Extremadura 2017

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 Extremadura

May 2017

This is a hard, extreme country – the part of Spain that gave birth to the Conquistadors. It was poverty and innate toughness that got them across the Atlantic in the 17th century to take on hostile terrains and wealthy empires. They weren’t seafaring people. It was desperation that made them hang on in America to build and farm rather than grab the loot and come home as their British counterparts were more likely to do. They melted down the artefacts of civilisations to buy off their king and the Church.  Caceres is one of those larger than life Spanish cities with a looming cathedral and churches in every square, tall civic buildings with thick walls and small windows.  It’s a far cry from the whitewashed towns of Andalusia or chaotic Cadiz. They don’t give the impression of being built for ordinary people to have homes in. But the terrain beyond draws you in in spite of itself.

In the spring, Extremadura is at  its best. Small hardy flowers like gorse, thistle, spike lavender and colts foot cling to the stony ground, conserving water and energy to survive. Only the rock roses of the mountains and the poppies of the roadsides are flamboyant. In the mountains narrow, dark rivers flow through steep gorges. Small reservoirs are half full due to lack of rain. In the rolling hillside that forms a large part of Extremadura, the rivers are dry and the grass already yellow and burnt at the beginning of May. The wheeling vultures above the mountains and valleys give way here to kites over the holm oak meadows and then – to very little. Even a scattering of crumbs from our picnic doesn’t attract any sparrows on the road to Alcantara, and apart from the odd snatch of song from something invisible in the scrub, it’s silent. Such silence. Big silence for a big country.

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The Romans were here 50-100 years before Caesar sailed to our ‘triangular’ country. They left bridges and  straight roads, even little bits of the paving remains. Where were they going up here? What were they looking  for?

Tejo National Park

We spent the night in a field on a hill overlooking the Tagus opposite Alcantara, a pretty little town with a Roman Bridge that was once the tallest in their Empire. The town was quiet even by Spanish standards until around five o’clock when the storks flew home. There was a clattering and a clicking like a hundred woodpeckers. Apparently they are all just about mute but they clatter their beaks when they come home to greet their partners. Idle chatter or ‘Honey, I’m home!’?

Storks’ nests on every building

‘Dawn today was beautiful and we were visited by a nosy brown bullock as  our first caller. There aren’t many birds to see up here – just the odd skylark and magpie- but the dawn chorus was good: at least two cuckoos, one on the other side of the river and one nearby. I think I also heard a third up in the mountains towards Portugal. It’s going to be another scorcher.’

Monfragüe

We stayed in a proper campsite here, looking out over the holm oak meadows, just below the mountainous national park. We had come to see the birds and we did. It’s famous for its raptors. There are vultures everywhere, including Egyptian vultures (very small and hard to see) and eagles. I just saw one Imperial Eagle but was pleased as punch! I don’t know why I’m so fascinated by raptors. I find taking photos becomes addictive – and it’s worth doing because when you enlarge the photos you get a chance to see so much more than you do at the time. You just have to take the time to watch the dance, though. You can’t catch that in a photo.

 

 

Count the deer!

Imperial Eagle

Vultures having a rest

Griffon Vulture


Lost in France

Travels without a tent

September 1970

‘Ooh la la la dancing’ and ‘Ooh la la la Ooh la la la dance’ form almost half the lines in this song, a hit for Bonnie Tyler in 1976 – but it’s not the repetitiveness or the odd French that disturbs, me about the song and make it uncomfortable listening. It’s the being lost in France bit. I must have had getting on for a dozen holidays in France in my camping years – the most recent being in 2018. And every time I get lost. The French do it deliberately to get you onto the péages. Their maps are out of date, the roads each have at least two numbers and it isn’t unheard of to arrive at a crossroads and find the same village signed in all directions. As far as coordinates go there is a decimal system available and the old Babylonian one (degrees, minutes and seconds) but the French partially decimalise the Babylonian system. Sometimes. But it’s not even that really. I can get lost anywhere and generally do.

The 1970s were the time in my life where I had a break from camping, mostly, and took to travelling around with a small green holdall or my ruck sack from earlier hiking days. A lot of the time I went with friends, but I also got quite addicted to solo travel. I visited Goa, Kerala and Mysore on my own  before I met up with Malar in Madras (see previous blog); I crossed from the West to the East Coast of the United States, visiting a couple of people en route, and did shorter trips in Pulau Langkawi, the Outer Hebrides and various other places. The first time, though, was France in 1970. It was the first time in my life I had spent much time on my own at all. It was a strange experience.

I had spent the two months of the summer in London working as a clerk in the in the dim recesses of the Army & Navy Stores in Victoria, where they kept all the bent old people and their ledgers. My office had been different because the boss was so unpleasant that it was largely staffed by temporary people like me, from all over the world. I didn’t think I would last the whole summer there but hadn’t made any plans to go on holiday in advance and found my university friends were all off with boyfriends or working and even Ray, my travelling companion from schooldays, had met an American in Lincoln on our last trip and they were now an item, if not already married. The French chap I’d met at the same time came to visit me in London but I didn’t fancy going on holiday with him for some reason. It was on my own or nothing. I had saved £30. Ray and Michael were in London at the time and came to wave me off at Victoria Coach Station. It occurred to me that when I died there would be someone waving me off at a bus station.

It took all day to get to Paris where I eventually found a hostel to stay in off the Boulevard Strasbourg. I had Philadelphia and rolls in my room for supper and then went out for my first cup of French coffee in a street café. I’d arrived. It was the 3rd September and my closing figure (I’d been in Accounts at the A&N) was £20.00 or 36 NF.

7th September
Piriac

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I’m sitting on the rocks. It’s about five or six o’clock in the afternoon and the late sun is still very hot. There isn’t a soul in sight. I came here with a German student of Anthroposophy whom I met in Chartres. Dorothé is romantic, nervy and kind of abstract. She’s a 37 year old teacher and smokes all day. We hitched to St Nazaire after a couple of days in Chartres to find that, as so often seems to be the case, ‘l’auberge n’existe plus’. We had to sleep in a brand new Centre d’Acceuil which we shared with a football team who, fortunately, didn’t discover our existence until the morning. We left at seven o’clock and came here to Piriac. There’s a nucleus of about five people here at the hostel and I’m already forgetting how to spell, how to write and how to speak English. Last night nine of us, wine merry, crammed into a VW and went to a café in the village. We’ve only been there a couple days in calendar time but much longer in real time. This morning a Breton Nationalist turned up and asked me to translate a brochure, which I think they are going to send over to Cornwall; after just four days in France I struggled to find the right English expressions and, to my horror, he insisted on putting my name on the pamphlet.
On our second day the ‘warden’ Jean Francois, left with two other visitors, leaving Dorothé, The Captain, Pat and me in the hostel. The Captain was a Marxist who regarded the hostel at Piriac as the HQ of his ‘mission’; Pat was a French hippie à cheveux longs, very attractive, very sympathique. In the winter he goes to Italy where he is a gigolo, for want of a better word. He says Italian men, contrary to their own view, are generally impotent. I’ve noticed since that the Italians and French seem to have a poor view of one another – but it’s normally food related. We played a card game called Belote in the evenings and Pat and the Captain sang songs. The Captain’s had a lot of liberty and fraternity in them and Pat’s favourite had the punchline ‘La morale de cette morale est que les femmes aiment les cochons.’ Dorothé and I decided to move on when the two of them started to ‘test the water,’ in a very gentle and discreet way. This was the first place I discovered the disorienting sensation of finding myself cut off by geography and language, making contact with a random selection of people whom I wouldn’t normally meet. Normal judgements get suspended and time has little meaning where you don’t share a past or a future with the people you’re with and no-one worries if you disappear for hours to sit on the rocks and look at the sea. The villagers didn’t come near the hostel; apparently they suspected it of being a centre gauchiste.

Dorothé and I parted company in Tours where I found myself in a big, modern youth hostel full of non-French travellers. I couldn’t wait to get out. Early the next morning I set off to Angouleme with an Irish girl called Niamh. She was going to carry on to Bordeaux from there while I went on to Sarlat. It was a Saturday. We got a lift to within 20 miles of Angouleme within 10 minutes and Niamh had just about persuaded me that I would be fine hitching on on my own, when… well the next lift we got was like a warning from on high. It was a lorry and after we set off a second driver emerged from a sleeping compartment in the back. The two of them set to talking quietly in strongly accented French but we picked up that they were planning to pull off somewhere before Angouleme. In my diary I just noted that we ‘turned off the charm’ – whatever that meant – but however we did it, it worked. They dropped us off in Angouleme. I trailed up the hill to find the Syndicat d’Initiative, only to be told the hostel was back where I’d started. I must have looked a bit gloomy at that because a kind man there offered to drive me down. First we went on a tour of the city centre. It was a lovely city, ‘full of little narrow streets and nunneries and churches and so on,’ and a beautiful, elaborate cathedral. He persuaded me to take a bus on to Périgueux that evening and I had two or three hours in the city on my own before it left (having left my rucksack in his friend’s café.) I fell in love with the place. The journey to Perigueux when I eventually got the bus was enchanting – through crumbling, higgledy-piggledy villages past half-ruined châteaux. It was my introduction to the South of France. It was, nevertheless, a mistake.

I arrived late in Périgueux and, having missed the last train to Sarlat by ten minutes, realised, belatedly that once I’d paid for my room I had no money left for food. The next day was Sunday. I only had a few grapes, a slice of bread and a small bit of Camembert left for the whole day – and the banks were shut. My day in Périgueux passed slowly; I even spent a couple of hours in the Cathedral during Mass; it was the only place to sit down in the cool without being expected to spend money. I resisted the temptation to take Communion for something to eat. Otherwise, I just walked and walked. It was a long, light headed day until I could get the evening bus to Sarlat. Some boys in the hostel there gave me bread and cheese that night and breakfast in the morning before they left – and told me where I could change money as the banks were closed on the Monday, too, for some reason.

16th September
Sarlat

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Once they’d gone, I was on my own in the stone hostel on the hill. I changed my traveller’s cheque, and celebrated with bread, cheese, tomatoes, garlic and wine. And chocolate. I then fell asleep the sun. Wine was a novelty for me. My parents only had it on special occasions and, as a student, all I could afford was beer or cider. You could buy Riesling or Hungarian Bull’s Blood in an off licence if you were very sophisticated, but a bottle would cost more than ten times as much as a half pint of bitter – the modern day equivalent of £14.50 for the cheapest bottle of wine on the shelf, based on Scottish prices. The next day I walked out to Temniac and back round on a scenic route of my devising and collapsed into a café for a limonade. I felt very peaceful and relaxed in Sarlat; it was a bustling place even then but I loved it. I was also very comfortable on my own. I had had an idea that without the constant need to react with other people, I would find a place where, with only myself to consider, I would identify my own needs and wishes more clearly and be able to bring that confidence home with me. What I found was that I was more than capable of providing my own internal chatter and debate. I was a bit disappointed at the time but the realisation that I was OK on my own was ultimately very liberating.

In the end I did my accounts and realised that I had just enough francs to get me to Paris, with a stopover on the way and one last night in Paris and enough English money to get me from Victoria out to Crystal Palace where, I hoped, I would find my sister and her family. They had been waiting for a sale completion date when I left, so I couldn’t be sure. I had my stash of food nicked at the Youth Hostel in Brive, a most inhospitable and unfriendly town, and became reacquainted with the lightheadedness that can replace hunger and was definitely part of that whole French experience – but all went well apart from that. I had been away less than three weeks, I think, but it seemed like a life time.

When I came to write this bit of my blog, it took me a while to disentangle where I went when and how long I stayed in any one place. I wrote my diary out of sequence, with bits of Piriac appearing in Sarlat and bits of Perigueux in both. It’s a disjointed stream of consciousness journal and I did wonder whether I should have transposed it verbatim. I was lost in France but, in the muddle I found something, too.

lost in france.jpg

BURMA 2013

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MYANMAR 2013

Burma was always a difficult country to travel in, ever since Independence, at least. It’s mountainous and remote and was ruled by various xenophobic generals from 1962 until relatively recently. The release of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 and the proposed return to elected civilian government promised big changes at home and a rapprochement with the outside world. There were, and are, lots of caveats, though. Travellers are now welcomed in just a small section of this large country – if you try to travel off piste anyone who helps you risks arrest. People cannot talk to you freely about politics or Burmese life because walls have ears and those people would likely be arrested, too. It still has the feel of being a police state even in the ‘open’ area. The country was renamed Myanmar (Strong Man) by the Generals and Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the many who reject the name for that reason. There’s another reason to stick with Burma, though. Before independence, Burma was divided into separate areas reflecting the ethnic divisions within it. Then it was all pretty much given to the Bamar who treated the other ethnic groups (about a third of the total) as some kind of enemy within, to be neglected, deprived and oppressed and that’s still the case; the treatment of the Rohinga is just part of it. Other newly independent countries in Africa and South East Asia took on new names that reflected at least the intention to be inclusive. Burma is still for the Burmese it appears, not for the Rohinga, the Shan, the Karen, the Kayin or any of the many other ethnic minorities who call it home. So why not call it how it is? I’ve found the history of Aung San Suu Kyi and her family quite unimpressive really, as was her Desert Island Discs interview with Kirsty Young recorded just a month or two before I went there. I’m sure plenty of people might disagree with me but – moving on…

I was only there a couple of weeks, travelling with a small group led by photographer Gary Latham, but, from what I saw, it really must be one of the most beautiful countries in the world. It’s very undeveloped and reminded my of the South East Asia I travelled in in the early 70s.Thailand is, apparently, very different now and not all the changes have been good. I know you can’t keep people living in a ‘theme park’ environment where their own opportunities are limited by poverty and poor education – but there must be a balance to be found somewhere between that and expecting people to put up with an externally imposed culture in which the norms of behaviour and, well, modesty for one thing are so different.

I started on a rant but I think I’ll now let some of the pictures speak for themselves. My trip took me to Yangon of course, the ancient temple complex of Bagan, the Shan plateau, Mandalay and down the Irawaddy – the Road to Mandalay if you are going up it. We spent a few days around Lake Inle, as well. In January, the fields and gardens were full of flowers and the people themselves, especially the women, dress in bright, elegant clothes. Everywhere we went there were gold stupas and golden images of the Buddha. Even in the rural areas you could often catch the glint of a gold cupola among the distant trees. The country positively glitters!

Yangon/Rangoon


We went on a circular train route round the town past villages and suburbs and endless car graveyards. All old cars where compulsorily purchased a few years ago and replaced with new, if at all. I’d wondered why the city had an oddly modern feel to it. It was the cars. The buildings in the centre are of the old colonial type – often run down and dusty just waiting for Graham Greene or Hemingway to write them up. What they got was George Orwell – brilliant but less romantically atmospheric!

On Pansodan Road and on corners everywhere are the bookstalls selling second had books and zombie literature. (See Books are My Life on this blog.) There are vibrant colourful markets selling food and rolls of batik for the sarongs. The Shwedagon Temple complex dominates the scene.

Bagan

With over 2000 Buddhist monuments and pagodas, this should be a World Heritage Site – but I don’t believe it is. At one time the Generals relocated local families to the nearby village ( the one where we were staying) and then proceeded to build enormous hotels right next to the site for their own benefit. Apparently the hotels are so inappropriately big and close that the chances of getting on the Unesco list have been jeopardised; they’ve not been helped, either, by the gung ho way the Burmese repair stuff rather than preserving it. I didn’t climb right to the top of the pagoda in my picture. I’m sure the worn-looking steps were perfectly safe and I know the people who went up came down on foot but who knows? I’d probably have jumped just to put an end to my anxiety about falling.

The Shan Plateau

We did quite a long walk here one day. The fields were quite small and patchwork-y with lots of wild flowers everywhere; we didn’t see any signs of tractors or other mechanisation. The women in the fields were friendly and happy to be photographed. I wasn’t entirely comfortable about the people pictures and don’t know that I could ever be a travel photographer. We walked along cart tracks past the ‘woven’ houses on stilts under a blue sky looking across to hills and mountains in the distance. I’m not sure the photos do it justice anyway.

We drove through a lot of lovely countryside, too, stopping at temples, workshops, a tea producer’s place and anywhere there was something interesting to look at.

 

Lake Inle

There’s something about water and life on the water…

The fishermen here net the fish from the front of their punts and paddle the side-oar with one leg: it’s very graceful. Some of them put on a bit of a show at sunset for the tourists but you can see working men and children pottering about the same way all day. The villages are built over water and the houses connected by bridges if at all. Crops are grown on floating gardens the villagers have made from reeds. The people trade and travel in long lacquered teak boats. There are Five Day Markets, markets that travel around the lake villages returning to each every five days. It did mean we got to recognise the stall holders after a bit and the trinkets and foods they were selling. It was probably the most self-consciously touristy part of our trip but nonetheless beautiful. Someone told us that the money you pay for things in the market goes straight to the Chinese merchants who provide the goods. The Chinese have invested a lot of money in hotels, roads and other things in Burma. Their increasing presence may have been one reason the government decided to open up the economy more widely.

Near one of the villages was a ramshackle temple complex. Everything was overgrown or in the process of being repaired.

 

The Irawaddy

The main ‘road’ through Burma. From the ferry you get to see life going on all along the shoreline -and an amazing sunset. Women and children wade or paddle out to the boats to sell their wares

.…and the glitter

 

…and the food

Burmese food is influenced by Thai, Indian and Chinese cooking, They seemed to concentrate on garlic, ginger and onion for flavour rather than chillies but there were lots of salads and fruit dishes, too. Pork and chicken were the main meats and but there was always fish and sea food.I cooked Burmese curries for ages after I came home. It was all so good.

Turkey 1990

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We had a brief love affair with Turkey in the late 80s early 90s. The sound of the muezzin has fascinated me ever since my days in Malaysia but it’s different in every country. Sometimes they sing it, sometimes they bark it. It’s warm evenings, friendly people, street food, long bumpy journeys in rattle buses and shared taxis. It’s travel in a world that’s different.

Dalyan

On our second visit we took Rose (9 years old) and Eddie (8 years old)with us. Dalyan is the kind of place you feel at home, somewhere you could stay a while pottering about on the river in little rowing boats, swimming, sketching or just eating bread and oranges We stayed in a pansiyon where they gave us bored (like a meat-stuffed paratha) with cucumbers, tomatoes and cheese for breakfast. The owners’ small, ten year old son took us out in his boat and negotiated the reed beds like a pro. He tried to find a sheltered bit of beach but the wind which blew our hats off and made the boat ride quite ‘interesting.’ We didn’t find shelter but did catch the sun. I told Chris his nose was like a beetroot. Rose said, ‘ Ooh, yes and it’s not just the shape, it’s gone the same colour!’ But of course we didn’t stay for ever – we moved on after a couple of days.

Pammukale

The journey to Pammukale was as good an introduction to holidays without cars as the children could hope for. We travelled by dolmus. Now, dolmus Is Turkish for filled or stuffed and the driver leaves for his destination when the minibus is stuffed, which, in our case meant four of us sharing a three-seat. We travelled through the mountains through sleet, hail and torrential downpours. Our jumpers were packed away in our bags on the roof. We passed hours in godforsaken bus stations as we waited for replacement stuffing to appear. I had cystitis.
The local women at the bus stops wore mid-length kirtles over leggings and boots. Skirts, shawls and scarves were woven in bright blues and reds and the women all smiled and laughed all the time. They were probably warm.
When we finally arrived we retrieved our backpacks and trudged down the road to the same pansiyon where Chris and I had stayed the previous year. To our enormous relief they had room for us and welcomed us warmly. The owner had a brummy accent of which was oddly proud.
There are two must-do things in Pammukale and the first is to swim in the Roman pool. It’s a large thermal pool surrounded by trees and oleanders. Over the years pillars have fallen into it and you swim between and over them. It was May and the weather far from good. The water was off-cold rather than warm but, what with that and having gone in the morning, once again we had the place to ourselves. The children were as enchanted as we had been on our own first visit. We warmed up by walking over to the theatre at Hieropolis where the kids raced up and down between the sarcophagi and drew pictures of the Roman arches. The second must-do is the cotton candy mountain itself. The sun came out on our second day and glare from the white travertine of the mountain against the blue of the sky was blinding. After a return to the Roman pool the children insisted on we went up this white Disney-esque mountain. There is a narrow ridge a foot (Chris would say three feet) wide that descends back towards the village. Walking back down it with one’s children, was apparently, a totally appropriate course of action. I walked down via the road. That afternoon we found them camels to ride. I’m not sure what they were doing in that part of Turkey but it was a first for Rose and Eddie.

Antalya

We had to cross the mountains again but paid the extra to do it in a ‘comfortable’ coach that swayed round every twist and corner – it wasn’t the last time I was to be travel sick on Turkey’s windy roads.This time the mountains seemed inhospitable rather than dramatic and the little towns poverty-stricken rather than picturesque – just block after block of crumbling flats and bus stations full of men in suit jackets that didn’t match the trousers and dusty shoes. But still no-one showed us anything but kindness and consideration. Antalya wasn’t half as romantic as it had sounded. We started off having a beer at the marina and found ourselves surrounded by tipsy American sailors and marines. We found an unmemorable hotel eventually and set about looking for food. We were all tired and irritable by the time we saw an unprepossessing kebab shop in a side street. Appearances can be deceptive. The food was excellent and the meal with raki for us and drinks for the children came to a fiver. Ed was enlisted to cook a kebab for one of the other customers and to serve it up with the bread and trimmings. The customer and the waiter rewarded him with an off the cuff magic show, pulling their fingers off and magicking coins out of nowhere. The day was saved.

Kemer

We missed our planned dolmus stop and ended up in a modern concrete development by a marina. We shouldered our packs and headed off to the edge of town in search of a cafe. What we found was a street market where someone pointed us in the direction of a cafe even further out along the coastal path. When we eventually got there we saw a ramshackle string of wooden chalets around a restaurant separated from the sea by a shady garden. A young woman came out from the restaurant to take our orders and I asked for two beers and two cokes in my best Turkish. She asked us, in English, which part of England we came from. It turned out she was from Bromley where Chris spent and misspent his teenage years. Margaret and her Turkish husband, Mehmet, had come from Antalya and bought a few pansiyon on this stretch of coast only to have all but this one compulsorily purchased so the German resort could be built. We stayed in one of the rooms a few nights and Rose made friends with their daughter Ella, who taught me how to do ‘fish plaits’ in Rose’s hair.
We wanted to go to to the Greek/Roman remains at Phaselis. The first day of trying we missed the direct bus and arranged, as we thought, to get one to a nearby village with a view to walking the remainder of the way. We were dropped in a mountain village and duly set off. After some time we asked if we were on the right road. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Get a bus to Kemer and change.’ All done in sign language of course. So we went back to Kemer and took Ella out for an ice cream and a meal instead. It was still a performance getting to Phaselis the next day but we made it. The prettiest Roman ruins are centred on an enormous amphitheatre in the most romantic setting. The place was full of Turkish picnickers there making kebabs and pots of tea on portable Raeburns. On our return Margaret showed us the visitors’ book from their old pansiyon in Antalya. It had been on the old Hippie Trail to India. I’d come across these places in Thailand and Nepal in the 70s. She herself had saved up to go to India but met Mehmet and never got further than Antalya. She said she often wondered how her life would have turned out if she’d kept going. She wished she had. She seemed quite lonely. Mehmet wished us gone, I think.
I had a dream that night. We were on a boat moored by a quay on a river. There was thunder and lightning. The building on the quay caught alight and collapsed. Our boat broke its moorings and we went hurtling down the river into the countryside. We reached a barrier and I got out to ask a man what we should do but he raised the barrier and the boat flew on. Eddie jumped into the water and tried to reach me but I watched him get swept away, too. I woke up but when I slept again I was back there and Eddie was a speck in the distance. I woke again and decided to try to understand the dream. I concluded it was Margaret being swept along by her life with no control. She couldn’t step off the boat without losing it and risking having Ella swept away between herself and the careering boat. Perhaps the answer is to take control of the boat rather than jump ship. I have a different way of looking at dreams now that was how I saw it then.

Cerali

The plan was to get a bus along the main road and then attempt a five-mile a hike down to the beach. However, after we left the bus we were picked up by a private dolmus which took us down to the beach. We walked about a mile along the bay past boarded up pansiyons and run down farms. We stopped at the last one where we were greeted by the proprietor, the dolmus driver.
It was one of those places out of time. The sea was the clearest of blues and the mountains behind us were lit with natural fires at night. They cooked us fish and kebabs in the evenings and made sure we had hot tomato soup for breakfast every day to help us cope with heat. It really was beginning to get very hot in the middle of the day. At lunchtime the driver’s wife made us chapatis and picked our salad straight from the garden. There were tethered goats and tiny chicks ran everywhere.
Nearby was the mountainside where Bellepheron killed the fire-breathing Chimaera. On our last day we scrambled up to the cave of the Chimaera through carob trees, taking the time to look out for stick insects which we’d never seen in the wild before. It was a long haul but worth it. As well as the fires coming out of the rocks there was a ruined temple there and you could still see the colours on the friezes. That night we were given grilled tuna and aubergine stew for dinner. The dolmus driver took us back up to the main road in the morning for the next leg of our journey. I gave him my phrase book.

Demre

We flagged down a bus to Finike where we were hustled on to the bus to Demre in spite of actually telling them we wanted to look round Finike. They are probably desperate to get people to go to Demre and didn’t want any potential victims falling by the wayside. We were greeted by a horde of pansiyon touts when we got there. One of them piled us into the back of a lorry and took us to a pansiyon on the edge of town without giving us breathing space. We insisted on being taken back and were deposited at a hotel with rooms on the 5th floor.
Tired and hungry we went for lunch in the nearest cafe. It was an ordinary working men’s kind of place with totally different kind food from what we had had elsewhere. Demre, under its old name of Myra, is where they buried Santa Claus. That sounded about right.
I looked at the map and saw a place nearby called Andriaka. It had the map signs for ‘beach’ and ‘camping’ and seemed more promising. We got a taxi there to find it was just a jumping off point for boat tours. with nowhere for us to stay. We asked the taxi driver if there was anywhere we could stop off and stay if we went on a tour. ‘ Yes,’ he said and and promptly took off his trousers and waded out to get to his boat. We had to hop across other boats to join him but off we went. Half way across he asked Chris if he’d like to steer. Chris didn’t want to so he asked Rose and Eddie. They took turns to steer us across the choppy water while the taxi driver went below and pumped out the bilges. There were some pretty hairy waves but we got to the wooden jetty we were aiming for in one piece. A restaurant extended down the jetty to cater for the boat trippers and there was a small village with some pansiyons on the side of the hill behind it and paths leading up to a Byzantine fortress further up. We went to a pansiyon recommended by the taxi driver who went off to find his English-speaking mate in the village to explain our options for moving on when it was time to leave. Our rooms were large and whitewashed with a wide wooden verandah linking them at the front. There was no running water and you had to fill a bucket with sea water to flush the loo. Eddie had diarrhoea.
That night we had fish and octopus and wine for dinner. I read the children The Hobbit at bedtime. I lay awake in the night listening to the sound of the waves, the squawking of cockerels, grumbling of goats and cats fighting. The night was so busy but there was no human sound to be heard. In the morning we paddled and scrambled over the rocks and watched the tourist boats arriving, bringing visitors to the castle on the hill behind the village. Throngs of women appeared from nowhere to sell them scarves.

We were now on the last leg of our trip. We visited Fetiye and Olu Deniz where we watched the US Navy doing its thing in the beautiful bay and we finally spent a couple of nights in Kas, an attractive touristy village on the coast. There is a tall cliff on the edge of the harbour and we sat and watched the local youth jumping and diving from it down into the water. We meant to stay longer but our hotel was next door to a mosque and the Imams were in full voice all afternoon and half the night.
‘If it was like that yesterday what’s it going to be like tonight on a Friday?’ I asked an English lady we met in a bar.
‘It was Friday yesterday,’ she replied.
Thus it was that our holiday came to an end in an unexpected hurry and the promised return visit to our friends in Dalyan never happened.

If you have enjoyed…

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If you have enjoyed reading Tall and True Tales there will be more to come, I promise. I’ve had a bit of a break from the blog while I wrote my first novel.

The novel, Footprints in the Future, brings together my love of travel, my interest in (and concern about) the state of the world, politically and environmentally, and my taste for thrillers! It’s set in 1980s London and involves a group of travellers – travellers in the usual sense and also in time. The action goes from Prehistoric Europe, Roman Kent and the Summer of Love forward to the future – in Australia, the UK and Mongolia. You can buy it on Amazon as a paperback or in the Kindle version. You can even read extracts on the Amazon website to see if you think you’ll like it – clever stuff!

Or you can wait for the next travel reminiscence.  The Sahara, America, Thailand, Malaysia? Or teenage travels in France and Britain?

Glass

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The first time I went to Murano I was a hot and irritating eight year old. I had been trailing around Venice at the tail end of the family crocodile demanding ice-creams and souvenirs but my mother was always very good at saying no. I admire that now.

swan_editedfind-edges-1Murano, however, was where she relented. We trooped down past the colourful canal side houses and cottages to a back street and  a dark shed where a young glass blower created ornaments to order. The furnace glowed scarlet and from the living balls of molten glass emerged a blue swan. Long necked and serene, an inch and a half high, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

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We were staying at a campsite near Jesolo, all those years ago, dividing our days between the City of Sore Feet and Bridges and the Jesolo Lido The black and white picture record starts, as ever on camping holidays, with our four tents spread out over the car and trailer to dry. The awning is up and I can just make out my mother crouched over the Primus stove. I expect the kettle is on.

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And then there are the pictures of us on the beach. My middle sister and I have cotton smocked swimsuits, mine always rolled down to look more like trunks. My  eldest sister,  seventeen, is wearing a black strapless swimming costume and spends her time on the beach reading. I can still remember the gut-clenching atmosphere when my parents realised she had acquired an admirer. My brother wears his belted school raincoat in every photo on that holiday, and passed his time trying to speak Italian. How hard could it be?  Our father took his place in this beach picture.

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The swan was on my bookcase until I left home (five houses later) and it then spent a decade or so wrapped in newspaper in an attache case. It finally emerged, triumphant, to pass the next twenty-five years sailing on a piece of Derbyshire blue john on a mantelpiece in Ashford, only to die at the hands of a remorse-stricken cleaner. That’s glass for you.

Funnily enough, the other day our grandchildren, while rummaging through an old jewellery box,  found a child’s necklace of Venetian glass beads. I was a bit of tomboy in those days so I doubt they have ever been worn. I had forgotten all about them.

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Sungai Sumun

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Sungai Sumun was a row of shops seventeen miles from Teluk Anson on the Bagan Datoh Road. There were a couple of general stores, a tailor’s shop selling sarong batik and two food shops. Every day we could get a different curry at one or the other of them. They weren’t the kind of places for ladies to sit down to eat, really, so a boy would bring them to our house, wrapped up in banana leaves. We always tried to have one of these curries on chicken day and fish day although all were tasty. There would be a lump of the protein curry, meat, fish or lentils, and a separate vegetable stew, held in position by a quantity of the local semi-polished rice.Miss Malar and I lived over the road in a concrete house reserved for teachers. (Sungai Sumun’s other claim to fame was that it was the home of the local Primary and Secondary schools and a Clinic serving the large rural and otherwise invisible community.) The ethnic Malays of the area lived in wooden houses down long winding tracks off the road. Access was on foot, bike or motorbike and it was common to see a family of five emerge from one of these tracks all piled onto a small Honda bike. The Indians often lived on the large rubber and cocoa plantations that surrounded Sungai Sumun – or were shopkeepers. There were also quite a few Chinese – they often had shops, too, or administrative roles on the plantations.the houseinkoutline.jpg

We were among the few who actually lived in the ‘village.’ There was a big lockable gate into our little house. It was half covered with Bougainvillea most of the time but neither of us was a gardener and it looked pretty. At the back of the house, through double doors leading out from the sitting room, was an expanse of grass. We didn’t cut that either, at least not to start with. One day I came home first and opened the door to the sitting room; my immediate thought was that Malar had left a kettle on and gone out. Then I remembered that we didn’t have a kettle anywhere, let alone in the sitting room – so I stopped and had another look. There in the middle of the room was a cobra, head raised and hissing at me in a most unfriendly manner. I retreated and called on our lovely neighbour Harun who saw it off and commented that it wasn’t very wise to have waist high grass right up to the doors and windows of the house. We had the grass cut after that and the cobras restricted themselves to the bowl of the loo – there would have been some advantages to having the same kind of toilet that everyone else had, I suppose..Every night I went to bed to the noise of insects, sounding just like a tap left running. I was woken by the call of the muezzin summoning people to prayer from the field at the bottom of our ‘garden.’ Sungai Sumun mosque was a wooden structure abutting our fence and, the mosque not being big enough to justify a full-time imam or muezzin, had a tape recorder and speaker on a high structure next to it. Electricity was pretty basic and unreliable so I suppose someone must have had to go up and turn it on. I still love the sound of the call to prayer. Five times between dawn and dusk, as the sun crosses the sky this prayer goes out; as the world rotates and the sun reaches other parts the call to prayer continues round the planet like a Mexican Wave. In Mongolia, Nepal and McCloud Ganj, where the Tibetan exiles are based in northern India, prayer flags release mantras and blessings into the wind that disturbs them and on to everywhere that that wind travels. All those prayers… doing their best

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Next to the bedroom was the bathroom, a windowless, unlit room containing a large concrete tank which could be topped up with cold water. There were plastic saucepans to scoop water with – this was the shower. The room was cool and damp with mossy walls, a haven for frogs. A frog feels very similar to a rubber flip-flop in the dark, I found. The kitchen had its wildlife, too. There was a basin there with a tap and a double ring burner, upon which Malar cooked the most amazing curries with our one kwali and our solitary saucepan. We had a cupboard that stood in saucers of water to keep the ants out of the food but the main invaders were the cockroaches. They were three or four inches long and indestructible. We bought cockroach powder in sachets, we poured hot and cold water on them, we hit them with shoes – but still they kept on coming. I was merciless; I was vindictive; I was full of hate for this one of God’s creatures – and quite obsessed with my attempts to slaughter them.

Miss Malar

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This is Miss Malar was the Deputy Head of the Primary School and I shared the house with her for a year and a half. She sailed into my life, a large lady with flowing saris and smiling eyes. She was laid back, self-indulgent, a bit lazy, warm-hearted and so, so funny. She had lived in the area all her working life and knew everyone. She knew all the stories, and the rumours; she could come up with the low-down on every family within a radius of ten miles, at least. She knew the girl who was cursed by her parents’ enemy and how she had died. She knew which O level student had been killed by a falling coconut and which Shakespeare play she was reading at the time. She knew who had knocked over the young boy as he played by the road and had then driven off ( a friend of mine, as it happened.) She had a teacher on her staff whom she managed not to speak to for many, many years ever since the time his brother who was ‘a little cracked’ came into the school, announcing he was a School Inspector. He had stood on his head on a table in the staff room to declare his love for Malar. The teacher had said Miss Malar must have encouraged him to do this, hence her declaring him a ‘pariah.’ She knew the village headman who kept his lovely second wife a secret from the first one, a nurse, until the first wife found herself treating the younger woman’s child at a school clinic. The nurse had got the Bomo to put a charm on him so he could never see the young woman at night again, a situation which, Malar said, persisted until that very day. She knew all the tragicomic tales that make up life in a rural community and was the best raconteur I have ever known. I used to try and persuade her to write her stories down but she said she was too lazy! She came to England three times in later years, once in full sail as usual and then in much-diminished form after a doctor had read her the riot act. And then, one year, my Christmas Card was returned unopened.

I travelled with Miss Malar all over Malaysia visiting family and accompanying her on the school trips she organised for her tiny pupils. And then she joined me in India and Nepal when I was on my way back to England. Everywhere I was introduced to relatives and friends and made to feel at home. Back in Sungai Sumun, between us, we made our little house cosy and welcoming and I loved to get back there after my adventures in neighbouring countries and trips to the bright lights of KL and Malacca alike.malar at taj mahal.jpg
It was two other Primary School teachers, though, who took me to the festival in Bagan Datoh.

Bagan Datoh
February 1972 (Journal)

There were a couple of hundred or more people gathered by the jetty when Philomena, Sandra and I arrived at Bagan Datoh early on the morning of the festival. A man on the edge of the crowd was beating a drum, others were chanting. In the middle, a family consisting of mother, father, little boy and small girl, were falling into a trance; they were rocking backwards and forwards, sweat streaming. Two other young men were dancing with them At one point the drums stopped and someone screamed. The next time I could see through the crowd one of the young men had a metal rod poked through both cheeks and his eyes were bulging and staring as he danced. The young father was shouting and snarling and massaging his son’s head while the woman and girl danced more slowly, eyes closed, exhausted-looking, as if in the face of some great tragedy or grief. I couldn’t imagine what the effect of such an emotional scene would be on a child – she can’t have been more than seven – or what effect seeing your parents in a trance like that would have.
Sandra, and one of my pupils who joined us, told us something of what was going on. Seemingly, one of the young men worked in the girl’s father’s shop. The animal-like shouts were when the men wanted something like a rod or contraption to carry: they can’t articulate properly when in a trance. The family was delaying the start of its journey to the temple because the boy couldn’t get sufficiently into the trance and could still feel pain. Apparently he hadn’t fasted properly during the week. Would-be celebrants can eat no meat in this time and must remain awake all night the night before the festival.

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We were getting very hot and dizzy in the sun so we left and walked up the road to the Sunday Market, shaded by a huge tree near the road. There we had a drink and walked round the stalls. I bought some fruit and Philo bought a long sari petticoat. The market was a very small affair but by the time we were ready to leave, the first part of the procession, the two young men and some small boys, was going past in the road. Progress was slow as the men danced forward and back, then forwards and back. They were shouting and snarling and their eyes were staring and darting as if they were deranged, which I suppose they were, temporarily. We followed the procession round until we got to Sandra’s house where we went in to sit in the cool and dark at the back of the shop.
Sandra told me her mother could never go to the procession as she would go into a trance whenever she heard the music. As it was, she was sitting on the edge of the wooden platform where the family ate and didn’t see us. She just looked ahead and trembled. After about ten minutes she shook herself, stood up and went through to the kitchen to organise some food for us. She said that even hearing the procession go past in the street made her head go woozy. She had to mime most of it – but I understood. Sandra joined Philo and me in a hot curry off banana leaves – but the rest of the family was fasting.
After lunch we walked down to the temple: the festival was in honour of Marriaman, a Tamil god, female, of Rain and Nature. The main procession was still only just leaving the jetty so we decided to jump on a boat and go across to the the Spinney Estate on the other side of the river. It was cool and calm after the drums and heat of the morning so we stayed on the boat and persuaded the boatman to let us take turns driving it back to the jetty.

By the time we returned to the temple, the procession was coming in. One of the young men we had watched at the beginning came dancing in, right up to the god and shouted and gestured at the young father who was coming up behind: he, the father, had a huge wooden superstructure decorated with flowers and framed pictures of the gods on his back, attached to his skin with hooks. However, he couldn’t get into the temple entrance because the structure was so high. After several minutes he backed away and the wife and daughter came in. The young man with the rod in his cheek came and the rod was removed – he screamed and collapsed. A temple official put water on his head and eventually brought him round and then did the same for the others in the procession, one by one. Shout, collapse, return to normal. Shout, collapse, return to normal. I didn’t see any blood.

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The dancing madmen became subdued and differed now from the spectators only in the state of their clothing. In all there must have been at least a dozen people deep in trances but not all had knives or hooks in them.The last person to be dealt with was the one who had arrived first; he had what looked like a toasting fork in his face. When it was removed he stayed in his trance and came over to Mariannam, where we were standing. He danced in front of the god for a while until the men who seems to be charge came and dragged him away. He struggled and fought and eventually collapsed. They were all surprisingly concerned to bring the dancers round quickly as if the collapse was not normal – they all did it though. One or two were waving canes around, occasionally hitting spectators. Sandra said if you were hit it was a punishment from the god for something you had done wrong.

We saw a man waking on sharp knife blades and others were burning logs beside the temple to get ready for the fire-walking later in the day. We didn’t stay for that, though. We just walked back to Sandra’s parents’ shop, sampling the free festival food on the way, and went home.

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The previous month I had been to The Battu caves near KL for the Thaipusam celebration. The pictures are from that much bigger event, where taking pictures seemed much more acceptable.