Soundbites

11.04am

Would the last remaining passengers travelling to Bordeaux please make your way to Gate 101.

The Duty Free at Gatwick North Terminal has grown twice in size since last year. I’m almost sure of it. It feels almost like the arcade section of an amusement park, endlessly shiny and Americanly bright. The cold, autumn sarcasm of England seems a long way off already – but maybe that’s the idea. Stepping through security into a halfway house, a no man’s land of toblerone trenches and swatch watches. There’s a stag party from South London or thereabouts on their way to Punta Cana, Arsenal shields emblazoned on their shirts and an emphatic fam thrown in after every seventh word. The Viennese kids next to me are discussing Pokémon Go in excited voices. I don’t speak German, but Pokémon is pretty international.

12.11am

Cabin crew, boarding completed.

I think there are more Brits on this flight than Spaniards. Pensioners, mostly. Grey hair, kindles and prescription glasses abound. There’s a round-faced girl with a very thick sevillana sway to her Spanish fishing for a book in the overhead locker, whilst her partner offers the usual machine gun suggestions as to where in her bag she might have put it. The woman to my left is reading a book about World War Two Italy featuring a man called Pino; her husband is browsing a Guardian article titled ‘Throw out antisemitic party members, Corbyn urged”. The tense is a little vague – either he’s taken stock of the warnings, or people are still urging him. Newspapers favour passive constructions. English is fiddly like that.

1.04pm

‘I owe you ten euros, we don’t have change. We never have change.’

Decisions, decisions. To buy a six-euro-sandwich on the plane or trek around Seville with my suitcase in search of edibles in three hours’ time? Lunchtime flights are such a pain. I guess that’s why they’re often cheap. There’s always a clicking wave up and down the plane when the seatbelt lights turn off, as though the long-awaited B is a starting gun. I can’t really concentrate on American Gods until I’ve eaten. As the trolley slowly wends it’s way down the aisle, I’m contesting myself with side-glances at the lady’s paper next to me. Apparently psychopaths prefer rap to Beethoven. Who knew?

That was a good sandwich. Worth the six euros? My stomach says yes.

3.47pm

‘Where are going after this?’

‘Oh. Somewhere.’

Alright, don’t listen to my stomach. He doesn’t know Jack shit. That sandwich was good, but not 16€ good. Turns out they really didn’t have any change at all. Serves me right for holding out for the paper brigade, I guess. We live in a plastic world now. No receipt either, so even if I were the arsey complaining type, I have no proof. I sure hope you EasyJet folks sleep easy.

I tried to start a conversation with a train of English tourists who didn’t know where the bus stop was. They were a bit suspicious of my friendliness, I suppose. What is it about the English that we suspect ulterior motives behind every act of kindness? It reminds me of a debate I had with a boy who went on to Oxford who had no faith in ‘genuine altruism’. Balls to that. You have your 16€ croque monsieur and eat it too. One thing’s for sure: there’s money to be made in tourism. If this flight is anything to go by, there’s no end to the line of retirees who’d rather be led around town by the hand for a fee than explore for themselves.

5.41pm

El autocar con destino Santiponce efectúa su salida.

Plaza de Armas hasn’t changed much, though I suspect it’s had a paint job since I’ve been away. Also, the toilets seem to be free now. That’s a major plus. The tannoy still has all the audio quality of a GCSE Spanish cassette tape, so it’s just as well I’ve done this trip a good thirty times before. Once again I’m reminded just how attractive the Spanish are as a people. The first shopping trip to Tescos after a stint in Spain always feels like a bit of a bump back down to earth, for want of a better expression. Here in the bus station, I sit amongst hawk-nosed gods. They’ve almost finished the weird Expo-style building opposite, and I still have no idea what function it’s supposed to serve. Time will tell, I guess, and Spain being Spain, that means a long time. Perhaps years. Fortunately, years is one of those things I happen to have right.

6.52pm

‘Pero, ¡hijo de la puta madre que le parió!’

We just passed a dead eagle owl at the side of the main road. Not your average roadkill. Huge and scruffy it was, with mottled feathers and ear tufts blowing in the wind. There were a few rabbits further ahead, not as common a sight here as they are back home. Almost all the creatures of this earth wear the same dusty, black-flecked coat, from the owls and rabbits to the lynx, fox, mongoose and wolf. It feels so good to be back in a land that does proper wildlife. As I write, a herd of cattle is grazing in the golden dehesa, a small party of cattle egrets following in their wake. Spain does a very good Africa substitute. Goodness, though, how the place is dry. But for the stone pines and wild olive trees, the world is wheat-yellow beneath the clouded sky. The spring greens are long since gone, along with the hat I left on this very bus…

8.17pm

Pasanjeros con destino Santa Marta, Albuera y Badajoz Capital, cambia aquí.’

Fucking hell, the world is upside down. Now the earth is grey and the sky is sheet gold. I’d quite forgotten how breathtaking Extremeño sunsets are. With a sky this open, you can see for miles and miles, and the sunsets seem to stretch into the infinite. The last fiery slivers of light are dipping behind the sierras to the west and the clouds have enough shades of purple and orange in them to keep my old art teacher happy for at least a couple of decades. I’d take a photo, but my camera is in the hold and the girl on the left of the bus is nonchalantly texting and chewing, oblivious to the silent fireworks going on behind her.

What a world. What. A. World. I am so very glad to be back. BB x

Pendulum

I’ve been teaching myself how to say goodbye this summer. It’s a skill that must be learned as much as any, and one that, like most other things in life, improves with practice. After an exercise like a year abroad – where one has ample opportunity – you get to be quite proficient at the procedure. Sooner or later, with school and university fading into the ether, it becomes all the more apparent that some of the friends you once thought so close will, like so many treasured sandcastles, fade away with the tide. Staying in touch with the ones you love is a choice; moving on is a fact of life. Work, love and death all conspire to put a strain on ties that were once inseparable, and in some cases, blot out all but memory. This summer I’ve witnessed all three.

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Whilst I was up in Durham rehearsing for our Edinburgh Fringe show, I received the sad news that my dear friend Maddie had passed away. For almost five years she had fought the cancer that beset her upon her return from Uganda. It took her in the end. I’d like to think that when the time came, it was her will to go. She was like that; she did things her way. I was so shocked by the revelation that I spilled out the entire story of our friendship and our Ugandan adventures to a man I’d really only just met, who very kindly shouldered the outpouring with sage understanding. If it hadn’t been for the show, it would have paralysed me for another day, I shouldn’t wonder.

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There’s surely a special place for you, wherever you are, Maddie. Rarely has any one person had such an impact on me as you did, and at so crucial a junction. Whenever I needed somebody to knock some common sense into my wandering mind, you were there, with your dry wit, your raw honesty and your harmonica. You were a star and a half, in a sky full of people whom I call stars on a regular basis. I’m sorry I didn’t come with you to the dance party in Buhoma, that I allowed my hunt for the roller to delay me from getting your class photo in time, and that I never did watch Joyful Noise with the rest of you. I’ll remember you by the Top Cat theme that was your alarm, your endless cut-off attempts at Somewhere over the Rainbow and by the two machetes you insisted on having made for you. I’ll remember you also by your staunch refusal to search the dormitories, your ‘washing-up’ dance routine and your sheer bravery. But most of all, I’ll remember you by the fact that yours is the first real goodbye I’ve ever had to make.

Godspeed, Maddie. You’ll be a beacon to me forever.

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Having said my goodbyes to one dear friend, three weeks later found me making a different kind of farewell to another. Just as the Edinburgh Fringe was a delayed farewell to my beloved Lights, Andrew and Babette’s wedding was the moment delayed after Graduation to take my leave of some of my nearest and dearest from my degree. I surprised myself; where death and departure had brought me to the brink of tears, it took the spectacle of the first dance at the wedding reception for the dam to burst. I felt like I had known the man for fourteen years rather than four. I guess that’s what weddings do to you. This is where we diverge, the parting of the ways of a group that has been a core of my life for the last few years. And as you all set out to work in Albion, I’m the one leaving you all behind as I chase my dreams in Spain. Still I wish you all the best over the coming years, Mr and Mrs Moomin.

Godspeed, but not goodbye.

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A funeral and a wedding. A loss and a gain. The Lord giveth and he taketh away, and other such phrases to that effect. Two roads have split off from my own and gone down paths I cannot follow. I could hardly have asked for a more humbling way to take my leave of this fair country before I make my own way in the world. In autumn, of all seasons, just as England puts on her most beautiful coat of all.

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In my book, there are three kinds of goodbye, all of which I have now learned to use:

See you around. The easiest of the three. It could be a week or a while until we meet again, but I know that it will be soon enough.

Farewell. The second. The future is immense, and when and if we see each other again is beyond my knowledge. For my own sake, I hope that we do.

Goodbye. The last and the hardest. By my own definition, goodbye is final, and in all but the worst cases, made in the indefinite absence of the subject.

I must take my own road soon. It leads me first to Spain, that much I know, but beyond that is anyone’s guess. It has been a most educational summer. BB x

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Buck

Autumn is creeping into the Weald. The trees haven’t turned brown yet – I don’t suppose I’ll see that before I go – but the leaves are beginning to fall and there’s a whiff of cold in the air, mingled with the damp, rotting smell of mushrooms. From the top of Turners Hill you can see for miles, sometimes all the way to the high hills of the South Downs on a clear day. Not so much at the moment, with the Weald mist of early autumn settling in on an almost daily basis, but every once in a while.

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England truly comes into its own at this time of year. It’s a season of green forests, Scotch mist and crows calling overhead. Acorns adorn the oak trees, the hedgerows are full of blackberries of varying tastes and conkers grin from their spiny shells in the horse chestnut trees. The pheasants have moulted and are roaming the country roads and fields, looking in a very sorry state, robbed of their handsome gloss and tail feathers. For so foreign a creature – most of today’s birds are descended from eighteenth century Chinese imports – the cork-ok of the pheasant is as much a part of the English country soundscape as the crow or the woodpigeon. It’s a soundscape I miss dearly in the silence of the Extremaduran plains.

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Leaving the road for a while, I wandered along a winding country lane and went blackberrying in the verges. Over the distant drone of a bandsaw from behind the barn, a pair of buzzards called to each other. A phone was ringing in the farmhouse. It was a reality check, a ‘Moment’, as I call them. I wonder what it’s like to live on a farm, out here in the old country. Sometimes I think that I’m isolated here, but at the very least I live on a main road. Farms like this one are so far out that any experience of mine pales in comparison. The phone had stopped ringing by the time I’d come to my own conclusions, and I ate a few more blackberries. I swallowed them rather than chewing them, because if I don’t then one of the pips always manages to get itself wedged in my molars.

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I thought I’d run a short distance, regardless of the endlessly clinking two-pence coins in my camera bag. I didn’t get far up the hill before I stopped, because a sixth sense told me the noise might flush something up ahead. Sure enough, there was something up ahead, and it hadn’t heard the coins at all: a young roe deer buck, grazing at the edge of the woods.

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It was just one more of those ‘why didn’t I bring a longer lens’ moments. After my trip to the Farne Islands, I really should have been better prepared on that count. These days, however, I’m not so fussed by the photos. The buck continued grazing idly as I crept down the hill towards it, either completely unaware or completely uninterested in my presence. After a minute or so it found a fallen tree and busied itself with scent-marking, scraping its horns repeatedly on the branches.

I must have been within fifty yards or so, close enough to see the white circles on its nostrils, when it finally caught my scent and saw me. It didn’t bolt at first, but stared at me for a few moments. I think it was more curious than frightened. Eventually it made up its mind and tore away through the grass, leaping through the tussocks and over the fence back into the copse from which it had come. I followed it, but could not find it. I sat on a stile at the corner of the field and wrung the water out of my socks as the rain came down. Sheltered under the oak trees, I waited out the drizzle barefoot.

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After a quarter of an hour, I put my socks and shoes back on. They were still wet from the thick grass and squelched on each footfall, but I didn’t really care anymore. In the Weald a lot of the footpaths run over old watercourses, where thick slabs of stone jut out of the earth. One such dark gully ran down from the corner of the field and I followed it, soaking in the sound of the wind in the trees overhead.

A short way ahead I stopped to check the white balance settings on my camera, and – there it was again. That sixth sense. I looked up and, sure enough… there it was again. The roe buck, at the bottom of the gully, looking right back at me.

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He held my gaze for a little longer this time, and when he scampered off, it was a little slower than before. I felt so alive. Mum said she saw a muntjac on her morning run the other day. I know I heard them in the woods when I was working here in the summer. I’d sure love to see one; they’re one of the oldest kinds of deer in the world. There’s something more primal still about the roe deer, though. They were here long before the muntjac, the sika and the fallow, perhaps even before the mighty red. I’ve had brief encounters with them in the mountains of Spain and the forests of France, and seen them many more times in passing from trains, grazing away at the forest edge in some field or quiet garden. Bambi was a roe deer, in the original story by Felix Salten. Having watched the bold curiosity of the young buck this morning, it makes perfect sense.

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I read in a magazine once that encounters like that are what you call ‘RSPB moments’. Granted, it was the RSPB magazine, so they would use the tagline, but it’s what I’ve come to associate with such close encounters. There are Moments, when you open all of your senses to the world around you in that instant: the ringing of a telephone, the organised cluster of objects on your desk that tell a few stories and none at all, the never-ending sound of your own breathing. And then there are moments grander still, like an encounter with a wild animal. There is a power in nature I get from nowhere else, and it feeds me still. BB x

Entitlement

I didn’t make it to Spain.

My bags were packed. I had my lightweight hiking clothes laundered and folded and neatly placed at the top of my rucksack. My flights were booked, hold luggage inclusive, my tent rolled up and my roll-mat tucked in along the side. I’d even learned a couple of lessons from last time, and I had stocked up on plenty of mosquito repellent, sunscreen and up-to-date maps. In short, I was readier than I’ve ever been before. But I still didn’t make it to Spain.

In the end, budgeting was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Five weeks ago, when I’d bought myself a decent tent at last and was eager to put it through its paces, it seemed perfectly logical to book a return flight to Spain and see what happened. I had a tent, so this time I could camp out in the wild for free and have a cheap trip. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in fact, so much. The more digging I did, the more dangerous a notion it became. Wild camping is a legal grey area – that much is certain – but as the economic situation worsens, those countries hardest hit hit harder. Where there is money to be made, the freebooter and the vagrant are unwelcome. Whilst a local farmer may take no issue to you setting up a tent on the edge of his property, a passing local just might – for a quick buck. For a simple denuncio, one might expect to receive a small cut of the fine meted out by the police which, depending on the whims of the officer in charge, can be hefty. I’ve heard of cases of campers fined up to 600€, which is a good 590€ more than what you might pay in a campsite, if you can find one. If Spain didn’t still cling on to such legacies of the Franco era, it might not be so risky a venture. But as it stands, when a local shepherd stands to make more money by turning you in to the police than in an entire week’s work, it gives him little incentive not to do so.

My girlfriend’s mother passed onto me a keen insight on my last visit: we see a lot less danger when we’re younger. At eighteen, it didn’t occur to me that by setting up camp in the middle of the woods on the slopes of the Guadarrama I might be putting myself at the mercy, not of hungry wolves, but of hungrier shepherds. I just did it and moved on. Now that I’m older and wiser – and more wary – I find myself second-guessing a little more.

It’s just a damned shame that Spain does not have as many campsites as England does. Northumberland, for example, has over a hundred campsites. Extremadura, which is more than eight times the size of Northumberland, has twenty-two, with twelve of them concentrated in one mountain range in the north. Perhaps the Spaniards don’t enjoy camping as much as the English do, but they’re missing a trick. Spain is absolutely stunning, with scenery – in the very biased opinion of this author – second to no other country in Europe. Without campsites, or the option to wild camp, they’re missing out on the chance to reconnect with their supreme natural beauty.

When you can put a name to something you see, it means so much more to you. Your friends matter because you know them by name, just as the pupils whose names you recall stand out in your mind. Neglect to know the world around you and it will never mean as much to you as it will to the naturalist, the tracker or the mountaineer. It’s a natural connection we sorely need as tech takes over the world. Going camping offers that connection to the next generation. Or at least, so I believe.

Part of the reason I so hastily splashed out on flights to Spain which I now can’t make or change without incurring heavy surcharges (thanks a bunch, Easyjet) was a disgusting feeling of entitlement that I just couldn’t shake. Having been up to the Edinburgh Fringe for one last, loud fling with the Lights, I needed to get out. To be myself. To travel. Isn’t that what everybody else does in the summer? Instagram certainly seems to say so, as does Facebook. You can hardly move for photos of Cuba, Malaysia, New York City, the French Riviera, German markets, Polish cafés, Incan ruins and Thai elephant baths. It’s a storm of what-a-wonderful-time-I’m-havings and wish-you-were-heres that build and build until you ask yourself why you aren’t out there seeing the world. A FOMO more potent than any shot, and one that, like a bad drink, leaves a bitter aftertaste. Sooner or later, the travel bug gets to be like any other addiction, and after mowing through the next barrage of Phnom Penh sunrises and Carribean bikini lines you get itchy feet. I want to be there. I want to see that. What about me?

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It’s not the Inca trail, but it’s still bloody gorgeous

Let’s not kid ourselves. Travel is not for everyone. It’s just not. It can be done on the cheap, but it’s never free. Time is money, and if you’re not spending one, you’re spending the other, which means you can afford to spend it. Now that’s a privilege few of us have.

It isn’t often that I feel bitter about the affluence of the world around me, but it’s at times like this that I realise with a nasty jolt that it’s nothing short of madness to expect the same luxuries as one’s contemporaries. Life would be an awful lot easier if we stuck to telling people face-to-face about our adventures rather than bombarding them with photos twenty-four seven, and even then, do we have to yell? The blogger in me says yes. The writer in me isn’t so sure. I’m just a student fresh out of university with a modest job already on the cards, and that’s a luxury I can’t overstate highly enough. It’ll be many, many years before I can afford annual transatlantic summer holidays, and by the time I can, I don’t suppose I’ll want to.

Fringe, I accept, was my holiday. It was expensive, more than any holiday I’ve ever had, and I was a fool to think I could afford another, summer job or no summer job. In the end I was saved by the budget and, more poignantly still, saved by the bell. A couple of friends of mine are getting married in a couple of weeks, and it’s because of them that I had to return from Extremadura before flying back out again. The folly of making two trips to the same place became apparent only once I’d decided not to go.

I still have my dreams. I still dream of South Africa. But I can wait, until such a time as I have the time, the money and the maturity to go and to really make the most of it. For the time being, I’m going to focus on the humbler side of life. I have plenty of books to read and lessons to plan. I, too, am privileged to be where I am and how I am, and I should be grateful for that. Autumn is here, and autumn is always such a beautiful time of year in England. I should be making the most of it. BB x

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