Hi everyone. I’ve had to rebuild my website over the last couple of days, so thank you for being patient.
There is still quite a bit of work to do to get it back to its previous condition, but I will do this over the next few weeks.
About a billion years ago, give or take a few weeks, a bunch of people settled somewhere in the Northern part of the present-day Cambodia. For their time, they were the “Big Bad.” They ruled a large area, built what was then the largest pre-industrial city in the world, and, eventually, erected temples as the proof of their superiority: The holy city of Angkor; an elaborate series of temples dedicated to worship of their monarch-God. For a while, a long time in fact, life was good until the Khmer Empire’s story ended the same way as all other Big Bads in history: a Bigger, Badder bunch showed up and before they knew it, there was a new empire-builder-conqueror-world-dominator, minting new God-kings and building even bigger holy cities.
After centuries, most these empire seats are just as boring to visit as, I imagine, the Kings who built them and only serve as unheeded reminder to the would-be kings that future generations are harsh judges of what once may have been, oh, so, like, to just-die-for, cool!
Angkor is different.
The sprawling complex of temples is not just some empty ruins, swept clean for the benefit of the tourists. People actually live in various parts of the complex. Though most in fact live off the tourism trade, they nonetheless make the visit so much more than just viewing some ancient buildings – particularly if you, like me, enjoy spending time with the locals to find out a little more about how they live. While exploring, for example, I found a monastery that was not marked on any official maps. The monks, as well as the pupils, were delightfully engaging and enlightening; although I did not learn a new chant or some twisty yoga position, I did learn that young children enter monasteries because that is the only way they can get regular meals. In a short time that I spent with them, I also learned more about living in a monastery, from doing chores to studying. One fact I learned, one which saddened me quite a bit, was that entering the monastery meant the child would no longer be permitted “play” time. I was happy to see that many of the children had no problems breaking that rule and that, to their credit, the monks turned a blind eye.
One of the many young children who have entered the monastery.
Beyond the monastery, you can’t help but notice the children who help their parents to vend souvenirs or food. What is impressive is that almost all these children speak English. Some extremely well. I will forever remember the conversation I had with one 10 or 11 year old who clearly kept up with “America.” She knew all state capitals, and not only knew who the US president was, but also had impressive knowledge of the concept of elections and how someone gets to become the US president. In case you are wondering why that’s impressive, please note that Cambodia is a monarchy. She dreamed of moving to New York to pursue an acting career on Broadway. After retiring, she told me with undeniable resolve, she planned to return to Cambodia and become a teacher but “not charge anything to teach kids.” As nearly as I could figure out, kids go to school either in the morning or in the afternoon, spending the other half of the day helping their parents in a shop, or selling snacks or water in tourist areas.
As for the Temples, they are wonderful to visit and explore. Most are ruins but visitors do get a clear sense of the architectural ingenuity, particularly when gleefully playing in the echo hall, climbing the taller structures, or navigating a few maze-like sub-structures.
This is what happens when you don’t pay the gardener
Foreigners are not permitted to visit the grounds unescorted. That requires that you either hire a local Tuk Tuk for the day, or join a tour. I am not keen on tours, so I opted to hire my own driver. In 2009, hiring a Tuk Tuk and driver for 12 hours cost $20 USD. He picked me up before dawn, got me to the site in time to see the sunrise over the complex, and then drove me from temple to temple, waiting for me as I explored various structures. If you are nice to your driver, he won’t resist going off-map, which technically he is not supposed to. That is how I found the monastery. Besides tipping him appropriately at the end of the day, the best way to be “nice” to your driver is to buy him breakfast and lunch. Unless you like me are interested, you don’t need to eat with him. Most food areas have “driver only” tables. But, assuming your driver speaks some English, I would encourage you to get to know him a little bit. Most are young and come from rural areas in search of better employment opportunities. Typical stories. But many also aspire to become more than just a laborer. My driver, for example, was working for free at a restaurant at nights in exchange for learning how to cook.
That, of course brings me to what all “pro” travelers already know… It’s not the scenery… It’s the people that make a place special and, as places go, Angkor turned out to be a particularly easy one to like.
‘You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair – the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want to change the world. Come to it any way that works for you…but do it…’ Stephen King
There aren’t hard and fast rules about writing. There aren’t even consistent guidelines. Stephen King writes everyday because he has to. To him it’s an addiction. James Joyce famously said that he was satisfied with 7 words as a day’s production, if only he could decide on the order in which to place them. Anthony Trollope, whose job was a clerk in the Post Office, wrote for 2 ½ hours each morning before going to work. If he was mid sentence when the time expired, he’d leave the sentence unfinished until the next morning. If he happened to finish one of his 600 page novels with time remaining, he wrote ‘the end’ and began the next one. Harper Lee wrote one book – To Kill a Mockingbird. John Creasy wrote over 500 – under 10 different names.
There are recognisable formulas to the churned out plots. There is no magic formula to the act of creating. Having said that, I think PD James summed it up for most of us when she said she would rather defrost the fridge than start writing.
You know you can do it. Once you have the tools and the time greatness will follow. You only have to begin. That’s the tricky part. Believe in a muse if you will, but don’t believe it will flutter into your life sprinkling fairy dust (if it does, have it DNA tested and give me some). Only you can overcome the mental brick wall. The solid, unforgiving, two-storey high, impenetrable lump in front of your nose that stops you dead in your tracks. The immovable object with no way around it.
Leaving aside genuine reasons – flu, your mother died, your son wrote off your car, you’re dead – it’s usually put down to that insidious inner voice that says ‘not today’… not today ‘cause… I don’t feel like it…I haven’t got a pen…it’s Eastenders…it’s not working for me… Or, of course, the old stalwart…I can’t think of anything.
There are established triggers to overcome the moribund keyboard. And the even more moribund lump sitting hunched over it. The delights of such mechanisms as the ‘what-if’ question. Set up almost any scenario, introduce a character or two, and then say…what if? Stephen King admits to doing it. What if vampires invaded a New England village? – became Salem’s Lot.
Or there’s the conjuring from an image, a picture, or a postcard. Just looking and letting your imagination take over. Seeing more than a vase knocked over, the spilt water and the carnage of flowers – to the carnage just before it. The apology, the row… the adultery?
Weaving words from more than you see. Making those connections, those inspirational jumps, before the mental block of reasons why not. And you’re up and running. It doesn’t have to make sense. It doesn’t have to be good. The minute you can laugh at the wacky combinations thrown up, tension goes. When tension goes, so does the inner voice saying ‘can’t do that’ and you’re off.
If it helps, there are some unusual methods out there… Edith Sitwell used to lie in a coffin. The German poet Friedrich Schiller sniffed rotten apples. Victor Hugo wrote in the nude. A visual that surely ought to trigger something…
Driving home alone from a meeting in April 2008, with radio 2FM playing softly, something caught my attention.
“Are you brave enough?”
Brave enough for what, I thought. Spencer Tunick was coming to Ireland to create Art Installations for Dublin and Cork Cities. I turned up the volume.
“Do you dare to bare?”
“Definitely not. No flippin way!” I said out loud. I had way too many body issues for that.
Scars criss-crossed my middle. My stomach looked more like Clapham Junction than a washboard. I hated looking at it. Hated it! I tried everything. I stood in front of a mirror telling myself out loud how beautiful my tummy was and visualised perfectly smooth skin. It didn’t work. I meditated. I prayed. I even considered surgery! The loathing never ceased.
A voice in my head whispered, “Answer Spencer’s call.”
That evening, I logged onto the website, ticked the boxes relating to skin colour, piercings and tattoos. I selected Dublin, June 21st. I hit SUBMIT. I told no one, no one except my mother.
“Maybe I could come with you?”
“Mum, you have to be naked.”
“I know that, but you probably want a bit of company and it could be fun. Go onto the web thingy and book me in.”
A few weeks later we received the invitations with the following note.
Note: The installation will take place at dawn and will take approximately 90 minutes, including travelling to the site of the installation. During this time the participant will be nude for approx 30 minutes. Bring a towel.
June arrived, Mother changed her mind. My husband said he would go in her place.
“You do realise you have to be Barbara for the day?” I told him in the hope of putting him off. I couldn’t understand why he felt he had to come with me, I mean it’s not like I was a child.
We set off on the three hour drive to Dublin at midnight. We pulled up outside Customs House where the crowds had begun to gather for the buses and final instructions. After parking the car, hubby decided he didn’t want to go, so I said, “Fine, but you’re not going to spoil it for me. Give me my towel and I’ll see you at the hotel.” I didn’t turn back, but walked on, following the crowds to the buses. My eyes welled up, I knew why I wanted to go alone, nobody would put me off or tell me I had to do it if I changed my mind. I wanted this to be MY day. It was all about me.
It was 4°C when I left the car and a breeze that chilled to the bone swept off the sea. We piled into the special double-decker buses and I gathered my thoughts. We were handed illustrated instruction cards detailing three poses.
Stand, head bowed, arms by the side, look miserable
Sit down, hands behind and look like you’re sunbathing staring at the sky
Curl up on the ice cold granite and try to look like a foetus
Most people on the bus looked normal. Some at the end of a long night of partying, groups of giggling girls, pairs of lovers, mothers and daughters and many on their own. Strangers became friends and there was a buzz of excitement everywhere.
The bus finally pulled up at the docks, emptied the load of suckers, eejits or whatever the rest of sleeping Ireland called us and we began to march with conviction. Men and women wearing glow-in-the-dark jackets thrust see-through plastic sacks towards us pointing us in the right direction. I couldn’t believe how many people were there, the queue went on forever.
Standing around on the exposed South Wall, people pulled thermos flasks and snacks from bags. I expected hospitality tents and storage areas, so ended up listening to my belly grumble. Anyway, I was too nervous to eat.
Spencer climbed up on his cherry picker and communicated through a megaphone.
“Get undressed now. Remove all jewellery and spectacles. Do not carry anything.”
I felt the blood drain from my face, took three deep breaths, and looked around to see if there was a special way to get undressed. The only thing I noticed was that in the blink of an eye, many were already naked. I stripped as fast as I could, not taking a millisecond to think about it and stepped back into my Uggs. I stuffed everything into the clear plastic bag and set it on a rock on top of my very bright and stripy beach towel. I did my best to look comfortable with myself as I removed the Uggs and placed them in my bag.
I was a voyeur in a voyeur’s paradise. In the sea of nakedness, I noticed differences in everything. Shades of skin, from ghostly white and freckled through pink and mottled to dusky charcoal. Appendix scars, adventure scars and battle scars. Erect nipples, from teensy little buds to massive Cohibas. Fat, hairy and spotty asses, round and peachy bottoms and dimpled orange peel bums. There were old and young, firm and saggy and everything in between. A pregnant woman at full-term, a man with three limbs, each with a functioning living body. Limp willies wobbled, as we shuffled along the pier towards the lighthouse like penguins in the huddle.
Something changed, something was different. A woman was walking the opposite way. With her hollow cheeks, concave stomach and skeletal frame she looked she’d been freed from a concentration camp in the nick of time. Staring into nothingness, her stick thin arms crossed over her small empty breasts, she walked on. I looked at my curves and gave thanks.
Finding my space, marked with a yellow ‘X’ I hopped from foot to foot to stem the shivers. A rose pink haze peeked over the horizon and the breeze eased. A P&O Ferry sailed past sounding the ship’s horn. We mooned and gave the passengers a Mexican wave they will never forget. We cheered. We laughed. I relaxed.
“Cead Mile Failte!” Roared the crowd.
I can’t honestly remember if we were asked to get into position A or B first, but Spencer was taking a hell of a long time to take a photograph. When Spencer told us to assume the foetal position, I hoped I wasn’t looking up someone’s posterior. I’d never lain on a stone pier at dawn in the nude and I may not ever do it again. I was so cold I was numb. The sun which promised so much vanished behind the clouds and the first spots of rain fell. The heavens opened.
Spencer had finished – sort of.
“I’m sorry,” the familiar voice behind me said, “I lost my nerve.” We hugged.
“We will do another shoot for those who wish to remain.”
I looked at him and shook my head.
“It’s half six, let’s go get a nice cup of tea.”
The crowd moved quickly towards the bags. Everyone dressed faster than I thought possible. I didn’t even bother with underwear and made in the direction of the bus park.
A solitary naked man wandered aimlessly along the pier searching for a clear plastic bag. How bizarre, I thought.
We dressed warmly, packed jackets and water into a daybag and walked out of the Possada with torches in hand. The sky was dark, the moon hidden by clouds and the heavy smell of wood smoke lingered in the damp night air. The crickets chirped incessantly as we turned onto the dirt track towards the village for our rendezvous with Felipe.
Earlier that day, we tumbled out of a microbus to find ourselves in Chajul, a remote village in the Ixil region of Guatemala. My desire was to have been in Tikal for the BIG Mayan ceremony, but everywhere was booked, so we decided to visit Tikal when the celebrations had died down. To say I was disappointed is not enough however, sometimes the Universe has a better plan.
The guide book said ‘Local families also rent out beds in their houses to travellers; you won’t have to look for them, they will find you.” Looking around the village, I saw in an instant that things would be basic. Homes were built from wood and daub with chickens running wild through the open doors.
“Oh Dan, I’m really excited. Where will we sit? Can you see anyone likely to offer us a room?”
We made our way to the Plaza, bought spurious orange flavoured drinks, chips, fried beans and tortillas from a street vendor, plonked our rucksacks on a bench and sat down to eat. The sun was high in the sky and the air was muggy and smoky. Our chosen spot offered little in the way of shade. Moments later, we were surrounded by three children who tried to convince us to have our shoes shined. Their grubby faces may have been charming, but our dusty nubuck hiking boots had no requirement for polish.
“Dan, I think we need to move somewhere else, we need to look conspicuous.”
“How much more conspicuous can we be? We’re the only foreigners here. They will find us.”
The women wore traditional Mayan costumes, full length wrap around dark red skirts with thin vertical stripes, heavily embroidered huipiles in shades of reds, blues and greens, bright multi-coloured pompommed head bands woven through their plaits and earrings made from old coins that dangled on lengths of wool. Not one of them offered us a room for the night.
“Welcome to Chajul. My name is Felipe and I work in the Bank. I’m also the curator of the museum. You can stay at the Hotel or the Posada,” our new best friend announced in Spanish, without pausing for breath. There was no talk about staying with a family so we didn’t push it and engaged in some small talk instead and resigning ourselves to a night at the Posada.
“Today is an important date for Mayans. We will have a small ceremony at midnight on top of the mountain.”
Seizing my chance, I asked if it was possible to attend. He warned it was a steep 2Km climb in the pitch black, which didn’t put me off, so it was arranged that we would meet in the Plaza at 11pm.
By 10.30pm we were ready and dressed. Moments after leaving the Posada, feral dogs hurled themselves from the shadows, snarling, growling and snapping at our heels. My heart thumped and I clung to Dan for my life.
There was still a mile to go.
“Cock-a-doodle-doo!” I looked up and saw the silhouette of dozens of chickens roosting in the trees. There was no time to enjoy the peculiar sight, time only for flight. The animal cacophony was deafening, worsened by my own yelps and squeals. A faint glimmer of street lights beyond the abattoir , offered hope and encouragement. We quickened our steps. Using the beam from our Maglites to dazzle the dogs, we made it through and arrived at the rendezvous.
Breathless and sweaty, we sat on a low concrete wall to recover. Felipe appeared and invited us to his house for coffee as we had to wait for the arrival of the Mayan priests. He introduced us to Jean Michel, a Belgian who was staying with Felipe and joining us for the ceremony. The room had a table, several chairs and an old television. Images of the main ceremony at Tikal flashed on the screen and the volume was incredibly loud. Felipe went to the television and increased the sound to distortion. The Tikal ceremony seemed fake and staged for television.
The priests arrived, laden with sacred bundles of flowers, candles, a metal pipe welded to a flat plate which resembled a rocket launcher and fireworks. We were a party of seven – two Priests, an Elder and Felipe in full traditional dress, the Belgian and the two of us in hiking gear. One priest swung an incense burner and lead the way, my job was to carry the arum lilies.
Sporadic rain drops landed on my cheek, hinting at more as we proceeded along the last of the hard stone track. We turned onto a narrow dirt trail when the heavens opened. Scrambling on all fours at times, breathing in the heady incense we followed as quickly as we could. Suddenly everyone stopped.
“It’s Midnight, we will have some prayers,” Felipe announced.
There was nothing sacred or special about the location, it was only selected because of the hour. The priest lit candles whilst we huddled around him to trying to protect the flames. Feeling the water running down the back of my neck and the dampness of my trousers demoralised me. The priests chanted and prayed, swung the incense burner then blew out the candles and set off at a powerful pace up the greasy track.
It was long after midnight when we arrived at the summit to the ceremonial place. Red, green, black, white, yellow and blue candles, an ear of corn, flowers, fireworks and the rocket launcher were laid out on a cloth and carefully sorted.
The Mayans lit the candles laying them in a circle and began the prayers.
Felipe asked us to face east, then west, then north and finally south. Each candle had a particular significance, and when the job with each was complete, it was added to the burning mass of candles. Despite the deluge, I heard the sizzle and splutter of the candles. Felipe knelt down and faced the fire. It looked like he was being blessed. The elder passed the corn through the fire praying for Felipe to have the knowledge to select the best seeds for the next crop. Each of us held two green candles in one hand protecting them from the rain with the other. Looking down I saw that Felipe was wearing leather flip-flops on his feet, the elder wore Vans. At least two hundred candles were used and the fire was well ablaze. The rocket launcher was set up and a huge firework launched. Being so close was deafening and scary so I leapt away seeking shelter and protection behind a rock. The smaller fireworks were fired off resounding across the valley below. Eventually I felt safe enough to rejoin the group. We hugged and wished each other a happy new era. Wiping away an emotional tear with my muddy hands, I gazed out across the valley and imagined how beautiful the view would be at dawn.
The route down was more like a stream than a path. Soaked through, my only thought was getting down to the village as fast as I could. Slipping and sliding along the path we trekked to the stone track which led to the village.
“I need to speak with Alcalde, is this OK?” Felipe asked as he knocked on a small wooden door. It was 2am. The door opened and we were ushered inside. Jean Michel, who spoke fluent Spanish, interpreted – “This is the home of the Indigenous Mayor and we will hear all about his meeting yesterday with the President.”
The house was warm, candlelit and rustic. We were shown to a wooden bench. Alcalde’s wife gave us strong, hot sugary coffee. The smoke from the embers of a chimneyless fire filled the air stinging my eyes before creeping out the gap between the roof and the walls. Felipe was the only bilingual of the Mayans and interpreted everything Alcalde said into Spanish for our benefit. Jean Michel interpreted the more complex Spanish into English. Alcalde held court telling us the plans that were in action to protect the Mayans.
A puddle of water formed under my bottom, chilling me to the core. Alcalde gestured to his wife to bring the special drink, a home made alcoholic brew decanted from a plastic bucket into an old bottle which was passed around the group. I poured some into my coffee hoping to warm my insides. Taking my pink cashmere scarf from the daybag, I wrapped it around my head and neck. Alcalde noticed my shivering and apologised that his house was cold for the lady. He cleared his throat and spat onto the packed earth floor. The elder got up as if to leave and I knew that was our cue. We tramped along the track to Felipe’s house and he insisted on walking us back to the Posada to protect us. He changed into some dry clothes, strapped his machete to his waist and accompanied us back to our base.
Sharing in such an intimate and important celebration left an indelible memory. How lucky I was to have missed Tikal. How lucky to have been included in a simple rural and completely authentic ritual. The end of the long Mayan calendar, the dawn of a new era, the date 22.214.171.124.0.
Music to my ears, chicken soup for my soul and a smile on my face. Those few words are so meaningful, so powerful and yet so simple.
This morning, being Thursday and a writing day, I began with my usual rituals, ten cups of tea, a bit of housework and a homemade Fruit Soda in the oven. I had to get dressed as I was expecting a visitor – The shower fixing man.
I detected a bit of a Belfast accent though he was first to mention my Irish accent. Ah, I knew it was going to be a good day.
“Is that a bannock I smell?” he asked as he climbed into the bath. I’d forgotten how forward Irish people are. I told him it was a fruit soda and heard a moan of pleasure.
The bread had only just gone in so I put the kettle on and asked him a hundred and one questions, knowing that he wouldn’t find it irritating.
“How do you take your tea?”
“Strong, white and one. A heating element has died but I have a new one in my bag, so I have.”
“Brilliant! Now will you be wanting a biscuit or will you wait for the scone?”
“I’m in no rush, I’ll wait for the bread, this is too good to miss. I’m going to phone my brother and tell him about this, so I am.”
I made a second cup and cut the bread.
“Do you want jam with that?”
Hot buttered bread and the smell of cinnamon filled the air. Joe, smiled and said it, so he did, “You’ve made my day, so you have!”
Five French Hens on Aranmore Island – photo courtesy of Grainne McAnee
Five French Hens
The boot opened and I placed my neat trolley suitcase on top of the other bags. Aileen, Catherine, Zita and Grainne were on top form when I jumped into the back seat of the car.
“Bonjour,” they answered in unison.
Zita drove off to a chorus of giggles as we compared outfits. Dressed like identical quintuplets in black and white striped tops, black skirts, tights and knee high black boots. The chic black bob wigs with cranberry red highlights lent a quintessentially French touch. Deep crimson lipstick polished the look.
It was Aileen’s hen party and we knew it was going to be fun. Zita took us along the scenic route, so we stopped for a photo under the ‘Statue of Liberty’ admiring the views of Gweebarra Bay. Indeed, Donegal has its very own statue!
The hunger was getting to us and being the sensible one, I suggested we get something to eat before crossing to the island. There was only one restaurant in Burtonport open that day, ‘The Lobster Pot’. It was the first weekend of April 2004, the week the smoking ban became law in Ireland. There wasn’t much time until the ferry was leaving for Aranmore, so we asked the landlady for the fastest food she could bring.
“I can do you fresh fish and chips girls. Wouldn’t that be grand?”
We agreed and ordered five pints of beer to get us going. When she handed us the drinks she quizzed us.
“Are ye sisters?”
We told her about the hen party and she said, “Well, I never in the life of me seen anyone in the getup yousuns are in. Ye’re the swankiest hens I’ve ever seen.”
The food was on the table in no time and we ate heartily.
There were a few strange looks from the villagers as we piled into the car and drove to the pier to park. The cases and bags were unloaded and we stepped onto the ferry. The sun shone brightly through a gap in the clouds and I placed oversized black sunglasses carefully on my face. We stayed below decks as it was freezing up top despite the sunshine and talked of our plans for the evening.
The passengers and my friends disembarked, leaving me to wrestle with my totally unsuitable trolley suitcase. However, once I was in character, I stayed in character.
With a fresh slick of lipstick applied, I took control of the bag and sashayed on deck, gliding with aplomb down the ramp.
“Holy Jesus! Would you look at you, you’re like a flippin film star. Shall I take your bag Madame?” Grainne asked.
“Right then, where’s the road to the Glen Hotel?” I asked the Ferryman.
He looked me up and down, shook his head and pointed to a steep dirt track.
“That’s the shortest way, but it might be a bit muddy,” he said.
I gave up on wheeling the bag and carried it instead doing my best to keep my feet as clean as possible. It was only a few minutes walk to the hotel, a 19th century family run affair.
“Failte!” Anne Marie the landlady said, welcoming us in Irish.
“Come in and warm yourselves by the fire. I’ve had the heating on all day for you. You’re the first guests of the season.”
She handed us the keys to our rooms and we wandered upstairs. Catherine had chosen the hotel as it was such a special occasion. The air was damp and musty and the rooms cramped and dark. The décor was terribly dated but all we cared about was getting the bottle of bubbly open and getting the party started. The fizz was guzzled at lightening speed as we were freezing and craved the warmth of the fireside.
Someone ordered a round and we sat at the bar chatting with Anne Marie.
“Where can we go tonight?”
Anne Marie smiled and said, “I’ll call Paddy for you, he’ll drive you around on a pub crawl and there’s a disco in the hall later. Sure you can let yourselves in when you get back. Breakfast will be in the dining room and you’ll hardly be wanting it too early.”
Paddy arrived, dressed in his Sunday best, propped himself at the bar beside us and ordered a pint.
“I’ll have a quick whiskey on the side Anne Marie,” he whispered leaning further over the counter. He was probably in his mid fifties, with a bit of a paunch and single he proudly announced.
The first pub was the furthest away and we hurried in to bag the fireside tables. All heads turned to stare. Paddy followed us in with a look of pride at the harem he’d brought to the pub.
He ordered another pint and two whiskey chasers. I noticed nobody was smoking and there were prominent ‘No Smoking’ signs. “Can you believe it? They seem to be enforcing the ban! Nobody is smoking.” The island is notorious for flouting the alcohol licencing laws and a Garda’s arrival on the island is well announced. Grainne and Aileen headed outside for a smoke. Aileen reluctantly wearing a white veil attached to her sleek bob with a tacky ‘L’ plate pinned to her back.
“Time for the next pub, girls,” Paddy called as he made towards the door. It wasn’t long till everyone from the first pub arrived and joined us for more craic.
Paddy downed another few pints and tots of whiskey before we piled into the seven-seater battered old Peugeot.
I was beyond caring how many pints Paddy consumed. I was more interested in how each time we arrived in a new pub, the crowd from the previous pub followed. Pied Piper came to mind. Paddy’s face was scarlet, the sheen of sweat glistening as he cosied up to an ample bosomed lady. It was 3am and the pub was buzzing, but we still had to get to the disco. No hen night would be complete without a boogie. Paddy had gone, he’d scored and we were abandoned in a pub – somewhere.
“How do we get to the hall for the disco?” I asked one of the locals.
“Ah, sure it’s too early for that, it’ll not get going for a while yet, sure we’re all here.”
We tottered off with the crowd of revellers in the direction of the disco.
We danced on an empty dance floor around our handbags. We drank shots.
“Hi, I think your sister’s dead. She’s in the toilet!” Said the girl tugging on my sleeve.
We rushed to the ladies. There was Grainne, slumped across the toilet seat fast asleep. Goodness knows how we hoisted her up, but the five French hens staggered back to the hotel swaying from one side of the lane to the other. Aileen’s veil got snarled in the brambles and was left there as a reminder of our visit. The rest of the night was lost in drunken oblivion as we collapsed into our beds.
In the morning, we gathered around the breakfast table, dressed in pyjamas. With the ‘Super Ser’ set on three bars for a bit of warmth, we giggled about the antics of the evening. Looking like our normal hung-over selves, it was reassuring to know that we were completely unrecognisable.
“I can’t find my skirt!” Grainne declared.
“What happened on the island stays on the island.” We promised.
It’s lovely to have written the Guardian’s Winning tip: The Garlic Farm, Isle of Wight
Alliumphobic? Take a trip to the Garlic Farm and face your fear. The Taste Experience offers giant baked elephant garlic, breads, dips and chutneys. Visitors can take a tractor tour of the growing fields, plait it, buy it, eat it and smell it. Then, in the cafe, sample the food cooked with … you guessed it. Adventurous types can try garlic ice-cream or a garlic bloody mary. Or go to the annual festival (17-18 August). 01983 867333,thegarlicfarm.co.ukfarawayvisions
Cliffs of ochre and burnt sienna rise steeply from the golden sands of Praia da Rocha. Stroll from the marina along the boardwalk to where you think the beach ends. Here tunnels eroded in the rock lead to further delightful beaches (if you catch the tide right). Sip a glass of vinho verde, then climb the steep wooden steps for a view from above. farawayvisions
Best beaches in Spain and Portugal: readers’ travel tips
This article appeared on p16 of the Travel section of the Guardian on . It was published on guardian.co.uk at . It was last modified at .
Rowing ashore at noon is a complete hair brained idea I think as my clothes stick to me to me like cling film. The morning rains have ended and we’re meeting Herbert, a German sailor who is joining us for a trip to Ribeira. Waiting on the mud bank for our water taxi to arrive, I scrape the tendrils of hair from my face and wipe my sweaty moustache. We climb aboard an open wooden canoe style boat. There are no other passengers so we push off immediately.
The river races in a torrent, logs and rubbish rush past. Rounding Ihla Do Stuart in the river Paraiba, Brazil, we run aground. Our pilot raises the outboard motor, revs it up and digs through the mud. Between the mangroves, huge red crabs scuttle for shelter in the swamp fleeing in the motion of a Mexican wave as they detect our presence. We land on Ribeira.
There are huts and houses dotted along the main track, every second building is a shop of sorts. Trees bearing star fruit, avocados, bananas, coconuts, limes and pomegranates line the muddy lanes. A real gem, unique to Brazil, nestles under an Avocado tree – The Thong tree. Hundreds of chickens run amok.
Brazilian Thong Tree
It’s Sunday and the only sign of human life is in a bar.
We stop for a beer and some lunch. We sit outside on some grubby white plastic chairs in the shade of a tree next to a pool table with torn and faded green baize. There is nothing left to eat. I order a second beer, forgetting that I may need to use the ‘facilities’.
“I have to use the loo, so don’t look.” I tell my pals as I can see there is no door for the toilet. Making my way around the side, I see the overflowing bucket and a swarm of flies. My flesh crawls and hairs prickle my entire body.
The lady who appears to be the owner comes running from the back of the building and gestures frantically for me to move away! I breathe a sigh of relief when she says, “…casa.” Casa is the only word I understand! She moves quickly despite her years and beckons me inside. I Kick off my flip-flops and follow her through the pristine house to the bathroom. The toilet won’t flush, but there’s a barrel of water and a dented tin scoop which I can use. The blue porcelain wash basin has hot and cold taps. Nothing comes out, so I scoop another pot of water. It splashes on my bare feet – there is no plumbing.
Relieved, I rejoin my friends back at the table, I take another swig of beer. A man on a motorbike pulls up. In one hand he holds a live chicken with its legs trussed and a massive bunch of bananas in the other. Leaving the chicken and the bananas on the ground he enters the bar.
“Cock-a-doodle-doo!” Crows a rooster upon seeing the helpless hen clucking and wriggling next to the bananas.
He has ‘his way’ with her, right in front of us! Feathers and dust fly everywhere and the cockerel simply struts off continuing on his merry way. Barely five minutes elapse before bananas, chicken and rider are reunited and they zoom off into the distance never to be seen again.
At the river’s edge, a water taxi with the words 100% Jesus painted on the side awaits. There is a horse, a motorbike, a chicken and two passengers onboard. We climb in and I pray we will make it across alive.
I’d been in Lerwick harbour for weeks since arriving from Norway. The previous night we’d been hit by winds of 70knots and we were the only yacht in the harbour. There is a saying that Ports rot boats and men. I was feeling rotten. I left the boat and went to the Peerie Café for coffee, cake and wifi. I decided to have a day of culture so I walked to the museum. A poster advertising a Makkin and Yakkin group caught my eye. It was to be held in the library that evening.
With my crochet in my bag, I headed up the hill to the library to join the Makkin and Yakkin group. I was really looking forward to some female company. Only three of us showed up so we settled down on some comfy seats on the mezzanine with a cup of tea and biscuits. Otie, a Finnish lady told me how she met her Dutch husband in Ireland and Evelyn told me she was born and reared in Shetland.
[SinglePic not found]
As is the case with women all over the world, we chatted about men, children and life. I spoke of my stay on the island a few months back when it was summer and how different the place was in the autumn. Evelyn told me about the day the wind stopped blowing in Shetland and all the people fell over. The craic was mighty! It was a welcome change to talk of something other than weather forecasts, broken wind generators and sea states. There was some Makkin, but mostly Yakkin. Evelyn gave me a new crochet pattern for a necklace before I left. I felt alive and happy as I walked in the dark back to the silent harbour.
Next morning, there was a weather window and it was all systems go to make it to Cape Wrath. It was just as well we were leaving, as I was starting to develop a Scottish accent and felt as if I should be arranging to be on the electoral roll! We cast off from the dock and I had to run for the pole as we weren’t backing away. The propeller was not turning! We drifted towards the dock again and I had to leap from the bowsprit and tie us up again. John’s sleeping bag had got wrapped around the prop shaft and jammed the prop. John was hoking about under the coats checking to see what was happening whilst I secured the boat to the pontoon. My mobile rang, it was my friend.
“Ach hello Morag,” Martina said in her best Scottish accent.
She called me Morag as she was amused by the many months I’d spent in Scotland.
“We’re taking on water, we need to pump!” shouted FarawayJohn from the cockpit.
“Hey, gotta go, we’re sinking!” I said to Martina as I quickly shoved the phone into my pocket.
John was convinced this stroke of bad luck was because we tried to leave on a Friday. I told him it was because there was too much junk onboard. Thank goodness this happened at the dock though as it wouldn’t have made for much of a story to be sunk at Lerwick dock!
So we had one more day in Lerwick fixing and mending. That night I had one final beer in Da Noost before going to sleep for my last night on the treeless island of Shetland.
So you think that cruising on a small yacht is glamorous? You think it’s all Gin and Tonic?
Meraid and Dan in Agadir Morocco on the She of Feock
Sometimes it’s not all plain sailing…
Here are 12 truths.
We get hungry wet and cold – frequently. It’s not all sunshine and bikinis.
We eat food that is long past its sell-by / Use by date. Many of of have no fridge. I’ve eaten Eggs more than 3 months old UHT milk a year out of date Green beef! When food falls on the floor, we pick it up and eat it and it falls often. Food is very important. We talk about it and enjoy it. When we are ashore we have to plan the shopping very carefully. Sometimes we have too carry the shopping a long distance and we buy a lot.
We sleep in shifts when we’re on a passage. Sometimes we share the same bed (though not together) it’s called hot bedding.
We wear our clothes for days on end. Fashion is not an issue. We hand wash our clothes if we cannot find a laundry or laundry services are expensive.
Fresh water is extremely precious. We collect rain water. Sometimes we have to pay for fresh water. We shower wherever and whenever we can.
We generate our power from the sun, the wind and the water. Checking the battery voltage is a ritual.
Privacy – There is no such thing!
Weather Forecasts are important – The wind is our friend and our enemy.
We know very little of what’s happening in the world apart from the weather. We know nothing of celebrity gossip, who won X Factor, the latest music trends.
Trust! You must trust yourself and each other.
Sometimes we sail naked!
People all over the world are friendly and welcoming (mostly) though we were boarded by pirates twice and customs, but that’s another story
Everyone in Portugal eats cake – it’s a national pastime!
I developed my passion or perhaps obsession with cakes when sailing the Algarve. Apparently there are 365 different types of cake in Portugal and I did my best to try as many as possible.
Broa castelar – Sweet potato cakes
Mini Cenoura – mini carrot cakes
Pastel de Nata – A type of egg custard cake with a thin multi layered pastry sprinkled with cinnamon (best if warm) Carrot cake gateau Mini almond cup cakes
Mini orange and almond cup cakes
Heavy cake – a very heavy cake (My least favourite) Broa castelar
Lemon swiss roll cake (a sort of heavy cake)
Baked crusty fruit bread Apple strudel pastry
Bolo de aroz (muffin type cake)
There’s still a lot of tasting to do when I visit again.
It was a summer’s evening in 1972. I was six years old and my brother was four. Mother asked if we would like to go with her to the jungle for an adventure. Our bungalow backed onto a swampy jungle with a river running through it. We were forbidden to go there. Dangers lurked beyond the fence protecting the goats and chickens. Crickets hissed, frogs croaked and strange birds clung to the reeds.
My eyes bulged with excitement and my jaw dropped.
“Yes Mummy, yes!”
“Go get some sensible clothes on.”
We raced inside, changed and within moments we were standing in the porch ready for the adventure.
Mother was always very glamorous and looked a bit weird dressed as she was with a machete attached to her belt. I held tightly to the belt slung low on her hips as we ventured deep inside.
“What was that?” I whispered as my heart began to thump.
There was a sudden rustle, a huge tiger bounded out from the reeds. Mother screamed and ran for home leaving my brother and me to fend for ourselves. I wet my pants, stumbled then raced for home screaming all the way. I did not look back. I ripped my trousers on a nail as I fell over the fence. I made it. I was alive.
Mother was sitting on the porch step sobbing uncontrollably holding my brother. I ran to her protection and held her tightly. I could hear her heart beating as I wiped my snotty nose on her jumper. Father’s familiar laughter filled the air and I looked up. He could barely stand as he was laughing so much and was weighed down by the tiger skin that normally graced the sitting room floor.
My Grandmother had brought the skin from India twenty five years earlier and had given it as a gift to my parents. Together, my parents hatched a plan to keep us away from the swamp, hence Mother taking us on the ‘Adventure’. Father was so convincing, that poor Mother forgot about the plan and was scared half to death.
Ally Pally – The People’s Palace, the venue of the RYA Dinghy show! Dan won two tickets from our local magazine Scene and we went off to London for the day.
We caught the early morning train from Netley to London Waterloo with only a minute to spare. The lady behind me at the ticket machine decided to abandon her mission and ran ahead to the platform. The conductor was obviously having a bit of a hormonal thing going on and threatened the lady with a penalty and all sorts of things, telling her she could not buy the ticket on board. I stepped in and explained that I was the reason the lady had no ticket and she demanded I show her MY ticket. Did she think we were in cahoots? Well no, she was checking the time stamp on my ticket and she soon treated the lady like a human being.
At Waterloo, a song came into my head, you know the one – ‘Waterloo’! We proceeded to the Underground and another song popped up – by The Jam. From Euston, we walked to Kings Cross pausing to admire and touch the 30 foot bronze sculpture ‘The Lovers’ by Paul Day now sporting a Jack French St Pancras Bag at the Eurostar Terminal. I was feeling all arty and creative.
At platform 11, we boarded the grotty train to Alexander Palace and walked up the hill admiring the London cityscape. At the steps in front of the rose window, a photographer grappled with his tripod, shook his head and said, “This isn’t working!” At the top of the steps, a skinny waif wearing vertiginous heels was wrapped in a green horse blanket. She was shivering violently. The model, I guess! Poor thing, it was freezing. But forget about her, I wanted tea.
At the Bar & Kitchen, we ordered tea, but were forced to have cake as the minimum charge on a card was a fiver. When will we ever learn to carry cash? Smoke eeked out from an outside bin, so for my second good deed of the day, I went to the bar and told them about the smoke. Three members of staff, each carrying a bucket of water deposited the contents in the bin. The bin was still smouldering (perhaps it was only steam) but a guy came out with a fire extinguisher and emptied it completely. Two fire officers arrived, I know this because they wore fleeces with the words ‘Fire Officer’ emblazoned on the back. They each had a clipboard and concurred the fire was indeed extinguished. Now they had to fill out the fire report. The barman gave me a look of displeasure. So much for my good deed!
Some early Mirrors at the RYA Dinghy show in Ally Pally
The Dinghy show was busy, the Mirrors and the RIBs both celebrating 50 years in existence. ‘Collective Spirit’ a 30 foot sailing boat made from over 1000 pieces of donated wood was on display. Every single person who walked by, couldn’t resist the urge to stroke, caress and admire her.
Collective Spirit begs you to touch
We did the tyre kicking equivalent of dinghy buying, paying particular attention to the B14 and RS400. Looking, asking questions and ‘thinking about it’. Dan admired and dreamed of racing a foiling Moth. At the busy 2000 Class stand, we bumped into Jenny Macgregor who we’ve raced against and had a wee chat. We left with our arms the same length, a pocket full of dreams and decided to go and have a look around town.
We strolled from Embankment Tube Station towards the Tate Modern stopping at the graffiti covered undercroft of the Southbank Centre to marvel at the skateboarders. What I really marvelled at was the fact they were wearing tee-shirts! Brrr!
The Tate Modern always appeals and we decided to get tickets for Lichtenstein – A Retrospective. I went to an exhibition in the Hayward several years ago, and promised Dan it was worth paying for. Sadly, the next available entry was at 19.30 – too late for us as we had the last train home to catch at 21.00.
The free exhibitions were provocatice, fun and often downright silly. And that’s what I like about the Tate Modern. You have to open your mind, and believe me, my mind is open, but several times, the ‘message’ missed me out.
“No!” I gasped in disbelief when I saw a piece. I checked over my shoulder to see if perhaps the artist was lurking to guage a reaction.
Several pieces have a Guardian to protect them, e.g ‘Forced Labour’ by Liliana Porter could be destroyed by a sneeze! An interactive piece with three plywood boxes piqued my interest and I gazed into the lens in wonder at what lay inside.
Dan getting close up and personal with 3 Plywood Boxes at the Tate Modern
My favourite exhibit in the gallery was the a 1965 piece – the medium, mirror on canvas! Exactly, a mirror, the most interesting item in the Tate Modern last Saturday was…
Carried away by the excitement, we lost track of time and it was a race to eat and catch the train. The final photo of the day was captured from Waterloo Bridge.
London Eye from Waterloo Bridge
Photograph of The Lovers kindly provided by Paul Day (Sculptor)
My singular memory of visiting Bratislava is how kind these stern-faced people are!
We pull into the Bratislava Hlavná train station shortly before 6 am on a Sunday morning. I manage not to sleep through the stop and drag myself out of the relative warmth of the cabin into the chill of the main hall. Save a few drowsy backpackers waiting for the first train out, the station is void of any life. I am not quite awake yet, and only have coffee on the brain. I shuffle around the station until I find the lockers, stuff my pack in one, taking only my pocket point-and-shoot camera, get a few Korunas out of the ATM, and walk out of the station into a thick morning fog. I don’t mind some cold fog. What self-respecting San Franciscan would? After a few steps however, I realize that it is snowing too. I have never seen the fog-and-snow combination before, and that instantly brightens my mood! After all, do we not travel to experience new things?
Camera now at the ready, I set off to explore while searching for coffee.
A cool, hip coffee shop where young bankers, artists, students, and tourists mingle with ease.
Of course, as I’m sure you saw this coming a mile away, my happy-hoppy meandering to experience this odd weather soup gets me hopelessly lost. Thinking that I am heading back toward the station, I find myself deep in some neighborhood. I look for a main road but every street, building, and landmark is familiar and strange at the same time. None of the directions I pick gets me back to any sort of a road where I might expect a bus or a taxi. I have to now admit that I am lost and no longer, um, exploring!
I was taking photos while walking, which probably at least partly contributed to my predicament. I’ve been in this very situation before. Sometimes going through the photos sparks a memory from the distant ten-minutes-ago, and re-orients me. Hoping for a quick “oh, I know what I did,” I find the first doorway that offers some shelter from the snow (just annoying now), sit on the damp step, and start to flip through the photos.
I have only had a chance to look at, oh, maybe 10 or 15 shots when I hear the door open behind me. I stand up – jump is more like it – and instinctively turn around to find an also-startled man, stopped partly out the door.
He huffs something in Slovak, which I don’t speak of word of. But it is clear that he is not just surprised or upset. He is angry. I say, in English, “Sorry I don’t understand,” but he just tenses up more, his voice gets angrier and spits out something else in Slovak. I start to back up but that does not seem to change his tone. I am suddenly concerned that my first and preferred choice, just walking away, may not be an option. I wish I had brought my guidebook. It had a few Slovak phrases that I could have really used right about now!
We clearly have ourselves a situation.
Side Bar: My Rules of Dealing with a “situation” without a common language. I smile (be friendly, rule #2), survey his hands quickly (might need to make a “fight-or-flight” decision quickly, rule #3) make sure he can see my hands so he knows I am not holding a weapon (don’t be threatening unless you mean to be, rule #4), and in a calm, soft voice (control the tone of the situation, rule #5) I say again in English “I am sorry I don’t understand,” while shaking my head slightly from side-to-side (use calm/slow body language, rule #6). I do this while looking directly in his eyes (make and maintain eye contact, the most important rule, rule #1).
He sizes me up for a few seconds, then his body language relaxes. His right hand has been closed throughout all this and I don’t like it. So I look directly at his hand (ask questions with your eyes, rule #7). He follows my eyes and, clearly, understands my concern because he moves slightly and a pair of eyes pop out from behind his ankles.
He is up early to walk the dog. We no longer have a tense situation. Good!
He steps off the stair and is still grumbling in Slovak but the voice is calm. I assume he is just calling my mother names under his breath because I startled the heck out of the poor man. I smile again, then take out my train ticket and show him. Not sure what he gets out of that but when I point to it again, he figures out that I am trying to find the train station and starts to talk and point as people do when giving direction. I watch his hands and suddenly I understand what I was doing wrong. I was just going in a circle! The key to my rescue are the words “Sex Shop” which, as luck would have it, are just that – “Sex Shop” – in Slovak. There is a Sex Shop about a mile from the station and I know exactly how to get back to the train station from that landmark. Cool!!
My navigation landmark!
I make a slight bowing gesture to communicate “thank you.” He says something which I assume means “Whatever…Damned Tourists!!!” I start the left and he starts to the right. Then I decide to push my luck and see if there is a coffee shop nearby.
I say, in English, “café shop?” – I figure he knows the word “shop” and “café” is pretty universal. I am not sure what got his attention beyond my voice. But he turns around and looks at me. I repeat, slower this time, while doing my best to mime drinking a cup of coffee, then making a large circle with my arm while pointing at nothing in particular, to mime “around here.” He gets the idea but double checks, asking“shop?” and mimicking my mime presentation. Except his is better because he also adds slurping sounds! The show off!! I nod “yes.” He thinks for a bit, scratches his head, says “no” – the one Slovak word I understand – while pointing at his watch.
I get it. Nothing is open yet! “Oh, well, I think to myself.” I am just about to start walking when, to my complete confusion, he hands me the leash and goes back in. The dog and I look at each other, wondering “what the [censored] just happen?” When I have no answers for the dog, she figures this, whatever this is, might take a while and decides where we are standing is just as good as any place for her to pee. Then walks to my other side and sits, leaving me to ponder why dogs don’t mind sitting on snow.
Three or four minutes later my Slovak buddy emerges with two cups of coffee.
We sit on the stairs and sip while I show him a few artifacts of my trip – train ticket and some Polish and American money I have in my pocket. Then I hand him my camera, show him which buttons to press to move back and forth, and he starts looking at the photos and mumbling in Slovak which, I am sure, are praises of my photographic genius!
In the meantime, I am absolutely content to sip my (really good) coffee and pet the mutt.
I get back to the station, now very much bustling with passenger and porters and clerks and policemen and cabbies and, I am sure, a few hustlers. Fetch my guidebook out of the locker which I should have taken with me to begin with. Then grab another cup of coffee and a yummy, greasy, cheesy, fried thing after seeing all the locals willing to stand in line for one, and head to old town (city center). By now, snow has stopped and the sun is peeking from behind the clouds. It’s a gorgeous day for a visit.
I had one of the best visits to any city in all my travels. Ever! While no one else made me coffee, bought me beer, or gave me a piggyback ride, I did encounter several other amazingly nice Bratislavians who tolerated my language deficiencies – and not just when trying to make a sale – and a few younger ones who knew some English and struck up a conversation at coffee shops, making suggestions about what areas may be interesting to visit.
The city itself is a fascinating blending of ancient and modern architectures. The first mention of the city in historical documents goes back to 907 AD – Over eleven centuries ago. Despite many conflicts over that time, the city has managed to retain its charm and soul while, in my opinion, tastefully incorporating modern necessities like high-rises, Internet, McDonald’s, and at least one Sex Shop!
I spent most of my one day in the old town and surrounding residential ares. Sticking primarily to one area was a departure from my usual strategy to “do a city.” However, while I did get to the castle (yep! They have one – nice one too!), I felt a strong connection to neighborhoods around the old town. There, among windy, narrow streets, residential buildings with paint peeling off, tiny shops with minimal inventory, and shiny new Western franchise stores, the contrast between the new generation’s enthusiasm and the older generation’s despair is on constant display. It can fill your heart with joy one minute, and absolutely break it when you turn the corner.
All in all, this is a beautiful town not so much because of a castle or some architectural accents. It is a beautiful town because of the people of Bratislava, who offer their kindness with no strings attached.
Go see for yourself!
IfWhen you go I only spent one (very full) day in Bratislava and left on a midnight train. I wish I had scheduled at least one more day, though. I was there right before winter and I loved it. I can only imagine how wonderful this city, on the banks of the Danube, can be during spring or summer. You can also brag to your friends about visiting the only capital in the world that borders two sovereign nations; and that you can see both of their capitals, Budapest and Vienna, from the Castle hill if a clear day. How cool is that?!!
There are more photos on Facebook.com/pixelhose. Look for Bratislava, under Albums.
With plans to leave the house by 10.30, I tightened up the Sunday morning routine. Tea in bed, followed by first breakfast at the table, then a cooked second breakfast. The clock was ticking. The thermometer was still registering sub-zero and snow dust fluttered from the sky.
“What shall I wear?” I moaned.
You see, I’m kind of new to this mountain biking malarkey. I don’t even have a mountain bike. I have a hybrid – that’s a sort of cross between a commuting bike and a mountain bike. And I’m more of a gutter bunny than a bunny hopper. Dan bought me a new suspension seat post and knobbly tyres, so there are no more excuses. Except the clothes!
“Wear something comfortable”.
“Hmmm!” I grumbled, as I scoured the drawers for something suitable.
Pink three quarter length thermal leggings and pink knee-high ski socks, teamed with a vest, a merino wool top and a fleece to get me started. I needed something to protect my bottom, I learnt this on my last MTB expedition with my broken suspension seat post and the odd way I’d walked the following day. Dan suggested I wore a pair of his cycling shorts. So I did. I chose a teal green pair (I’m trying to make them sound flattering) and tried to ignore the big nappy/lady pad staring up at me from the crotch. I yanked them up and pulled a pair of yoga pants over the top. I had another fleece, a jacket, a woolly hat, a neck warmer and gloves packed. Hand cream, face cream, a flick of mascara and some pink lip salve completed the look.
New Forest Ponies
Within forty minutes we arrived at Bolton’s Bench Car Park in Lyndhurst, the starting point of the ride I’d chosen from the book ‘A Mountain Bike Guide…Hampshire and The New Forest’. My fingers almost froze to my bike frame as I wrangled it from the car. I forgot to mention that the heater fan stopped working last week and the car was as cold on the inside as the outside. I gulped down a banana and stuffed a few muesli bars in my jacket pocket. “Toilets Dan?” I asked as I put one hand in front of my crotch and the other under my bottom, attempting to make the padding comfortable.
There weren’t any nearby, but I was grand for the moment. I read the route directions – Step 1. Follow the narrow metalled road…
I looked all around and could not see a metal road or one that maybe was bordered by metal.
“This way Meraid.”
“What about the metal road?”
“This is the metalled road.”
You learn something new everyday! We cycled along a sandy path with lots of bumps and jumps. Surrounded by heathland, with fabulous views across the New Forest. Wild New Forest Ponies nodded as we whizzed past. A wooden barrier with a No-Cyclists sign blocked the way. We checked the OS Map and the guidebook. We were definitely in the right place. We continued on our way, ignoring the warning.
Passing New Forest Pony
Inside the forest, I dismounted and moseyed off for a pit-stop. I was about to drop the many pants when two walkers appeared from nowhere, so I reached into my pocket, pulled out the camera and began to take random pictures. At the bottom of the steep hill, Dan was waiting. Wet, muddy bog lay before us. He set off through the bog and I followed. I was going along, getting in the zone, dealing with the mud and deep water pretty well, only a few dabs when suddenly I hit mud, which sucked at my front wheel like a brake. I did a sort of forward wheelie, peed myself a little and landed on both wheels. Thankfully, I was wearing the nappy pants and missed the mud dive. Ankle deep in something that can only be described as the colour of a breast-fed baby’s pooh, I wrenched the bike from its captor and tackled the bog again. A patch of gorse afforded me the privacy to relieve myself properly. We passed a pond, crossed a stream and took a detour to find the ancient Royal Hunting Ground site. Dan taught me a few technical skills – bunny hops and kick-outs as we searched in vain for the hunting ground.
After a bit of gear mashing and granny gearing, we came to the pretty village of Minstead. We propped the bikes up against a picket fence in front of the Village Shop & Tea Rooms. We lunched on veggie pasties and tea followed by a scrumptious slice of coffee and walnut cake. In amongst the jams and cakes, they sold Pony Pooh! Across the Village Green and up a hill we found the cemetery – where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was finally laid to rest.
“Excellent!” I cried.
“Elementary,” said he.
Here lyeth Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
We took quick tour of the 13th- Century Church of All Saints (at least part of it is very old) with its oak triple-decker pulpit and double level gallery. The main gallery for the musicians with the upper gallery added to house the poor. Mr White’s gravestone was quite a find! There is a space cut-out before the word ‘husband’ where it is said the word ‘faithful’ used to be. The wife got wind of some village gossip and had the unsuitable word removed. It was getting cold again as the sweat cooled on our skin, so with a last grab of my crotch to make the padding adjustments, we made our way towards Lyndhurst for the most dangerous and scary part of the ride. Through the streets of Lyndhurst to the car park!
That evening, as I reflected on the days events, I discovered we had broken a very serious law when we entered the Kingdom of No Cyclists. If we had been caught by the Verderers, we would have been faced with a fine of ₤500 each. So using a guide book which dates from 1997 is not such a clever idea. Note to Self : Get a new guide book!
I turned over, clutching the soft pillow to my face. I felt a little hazy from the previous night’s imbibing and groaned as the sunlight pierced my eyes.
“We’re inside an onion!” I murmured.
“Go back to sleep.” Dan groaned.
I looked up at the beautifully made ceiling and considered the technicalities involved in making it. Layers of wood formed an onion shaped dome, and a trellis fomed another layer inside. Two large wooden beams and some clever engineering enabled it to turn.
The Red Onion Windmill
We were in a windmill, on the aptly named Rua do Moinho de Venta – Windmill Street overlooking the Ocean. Positioned close to a working bakery, surrounded by fields of pale blue cornflowers and built from charcoal grey stone with a red onion shaped cuppola. Set over three floors, the converted disused windmill was a fun living space. The kitchen, dining and bathroom on the ground floor and the master bedroom in the tower. Old agricultural implements acted as sideboards, stools and tables. Curved branches for the banister created a hobbit feel but the wooden revolving dome in the bedroom was the crowning glory.
After breakfast and a couple of Ibuprofen, Dan was in the kitchen preparing lunch for our trip to the caldeira and I was gathering my bits and pieces on the middle floor when a man and woman came to the door and said “Hi.”
They walked in and said “This is a private or a monumento?”
“We just rented it.”
“I so sorry, we justa wanta looking.”
Well I had to show them around, it seemed mean not to and they were likely to show themselves around if I didn’t.
They told me they were on honeymoon in the Azores.
“It’s a so romantico, it’s… We are Italiano, very romantico. The bedroom is upstairs?”
So I led the way and showed them the top floor going as fast as I could to get up there to tidy the bed before they arrived. Dan heard the commotion and joined the party.
“You make very good choice, much better than our hotel. You have fun here?”
They began to tell us about their hotel which was very dull by comparison. I thought they were going to move in. They did leave – eventually, and we had a good giggle and a coffee before we left.
We hitched a ride in the back of a pick-up and spent the day climbing the Caldeira on the island of Graciosa in the Azores. Then, following in the way of famous explorers, we went deep into the volcano to the Furna do Enxofre. We walked to a natural sea pool with hot springs to soothe our weary .bodies and hitched another ride back to the onion. The strange thing was, we didn’t have to tell the driver where we were going. He asked us. “To the boat or the windmill?”
That evening, we dined on local food and wine at the huge dining table. I had fish given to me by a local fisherman. After dinner, we adjourned to the living room on the middle floor, where we lit candles and oil lamps. We listened to the Cory’s Shearwaters distinctive, comical ‘owa owa owah’ call and the ocean waves crashing against the rocks then liberated the cork from a second bottle of wine before climbing the last flight of winding stairs for another night in the onion.