Venturing Further Afield

With just three days to go we wake to overcast skies and decide that this is the day we can venture out to see some sights. Outside the hotel we negotiate a price with the taxi driver who spends his time there and set off down the busy road parallel to Lamai Beach, first to see the Grandma and Grandad rocks. After a slow ride through the traffic the driver makes an abrupt turn left down a narrow, bumpy lane, winds between some buildings and comes to a halt in a car park behind a welter of assorted stalls and shops-their number somewhat out of proportion with the numbers of sight-seers around.

Our driver indicates the way we should go-a passageway through a shop piled high with hats and gaudy toys. The character of the beach here is changed from wide sweep of sand to cliffs and prominent rocks-none more prominent than the ‘Grandad’. And it is immediately obvious how the rock acquired its name.

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We clamber up to see the rocks from different angles then return to the taxi. The driver has brought a companion along for the ride, although we are not sure who she is-his wife, perhaps?

Next we wind up into the interior of Koh Samui to stop at a temple complex and I’m glad I thought to fling a thin sarong into my bag to aid modest dressing for temple visits.

Inside a gilded, glass case adorned with offerings and flowers sits the ‘mummified monk’, a disquieting exhibit, his sightless eyes staring out of his leathery face.

Leaving the main road we drive up through lush plantations of banana trees and orchards of rubber trees, each trunk circled with a band and a small cup for the trees’ sap to drain into. Then it’s on and up again until we reach a rutted track and pull into a parking area bordered by a fence. Behind the fence are elephants, prepared and ready to take tourists for rides through the forest. A stall sells bananas for the punters to feed them and there is a charge to photograph these exploited animals. We know that many elephants that work in this way are ill-treated and we have not come to see them, but to look at the waterfall.

While it is not exactly a raging tumult, the waterfall is impressive enough and surrounded by immense, tall trees. It is not seething with tourists but those that are there are either bathing in the pool or draping themselves in the path of my camera shutter. And I can imagine how different it will be when the rainy season is underway. In comparison to the Grandma and Granddad rocks the number of stalls on the path is restrained, consisting mainly of piled up coconuts and a few souvenirs.

Our driver and his silent companion are [justifiably] not much inclined to act as tour guides, dropping us at each location and waiting for us to return, although our questions are answered and our expressions of appreciation acknowledged.

We return down the track and head towards another beach area. Here is an impressive shrine and another [enormous] glass case containing a vessel and what appears to be another mummified monk-this one even more spooky, peering out at us with sinister stare. The vessel in which he sits is itself surrounded by dozens of model boats.

The beach here is stacked with the hard, white shapes of dead coral, beautiful but a telltale sign of poor sea health. But the area is almost deserted, the shrine showing signs of neglect. Clearly this is not a well-known site.

We have one last site to visit, a temple complex that quickly becomes my favourite The entire venue is snake themed, the temple walls adorned with vibrant scenes rendered in terracotta and best of all, outside, a long staircase leading to the beach is flanked by beautiful cobras, their mouths gaping as they reach the base as if to snatch the unwary person descending.

It’s the end of our whistlestop tour, but we’ve discovered there is much more to Koh Samui than beach life.

Lamai and Food Heaven

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The road that runs parallel to Lamai Beach passes the front of our hotel and teems with all kinds of traffic, from endless convoys of scooters to chugging, motorised kitchens, their driver negotiating the twists and turns while a bubbling vat of something delicious sizzles away next to them. While the traffic is not fast, it’s difficult to cross over without the help of the security guard.

All we can manage, having limited our daytime sleep to two and a half hours in order to try and adjust to Thailand time is to stroll across to the small bar and restaurant facing the hotel. Here we can sit upstairs in summer clothing on an open balcony and watch the world go by in all its fascinating variety while we sip a Chang beer and enjoy the balmy warmth-a novelty for us, coming from our UK winter.

We peruse the menu. I’m confident that here in Thailand I can find a variety of benign meals to suit my very contrary constitution, which eschews spicy things. And I do. Thai food is choc-a-bloc with stir fried vegetables, delicate rice and noodle dishes and fresh, delicious seafood. So I plump for fat prawns and broccoli with fried rice. In the unaccustomed heat a selection of a few, modestly proportioned dishes is perfect.

It’s all we need for today and having managed to stay up past ten we retire early, hoping to sleep all night. The room is spacious, though gloomy. We are unable to fathom the workings of the coffee machine and will need water and non-dairy milk so a foray into the mini supermarket along the road will be necessary tomorrow.

The day dawns hot [35 degrees], blistering as we make our way to breakfast, which offers every possible need or desire, including, miraculously, soya milk!

And while it’s too hot to do much, other than loll about in the shade, reading, Lamai Beach stretches in a sandy curve fringed with coconut palms, a steady breeze mitigating the searing heat.

The mini-market is a treasure trove for oat milk, beers and water but yields no coffee-making equipment, not so much as a pack of filters. We step across to the coffee bar across the street instead, where air conditioned comfort and some creditable pastries are available.

The evening temperatures are perfect and a short walk across a bridge takes us to an open market square where an abundance of food stalls provides an evening meal, and a lively bar with a music stage provides the entertainment-a competent covers band with a charismatic girl singer. We can sit in the open eating freshly grilled kebabs and sipping from a delicate coconut then enjoy some stomping music. How much better does it get than this?

A Foot on the Beach

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If I’ve learned anything during the large number of years I’ve now lived, it’s that travelling under your own steam [bike or feet] in the open air helps to alleviate all kinds of problems. This is much documented, of course; but since I began to exercise with any kind of regularity [post children-in my 30s] I can vouch for the benefits.

Once upon a time I ran. I ran almost every day, from my 30s until my mid-50s. When you run almost every day it starts to become essential and a cessation of the activity is a source of stress in itself. But here is the injustice of health and ageing. Some runners are very lucky and able to continue into extreme old age. Others, like myself and Husband have had to hang up their running shoes and admit defeat. Injury has forced us off the jogging trail and on to the hiking path-or perhaps, in summer, the cycle path.

When you have overcome the bitter disappointment of giving up running, walking can take over as the meditative, cathartic activity you enjoyed before. As a writer I can drift off into the plot and characters of my current project, ponder tricky domestic issues, compose, get ideas, think. 

What, then, if walking is not possible?

Since last May I’ve been inflicted with an annoying, painful inflammation of the membrane under my foot. This inflammation is known as plantar fasciitis and I have been subjected to repeated bouts since the running years, having had steroid jabs, ultrasound treatments and physio, worn jelly pads, worn condition-appropriate footwear, religiously kept up targeted exercises and been strapped up. This time the problem is particularly stubborn and slow to respond to the twice-weekly physio I’ve opted for.

So as part of the regime I’m on for recovery I must walk on sand. This,  according to Alice, the physio is particularly beneficial if I go barefoot. Barefoot? We are now, officially in winter!

I am nevertheless fortunate in that where we live we are spoilt for beach choice and I can select from varied stretches of beach; from sheltered harbourside bays to wide expanses of sand washed by waves. Coasts are beautiful in any weather condition. A walker has only to wrap up and don appropriate footwear to appreciate a beach. A variety of wildlife abounds, now and then a curious sight, such as this alien-like skeleton adorning the sand. [In reality a dead swan].

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At the start of the regime it goes swimmingly, my foot responding well to the massage style of walking on sand and I stick to the modest distance Alice has recommended. But a subsequent,  over-ambitious walk sets me back and the offending foot complains stiffly. Baby steps then, and I have to remember I’ve had this condition [this time] since May…

 

 

Making it Back

With only three days left before the ferry crossing from Bilbao we arrive back to Spain’s north coast and settle in Islares to spend the time. The tiny village, on the edge of a bay is only just off the motorway [Bilbao/Santander] but hosts a secluded, daisy-strewn camp site laid out in neat rows of pitches. It  also houses overnighters making their pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, who can stay in the year-round, static tents [green, seen in the background below].

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At last the sky is an unbroken blue and the sun makes a welcome appearance. While the site is never full there is a steady flow of vans in and out, as well as overnighting pilgrims. Some come to stay a night before or after the ferry, some for surfing and a few have chosen to holiday here.

You would have to go around the bay to find an extensive beach, but at Islares there are small pockets of sand that appear when the tide goes out across the rocky shore and the remnants of a miniscule harbour decorated with the ruins of old fishing huts. It is all outrageously picturesque.

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Santander, a half hour’s drive away, is another city we’ve tended to bypass, however we were tipped it was worth a look and decide to visit, only to discover there is nowhere at all to park the van. We drive along the sweeping seafront and back through the town. It does seem very grand, but will have to wait for another time.

Another excursion, to Laredo and further along the lengthy sandspit, takes us to another point on the Camino, where a tiny passenger ferry carries people across the water to Santona.

We make lunch by the almost deserted stretch of beach then continue around the lagoons, nature reserves and beaches. Nowhere is there more than a handful of tourists or day-trippers.

Our last day brings sunshine warm enough to sit outside and read- a rare treat this trip.

Although we rise early next morning for our drive to the ferry the site office is firmly closed, which makes it impossible to settle up, reclaim our ACSI discount card [an essential camper accessory] detach ourselves from the electricity point and exit the barrier. We learn that all this should have been addressed the previous evening. Horrors! But we are fortunate. The security guys help out, taking our cash and lifting the barrier, and I write a note begging for our ACSI card to be sent on.

Then it’s along the motorway to Bilbao’s ferry port, conveniently sited well away from the city’s sprawl. Once loaded we locate our small cabin before finding a comfortable place to sit and munch Brittany Ferries’ pastries and coffee-and I have to conclude that nobody can do breakfast pastries and coffee like the French.

A wander round, a read, lunch on the top deck [to the accompaniment of the noisy dogs in the on-board kennels], a snooze, a read, a wander. The day passes. After a shower in our cabin we find dinner before spending an hour with the ‘entertainment’ in the bar; the music quiz being the only item we can manage, then it’s off to find a quiet spot for another read before retiring to the twin bedded cabin.

Next morning Portsmouth has arrived.-and the sun is shining…

 

Bajan Escape

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The elderly [even to us] occupants 0f the rooms either side of ours are happy enough with the hotel, modest though it is. Mike and Linda [to the left on our ground floor terrace] are heavy smokers-a surprise given that they are liberal, forward thinking Canadians-as are most of the residents. Mike, squat, chunky and clad in long shorts and vest, cups his cigarette angled towards his palm and almost hidden behind his back in apologetic discomforture.

They are all enthusiastic advice givers and we the [relatively] younger newcomers. On our right, Tom and Francine express shock at our nine-hour flight.

By morning the rigours and frustrations of the long flight have dissipated, erased by solid sleep uninterrupted even by the Canadians’ loud, evening conversations and coughing. The walls are thin though and when I wake during the hours of darkness I’m treated to all manner of sounds; the vibrant chirping of miniscule tree frogs that punctuates Bajan nights, trickling water from surrounding rooms, vague traffic hum and exuberant taxi horns.

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We wake to sun, cloud, a garden view of palms and flowers. Either the room smells less musty or we’ve grown used to it already. The steady breeze blows warm as we sit on the tiny patio to drink the coffee that Husband has managed to coax from a machine in our tiny kitchenette. We are equipped with the basics, [though not a kettle] giving us options to concoct, re-heat, eat out or get take-out.

Since our arrival in the early evening we’ve found 3 ATM machines, 2 supermarkets, an express shop, several bars and the nearest beach, which held an alluring promise in the warm, balmy darkness-a small, palm-fringed bay overlooking moored fishing boats and dotted with pastel bungalows, bars and modest apartments. There is nothing high-rise here in Worthing-no gargantuan piles of corporate resorts.

We set off to the larger supermarket, Massy’s, where Waitrose products at inflated prices nestle smugly amongst the local stock. We are spoilt for choice and select chicken and salad for our evening meal, corned beef in a tin with a key! [a throwback to my childhood] and ‘Banks’ beers. The corned beef is welcome after the lacklustre hotel breakfast offering-a couple of pieces of watermelon plus 2 miniature slices of toast and some rough coffee.

Later we wander along to the beach with towels and books to while away a few hours beneath a palm tree while Henny-Penny and her two small chicks scratch in the sand around and beneath the sun loungers.

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A cockney middle-aged couple manhandle a wheelchair across the white sand, its passenger a very elderly woman, in all likelihood an aged parent. They settle next to a geriatric gent carrying a portable oxygen tank from which a tube leads to his nostrils. Nevertheless he gamely sets up his towel and prepares for some sun. Maybe Husband and I are not so infirm after all…

Francine’s brother, Bruce has a room a few doors along from ours. He is a small, neat, dapper man in pristine shirt and gabardine shorts-slow to smile or respond, unlike brother-in-law Tom, whose large, blousy exterior matches his expansive personality. Tom tells us his brother-in-law was widowed only a year ago and has the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease. A flimsy bamboo screen separates our tiny patio from theirs, making eavesdropping inevitable. Tom asks Bruce what arrangements he’s made for his funeral; ‘where does he want to be interred?’

‘They can do what they want with me!’ Bruce spits back. ‘Throw me in the lake!’ The reply is inaudible. Later, as I lie waiting for sleep I hear Francine making placatory noises as Bruce’s voice is raised, ‘I worked hard all my life-gave it 100%!’ His sister murmurs, ‘Shut up Bruce, shut up’…

Bajan escape continues next week.

The Lure of Simple Pleasures

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            We’ve been spending a few days at a favourite site here in South West France. Situated on the Atlantic coast on the peninsula created by The Gironde, Le Gurp nestles in pine woods by a beach that stretches on almost as far as the eye can see, stroked by azure Atlantic rollers crashing on to the sand in frothy crescents.
This camp site is almost entirely visited by German holiday makers, who flock here for the waves, which are perfect for surfing and for its proximity to the beach, which is surveyed by lifesaving personnel and has soft, white sand, a couple of showers and a car park. The proliferation of Germans [and surfers at that] makes for a Boho, hippy atmosphere where strings of bunting, flags, drapes and all manner of camper vehicles abound-like a Mad Max movie.

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           Sites vary as much as hotels do. If your preference is for infinity pools, spas, cocktail bars, beauty salons and karaoke you could have it. If, like us you prefer a beautiful location, a clean, warm, efficient shower, security, space and the basics Le Gurp is the place.
We happened upon it the first summer we travelled to the Gironde with a tent, twenty or so years ago. The site we were on, near to Soulac [having supposedly booked to no avail] was tightly packed with chalets and boasted raucous entertainment each night. During a cycle trip we found Le Gurp beach and site. Could we book? No-it is a municipal site but is vast. There was plenty of space so we moved.
From the site a network of tarmac cycle tracks radiate through the pine forests to tiny, pretty villages like Grayan et l’Hopital and Talais or bustling seaside towns like Montalivets [which has an extensive and boisterous Sunday market] or Soulac-which is touristy but pleasant. On our first visits here we were runners, jogging every morning along the forest tracks in hot sunshine as many continue to do. Later [and older] we took to cycling. On the way to Montalivets by bike you’ll go past the tight brush-work fencing of ‘Euronat’-supposedly Europe’s largest naturist holiday park, although anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of naked tennis or boules-in-the-buff will be disappointed. If you’re bent on spotting unclothed bodies a stroll along the beach in either direction will reveal plenty of devotees-but it’s not a pretty sight!
A short walk [or shorter cycle] over the hillock from the camp site towards the beach takes you past a surf shop, a small supermarket, a newsagents/beach shop, a boulangerie, a launderette and several bars and restaurants-not a massive development but everything, in fact that the average German camper needs or wants.
During the day tiny children play among the pine trees, peddling madly around the tracks on bikes and ganging together to play with sticks and pine cones before being taken to the beach. Here there are no organised activities, there is no pool, nothing but a couple of swings and a climbing frame to amuse them-and so they amuse themselves. Camping is surely the best holiday a child can have?
In these late summer evenings, the sun sets like flames through the pine trees and as twilight descends the site comes alive with twinkly lights from tents and vans. There will be an occasional gentle strum of guitar and groups of al fresco diners will sit up chatting into the night over bottles of wine. You could sit outside with a glass or two or stroll over to one of the beach bars for a late drink. Wonderful.

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Silly Season Selfi-shness

Here we are in the midst of the holiday season; overpriced, wet [now], crowded and frustrating [airports and traffic queues].

Schools are out, parliament is out, railway networks and road systems have chosen to upgrade or get repairs done as usual.

At the seafront in our nearest town the beach was thronged with families on Wednesday, so that finding a small space where we [GrandOffspring and I] could plop down long enough to construct a teeny-weeny sandcastle proved problematical. We’d already had a bus ride, done lunch and visited the funfair [a serious blow to the granny purse] and this next activity was sandwiched [see what I  did there?] between expenditure of industrial proportions on the rides and the obligatory ice cream.

For a brief rest [essential for grannies] we sat on a bench, where I was asked by a smiling young woman to take a photo of her with her husband and two small children-which I did, taking an extra one for luck. She thanked me, whereupon GrandOffspring was moved to ask me if the woman was my friend.

In these times, a request to take a photo is a refreshing breeze wafting through the forest of selfie sticks that crowd into every popular view. I read this morning that an unseemly scuffle broke out at The Trevi Fountain in Rome between two rival selfie-takers competing for the best spot [ fisticuffs at the Trevi Fountain ] and I remembered when, a few years ago whilst being escorted around The Alhambra Palace in Granada it was nigh impossible to photograph any of the inner courtyards, fountains and architectural marvels owing to a posing woman and her doting husband, who insisted on draping her coiffed and made-up body over everything and snapping all angles.

There was also last year’s visit to Venice, during which hoards of excited teenage girls were selfy-ing themselves to death on every bridge, corner, fountain, square, path, archway and step, taking up their ‘model’ poses with a leg bent out, chin up, breasts stuck forward and lips duly pouted.

My nearest and dearest know only too well that I am phobic about having my own photograph taken and that few images of myself exist since about 2003 [when Husband and I took the plunge into matrimonial decorum].

You have to wonder why this self-obsession has taken hold, why this desire to show oneself off at every opportunity is so overwhelming. I have a modest collection of grainy, black and white photos of previous generations of my family and something they have in common is that they are all taken whilst everyone is engaged in some kind of activity. There is a picnic, a walk, playing cricket on a beach. There are uncles with trouser legs rolled up, aunties with skirts hoisted ready to paddle, people eating ice creams and children batting at makeshift wickets.

This is why, when I photograph my own grandchildren I like to capture them doing what they do, not posed. Maybe the selfie fashion will die a death one day-I can only hope…