Category Archives: Travel Blog

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, in the province of Cádiz, south of Seville in Andalucia’s southwest. It is a spectacularly beautiful area of lakes and mountains and white villages draped over the shoulders of a crag. I don’t know anyone for a thousand miles but the people I have met have been amusing and friendly and equally interested in living their lives rooted in the land as they have for generations, though not without the luxuries of good food, good wine, good company, peace and comfort. This is one of the most difficult areas in which to find an affordable country house. The culture is traditional and the land is protected which means I am unlikely to find a suitable plot for a minimalist, modernist pod either. But still, I’ll try.

 

 

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So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

This is the last post of many from the Costa Rican jungle. You can read them all – albeit in reverse order – by choosing SOMEWHERE HOT from the menu (just as you can vicariously enjoy the entire USA ROAD TRIP). For everyone who got in touch and liked along the way – thank you.

It’s time to leave Costa Rica behind. This, for inexplicable reasons, has been where most of the drama in my life has taken place, from the best to the worst: the birth of my son, the loss of my partner, the death of my ma; and perhaps it’s the hope of travelling back that keeps bringing me here, looking. and hanging around.

Although the physical, earthy country in itself is enough of a magnet; a real land of the lotos-eaters, with plenty of foreigners who came for a week thirty years ago and never left, lounging around to prove it.  It’s a pungent, pulsing place with a visceral heat, walls of warm rain, and colours so rich the rest of the world seems drained. Here in the Osa, there is something left of the simplicity and innocence and belief in another greater world, the powers that be, that used to be part of the national psyche. I have often watched Ino the baker watching hummingbirds build their nests; the girls from the hotel watching the sunset;  Wilmer watching the rain;  William and Carmen watching the sea, and enjoyed seeing  the pleasure they have from being where they are – and felt it myself.

Of course I leave my old friend Fitz (and several boxes for him to ship once there is an address to ship to), but there are many things I’ll take with me – not just damp shoes, a collection of feathers, and my notes, but mental images of blue skies and bright birds I’ll file away and bring out on grey days.

I’m signing out with this from Douglas Adams.  I know there are a lot of dolphins just off the shore, and I know they are intelligent. I often stand on the sand and look out there puzzling over what on earth they are all doing. Walking along the beach in the early mornings, I have always  found things the sea has thrown out for me, although never a bowl and a message.

The deep roar of the ocean.

The break of waves on farther shores than thought can find.

The silent thunders of the deep.

And from among it, voices calling, and yet not voices, humming trillings, wordlings, and half-articulated songs of thought.

Greetings, waves of greetings, sliding back down into the inarticulate, words breaking together.  A crash of sorrow on the shores of Earth.

Waves of joy on — where? A world indescribably found, indescribably arrived at, indescribably wet, a song of water.

A fugue of voices now, clamoring explanations, of a disaster unavertable, a world to be destroyed, a surge of helplessness, a spasm of despair, a dying fall, again the break of words.

And then the fling of hope, the finding of a shadow Earth in the implications of enfolded time, submerged dimensions, the pull of parallels, the deep pull, the spin of will, the hurl and split of it, the fight. A new Earth pulled into replacement, the dolphins gone.

Then stunningly a single voice, quite clear.

“This bowl was brought to you by the Campaign to Save the Humans. We bid you farewell.”

And then the sound of long, heavy, perfectly grey bodies rolling away into an unknown fathomless deep, quietly giggling.

Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish.

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The Obligatory Sunset

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A fast, glorious, and punctual sunset is a perk of equatorial living. Once the sun starts its steep downward slide at 5.50pm there is barely time to prepare a rum and coke before it drops below the watery horizon. The sky, in its trail, turns scarlet, purple, pink, and the air fills with the heavy scent of ylang ylang. You stop everything you are doing to enjoy this spectacle for ten minutes. Then the light is switched off, the world goes away until dawn, and you continue with chopping onions, or playing solitaire or some such banal thing before going to bed and waking the following morning to find the light’s back on.

To my mind, this is infinitely better than sunsets in the more northerly northern hemisphere which are either scheduled ridiculously early, or drawn out to such a degree that people, compelled to make the most of the late evenings, become cold, tired and fractious, eventually abandoning their barbecues, to go inside to watch the X-Factor results.

I don’t like to think too much in case I can’t pull the line back in (especially here, alone, on the edge of so much space), however the drama of the setting tropical sun is conducive to deep thoughts. Many, many years ago, Fitz and I would sit on the steps of the house in the post-dip glow and discuss life and ambitions. Now when he’s here, we talk about the past.

He has more past than I do of course, but one thing we both puzzle over is the fact that no matter how far you travel, or remote you make your home; no matter how hard you try to do things differently, you still, in Fitz’s words, ‘end up with all the same shit.’

We have a good wry chuckle at this because he’s gone to a hell of a lot of trouble and sunk a fortune into drawing this conclusion. Obviously it’s something I’ll remember before I pack my bags and set off to see what’s around the next corner, when I live my life again.

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What to Pack

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What to pack for many months in Costa Rica on a tropical beach backed by jungle, miles from anywhere? Day shorts, evening shorts, a wide selection of repellent, trousers, long-sleeved shirt, and trusty rubber boots (although they are best bought locally from the kind of shop that also sells seed, aluminium pots, and rope).  I would also recommend swimwear, underwear, long books and a torch. I have many hats, but I don’t often wear one – I don’t stand around in the sun much either.

How little you need is on my mind as I’m packing up ready to move on.  My damp and mouldering possessions are on the floor and on the bed, but not as yet in the heavyweight plastic bin liners that constitute elegant luggage round these parts. Obviously I have laptop, hard drives, leads, adaptors, tripod and camera equipment, as well as an enormous pile of books on pods and Central American history, but I also have silver sandals, a chiffon shirt, a long dress.

The things I haven’t used look at me balefully – not just the still un-transcribed interview tapes, but running shoes and empty Moleskin notebooks, and, particularly, a beautiful, untouched, set of watercolour paints and brushes, a gift from my ma, and the coloured pencils and artist’s pad, from my son. What expectations did I have for my life here? What good things did my family expect of me? These things, unused, are quite a torment. What an extravagant gesture this has been.

People say that possessions possess us; that we are encumbered by what we own. I have abandoned a lot, but now what I have left I’d like to keep.  I’m not sure I have roots, but I have some things that hold memories, and others that represent dreams. I need to find my somewheresville, put everything in it and paint some pictures.  Of course first I have to get everything onto a boat.

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Osa Cookery Book: Crackers

soda crackers

Well, I’m sometimes embarrassed by the simplicity of some of the delicious recipes in the work-in-progress that is The Osa Cookery Book, but as Einstein said, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I’m not sure what that means, however I think, in general, he would have approved of my approach to meal preparation.

I suppose you could make the crackers. A box of 64 packs was sent down to me on a boat and so, happily, in this case I haven’t had to – and I wouldn’t know where to begin.

Ingredients: soda crackers, tomato, salt. Recipe: fairly self-explanatory. Actually, for an interesting variation on this recipe, you could substitute avocado for the tomato . . . or an anchovy, although I haven’t seen one of those for months.

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Costa del Crime

sierpe police station

Sometimes in the dead of night I hear the low droning thrum of a boat moving fast, from south to north. I’ve stood outside in the pitch black to look, but there are never any lights. It’s likely they are drug boats running up the Pacific from Colombia to Mexico and the United States. The traffickers strip them right down in order to carry the maximum amount of fuel and cocaine, paint them grey, pack on powerful engines, and they pass by here, not far off the coast, usually around 3am.

Since January of last year, there has been a coordinated multinational effort to patrol Central America’s coastlines. Operation Martillo, as it’s called (martillo meaning hammer), has necessitated or enabled (depending on your politics) an unprecedented level of US involvement in Costa Rican security. Homeland Security keep tabs on trends in trafficking, and the conclusion of a recent subcommittee hearing is that most drugs from Colombia no longer go north via the Caribbean, but travel up this coast, the Pacific coast. Presumably they’ve stepped up the number of patrols, but if so they must be focusing on the Central Pacific area around Manuel Antonio, because there’s not much going on round here.

Possibly, ironically, as a consequence of the threat of patrol vessels, instead of attempting to shoot past Costa Rica, traffickers have been avoiding the interception hotspots by landing the drugs in remote areas along the coast to be collected and moved on by road.

Costa Rica’s vast, unpopulated, jungly national parks, protected by a woefully small number of guards and volunteers, make an ideal drop off point. A few abandoned drug boats, signs of drug trafficker camps, new, rough roads have been found, along with the occasional trafficker and cocaine haul. Round these parts there’s little distinction between the parks and the sparsely-populated peripheries – in fact there’s a fine specimen of a Colombian drug boat that was found in the labyrinthine mangroves now parked beside the kiosk-sized police station in Sierpe.  Some 15 tons of cocaine was seized in – and off – Costa Rica last year, a record high. But there’s also plenty of evidence that much more is getting through – more drug consumption, more drug-related crime, revenge killings between rival traffickers, more cash in private banks, more money laundering, and more suddenly wealthy locals.

Moving drugs across land has to involve a degree of local cooperation, and for low paid workers the temptation to be ripped off and dragged down into criminal activity for what appears like high returns, can evidently prove too much.  More pitiful than the recruits are those people who find packages washed up, or stashed in the undergrowth, and decide to make off with them.

Some years ago, I wrote about how teenagers, some as young as 14 and 15-years old, were setting up business as drug lords in Belize City after finding waterproofed packages of cocaine on the beach. Whole areas of Belize City were out of control at that time, as child-dealers protected their turf with semi-automatics, and their penniless buyers mugged and murdered – often their own families – for the cash.  I spoke to an old woman who’d had her gold teeth removed. Not nice. Some of the packages had intentionally been dropped from boats where they would float ashore roughly in the area of  of a designated pick-up point, others had been jettisoned. Either way, there was always someone looking for their lost property.

A few months ago, I was swimming by a ranger station where some packages of cocaine had just washed up. The rangers radioed the police and the Guardia Costera arrived to collect them. Around the same time, the watchman at the next remote property along the coast from here, went missing. They say he found something he shouldn’t have found on the beach, and that blood and signs of torture were found at the property to suggest he was made to give it back. When I was next in Sierpe, I spoke to my friend at the police station who said they had continued to search for him for eight days but with no luck; that they could only hope that he’d got away and gone into hiding.

Anyway when I hear those boats I keep my fingers crossed they just keep going, but I can’t see everyone returning to an age of innocence any time soon.

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