Sunday 8 May 2016

Desert Post


The sign said "The Indian Army Wishes You a Safe Journey". It was an interesting way to enter the desert city of Jaisalmer but we had been witnessing military presence all morning. The distance between Jaisalmer and the Pakistani border is a shade under 350 klms but it was clear that India was taking no chances.
Having spent a rock and roll night on the train (I did finally get to sleep but dreamed I was covered in bubble wrap!) we got into the train station at eight in the morning. Just as in New Delhi station, there were whole families camped out on the platforms. Sunny told me they were waiting for trains that may not arrive for two or three days. The scene reminded me of the one in Dr. Zhivago where Yuri and his family are waiting to travel to the mountains.
One thing which happened which I will report here was that Roberta had some difficulty keeping up with the rest of the group which – and not for the first time – had gone on ahead at a rapid pace with Sunny. I could see them over people’s heads but I found the experience really quite disconcerting and when I turned around I couldn't see Bobbie anywhere. I only had a few seconds to wait when she came limping into view, and gasping for breath she said:
“Where is the group? Where have they gone? There were so many people; I couldn’t get by!”  I commiserated (my own hip was complaining from the night on the train) but reassured her that I was certain Sunny wouldn’t leave us behind. “I´ll just go on ahead and ask him to wait. You follow me.”
The group had indeed stopped to wait but just outside the station.  “Roberta thought she had lost you,” I said. “She has been very ill recently: had whooping cough.” She had told me this the night before through a coughing fit no doubt not improved by her smoking habit.
Sunny was bypassed. Tina spoke up:  “Well she shouldn’t have come then. She’ll just have to keep up, that’s all.”
The younger ones looked a bit uncomfortable but nothing was said and just then Bobbie hove into view visibly showing signs of exhaustion.  Sunny reassured her as I had. “I’ve never lost anyone before,” he said.
Anyway, here we were approaching Jaisalmer in an odd bus in which the driver had a sort of box to himself, with a small bed and a dashboard which reminded me of a kitchen counter. The driver had a military moustache and a way of standing most upright and I nicknamed him “The Major”. Sunny translated and the man beamed at me.
Our hotel lay inside the old city walls, which was just a treat. I didn’t realise until later that this would mean a fair bit of up/down walking as the tuk-tuks deposited us just metres from the tiny street. My room had an extraordinary view of the desert landscape below, but unfortunately the winds were wafting in sand and the smell of human excrement. I closed the window, but that only made the room stuffy. Seeing me do so, Sunny offered his room: “I don’t need all this,” he said and escorted me to an inner room with no view but a gigantic bed covered in tapestries, dark paneled walls carved with little flourishes here and there and a window looking out to a pigeon-filled courtyard.
The other thing I particularly liked was that – although I had expected to share – we were an odd number and I was told that meant I would have a room to myself for the twenty one days of the trip.
The luggage had really been thrown around all day so I wasn’t surprised to see that the zip connecting the bigger backpack to the day pack had been broken. But between Sunny and I we managed to patch it up. I realized that although packing wisely in one way I had given into taking more clothes than I was likely to need and that those I had bought were almost all brought from home but labelled Made in India. I knew I would be paying for my sins later on.
To the gentle sound of pigeons cooing to one another, I lay down on the big bed and caught up with the night’s lost sleep. The hotel had a rooftop restaurant and given that it was on top of a hill inside the fort it was a long way up. My vertigo kicked in immediately, but after a while I found I could just about manage although standing was scary. Dinner was the first time any of us had really had to get to know each other. Four were travelling together: Frobisher, (“call me Freddy”), Susie, Tom and Melanie, all in their early twenties. There was also Paolo from Portugal who was lining in Belgium and spoke perfect English; it was hard to guess his age: early forties I thought and I was right. We didn’t really get much out of Paolo because most of the time he was buried in his book. Flora and Rudy were a married couple from Austria. He was soft spoken, only said something when there was something to say and anyway, Flora talked enough for both of them.  Olivia and Rachel were friends from grade school. Finally there was Molly and Nancy, Roberta, Diane, Tina, and me.  Despite the age differences it was a good mix and I thought the group would bond early. This was our third full day together. Plenty of time to see if my prediction was right…
Next: Rocket the Independent Camel.

Friday 29 April 2016

Night Train to Jaisalmer

We were due at the station at seven o'clock in the evening which left us just enough time to do some exploring. Megan, Lauren and I (with two sets of happy feet out of three) had met Tina the night before and she had already done her fair share of checking out New Delhi: "I rode in a tuk-tuk, took the subway, I even danced with the groom in a wedding procession!" she said, which left the rest of us in awe. Tina was an ex-model, a year older than me and looking very good for it ("No husband; no children," she said) she wasted no time in showing us her photos in some major fashion magazines in various stages of undress, including a topless shot. I thought it was an interesting way of introducing yourself to 19 year olds and I do prefer the business card sort of approach, but to each his own. Maybe I was a bit envious of that slim figure which she had retained so well.
Our guide's name was Sunil, but he insisted we call him Sunny ("like the movie"). His English was very good but his accent so thick I had to lean forward and close my eyes to understand him. He told us to ask questions but when I did, he seemed a bit annoyed and said I should listen more carefully.
Okay ...
The subway was very cheap: only 17 rupees which was about 25 cents. I expected something very crowded but it was perfectly normal except that we had to pass through security loading our bags into the ex-ray trays. This procedure made me nervous especially since people in front of me were being body searched just as I saw my bag exit the tunnel. Honestly, anyone could have taken it at any minute and I doubt I would have got it back. We rode in the "women's car" at the front of the train.
Our first stop was a temple in full celebration. I bought a marigold chain and left it at the door as I didn't want to lose the group by going in. Shortly after, we went to a Sikh temple and this one had a very different feel to it. First of all, bags were left at the office, as were our shoes. We had to walk 100 metres up the filthy (it really was) street in our bare feet and then "cleanse" them by stepping in a trough of already pretty dirty water. I had a couple of nicks on one foot from the pedicure and was a bit concerned about it, but ...
When in Rome.
At the top of the steps there were about 20 people shelling peas. Now the very act of pea shelling just happens to be one of my favourite activities ("Mine too," said Roberta from Scotland). I was very tempted just to sit down beside them and shell a few myself when Sunny said: "People come here every day to help prepare the meal. There may be hundreds coming to eat later. Anyone can come - even the richest man in Delhi". Inside, the prayers were being offered and shared on sizable video screens, in Hindi, Punjabi and English. I was to see this on a grand scale a month later in Amritsar.
Back through the dirty water - "You don't have to do it on the way out," said Sunny, stepping deftly around the trough.
The spice market was close by and Tina, who by now had elected herself Sunny's deputy, said she would show us where as she had already been there the day before.  I suppose I should have seen a pattern emerging, but I blew it away, only too happy to have someone with us with a sense of adventure.  The market, however, was just one long street with stall after stall, and after a while it made Diane, our only English member, sneeze. She seemed to me rather an ingenue, frail almost, perfectly worn blonde hair without a kink in it,  and I was amazed when she told me she was on a year-long round the world tour. Amazed and not a bit jealous may I add. One should not judge on first impressions!
Walking back to the subway station we passed a number of people who had set up camp beside the road. Not only was the garbage excessive here, but so were the smells, the origin of one I am sorry to say I could trace immediately. Children in shredded kurtas and torn trousers were playing "ball" with a plastic container, and in their bare feet they were oblivious to the squalor and rubbish piled up around them. Women bent double were cooking rice over tiny fires. They could have been any age as they held their sari out of harnms way by gripping it with their teeth. This was the India I expected, yet oddly I never saw anything to equal it again even though I did see some slum dwellings. This pile of humanity was chaotic, where a trace of organisation, even sharing of what little resources they had, might have made a difference. I thought of my own grandchildren and thanked whatever god was listening that their karma had presumably been better from their previous lives. Mine too.
Last chai at the Hotel Perfect, and the sixteen of us split up between four taxis. I ended up with Diane and Tina. We didn't get too far though: we found ourselves hopeless ensnarled in the traffic jam to end all snarl-ups. We were on our way to the train station and we were late. New Delhi has a unique way of moving from one direction to the other, banned in most countries: you do a U-turn, in mid-flow, only in this case our manoueuvre was effectively blocked by a large white cow pulling a cart and I found myself face to face with a huge pair of nostrils and a tongue to match. The situation was so droll that Diane, in the back with me and only slightly farther away from this unexpected sight, started to laugh hysterically when I said: "I wonder how you say 'what's your cow's name' in Hindi?" "Diane's having an opo," explained Tina in perfect strine to the bunch in the taxi stuck beside us.
I knew that this tour was Intrepid's Basic package, so I wasn't surprised when we located our berths and they were piled three high: 3AC. (I thought this had to be the lowest class until I went for a walk later. In Sleeper Class people were piled high some on bunks but most on top of their baggage or on the floor. There were heavy bars on the windows but no glass. I went back to my bunk feeling quite rich.)  There were sheets, blankets and a pillow on each of these, freshly laundered but I wasn't yet at a stage to trust them so I rolled out my sleeping bag instead. We were somewhat spread out over two carriages and just as we were about to leave, a family came on and blocked every bit of floor space with boxes and luggage. Sunny was summoned by one of us, and between him and one of the many guards, the boxes were picked up and removed as quickly as they came with much muttering by the older man with the group. This left us cramped but at least not prisoners of Indian Railways. Out came chocolate bars, bags of chips and something called Masala Munch which I became steadily addicted too. Gradually the excited conversation died down to a few muffled "Good night"s and we all fell happily asleep rocked by the gentle movement of the train.
Except me. I was too excited to even close my eyes...
Next: Desert Post

Saturday 23 April 2016

Hotel Perfect

The Hotel Perfect was adequate, although had I come to India only for colour I would have been a bit disappointed: my room was brown and cream, but a good size and pretty clean for the most part. Narrow like most commercial establishments and almost missable as we had just found out. Just before I dismissed my last "What am I doing now?" self-question and turned in for the night I took a quick peak through the curtains. The street remained in complete silence - something very rare for India at any time of the day. Directly across the street was an alleyway with a grating and inside was a huge pile of garbage being thoroughly investigated by three or four dogs. I decided to leave any speculation on this til the morning and having played with the "nozzle" in the bathroom, (I couldn't see the toilet paper) decided to leave that til the morning too.

The garbage in the alleyway didn't look any more pleasant come morning so I thought to postpone any advances into Delhi's streets and went to find breakfast. The Hotel Perfect has a delightful rooftop terrace, I sat happily in the sun (weather was just as perfect) and wolfed down an "Indian Breakfast" of roti and daal and chai: my tastebuds have never been so happy first thing in the morning. Shortly after that two young women joined me and we learned we were travelling with the same tour group.
"Let's go to the market!" said Megan after a while.
"Do you mind if I come along?"
Not at all, said Lauren her friend. Megan had a face full of fun, a pretty girl with a killer laugh; Lauren wore her hair with a topknot, a sort of "blip" on the top of her head secured by a scrunchy. Both were from Australia and because I have a special afinity for Aussies, and I learned that most of us were from Oz I knew this was going to be a fun group.

Now I have to admit that the idea of just staying on the terrace did occur to me. Not that I was afraid of going out in New Delhi's streets with nothing to protect except two engaging nineteen year olds you understand. But just as they mentioned it, I suddenly realised that that was exactly what I wanted to do.
So off we went.
It hadn't been my exhausted imagination the night before, the streets were simply strewn with garbage in some places up to a metre high. I learned there was a municipal workers strike; this was its tenth day. We had no choice but to skirt it or cross over it just like everybody else. I saw no cows; not yet anyway. The streets were crowded but I have seen worse at the Saturday market in Puerto Banus. The Karol Bagh market is one of New Delhi's busiest. I expected perhaps a separate area, maybe covered but in fact it was no different from the one in my local town: stalls along the length of the street, regular shops behind.
One of the things I had been most nervous about was being approached by beggars, being touched, even grabbed, or worse robbed: against that eventuality I wore a small cotton bag around my neck which made me look four months pregnant (as the same did to everyone else within the group, even the men!). But except for some very prolonged stares we were barely notice at all. In fact I didn't mind this at all because it allowed me to stare back. Shoes were cheap, clothes were cheap, scarves were dirt cheap. I saw many women in western dress (many more here in the capital than in other cities I was to visit). One store I passed was a wedding suit shop for men. Outside there was a model of a rather western-looking maharajah type flanked by two tiny childlike mannequins: one in a kurta, a hip-length collarless shirt, this one highly decorated, and the other in what the Spanish call a "smoking". Other shops we passed had whole families seated on the floor surrounded by shelves and shelves of bolts of material: the bride and all of the women who had already taken over the rest of her life.
A little girl with a beauty queen's smile highlighting her pretty and dirt-creased face and supporting very ragged clothes was picking over the garbage for pieces of cardboard. She flashed me a grin that was as much eyes as teeth. We did not speak. On the way back down the road (past the two "dusty trees") I saw her again, still stuffing paper into her bag. We were beside a shoe shop. I beckoned. She came. We went into the shop: "I would like some shoes for her please," I said as if this was the most natural thing in the world. The shopkeeper looked quite surprised and asked me to repeat. "Some shoes. What size are you sweetie?" We all looked down at the oversized, very much scuffed and worn pair of navy blue school shoes. The shopkeeper went off and brought back a pair very similar and at least two sizes smaller. But I had another idea:
"No. Not those. These." I held up a pair of glistening gold sandals with rhinestones and a small heel. Clearly the shopkeeper now confirmed his suspicion of my madness but off he went and back he came. Little Smile tried them on, all the time looking at me as though I could vanish at any time.
"How much are they?"  Two hundred and seventy rupees: just over three euros.
I handed the money over and somehow wished they had been more expensive.
With that, she fled and I did not see her again. Whether I should have bought something more sensible I don't know but what is the point of buying school shoes for someone who never goes to school? A yellow-haired goddess had emerged from some distant fantasy land and bought her the shoes of her dreams and that was that. Whether she got to keep them or her mother found some way to sell them, I don't know and I don't care. The thing is it made me just as happy as it made her. Few things in life are so equally balanced. To celebrate I bought myself a scarf: 60 rupees.
Meg and Lauren got their hands hennaed. It was a much more delicate process than I had envisioned so I declined. I had noticed a hair salon across the road from the Perfect so suggested a pedicure and Megan took me up on it immediately while Lauren went to rest.
I confess I have never before had my toes pedicured. They do a very reasonable job of stopping my legs from fraying at the end and for that I am thankful, but other than washing and occasionally oiling them, we sort of go about our own business.
So it was a bit of a shock when, having sat down next to Meg, a man appeared - two actually - to attend to our toesies. Wash and scrape, nip tuck and clip, and joy of joys a thorough leg massage and I was being offered a dizzying number of colours to choose from. I chose turmuric yellow. Hey...why not? (Incidentally, this colour lasted through my six weeks in India and then some.)
The sign next door to the Perfect said:
Let the adventure begin ... I'm ready for it!
Next: Night train to the desert.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

Snow-Capped Mountains from the Sky

I should have paid more attention to Murphy’s Law because I almost didn’t make it! Out of character, I arranged my vaccinations (yellow fever, typhoid) well ahead of time and Googled for the best insurance prices. All that was left was my visa. I had been told, and assumed (never assume!) that I could get an on-line visa, and it’s true; you can. But what I discovered and almost too late was that this tourist Visa is for 30 days only, and my trip, the one I had booked and paid for, was for 40 days. So I phoned the Embassy in Madrid. This was 11 days before my departure. The woman I spoke to suddenly took on a “hmmm” tone of voice: “It usually takes 10 or 11 days” she said. “That’s OK,” I said optimistically, “I’ll courier it to you.” “That is using a courier,” was the answer.
For the next few days I waited and fretted. Clearly I needed divine help!  While reading through one of my stack of books on India, I learned that Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, was called upon to use his little ax when there are obstacles along the path. “Dear Ganesha,” I implored, “when I get to India I will make a special pilgrimage to you, but please, first of all you have got to get me there.” I was due to leave on the 4th February.
On February 3rd, the courier arrived with my visa, passport and all, and I had to restrain myself from kissing him!
From Malaga to Paris and Paris to Delhi, I felt like I was in a dream. I dare say the French wine helped. At one point I looked out of the window when everyone was asleep and below me were snowy mountains: miles and miles of glistening white one peak after another. Somewhere over Pakistan, I fell asleep.
Exiting an airport is always disorienting. I learned from my guidebook that the best way to hire a taxi was to get a pre-paid ticket, which I dutifully did, but I still didn’t know quite how it all worked. “How do I know which one is mine?” I asked. “Just take any one that is black and yellow.”
Well, there were black and yellow ones, and yellow and black ones, and some mostly yellow and some mostly black, and immediately I exited I was surrounded by taxi drivers and touts. My first instinct was to take the first one in line, but before I knew it a young man was convincing me that that one was not the one I wanted and was wheeling my backpack case off towards the back of the line to a much newer taxi. The driver asked me for my ticket. Now, I had been told to hang on to the ticket until we reached my destination, but this driver was insisting that I give it to him straightaway, so just as fast as they were loading up my case, I was unloading it!
In the end, I took the oldest and most rickety open taxi (a sort-of bloated tuk-tuk) I could find.  The ceiling was lined with a cork sheet, sagging in most places so that it touched the top of my head. Most uncomfortable. The seats were upholstered in curtain fabric. There was a luminous, multi-coloured plastic god on the dashboard, not one that I recognized. The driver’s clothes looked like they had been deliberately wrinkled after washing and on his head he wore a lurid green baseball hat with the word “Happy” written on it. And little hearts. Happy …?  I was ecstatic!
I was actually in India, avoiding midnight cows at top speed, holding on for dear life and loving every second.
On the back of the taxi was written HORN PLEASE in big yellow letters. I soon found out why. There were so many cars on the road that it was hard to believe that it was past midnight. Almost every commercial vehicle had the same Horn Please written on the back and as my taxi dodged the traffic like an old lady with a shopping bag, my driver and every other one was using the horn constantly, not out of aggression, but as a way to let others know that we were passing. In fact, the way horns have always been meant to be used.
The air was so polluted that I had to wrap my scarf around my mouth, but I must have got used to it very quickly because this was the only occasion I felt it necessary to protect myself.
From the cacophony of New Delhi’s highways, we found ourselves in Karol Bagh where my hotel was. I assumed that all I had to do was give the hotel’s address to my driver; unfortunately I had not taken into account the very size of the city (14,000,000 population) and the number of hotels. Not only that but the Karol Bagh area appeared to have been deserted: there were piles of rubbish everywhere, and dogs, but no people to ask. So we just sat in silence, waiting. In the end the driver went off to another hotel to enquire there. Meanwhile I sat in the taxi, with case, feeling … well, a bit vulnerable to tell the truth! But not scared. Not one bit. I was preparing to have the time of my life …
Next: Hotel Perfect

Thursday 7 April 2016

Bucket List and Choices


They call it a Bucket List, after the film of the same name. Mine had for 32 years been topped by India, but every time I thought about travelling, India got pushed down in favour of  Canada – where my family and friends are – Cuba, Costa Rica, Belize,Tunisia, Greece, Italy, Ireland, the UK - even a 800 klm pilgrimage walking across the top of Spain ... all of which seemed so much safer and achievable.  
India, however, would rise back to the top immediately after I came home. I had studied Indian philosophy, religions and art at university, and I had read everything about it I could get my hands on ever since.
But I had to admit I was afraid of India. Why? Well for one thing I don’t deal well with poverty, and perhaps most of all I had been given to understand that Indians were just people that you couldn’t trust. They would tell you what they thought you wanted to hear and then ask you for money, or take you to their brother’s pashmina shop. I also wondered how I would manage the beggars, of whom I was told there were many. Could I really ignore their imploring faces and walk on? So India got side stepped time after time for reasons which remained vague fears. As it turned out I couldn’t have been more wrong!

Many people have decided to walk the Camino de Santiago because of Martin Sheen’s film The Way. Others have gone to Italy, India, Bali on the strength of Liz Gilbert’s  Eat, Pray, Love. I had already “done” the Camino, and honestly the idea of sitting  chanting “Om mane padme hum” with a bunch of middle aged bleached blonde American ladies my age in an ashram didn’t appeal (actually the very thought would send me screaming for the exit doors) and I had no money to go to Bali, even if it did mean meeting Javier Bardem  whose “It’s time” is the sexiest seduction line I have ever heard. I did enjoy Slumdog Millionaire though, and perhaps it was there that the idea of India, once more on top of the bucket list, began to make many pushy-pushy noises in my brain.
In the end it was the two Marigold Hotels films that made me say: “That’s it!  Today’s the day," not that I expected to find such a squeaky clean environment as portrayed in the films, nor streets virtually people free.  Neither was I looking for romance. I just wanted to experience Being There; I wanted a chance to find out if the hospitality this film advertises really existed. I certainly didn’t expect to find myself in charge at a havelli guest house although it almost did happen, (and still might).

So I went to India, despite all the setbacks, holdups and downright frustrating things which happened just before I was due to go and threatened to derail the whole thing. As you will learn...

I went to India. And I hope that you will join me on my journey through fear to delight.
Next: Snow-Capped Mountains from the Air.

Friday 7 February 2014

Manfred of Camelle: The calm between the storms

So very sad...

On Christmas morning 2013, lightning struck the Sanctuario in Muxia, and within hours the roof and interior had been gutted. Had it been any other day fishermen would have alerted the firefighters in Cee, and maybe, just maybe they would have got to the fire faster. Too late now. Add to that the devastating seas which almost made a true boat of this most enigmatic of churches, and the damage is complete.  The walls remain, the towers, and irony of irony, the futile and heartless lightning rods remain,
along with the crosses that shadow them.
I was away at the time, down south with my family. I saw the news, open-mouthed and crying. It took me over a month to visit the Sanctuario de la Virgin de la Barca in Muxia. I did it today. It reminded me of a hole where something used to be. I was sad. I watched the shuttered window swing to and fro; in my mind’s eye, I saw the Sanctuary drift out to sea…like a ship, unmoored, unanchored, adrift for lack of real hindsight and maybe too many lies. The tiller held in a dead hand with little treasure left to salvage...
It all seemed to be pre-destined: a sanctuary built on pagan rocks. Time takes on a different meaning from the point of view of Stones
I left and drove to Camelle

What I was even less prepared for, was the despair I experienced when I saw what the most recent “Temporal” (Cyclone Petra) had done to what was left of Manfred Gnädinger’s “museum” near The Little Fox House, my pilgrim retreat: his garden in stone is all but destroyed. His iconic round tower is a heap of perfect stones, reducing in circumference. His testimony to the broadcasting age: gone. The tarpaulin was already in shreds, torn in the storms of New Year. I have here in my house a jar for donations to replace it: photos, pleas…* But what is there left to reconstruct now?
"Man" died in 2002. They said he was the only human victim of an environmental crisis caused by 70,000 metric tons of highly toxic oil. The fate of the Prestige is not so much about money but honesty, even – given the conundrum of Margoules the captain – loyalty, and fear: fear of growing old and useless.
Manfred didn´t have that chance. But in his will (which I have seen) he makes it clear that his Museo – built with literal sweat and tears – should be left entrusted to the Estado de España. Oh, along with what is said to be 120,000 euros too, which no one, subsequently, wants to explain the disappearance (of).
Man, I cried for you today. I stood on that unsafe wharf you protested so vehemently and wept. Your work may be lost forever. I am an optimist by nature, but even I would not know where to start. Perhaps (and I hope so) you legacy rests on the natural force which eventually destroyed the loving art that the oil from the Prestige could only tarnish. Maybe you knew all along that the unleashed power of the sea was greater than the exploits of man, and even you, “Man”.
Will those two little black redstarts be there the next time I visit? I have noticed then often and haven´t seen them anywhere else. Will your spirit inhabit this place, not in what was there, but in what lies on harmony with nature. Until she closes the book.
Your body was exhumed; you were cremated, supposedly according to your wishes. Ask most people now: where is Manfred and they will look confused, or somehow have to leave. Wherever you are – and I have a feeling I have glimpsed you once or twice - RIP: Manfred.

You will always be in my heart.

(*SeeThe Story of Man: blog post 08/01/2012 for background on Man's story)
Extraordinary photo by Marcos Rodríguez

Friday 9 August 2013

Festival de Carballeira, Zas....

The poster was brilliantly designed, the location perfect. The musical line up promised a magical night of Celtic music. I missed it in 2012. I missed the folk festival of Ortiguera too. But the Carballeira was on my doorstep and I had looked forward to it all year. I was even more excited when I found that one of my favourite folk groups, Berrogüetto was to play along with three others including what I can only call the folk punk band Lurte from Aragon.
I had two pilgrims staying at The Little Fox House and having saturated them with Galician music for two days I knew they were ready for the excursion into the amazing world of music that is Festival Galicia in the summertime.
All started very well. We were lucky enough to find a bar called O Gaitero (the piper) in Zas and treated to an impromptu concert by a group of friends from Santiago. It was wonderful: "I´ve never heard anything like this!" said Patricia from New Zealand. Ten o´clock rolled around and we lined up at the entrance to the Festival. Bags were being searched for glass bottles and I saw a few (a very few) which had been confiscated. There was a small admission charge (which entitled us to a CD with two of the songs of each of the bands playing). We were duly hand-stamped and sent on our way.
The concerts began late, but this is Spain. Carballeira, true to its name (carballo is the Galego word for oak tree) is set in a sylvan paradise. We found a tree suitable for our backs and backsides and prepared for a great evening of folk music.
The first band were from the Basque country: some brilliant accordian playing. But by now, the "muy poquiño" number of people was growing by the minute.  Five men took a sizeable spot behind us and set up "camp". This included one very large plastic cooler and no less than five 5 litre plastic jugs of wine plus God knows what they had doctored into it. Within half an hour they were hollering into our ears.
Berrogüetto played. Beautifully.  But shouts from those behind of "maricon!" at the band made me want to strangle someone. By this time they were literally falling down the hill and into us. One woman who could barely stand stamped most forcefully on my sandalled foot and clearly didn´t even notice it. Patricia had had enough and excused herself to go and sleep in the car (by now it was one o´clock but by Spanish standards nothing had even really started yet!).
The remaining two of us moved, several times, away from young men who needed two of their buddies in order to be able to stand, young men who were throwing up around us, young women whose glassy eyes told the story of what they had done to poison themselves. Those five litre bottles were everywhere. Two partygoers had to be carried out on stretchers and the ambulances lit up the night.
The band Lurte was to play last. They are brilliant musicians one and all and I was really looking forward to hearing them, but their appearance is - well, let´s say more Sex Pistols meets Ozzy Osborne than Peter, Paul and Mary, and after they installed their drum and draped the skeleton around the amplifier the atmosphere took on  more and more of the sense of personal threat. Three men, clinging together in some bizarre form of dance came crashing into me and I had stationed myself close to the stage and the member of the Protección Civil guard in the hopes that some order might be found. The policeman didn´t bat an eyelid. I think he was as terrified as I was.
I never heard Lurte. I left before they came on, simply disgusted.
With whom?
I said to one pilgrim early on: "A lot of young people having fun, right?" She agreed. "Now try imagining that at last 40% of them have no work, never have had and have little hope of getting a job  in the near future".
But does that excuse the mass drunkenness I saw last Saturday?
There were concessions there. The drinks were a little more than could be purchased in the local bar, but not a lot. It was the sheer volume of alcohol per person which had been allowed into the Festival area which astounded me. The First Aid truck seemed not to lack customers.
"Buy our T-shirts", the president of the Carballeira organisation pleaded with the festival goers. "Help us to keep this great festival going another 30 years!" But the concessions didn´t seem to be doing a lot of business. Why bother when you have five litres of booze of your own, brought in with the total approval of the Guardia Civil of Galicia?
As I said, I didn´t stay. I had been very careful myself not to drink as I was the designated driver and had been stopped on the way home following a recent local festival. I knew that "Traffico" would be out in force.
I was wrong. I didn´t see a single spot check or police car.
No doubt Lurte stirred their totally wasted audience into a folk frenzy. No doubt the drinking continued until 7 in the morning.
And then they all drove home. Those that could still stand that is....
I have written to the organisers. I have written to the mayor of Zas (population - well not much). I doubt it will do any good and by doing it I feel a bit like "Outraged of Tunbridge Wells". I don´t think I objected because I am getting old. I know how to have fun and I can dance ´til dawn still if I have a mind to it (and did at the recent Asalto a O Castelo in Vimianzo where I saw none of this even without an admission check).  I think I did it because I am sad. Sad that the enjoyment of many who would have liked to enjoy the music was so ruined by the behaviour of so many drunks, some probably not yet 15 and who were poisoning themselves with the permission, even approval of the organisers of the Carballeira Festival.
We won´t even discuss the cost to an already overburdened medical system...
I doubt very much that I will ever go again. And two pilgrims will be taking a story back to their countries of a Spain that I would have preferred them (and I) not to see.
Signed: Disgusted of Carantoña.

Thursday 11 July 2013

The Peasants are Revolting: Asalto a O Castelo 2013

The year is 1467. The economic pressures on the peasants exceeds their ability to provide. The abuses of such feudal lords as the Moscosos, the Counts of Altamira become unbearable. The king, Henry IV is blind to the pleas of his subjects. There isn´t even cake to eat! It is no surprise that finally, the Irmandiños form a band and plot to overthrow their masters. Supported by some of the clergy and even some minor squires (the hidalgos, which means literally sons of some substance), it is estimated that perhaps 80,000 rose in Galicia against the establishment between 1467 and 1469. They succesfully attacked 130 forts, amongst them the castle in Vimianzo.

However, despite the rapid success of the Irmandiños, their victory was short lived. As is so often the case, competing interests and lack of control within the brotherhoods led to their downfall. When the situation came to the notice of the king, he sent his support to the nobles. The strength of the rebels at that time simply wasn´t enough. Vimianzo was now not in the hands of the Moscosos, but Alonso II, the archbishop of Santiago. The leaders of the rebellion were hanged; others were forced to rebuild what they had destroyed. The end result is the castle we see today, which, by the way, is on The Little Fox House History and Mystery Tour if you are a pilgrim at the end of your Camino and lucky enough to be able to pay Foxy a visit for a couple of nights or three. (see )

Fast forward to 2013.  Irmandiños and nobles eat and drink side by side, that is until Luar na Lubre stops playing and the cry goes up: “Lume!”

Three slaves walk onto the stage, their plight quite clear. The queen shows no mercy (the countess actually but the facts here ruin the story!). The peasants begin to hurl abuse as the baddies demonstrate their power. “The queen is a dipshit!” catcalls the normally restrained (so he says) Reverand Stewart of Saskatoon, one of the three pilgrims who stormed the castle with me this year. These words will stay with me, Tracy Saunders, for the rest of my life!

“LUME!” The torches are lit, the drums begin as we follow the Irmandiños toward the object of their discontent. Someone takes up the cry:  “Asalto a O Castelo! Asalto a O Castelo!!". The castle hoves into site.

The story continues on the battlements and we Irmandiños are repulsed by water balloons, but only for a while.  The slaves reappear, a hand-to-hand battle is fought and the Viscount gets the worse of it. “LIBERTAD!!!”

Down go the gates under the merciless thrust of those manning (and womaning) the battering ram.


And so the castle is ours once again, for a whole year.

I am not usually one for festivals, but I have my little school in Vimianzo, and The Little Fox house is within its “Concello”. I hung a banner out of the school window (OK so it's St Mark from Venice. I am a foreigner!) and we all dressed up very Medievally and danced til 3 in the morning.
And I can´t wait for next year.

Sunday 9 June 2013

Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago

Walking the Camino (in Spanish, Buen Camino) follows six pilgrims on their way to Santiago. Each one of them carries more than just their backpack. They carry their sorrows, their doubts, their hopes and dreams for the future. Brazillian, Sam, for example says: “They said I would find the answer and then I realised: I didn’t know the question”. Tatiana pushes a baby stroller with her son, Cyrian. She struggles with not only the rocky terrain, but also her ambivalence towards her brother. They have always fought, she says at the beginning of the film: “Now, no fighting.” All that is to change, however, as she gradually realises that while she is on the Camino to talk to God, Alexis is out for a good time, and she finds that her inner struggles become focussed on trying to come to terms with their differences. Wayne, the Canadian, is still suffering from the sadness of losing his wife some time before. Annie wrestles with tendinitis and walks through her pain determined not to stop. Others pass her with their poles: tuk, tuk, tuk. “A bad day for the ego is a good day for the soul,” she reflects. Misa and William find themselves drawn to each other in ways that neither of them ever anticipated, the age difference fading into meaninglessness when they find they are only ever separated when one or the other goes to the bathroom.

In short, your pilgrimage. Perhaps everybody’s pilgrimage.

And therein is the true strength of this film.

Not only are the characters superbly drawn, but the film is cinematographically beautiful. Long shots, short shots, wide shots. Not that this writer knows anything about the technical terms, but when the raindrops on the blades of grass glisten, and when the clouds are scudding across the Meseta, then you begin to understand the magic of the Camino. A snail moves along the pathway; a jet speeds above the cathedral: the metaphors are not lost. This is the Camino de Santiago. Time takes on a different meaning.

I predict that everyone who sees this film will come away feeling as I did: humbled and connected to the lives of these people. Perhaps you, like me will “adopt” a pilgrim and feel something of their joy as they finally make it to the Plaza de Obradoiro. And maybe, like me, you will cry.

Truly a wonderful film.


Tuesday 28 May 2013

Galicia is Not For Sale!

Last Sunday I decided to go for a walk. This is not an unusual thing for a Sunday, but this walk was around an area which, if the provincial government of Galicia and a Canadian gold mining company get their way, will soon no longer exist. At least not as a place in which you would want to take a walk.

The area in question is in Corcoesto in the Costa da Morte, no more than 8 kilometers from a pristine wetland area which hosts many species of wildlife. The river Anillons then flows in the Ria de Ponteceso and on into the sea.  It is a place of silence and very rare beauty.

I drove through Corcoesto twice without ever realizing it was there.  It is a typical Galician “aldea”: a tiny gathering of granite cottages, corn cribs and barns with cows chewing the cud.  Donkeys are still widely used in place of tractors and some carts still have wooden wheels. The population is aged. The women wear black or the ubiquitous blue apron seen all over Galicia.

It is well known that Spain is undergoing a serious recession. The unemployment rate is in excess of 25% and considerably higher amongst people under 25. Few stay in the countryside or continue the family tradition of farming.
So you would imagine perhaps, that a mining initiative might be just the ticket to revitalize the economy in this community. You would think that the majority of the people here would welcome the mine and certainly certain interested parties would tell you that this is indeed the case.

It is not.
The sign in the photo above reads, in Galician: "A Pyramid of Greed".
I went to Corcoesto to join a walk of 12 kilometers around the proposed site .We walked along crystal rivers and tracks fringed with foxgloves, through oak and pine and eucalyptus. There was no sound except our hushed voices and the sounds of our boots on the gravel. I tried to envisage the site as it would be with its plant, its open pit, its mine workings, its waste dump, its heavy construction vehicles. I tried to imagine the noise of dynamite and the rumble of trucks as the gold was taken away. I tried to imagine the smell of dust not  gorse and wild roses. I couldn’t do it for too long. It made me want to cry.

The old man on the horse told me that his blood pressure has shot up since December just wondering if the axe was going to fall.  The woman told me she would have joined the walk but her arthritis was too bad. She was afraid. The young girls told me that the environmental cost to this area would be devastating and that the mine would be in operation for eight years only. The man in the T-shirt wondered just how much of the wealth their ancestral land would yield would trickle down to the community; how many high end jobs would be given to outsiders. We agreed it was not an optimistic thought.
The Romans came to Galicia for gold. The city of Ourense receives its name from the precious metal. Oro is the Spanish word for gold.  Even today in Corcoesto above the river there are the remains of a mine shaft dating from 1895 through to 1910 and various exploitations have been carried out during the earlier part of the 20th century. As gold prices fell, the mine workings became unprofitable and were abandoned, However, with today’s premium price for gold, eyes have returned to Galicia’s potential, and believe me there is still a fair bit of it!

How much? Well, it depends on who you talk to. The Corcoesto load runs right through the Costa da Morte from Malpica in the north, and stretches to the Portuguese border at Tui almost 200 kilometers away.  The problem is, that despite the firms marketing strategies, it is not easily available: what there is left is only in tiny microparticles. In order to release it, the rocks have to be pulverised and cyanide used. Arsenic is also then released into the air as a result of the explosions. In such a rainy climate this means leaching of highly toxic waste into the groundwater.
The precedent for this mine should not be lost on anyone who fears for the total environmental destruction of this very beautiful and green province.
How serious is the environmental impact?

I hope I won’t be infringing on anyone’s intellectual property if I quote the contents of a letter sent to the European Parliament. I have yet to find whether the questions which follow it have been answered:
“The Galician government has adopted a law regulating industrial policy in Galicia with the aim of boosting investment in Galicia's industrial fabric. Its objectives include the development of strategic industrial projects involving proposed investments in industrial plants that are expected to result in a significant expansion of Galicia's industrial fabric. A series of conditions are laid down. Projects must lead to the creation of at least 250 jobs, and proposals must be backed by an undertaking (including partnerships) which will make the required investment.
Under this legislation, a Canadian company has proposed to open an open-cast gold mine in the district of Corcoesto (A Coruña). The environmental impact of this project is beyond doubt, since the extraction of 30 000 kg of gold will produce 6 million tonnes of waste. A residents' association set up to oppose the project estimates that the mine will be operational for 10 years. The company itself envisages a 20-year lifespan.
Moreover, the mining methods used may have a serious impact on the natural environment, in particular water, since they involve a cyanide-based extraction process. The European Parliament resolution of 5 May 2010 on a general ban on the use of cyanide mining technologies in the European Union called for these methods to be banned by the end of 2011. The citizens' action group against the mine has also complained that the correct procedures for informing the public were not complied with and that no economic guarantee or commitment has been given to offset the inevitable impact that the mine will have”
1. Is the Commission aware of this situation?
2. Given that it involves a cyanide-based extraction process, does the Commission believe that this project complies with Community regulations?
3. What steps will the Commission take to ensure that this goldmine project complies with the procedures guaranteeing public information and transparency that are required under Community regulations?
The man in the expensive white car near the church didn’t want to comment that much was clear. I asked if he thought it would impact on the life of the people in Corcoesto: “It’ll be a bit noisier”, he said. Did he think that most people were for or against it?  “About equally based.”
The video from the Canadian Edgewater Exploration company on the environmental impact of the site goes further: in a poll of 2012 “80% of neighbouring municipalities welcome the project”. Neighbouring Municipalities, note; not people. The politicians want it, but the people don’t.

The video also states quite specifically that the life expectancy of the mine is 9 years. This is at odds with the 20 years also claimed by the mining company elsewhere.
In nearby Carballo, a town virtually created from wolfram mining through the 1950’s, a recent demonstration drew well over a thousand demonstrators from this tiny community.  This Sunday a much bigger "manifestación" is planned for Santiago de Compostela.

I’ll be with them. Some things simply must be beyond money even in a country desperate for it. The price of gold can never equal the cost of what would be lost in Galicia forever.
“Soy contraminante!”