All posts by wheatypetesworld

luxembourg

The previous night’s stop before traveling to Liechtenstein had been in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. We plan to fill up on petrol there where it is cheap, and cigarettes are only a third more expensive than in Slovakia, so we stop at the first service station. The queues could have signified an oil crisis, but in fact merely show that everyone else has had the same idea. There are two boys directing the vehicles into lines for the twelve pumps and a bit of a party atmosphere. People are hanging around chatting outside their cars or motor homes while they wait. But it is efficient. Fill up, drive to the booth (a bit like the ones on toll bridges) where the cashier pushes open a metal drawer to collect the money, pass over the card reader or give change. Up goes the barrier and off you go. Or you would have done had the motorway not been such a stop start affair. 

I was looking forward to Luxembourg, simply because I have never met anyone from there.  I don’t even know what they call themselves.  Luxembourgish?  Maybe Luxemburgers.  Nevertheless they were an elusive race, even in their own country.  At the service station there were German and Belgian cars, French and Dutch, but no Luxembourgolian.  I bought a baguette and coffee but don’t ask the girl who served me where she is from.  If I started a “Where are you from?” conversation with a random young female, even if in an honest quest to meet my first Luxembourgino, Tash would… well let’s just say “I choose life”.  Another way to get yourself in trouble at a Luxembourgillon service station would be to take advantage of the free massage service offered to travellers by a very nice young lady.  I sort of like Luxembourg but still cannot say for sure if I have met a Luxembourgian.  Finally we head off the motorway into a rolling, rural setting which reminded me of Devon. I had thought of Luxembourg as a city. Wrong. The goal of finding out more about the little countries beginning with ‘L’ is achieved, however I did manage to lose my car key in Luxembourg. Tash had assured me that it must be somewhere in the camper, so I had used her key. Mine never turned up though. Finally, in desperation I later emailed the friendly Dutch couple who ran the campsite. They immediately replied that they had found the key in the shower and were kind enough to send it to Slovakia, refusing any payment for their efforts. 

The whole sorry affair with the key was just another chapter in the lost car keys in Europe saga. Once, in the Ardeche, Tash had pulled me in to a river to swim. The Vauxhall’s keys were in the pocket of my swimming shorts. The keys are, to this day, at the bottom of a river in the Ardeche. All this led to an encounter with Eric le Garagiste. But not before I had had to purchase a pair of Incredible Hulk swimming goggles to search the muddy water, much to Tash’s amusement. Eric le Garagiste, his side kick used to tell us, was always out buying bread, or eggs, or doing whatever it was that he did all day. But rarely did he ever take on the role of Garagiste. We did catch up with him once, only to have a conversation about how he did not want to break the window to get in, and how if it had been a French car he would have been in by now. The conversation ended with him pronouncing solemnly, “La prochaine fois, Monsieur, achetez Francais!” All this took days and it was not until the evening of the day before our ferry back from Calais that he was in. OK, the car started with a screwdriver, which Eric le Garagiste/obsessive grocery buyer kindly donated, and now it was an all nighter back to the port. This did at least have the advantage of a drive through the very centre of Paris in the small hours when the streets were completely empty.

I have a wall map at home with pins in the places we have visited. Tash smugly points out that I should have one of Europe, but with pins showing the places where I have lost car keys after the Luxembourg incident. “I never lost any keys before I met you,” I tell her sulkily.

South africa

There is a nerd on this plane.  He is not reading his book or chatting to the traveller next to him.  He isn’t even watching the in-flight move, but is still staring fixedly at the screen above him watching the real time map.  OK, I admit it; that nerd was me.  I couldn’t help it.  I clocked that we were over the Sahara somewhere between Tunis and Algiers and that the temperature was -49 degrees Celsius and this struck me as curious when in a desert – I was hooked.  I have always been sent on flights of fantasy when faced with a map and the romance and lyrical qualities of place names.  This flight was a good one for that.  I was en route from London to Johannesburg for a teachers’ exchange programme with our partner school in Warrenton, near Kimberley, South Africa.  So, there I was enjoying the poetry of Bakwang, Lubumbashi, Kitwe and Luanda, rolling the names of Kinshasha, Lobito, Menongue and Bujumbura around the tongue in my silent thoughts, sent into paroxysms of pure joy when above Lilongwe and Cabinda.  Yes, I was that nerd.  My line manager, whom we liked to call “Grandad” (he may have been called Derek, or Duncan, but we’ll go with Grandad for now), was to join the exchange a few days later so this was a solo travel for the moment.  Because of this I felt OK – maybe even good – about my nerdish behaviour; there was no-one to point out my short-comings. 

To get to Kimberley I had to change planes in Johannesburg to get a flight there before an hour’s drive to Warrenton, named after Sir Charles Warren who came here in search of diamonds in the late nineteenth century.  Boarding the internal flight, the lady at the gate told me I could not take the gun into the cabin on the plane.  I opened the case and showed her my guitar, realising that I had returned to the frontier world of sub-Saharan Africa.  At Kimberley I am met by the Principal, Mr. Moleme, and Lois, who was to be my host for the visit.  Mr Moleme is very round and has no hairs on his arms; Lois is small and smiley.  After a few chores in town and lunch we drive the 70km to Warrenton through dry, flat veld, pock-marked by tired-looking, thorny trees.

As my hosts lead me into the staffroom the whole place erupts in high-pitched, tongue-waggling whoops which subside into a harmonised A capella welcome song to a clapped accompaniment and belted-out melody.  I am then introduced to each teacher in turn and asked to make a speech.  It is a cold night, but the nerd lies awake in bed listening to the night-insects rather than his I-pod.  This is a place of sounds.

After powdered instant-coffee-flavoured-drink and a cold shower, I leave for school with Lois at 7a.m.  It is an hour’s walk.  I am introduced in the assembly.  When I had arrived, the courtyard had been a cacophonous rabble of rag-tag students.  Then one young teacher, very pretty with long braided hair, suddenly boomed out the first line of a call-and-answer song and instantly the whole school was singing.  So they were quiet for the introductions.  Then I was to have a meeting with the Senior Management team, which was delayed by a couple of hours while they sorted out a problem: one of the students has been caught breaking into a house and stealing firearms and a DVD player.  Finally, they return from the police station and my timetable is arranged.   On the agenda for today is an “orientation visit” around the school.

Lois’ house

There are thirty classes in the school.  Not all of them have their teacher in today, but they are either working quietly or just sitting doing nothing.  The playground for the four-year-olds is surrounded in barbed wire.  Some windows are half-missing, leaving a lethally-sharp half-pane of broken glass.  Some of the classes I visited had friendly welcoming teachers, others were more reserved in their welcome.  The school officially has students from 9 to 14 years-old, although many are much older.  They do not have birth certificates and often do not actually know their age, but some are clearly way too old for the school.  Some of the older ones are practising for a debate.  The subject under discussion: Crime does Pay.  The student currently behind bars at the police station comes to my mind.

Mr. Moleme has asked me to run some staff training sessions on computer skills.  No-one turned up for the first session, so I chat to a student who shows me how to use her spinning-top.  Then I find the school secretary to ask if I should go somewhere else now.  She lives in Kimberley and commutes for two hours each way.  But, she tells me thankfully, she has only been robbed once in the past twenty years. 

Lois likes to watch TV.  It is all in Zulu or Africaans.   One the second night she declares, “I am going out” and disappears for the evening with a friend.  The TV is still on and for once it is a programme in English.  Lois must have switched it to an English channel before going out.  It is a gameshow called “You’re Hired!” –  The show that brings down South Africa’s unemployment… Saturday by Saturday.  Two contestants battle it out to win this week’s job on offer and you at home get the chance to choose one of these lucky hopefuls… It takes an hour to do this.

On Sunday morning Lois tells me that we are going to church.  “What are you going to wear?” she asks me.  I am a bit flummoxed.  What is required, I wonder?  Something smart….  I think… hmm.    The conversation went something like this:

“Well… white trousers, black tee-shirt and jacket?” I venture.

“Do they need ironing?”

“I don’t know.”

“Let me see.”  I go and fetch them for the inspection. 

“I think they’re OK.” 

With a tut, they are whisked away to be ironed.  It is a forty-minute-walk to the church.  We pass other churches on the way; some looked just like any other house, others were made of corrugated iron.  One was even a marquee.  At Lois’ (brick-built) church, people sing as they file in.  The singing is fabulous.  Hymn-books are used to drum out the rhythm on.  There are two lay-preachers.  There is a priest, but he has lots of churches to oversee, so this is the norm.  Five teenage assistants, in scarlet robes, flank the preachers.  After twenty minutes or so of singing and manic handshaking with everybody you could reach, we can finally sit down on the wooden benches.  I don’t understand any of the service because it is all in Tswana.  Mr. Moleme is here.  Lois tells me he hardly ever comes.  He offers us a lift home after the service and we stop at a prayer meeting at the house of a recently-deceased church-member.  After that we visit a teacher whose youngest son has just lost a leg, drunkenly falling off a moving train.  Mr. Moleme says he will call this afternoon and take us game-viewing.  He is in a jovial mood and in the car sings along to his favourite country and Western artist, Kenny Rogers.  We get to the game park at about three o’clock, only to learn that the game bus only leaves at nine or two, so we can’t get in.  But we do detour on the way back, to a private game-ranch.  But when the farmer hears Mr. Moleme’s voice on the intercom, he tells him that there is no-one here so he cannot come in.  Oh well, at least Grandad was supposed to be arriving the following day.

From Lois’ living room: Paraffin heater and hat from Lesotho.

In the evening, Lois tells me that she never wanted to host this visit.  All the teachers at school are gossiping about it and demanding that she share out the presents I must have brought for her. 

Walking to school the next day, I nearly bumped into a man.  “Sorry, Master” was his reaction.  Mr. Moleme asks a teacher to accompany me on this morning’s lesson visits to translate; she complains bitterly.  He insists that because of the language barrier, I should be accompanied at all times.  As we go to the class room I apologise to the teacher and ask if this is a problem for her.  “I must meet with the other teachers,” she tells me and walks out of the class room, leaving me alone with the forty or so children with whom I shared no common language.  Time to open the gun case and teach them a few songs.  The teacher returns.  “I am teaching a numeracy lesson now,” she announces.  I don’t understand it, because it is in Tswana.  At the end she comes over to me.  “Tomorrow you can come and teach them this song about food.”  She then sings me a song.  “Because I can’t teach them singing.”  Next door the numeracy lesson is a call and response style chanting: very “School of Rock”.  The teacher translates the lesson on cultural differences I had prepared and was the epitome of helpfulness.  And so the visits to classes continued.  I notice that when children, even as young as five, finish their work they sit and wait in silence until the teacher calls them over to have their work marked.  Then they go back and sit in silence while the rest of the class go through the same process.  It crosses my mind that I could get their own back for them by asking the teachers at tonight’s training to sit in silence doing nothing for half an hour…

Mr. Moleme has called the school.  He is in Kimberley and can’t find Grandad.  He had even waved the sign saying “Grandad” in the faces of all arrivals (that was my idea).  It turns out that Mr. Moleme is one day early so had driven one hundred and forty km for nothing.  He will have to go back tomorrow.

In the computer suite the machines are brand new and unused.  Most staff have never touched a computer before, neither do they want to.  Mr. Moleme has insisted that they come and they are grumpy about being kept at school after 2:30. But amazingly, they very quickly became engaged in learning how to use Microsoft Word and Paint, or mostly did.  One very short, older teacher, they told me, liked to use his diminutive stature to hide amongst the students in order to avoid work.  He sits with his arms and legs splayed outward and appears to be entirely floppy.  He will not move the mouse unless I take his hand and move it for him.  “I just want to rest,” he complains.

Mr. Moleme called a staff meeting to welcome Grandad the next day.   “Please, let us all be here to give him a warm welcome. Please!” he implores the staff.  “And I must inform you that attendance at training sessions is part of your contracts.  You must attend.  Please!”

In class the good-singing teacher from the assembly is using the lateness of children to practise their English.  It is a call-and-response conversation.

“Good morning, Learners.”

“Good Morning Miss ____ .  How are you today?”

“I am fine and how are you?”

“I am fine.  May I join the class?”

“Yes!”

She asks me to teach them a song.  I am pleased to hear some children singing “No Woman, No Cry” as they are walking off for lunch.  I taught other lessons, Literacy and Cultural Studies as well as Music. 

Grandad gets a welcome as amazing as the one I had received on arrival.  His reaction is to hold his arms aloft, as if he had just scored a goal.  He lands on his feet with his host teacher.  The house is across the road from a bar and his host, Vince, has arranged a barbeque for all the teachers to welcome him.  Grandad has managed to obtain some Bristol City soccer shirts for the school team, which he presents.  The teachers all go into a gaggle and are talking frantically.  “They are saying that they like the shape of your body!” Lois tells Grandad.  They decide to give us African names.  Under apartheid, all African children had to have a European Christian name.  If you had no idea the authorities simply gave new-borns a European name when they were registered.   Now most Africans from those times prefer to use their African names.  Grandad tries to get them to call me “the small one”, when he is Christened “Ramoleli” (“the tall one”), but they settle on “Ramino” (“Music Man”).  At our official “christening” assembly the next morning a dozen or so staff are sporting their new Bristol City shirts and Lois is immaculately-dressed in a smart suit and wearing a Bristol City scarf as a headscarf, African style.  The rest of the staff are complaining that they had not been given any presents.  Later in the morning, a plush white BMW pulls into the school yard.  It is the Mayor.  “Where is my Bristol City shirt?  Did you bring me any whisky?” he asks.  The Mayor wants to establish a link with our town council.  He instructs us to come to the Mayor’s office the next morning to help shoot a promotional video to take back to our town council in support of his bid for linking.  In the event he was more interested in the finalising the finer points of detail for the visit he was convinced would now happen in late December.   He even phoned our local town hall to get the name of the mayor there and gets me and Grandad to type up a letter which we are charged to deliver upon our return.

Grandad and I were also summoned to a local political meeting where each attendee was to give a speech on what the latest developments were in their organisation concerning the problem of combatting Aids.  The school Health Committee, the ANC and a home care organisation were amongst the speakers.  Being from a primary school in the rural South West of England we had not really got much to report and tell them that we are here to learn from them.  Guest expert speakers are invited into the school to raise awareness and the home care people tell us that people here will not go to clinics to be tested for fear that the lack of confidentiality will mean that the whole community will know if they are HIV positive.  Even to be seen going to be tested will be enough to start tongues wagging.  The volunteers help with daily tasks such as cooking or cleaning and cold call to ask if anyone in the house is ill or whether the inhabitants are taking their prescribed medication.  Teachers are vital in providing information to the workers. If a child vomits at school they will inform the clinic.  At school, children known to be HIV positive are given dietary supplements.  The last Friday of each month is an Aids awareness day with specialist lessons, speakers, drama groups and the like.  At the meeting all agree on sending a stiff joint letter to the hospital complaining about a lack of confidentiality on behalf of the staff.  After the meeting Mr. Moleme has rearranged the failed visit to a game park and we were not disappointed this time.  He even stood us a takeaway to eat in the car while we all sang along to Kenny Rogers.

There is a printed agenda for the special meeting at school to arrange a send-off for Grandad and I.  The items are numbered but they begin the meeting with item number nine, followed by item number five…  Tasks are delegated and it is a fantastic send-off.  Everybody drank so much that one teacher gashed his head falling out of Lois’ kitchen; another leaves the kitchen for the lounge and then gets lost in the crowd, begging people to help her find her way back to the kitchen; a little old Xhosa woman insists that I should marry her before I leave, while Grandad is under a blanket having a good old grope at the young good-singer teacher who has removed her braided wig for the occasion, but that’s as far as Grandad will go because he is afraid of getting Aids.  So, it was a night of no sleep before our return.  Grandad is asleep on the plane as we hit the south coast of Britain and the in-flight map has been taken down.  No matter, the nerd knows we are now passing over Crapstone, Beer, Staines and Slough.  When the two South African teachers pay their return visit to our school, they will think they have landed on the Star Ship Enterprise when they see all the technology and paraphernalia we have in UK establishments.  It’s a long way from Warrenton.

Ba-da-bing, we got a glawning

It has been a pretty shitty time lately, but I can not really say why… it is to do with a horrible, unmentionable thing. So to find a second hand glawning and wood-burner accoutrements for sale was the perfect antidote. OK, so it did involve 3 days of withdrawing max-cash on Tash’s credit card, but hell, we f-ing deserve this. However it should be mentioned that we have no less love for dear Peaches even though we now sleep in a new place… This is what it looked like:

CZECH REPUBLIC: Into hyperspace in prague

I was disappointed with what I had hoped would be the perfect surprise birthday weekend in a posh hotel in Prague.  A colleague had said, “I’m sure it will work, I’d love it if someone did that for me.”  OK, so it wasn’t the lovely hotel in the Tatra Mountains that we had stayed at before, when we found an absolute bargain rate, but I did try my damdest to find a suitable 40th birthday getaway. 

So here is an episode that summed up this posh hotel.  We came down for breakfast on day one and the restaurant was emptying by the time we got there – it was a birthday weekend so why get up early?  But there were dirty spoons and cutlery on the floor.  Congealed egg was spread ebulliently along the breakfast bar as were other breakfast-end-of-service congealments (that is a made-up word invented by this trip).  The large restaurant was all but empty by the time we got there: a smartly-dressed waiter is having a laugh and sharing something on his phone with a colleague while we try to enjoy what is left of the four-star breakfast. They are even flicking starched napkins at each other. We can not get their attention to ask for coffee.  These men are loud and more concerned with their bravado than their roles.

Suddenly the men break into a half-run, half-walk; something between a turkey trotting or a stiff-legged, pompous-running warthog came to mind.  It was as if the waiters had suddenly gone into fast-forward or hyperspace mode.  They are swishing rather than flicking napkins now and ostentatiously gathering up cutlery from used tables with a great clanking of metal, still moving at a cross between a walk and a sprint.  One even begins to pay some attention to us.  He asks if everything is OK, but disappears before we can answer or even ask for a coffee.  It was if a switch had been tripped and a dirty, slovenly, slattern of a breakfast room, a trickery of a four-star restaurant, had been mystically propelled into hotel heaven, but at a somewhat over-enthusiastic rate.  It was at this point that I noticed a be-suited man picking a baked-bean covered spoon off the floor and removing the congealed-egg-cutlery from the breakfast bar: the manager had arrived.

And what I learned from this trip? DO NOT EVER TRY TO MAKE THE PERFECT ESCAPE BY LOOKING AT THE NUMBER OF STARS THE HOTEL CLAIMS TO HAVE.

Iceland

Underfloor heating has always seemed the height of luxury to me here in the UK.  Barely two per cent of houses use it.  They’re the people with toasty feet in slick, modern, well-heated homes.  It should not be such a great thing really.  After all, 1,600 years after the Romans left Britain (and they had the hypocaust, or underfloor heating), sixty per cent of households in Germany, and eighty per cent in Scandinavia use it.  But to us here it is still the holy grail of home-heating luxury.  So imagine discovering a country where a whole city has underfloor heating.  Even outside!  Take a stroll around Reykjavik mid-winter, and you will discover that in addition to private homes, pavements and carparks are kept snow-free by this method.  It is achieved through geothermal sources which tap in to the volcanic landscape and eighty-seven per cent of heating requirements are covered by this green energy source in Iceland.  The hot water from the taps smells sulphurous. 

Another reason to like Iceland and its volcanic landscape is that when volcanoes erupt, like Eyjafyajallajökull did in 2010, and send ash clouds over Western Europe, planes can be grounded.  You can be stuck back in the UK on a visit from Slovakia and it can take your employers a couple of weeks to arrange a “rescue bus” for Slovak and Hungarian-based staff giving you an extra two week’s holiday: which is what happened to us.  We even liked the financial crisis in Iceland in 2008.  A year later Iceland was still a cheap destination to visit thanks to this, which is why we decided to go there in December 2009.  The rugged landscapes were covered in snow (but not the pavements and carparks) and we toured the “Golden Circle, visiting the geothermal power station at Hellisheiõi and (frozen) Gullfoss (“golden”) waterfalls and geyser.  We tried to see the northern lights one night, but it was too cloudy.  Painted wooden churches in the snowfields with wild ponies, gave the landscape the air of a 3D animated Christmas card.

In Reykjavik we walked along the seafront admiring the sculptures against the backdrop of white mountains across the bay.   Some way along was a ramshackle seafront building, cluttered with metal debris everywhere, and inhabited by a sculptor who seemed to specialise in industrial raw materials to make things like a wooden cross pierced by hundreds of large, rusty nails, or a noose made of scaffolding. 

You have to admire the use of clean energy in Iceland.  But it does come at a price.  In the country’s most southerly village, Vik, each of the 318 residents permanently keep a packed rucksack of essentials by their front door.  The idea is that within forty minutes of any warning of an imminent eruption from the nearby Katla volcano they can be home from work, collect their emergency bag and be at the safe meeting point by the hilltop church to await air evacuation.  But wait a minute.  Wasn’t it a volcanic ash cloud that grounded all of those aircraft in 2008?  The thought occurs…  You may be up a hill, but how will anyone get there to rescue you?  It seems as ill-thought out as the preparations England (population 67 million) made to counteract the (by then) well-used long throw routine when Iceland (population 350,000 – plus 2.3 million tourists each year) knocked them out of the 2016 football European Cup.  Not that I’m bitter, or a sore loser or anything.  I just thought I’d mention it while thinking about Iceland. 

Katla is well overdue for an eruption.  Hailing from Vik must be like living under a permanent death-threat.  Or being an England goal keeper.  The volcano is under a glacier, so add flash floods from melting ice to the dangers from lava and ejecta.  It erupts every fifty years or so.  The last eruption was in 1918.

Iceland is a country worth visiting.

Germany

I have very fond memories of Germany.  It was always the country that involved a long drive on our regular trips between Slovakia and the UK, and some places became regular haunts and favourites to stop at, like the Gasthaus-Pension Hofmann in Oberdachstetten, Bavaria which was so lovely that we made a point of stopping there despite a quest to find different routes each time.  Here there was a classically fierce, but kind frau, who terrified and charmed in equal measure.  One year we slid down the long track up to the guesthouse, set in beautiful Bavarian snow-clad grandeur and frolicked in the snow on improvised sledges. The breakfasts were hearty, as was the welcome. 

That year was snowy.  It was Christmas and the autobahns were slow due to the weather conditions.  I always loved driving under the runway at Frankfurt, where sometimes, if you were lucky, you would pass under a taxi-ing plane right above you.  It was a route-marker that said, “You’re a good way along, now”. 

But this particular year it was a hard drive – the day before Christmas eve.  We had not quite reached Frankfurt airport and impressive Squaire, constructed over a railway station: an enormous “groundscraper” (a large building that is only around a dozen stories high but which greatly extends horizontally) like some gargantuan rounded cuboid-shaped animal brooding next to the motorway, just past the airport. 

We had stopped at a service station and this was the place where the car conked out.  If there was any luck involved in this, at least it happened at a service station, rather than on the highway. We asked in the restaurant and they directed us to a phone the other side of the car park.  “This is going to cost an arm and a leg,” was my first thought.  We waited for about forty five minutes.

A young mechanic in a breakdown truck arrived.  He spoke good English, which he was keen to practice.  He told us about his brother who lived in England… and I still worried about the impending cost.

“It will drive for a bit,” he told us, “follow me slowly.”  He took us through a service exit to a nearby garage which was just closing for the holiday season.  Here he persuaded the mechanics to replace the part needed while we waited.  It cost us about fifty euros, but he did have a debate with the mechanics there about how it was Christmas and the charitable thing to do would be to do half an hour’s worth of overtime to help travellers get home to their family for Christmas.  I thanked him profusely for that and then broached the big one: “How much do we owe you?”

“It is Christmas,” he told me.  “No charge.  Have a safe journey back to your family.”  Need I say more about my experiences in Germany?

Totnes

The rising sun catches the wings of a seagull as it flies along the street at the level of the roof tops.  It is not lost having been blown inland: Totnes lies at the tidal reaches of the Dart river, which joins the sea at Dartmouth, some twelve miles south of here. 

Locals here will tell you about “the seal”.  It seems to be some kind of right of passage to spot “the seal”; people may even ask you, “Have you seen the seal?” (although it is probably, in reality, more than one seal, but let’s go with the seal, it is more befitting of the place).

You can catch a river cruise from here to Dartmouth come summer.  The Dart winds through fields and forests, passing a couple of waterfront pubs and smart boathouses, polite lawns rolling down to the river, then it seems to undergo a personality change as it widens to do a fairly good impersonation of a lake before entering the sea.  On the way, just out of Totnes you will pass the wreck of the Kingswear Castle, a paddle steamer which once ran commercial voyages up and down the river.  By 1927 it was moored in Dartmouth harbour as a hospital isolation ship, then towed to its final resting place here and left to rot as a hulk, a ghost ship perhaps still visited, they say, by some of the former TB patients.  

It is hard to put your finger on what it is that is so likeable about Totnes.  Maybe it is the way that it is quite natural here for strangers to say hello to each other in the street; or the fact that often, and it could even be on the same street, women of a certain age, wearing flowing skirts and with a far-away look in their eyes will smile at you, or chat about your dog as they pet him; perhaps the fact that some will tell you that Totnes is twinned with Narnia.  This may go some way to explain why in 2018, when the Telegraph wrote about the town in its travel section, the article was entitled: Is this the most eccentric town in Britain?  It is certainly a place at home in its own, rather unique, skin.  One local declared independence and issued Totnes passports to inhabitants so they could remain in the EU.  And then for a few years Totnes actually issued its own currency (the Totnes pound) which you could spend in some local shops, in an attempt to keep money in the local economy.  As the Telegraph puts it:

This place has earned a reputation for a level of eccentricity beyond the usual cream tea and antiques shop fare that characterises a day trip in this part of the world – but in recent years it has also developed more pedigree and poise than many of its south-west siblings. Indeed, back in 2007 Time magazine hailed Totnes as the capital of New-Age chic, and today’s Totnesians are certainly a well-heeled bunch, who are likely to sport a black labrador with their multicoloured festival wear…

You certainly couldn’t describe it as an identikit town centre. Totnesians new and old fought a valiant battle to stop a Costa Coffee opening, which tells you how they feel about chain stores around here.

At the bus shelter a puffy face, heavy eyelids, and hair standing up in straight tufts, emerge from what seems to be a pile of clothes.  Jack, who is actually wearing this mound of fabric, assures me that there is a huge drug problem in the town.  He has left his housemates because they were doing too much coke.  This is why he is sleeping here.  Jack will be out busking on the high street today; he just needs to collect his guitar from a friend’s house.  He’s been to the council to try to find accommodation, but he is a young, single male, so that will be a mañana then.  We share an interest in 70’s music, Queen, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the like, even though he is half my age.

The High Street, is in fact called Fore Street and climbs up from the bridge, past the Royal Seven Stars Hotel through the town centre to its castle peak. Independent shops and boutiques, interior furnishers, art galleries, wholefood or vegan cafes and gift shops crowd shoulder to shoulder along the pavements. Eastgate, the Elizabethan arched entrance to the walled town, straddles Fore Street – destroyed in a fire in 1990, but now rebuilt. The equally Elizabethan market is also still going strong every Friday and Saturday with its colourful characters touting clothing, plants, foods, antiques, collectables, hot food, and an array of unusual products. You may even be lucky and catch the farmers’ food market once a month. Shrouded in a warm aroma of Nag Champa joss sticks mingled with hot punch and roasting chestnuts, the Christmas market takes over the whole street on Tuesday nights in December.

Close to Eastgate, outside number 51 Fore Street to be precise, you could be easily forgiven for stepping past, or even inadvertently on (since it was lowered by 18 inches to be flush with the street when Fore Street was widened in 1810) one of Totnes’ cherished historical landmarks: the Brutus Stone.  This lump of granite has a (some say spurious) connection to the ancient explorer who is said to have founded Britain.  According to legend, the Brutus Stone and the origins of Totnes stretch all the way back to ancient Troy. After accidentally killing his father, Brutus set off to Greece with his army of followers, where he defeated the king Pendrasu. The king gave Brutus his daughter to marry, and 324 well-stocked ships, at least one of which ended up on the River Dart.  Following the advice of the oracle Diana, who suggested the Trojans should travel to an island in the Western Seas that was possessed by Giants, Brutus set sail for Great Britain – at the time called Albion.  It was on the Brutus Stone that he made his proclamation: “Here I stand and here I rest. And this town shall be called Totnes,” after landing on Britain’s shores, undeterred by the giants and attracted to Totnes by its location and fish-filled rivers, and probably the New Age vibe of the place as well. Not only was Totnes named by Brutus, but it’s said he named Britain after himself.  Or so they say.  Whether or not Brutus stood on the stone, it’s a town custom that royal proclamations should be read there by the mayor.

Overlooking the town is the Norman motte and bailey castle.  In its grounds there is graffitti on the trees left by prisoners of war during the Second World War.  It is said to be one of the best surviving examples of an early Norman motte-and-bailey structure.  But doesn’t every Norman castle claim that? It was built during the reign of William I.  At the top of Fore Street the road takes a ninety degree turn to the left into the Narrows, where you will find the first zero packaging shop in the country.  You bring your own containers to buy from here.  And even weirder (this is Totnes after all), it is owned and run by a former Manchester United defender.  OK, so Richard Eckersley only appeared twice for Man U, but he did play alongside Rio Ferdinand. 

For lovers of spooky country tales the surrounding area is a fertile hunting ground.  A couple of miles outside Totnes the village of Berry Pomeroy boasts a spooky, haunted castle, or rather a spooky, ruined, haunted  castle – which makes it even better – where believers of the supernatural flock to the rubble in search of signs from the other side.  Berry Pomeroy Castle has spawned tales of ladies in grey, spook lights, anomalous noises, unexplainable shadows, terrifying screams. cold spots and just about every other hallmark of supernatural activity that you may care to name. Tales of heroic brothers who, instead of accepting defeat in a battle, together rode their horses from the top of the ramparts to the precipice below. A Blue Lady, full of sorrow and vengeance after killing her baby fathered by her own father, luring people to her tower from which they then fall to their death. A White Lady whose jealous sister imprisoned her in the dungeon to forever wail and moan at the cruel punishment she received for being hotter than her sibling.

Or if you head a few miles further, up to Hound Tor on Dartmoor, then you can visit the legendary grave of Mary Jay, who, in the 18th century, was abandoned by her mother and given up to a local orphanage. She was given the surname J (or Jay) because she was the 10th girl to arrive at the orphanage. Until her teens Mary was content at the orphanage and taking care of the younger children, but living in disgrace as a penniless orphan.  When she grew older, she was sent to Canna Farm near the neighbouring hamlet of Manaton to earn money. She was employed to work in the house as help, and also in the field as a labourer. At this point in her life, she was given the nickname Kitty, which had become synonymous with promiscuity. Shortly after she arrived at the farm, she was raped by a male farmhand and became pregnant.  Cursed by the locals as a whore, she was forced to leave the farm, as no one would employ such a woman. With nowhere else to turn, she ended her life by hanging herself in one of the local barns. Since she had committed suicide, she was not allowed to be buried on church land. Instead, she was buried at the crossroads of three parishes, none of which would accept and bury her.  Following her death, stories of haunting began immediately, as locals claimed a hooded figure often knelt by the grave in the moonlight. Legend asserts that the spirit of Kitty Jay haunts her grave and Dartmoor. Besides that, there are ghostly happenings around her grave; fresh flowers mysteriously appear on the grave every day, with no indication of who places them there.

Kitty Jay’s Grave

Like so many other English provincial towns, Totnes lays its own claim to a few notable inhabitants.  But being Totnes they are quite a quirky, diverse lot: from the author Mary Wesley who did not publish her first of a string of adult bestsellers until she was in her seventies, and lived and died in Totnes, through to Charles Babbage – mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer – who originated the concept of a digital programmable computer and had a strong family connection with Totnes attending the King Edward VI Grammar School here.  Not to mention Rick Mayall.  Nothing more needs to be said about him, other than that he fits this eccentric-genius-of-a-town perfectly.

It is still early morning when I return from my amble around Totnes.  The cries of the seagull are echoing away, backed by the chiming of the quarter hour from the church tower.  There is a splash from the river, and for a moment I am convinced that I will finally catch a glimpse of the seal and become a proper Totnesian… but it is only the swan (that’s another story) flopping off its nest into the leat by the semi-island under the bridge.  “Morning,” smiles a stranger as we pass mid-bridge.  “Morning,” I reply.  I am greeting a stranger.  Maybe I am half way there, half-way-Totnesian.  If I could just get one of those passports I would be on the home run.  I’m sure of it.

Jordan redux

(ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF NATASHA)

A man is bent double, his overall-clad body hidden from waist upwards submerged inside the engine of a tank.  As the Mutawa approaches all he can see is the buttocks and legs of the man.  He is saying something about this being the time of prayer and how the man should not be working at this hour.  Al Mutawa are the religious police in Saudi Arabia, charged with enforcing the upholding of sharia law.  He is now raising his voice, whilst the top and bottom half of the man carry on working.  Shouting and fingering his stick the Mutawa is screaming for the man to get out and get praying.  It will involve a beating and a night in jail for this infringement.  Suddenly the top half pops out of the engine revealing a broad smile under a baseball cap, a double thumbs up and a broad Kentucky-voiced: ”Yo! What’s up bro?”  Billy, our old friend with whom we caught up in Aqaba, as larger than life as ever, arriving in what he called “a beaten-up ol’ green Chevy”, with every single warning light illuminated and guzzling litre after litre of oil.  It had taken him a long time to get through the border, where he tells us that cars can be literally stripped down, and left for you to reassemble – engines out and doors dismantled in the alcohol check.  Al Matawa could not touch a westerner, non-Muslim, so Billy had escaped a beating and the officer had looked away, avoiding eye-contact and just carried on walking in silence.  As an anniversary present, Billy stood us a night in a top hotel in Aqaba.  Having decided to celebrate our tenth anniversary by coming back to the place where we were wed, and our daughter was born, we returned to Jordan.  We had left when she was five months old, so it was also a great chance to show Iona her country of birth.

Catching up with Billy

In front of one of the murals in Aqaba
Feet in the Red Sea
Aqaba beach

Catching up with old friends is a great bonus to a travel.  Carol has left our old school (now an UNHCR centre and refugee camp) and here she is now in the middle of the busy two lanes and three lines of cars all jostling for position, arms aloft and hands waving in the air.  “This is the only way to cross,” she tells us.  It should be noted that in getting to the restaurant where we had arranged to meet we ended up getting a cab to cross the four lanes.  It was just so busy in each direction so we had asked the cabbie to take us up to the roundabout and back to the other side.  I had asked him to put on the meter.  It is one of the Arabic phrases I remembered.  “How much money you got?” was his response.  After a short debate we simply got out.  

Amman is cleaner than we remembered it being.  And a lot busier with regard to the traffic.  Now everyone has house numbers and their streets have names, so a whole new world has opened up since we left.  Addresses were always PO Box numbers and you told taxi-drivers a local landmark, like a bakery or the nearest named main street.  Now they can have home delivery from the supermarkets, home delivery takeaway meals and a private, reliable, cheap minicab service has started. 

Two weeks is plenty of time to visit old haunts and see some highlights of the country.  We had seen these before, floated in the Dead and snorkelled the reefs of the Red, Petra etc. but Iona had not.  There are however, always new ways of seeing things, new highlights, pleasures.  In Aqaba the sun puts me in mind of a great orange pool ball slipping into a pocket as it sinks into the hills of Israel above Eilat.  At the Dead Sea the sunset is peaceful beyond compare.

Or marvelling at the sophisticated underground sewage system and earthquake-tumbled, columned streets of Jerash; the ancient Nabatean hieroglyphs and stunning landscape of Wadi Rum.

Drinking coffee roasted over an open fire then ground in a mebash (large mortar made from a decorated hollowed out log with a long club shaped wooden pestle) and listening to stories from our Bedouin hosts was another new pleasure.  Staying in Bedouin camps is to be recommended.

In October 2018 the Jordan Times reported:

It goes without saying that Amman has a large traffic problem and the gridlock on the city’s streets is getting worse… you need to spend one hour to take a ride that should usually take you fifteen minutes.

So that is the context of my experience of driving around Amman, as well as up and down the country.  And here below are ten things I have learnt about driving in Jordan.

  1. Whereas the relatively new initiative to give names to all streets can be helpful and denotes a certain unusual level of sanity with regard to driving around here, you will still be seen as mad if you ask for a seat belt, or use indicators.
  2. Do not be surprised if a small boy runs repeatedly across the street in front of you to fly his kite.
  3. The number of lines of cars bears little relationship to the number of marked lanes.
  4. Overtaking is just one way to pass a car in front of you – why not just undertake (even if this involves the creation of a whole new one-car-line-of-traffic, which only requires a 2 cm clearance between the sides of your car and the two moving vehicles either side of you)? And if you ever find yourself wondering whether that car will pull out in front of you, or cut you up, the answer will almost certainly be “YES!”
  5. Taxi drivers will shift mountains to get you there as quickly as possible as part of the service – the slow pace of relaxing on holiday is not relevant – and so the art of weaving at speed between multiple lines of traffic should be seen as the mark of good taxi-driving.
  6. Whatever you can physically get onto the back of your pick-up is permissible: precariously-balanced overloaded cargo; camels tied to the cab; horses tethered in the same way, manes streaming in the wind; wives and children.
  7. If your car does not have air conditioning, you can always drive with one hand holding open your door to maximise ventilation. 
  8. If you miss your turning on the highway you can always do a U-turn and drive back along the hard shoulder.
  9. The crawler lane on hills may be unusable due to the presence of fruit or vegetable sellers’ stalls.
  10. Taxi drivers have perfected the art of smoking, talking on the phone and driving simultaneously.

On a plus note: petrol is cheap.

In Bedouin tradition, any stranger can turn up at the door (if tents have doors) and receive free lodging for three days without even being asked their name.  After that time, questions may be asked.  Coffee is roasted slowly and cardamom is ground separately to add at the end of the process.  This negates the effects of caffeine.  In the grinding, the pestle thumps against the neck of the mebash in an intricate regular rhythm, like the beat of a bongo drum.  The coffee is brewed with water boiled over a brush wood fire and poured from a long-beaked brass pot into porcelain thimble-size cups or small cups that look like egg cups.  The host always drinks first to prove that there is no poison present.  A guest customarily accepts three servings. Bedouins signal they have had enough to drink by twisting the cup back and forth with their wrist.  Imagine sitting in a large, comfortable tent on black and red-patterned floor cushions around an open fire, the aroma of the coffee roasting on a long-handled pan, while the host tells you about these traditions.  After the grinding an old Bedouin man sings and plays a rebab (one-stringed bowed instrument) while the coffee brews.  If you can imagine that, then you can come close to understanding the feeling that Jordan leaves me with on this return visit after ten years away.

Croatia

 

Krk is a beautiful Croatian island in the northern Adriatic Sea, near Rijeka and we did a long drive there in Peaches from Bratislava one summer. 

It has quite a diverse, rich cultural history: once ruled by the Romans, then the Croats before returning to Italy under the control of the Venetians.  After the decline of Venice, the Austrians took control, but subsequently Italy briefly tried to take it back during the second World War before Nazi occupation.  Yugoslavia and then Croatia were the post war rulers.  It is a rocky, hilly island and also a lovely location to camp for a while.   Today the Middle Chakavian dialect of Croatian is the primary dialect used on the island. Up to 1898 (the day the last speaker of Dalmatian language, Tuone Udaina died), five languages were spoken on the island: Middle Chakavian, Venetian, Croatian, Dalmatian, and Istro-Romanian.

After queuing to get over the famously long concrete bridge to get on to the island we set up camp on a rural seafront site and I started to cook the dinner while the girls went off to explore the beach front.  I enjoyed the cooking and sat down to read for a bit.  I read quite a lot.  Then I fiddled about on the guitar.  And read a bit more.  Beers were drunk and I started to get a bit annoyed at the time they had been gone.  Then worried.  Finally, a man on a moped pulled to a halt outside the camper.  “You must come with me.  Your daughter is hurt.  I have been looking for you for a long time.”

It was a shock.  The site was quite large and he had only been given a description of Peaches, for Tash had no idea of exactly how to describe the location, having only just arrived and meandered this way and that towards the sea.  So I sat on the back of this moped, wondering just how bad the injuries were.  I found them in a seafront bar.  Iona had tripped and gashed her forehead on a sharp bit of the undulating, uneven concrete, depositing bits of gravel into her skin and had been bleeding profusely.  An ambulance had been called and turned up very soon.  It was hard to assess the extent of the injury due to the amount of blood that had gushed from her forehead.  The paramedics were delightful and spoke good English.  They were kind to Iona and manged to calm our fears of a serious injury.  It involved a couple of butterfly stitches and keeping an eye on her for the next few hours.  They drove us back to Peaches.  We had no money to pay the bill, but they told us where to go the next morning to a cashpoint and then a medical centre to settle it.  So all in all the Venetians, or Romans, or Austrians, or Yugoslavs, or Croats, or Germans or whatever it was that these people were, looked after us well.  We enjoyed the rest of our time on Krk.

Egypt

1971, Cairo, Egypt.  My Dad was at the time an academic at the university of Surrey and somehow got sent to the university of Cairo.  He worked there leaving my mum to look after us three boys.  He wrote postcards to each of us and some very lovey-dovey letters on thin blue specialised airmail paper that folded up to make the envelope to my Mum.  Whilst there he became aware of the Egyptian government’s drive to control rural population and how it involved enforced sterilisation of women.  So he came up with a scheme to initiate work projects so that the women in villages had more to do than sit around all day getting pregnant.  Actually, maybe “sitting around” is not quite the expression I need here. No matter. You know what I mean… Apparently it worked and after the pilot projects he was invited back to work for the government there.  He flew back on an Egyptian Air plane and when he landed there was an announcement that “Mr Bakteer” was kindly requested to exit via the rear door.  Eventually he worked out that “Mr Bakteer” was in fact him, Mr Baxter, and politely complied.  He was shocked at walking down the steps onto a red carpet and finding himself shaking hands with an official looking gentleman.  They chatted about his work and mutual places in England that they both loved.  Only afterwards  someone asked him if he knew who he had just been chatting to.  It turned out to be Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, who was thankful for his humanitarian approach to rural population control.

So shortly after, on a subsequent visit to Egypt, he was able to take the whole family with him.  I can date this precisely to 1972 because the Tutankhamen treasures were in London at the time we were there.  There was plenty else to see in the Cairo museum, including the mummy of Ramases III whose bony arm was known to raise in a ghostly fashion when the heat got too much for him and expanded the corpse .  We flew on BOAC and the plane developed engine problems so we ended up having to stay for a night in a swish hotel in Zurich.  All quite exciting in the middle of the night.  We got a pack of cards on the plane.  The next day we flew to Cairo but because of the odd hours we arrived in the mid-day heat.  This was generally avoided because the heat at that time of day tended to throw aeroplanes up as they landed, so it was quite a hairy, bumpy experience.  In fact the plane was the same one that we had flown on the day before because the ground crew could not find any problems with it.  Over the Mediterranean one of the engines had failed and started smoking.  The plane plummeted thousands of feet before the pilot regained control, whilst the man next to my Mum calmly told her, “Don’t worry, these things glide quite nicely.” 

The university had arranged a flat near the Nile river on a busy road.  My Dad’s friend and colleague, Tom Hollingsworth was around as were other of his acquaintances from his earlier travels to the country.  Tom and my Dad had obviously formerly had a bachelor-boy abroad relationship which was quite fun to be around.  Tom told us how he had taken a mouthful of the Nile-caught fish on a hydrofoil trip, then turned it over to find it crawling with what he described as worms.  We were invited to the house of one of my Dad’s other local colleagues where the teenage daughters spent the whole evening try to grab the small blond boys and kiss them.  Eeeuw, we thought at the time.  People in the street were always trying to kiss us on our blond heads.  It doesn’t happen so much now to my grey head.  Looking back, I could have made more of this! We played football on the balcony of the family’s flat and later down on the street with the street gang.  Another colleague was a German man, Franz, who had lived in Cairo for a while.  He was a professional-standard chess player who would suddenly do five moves for both players and say “And that’s how you will check-mate me”.  His entire family had been killed in the bombing raids the English made on German cities, but he and his wife, Etta, were incredibly kind to us.

We all headed off to Alexandria for a break.  Tom came with us and the hotel had a cage lift running up the centre of the lobby/restaurant.  We used to have a sweeps on how long the first course would take to arrive, and my mum dutifully delivered the exhausted children one by one back up to the room as the tiredness became too much.  I don’t think any of us three boys made it through to the dessert course.  Habitually it took over an hour for each course to arrive.

Of course we visited the pyramids and the Cairo museum and the zoo.  At Giza my Dad bought us a camel ride around the Great Pyramid.  But the guy disappeared, freaking my mum out somewhat, with the three of us on the back of his camel.  He had taken us back to his house to show his wife the three blond boys and take some photos.  At the museum one of the guides tried to give my Dad one of the ancient artefacts.  We were taken down hundreds of steps into a tomb and the guide wanted to take us further.  My Mum declined.  I later learnt that she was worried about scorpions.  We climbed up the lower parts of the Great Pyramid and I remember that the blocks came up to my shoulder.  The Khan el-Khalili souq was amazing to walk around, each area specialising in certain goods, and the usual glasses of mint tea in shops were an unforgettable early experience.   

We were made to take a siesta at the hottest part of each day.  It rarely worked. How could it for children under ten?  So there would be cross words and tellings off and much “GO TO SLEEP”-ings.  I don’t think any of us ever slept for even one second. We were also completely freaked out by the cockroaches we shared our flat with.  We also detested the “foul” (a dish of pureed fava beans) and the sticky dates we were constantly finding ourselves served with.  One day, after one of the usual arguments about us boys not being interested in a siesta, I took one of the dreaded dates and put it in one of the dark corners next to the front door.  I then screamed merry hell about the cockroach in the hallway.  My Dad came manfully running and dutifully whacked the date hard with his shoe.  I called him a Brussels sprout for some reason (I think I wanted to be really rude after all those enforced siestas and that was the best I could come up with) and told him that he had just done me a favour and whacked one of those horrible dates.

My Mum used to sit in the back of taxis, gripping each of the rear doors to stop them from flying open and depositing us on the street, and the one we took back to the airport was memorable for my older brother sneezing for the entire half hour journey, which impressed the driver mightily. I have been back to Egypt since then, but this was my first travel out of Europe and lives in my memory as one of the best.  Who, at the age of nine, would ever forget that?