buying one.’

Damn the lot of them.

A Limo in Lima…

…something that ought to be a cautionary tale.

It was a long time ago, now, but I am sure these things still happen. I was sent by the company I then worked for, to Lima, Peru. My role there was to carry out some training of half a dozen local men who had been recruited to operate the computers in our branch office.

Now, I have never been what could be described as a ‘snappy dresser’. I incline towards what can best be described as a ‘casual’ look, although I have at times been unfairly described as a ‘scruffy bugger’, and no one looks their best after a journey of over 24 hours, with a couple of flight changes and a certain amount of time spent hanging around in airports.

And thus it was I emerged into South America haggard and unshaven, sporting a pair of old jeans and a tee shirt, picked up my battered rucksack from the carousel, then looked around for whoever was meeting me.

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We’ll blend in. No one will us notice us in our big, clean, shiny black limo.

I was accosted by a smart suit and tie which was housing a short man who looked like a mafia boss, but who was affable and friendly and directed me to my transport.

A huge, black, limousine.

Now, in some other circumstances I might have quite enjoyed the ride, since it was an experience I had never had before (or since, as it happens), but we then proceeded to drive through massive slum areas where most of the ‘housing’ appeared to lack even a roof. The road was pitted with potholes, most of the traffic consisted of battered buses, lorries and cars, and poverty seeped out of everything that could be seen.

I have never been so embarrassed.

Every time the car stopped, I wondered whether we would get attacked and robbed – we certainly attracted a lot of attention, all of it the wrong kind as far as I was concerned. And after I was dropped off at the hotel where I would be staying, I was left wondering just who the hell that was meant to impress?

Me? If so it failed abysmally. My (already somewhat low) opinion of the company I worked for simply plummeted further.

The locals? If that was the case, then God forgive the b*stards that thought of it.

Can anyone enlighten me as to the thinking behind that?

Stereotypes and Misunderstandings

In countries such as India, there is frequently an impression that Western visitors and therefore, by extension, all Westerners, own vast wealth and have massive amounts of leisure time at their disposal.

After all, they arrive on holiday, perhaps for a month or more, and they go around staying in places that are far beyond the means of the average Indian, spend the equivalent of several month’s wages on souvenirs, often hop on an aircraft to take a journey that would be one hundredth of the price by rail, flaunting expensive cameras and watches and phones and designer clothes. So who wouldn’t think that?

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This is not helped by the impressions given by many Western films and programs, where work seldom seems to get in the way of whatever action the film is depicting.

This often affects how local people interact with visitors, and their feelings about them.

I suspect it even drives a certain amount of international migration, too.

And so I think it very important to highlight a few facts;

Basically, the differences in exchange rates of different currencies give the impression of great wealth which is not, in fact, true.

A few numbers:

The average annual wage in the UK is currently £28,000, or $34,400. This sounds a lot (even to me!) but that hides a huge variation, of course.

It is quite hard to find figures that agree about the average annual Indian wage, with estimates varying from around $600, up to around $3500, although this may well reflect the massive difference between the rural worker and a worker in, for example, the IT industry. For sake of argument, I’m going to use the figure of $2000, which could still be slightly on the high side, looking at some of the sites I’ve gone to.

This would give the average UK worker a wage 17 times higher than the Indian. Sounds good for us, but the average cost of a house in the UK is now some £300,000 – that’s $369,000, and it is now almost impossible for young people to buy their own house unless they are helped by well-off parents, and they have very well-paid jobs. The average rent, otherwise, is around $12,300 per year. About a third of the average wage.

To find an average cost to rent in India is also difficult (for me!). I scoured a lot of sites, and seemed to come up with a figure of somewhere around $1,200 a year, although there were massive variations, both between cities and within them. If I have got these figures correct, that is around a half of the average wage.

The prices of basic commodities such as foodstuffs or power vary a lot between India and UK, too. Whereas I have bought street food in India for a rupee or two, making a lunch for perhaps 15 or 20 cents, it would cost me at least $2.50 to $3 in UK for the equivalent.

This isn’t to draw up an accurate comparison between the two – it would be quite a study to do that – but to try to make the point that the average person in the UK is better off (materially) than the average person in India, but not by nearly as much as many might think.

India has more of a problem with poverty, but the West has quite a bit, too. And whilst the poor in the West are emphatically not as badly off as their cousins in India, they still endure considerable hardship. Even with the existence of the supposed safety net of Social Security. There is homelessness. There is malnourishment.

Incidentally, and I pose this as a question to my Indian friends, I frequently read articles that focus on aid and development in poor (especially rural) areas of India, highlighting the fact that a large percentage of the population have to survive on around two dollars a day.

In the light of the above, I wonder whether this isn’t a little disingenuous, since that figure may not be as far below the average wage as many in the West believe, and wonder what you think?

I think it matters, because I believe this might distract attention from where work is needed more, such as improving sanitation, work conditions and medical care.