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.

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Two Memorable Summers

The summer of 1976. Long, hot, dry days. A summer that stretched on in an endless, sweaty haze punctuated by occasional fires, hosepipe bans and exhortations to ‘bath with a friend’.

I was still in the early years of my career, although I’d switched jobs and had moved from a school in a 3 story tenement building in Stockwell to a light, airy, leafy special school [for ‘delicate’ children] in Putney where I was responsible for all of twelve children in a huge classroom. I loved everything about my new job, from the joys of working with such a small number of children to the social life of the staffroom; from the three delicious meals each day, [cooked on site] to the convenience of living a twenty minute walk away. I’d moved from Wimbledon to share a flat in Putney with a girl who’d begun working at the school at the same time.

One wall of each classroom in this modern building was glass, giving a view on to landscaped grounds but in a hot spell heating the rooms to oven temperatures in the afternoons. Our gregarious, eccentric boss, who had a gammy leg and was given to gesturing wildly with his stick, instructed us to take the children outside under the trees, a directive that we were only too delighted to follow. These were sick children, suffering from a range of conditions that included chronic asthma, heart problems and cycstic fibrosis. They flopped down under the trees and slept while we worked on our tans, having given up all pretence of holding meetings or making teaching aids.

By the time the long summer holiday came I’d acquired skin the shade you would expect from a long sojourn in a tropical location-and remember this era pre-dated any enlightened warnings about sunbathing.

This summer is the longest and hottest in the UK since that heady season of 76. And while I may not tolerate blistering sunshine as well as I could in my 20s I continue to love hot weather. I love soft, still early mornings and long, light, balmy evenings. Yes, the garden is dry. The grass is golden and crispy. Bumble bees have taken up residence in the lawn, tunnelling underneath the decking. The come and go in a relentless, dedicated relay, circling drunkenly before they make their inelegant landings then disappearing into the grassy tunnel.

As yet we’ve been spared a hosepipe ban, unlike 1976. I no longer loll around in the sun and am more likely to be walking, cycling or gardening. To relax I’ll seek out some dappled shade and settle with a book. I’ve become a conscientious user of sun cream and wearer of hats. We eat dinner with the doors wide open and a view of the river at the lowest it’s been since we moved here, flowing slowly and exposing islands of weed for hopeful moorhens to pick over.

Some day soon it will be over, this hot spell-and autumn will be upon us. But for now I’m going to enjoy every day, just as I did 42 years ago.

 

Tots and Travel-What a Difference a Generation Makes

People’s behaviour with their children makes fascinating observation; no more so than during holidays and while travelling.

We have boarded [another] ferry-this time from North Denmark to Norway. The ship is teeming with people of all nationalities, ages, shapes and sizes. Many of these people are small, flaxen-haired and extremely excited. They are swarming like pale, shrieking insects all over the decks, and in particular in and out of a caged area which houses ‘Captain Kid’-a portly, foam encased figure [housing, no doubt a beleaguered student taking an unenviable summer job], wearing a jolly, striped T-shirt and a peaked cap. The excited squawking lasts until the vessel has negotiated a turn and exited the harbour, then settles into the odd squeak or howl, accompanied by whimpering and whining.They are all undeniably beautiful, despite the whinging.

An hour into the voyage and Captain Kid’s able assistant has sprung into action rustling up standard summer ferry-boat fare-balloon animals, for which the little tots and their long suffering parents have formed a long, snaking queue that obliterates the entrance to the ladies’ lavatories, the stairwell or indeed anywhere else.

Elsewhere they continue to holler and gallop about, or are occupied with computer games, pizza slices, swinging on bar stools or watching cartoons. It is all a lengthy voyage away from the number plate games we were encouraged to play whilst enduring the interminable drives to Wales, Devon or Scotland when I was a child in the fifties. I’d be sandwiched between two brothers on the back seat of the small family car, condemned to the middle due to my small stature, with my knees under my chin due to the obstacle that was the cylindrical prop-shaft and not enough room for as much as a pack of cards.

Later some of the infants have fallen into oblivion on a parental chest and others are voicing their discontent in no uncertain terms. A tiny boy swamped by a gargantuan buggy has set up a pitiful whine, his mouth a large O in his cherubic face framed by white curls. He is inserted into a high chair and supplied with pizza and chips, effectively stopping up the ‘O’.

Then the Norwegian coast is upon us, looking like Thunderbirds’ Tracey Island, or the dastardly villain’s secret location housing an evil world-threatening machine from a James Bond movie.

Later, at the first night’s stop by a beautiful lake, the sun blazing bright at 9.15pm, a cavalcade of small boys races round and round the camper-vans on minute scooters, hooting wildly as they career in their circles, one of their number a large, grown up man. There is something uncomfortable in the sight of adults scooting along on children’s scooters.

At 11.00pm the scooter circus shows no sign of abating, no doubt due to the abundance of daylight and it is not until twilight finally descends that the revellers give up their conveyances and retire. The next morning the sun is up early-and so are the small boys, up and attired in multi-coloured swim gear ready to leap into the lake. When do they sleep? I hear my mother turning in her grave……

A Long Tale of Long Tails

                Despite the blazing sun, white sandy beach, extensive, tropical gardens, azure sea, herds of cushioned sunbeds and unlimited mango shakes, after two days of lolling around reading ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ [which I can highly recommend when travelling to foreign climes] I was itching for some activity.

                ‘This hotel is too posh for us’ was Husband’s pronouncement-a judgement I considered perhaps appropriate for him, but did not necessarily relate to myself.

                The fact was, the hotel-or rather the ‘resort’ as it liked to be known was certainly ‘posh’, in that it boasted two infinity pools, a spa, three restaurants, numerous bars [including one of those incorporated into a swimming pool], a fitness centre, beach barbecues, those low platforms with cushions for lounging around, coy, individual nooks furnished with pairs of sun loungers and a range of accommodation including private suites with personal pools etc

                That it was plush and luxurious could not be ignored. Neither could the problem that it was a taxi or a long tail boat ride away from anywhere we wanted to visit or activity we’d like to undertake.

                We set off for the nearest town, Ao Nang- a busy seaside resort awash with tourists; not unlike Torquay in high season, but with hot weather. Along the shore throngs of long tail boats bobbed gently in the waves, waiting to take eager tourists to a variety of destinations. We bought our tickets from the booth at the end of the promenade and were amongst the waiting passengers swept down on to the beach and into the sea to heave ourselves up a crude ladder [a dousing is unavoidable] and into the boat.

                A few minutes later we were chugging past an astonishing array of limestone outcrops and fascinating, sculptural cliff formations dotted with tiny fringes of beach as we made our way to Railay Rocks-a popular magnet for tourists; as demonstrated by the multitude of boats jostling for position on the beach. Most were disgorging visitors, some of whom were shouldering luggage in an attempt to keep it dry as they waded ashore.

                If you ignore the ‘walking street’ with its cafes, bars, shops and trinket sellers and walk through to the other side of the peninsula [ten minutes at most] you come to a bay furnished with mangroves. You turn right and walk towards the end and right again to encounter a warren of fantastic caves with dangling creepers and hoards of cheeky macaques; continue through the cave complex to a beach so beautiful as to be almost unreal, although predictably busy. Here there were more boats, some sporting fast food menus-fresh roasted corn, spring rolls and burgers. There were more caves, this time bizarre forests of enormous phalluses replacing the monkeys.

                Later we walked past the burgeoning hotels, bars and [strangely] a Thai boxing ring, around the mangrove bay to the other end. It was wilder, quieter with pockets of discreet accommodation. Later we joined the assembly of waiting passengers on the beach for our return to Ao Nang and our shuttle back to the opulent splendour of  the resort.

 

A Matter of Time [part 1]

Frith steps out into the grey, depressing familiarity of the patch she still thinks of as a garden at a time she knows is morning from her ancient alarm clock. She glances up into the hazy fog as she does each day, to assess the extent to which a semblance of light may be penetrating. This morning, within the billowing folds of damp cloud a sulphurous, bilious glow hovers like a searchlight beam, providing little in the way of illumination and no warmth, although Frith allows a small thread of encouragement to weave into the start of her day.

Along the cinder pathway fresh layers of fine dust display the prints of the girl’s boots as she moves towards a network of raised beds rising like ghostly islands in the gloom. She pauses by the first rectangular slab, a dark oblong mound constrained by timber planks, crumbling a little now from prolonged exposure to damp and housing what would have been a robust crop of potato plants. Frith adjusts the filter masking her nose and mouth before bending to inspect the nearest plant. A few dark, brittle leaves have struggled to the surface of the dusty heap of soil. She peers at them, unsurprised by their insidious coating and searches for any sign of a flower. They will need to be earthed up again, she decides, grimacing at the idea of the task; digging into the tainted earth will produce a storm of silver powder pluming up and coating all in its descent, including herself.

She walks to the apple tree, a spectral giant in the mist hung with fringes of dull spores and remembers her grandmother describing summer afternoons as a child lying in the shade of it with a book or clambering to the top to teeter on a spindly branch and marvel at the view across the sunlit valley. She shivers, conscious of the oppressive silence that hangs over the garden like the fog. On the tree’s lower branches one or two tiny, misshapen fruits cling in a valiant effort to perpetuate.

Beyond the tree, by the low stone wall that once marked the boundary with a neighbouring property there is a brave, rebellious clump of brambles making a stand against the suffocating effects of fungal invasion, producing fierce, protective thorns and exuberant, wet foliage tinged with hints of green amongst the smoky coating. Frith allows herself to hope for blackberries later on, in the time that used to be called autumn when there were seasons marking changes in climate; months when days were warm, hot even, and periods of fierce cold when the land lay dormant.

The greenhouse is barely visible at the end of the monochrome garden until Frith is near enough to touch its damp and slimy surface. She pulls the door open and steps inside. The tender plants here have not escaped the blight and she surveys the spindly pepper bushes, brittle stalks smothered in grey and moves slowly on towards the end of the small structure where she’s been nursing the tomato seedlings. She stops; holds her breath.

It’s an educational odyssey-honest!

                September. For many of us Northern Hemisphereites who are beyond the ties of dependent children or parents or day jobs this is the perfect time for slipping away to extend our summers. This year, especially, as the magic of the first warm, dry summer for seven years bursts in a wet bubble we have made our escape, along with a whole convoy of other wrinklies, besides one or two couples with pre-school children, capitalising on the cheaper prices, the quieter roads and the emptier resorts.

                Despite having undertaken a substantial amount of meandering in foreign territories for lengthy periods since I retired from the nine-to-five I still receive a barrage of remarks and expostulations regarding what I like to call ‘trips’. I describe them as trips for this very reason, since to call them ‘holidays’ would imbue them with an impression of hedonistic opulence and wanton enjoyment and this is not the idea I want to convey at all. I prefer to be conveying the appearance of undertaking some kind of research or undergoing an educational experience; activities more worthy and valuable than mere enjoyment. One of last night’s FB remarks referred to my ‘life of luxury’-and may or may not have been ‘tongue in cheek’.

                Luxury is a subjective quality. When applied to holidays-or even trips, it means different things to different people. For some, the epitome of a luxury holiday is to be pampered in an exquisite hotel offering complimentary champagne on arrival, chocolates, fruit and flowers and plump pillows. For many it is to be carted away on a floating gin palace, stuffed full of food whilst dressed in a designer outfit and disgorged at intervals for a hasty snapshot of a famous city-[as in ‘if it’s Saturday it must be Rome’]. For anyone in a demanding and stressful job, luxury can be slobbing around in bed on a Sunday morning in front of the TV with a cup of tea.

                I have friends for whom the ideal break is two weeks, twice each year in the same apartment on the Costa del Sol, lying on the same sun-beds, visiting the same bar. It is relaxing, they explain, that nothing has changed, that there is nothing to do. This is easy to understand.

                For me, the concept of luxury is also a simple matter. It is freedom. You wander where you want, for as long as you want. When you tire of somewhere or it rains you move on. If there is a lot to do, or the weather is wonderful you stay. It isn’t always simple. You have to research, you have to plan, you have to drive, shop, set up, pack up; but you are free to do exactly what you want. And that, reader, is my idea of a luxurious trip. What’s yours?

En route …and more…

                Postings may well be intermittent for the next few weeks. This is due to our attempt to make an escape from the continuing winter of the UK and undertake one of our frequent journeys south. At the moment we are somewhere in mid-France, a journey we have made too many times to count, having spent more weeks holidaying in France than anywhere else-either en route to somewhere or as a destination in itself.

                I can still remember the feverish excitement of my first foray into ‘abroad’ with my parents, when I was fourteen. Back then it seemed unutterably glamorous and thrilling to be driving on to a cross channel ferry, showing my passport, going through customs and entering the other world that was a foreign country. I seem to think we were boldly striking out to Switzerland, via France; staying in dark, olde worlde hotels in out-of-the-way places, attempting to communicate [I recall it was all down to me, the ‘expert’ after 2 whole years of learning French], trying to decode the menu, tentative tastes of the strange, unrecognisable fare we’d ordered. My father made the mistake of idly pressing a button, only to summon the elderly chambermaid up the stairs-an event that rendered us helpless with mirth and my father reduced to red faced embarrassment.

                We’ve made the trip too often now to sustain that kind of novelty. We are accustomed to the long drive to Dover via the M25, the grey, choppy traversal of the channel and the less than lovely entrance to the port of Dunkirk. Well aware of the canteen food, we take lunch with us. On arrival we know there will be a slow crawl out at ‘Gravelines’-the unlovely environs. Sometimes we go straight out via the coast, by way of Calais. This time we’ve come across to Lilles then down. Either way you have to travel across part of flat, French Flanders. Flanders has a language and a charm that is all its own, although it is only to be discovered by plunging into the bucolic, agricultural  hinterland, where the views are all reminiscent of a van Eyck or a Brueghel painting. This is a safe, sturdy landscape with fields of stocky, white cattle, solid, ploughed clods of mud studded with heaps of manure. There are clusters of houses surrounding squat churches and neat, industrious farms.

                Sometimes we stop to spend a night or two at a hamlet where a couple have built a campsite –and a reputation as gregarious and extrovert hosts. The land is flat for cycling, with quiet lanes or tracks by canals. There are peaceful roads from one village to the next and an occasional, small bar-open if you’re lucky. The area is overlooked by most people but in the summer it can be a gem of a place to escape to.

                But we are not staying this time. The weather is no different. We are heading south as far as necessary to get warm sun, or at least warm. Fingers crossed…