This week with bigger pictures

   Monday 25th November 2013 week 126 Spain

       It's Better to cry wolf. 

    Here’s a cautionary tale; Many many years ago I holidayed in a villa, with four other couples, in the South of France. One morning I woke early, threw open the windows to take in the view, -the azure blue Med, the mountains- which was normally pretty spectacular but on that particular morning was barely visible. The villa was on the lower slope of a small mountain. As I looked up I could see great plumes of dark smoke coming from the other side. Seconds later a plane dramatically appeared over the mountain ridge line. As it did so it released water from a bucket slung underneath before gunning it's engine and climbing hard. There was a forest fire and it was heading our way. I roused the house all of whom made their way to the balcony. They looked up bleary eyed, scratching and yawning before one said “Right! lets get breakfast on the go”. They all seemed remarkably calm and sauntered off casually. Me? I started packing. My brother-in-law found me and asked “what was I doing?” “Packing, I want to be ready to evacuate if we have to”. “Oh! it's probably miles away, chill out, come and have breakfast ! If there’s one phrase designed to do exactly the opposite of what it's suggesting, i.e chill out, that's it.

    Was I over-reacting? I went out on to the balcony and joined them, keeping one eye on the thickening smoke. The topic of conversation was my 'panicking' which seemed to amuse them. This slightly pissed me off as it would anyone. I was a boy scout. (A what? Ed) OK a Cub then. I never rose to the dizzy heights of a boy scout but it's the same thing. We had been trained. Our instincts of readiness had been honed and fine-tuned. Cubs, guides and scouts are in a constantly state of preparedness, dib dib dib dob dob dob, was our motto............. well something like that.

    However fate was watching over me because just as some smart-arse was doing an impression of me knocking them all up that morning, flames leaped into the air on the ridge line. As they watched, now open mouthed, my initial reaction didn't seem quite so funny. I wanted to leap on a chair and cry: “Ha! Ha! not so funny fools! Now you're all going to die horrifying deaths in the flames of Hades” and laugh hysterically in their faces, but thought better of it, after all, I was related to them by marriage.

    As we watched a neighbour told us we should leave and head into town. At that point they all started running round like headless chickens, I smugly ran down to the cars shouting: last one out is a crisp! leave the kids, you can always have more! I'm a great advocate of humour in dire situations.

    Long story short the fire got to within a few hundred meters of the villa but luckily didn't cross the road and burnt itself out with the help of the Fire services.

    Why am I telling you this? Well, firstly, it should serve as a warning. There’s a lesson to be learnt here, just not sure what it is, something about those that cry wolf perhaps. But more importantly I was reminded of that event yesterday morning when I awoke to the sound of helicopters. I looked out the roof window, which I use like a tank hatch to spy on neighbours, and saw one dropping down behind the camp site. It then scooped up water from a reservoir and took off over the mountain, returning two minutes later to refill. There was a scrub fire!

    After an hour they seemed to have brought it under control so fortunately there was no need, on this occasion, for me to slip into boy scout mode.





 Tuesday 26th November 2013 week 127 Spain


    We’ve spent the day sightseeing so here’s a piece I've re-written and brought up to date from almost two years ago......... time does fly.

    Touring Europe has highlighted many of the cultural and social differences between us and our European cousins, none more so than when it comes to the taboo subject of toilet etiquette which, for us Brits, can be a minefield. I listened, the other day, to a Spanish chap, who was in a toilet cubical, conduct a whole conversation with the female cleaner outside pausing only momentarily to, er... concentrate on the job in hand. Being British that's something I simply couldn’t do. I'm only just getting comfortable with having women cleaners in loos while I'm in there. I've been sat on the throne and had to move my feet to make way for a mop head that has been thrust under the door. In Europe using the bathroom is a whole different ball game. In France, as I've pointed out, it's not uncommon to find mixed toilet facilities. You can find yourself with just 15mm of Formica separating you from a lady in the next cubical. There is no way I can answer the call of nature this close to a women. It's to do with how I'm programmed on some subterranean level.

The camp site

    Of course the whole business is far more complex for a man than a women. Women can quite happily go off to the loos in pairs. “You coming to the loo?”, one female will ask her friend, and off they'll go. If I said: “Mate, you coming to the loo?” I'd get beaten up. Women use the loo almost as a social club. It's somewhere they can go and talk about us blokes. They can fix their make up, adjust their clothes, swap beauty tips, make confessions and even have a jolly good cry. It's a totally female environment, quite a little haven. Men use loos to expel bodily fluids, end of! A man's urinal can't be used for any other reason because it's too dangerous. Really? you ask. Well don't take my word for it, make your own mind up, here’s the unspoken and unwritten code for using a male loo.

    Rule one: On entering a man's urinal you don't, under any circumstances, stand next to the one that’s already being used. If you do you'll be considered gay by your neighbour. Now don’t get me wrong, I expect gay men observe exactly the same rules but this it's what straight men, who are all slightly paranoid, automatically assume. Because of this you need several urinals between you and the next guy. Where that's not possible, for instance in a busy loo where you're forced to stand next to another chap, you have to strictly observe rule number two or else.

    Rule two: Look straight ahead or down, if you do look down, don't stare. On no account look towards either of your neighbours. If you do you'll be thought of as being gay.

    Rule three: If a chap says his fly is stuck and asks can you help him?, Don't! Rule Seven clearly states: Inside a gents loo you're on your own.

Rule four: If you try a cubical door and it's locked, unlike at home where it's polite to say 'sorry didn't know someone was in there', in a gents the onus switches to the occupant. It's for him to announce 'Someone’s in here'. Ideally in a gruff voice and be careful to refer to yourself as 'someone' rather than use your name.

    Rule five: On no account strike up a conversation with the guy in the next cubical. You're likely to get beaten up, or thought of as gay, or both.

    Rule Six: If you've completed number 2's only to discover theres no loo paper refer to Rule seven. You’ll have to get creative with what’s in your wallet because asking the guy in the next cubical will either get you beaten up or, when he passes some under the partition it will likely have his telephone number written on it

    Rule seven. Unlike a women’s loo, which is full of women who, by nature are far more friendly than us blokes and are not paranoid about being thought of as gay.... In a man’s loo you are on your own.




 Wednesday 27th November 2013 week 127 Spain

    A day out.

    I don't think it's possible to ride your scooter along a Mediterranean coast road, under a blue sky, without hearing Dean Martin singing in your head. Thinking you are Gregory Peck and imagining Sophia Loren is behind you, seriously, it's exactly like that. It could, I suppose, also be my over active imagination or the new meds I'm on, who knows. Still, it's very nice though.

    We took the coast road and then crossed the mountains to Cartagena to do a little sight-seeing and find a music shop. I needed some guitar strings. During a particular energetic rendition of: House of the Rising Sun, one snapped.

On arrival it was positively heaving with tourists. A gargantuan cruise ship lay at the quay side dwarfing all around it. It had disgorged thousands of American tourists into the unsuspecting town.

Road across the mountains wonderful on a motobike, ok on a scooter.

    The travel writer Rick Steves, once advised his American countrymen to try and be a little less 'American' when in Europe. Sound advice. In Europe, he says in one of his books, they do things differently and Americans have to accept that. He also points out that service is different here. I can vouch for that. In America, no matter what eating establishment you frequent, you'll be greeted by a waitress or waiter who will annoyingly introduce themselves to you thus: “Hi there folks. How ya all doin? I'm Billy Bob and I'll be your server for today”. I'd have to fight the urge to come back with: “Hi Billy Bob, I'm Josiah Braithwaite -I would deliberately pick an old English name- I'm in the pink old chum and I'll be your customer today”. No matter what you want during your meal it's Billy Bobs job to make sure you get a corporate dining 'experience'. In Europe service is a little more casual and I'm not sure our American neighbours realise this.

    They do have this reputation for being loud and confident which non Americans can see as arrogance. You can't be in a crowd of tourists without knowing, within seconds, who are the Yanks. Yesterday an ageing couple came ambling toward us. They may as well have been wearing signs saying American tourist. He in bright yellow trousers which weren't just yellow, but YELLOW! sky blue jacket, red shirt and cap. Her in a riot of pastel colours wearing one of those hats which isn't a hat, it's just the peak. Also wearing make-up that looked as-though it had been applied using some industrial process. I then overheard another American say to his female companion “I think we need to get some refreshments Elle-May”. To which Elle-May replied “ Yep I'm in need of a hot beverage”. Personally I would have shot them both on the spot for using the word beverage, but that’s just me. 

    I feel confident Americans will feel quite at home in Cartagena because it resembles a Hollywood film set. At first glance it's looks impressive, that is until you go behind the scenes. Take a walk down the back streets, off the main thoroughfare and it reveals itself. Many buildings only have a front to them. These are held up with steel girders and braced with scaffolding. It wasn't just the odd one or two, each street had several. Some buildings had lost the support from buildings to either side of them and looked very precarious if you ask me. After an hour walking around it was obvious if you pulled down all the buildings which consisted only of a façade, the city would look like it had been recently blitzed

    Like so much of old Europe it exists solely for the tourist, they/we keep these places alive. Without tourism they would have to modernise. Old cities like Cartagena are caught in a trap. Rebuild and they risk losing the tourist, but maintaining these old buildings is both impractical and way too expensive. They lie empty, deteriorating steadily, and are eventually pulled down, leaving just the frontage like a cowboy film set.





   Thursday 28th November 2013 week 127 Spain

    My fears.

    Been on the road all day so here’s something I prepared earlier.

    Shove a furry creature under someone’s nose and more than likely they’ll stroke it. In fact you can shove pretty much any animal under someone’s nose, puppies, kittens, parrots, lizards, snakes, gerbils, stick insects and they're instant reaction will be to stroke it, regardless of whether the animal wants to be petted or not. A friend of ours stroked our cat, this was before I could warn her about him. He possessed a contrary nature at the best of times. He sank all ten claws into her hand. Ask people why they stroke animals and most will say something along the lines of: “Oh he loves being tickled under the chin.” This is questionable.

    We're so keen on stroking animals we'll happily drag toddlers off to petting zoos just so they can start at an early age. Interestingly no one has shown that animals benefit from stroking. I have it on good authority that stroking a frog has little, or no effect on the frog at all, kissing one on the other hand, apparently, might. Dogs do enjoy being stroked as it reinforces pack acceptance, and cats when it suits them.

It's not a friendly landscape, just awsome.

    Many years ago I had a very attractive neighbour (Wondered where this was going. Ed) who owned a pet tarantula which, I kid you not, was the size of a dinner plate. It ate, as I recall, chickens... whole. Now, like some I have a healthy dislike of spiders and I don’t really know why. I do know 95% are harmless and they are, by all accounts, quite clean creatures but I simply can't bring myself to touch one. I'm happiest looking at them through toughened plexi-glass or from some distance. I could find no logical reason for my dislike until I hit on a theory (Oh dear. Ed). It was my mother. She traumatised me with that bloody stupid incy wincy spider rhyme. You'll perhaps know it and the hand gestures that go with it. I don't remember it well but I recall she used her hand to represent the spider and at some point in the rhyme I would be tickled under the arm. This would make me laugh.... come to think of it it still does. But it was a strange mix of anticipation and drama that planted the seed of my irrational dislike of all things arachnid.

    Anyway, if I went around for a chat, which was often because I fancied her, she'd offer to get her tarantula out. “Would you like to stoke him” she'd ask. “No, thanks” I reply “I'm good”. However my obvious reluctance didn't last long, she was getting suspicious. I eventually, and quite bravely I might add, had to face my demons if only to prove what a fearless chap I was, besides she finally asked “are you scared of spiders”?. Me! I exclaimed, with as much indignation as I could muster, “Not in the least”. So I had to hold Freddie, that was it's name. I should point out that if Freddie had been owned by a young lad I dare say its name would have been Fang, Grizzlewraith or Riptooth, so even Freddie had his cross to bear.

    Well I have a theory. (Another one. Ed) Let me run it by you. We stroke animals because we're keen to show them we're not a threat nor, importantly, afraid. We stroke them to conqueror our own fears. We're actually hot wired by evolution to be wary of animals. It's a default self protection mode, this because our very distant ancestors were on the menu.




  Friday 29th November 2013 week 127 Spain

    From one extreme to the other.

    We had to get out of Los Madriles, we were just too young. It was like a residential nursing home for the bewildered. This because the site is much favoured by ageing, yet sprightly, Dutch, German and French campers who were all annoyingly far too energetic for my liking. There was the early morning keep fit clubs which started at the ungodly hour of eight in the morning. I'm still zonked out at that hour. Miss that and you could join the swimming pool aerobic sessions. Urm, no thanks. Then, later, there was the boules tournaments and table tennis tournaments. And if you didn't fancy any of those you could join in a number of other activities. Frankly watching them all, fair tuckered me out.

   We left and headed 150 miles south toward the Costa del Sol and in particular Castillo de Banos which Hazels tells me means 'castle of bath' not sure she's got that right. The scenery was spectacular but for all the wrong reasons. This part of Spain is literally covered in Plastic sheeting, about 100 square miles. For as far as you can see, in any direction, the landscape is covered in poly-tunnels. To give you some idea of the scale then let me tell you this: from space, the only man-made object you can see is the Great Wall of China, that's well known. What isn't is that you can also see the poly-tunnels of Andalusia. The tunnels are visible from 2000km above the earth. Now that's a lot of plastic sheeting. And almost lost in amongst this sea of plastic are several towns, surrounded by poly-tunnels. If your interested check out Google earth, to the left of Almeria, it's clearly visible. Unfortunately, so I'm informed, this is the same plastic sheeting that has been found in the stomachs of dead whales. That's hardly surprising, there are abandoned poly-tunnels all over being slowly dismantled by the elements.

    The landscape itself is barren, rocky and arid and reminded me of those photos sent back from the Rover probe on Mars. I've not seen anything like this before in Spain. You really can't fail to be impressed by the Spanish farmers ingenuity in farming this land. 

Don't bother trying to find Castillo de Banos it on a map, you'll struggle. Blink and you’d skate right past it. We arrived at the camp site which is sandwiched between the main road and backs onto the Mediterranean. The blurb enthusiastically said of the camp-site: This is popular with those who want something more than just coast, with many members staying for two months or longer, Really? Well that surprises me. Castillo de Banos has little going for it. No history, no beech and zero charm. It consists of the camp-site, a shop, a restaurant and a few dozen holiday lets and a scattering of homes and of course poly tunnels. That was it. That’s the sum total of the place. There are no roads you can cycle on and none you'd be safe to walk on. There is quite a pretty coastal road but it steep with drops into oblivion. We were going to book in for several days but I think several hours might be pushing it a bit.

    Amazingly there are people here for the winter. I would start talking to myself after a week.

    Have a good weekend.



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