Time Lords and Holy Water

Two seasons of Doctor Who in as many weeks. That’s getting dangerously close to an addiction. Fortunately, it was as much a memory run as it was a time-filler; the buck stops with the last of the Tennant episodes. For some reason I never got into the Matt Smith series. Maybe I grew up.

Yeah. Like that’s ever going to happen.

If my last post made it sound like Eid was one long endurance test in the kitchen, this one ought to shed some light on the matter. If the truth be told, I spent both Eid itself and the following day very much out and about, purposefully burning off any and all calories gained over the weekend. With all those sugary Ramadan sweets, I had plenty of energy to burn.

True to form, I messed up. The calories got burned, well and truly, but so did my back, my neck and my legs. Talk about splash damage. But when splash damage comes in the form of an entire day on the shores of the Mediterranean, who’s really complaining?

I confess, beach days are not really my idea of a day well spent, but for once it was nice just to kick back and relax by the sea, happy in the knowledge that last week’s conundrum was, finally, resolved.

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Spot the Italians (hint: it’s got something to do with the Sun)

The Dar Loughat team has exploded from six to eighteen over the last week. The result is that the gatherings have got louder, cheaper and perhaps a little less personal. And perhaps for that reason I’ve been pulling away a bit this week, loner that I am. Curiously enough, that led me to spend the day after Eid with the Host. I didn’t have much of an idea as to what, where or why. The father simply knocked on my door in the morning and asked if I was coming with them. He didn’t say where. But aren’t they the very best of plans: the one that you have no idea about?

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Hello Africa!

The destination, as it turned out, was Moulay Abdessalam, a holy site and place of pilgrimage for the Sufis of Morocco, sat high atop a mountain in the Bouhachem range. If I hadn’t twigged that I was in Africa yet, I certainly did when I saw the shrine. At the top of a flight of rock-cut steps, the shrine – a small white building with a green door cut into the side – seemed to grow out of the rock, sheltering a huge cork-oak sprouting from its centre. The floor, too holy for human feet, was nailed down with smooth cork-oak bark, and men walked to and fro across it barefoot, chanting and praying and bowing before the tree. It was mystical enough a spectacle, but add to that the swirling mists, sometimes thick enough to obscure everything ten metres away and more from sight, and it was almost otherworldly.

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Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

I suppose cameras aren’t particularly acceptable in such situations – I’m still stinging from that run-in with a couple of camera-fearing Chaouenis back in May – so I contented myself with a distant shot and resorted to sketching it instead, though how that is a less offensive practise than photography continues to escape me.

Continue up the mountainside a little way and you come to a telegraph mast, from which one of the locals willingly leads you to a metre-long fissure in the rock. According to local tradition, the rock is a test: those who can pass through the fissure will be blessed, and those who cannot will be cursed. Something like that, anyway. The words bendito and maldito were clear enough. As for the test itself, it revolves more around technique than skill: the nature of the fissure is such that there is a way to get through, though it requires keen observation and no small amount of manoeuvring.

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Claustrophobes beware

Yours truly made the cut in less than a minute. I put that down to a staunch refusal to grow fat on Moroccan cuisine than any skilful footwork on my part, though I have to say it seems a rather sexist challenge: I just about managed to squeeze through with the rocks grazing my back and chest. Any amount of gym, good eating or femininity and you’d have no hope in hell. I’m blessed, then – but at what cost, I wonder?

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Scarce Swallowtail – GOTCHA

We stopped on the way back to fill up on fresh water from for a sacred spring. To dispel any myths there, we were filling up industrial-sized plastic water bottles by the bootload, although I did suffer to drink straight from the well by means of a smoothed-out bark ‘cup’, as Moses and his followers might have done in the stories of old. Pretentious, much, but I was loving every second of it.

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How to drink, oldie-worldie style

We took a late lunch in the misty forests. I was in one of my strange, quiet moods and contented myself with watching the mists swirling through the trees. It was a pretty magical sight. This time last year I was dodging traffic, crawling into a hole with Henry Rider Haggard and steadily losing my mind in the dusty streets of 40ºC Amman. To think that at the same time of year I could be standing in a cold, misty forest with the wind in my hair and the sound of birdsong… It’s everything I wanted and more. Morocco, you’ve done me such wonders. Thank you.

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Africa, forest, mists, but no gorillas (there might be some macaques about, though)

Everybody’s heading out today; half for the mountains, half for the beach. As for me, I’ll be staying right here. Our Fes plans fell through due to illness, which isn’t so bad a thing, as I have a lot of work to do today. Essays – the bane of our lives. The sooner I’ve got some more of this work done, the sooner I can get back to enjoying my time out here. A target language research project is all well and good for assessing one’s advancement in a language, but it doesn’t half cast a shadow over your enjoyment of the year abroad. Just a thought, and not even mine, but one I adhere to. Katie certainly had the right idea there.

Well, three weeks remain. This time in three weeks I’ll be on a plane bound for Madrid, and then for home. But whilst it’s the end of the story for me, the story is just beginning for so many others (ugh, how crass a line is that). So, whilst you’re here, don’t forget to see how things are going on with fellow bloggers Alice Abroad and the dream-team at Langlesby Travels. Doesn’t everybody need a breath of fresh air from time to time? Blogging can seem a pretty solitary activity, but in actual fact it brings you so much closer to people by opening a window on a world you might never have seen before. It also keeps your writing muscles very well flexed. As an exercise, I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Which is odd, really, because I don’t go in for recommending exercise as a rule.

Until the next time, I’ll try to keep you posted as often as I can. The end is so near I can taste it, but I’m not about to lose sight of the goal with the final line in sight. Let’s smash these last three weeks, ya3ni. Positive attitude, that’s what it’s all about. That’s what it’s always about. BB x

Release the River

I’ve been known to set out on the odd ridiculous adventure from time to time. Traversing Spain from north to south was one. Dana was definitely another. If the truth be told, I’m frankly surprised it’s taken me until my third week to get up to any hijinks out here in Morocco. I guess my sense of duty to a host family that would rather I spent more time with them than adventuring got in the way.

Nonetheless, the heart wants what it wants. And today what it really wanted was a decent ramble. And that’s exactly what it got.

The plan – if there ever was one – was to take a taxi as far as Martil and follow the coast to the hills to the south. Maybe we’d make for the mountains, or maybe for the coastal road. A man with a plan would have known. Fortunately, I had in my companions, for the first time in a long time, two such people for whom the total absence of a detailed itinerary was not a problem at all, if not a cause for celebration.

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Tetouan isn’t exactly a village, but it does have some gorgeous views

 

We were in Martil for half seven in the morning. My host family had tried to dissuade me from such an early start the night before, claiming that there would be nobody up and about at such an hour on a Sunday morning. As it happens, there were plenty of taxis bound for Martil, and we had a full cab; truly, as there were eight of us crammed into that 1970s Mercedes at one point.

Martil proved to be a false start, not because of the enticements of the Mediterranean, but because of the river. After passing a minor tributary, a mere feint of the Oued Martil, we found our way blocked by the real deal. It was much too deep to ford ‘Vietnam style’, even for brazen adventurers like the three of us, and despite making eyes at a lonely fisherman and his boat on the spit of sand that was just not quite long enough to be a bridge, we eventually had to accept the fact that we had nowhere to go but backwards.

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Checking a decent map beforehand wouldn’t have been such a bad idea…

 

Down, but definitely not out. We tracked down a grand taxi that could take us to Azla, a short distance down the coast. That the taxi had to return to Tetouan to get to Azla – the only bridge for miles being a stone’s throw from my street, of all places – was a little facepalm-inducing. But our cheery taxi driver set us down in Azla without a catch, proving that they’re not all of the bad sort Arch and I encountered in Oulad Berhil, and, choosing the dry riverbed for our guide, we set off inland.

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Dry rivers are and always will be the very easiest of roads

 

The first half hour was nothing short of a Boy Scout adventure. The dry riverbed made for easy going until the bamboo walls that lined its fringes crept in and over and we ended up trekking through a bamboo jungle. Alex made the smart move to turn this to our advantage, taking a long and sturdy cane for a makeshift hiking pole. If we hadn’t followed suit, I suppose the going would have been significantly more difficult further on. Thank goodness for boyish tendencies.

The river took us deep into the Riffian countryside, well away from the beaten track. The river valley itself was an explosion of colour for late June: the glittering stream came to life after a couple of kilometres or so, where great bushes of flowering pink lined the water’s edge and dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies of all descriptions flitted about the water, including some of the most beautiful pennant-winged specimens of the latter that I’ve ever seen. The locals – we met with just a few on the road – were cheery enough, though more than a little bemused, I suspect, at the sight of three wayward adventurers heading deep into the hills with bamboo-cane poles. The scenery was suitably African, at least, and it was really rather hard not to whip out the camera at every turn.

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‘Man is in proper Africa, fam.’

 

We stopped here and there where shade allowed. Man can’t tan like a boss all day, not even with a regular lathering of sun lotion. The valleys of the Rif, it should be said, are a great deal kinder on the shade front than Wadi Dana. After following the river and the road for a couple of hours we reached a turning point and – bravely or foolishly, who knows – cut across country to keep our westward bearing. Keeping west meant a very steep climb in the burning sun, but where in Dana we were long since out of water reserves by the time we began the ascent, I still had a two-liter bottle and a half to myself this time, and the going was a good deal easier for it.

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Alex and Victoria – and, in the distance (that little white strip to the right), the road

 

The mountains, our waymarker, turned out to be a great deal closer than we’d thought once we got to the top. In another couple of hours we could have made it to the slopes. But we were already halfway through our supplies by this point and Tetouan, visible in the distance, seemed a much more sensible destination. We did nab a killer panorama from an abandoned watchtower of some description sat atop the hill we’d fought so hard to summit, which made the climb all the more worth it.

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See that massive expanse of white in the haze? That’s Tetouan

 

From there, it was a mere two hours downhill to Tetouan and a well-deserved shower. The family still couldn’t really take it on board that I’d walked home from Azla – I like to walk, OK? – but I guess they’re getting used to it by and by. It’s been almost three weeks since my first day at Dar Loughat and I haven’t used a taxi since day one. Like I said, man likes to walk. Man will always like to walk. Man was born to walk. And if man gets the chance, man will walk his way to Cape Town one day. BB x

Holy Gridlock, Batman!

I remember saying a couple of days ago that I was going to take it easy and travel less this year, beginning with Semana Santa. Predictably, that failed almost as soon as the words left my mouth. I’m now sitting at ease on the balcony of a cute little hostel in Córdoba, having spent the last four days traveling in a large triangle around Andalucía, from Matalascañas to the Great Mosque. It’s the Easter equivalent of last term’s ‘square puente’ to Lisbon, Aveiro and Salamanca. Only this time, I’m not alone, and it’s been a barrel of laughs from start to finish.

I’ve told you about El Rocío. Let’s start with Seville. Seville is one of those cities that I’ve always thought rather overrated. It’s the Spanish equivalent of Frozen; people come back from it raving about what they’ve seen to such an extent that by the time you get around to going to see it yourself, it’s difficult not to be disappointed. Unlike Frozen, however, it’s worth digging in and opening your eyes a little.

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No, I’m not the biggest fan of Frozen. Something to do with Elsa’s dumbstruck ‘of course, love!’ remark, as though love were entirely alien to a Disney film and its target audience… and let’s not forget that ubiquitous Let it Go.

I’m sidetracking. As usual. I’ve been very blasé about Seville all year, using it largely as a transit between Villafranca and other southern destinations – mainly Olvera – and never visiting the city for its own sake. Mistake. If you can find a place to stay for the night in Seville, do. Especially in Semana Santa. Having the freedom to see the city by night as well as by day is a treat not to be overlooked.

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In my current adventures I’m joined once again by fellow traveler/blogger Brocklesby, spending half of her Easter holidays down south. Traveling with a companion can be infinitely more entertaining than going solo, especially when you’re both new to the place, but it’s been super-helpful acting as a kind of lemming-guide. I’m something of an old hand with Sevilla and Córdoba, having spent about a month apiece in each of them when you add up the days, so – with the fifty-fifty assistance of the Arch Deceiver aka HERE Maps – I’ve been acting as a guide. It’s a lot of fun to introduce somebody to all of your favourite spots, as well as the main sights, but best of all you get to try things out that you never quite found the gumption to do alone, like this museum or that ice cream parlour. It’s a blast and I should travel in twos or threes more often.

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Travelers to Seville in Semana Santa should be warned: bring a compass, a map and/or plenty of patience. Navigation is made almost impossible by the processions. In most of the smaller towns, these are usually nocturnal affairs of some eighty metres in length that take five or six minutes to pass, and good seats can be had by simply racing ahead by several streets and waiting by the side of the street.

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Not in Seville. Not only is everyone in town in on the secret, so is the tourist population, both of which are immense. On top that, the processions themselves are enormous, trailing as many as three streets at a time and taking all of an hour and more to pass – and there can be as many as six happening simultaneously across town.

Understandably, this turns something as simple as crossing a street into a labour of Heracles. It’s a circumstance where shortcuts really do make long delays, and itinerant penitants and busy streets make the heart sink. I distinctly remember saying that ‘if you see Jesus, you’re screwed’; blasphemous, perhaps, but in accurate reference to the fact that the float bearing Jesus is almost always followed by the Virgin Mary some thirty minutes later, meaning that Jesus marks the very epicentre of the gridlock. Thanks Jesus.

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That being said, it’s something you have to watch at least once. And whilst it may not be all that much fun to watch the tips of the penitents’ colored hoods sailing by over the heads of a pushy multitude, if you can get yourself to the front, it’s surely one of the human wonders of the world to behold.

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I’m not a pushy person. I think I’m too English. So it would take a miracle to get me to the front of the queue. But God, or Fate – or an unusually benevolent Murphy – had other plans tonight. Having said that it would be ironic if we ended up walking down a street and coming face to face with a procession headed in our direction, that is exactly what happened, and with the grand finale, no less. We tried to duck out of the way through a gap in the multitude, but the Guardia closed it off and shoved us unceremoniously back into the crowd – which put us, quite by accident, right at the front. It suited us just fine, but it must have bothered those who’d been there long before us something awful.

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It might not have been as soul-stirring as the Olvera madrugada procession – which goes on all through the night and involves no small amount of mountain-climbing – but it was a genuine privilege to behold from such a premier position.

I’ll be back next year. Most certainly. A lot of Spaniards claim to be rather impassive on the subject of Semana Santa, but their dogged adherence to an age-old tradition far more authentic than any search for chocolate eggs says otherwise. I, like Hemingway and Irving before me, am yet another foreigner hopelessly entranced by the magic of it all; only, I’ve at least a quarter of Spanish blood in me, so I’m not a total stranger. I’d like to think that counts for something. BB x

Splash: Fear in a Hoodie and a Baseball Cap

I was sitting in the park sketching when one of the local malotes loitering around the bridge lobbed a brick at me. It fell short by a few feet and landed with a heavy splash in the water, but the message hit home. I took my blonde hair and foreign appearance out of firing range and returned to the safety of my room to listen to a podcast on South African townships in peace.

It’s a sad fact of the world that one of the things that scares me most is my own generation. It always has, far more than all the villainies of our world. The romantic in me would like to point out that I’m currently living in the land that birthed both Cortés and Pizarro, those butchers of the New World, as well as the most ferocious wing of the Spanish Inquisition… but I’d like to think I’ve got more than enough common sense to eliminate any racial motivations behind this morning’s unfortunate brick incident. The simple fact of the matter is that it’s a world I just don’t understand. And, to quote a Batman villain (for want of a better source), ‘you always fear what you don’t understand’.

Why? What’s the point? What would lead anyone to revel in a deliberate act of aggression? If it’s a misplaced act of pumped-up testosterone, I disown my sex here and now. I just don’t get it. Maybe it’s because I’m British and I’d rather die than tread on somebody else’s toes. Or perhaps it’s because I’m the kind of person that bursts into tears over King Kong or The Green Mile. I guess I’ll just have to content myself with the simple fact that everyone is different, for good or ill. Without fear and violence, how would we define that which is good?

As a kid I remember being chased by thugs from down the road when I was out with my camera watching buzzards. The same suspects called “carol-singing” a few weeks later – a six-second, tuneless rush of We Wish You a Merry Christmas for which they expected payment – and pointed me out as ‘that kid with the sick camera’. At the time I had no idea what he was on about; ‘sick’ as an adjective meaning ‘impressive’ had developed in the nine months I’d been out of the country and it caught me unawares. I still find it substandard as a slang term. France’s verlan is simply streets ahead, no pun intended.

It’s this bastardization of words, of filling the English language with redundant dual-meanings, that bothers me. Standard has come to mean excellent. Lad has come to mean exemplary individual and gay has been a blanket, one-size-fits-all insult for as long as I can remember. Especially the latter, since it’s been used on me since I was at primary school. It shouldn’t have offended me in the slightest, since it was neither true nor (I hope) intended as such, but the ignorance of it all has frustrated me for years.

Who am I to comment? I’m a relatively privileged white middle class English boy with two jobs in a country where most of my generation struggle to find one. Is it any wonder they’re angry? A small part of me occasionally resurfaces at moments like these, telling me to mind my own business and go home. But then, it’s a hateful phrase and one that’s no match for my own curiosity. Honestly, if it weren’t for my aforementioned issues with causing trouble, I’d have all the fittings for a journalist.

Nevertheless, here I am, holed up in my room. It’s less shock than the warmth of my bed that’s keeping me from going back to the park now, but it’s had me thinking; doubly so over my South Africa plans. What right have I to fork out on a self-styled adventure to a country where my own brick-dodging incident pales in comparison to the terror of the townships? A younger me would have cited white-guilt all day. These days I simply wonder whether or not the problem is seeing us and them in the first place.

And strangely enough, it’s only left me keener than ever to go there.

In that sense, it’s not the hooded youth I’m afraid of. It’s the potential for violence in all of us. We are, by record if not by roots, a violent race. It’s our imperative as a species to overcome that and nurture our caring side, which is certainly not unique to us in the animal kingdom. A line in one of my favourite books says ‘there’s so much human suffering that the whole world should be wailing’. She’s right. But if we all become so afraid of ourselves by drawing lines in the sand that we have to live in compounds like today’s South Africa, what kind of a world are we leaving for those who come after us?

The drone buzzing about overhead just crashed to earth with a loud smack right at the feet of the malotes. The kids to whom it belonged ran to collect it none the wiser to their jeers. A lesson in bravery from two seven year-olds.

I’m keener than ever for South Africa. Fears must be faced, not avoided. It won’t rid me of all of my fears, but it might just put my troubles into perspective. BB x

BlaBlaCatastrophe

I think it’s safe to say I am now an expert on Renault cars. Clio, Laguna, Megane, Scenic, Captur… In the space of two hours, I’ve seen them all. All of them, in fact, except the Renault Laguna III Estate that’s supposed to be rescuing me from Aveiro, which has become little better than a Portuguese prison. A beautiful prison, but it is a prison nonetheless. 

Apologies for shamelessly nicking your line, Frollo

It’s coming up to half past three, Portuguese time. In another hour, I should have been in Salamanca, where a hostel bed is waiting for me. Unfortunately, when the town planners of Aveiro carved in the canals and built a shiny new train station, nobody thought it sensible to throw in a bus station. As such, the big city buses that ply the town appear to have their own agenda. The one I caught from Lisbon to get here dropped me off at the bus shelter beside the main canal, but the ALSA bus bound for Salamanca this morning didn’t use that one. Frankly I have no idea which one it used, as I never saw it. Not one to be caught off guard, I sprinted to the train station in five minutes to see if it had gone there instead, to be told it didn’t come that way either. By 11:15 it was too late. Either it had gone to an even more obscure location, or it hadn’t come at all. At any rate, I’d missed it. 

Sheepish? Brainless? Not even close

Enter BlaBlaCar. Ostensibly the cheapest, most reliable means of modern transport. Ostensibly.I found two journeys out of Aveiro for Salamanca, both priced at around £15… Less than half of the ludicrously-priced bus fare. In case neither of them show up, I’ve got my eye on the return bus to Lisbon at half past six. For safety’s sake I’ve booked a seat on both, as there’s only one seat remaining in both cases and I’d rather not miss out on Salamanca. Not when I’ve come this far! 

I suppose it’s not the worst place in the world to be stuck

Oh horrors. Both of these BlaBlaCar drivers have confirmed at exactly the same time. Since it’s less than twenty-four hours before departure, that’s at least £7.50 down the drain. Goddamit, Aveiro. Goddammit. (Aren’t these so much more fun to read when they’re in real time? Ed.)

Alright, it’s coming up to half past four now, and no sign of this elusive black Renault Laguna III Estate. Smeagol Woman, the goblin-like creature serving as the Hotel Molineiro parking attendant, keeps giving me evil looks. I guess it’s because I’ve been loitering here for about two hours now. I’ve already cancelled the later driver, so this one had better show up, or I really am screwed. Now I’m only blogging to take my mind of the time slipping through my fingers. I could always go back to Lisbon and spend another night in the top-notch Lisbon Central Hostel, but that’d be such a pitiful defeat…

You know what, screw this. It’s been nearly forty minutes since the expected arrival time. I’ll book anew with the later driver and we’ll see how things go from there.

<Jump forward an hour>

¡Santísima trinidad! I made it. BlaBlaCar number one came up trumps after all, and only just in time. Raiding the hostel WiFi from the outside wall (I’ve become a wily WiFi scrounger over the past few months), I got a message from Eduardo just as I was leaving for the train station to wait for the second BlaBlaCar driver. I say just… I was actually halfway there when it occurred to me to mark as ‘Read’ all the emails I’d loaded from that final WiFi spree, and as I got to the last I realised I’d been sent said message. Cue a mad dash across Aveiro back to the canal, where – there it is! A Renault Laguna III Estate! Only… That’s not my ride. It’s a woman at the wheel… But never fear! Smeagol Woman flagged me down and told me there was a guy looking for me. Thank you, Smeagol Woman. I’m sorry I judged you for staring. Sure enough, I’d gone a few yards down the road when a Seat León slowed to a halt in front of me and the driver called my name. Yeah, that’s right. A Seat León. Not that fabled Renault Laguna III Estate. Bloody hell, BlaBlaCar. 

 

 It was a pleasant journey with great company, which is more than I could have asked for after today’s long game with Fate. Or Murphy. Or whatever you want to call it. We almost ran out of petrol just across the Spanish border, with the car running on fumes, and the other passengers getting jittery. Much joder, hijo de puta and mecaón, and other expletives of that nature. But we made it. Take that, Murphy. I won’t be beaten that easily!

Safe and sound in Salamanca!

Well, I can’t complain anymore. I made it to Salamanca in the end, and I’m sat in a classy restaurant polishing off a café solo after a deliciously traditional conejo estofado and chocolate truffles. Success – of a sort. I feel bad for letting down BlaBlaCar driver number two, but if I’d waited any longer to use the hostel WiFi to warn him, I’d have missed BlaBlaCar number one; they were leaving when they saw me running.

Tomorrow is another day. But if today has taught me anything, it’s reinforced in me once again that you should never, ever give up. Ever. If you still have hope, you’ll always pull through somehow. That’s my creed. And look what ridiculous adventures it’s gotten me into! BB x

The Griffon

‘Si te intereses a las aves, hay un buitre al otro lado del río. Hay mucha gente allí esperando que los bomberos lo remuevan. Por si lo sabes…’

The last thing on the hostel TV last night, after the late night showing of Colombiana, was a brief news report documenting the beginnings of a rise in interest in ornithology in Extremadura. I have to say I’m impressed; surprised and impressed. In my experience of living and working in Spain, the most interest the majority of ‘folk here take in birds is whether or not they go well with olive oil. Spain’s not unique in this regard. As my secondary school Physics teacher once said when I explained the risk the Bristol wind farm posed to migrating waterfowl, ‘if it won’t end up on my plate, I couldn’t give a monkey’s’. And that was in England, the biggest nation of bleeding hearts. Well, here’s a little proof that Spain at least is finally taking a turn for the better.

I’ve got a fairly long wait until the bus home, so I thought I’d take a walk along the Guadiana again whilst I’m here and look across the river to Portugal. The cormorants were out on the rocks with their wings spread wide after a morning’s hunting, so I got my camera out for a few shots with Respighi’s The Pines of Rome playing in my ears. And that’s when I got a tap on the shoulder and a friendly local pointed me in the direction of a grounded vulture on the east bank of the river.

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I haven’t power-walked so fast in years. A vulture? Here, in the middle of Badajoz? It sounded too ridiculous a notion to be a lie, so I packed up my gear and left the bridge and the sunning cormorants I was photographing behind in the dust. At first I thought he might have confused buitre with any other large bird – it wouldn’t be the first time – but this just must be my lucky weekend or something, because just a short distance before the second bridge…

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…boom. Sulking in the shade of the roadworks with a crowd of five or six startled onlookers. It could hardly be anything else: vultures are bloody huge, even youngsters like this one.

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I was worried that it might have a broken wing, as it didn’t seem particularly keen to get back into the air. What it was doing here, bang in the middle of the city, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was simply tired. At any rate, it wasn’t all too bothered by the two men who’d gone down to join it, both to have a closer look at something you normally only see high in the sky above, and to ward off any dog-walkers that might cause the bird any further distress. My heart goes out to those two.

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I have to admit, I probably won’t ever get a better viewing of a wild vulture than this. Not even in Monfragüe, which is the best place to see them in all of Spain. And here, in Badajoz, of all places! Bonkers.

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‘Watch out,’ said one of the onlookers as it came bouncing forward, ‘That thing’s got a beak that can bite through bone.’

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To everyone’s relief, there was nothing wrong with it in the end, because after some ten minutes it puffed up its feathers, made a few bounding leaps and took off into the air on two giant wings. It wheeled about over the river and almost flew headlong into the bridge, clearing it by little over a metre or so, and flew off in the direction of Portugal.

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Not something you see every day! And now I need to go in search of a USB cable or card reader of some description, because my memory card is chock-full. Well, gallinules, kingfishers, cranes and a griffon vulture, all in twenty-four hours of city-hopping! Now there’s a feathery micro-adventure for you. BB x

And the Manacles are Off

It’s over, at last! After almost a month of to-and-froing between school, the ayuntamiento and the Almendralejo police station, I have a Spanish bank account and the admin period is finally at an end. Alright, so there’s still some confusion over whether I really need a Spanish social security number and I’m not entirely sure how to top up my phone since it isn’t compatible with its own network app, but the most important stage (and one that, by the sounds of things, the other assistants accomplished weeks ago) is done and dusted.

So what better way to celebrate than with a little travel?

You see, I adore traveling. I’m sure I didn’t need to tell you that, but I feel like in the three weeks I’ve been here I’ve never had the chance to get out. Not for want of opportunity, of course, but I told myself right at the beginning that I wasn’t to go traveling until I’d finished all the paperwork. That was supposed to be before my (abortive) training course in Cáceres on 1st October. Well, now it’s the 16th. But that’s ok. Villafranca feels like home now, I’ve christened it with my first stupidly long walk, and I have to say I’m quite enjoying being ‘El Inglés’. But I’ve waited long enough, and now here I am in the Plaza Alta in Badajoz, enjoying a ración of some seriously high-quality croquetas as the city wakes up for the night.

A paltry three and a half euros took me all the way to Mérida, the regional capital of Extremadura. It’s also minuscule compared to Badajoz and Cáceres, for which the two provinces of Extremadura are named, which means you can get around the place in a couple of hours. I didn’t plan on staying long, since I only intended to use the city as a launch-pad for getting to Badajoz – there’s only one bus direct from Villafranca and it leaves at nine in the morning – but, as is so often the way of things, Mérida turned out to be a whole lot more than a collection of pristine Roman ruins.

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At first glance it looks a lot like Córdoba, with the Roman bridge and the great big river splitting the old town from the new. But then, so does Badajoz. It’s missing the beauty of the mosque, of course, but then, Córdoba is and always will be in a league of its own. What it does have is a spectacular aqueduct on the north side of town. If you see any photos of Mérida, it’s bound to feature in more than one of them. Unlike the one in Segovia the city gave it breathing space and there’s a park around it now, but that hasn’t stopped the storks from taking advantage of all those convenient flat-topped towers.

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Ah, but I can do better than that. It took me almost half an hour to cross the Roman bridge over the Guadiana this morning, not because of its length – you can span it in five minutes or less at a stride – but because I was held up by two of my favourite little riverside friends, both of them easy to spot because of all the noise they were making.

I haven’t been to Doñana National Park almost every year for the last seven years for nothing, and when I heard a distinctly disgruntled grunting cutting over the babble of an approaching horde of school kids, I was hanging over the side of the bridge and scanning the reeds in a flash; and sure enough, there he was. Old Longshanks himself.

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What can I say? Gallinules. Love ’em. Loved the ridiculous things since I first saw a picture of one in a book. The name’s daft enough – Purple Swamp-Hen, in full – but the feet are something else.

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I don’t know why I make such a big deal about gallinules over anything else, but they’ve always been the ultimate Doñana bird for me. Perhaps it’s because it’s basically a giant purple chicken. Mm, close enough.

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Feathered friend number two should be a lot more familiar to most of you. He’s also rather colourful, but a heck of a lot smaller and shinier to boot. And once you know what they sound like, you’ll see a lot more of them. It’s a kingfisher, of course!

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At least, I hope you know what a kingfisher is. Nobody here does. Not even if I give them the equally impressive Spanish name of martin pescador.

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I’m still waiting on that perfect kingfisher photo. The one everyone wants: wings spread wide, water droplets falling from a dive, fish in beak etc. but until that moment, they’re always a pleasure to watch.

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Everybody else was walking on by and doubtless wondering who that young loony was in the maroon hoodie-and-chinos combo with the ridiculous lens, hanging half over the bridge, but hey, I was having a good time. That’s my idea of a morning well spent, anyway.

Sheesh, long post. My travelogues usually are. Badajoz is rather beautiful, and if my right thigh weren’t still punishing me for that 45km cross-country hike last weekend, I’d probably be enjoying it more. I could do with a rest. It’s a lot bigger than Mérida and I had to double the distance when it turned out that the albergue I had in mind was a school groups affair. I was accosted outside by three young girls who asked me if I wanted a blowjob and called out ‘oyé, feo’ and ‘mochila verde’ after me when I ignored them. Then I tried taking a shortcut through the park into the Alcazaba, but shortcuts do tend to make long delays, and in this case the road came to a sudden and unexpected end. The door was there alright, but the road… wasn’t.

The adventures never end! Left the restaurant to soak up the night in the square and a wandering troupe of musicians asked me for directions to the ayuntamiento. I pointed them in the right direction, but their leader deduced that I clearly wasn’t from Badajoz. Back atcha, tío; ‘I’m from Villafranca de los Barros’. ‘Villafranca?! Hombre, somos de Ribera!’ (the next town along from VdB). It’s a small world. And I’ve just noticed that I missed a major performance from the best gypsy musicians of Badajoz at the theatre tonight. Only two doors down from the hostel, as well. Rats. I’ll be back.

I’d better call it a night there and head on back to the hostel. I might try for sunrise over the Guadiana after this evening’s gorgeous Portuguese sunset. On a final note, I had the happiest moment of the month on the road to Badajoz when I saw, in the distance, a giant V-flock of some one hundred and twenty cranes on their way south. It’s only the very moment I’ve been waiting for, the first true sign of winter in Extremadura. I was practically jumping out of my seat, I was so happy.

The photo hardly does it justice, so I’ll go hunting for them some other time when I’m not stuck on a bus. But that’s an adventure for another day. BB, which may or may not stand for Bird-Brain amongst other things, signing out x

No Going Back

Saying goodbye is never an easy thing to do. I’m certainly not particularly good at it. In fact, there are quite a few goodbyes I’d like the chance to go over again, given the opportunity. You know the kind: the ones where it was all too fleeting, or maybe you didn’t quite say everything you wanted to say, or maybe the real goodbye never came around and you were left with a last meeting that wasn’t really a send-off at all. Most likely you’ve encountered that oh-so-very British awkward goodbye at least once in your lifetime: the one where you say goodbye to somebody, only to bump into them a few minutes later. Don’t you find that situation crops up a lot? It certainly does in Durham, anyway…

For a chatty gossip like me (you’ll just have to imagine the deep sarcasm there), I don’t suppose there’s much point in an elaborate farewell. It’s only really an issue if you’re going to be out of contact for an extended period of time, like stepping off the plane into the abyss and severing all connections with the outside world. Which is essentially what I do every time I step off the train at Three Bridges. I have a phone, true, but I rarely use it. I think I sent a grand total of three texts over the last three months, and all three of them last Sunday. Radio silence on my part doesn’t necessarily mean I’m traveling – I’m probably a lot more talkative when I’m on the road – but it doesn’t mean I’m inactive, either. I simply enjoy going for long periods of radio silence. Anything that needs saying can surely be said best face-to-face, and anything that’s worth saying is always worth waiting for. That makes me quite a distant person, I guess – and not the easiest to track down. For somebody who spent almost all of two years on teenage texting tenterhooks, it’s a policy I’ve guarded jealously for some time now. So in that sense, setting off on another long adventure isn’t really all that different from any other end of term break, as far as contact is concerned.

I’m going off topic. I suppose I’d better come out with it. I’m heading off to Spain in two days’ time – less – to spend nine months working in a secondary school… and I’m not coming back in between.

The idea first came to me when I had a look at the Spanish school calendar for the coming year. That projected end of term date on the twenty-second of December shocked me at first, despite having been schooled in Spain at Christmastime before. It’s all about the reyes magos out there, and that’s not until January. I must have got it into my head early on, but it wasn’t until saying farewell (successfully, mind!) to Andrew at Gatwick Airport that it hit me: I want to be out there for the long haul. Taking a year abroad isn’t just about honing your language skills to fluency, it’s about growing up – and Lord knows I’ve still so much more of that to do. What better way than to strike out on your own for an entire year? Because that’s what it’s set to be, with my second Arabic stint in Morocco striking up almost as soon as I’m done in Extremadura at the end of May, meaning I won’t see the green hills of England again until August 2016, at the very earliest. That doesn’t trouble me as much as it should.

I'm going to miss autumn in England. No, I'm really, really, really going to miss it

I’m going to miss autumn in England. No, I’m really, really, really going to miss it

The last few days have been wonderful for a last taste of England. I consider myself extremely lucky to live in one of the most charming spots in West Sussex, overlooking a dream-sequence of rolling hills as far as the eye can see, right up to the point when they tumble into the sea to the south. Autumn’s in the air, the forest is full of mushrooms and the buzzards that nest deep in the woods are cartwheeling noisily through the skies as usual. Morpurgo described them ‘mewing’ in one of his books and I can’t think of a better way of putting it. This is England, and I’m going to miss it. But there’s something in the air, telling me it’s time I should be moving on. Maybe that’s autumn. The signs are everywhere. The leaves on the oak trees are going a gorgeous golden colour. Out on the school rugby pitches the odd wheatear sits taking a breather, whilst flycatchers and warblers hurry on through the hedgerows snatching a quick meal on their way home. But most telling of all are the great flocks of swallows and the martins streaming on southwards overhead, and in a couple of days I’ll be following them. Maybe I’ll even see some of the same individuals swooping by from Villafranca. Who knows?

Ten points if you can see the buzzard in this one

Ten points if you can see the buzzard in this one

The hardest thing for me to leave behind – besides the monstrous tapestry, which is never going to be finished anytime soon – will be the growing mountain of books in my bedroom.

A year and a half, five metres in and still slaving away

A year and a half and still slaving away…

It’s pretty daft, but for an aspiring writer, I’m late into the fold as regards actually reading. I got it into my head once that if I never read any books that contained ideas similar to my own, I couldn’t get done for plagiarism, because I’d never have noticed the similarity. How very typically overcomplicated of me. The end result is that I haven’t read a decent book – besides Pavilions – in nigh on ten years. At least, one that hasn’t been prescribed by my course. Now I’m motoring through them at lightning speed, assisted by all the iBooks freebies, an immense library at home (courtesy of my equally bookish mother) that I never truly appreciated, and an all-too brief visit to a real bookshop over the weekend.

So many books, so little time...

So many books, so little time…

I say real to distinguish it from your average WHSmith or Waterstones. Seriously, this place had everything. All the historical fiction you could shake a stick at. The entire Hornblower saga. Flashman in abundance. Sharpe, Iggulden and even the master of the art herself, M.M. Kaye. All beautifully spined, deliciously musty and lovingly second-hand. A new gadget may be a good thing, but there’s nothing better than an old book. Mum found a particularly beautiful pair of illustrated Arabic dictionaries – formerly the property of a military attaché, as stamped. Oh, I could have died and gone to heaven. I was in kid-at-Christmas mode. If I’d had this newfound book obsession just two years earlier, I might have given languages the boot and applied for an English degree. The only thing holding me back at the time was a general reading apathy…

Today’s been the downer of the month for no other reason than that every so often I have a lonely spell where it takes a lot to lift me up. Fortunately I’m in the best place for it: start of term or not, the grounds of Worth Abbey are no less than the finest place I’ve ever encountered for soul-healing. Alright, so the stone-pine copse along the Raya Real with its attendant black kites just comes up trumps, but that’s not on my doorstep every morning. Not yet, anyway. Besides, when the loneliness birds come flying in, the open world is always there. Nature’s an unpredictable lady at the best of times, but she’s never let me down. I’ve said that before, and I’ll say it as often as it takes to drive this funk of mine away. Everything will look better in the light of a new morning. It always does.

Waldeinsamkeit - the feeling of being alone in the woods!

Waldeinsamkeit – the feeling of being alone in the woods!

These are curious things to dwell on when home will be so very far away for the next eleven months. But home is where the heart is, and mine has been in Spain for as long as I can remember, and that’s got to count for something. Maybe she’s out there, and maybe she’s not. That’s not for me to decide. If fate decides to cut me a break and give me a good turn, I’m ready to run with it. But one thing’s certain: I will leave Spain fluent. If I can leave the country at the end of the year as bilingual as the grandfather I never knew, I’ll have accomplished a dream two generations in the making. Being a quarter Spanish will mean so much more.

I will be fluent. And that’s a promise. BB x