Sunday, January 12, 2014

Madagascar, Phase 1: Jungle

Billy Connolly said, on a storm-battered boat to Antarctica, "If you must vomit, do it somewhere spectacular." 

I have never forgotten that and it came back to me many times as I spent three weeks vomiting in increasingly exotic places.

The trip to Madagascar got off to a bad start. After 24 gruelling hours of travelling, we arrived at Antananarivo airport only to find that Absa, efficient little techno-geniuses that they are, had not taken note of my instruction that I would be travelling and had blocked all my cards so I was stuck without money at one in the morning on a weekend night in a foreign country with no access to a phone or email. 

As I write this, it is now almost a week since I arrived and they have still not sorted it out despite my repeated irate emails to them - and let me tell you, it is not easy to find access to communications in Madagascar. Even in the really larney places the access to electricity is touch and go. If you find a place that actually has electricity it most likely operates off a generator which they only switch on for a few hours at a time to do the essentials, from after sunset, and then they promptly switch everything off at around ten pm and bugger you if you haven't got ready for bed (or heard back from your bank) yet. 


Electricity was an interesting change. We're spoilt in South Africa. We're accustomed to having electricity and hot showers all the live long day, with the odd two-hour blackout by Eskom being greeted with horror in almost all Capetonian households except that of my eccentric parents, who like to look on the bright side and turn load shedding into an adventure by pretending they're camping, going to bed extra early or playing Marco Polo. In Madagascar, however, people are rather unbothered about electricity and mostly cook over fire - wood or charcoal - with workers at national parks having pots of rice boiling over lunchtime for their midday meal. Rice is the staple food here and although there are rice paddies everywhere you look, the country still has to import a great deal of rice to meet the demand. The amount of time it must take to build said fire for rice, cook it, and eat it must also mean they take more than an hour for lunch; in Madagascar the motto is "mora mora" which means "slowly slowly" - it underlines the lifestyle and belief system and seems, also, to be a philosophy of living and experiencing life at a good, solid pace. It is considered extremely offensive to become impatient here.


The Malagasy say they eat rice three times a day: at breakfast, lunch and supper, and if they have not had any rice for the day, they cannot sleep that night. Having suffered through a high-protein diet at various points we can say we are enjoying haplessly giving in to the customary rice accompaniment. It's sticky, fragrant, plentiful...what's not to like?



The locals here use electricity only for television, radio and computers (if they're well-to-do) and they say it costs approximately 5000 ariary per month - that's R25/$12. They were quite shocked when we told them what we pay for 5kg of charcoal (to make a braai, naturally). Here, households make charcoal in order to provide extra income. They sell huge bags on the side of the road for 7000 ariary in the village (up to 20 000 ariary in the big city). But 20 000 is still only R100, and the bag is at least 50kg. To make the charcoal they build a sort of oven in the ground and slowly burn pieces of eucalyptus for up to a week. The constant smoke from these eucalyptus/charcoal ovens follows you as you travel through small villages and it makes one want to light up a Marlboro. Both Janine and I had a peculiarly strong yearning to smoke throughout the holiday, and it did not let up until we stepped onto the plane home.
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The first day in general was rather a nightmare. Air Madagascar apparently changes its flights like it chages its underpants so we ended up waiting for six hours for our flight. We had been on the go from 3am on about an hour's sleep and were like zombies by that time. Then we got onto the flight and were promptly sprayed with large amounts of choking insecticide, and it was pretty much downhill from there. 





Luckily for us, we got the bad stuff over with on the first day and it got better very rapidly after that. We were met in Antananarivo by our guide, Eunice, a very nice man who was very knowledgable but also very friendly and full of good humour and became a good friend to us in the three days he showed us around. We stayed in a tiny village in the north called Andasibe, meaning 'big campsite' - a rather descriptive name since that is pretty much exactly what it is. The houses are mostly wooden huts and the closest thing to shops are little wooden kiosks that sell random collections of things like sim cards, raw meat (hundreds of flies, not refrigerated), torches and bananas. The nearest ATM, however, is over 100km away (not that I could use it, thank you ABSA.) 


Andasibe has the odd hotel in it - but it is hard to describe what the hotels are like since they, too, are little more than wooden kiosks and one feels that if you had to make like the wolf and huff and puff they, too, might fall down. The resort where we stayed was up in the hills and it was beautiful - it was a little outside Andasibe and right up in the jungle - a huge cultivated area in the middle of a mass of banana, mango and vanilla trees. The staff were incredibly friendly but between their two words of English and our two words of Malagasy I suppose it would be hard to be anything but good-natured since all we could say was Hello! Thank you! Very good! We did somehow manage to glean (I'm not sure how) that one of the waiters, who had the word JODY tattooed on his arm, had once intended to become a rapping superstar and that was going to be his stage name - which is proof of the power of mime plus time when there is the intention to communicate.

Andasibe, despite its remoteness, is a relatively popular starting point for people who want to explore the rainforests from the north. There is a long stretch of rainforest all along the eastern side, but since we were going to be visiting the Nosy Be (Big Island) archipelago along the north-west coast, it made sense for us to stay as close to the north-west as possible, so Andasibe was a good base from which to explore the rainforests. There are numerous national parks nearby that are best accessed with a guide, which we did, led by a lovely guy named Roger who - like Eunice - has never signed into facebook and laughed at us when we suggested he look us up. Roger is extremely knowledgable - he has worked with David Attenborough in the past - and I was constantly amazed by his ability to spot camoflagued animals. We would be walking along bold as brass and suddenly he would dart off into some bush a million miles down the bank and show us some animal that was barely visible and smaller than a mouse. I am completely mystified by how he did it and kept asking him, but he never did explain it to me. (Perhaps it was witchcraft?) Some of the frogs and chameleons here are so well hidden that even when they are pointed out to you, you cannot see them. I have some photographs that, when I open them, I'm not sure what on earth I photographed, because all I can see is a pile of dead leaves - even though I KNOW there's a frog in there and I know roughly where it is supposed to be. 

On the first day we visited a park where the amphibians and reptiles were in a terrarium, and our guide there took us through the cages and we went a bit overboard with pictures, photographing about 100 chameleons each, never mind the snakes, frogs etc. We had lunch at said park and were feeling pretty doubtful judging by the looks of the place but let me tell you, even the most rustic places around Andasibe have INCREDIBLE food. For starters, the animals are pretty much all free range and organic and not fat, because they all wander around eating what they should be eating, so they don't taste of fishmeal and cardboard. Secondly, the food is simple and wonderful. The national dessert is banana flambe, which is basically a banana doused in rum and set on fire, and brought to you still burning. It is absolutely delicious. I plan to set many more bananas on fire at home. Another wonderful dish is Ravitoto (pronounced Ruvvitoot - Malagasy has a completely unpredictable system of dropping random letters out of its pronounciation which makes it impossibly confusing to try to learn), a stew flavoured with coconut milk and ground up cassava leaves which was so delicious I nearly ate the plate. 


People eat an insane amount of rice here. One side portion of rice here is enough to feed me and Janine together for about three meals, and each person eats that amount about three times a day. The whole country is full of rice paddies and yet they still have to import more rice. When you drive through the rural areas the rice paddies are something to be seen. Not everybody has access to running water so they sommer wash their clothes in the rice paddies and spread them over rocks to dry. At one point I even saw two little toddler boys standing in their wellington boots in a rice paddy, fishing. I'm not sure there actually are fish in there, but those two little boys seemed pretty hopeful.


On the second day we had a big day of hiking. We took three hikes that day into different regions of rainforest, led by Roger, hoping to find different species of lemur. Lemurs are a bit like monkeys but they are furry all over, and they have the intelligence of (apparently) a five or six year old child. They are very curious, so although they usually are found high up in the trees, if you stay very still and are patient, they will usually come down and give you the opportunity to get a good photo. Some of the tourists really make you wonder whether brains and money are inversely proportional, though. At one point we were trying to see Indri lemur and a Frenchman behind me was trying to get a photo. This man honestly started shouting, "Indri! Indri!" to try to get the lemur to face him for a photo. Naturally the poor thing scurried back up the tree. Some mothers' children...!


We were extremely lucky on our hikes, despite the occasional presence of idiotic Frenchmen. The bad news was that despite the copious amounts of insect repellent I wore and the layers of clothing I added, the mosquitoes here are mutant little devil beasts and I got eaten to pieces. Within five minutes of entering the forest I pulled the first leech off my chest and from there I was recognised as a superior food source for all creatures great and small. I am covered in calamine lotion and still itch, and itch, and itch. Janine has hardly been touched but I think it's because all bugs realise that there is preferable gourmet meal right next to her. However, the walks were worth every bite because we were told that one is lucky to see three species of lemur; on our first walk, we saw five. And that was only the first walk! 


The second walk got us really close to a family of Indri, the largest species of lemur, and heard them making territorial calls; then we went on a night hike and got to see little dwarf lemurs and the tiniest of all lemurs, the mouse lemur - which really is the size of a mouse and is THE CUTEST THING IN THE WORLD. I managed to sneak up on it and get a picture (in the dark!) although it blinked its eyes at me rather irritably; not that I blame it. 



The third day, we went to lemur island, where there are four species of lemur - bamboo lemur, common brown lemur, another kind of brown lemur (the red something something brown lemur I can't remember), and black and white ruffed lemur, which is the most aggressive. 



It has a long tail, too, and there is a legend here that the Indri got its wailing call because the ruffed lemur stole its tail in a fight. The lemurs were battling over who would be king and the Indri said it should rule because it was the largest but the ruffed lemur said it should rule because it was the strongest; they fought, and ever since then, the Indri has been wailing over its lost tail and the ruffed lemur has been barking triumphantly over its win. 

It's nice to see the bamboo lemurs in the park, especially, because they are extremely shy so you can't usually get pictures in the wild, but on lemur island, the lemurs are tame because most of them are rescue lemurs that used to be illegal pets etc. They are friendly to the point of being overwhelming. Janine especially had a rather marvellous time on lemur island. For some reason they loved her as much as the mosquitoes loved me. From the minute we stepped off the boat I was just the stepping stone for them to jump onto her. They leaped onto my head and shoulders etc., but they made sweet, sweet love to Janine. They licked her, they petted her, they loved her. They groomed her. Two of them leaped onto her head and started licking her hair clean. Since leaving the island we have affectionately crowned her queen of the lemurs; when she misbehaves we threaten to sell her as bride to King Julian, the mischievous lemur king made famous by Disney. 



We also got to see baby lemurs - their breeding season is November - and if you think lemurs are sweet, wait till you see little baby lemurs strapped onto their mothers' backs by their tails. Their mothers can leap several metres with the babies securely strapped and serenely riding along and their big eyes blinking.


Something cool about Madagascar: there is no racism here. Kids are born and raised pretty much unaware of, and happy with, their skin colour. It is beautiful to see and so refreshing. It took me a few days to figure out what subtle tension it was that I was missing when I got here, but when I did, it suddenly seemed so clear. 



People also seem rather confused when we ask about HIV/Aids - their infection rate is less than 1% and there is not really drug abuse besides a little marijuana either. There is a fairly strong drinking culture - although Eunice told us there is also a tradition where people put a mirror on their beer glass so that they know by the bleariness of their face when to stop drinking - but again, not like in South Africa. Of the 18 tribes, there is little tension; they get along well, people say - inter-ethnic tension is not a problem. Corruption, however, is a huge issue - Roger told us that if you so much as want a job interview, you have to pay a bribe of usually about R4000, which is astronomical considering that 90% of the population lives on less than R20 a day, so the poor tend to stay poor and the rich tend to get richer. Subsistence farming tends to get passed down the generations. 

Everyone we have spoken to about politics mentions corruption first and foremost; they are massively distressed with the large gap between rich and poor, which is more noticeable even than South Africa. It's interesting, though, that even the poorest of the poor here don't seem to go hungry; certainly not to the same extent as in South Africa. The big problems they face are a lack of infrastructure and a real lack of access to medical care. 

Before we arrived there was an outbreak of bubonic and pneumonic plague in some of the villages and I am starting to understand, travelling around, why so many people are dying of diseases that are so easily treatable. The roads are too poor to get to a doctor, the pharmacies simply do not have stock of essential medicines (and often have not heard of quite basic items) and corruption is so rife that unless you have the money to grease the palms of at least ten people on your way in, I cannot imagine that you would get the care that you need if you were ill. Where we stayed in Nosy Be, the infrastructure is somewhat better because it is aimed at tourists (the roads are fairly good and there is a clinic) but in the rest of the country I would imagine there is cause for deep concern. 


One of the guides we befriended in Nosy Be also told us that there is a serious lack of long-term thinking among both the politicians and the people, and that his dream is to enter politics one day. (His idol is Nelson Mandela.) For him, the biggest concern behind corruption is that everyone is so fixated on their own day-to-day survival that there is no room for focusing on building long-term infrastructure or developing the country beyond the next ten years. Interestingly, as much as South Africans tend to moan about our own development, he looked to South Africa as a model of longer-term development planning. 

People in general seem rather fascinated with Janine's looks, and children seem to find my looks a bit strange and worthy of examination. There was a wonderful moment in Antananarivo when a small boy saw me and yanked on his mother's arm with his jaw hanging, calling to her to look at me with a look on his face that said plainly, "What the #&^%$ is that?! Someone got bleached!" 



But people here have adjusted wonderfully to independence from the French and there is a marvellous sense of mischief towards French arrogance. Eunice expressed it to us in his description of French tourists: "They think we are still their colony. They are not interested in the country; they do not want to know about the wildlife or the nature; they only want to know why we have a television or a cellphone." Apparently they look down on the food and wine as well, which is ironic since the only mediocre-and-expensive food we have had here so far was in a French-run establishment; the Malagasy food was all cheap as chips and absolutely fabulous. Eunice was very tickled when we told him that the French have no reason to be arrogant about the food or the wines; since all the wines we have tasted here so far are pretty crap and besides, the South African wines we export are crap as well in comparison to what we keep for ourselves.


Interestingly, Malagasy do not seem to see themselves as part of Africa although the interest in South Africa is substantial; the people we met are big fans of FreshlyGround, Johnny Clegg, Lucky Dube etc, and asked us questions about our local artists (although not many people seemed very interested in the death of Nelson Mandela). People talk about 'Africa' as though it is some distant place, and they talk about 'the Africans' as though they are some faraway people that have nothing to do with them. I asked Eunice about this and he agreed; he said when people come here from other parts of Africa the reaction is usually some curiosity: 'Oh look, a real African!' and that the identity here is quite separate. 


Death is a big deal here. As you drive through the countryside you will see elaborate tombs all over the place - many of the tombs will be more elaborate than the houses, since some of the tribes believe life is temporary and death is forever, so it's better to invest in your death than your life. One of the tribes has a ceremony known as the turning of the bones, where the ancestors will send a message saying they want their tomb spruced up, and their whole family has to then let them know the date of the proposed ceremony and then they have to exhume the body, clean up the bones, put them in a fresh shroud, and have a huge feast for the ancestor. It's a big celebration usually, but it's important that they let the ancestor know in advance when it's going to be happening so that the ancestor makes sure they are home in the tomb when it happens (because they might be floating around somewhere else at the time and miss the party).
 
Something else interesting: we were warned that the people here are desperate for money and will try to pull a fast one every chance they get. I must say this has really not been the case for us. Honestly the people have been lovely and have engaged with us in a really nice manner and even though we speak very little of either French or Malagasy and our attempts can only be hilarious to them they are terribly patient and mime with us with wonderful patience and good humour. 



The people seem to be really polite with each other as well. When we first got here and Eunice was driving us around I thought the people here were terrible drivers because they all hoot at each other constantly. Eunice himself hooted at every single other car and truck we passed and at every single bicycle and pedestrian. I eventually asked him why he was doing that and he looked puzzled and said he was *greeting* them, as though it was the most natural thing in the world. I had to explain to him that in South Africa it was generally accepted that you only hooted at people when you were cross with them or telling them to hurry up. He seemed genuinely perplexed by this. 


In the meantime it seems customary to hoot a greeting at every single other vehicle, bicycle or pedestrian you pass on the road here, which makes for rather a chaotic trip since the largest national road is about the width of the average road in Observatory and typically has a number of trucks, carts, oxen and pedestrians on it (bearing in mind this is the national road - the equivalent of the N1 or N2). It is reasonably well paved but incredibly narrow and winding, and you can't really go faster than 60km/hour on it (although Eunice tried). I'm not generally a vomitty kind of person, but carsickness has aquired a new meaning for me here. 


Now that we are in Nosy Be (phase 2) I am trying my utmost to avoid any kind of road trips at all because the road is even narrower and more winding and the nearest available taxi driver has a horrific wet cough and periodically stops the car in the middle of the road to spit phlegm in all available directions, sometimes into a clear bottle he keeps in the car for this purpose. Even with my normally iron stomach it is all I can do not to add my own projectile body fluids into the mix when we are driving plus minus an hour to the nearest town in 40+ heat, humidity, along a winding road full of potholes with the phlegm wars being fought in the front of the car. Today was particularly bad because I forgot my sunscreen and I think I had a touch of sunstroke and it was all I could do not to projectile puke all over the poor coughing taxi man's neck. 

Which brings us to...[to be continued: Phase 2, Island]

Friday, May 10, 2013

It's always the quiet ones

I have worked in some dodgy places. This does not - by the way, Dad - include the local strip joint, which by an unfortunate coincidence is named rather similarly to the small independent publication for which I now work. My dad, bless his cotton, Dutch-Reformed socks, has naturally never heard of such filth; and so when a plane flew overhead bearing the strip joint's banner, my dad was delighted at our apparent increase in income. We could afford a plane, dammit! It was amazing! So, being the supportive dad he is, he started clapping and cheering.

Naturally, the passers-by were rather alarmed by this conservative-looking grey-haired chap in a diamond-patterned jersey waving at the strip club's banner, so he proudly told them by way of explanation: "My daughter works there! She just started the night shift."

But I digress. The point is, I've worked in some dodgy places. This includes a rather vaguely-named internet marketing firm which, among other things, produced spam emails for penis enlargement ops and dodgy, uncertified pharmaceutical substitutes. (Yes, probably a couple of the mails in your spam folder came from me. Bite me.) But none were quite as dodgy as the organisation I worked for some years ago - which will remain conveniently nameless - and in which, of a staff of approximately 40, I was one of less than ten who had never been jailed or institutionalised.

It was a rough place to work. In order to survive, you had to become a little rough yourself. It was a crazy-story-a-day kind of place. In retrospect, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I went from a polite little violet to someone who swore like a sailor and thought death threats were exciting. It put hair on my chest.

But no one's chest was hairier than that of my colleague, Ken. I mean this literally and figuratively. He was short, small and slightly built, and hugely unfortunate in the sex appeal department. This need not, by the way, have been inherent. The problem with Ken, apart from his being incongrously named after Barbie's hunky boyfriend, was his smell. He smelled so bad that we would walk a wide berth around him (although sadly the office was too small for this always to be possible). I have tried over the years to describe Ken's smell to people, and always failed to do it justice. The best I can do is tell you that it was an awkward mixture of booze, smoke, damp and sweat; although that in itself does not cover it. It was as though he had had so much to drink that he actually SWEATED booze, and then the sweat went stale, and then he went out drinking again, sweated more booze, and then THAT sweat went stale, and then the damp sweat left a damp smell, which also went stale, all in an endless cycle of stench-making that was eventually so overpowering it defied words.

If it sounds like we were being nasty about our colleague, we really weren't. The problem with Ken was that the only thing we really could characterise him by was his smell - not only because he was so vigorously, gut-wrenchingly, overpoweringly malodorous, but because there was really nothing else to say about him. He never spoke. Nobody ever saw him arrive at the office. Nobody ever saw him leave. He never mentioned a wife, children, heck, not even a dog. He might have died there and we would not have noticed; presumably the smell of his decaying corpse would not have been significantly worse than his daily showerless stink-waves. Nobody even really knew what he did. His name certainly never cropped up on any published projects and, because he never spoke, it follows that he didn't engage with work either. He just sat there being smelly.

Ken, it later transpired, was a romantic chap. This I know because one day, someone was reading the news on IOL and one of the personal ads popped up - and it was Ken's. Naturally, this was a source of enormous hilarity across the whole office, because not only did Ken turn out to use unusually purple prose, he also had staggeringly high standards. He described himself as something of an Adonis: a fiery intellectual, a sex god who held back only out of fear that his raw animal appeal might overpower helpless females.

It was gold. Every now and then in office history something staggering happens that is so extremely juicy it temporarily resets all relationships in the office, because talking about it is such a compulsion that NOBODY CAN GET AWAY BEFORE IT IS DISCUSSED. You discuss it with the graphic designer, the poster dude, the delivery guy, the tea trolley lady, your boss, and that nasal woman who sits across from you who normally you can't stand. It's as though the juiciness of the information builds a temporary bridge between everyone in the office except the subject of the story. (Hey, don't judge: you've done it too.)

This was not the last time Ken set this kind of insane bond in motion, but it's worth pausing again on the dating profile. I can't remember the exact words, but it went something like this: "Fiercely intellectual. Sharp. Witty. Don't go out with me if you can't keep up. Seeking smart, sexy women only. If you're slim, stunning and have a mind like a razor, apply within. I'll light your fire. I'll enchant your intellect and ensnare your senses. I please a woman by first winning her mind, then her body." He went on to describe himself as being lean, toned, and "very attractive".

Short, smelly, hairy Ken - who was also probably pushing around 60 at that time - also only wanted to hear from younger women. Thirty-five was his limit. He wanted them young, lithe, razor-sharp. Who knows - maybe Ken would have found himself a model-cum-Mensa member with a chronically blocked nose who would have loved and adored him for the man he was. But it was not to be. Fate had other things in store for Ken.

One night, we had an office party. Now, office parties at this particular organisation tended to be a raucous affair. There was the married Muslim lady who memorably dipped into the booze in momentary defiance of her religion, and ended up in flagrante with one of the office dykes and trying to convince the boss-man to have a threesome. There was the agony aunt who got stopped by the cops on the way home one night and ended up accidentally breaking a door down in the police station. There was shy, unassuming Ahmed, who at one party simply piped up: "Ek lus nou vir 'n pakkie chips, 'n blikkie Coke, en Mareldiya." [I'm craving a bag of chips, a tin of coke, and Mareldiya - a stout and loud employee in her late thirties who liked to wear plastic boots and tiny skirts that sat optimistically like little fabric hula-hoops atop her otherwise staggering girth.] There was Alfred, the war veteran who drunkenly told me I looked just like his wife and offered to show me his penis "just this once".

At this particular office party, Ken - like most others - spent his night plastered to the open bar and drinking everything that was on offer. And, as the night wore on, he started to speak. Boy, did we come to understand why he was always quiet. Turns out the second he opened his mouth he couldn't get it shut again.

After a few minutes of drunken posturing, Ken presumably sensed he was losing his audience and upped the ante - moving swiftly onto his piece de resistance: "The time I robbed a bank and got away with it".

Ken regaled us with excruciating details of his bank robbery which, it turned out, had been recent and had sadly not solved his financial problems. He was apparently in a rather messy divorce from "that bitch" who wanted all his money and, it seemed, got it - because he was still broke despite his successful bank robbery. And - oh my God, it got better - KEN WAS LIVING IN THE OFFICE. Seriously. His wife had kicked him out, so he promptly robbed a bank and decided to just crash in the office instead of actually forking out some of that hard-earned stolen cash on rent. So he spent his days trying desperately to go unnoticed, while living under the desk, cradling wads of banknotes between the wiring. It explained the smell: he had no access to a shower. It was also why nobody ever saw him leave or come in. He just had to roll out from under his desk of a morning and keep going.

Somebody must have pulled themselves out of their drunken stupor and reported Ken, because within 48 hours he was whisked out of our employ and, rumour has it, is now in jail, presumably trying out those legendary seduction skills on Johnny Mongrel. One also hopes, in the spirit of happy endings, that he's also making use of the showers - and staying the hell off the internet.

Dear diary, I know that plagiarism is wrong.

I know that the "worst album cover" phenomenon is almost as old as the interweb itself, so please accept my humble apologies for doing what has already been done many, many times. But the thing is, I was so mad at that spotty, spying little youth Zuckerberg* this week that my keyboard is still smoking from what I've written about him, so I'm all out of fresh words.

You get the picture. I needed a little cheering up. And the true time-waster understands empowerment, see? You can't just accept other people's "best of" lists. You have to get off your lilywhites and go and find your own. So I did a little Google search of retro album covers and decided on the ones *I* liked best. Enjoy. From Pooh-Man to Peeing Millie, Heino "Norman Bates" Motherlover to Lonely Mr Dead Buddies and Cody the Feeling-Borrower...these guys are beyond words. So I'm just going to leave you with the pictures. (Click on the pics for larger versions.)




*Happy birthday, asshole. Yes, he turns 26 today. Someone stick his head in the cookie dough, please. Thanks.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Almost almost

I have been as silent as the grave, lost in the land technology forgot. Reception has been intermittent and internet non-existent. So I am going to do my best to tell all the most important details of the last week.

Firstly, I always suspected Henry Higgins was a bit of a twit, and this week I have proof, as i am now in a position to tell you that the rain in Spain does not fall mainly on the plain, but in fact in the mountains of Galicea and, more specifically, into my sleeping bag. Unfortunately it has not drowned the spider that made a meal of my legs for three days running and which I *cannot* find although I swear I have seen the little critter running around on my bag during the day. My thighs are covered in welts bigger than R5 coins and some of them are so swollen that my one pantleg is tight, and when the little bugger got hold of my face, I couldn´t open my right eye for two days. Of course, I am sure your mother told you that you should never scratch an itchy-bite, and she was right. Unfortunately hiking for 8 hours a day means chafing, which delivers very similar results to relentless scratching. I am. going. mad. with the itch. I went into a 24 hour pharmacy and had the pharmacist in stitches with my wordless impression of a spider biting a hiker, but the pharmacist got more value out of that visit than me. I have been slathering myself in crema alergica till the cows come home (and trust me, there are a lot of cows in this area) but to no avail. I still itch. And let me tell you, if that little miscreant takes ONE more bite out of me, so help me, I am revising my no-kill policy.

More on the rain: this area is weird. The scenery is very like the Western Cape, but the weather like Gauteng. It is (there is no English expression for this) BLOEDIG warm during the day but each afternoon, like clockwork, a thunderstorm comes down. Being a bit of a tardy starter in the mornings, and prone to leisurely lunches, I am often still on the road at this time but I don´t mind, because honestly, being caught in the rain is a welcome relief from the heat. The only time it was really a problem was when I was heading for Ponferrada, the last city on the Camino route before Santiago - and I had to stock up on food, airtime and toiletries. I also had to get there that day, because it was a Saturday and all the shops are closed on a Sunday. That was the day I visited the Iron Cross, and the scenery had been so beautiful that I cheerfully ignored the sounds of thunder heading in my direction from midday onwards. Denial can only get you so far, however, and I´m afraid even I paused for thought when it started hailing on me. I must have looked sufficiently wet and desperate when I got down to Molinaseca (a very, very beautiful village near Ponferrada) and I went to the nearest shop to see if I could get what I needed there instead. I couldn´t, but the shop owner was so, so lovely. He phoned a taxi from his mobile (because mine still had no credit on it) and explained what I needed so that I would not have to mime it all again in my awkward mixture of Spanish and charades. He then gave up his chair so I could sit out of the rain and went inside to make me a sandwich, which he refused to charge me for, and sent me on my way with the taxi driver, who took me to within a block of everything I needed and explained to me where to go.

Less kind was the reception I got last night, when I again got caught in the rain - and the village that I walked to had no accommodation left (the receptionist did not break the news gently either). Several km on, the hostel I wound up at was, not to put too fine a point on it, a hole, but I was too desperate to turn it down. I think these people rely a little too heavily on the ´any port in a storm´ philosophy, because goodness knows how else they make a living. They charged what the loveliest guesthouses on the route have charged me, but they were rude and snooty and the place was falling apart - for example, the cupboard door, which was no longer on the cupboard, was casually propped up against the bedroom wall and taking up most of the room; and I am pretty sure this troublesome arachnid crawled into my pants while I was there. The owners charged about double what any other place does for a breakfast that was - welll - toast, and asked me to leave the dining room before I was finished supper because, I quote, they wanted to clean the table and go to bed. They looked most put out when I explained that I wanted to finish what I had paid for. Incidentally, I arrived at this place dripping wet and carrying 13kg of luggage, but after I paid for the room the receptionist left me standing there, sopping and holding all my stuff, while she went for a cigarette. When I asked her to please show me my room she put out her cigarette with a terribly martyred air and all but threw the keys at me. Interestingly, the whole sorry bunch of them developed amazingly good manners when dealing with Spanish people. I bristled, and I´m afraid when I left this morning I gave them a good wholesome Afrikaans greeting like my dad taught me*. It was terribly satisfying. I do wonder, though, why in heaven´s name one goes into the hospitality industry if you do not like people. Surely if your disposition is sour and solitary you do what I did and choose a profession where you can lock yourself in your office and ignore everybody. It makes no sense to do otherwise.

Anyway. I don´t really want to dwell on them. With the exception of Hostel de Kaka, the main theme of the last week has been the kindness of strangers. I have met many lovely people and, as a sad testament to growing up in a city, have at first glance suspected every last one of them of being a serial killer. I have had to learn to trust, though, because more than once I have been helped out of a tight spot. The first was the shopkeeper in Molinaseca, but there were others. On a mountain outside Astorga a man named David had set up a stall with fresh fruit, nuts and juice which he gives to tired pilgrims for free - any donations are voluntary. I didn´t speak to him much, but a woman I met yesterday, named Danielle, told me he is part of an international society of people who want to create points of sharing all over the world, where people can pay if they can, but don´t have to if they can´t. I think this is both eccentric and wonderful.

In Astorga itself I got horribly, frighteningly lost. It´s a fair-sized town and my landlady had kindly dropped me off at the supermarket to get supplies. Unfortunately from Astorga to Ponferrada the waymarking on the camino is *terrible* and on my way back, I lost the route completely. I wandered for three hours. By ten pm I was frantic, all corners were starting to look the same, and my passport etc were all at the hostel, the name of which was about a foot long and in Spanish and which I could not remember. Naturally I did the sensible thing and sat down on the pavement, hauled out my shopping and ate my supper, reasoning that the middle of the road was as good a place as any and that being lost would probably feel better on a full stomach. It did. And what do you know, I felt in my pocket and found a crumpled receipt. I tried the details printed on it and, miraculously, it was not the week-old till slip I expected but the number of the hostel I´d checked into that day. The landlady kindly came to fetch me and took me back to the hostel (which, frustratingly, turned out to be only about 200m from where I had given up and phoned her) and then, as an extra treat, drove me to see the beautiful Astorga cathedral and take some photographs against the night sky (pictured in previous post).
In Villafranca being lost was weirder. Some of these hamlets are really eerie, like ghost towns really, with the buildings all but unchanged since medieval times. Often you can walk through an entire village and not see a single sign of life. Villafranca wasn´t quite that dead at first, but I went out for supper and by the time I had finished eating it was dark and the streets - which I was so sure I´d taken note of - just all looked identical. I walked and walked and walked - trust me, it is possible to walk for longer than you think in a village that is only 3cm wide - and the more I went in circles the more confused I got. I eventually sat down in a little heap and cried because I was SO tired and just wanted to go to bed, when out of nowhere three Alsatians came wandering up the lane and sat next to me. It was quite an eerie and beautiful moment, these three big dogs and the moon shining down on the grass and the river and the cobbles, and I just stayed with them a bit. After a while I saw a light come on in one of the streets nearby and I ran at speed to catch the only person in the whole town who seemed to be awake/alive, who saw dogs, tearful me, and the general signs of meltdown, and made me chamomile tea and patted my hair a lot while I tried to describe the hotel in increasingly pathetic Spanish. By this time it was nearly midnight but he walked me home and said I should not feel stupid, which was nice of him, all things considered.

The Iron Cross. I don´t really know what to say about this. Firstly, something I am learning is that everything anyone tells you about the Camino is a lie. This ranges from what you should pack to who you meet, how you should behave, how you should feel, how you should do it, what it costs and the road itself. People are weirdly prescriptive and like to tell you things as though they are gospel (many of which turn out to be nonsense, debatable or non-applicable). The Iron Cross represents the highest point on the whole journey, but really, there are steeper climbs before and after, and the cross itself is not really on a peak. So the height wasn´t what struck me, and nor was the climb. What is huge is the cairn of stones at its foot. People leave everything from bandanas to photographs to scarves to jewellery to letters and, of course, stones. Some of these stones have messages written on them, some nothing. One was just labelled ´Mom´ which I found unbearably sad. There are weathered teddy bears and blankets that I presume have been carried from someone´s childhood to that point. I would have liked to stay there for a long time, but it was hard to get a moment alone in-between the busloads of tourists who came tearing in just long enough to pose for a photo and then get back into their bus. I found this sad, too. Of all the people I saw there, I was the only one who left a stone, which I thought was nice, because maybe only people who have actually walked the route actually take the trouble to leave stones. Which let me think: every stone on this pile represents somebody´s life up to here. I left four for my family (two quartz for healing) and a necklace that had wound up in my possession during the camino - a story too long to tell here.

I have been thinking about the judgement on cyclists and bus travellers though, and interrogating the reasons for it (in myself also). Maybe I was only justifying my choice to take a taxi, but I am starting to think that Camino purists are really full of #@!# - the ones who think it´s sacrilege to take a bus for part of the way or to stay in a hostel instead of an albergue or whatever. Because I was thinking about it and realised that if a medieval pilgrim had been caught in the rain and passed some bloke on a horse who offered him a lift, he would not refuse it unless he really was an idiot. The same applies to more comfortable places to stay; it is only the luxury of our lives that allows us to insist on making martyrs of ourselves on holiday. A starving pilgrim in the year twelve-hundred-voetsek would not be in a position to turn up his nose at anything that might make his journey easier. Some of the guide books are terribly critical of the new government-sponsored senda pathways, which are called (among other things) ´soulless´ - in a way I understand this, because they lack the history of the older paths. But at the same time, the route is constantly evolving (that´s part of the point, isn´t it) and surely once upon a time the historic pathways were also new  - in fact, many of the guide books pay homage to those who sponsored the fixing and upgrading of the roads over the centuries. So it seems silly to turn up one´s nose at today´s government sponsorship, when in a hundred years it will amount to the same thing. Personally, I think it´s nice that the government is engaging.

Some more misinformation: the woman who first told me about the Camino told me that after the Iron Cross the path was all ´easy downhill into Santiago´. I am not sure how many vats of fine Spanish wine she put away before she came to that conclusion, because some of the hardest climbs - steeper than the Pyrenees and over longer distances - come after the Iron Cross, and one gains a great deal of altitude (there are also some *very* steep downhills, which I would not classify as ´easy´, owing to the probability of falling flat on one´s face every three steps). On the flip side, one is also rewarded with some of the most spectacular scenery. I could not believe my eyes - everywhere you look the mountain is covered in purple and yellow flowers, and there is just *nothing* around you except valley after valley after valley and peak after peak after peak - flowers up close, snow in the distance. It is *beautiful*. On the day I climbed to the Iron Cross and back, I passed three trotting horses and was watching the sun go down when a rock rabbit came bouncing across my path and stopped to eat a dandelion. It is at moments like this that it almost feels unreal - that it could even be possible to find so much unspoiled landscape in one place; it feels like a fairytale.

One last thing before I go - early yesterday I passed the 700km mark. This means about 50km left before Santiago, and then a further 100km to Finisterre. Oddly enough, when I passed the bollard that showed the kilometres, I realised for the first time what I had done and had a peculiar retrospective panic attack. It was as though I could not actually grasp the concept of walking several hundred kilometres until I had done it. And then when it sank in, I freaked out. I looked around me and realised - properly - that I was alone in the middle of absolutely nowhere with no reception and not the ghost of a town or in fact another living soul for miles; I thought about the distance and flipped. I was standing there frozen like a moron when it occurred to me that having done 700 of 900km it seemed a pity to waste it, and that having done it I obviously could; so I pulled myself together and kept walking. But it was daunting.

There is more to say. But I won´t exhaust you :) I´m starting to feel excited to come home and - I won´t lie - I look forward to a bath and clean clothes. I´m hoping to hit Santiago a day early, so that I can really explore it. 

* Visit to Paris in 1996, when he gave a restauranteur a benevolent smile and said ´Jou moer ook, Meneer.´