Veni, Vidi, Victus Eram

And that’s that. My last working day in Villafranca is over. I only just got away with crying out of my final class. 4°A are total angels, the lot of them.

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What other class could handle Hobbes vs. Rousseau in another language?

I should make it clear that it’s my last working day of 2016… because I’ll be back. Sooner than I’d originally planned. The truth is that I’ve had such an amazing time this year, I don’t half wonder whether it would be difficult to top elsewhere. So I’ve burned my boats and taken advantage of the British Council’s four-year cap by deciding to return to Villafranca independently in 2017, leaving me another three years to wander about Extremadura, Spain and/or the rest of the Spanish speaking world if I so choose under the British Council. Maybe then I’ll be ready to train as a real teacher. Don’t call it unadventurousness on my part. Think of it as happiness found. Villafranca has been a wonderful home for the last nine months. And now, I suppose, I’d better do it justice – peppered with photos of some of my favourite moments of the year…

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…starting with this.

The hardest thing here is knowing where to begin. How do I possibly sum up what has been the very best year of my life? Do I start from the beginning – from touchdown in Seville airport? But you know the story from there. And if you wanted to know the details, the entire year is spread out across the blog. Just go back to the 23rd of September and follow on from there. I don’t think I’ve ever been more faithful to a diary in my life.

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Where it all began… under Alicia’s bridge in Seville in September ’15

It took the British Council all of eight months to provide me with the name of my home for the following year. Eight months that would have dragged immensely had it not been for my intense extracurricular existence. Protocol. But I spent a good part of my childhood as an avid birdwatcher, and that taught me that patience – even vain patience – always deals its own rewards. And that’s as good a metaphor as any to begin with.

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Hanging on a few hours in Badajoz and accidentally finding a vulture is a good example

Villafranca de los Barros is not exactly what you might call ‘buzzing’. If you were to tell anybody else that they’d be spending the year in a town of some fourteen thousand inhabitants with no nightlife and a lively farming scene, they’d probably jump ship in less than a week and make a break for the nearest city. That’s what the last applicant assigned to Extremadura did, or so I was told by my concerned supervisor before leaving Durham. But Benjamin has strange triggers, and is nothing more than a simple country boy at heart. I could spend my life traveling the world, but if the truth be told, I want nothing more at the end of the day than to come back to some quiet, village retreat that I can call home. After Amman, anywhere with a pop count below twenty thousand would have done for me. As such, Villafranca could not have been a better place.

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Spain does do some pretty spectacular skies on a regular basis

It’s been a formative year. You do all sorts of growing up when you strike out alone for the first time. Over the course of the year I’ve tried my hand at a whole range of new and crazy experiences, including:

  • Mobile data and WhatsApp. Frankly I don’t know how I’d have managed this year without the tech, as Spain as a whole seems incapable of functioning without it, but it’s proved absolutely invaluable as a last-ditch traveller’s aid. Except HERE Maps, possibly. Deceiving trickster.
  • Drinking. Ron Barceló isn’t so bad after all, but rest assured I’ll be back on the dry wagon when this is all over, if just because it’s a lifestyle I know and love.
  • Skiing. And I discovered that I am singularly useless at it.
  • Flirting. Likewise, useless. Try as I might, I’m just not the casual type.
  • Interpreting. Specifically, interpreting a spiel on Dadaist techniques. Talk about a challenge.
  • Olive-harvesting. Trust me, it’s really quite technical.
  • A (surprise) foam party. God bless Spain’s laissez-faire attitude to risk assessment.
  • Being the person that starts a conversation. Radical.

The last point is probably the most poignant of the lot. When this year began I was the kind of person who happily let others get the engine running first. Striking up a conversation with fellow travellers, calling the waiter in a restaurant, starting an essay… I’ve never been very good at starting things. It’s a running theme in my life. But this year I’ve seen myself talking to strangers on the road, setting up a bank account and even asking for help when a certain primary class got simply too much for me. These basic things were well out of my reach when I got off the plane back in September 2015. By hook or by crook, I’ve made it.

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Proud to say I’ve done my bit for the local cooperativa!

Of course, it’s not all been roses. When I say it’s been the very best year of my life, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was flawless. There have been lows. Getting misdiagnosed with herpes was one. Getting the friend-zoning of the century on the night of what was supposed to be a romantic break in Madrid was another. And I seem to remember spewing my guts out for an entire twenty-four hours in a hotel room in Andorra, manacled by an ever-increasing tab from the mini bar; though it did spare me from more skiing fiascos, that was a definite low point too. And then there’s that primary class, a weekly nightmare that I’ve somehow survived. But my attitude to life is that balance is the most precious thing of all: life would be no fun whatsoever if there wasn’t the occasional crippling blunder to make things interesting. Not that I wouldn’t beg not to be given that lot if I were to go through it all again, but if they’ve done one thing for me, it’s left me in very good stead to be the father of Spanish children. I reckon I know all the necessary vocabulary after a year’s stint with that bunch.

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It’s largely thanks to this little star that my Spanish has come so far this year!

Now comes the most difficult part: listing the highlights. Since each and every one has its own entire blog post somewhere along the line, I’ll be as brief as I can. I’ve forced myself to choose only ten, though I could quite easily go on to make twenty-five. Still, ten it is.

  • A close encounter with a lost griffon vulture in Badajoz
  • Taking time out beneath the stone pines in El Rocio
  • Seeing El Rey León from the best seats in the house, Madrid
  • Accidentally getting the best views of the Semana Santa processions, Seville
  • Olive-harvesting with Ali and the family, Olvera
  • Sitting beneath the Monfragüe cliffs with the vultures flying in overhead
  • Spending the weekend in Cantabria with the wonderful Brocklesby
  • Getting a surprise party from one of my bachillerato classes
  • Discovering that simply speaking Spanish makes me happier
  • Hearing the first bee-eater calls of spring from my own bedroom in Villafranca

Tough call. And yes, I’m aware that two of those ten are vulture-related. If the number really had been twenty-five, there’d have been plenty more feathered highlights.

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Specifically for Cantabria, climbing Watership Down Hill was a high…. geddit?

As for what this year has meant in the grander scheme of things, it’s pretty much laid out the road beneath my feet. I was pretty hooked on this country before I came here. I was even pretty certain already that I’d be living out here someday. Somewhere in the back of my mind I always knew. I guess that’s why I never quite managed to lay down roots with a girlfriend or even a best friend per se. Perhaps I always knew I’d be leaving England behind.

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A ready-made fan club is also a major reason for coming back

Well, now it’s fixed. I won’t be swayed. I’ll be back for another two or three years of this auxiliar life, garnering experience as I go, before throwing myself at the notorious oposiciones and trying to carve a space for myself in the Spanish education system as a fully-qualified English teacher – without robbing the places of my friends and colleagues here, of course.

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Reasons to live abroad: a risk-assessment free foam party courtesy of the fire brigade

It was a remarkably easy decision to make. I’ve enjoyed teaching since I took my first class in pure spite of my flustered English teacher way back in 2007. Despite years of my parents warning me not to follow them into their trade, here I am, teaching, and loving almost every second of it. Being an auxiliar is all of the best parts and none of the bad, granted, but I reckon with another few years under my belt I’ll be ready to take on the homework and the discipline. It’s not like I haven’t been asking to help out all year.

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I also owe Concha Velasco Band for introducing me to Escuela de Calor. Tune!

Just before I go and christen the end of the Spanish stretch with a severe haircut, here’s a few goals for next time:

  • Learn to drive (car or motorbike)
  • Apply to work afternoons at San José
  • Share a flat with people roughly your own age
  • Likewise, find friends your own age in the area
  • Pack less… or buy less books

Just five. That will do. All of which would be a lot easier if I had a clear idea of where I would be living – which is one of the chief deciding factors in Villafranca Part II. And after that… Who knows? As of 2016 the British Council offers teaching placements across Spain, but also in Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Ecuador. I think I could afford to be apart from my grandfather’s country for one year. Especially now that I know I’m coming back – and coming back for good.

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Oh, and one more goal: get inside the goddamn Alhambra again. It’s been too long.

So today it’s neither a ciao, nor goodbye, nor even adios. It’s hasta pronto. Muy, muy pronto. Que te lo pases bien en mi ausencia, España. Y sera breve. Te lo prometo. BB x

First Conditional

I’m sitting here in the town park, leeching off the café wifi for presumably the last time this year. It’s a glorious afternoon and I have the place mostly to myself. You’d hardly know this was a town of some fourteen thousand inhabitants at all at four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. The place is dead.

Oh, for pity’s sake. I said that and now it’s clouded over and a wind has picked up. If that’s not a metaphor I don’t know what is. Change is a-comin’. In four days’ time I’ll have left Villafranca. Another three and I’ll be in Morocco, ready and waiting to begin my third and final year abroad placement in the Dar Loughat International Language Centre in Tetouan. Perhaps it would be better to say ‘waiting’; after almost nine months with no Arabic practice, I hardly think ‘ready’ is the appropriate term. I even had al-Kitaab brought out to me and I’ve barely touched it. Why would I, when my heart is here and mastering Spanish is so much more important?

I should be excited for Morocco. I loved it the last time I was there. Both of them. But the sadness of leaving behind Villafranca, my two schools and far and away the happiest year of my life cancels that out somewhat. The thing is, it’s all about a good mindset. I proved that to myself with Jordan. I expected the worst, and I got it. Conversely I came out here with a fierce desire to make it work – and it did. Positive affirmations and all of that self-help fluff. Don’t knock it, though. It really does work. At the dire risk of sounding like a queasy, turtleneck-donning life guru, a positive attitude makes for a positive life. Truth.

I’m leaving this country with a healthy tan, a bagload of farewell gifts, a new, more suitable dress sense and a very acceptable level of Spanish, if I might be so immodest. I’m leaving behind several books, a veritable skipload of old clothes, a healthy bank account ready and waiting for when I return, my exhausted if popular converses and, apparently, bigger shoes of a different nature. I’ve told my kids to be nice to the next auxiliar, and assured them that he or she will most likely do a better job than me, though I have little doubt there’ll be no more ludicrous Trump impressions, eight a.m. blackboard drum-rolls and spontaneous performances of the Lion King.

Here’s a tip for anybody striking out as a British Council assistant next year. The most useful tool to have at your disposal, besides a reasonable ability with chalk for when the interactive whiteboard or projector or computer isn’t working (and those are stackable odds, by the way), is a firm base of general knowledge. I’m not talking dates of World Cup victories and key mathematical equations. I’m talking geography, history, music, art and all the little things that make kids tick. Without overstepping the mark, I’ve found that dropping the occasional hint that you know more than you’re letting on to be a real winner. Little things like sketching Celebi or Doraemon in a lesson on time travel, name-dropping a local star in a lesson on music or having enough of an idea of world geography to draw a map of any particular country without reference to a computer.

I don’t profess to have the best general knowledge in the world at all. In fact it’s precisely because I know next to nothing about sport or mathematics that I was so quick to write them off back there. But whilst I admit that a little sporting knowledge would certainly be a major plus, being unafraid to display an understanding of a broad range of topics will make your kids a lot more interested. You don’t have to nerd out over the details for the sake of those who show an immediate interest. In fact you really shouldn’t. Not only will it alienate the others, it will also alienate you. But a harmless name-drop from time to time will do wonders. That’s a trick I’ve learned this year.

You might say I’ve got one step closer to learning to keep my mouth shut. Which would be a major step forward.

Another little piece of advice for the year abroad. Don’t let your guard down because of a pair of big goo-goo eyes. Don’t do it. Phil was right. I spent my entire first term and most of Christmas sallying to and from the same little town because I’d managed to convince myself that I’d found her. That was the time when I should have been looking for friends here in Extremadura, of course. But I didn’t see it that way then. Granted, falling for girls who don’t lead you on would be a boon. But you can’t control such things. What you can control is what you choose to do with the situation.

I don’t regret any of it. If anything, all those WhatsApp conversations and dinner dates that went nowhere were the perfect trampoline for my Spanish. But next time I’ll try harder to find a friend – and a friend – closer to home. Frankly, I’m tired of being led on, let down and cast aside. I’ve always been better off alone anyway. It’s time to live for me.

True to form, the pressure of the last few days has done wonders for my writing. In a single morning I’ve fully plotted out five of the six novels in my series, which until today had been skeleton texts with a clear start, a clear finish a handful of events scattered in between. My TLRP could sure do with some of that magic, but until I have stable internet, I’ve said a straight no to that. It’s just no good trying to do your research on a single-tab phone on mobile data, or on the pages you’ve saved on Google Books, which expire the instant you scroll up or down. And what of it? My books are my life. And one day, I hope, I will have them in book-format in my hands to read to my children before they go to bed. That’s the dream.

In other news, the hoopoes are feeding well today. There’s at least five of them in the park, but it could just as easily be the same one that keeps going backwards and forwards in that bouncing, butterfly flight behind me. I’m going to miss them, too. Durham might have Reggaeton-free clubs, but it hasn’t got any hoopoes. BB x

Island

It’s going to sound strange, but one of the hardest things about working in a school for me is seeing so many groups of children buddying up, being the best of friends and generally having a wonderful time of it. It’s heart-warming, soul-stirring… and also a little sad, when I stop to think about it. It makes you reflect a lot. Of course, there’s the odd kid like me in the ranks, but they’re (fortunately) very much in the minority.

Let me tell you what I mean.

School is a transitional stage. A crucial stage in life, granted, but a fleeting moment in the blink of years. The friends you make at school are, in all likelihood, bound to slip away into the ether over the years, like treasured childhood toys. Those that stick around are the fruit of a particularly strong friendship, and I don’t think it would be too far-fetched to state that that kind of friendship is slipping away too in the digital age, when anyone and everyone is attainable at the touch of a button. Nothing that’s precious is that easy.

Like I said, transitional. Your classmates are seldom your friends for life, especially if you move away. So it’s hardly practical to feel a little envious of the friendships your students have… Right?

Nonetheless, I confess that I do. Teaching brings you into contact with so many amazing, bright young things. Kids that make you laugh. Kids that make your heart melt with their kindnesses. Kids that blow your mind with the things they know. There’s more than one student of mine I’d point the finger at and say to myself ‘I would definitely have hung around with him if I went to school with them’.

This attitude is more than partly my fault. I’ve been a solitary individual since I was tiny, knowing myself better than I ever knew anybody else. That was probably born out of stubborn selfishness, but it’s developed into a keen understanding of my limits, my desires and my needs that I’m truly grateful for. That, paired with a blunt adherence to the honest truth, no matter how painful, doesn’t necessarily make for good friend material. But then, neither does the mindset; the constant searching for a best friend, that most unattainable of treasures. I don’t half wonder whether, like I did with my Princess, I set my standards too early on with the equally fictional Gabriel.

Growing up in a village was a major roadblock, unassisted by the fact that I went to a grammar school miles away, with the result that all of my friends lived on the other side of the county. My little brother managed it. I didn’t. There were certainly no kids in my village that I knew well enough to call ‘friends’; the few that I did know vanished one by one in an absurd streak of bad luck, and those left closest to me in age were the ones who chased me out of town once when they saw me out and about with my camera.

I wasn’t a loner. I always did have a large circle of friends, about whom I could flit easily. But I don’t know whether I ever truly fitted in. A social chameleon with a painful self-awareness. In those circles I usually played the role of second-fiddle, third wheel, the one on the outside looking in. The tag-along to a pair of solid mates. The boy in an otherwise all-girl friendship circle. The singleton in a group of couples. A constant crush of ‘Do you ever feel left out?’, ‘Is it them or me?’, ‘What am I doing wrong?’. I was doing a lot of running away back then. What I needed was a male role model, a camaraderie. Something to glue the works. My dad’s operatic circle and disinterest in outdoor activities hadn’t left me with the best preparation for the masculine environment of an all-boys school, even a long-haired, arty grammar school for boys.

Estranged at the age when sex, cars, football and a dozen other deeply uninteresting things became the talk of the day, I gave up on men and turned to women in search of a best friend. My justification was that the conversation level was generally better. I stand by that.

I guess I messed up somewhere. I surprised everyone by dating a girl and ‘not being gay after all’. I lost her for reasons beyond my control. In that year and a half – two, if you count the moping – I managed to ignore my former companions and lost out on the solidification of lasting friendships. I was left floating and I had nobody to blame but myself.

Here I am, seven years later, still floating. I’ve met so many wonderful people and made so many amazing friends, but that mythical best friend continues to elude me. That person who is always there. The one that makes me laugh. One I can always rely on. One who understands my passions and my many idiocies and can counter them or let me learn from my own mistakes when needed. There are at least three people in my life who answer to that description, and one of them is my mother, but my life choices have separated me from them for the foreseeable future.

My problem is that I think too much. I know me, and so far knowing myself has led me to distance myself subconsciously over the years in the knowledge that one day I’d be leaving England for my grandfather’s country. It’s made me isolate myself for my own good and prevented me from ever desiring or even understanding any kind of relationship that lasts less than forever and involves less than total trust. I’d like to blame a handful of people who openly told me they couldn’t trust me as a kid for that last one. But I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses. Take it away, Gloria Gaynor.

I expect it’s the final hurdle that’s brought on this wave of introspection. What I should really be doing is packing, or better still working out what I can chuck so that I can feasibly get everything else home. Stuff. It truly is the bane of our lives. BB x

The Unspeakable

I can’t believe I’ve left it until my final teaching week to make use of Jeopardy and Mr Bean in an English class. They’re two absolute staples of ESL teaching and I’ve managed thirty teaching weeks thus far without using either one of them. Just as well, I suppose; it made planning my last lesson less painful. And as usual, for a lesson that was drafted in ten minutes flat on a Wednesday morning, with just an hour to go before my first class of the day, it’s turned out to be one of my better plans. It’s definitely not a rule to live by, but the pressure of last-minute living certainly does produce fantastic results.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

Today is Thursday. The last working Thursday of the year.Fortunately, it’s not quite the end. I’ve got at least two more days next week, and if I can help it, I’m going to see if I can’t wangle an extra two hours in tomorrow on my day off to catch up on the two classes I’m missing to catch up for that one primary class I thought I’d been spared this week. Future teachers, beware: state schools might not make you make up for lost hours if you’ve been on a school trip, but private schools will. At this stage in the year I don’t even want a day off. I want every last second I can get with this lot, especially since most of my stars will have gone by the time I get back.

It’s been a rather predictable finish. No poppers, no fireworks. Just a gradual loss of classes until I’m left with my last next Tuesday, which promises to be a wonderful finish; the only class of the twenty-five I have that I can guarantee to be quiet, relaxing and easy-going. There are only three of them. That’s probably why.

Predictably, my exercise routine died. For the fifth time this year, I tried to get into a work-out routine. It didn’t work. After almost three weeks, I simply lost interest. Again. Some people say that going running and getting a good sweat going in the gym gets them into a state of relaxation like none other. Golden orioles do that for me. Or hoopoes. Or woodlarks. Or just about anything that lives, breathes and moves in the wild.

For a good deal of the run-up I assumed it was standard form to duck out early, since that’s what everybody else seems to do. Looking around, the French assistants were allowed to leave before their time, since they ‘weren’t really needed’ towards the end. I get that impression from the other Spaniards, too. But I’m contracted to work for two schools, which complicates things a little – and makes things a whole lot simpler. This week’s school trip meant that I missed Tuesday, my favourite day of the week (Tuesday used to be Funk Band rehearsal day, and Northern Lights rehearsal day, and Arabic Literature day… Tuesday has always been a good day). This year, the 31st May falls on a Tuesday. So there’s absolutely no way in heaven or hell that I’d miss that last Tuesday. Heck, if I could extend my stay by another week, I would. It’s only the thought of flying out to Morocco and getting settled in on my birthday that stopped me. Twenty-two is no big deal, but I’d rather not be on my own on my first day in a new country for my birthday. There are some things that simply aren’t done.

If it sounds like I’m raving about how good my job is… I am. Because this time next week it will all be over, I’ll be back in England and I’ll have to wait another year – another eight months, British Council time – until I can come back. I’ll need this kind of stuff to re-read when I’m sweating over my finals this time next year. Looking back, everything tends to look rosier than it really was. In my three brushes with the law – in Spain, in Uganda and in Morocco – I was absolutely terrified, but it’s all hilarious in retrospect. I just need to remind myself that it was just as good in the moment as it was in memory. Remember that when you’re panicking over that last summative essay, Benjamin. Bloody £41,000 degree. The decision of what to do with my life turned out to be so easy, I could have saved myself a lifetime’s debt and simply marched straight out here, if only I’d known. The things we do to make our way in the world, the hoops we have to jump…

There’s only a few little hurdles left before the finish line. I need to pay in a cheque for 50€ worth of peanut butter that I’ve had on me since March. I need to sort out Student Finance for next year, saddling myself with another £12,500 worth of accumulative debt. I also really need to write up my Spanish TLRP on banditry in the Spanish sierras (although at least it’s planned and ready to go).

Must dash. The only class I’m not going to miss awaits. BB x

PS. I’ll tell you about the school trip in another post, I just felt a regular post was needed for the time being… before it all goes mad.

The Notebook Kid

My parents used to tell me it was exceptionally bad manners to carry my drawing book around with me. Something along the lines of attention-seeking, they said. In my defence, the idea behind was quite the opposite. As a kid I was simply looking for just about any means of avoiding conversation. That it usually backfired and had people asking me about my drawings was beside the point. It was a defence mechanism and a habit I never really grew out of, as proved by the fact that even today, in my job as a teaching assistant, I still give classes with a sketchbook on my person at all times.

The hardest thing for me to do in any language is to explain my novel, for no other reason than that I have difficulty summing it up in English. It’s one of those books that requires a fair amount of backtracking, it being historical fiction. Until the day I find a means of summing it up succinctly in English, attempting to do so in Spanish or even Arabic should be beyond me. But that doesn’t stop me from trying. And as carrying the sketchbook around with me practically guarantees that somebody will ask after the subject, I put myself in the firing line on an almost daily basis. It’s a real bastard of a task, but I do have a knack for constantly setting myself up for challenges that are very almost beyond me. You’ve got to keep yourself on your toes, after all. There’s no use in securing the moat when besieging the keep is the perfect practice.

In two weeks’ time it will all be over and I’ll be at home, enjoying the second half of a forty-eight hour respite between shifts before I’m needed in Tetouan. But let’s not talk about that. It hurts.

Villafranca isn’t half rolling out the party parade for my final week. I’ve got a two day trip to the countryside coming up with my 3° ESO class, which will largely consist of forty-eight hours of birdwatching, hiking and singing campfire songs. And, of course, speaking the most beautiful language on God’s earth. Then it’s two more days with the Carmelitas, and a whole bunch of farewells there – especially to my seniors, who I will miss terribly when they’re gone. It was the Day of Santa Joaquina yesterday and the school took the day off to celebrate in style. Touchingly, the lower sixth put on a celebration last night for the upper sixth; a fifteen-minute sequence of dance from the entire year group, ranging from classical dance to salsa – at which almost all of them were reasonably professional. Something you wouldn’t expect in an English school.

For some reason I don’t get much contact with the upper sixth in either school. There’s just a handful of leavers in my Cambridge FIRST class, and the others know me only because they usually stop to wave and scream at me when they’re going past one of my classes on a Thursday afternoon. Kids. Last night I went to watch the show (under orders from lower sixth to photograph the event) and the leavers seized upon the chance to grab a conversation last night. Two on-the-go portraits and several photoshoots later, I was enjoying a decent conversation with two of the girls, who I’d met – apparently – on a night out in Alemdralejo once. I should show face to these of events more often.

It’s only recently occurred to me that I no longer need that warm-up period to get into the driving seat as far as Spanish is concerned. These days it’s simply a case of jumping in and off we go. I thought I’d settle any lingering doubts by taking that CEFR Spanish Language Assessment that’s been hanging over me for some time. When I left, it graded me at B2 level, which stung a little. I had high standards.

This time it came back C2.

So, officially, I’ve done it. Fluent. I already knew I could handle myself in just about any situation in Spanish now, but it takes something like an official grading to drive the point home. It’s easy to overlook how far you’ve got until you’re out of the native country. I recall feeling like I was failing massively when I left Olvera, only to find myself half-fluent when I got home. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Must dash – the upper sixth are graduating today and I do believe I’m expected. And tonight, the final gathering of the guiris in Almendralejo. It promises to be a grand finale. BB x

Sins of the Fathers: Lessons in Perspective from an Israeli

My biggest failing when traveling is overestimating my staying power. I’ll always give myself just a few hours, days or, on occasion, weeks more than I really need. Call it arrogance or a mistaken belief in my own capabilities – or perhaps, sheer idiocy – but it’s the one mistake I never fail to repeat, beating underpacking, undereating and underbudgeting to the top spot. I’ve been at this traveling game for a while now, honing my skills in Spain this year, and in all honesty, it’s a mistake I don’t intend to amend anytime soon.

Why? Because every second counts. Especially the last.

I remember backing out of my last week whilst crossing Spain in the trek of ’13, partly out of fatigue (I’d slept rough in the hills for several nights and lost a shaming amount of weight) and partly out of a harrowing loneliness, the kind of loneliness that really begins to gnaw at you after three weeks alone on the road with only yourself for company (you can only run through the script of your favourite musical with you playing every character twice, apparently…)

I was younger then; quieter, inexperienced, even more shy than I am now. I saw a shot at an early exit and I took it. But those last two days, trying though they might have been, served up some of the most memorable moments: swimming in the crystal waters of the Mediterranean with an entire cove to myself, being chased along the beach at night by men with torches, falling asleep to the sound of the sea and the eerie silence of the lighthouse doing its rounds on the cliffs. Pure Almería. Pure Spain. Pure living.

The same thing happened in Uganda. The last week felt like an eternity when all we really wanted was to be home in time for Christmas, but when the last night rolled around I realized what a fool I’d been to ever want to leave. And my own mother had phoned just days before telling me to make the most of the time I had left. I’ve been kicking myself ever since.

Even in Jordan – dear Jordan – I met my match in our last week. The veil was lifted a little; Amman was no longer the inhuman monster it had first appeared. It was friendly, warm and oh-so-very human. But just as it was starting to bloom, we were on the plane and out of there. Oh, I look back and laugh now; it’s so very easy to do. And trying though it was, I don’t half appreciate it all the more. We all need challenging experiences like that in our lives. And since I don’t go in for drink, drugs, sex or sports, where else am I to find experience but in the open road?

Jordan’s twilight was like a sunset over a battlefield – if you’ll forgive the expression. Suddenly, just for a moment, what was once so terrifying became beautiful. It made sense. The final hours can make all the difference.

Today it was just a couple of hours’ difference: a choice between the 11:25 or the 14:20. As usual I decided on the later bus, assuming I’d find something to do that would fill the hours. That something was looking very much like the first season of Doctor Who at eight o’clock this morning, when my limbs were still recovering from being scratched, scraped and strained in yesterday’s gorse-navigating adventure. A tempting offer.

That is, until I met Roy.

Roy was the only other guest in the hostel this morning. He was bound for Monfragüe for no particular reason beyond that it was a recommended spot, so I told him what he might expect to find and pointed him in the right direction. We’d got talking indirectly – as is so often the case when I’m involved – through a two-way conversation with the friendly hostelier about the impossibility of Spanish accents (a subject on which I consider myself reasonably well-versed). Roy, a native Israeli, had taught himself Spanish through the genius of Michel Tomas during his military service and, after reading Coelho’s The Alchemist, had decided to visit Spain, eschewing the post-military course for India, Australia and the Americas.

Naturally, Israel came up in conversation. I don’t remember how exactly. I think it was because I mentioned that I’d been nearby last year, when I saw the Golan Heights from the Jordanian side. He told me a little about his home, and let me tell you, it was refreshing to hear a little of the other side of the argument for once – or at least, an Israeli approach, as Roy’s was hardly the mainline view. Despite living in the Western World, the last three years have shown me nothing but anti-Israel sentiment. For obvious reasons, Jordan isn’t the best place in the world to go looking for a balanced view on the Israel question, but neither is my own Arabic class. Perhaps the study of Arabic makes us more sympathetic to the plight of Palestine?

I’m not entirely sure what it is, but I was brought up to idolize hooked noses and Jewish perseverance by a mother who spent a very long time searching for her own faith, so I’m not naturally predisposed to see Israel as the enemy it’s often made out to be. Nation and religion should never be mixed, and Israel is the example, but there is something more to a country that still values its faith. I could have visited last year… if I’d been ready. But I wasn’t. For me, Israel is more than just a nation. It’s more than an idea. It’s more than an Instagram on the West Bank. It’s a dream, and when I saw the sun setting over those mountains and went weak at the knees I knew I wasn’t ready. Israel could very easily destroy me… because I fell in love with it. And my track record for destructive love affairs would back me up.

Roy, however, gave me exactly the answer I was looking for. One of hope, understanding, of looking forward rather than back. That, he claimed, was the problem in Israel: there is too much emphasis on the past. The old Holocaust clause; bring it up and you’ve lost the argument. Does Israel deserve the entire landmass? You might ask, does Mexico belong to the Aztecs, or does Britain deserve its former empire? Hardly. Israel has as much right to the West Bank as the Asturian knights did to Granada. These things are gone. History is to be studied and learned from, not brandished as a weapon in court. And speaking of courts, there’s a good deal of finger-pointing going on all over the world, but what good does it ever serve – especially when the culprits are two generations dead and buried and it’s their descendants taking the flak? What is done is done. What is important is to dream and to push on towards a better future… or whatever idealistic tripe should fill this gap. 

My apologies. An earthworm could have phrased that better. Personally, I’ve never believed in Utopia, nor would I ever want it. I only believe in hope and the good that it can do. As for the present, I take the Doctor’s approach; the world is perfect the way it is: that is, imperfect. The balance of good and evil, right and wrong. It’s that imperfection that makes us struggle to create a better world, and it’s that struggle that makes us so very human. I see that as perfection. Things could be so much worse than they are now.

Roy’s was a balanced opinion. Here was a man who’d gone through the Israeli military service telling me not of his blind hatred for the Arabs – as a couple of Palestinian cabbies would have had me believe – but of his desire to see the country where The Alchemist began. What is that if not human? There is no “us” and “them”. There never was. There never will be. There is only the future. And it is by looking ahead that we move ahead. Ever tried running backwards?

This is why I travel. This is why I give myself those few extra hours: for conversations like these. For Roy, for Simone and all the other brief and wonderful encounters on the road. It restores my faith in humanity. Trump, you should really give backpacking a try someday. It might just change your world.

I hate to end on a quote, as it seems so abominably unoriginal, but I’ll break my golden rule just this once because a certain Allan Quatermain spiel is simply crying out for this post. BB x

“It is the change, the danger, the hope always of finding something great and new, that attracted and still attracts me.”

Henry Rider Haggard, Child of Storm

Bebida 10

It’s a Wednesday afternoon. I’m back in the staff room as per, not doing anything particularly noteworthy, other than watching Armstrong and Miller and catching up on old Have I Got News for You episodes over a 60c cup of chocolate más espeso. For some reason it’s almost always bebida number ten; it’s as though the man upstairs is reminding me that it’s become too rigid a routine, and that sooner or later things have got to change.

Wednesday in particular is a very routine day. It starts late, with a lie-in and a little reading before my 10.05 class, the first of two hours of 2º ESO. The first class is large and potentially rowdy, but rarely causes a headache – and, if I’m using the whiteboard (something I’ve learned to rely on less and less), has me returning to the computer every thirty seconds to cancel an automatic shutdown that seems to have plagued the model for the last two months. The following class usually has me on my own for the first twenty or thirty minutes, which results in absolute chaos; I do declare that the thirteen/fourteen threshold is quite possibly the very worst stage of adolescence (though that’s nothing ground-breaking in itself). Worse is that at least three of the students are always desperately trying to silence the rest, proving that this particular subaltern does have a loyal following even when I’m left in charge of the ship.

I then have half an hour before my next class, over at the private school, with the tinies of lower primaria. Whilst they can be just as destructive as their Monday peers, there’s a far greater chance of them doing something like work in my weekly session with them. And they’re absolutely adorable. The first five minutes are basically me trying to wade to my desk through a sea of hugs.

Which makes the following fifty-five minutes of crowd control a little easier.

The last two classes of the day, the upper tiers of the private school Cambridge English course, are an endurance course of a different breed – that is, holding back laughter. They’re an uproarious lot. The First group are one step away from speaking like native English speakers, I swear, so an hour with them (or forty minutes, since they’re twenty minutes late without fail every week… ‘went home for lunch’ is the excuse) is more akin to a conversation at school with a group of kids four years below you. It has its fair share of jokers, as does the following class, which is usually a little more low-key… though it has its moments. Today’s golden crown goes to ‘motor-water’, because jet ski ‘didn’t sound very nice’.

And then I’m here. The Meléndez Valdés staff room. With an empty plastic cup and my novelling notebook, planning my surprise entry into a class I’ve been given back after a three-month absence. You know you love your job too much when you are offered the chance to work one hour less for the same pay and you kick up a fuss about it for three months.

I can only hope they take their lesson on time travel as well as the others have. Beginning the lesson with Hitler phones goats turns out to have been a good idea after all. BB x