Category Archives: Back Story

Where to begin?

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I think it started with a picture of a derelict farmhouse in Almeria. What was standing was standing in a landscape that seemed to be made up of bits of rock and dust that had fallen off it. It was remote, and came with what looked like a quarry dotted with prickly pears and views of cardboard-coloured dusty mountains. It was available for a very reasonable £22,000. I could imagine myself sitting on the shaded deck of the minimalist pod I’d have erected beside it, sketching eagles while visiting friends, keen to work with their hands, rebuilt the walls of the old place. Then we’d all drink wine and eat olives and splash about in the infinity pool. Except there wasn’t any water.

The property, one of hundreds in a similarly parlous state, wasn’t far to the east of the Tabernas Desert, Europe’s only semi-desert; a place that manages to be too hot (peaking on a regular basis just short of 50C) and too cold (substantially below freezing on winter nights) but still rather compelling. The landscape goes on and on, mesmerically repetitive, gouged by rivers that haven’t run for quite some time, and the only things moving on a still day are birds of prey, riding the thermals in a rich blue sky, and their shadows. It’s the kind of place you can imagine being staked out to music by Ennio Morricone. Sergio Leone must have thought so too; An American wild west outpost was created in Tabernas for A Fistful of Dollars, and the spaghetti western was born (although the ‘pork chop western’ would be more gastronomically correct). You can visit the Mini-Hollywood set. It’s been used a zillion times. Look out for it in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, For a Few Dollars More, and The Magnificent Seven, as well as  great shots of the surrounding desert in Lawrence of Arabia,  Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and most recently, the Ridley Scott epic, Exodus, slated for a December 2014 release (in which Christian Bale fresh from his success as a 70s sleazeball in American Hustle plays Moses). So, an interesting area but impractical for someone who likes a long shower.

Thanks to a chain of completely random events, I am starting my meandering quest for a somewheresville in not only the wettest part of Andalucia, but the most expensive inland area. Result. The Sierra de Grazalema, lies not far from Ronda, south of Seville in Andalucia’s southwest, the province of Cadiz. On the upside, it is a spectacularly beautiful area of lakes and mountains and white villages draped over the shoulders of a crag, the natives are friendly, the wine is good, and the walking and cycling (okay, the driving) a visual feast. I want to live here, of course I do. Who wouldn’t? From all that I have learned so far, however, this is one of the most difficult areas in which to find an affordable country house (for all sorts of reasons I’ll go on about at some length at some point). And given that it is also a National Park with strict rules regarding appropriate traditional Andalusian architecture, it is most definitely not the place to enquire about a suitable plot for a minimalist, modernist pod, even if I stress the fact it was always going to be white.

 

 

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Spain

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And so another adventure begins. It occurred to me that Spain is wild, warmer than a British winter, as hot – hotter – than a Costa Rican summer, complex, under-explored, cultural, passionate, and home to Rioja, padrones, jamon serrano, flamenco, Javier Bardem and landscapes that are abstract art. The detritus of Spain’s long history – senorial mansions, grand cortijos, churches, palaces and moorish towers – lies over the land like glacial moraine. I don’t know about cultural stereotypes but the Spaniards I have met here and abroad are warm, curious, urbane, and I like the peculiar hours they keep. No one of these reasons justifies the decision to have my boxes and car sent to Cadiz, but there we go. Now I need to find a house. New year, new continent, new places to explore.

I GO, I COME BACK

igoicomebackHowever much you like to explore, to enjoy the freedom and independence of unscripted travel, it is difficult to do when you suddenly find you don’t have an anchor. For a parent to lose a child or for a child to lose a parent is to have the sensation of being cast adrift, which is the underbelly of freedom, and quite a different kettle of fish altogether. You no longer go to the edge and come back. You go to the edge and you can’t get back. And because you can’t get back, you want to. While you think this might be the ideal time to embark on adventures, what you actually want to do is close your doors and pad your space with everything that’s familiar, and to sleep for a very long time.
That notwithstanding, the search for somewheresville goes on, and so, after a gap, I have picked up where I left off, on a beach in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, helping my old friend Fitzcarraldo of the Jungle put together words and pictures to show anyone who hasn’t been here the otherwise indescribably lovely private reserve and wilderness lodge that he created up the hill from nothing back in the day. This kind of work (otherwise known as ‘marketing’) is not completely altruistic. Having time alone here, operating in my preferred temperature range of 22-28 degrees, cushioned by jungle and a cloud of sound – the wren in the roof, toucans, howler monkeys, macaws, the sea*, thunder and rain, is restorative; a kind of balm. I’m also optimistic that the hours I’m putting into swaying in a hammock are going to produce a clear sense of direction and a set of financially viable future plans.
* I have said disparaging things about the sea. I take them back.

South to Somewheresville Hot

 

Screen shot 2013-01-18 at 13.56.11Interestingly, walking from Atlanta to Costa Rica would take 1005 hours according to Google, although presumably you’d want to stop from time to time, if only to take in the view. Driving, says Google, would take 55 hours, which is interesting because I’ve done that drive and it took 5 months, although, to be fair, we did take a few detours and lie around in hammocks here and there, and it was 1992 so perhaps they’ve improved the roads. Anyway, I flew via Fort Lauderdale and Miami, left at breakfast time and arrived for lunch. It’s pretty easy to escape.

It’s a loathing of snow as much as a curiosity about the world that keeps me heading south in search of somewheresville hot. I’ve been mugged in Belize and had some scrapes in Colombia, but Costa Rica is a country I like. It’s a place I use as punctuation in the sentence of life, a place I head to for a think whenever I’m not sure what to do next. One time when I did that, I lived there for many years, travelling north to south and coast to coast, and from Mexico to the aforementioned Colombia for work – as a reporter not a drug mule, although immigration took a bit of convincing about that. My boy, George, was born there, near the cathedral and, incidentally, some lady boy bars, in downtown San Jose. We were all very happy for a while. Among locals and settlers I met people, mainly eccentric people, I admired very much, and made several good friends. One, who fits all categories, has offered me the use of his somewhat isolated, boat access only, beach house to finish a book (that’s writing, not reading . . . although if there’s ever a good place to read airport thrillers, this is it). By way of a small return, I’m to dust off my tourism development and marketing consultancy credentials, help with overhauling the information packs and doing a bit of this and that up the hill at his luxury tourism lodge and rainforest reserve.

I know this house well and I love it. I also love papaya, ceviche, warm sea, empty beaches, big colourful squawking birds and temperatures of 28 degrees, so I’m going to go, and hopefully be at least slightly useful until Britain warms up again.

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Tick Tick: The USA Road Trip

sorrelfilmingSo, the driving part of the Somewheresville USA Road Trip has ended, but I’ll be adding more video plus interviews and practical road trip information in the weeks and months to come. Somewheresville began back in October 2012 with a look around the USA, from Detroit to North Carolina and from Atlanta to San Francisco and back. The route was very loosely mapped to get me to places and people connected with a film idea, and in many of the locations I filmed either interviews or something to capture the spirit of the place, sometimes just on an iPhone. There are around 90 USA posts so far, and around  one-third come with short clips and excerpts edited (roughly and without Final Cut Pro which I lost in a HoJo coffee incident) in various motel rooms. As a travel journalist who’s moved into TV documentaries, it’s been great to combine the two media – although I am pining for the expertise of a nice big crew – and the budget. And it would have been nice to have had time to ponder and polish . . . but I wanted to keep it all instant and authentic. Anyway, all the posts can be accessed in reverse chronological order through the USA category linkAlternatively you can click on specific states under Categories to pull up the posts about them, e.g. Texas. Some of the pictures have made their way onto the Pinterest. Please feel free to comment and contact me and give me your ‘likes’, and thank you so very much to everyone who has emailed!

America: In conclusion

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It’s actually a load of different countries tied together with strings of Arbys and Taco Bells. In some, people are very busy accumulating more and more stuff; in others people are a further along, working out what to do with the mountain of old stuff they can’t afford to run or fix, like mills and factories, warehouses, mines, the trucks and fridges and boats and trailers in their yards, and Detroit. I like those places best.

Aside from that, other observations based on nothing much: for a country obsessed with safety and litigation, they have a very laissez faire approach to hairpin bends (and guns, obviously), tacos are definitely the national dish; you don’t get postcards showing cactus in the snow; the cleaning staff in 99% of the places we stayed were Hispanic and overtly deferential; if you put the fried chicken at the back of Walmarts and took away the little cars you’d give the people who need it most a really good workout; there’s sugar in the ‘natural’ yoghurt, and sink holes under Louisiana, and tunnels full of aliens under New Mexico (can’t remember where), and cupcake ATMs in L.A; sisters (well, people) are doing it for themselves when it comes to building a home, and cowboys are making a comeback in those there hills.

We started in messed-up, empty Detroit (playground of the inspired and energetic), continued through Ohio and the eastern states,Virginia and West Virginia, all wide-open spaces, rural retreats, Amish furniture stores, bail bondsmen, payday loans, attorneys, pawn shops, and guns and ammo stores. I’d had a taste of the Triangular heart of middle-class North Carolina with its good wine, good cheese, good books, good works, travelled through tidy towns with libraries, art trails and bible groups, past green fields with white picket fences and sleek horses looking over them. Preacher men warned against loose women, wrongful ways on the radio through the Carolinas, Southern Baptists sang in Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, and by Alabama it was the story of the blues, of civil rights, gulf oil spills and grits. In Cajun country, in Louisiana, it was frottoirs and boudin, and Bloody Marys, dancing at breakfast with old men in hats, and basking by a lake in the heat talking to duck hunters in camouflage. We’d driven under the crystal bright, anything is possible skies of Texas, met unicycling children in the back of beyond and stepped back in time to a world of drunk cowboys, Mexican silver miners and Apache raids on the saloon stables in places where they shoot rattlers and eat chillies with everything, in New Mexico. We’d observed golfers in Scottsdale, 70-year old dancing girls wearing nothing but feathers in Palm Springs, and left behind done-in L.A., with its big mess of smog and flyovers, for a California that was cheeringly, drippingly, wild. After standing at the western edge for a bit, we turned back, wheels spinning, along the fringes of Yosemite, the Mohave Desert, the Grand Canyon and the Sangre de Cristo mountains – the best of wild America, arriving in Memphis, the day after another shooting, when everyone’s thoughts – albeit briefly – were focused on the worst by-products of a ‘civilised’ America.

I read – and love – travel books by experts writing about things they know but they aren’t the books that make me travel. It’s accounts of enthusiasts  abandoning themselves to journeys of discovery that set me off with the packing again. On the whole, I don’t buy a ticket and fly across the world to see something I already know about; I travel to places that are for some reason obscure because it appears I am addicted to the process of discovery – what’s around the next bend? on the next block? what’s up in the north / down in the south? what’s that hotel like inside? what’s the local food? what kind of person lives here? what do they do?  could I live here? could I really live here? Is this my Somewheresville?

So, America. Perhaps not everyone’s idea of an obscure destination, but it was unknown to me (and it’s a big place, so most of it still is). All places are fascinating, odd, surprising to anyone seeing them for the first time whether that’s Slough or Mombasa or Santa Fe. You wouldn’t think that could be possible by looking at the Must See Tourism Attractions (museum, building, monument yada yada), but it is. It really is. Someone at some point in every country has made a subjective selection, and over time that selection has become official. Seeing these certain things is tantamount to obligatory . . . (particularly if you happen to be a travel journalist whose elbow is in the firm grip of the local tourism representative) . . . which leads to stress, inevitably some disappointment, and an experience on a well-worn tourism loop which, while possibly pleasant, is quite unlike the kind of experience people living in the country have on a day to day basis.

Having spent just five weeks or so in America, and mainly in a car in America, I wouldn’t presume to offer any useful concluding observations about what sort of thing America is. However, I hope I’ve raised a virtual glass to that intoxicating process of discovery and the freedom of unplanned drifting travel, and provided a reminder that there is no official decree that ranks the Hoover Dam as a better attraction than the little town of Luling, Texas, or the Golden Gate Bridge over a bar in Mission, or the Titanic Exhibition in Vegas over the cake-sellers at a market in Alabama. There is no travel expert who can say that a $100 dinner is  – by default – more enjoyable than a warm $3 sausage and jalapeno kolache, no-one who can actually prove there’s anything better than listening to the wind blow in the Gila National Forest, anything more beautiful than a straight line of telegraph poles going on for miles and miles under a desert sky. Cheers to that.

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