Confessions of a Poll Clerk.

15 Jun

I’ve always voted in elections, be they local, General or referenda. That’s every election since 1970, when Edward Heath’s Conservatives confounded all expectations and all poll- predictions  by defeating Harold Wilson’s Labour Party. ( Where have you heard that one before?) I have voted in community centres in south Manchester and north Hertfordshire, schools in Sheffield, churches or scout huts in North Tyneside and Civic Centres in Cleveland. On all those occasions I just slipped in and out before or after work and didn’t spare a second thought about the people manning the polling stations. I think I just assumed they were council employees who were being very well paid for their long day’s work. But I barely thought about them, just taking it for granted that they would be on duty and making our cherished democratic process possible.

Well now, in my retirement years, I have ended up being one of those poll clerks. The money is not great and the hours are extremely long. The poll stations operate from 7am to 10pm, a total of 15 hours. However we have to arrive by 6-30am at the latest in order to set up and then at the end, it takes at least 20 minutes to pack everything away. My colleague, officially known as the Presiding Officer, then has to lock up, return the keys to the caretaker and finally, transport the sacred ballot box and all the forms and stationary down to the HQ of the count, which is several miles away. It’s a hell of a long day, and this year we’ve done it twice — once for the Tees Valley Mayoral election and a second time 7 weeks later for the snap General Election called by the Prime Minister, Theresa May. On both occasions I had to get up at 5-15 am and didn’t get back home before 10-30pm. All poll clerks have to sign a special form, exempting themselves from The European Working Time Directive. This states that no-one should work no more than 48 hours a week and should have a break at least every 4.5 hours. By signing a simple form, we polling- station staff voluntarily pull out of this sensible, civilised arrangement and let ourselves in for a 16 hour endurance tests, with no official breaks. We have to snatch our food and drinks in-between voters.  You might think the pay for such an arduous and important job would be brilliant. However, it works out at approximately £7.50 an hour, roughly around the current minimum wage. We get paid a bit for a training session for a couple of hours 2 days before. However, in my case, the taxman comes in to take his cut, so I actually get even less than the above.

So, long hours and low pay  — the question is, why do we do it? Obviously different people have different reasons. Many are council employees who are “persuaded” to work at the polling station instead of doing their usual job for that day. I presume they get paid twice although I don’t actually know. In my case, I work as a poll clerk for 3 main reasons. The first is that bit of extra money to top- up my pension and go towards the holiday fund. The second reason, I suppose, is because it’s a sort of public service. In this sense, it’s a bit like jury duty although that is compulsory if one is selected. If we are to continue enjoying the benefits of living in a democracy, then some of us have to make it possible for everyone else to exercise their votes. Thirdly, one gets to be part of a little bit of history. This is especially so in a General Election which determines the UK’s next Government, or in the Referendum about whether to remain in or leave the European Union. The place was buzzing that day in June, 2016, with a much bigger turn out for the EU referendum than for a normal election.  ( In our case, pushing 70%)  We could tell something dramatic was afoot as the people came in their droves. Quite a lot had not voted in a long time or had never ever voted before. Some, whipped- up by a Facebook campaign, were suspicious of the thick pencils that are always provided in the booths, and insisted on using their own pens. Many didn’t know what to do. “Is this the election where every vote counts?” they asked, excited by the feeling of empowerment that an election can give one. I can now tell my grandchildren and write in my diary that I processed some of the votes that took the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Whether you voted LEAVE or REMAIN, you have to admit it was a historical occasion.

I work in a small ex-mining village in Cleveland, on the eastern edge of Tees-side in North east England. It’s called North Skelton. Everyone is friendly and we have no trouble. In training we get warnings about anti-social behaviour, teenagers running in and stealing the ballot box, verbal abuse from people who find they are not registered to vote, people angrily spoiling their papers and people taking selfies in the voting booth to put them on social media. We are also warned about people from the political parties canvassing near the polling station or putting up party posters that might influence people as they turn up to vote. Everything has to be fair and neutral. We are instructed to not engage in political discussions with members of the public, even though we may be asked interesting or challenging questions. We are even told to wear neutral coloured clothes and avoid colours associated with the competing political parties. So I cannot wear: red, blue, orange, green or even purple, the latter being UKIP’s colour. My colleague and I usually end up in boring black and white. One year, I turned up for a November election in a royal blue jumper by mistake. When the presiding officer pointed this out to me, I insisted on taking it off and ended up shivering for the next 12 hours or so. This year, following the shocking terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London, we were also given extra instructions about security.

The voters of North Skelton are very friendly as I have said. We have had no trouble at all. Now that we have manned the same station several times, we have got to know some of the characters. There’s the plasterer who comes in early in his white splattered overalls. There’s the woman who works at the Post office sorting office and the man who is a ticket inspector on the local train. There’s the man who works the tills at Tesco’s and the woman who votes in her green uniform after her shift at Asda. Then there’s the retired District Nurse and the man who parks his white van outside after a day fitting double- glazing. Quite a few thank us for what we are doing, especially when they realize what a long day we are working for their community. One woman has bought us home baked cakes and another gave us a chocolate wafer bar each. One of my favourite punters is a man who writes humorous poetry. I must have told him that I used to be a history teacher because in this recent election, he brought me in two hand- written ditties, one about the Vikings and one about the Normans. He even took my address so he could post me some more.

We get young voters coming in, some of them for the first time. It’s lovely to see the genuine excitement on their faces as they prepare to cast their first ever vote. It makes a refreshing change to witness this in an age of supposed political apathy. This last general Election actually saw a surge of young voters going into the polling booths to have their say. It always depresses me to hear of people who cannot be bothered to use their vote. In my more pompous moments I think this is an abnegation of their civic responsibility. My colleague and I have sat through Council elections and Police Commissioner elections when the turn out has been as low as 20% and 12% respectively. It makes for a long, draggy day having only about 6 or 7 people walking in every hour. We also get old people coming in to vote, some in their wheel chairs or arriving on their invalid scooters. We have to help some to read the ballot paper because their eyesight is fading and they have forgotten their spectacles. Some express pride that they have always used their vote throughout their entire lives. My colleague thinks that the UK should be like Australia, where voting in elections is compulsory. I think that’s a bit draconian but do think it’s a shame that some people refuse to accept any responsibility for what happens in their own country. In my opinion, such non-voters forfeit the right to grumble about any decisions the subsequent government or council may make.

Our polling station is a village hall in North Skelton. At one end is a stage for local amateur dramatic productions. During the day we are visited by a group of adults with special needs who are bussed in to do craft and art activities. Sometimes they do some baking and occasionally wander into the station with chocolate cake mixture all round their mouths! One likes to shake the hands of voters as they come in while another insists on locking the door so we have to watch him like a hawk. At one end of the hall there are often piled up pigeon- boxes, stored by the local pigeon racing club. Recently we saw that they had been carefully sorted out into “hens” and “cocks, and mysterious wooden clocks had been placed in front of them. Presumably they were soon to be transported far away and then the race would be on to see whose bird reaches home first. One of the “pigeon men” told us that the birds are sometimes taken as far away as the continent before being released. The pigeon men are often in dispute with the Zumba women , who don’t like the unsavoury smells that sometimes waft across their dancing space. We sometimes get entertained by the Latin American dance music as the leotard-clad Zumba group are put through their paces. This is another compensation for working that very long day — we get to see community life. A particularly nice moments is when whole families come in to vote together. We even get to meet the local police who usually pop in once or twice during the day to check that everything is alright.

So ends my “confessions” of a poll clerk. It’s long hours and low pay but I enjoy it all in the end. It has many compensations. I only hope that the Prime Minister doesn’t call another surprise election soon. It makes for an interesting day but the attractions of the job would soon start to pall if I had to do it more than once or twice a year!

Advertisements

General Election Blues.

14 May

It’s General Election time 2017. The Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, has called a snap election despite assuring questioners  on numerous occasions that the next general Election wouldn’t be until 2020. Maybe the breaking of her oft repeated promise is something to do with her being way ahead in the opinion polls. Such cynicism will do little to raise the publics already low estimation of politics and politicians.

I always feel strangely uneasy during a General Election campaign. There are many reasons for this. First, there is the awful feeling that, once again, it’s going to be confirmed that I live in a deeply conservative country. The Labour Party, which I support, is being represented as having an extremist, “hard left” programme, and yet I recently read the views of a Swedish political commentator, who remarked that Labour’s policies would be regarded as unremarkable and middle of the road anywhere in Scandinavia. Maybe I’m living in the wrong country!

This blog isn’t aimed to be politically neutral or balanced like a BBC news report supposedly is. I have always held left of centre views as have most of my family and friends. ( Birds of a feather flock together.) Some might call me an unapologetic socialist, which I accept. Although I sadly believe that the current Labour party is almost certain to lose at the polls, I still strongly agree with their election slogan: “For the many, not the few.” In my ideal world, everyone would have equality of opportunity and everyone would look after everyone else. I would love to live in a selfless society where the strong protect the weak and the rich support the poor. That was the type of society envisaged by Clement Atlee’s post 1945 Labour government when it set up the National Health Service and the Welfare State. Not only had Britain won the war against Nazi Germany and Japan, but it now intended to wage war on : poverty, ignorance, hunger and disease. Basing their policies on the ideas of the Beveridge Report of the early 1940’s, the Labour Party swept to power on its promise of creating a country that was fit for the returning heroes.( unlike what was promised but never delivered after the First World War.)

The Welfare State, started by the Liberals in the early 1900s and completed by Labour halfway through the 20th century, is something to be proud of and something which is envied by many other countries. The same goes for the National Health Service, underpinned by the noble idea that nobody should suffer illness and premature death just because they are poor. For 40 years or so a consensus held between the main political parties that these were things to treasure and protect. However, since the days of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s,  both have been under attack, mainly from Conservative administrations including the present one. ( but also from Tony Blair’s New Labour) The idea of pulling together as a nation, engendered in the dark days of World War 2 has now given way to an “every man for himself” approach and “I’m all right Jack” attitude. Benefits, even for disabled people, have been cut and made more difficult to access. Poor people are stigmatised as lazy scroungers. Many branches of the health service have been (or are being) privatised, while the NHS as a whole is seriously underfunded, unable to adequately meet the rising demand caused by our ageing population. The Prime Minister seemed bemused and uncomfortable recently when asked to explain why so many nurses were having to visit food banks. She would not admit any responsibility for the consequences of her government’s policies, but instead vaguely alluded to “many complex reasons.” There’s nothing complex about long hours and low pay.

For me there are many compelling reasons why people should not vote Conservative, but the likelihood is that Mrs May and her party will be voted back in with an increased majority, if the polls are to be believed. So I am depressed and have to live with this feeling of unease, impotence and dread, sitting like a cold, heavy stone in my stomach.

During an election campaign, real and important news is neglected and the electioneering antics of the politicians are given central stage. When the UK has so many real and pressing problems, we are asked instead to witness a dreary beauty contest, with competing politicians trying to win the affections of the British people in order to win power. The BBC pretends to be fair and neutral but many feel it consistently leans to the right. However, most of our newspapers unashamedly support one side over the other. The Sun ,Mail, Express and Telegraph pump out a relentless diet of anti-Labour, anti Jeremy Corbyn propaganda.( rather than genuine news.) This is done because of the probably correct assumption that if you throw enough mud, some of it will stick. It was sickening but not surprising to see one tabloid picturing Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, against a lurid red background, thus trying to associate him with the disgraced leaders of Communist Russia. My own sister, swallowing this propaganda, described Labour as being led by a “red”. ( shades of 1950s style McCarthyism here.) Everyone is welcome to his/her opinion, but it depresses me to hear people trotting out crude tabloid prejudices. I believe the power of the media and especially the press is far too high in Britain, although I would always defend the freedom of the press, which is an important cornerstone of a civilised country. Unfortunately, in Britain today, the press orchestrates public opinion rather than responding to it. The situation is even more depressing when one realizes that some of the main press barons — Murdoch, Dacre and Black– are billionaires living abroad. One would not expect such men to have the interests of ordinary British people close to their hearts. They would rather support the party that would maximise their own profits. To quote the Labour election motto — they are the “few” not the “many.”

So election campaigns get me unsettled and worked up. They get me shouting at the telly! I fear that policies that will be bad for the country will be voted for. I am angry at the constant diet of simplistic propaganda inflaming, rather than informing, people’s opinions. I am depressed that so many people now seem to behave as self-centred individuals rather than as members of a caring society. As Mrs Thatcher notoriously asserted — “There is no such thing as society.” I think it is wrong that our society is increasingly controlled by people whose main aim is to make a profit. This has even infiltrated our schools with the Academy movement. It seems crazy to me that market forces rule human beings rather than vice versa.

So, all this is boiling up inside me but I cannot really talk about it. I discuss issues with my wife and I share views with similar-minded Facebook friends on social media, but in everyday life it would be considered awkward and embarrassing to try to enter into passionate political discussion with people. Most of us quietly go about our daily lives, keeping the peace and keeping up the social niceties. Then in the secrecy of the polling booths, we deliver our verdicts. This is when the great silent majority have their say. Only those in so-called marginal constituencies have any real influence on the election result. That’s another massive frustration! In the “first past the post” system, a party, like the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP can get substantial numbers of votes throughout the country but very few MPs elected to parliament. You don’t win power by getting a lot of close, creditable second places. I would like to see Proportional Representation coming in, so that every voter could have a significant say in the complexion of the subsequent parliament. This unfortunately was roundly rejected by the public in an earlier referendum, probably because many people don’t like change and the PR system was too complicated to fully understand. I hate referendums. They often ask for a simple answer to a complicated question which is an unsatisfactory way of going about things I think. It was interesting working as a poll clerk on the EU (“BREXIT”) referendum of June, 2016. Many people who came into the polling station asked “is this the election where every vote counts?” Just for once they felt empowered. However, this is not the case in a General Election in the UK. Conservatives voting in a safe Labour area, Labour supporters voting in a Tory stronghold or Greens, Liberal Democrats or UKIP people voting just about anywhere, are all effectively disenfranchised.

My area of  East Cleveland in north-east England has traditionally been a safe Labour stronghold. However, in these BREXIT times, many previously Labour voters have turned to UKIP as they want the UK to leave the European Union. Thus they have deserted Labour, and now that the Conservatives have reinvented themselves as an anti EU party and copied UKIP’s ideas, many might even vote Tory!  Thus my area has now become a marginal constituency. The Conservatives recently had their candidate chosen as Mayor of Tees Valley, which was a big shock in such a traditional Labour area. So maybe my Labour vote will actually be important this time, even though I fear I will be disappointed with the overall election result. Apologies for not mentioning Scotland or Northern Ireland by the way as I don’t know enough about the issues affecting these parts of the UK.

General Elections reveal to me that our democracy is largely a sham. Smaller parties don’t get much of a look- in even though they may have many supporters spread throughout the country. The parties that gain power are those with large clusters of support in certain areas rather than having an even spread, The media is mainly weighted on the right side of the political spectrum. Instead of real news, we are fed a constant diet of propaganda, false fears, and dubious promises. ( Mr Trump would call it fake news.) People retreat into entrenched political positions ( including me) instead of engaging in genuinely open and respectful debate. (in fact, the PM, Mrs May has arrogantly refused to take part in any televised debate.) In polite society people mostly avoid serious political discussion, because, like religion, politics is a conversational hot-potato. Yes, General Election time is a horrible time for me, especially as I realize in my heart of hearts, that my utopian dream of a: just, compassionate and peace-loving society will not be realised. As polling day gets closer, the feeling of dread and depression grows ever stronger inside me!

PEEPING OUT OF THE BUBBLE.

11 Apr

We all like to believe that it’s our own views and lifestyle that are “normal” and that it is those of others that are strange or extreme. We try to surround ourselves with like-minded people, read like-minded newspapers and books and largely watch TV programmes that bolster our view of the world. This results in people following a similar life-style to those they are close to. In other words, we create our own bubbles to live in, bubbles that protect us from those with: opposing views, contrasting life-styles, different priorities or conflicting attitudes. So it comes as a shock when we encounter someone or something that doesn’t conform to life inside our comfortable bubble. The most obvious example of this is when we have a General Election or a referendum. If the result goes against what we passionately believe in, then it pulls us up with a start. It’s a sickening realization. It’s a shock to find that many of the beliefs that one holds dear, are not shared or are actually rejected by many others. It’s a feeling of helplessness and even despair. It is as if one is living in the wrong world.

I have felt this emotion many times. I seem to specialise in being in a minority. For a start I’m left-handed, which I think is normal but others think is odd and feel free to comment on. On a more serious note, I am a life-long vegetarian in a country of rampant meat-eaters. How else can I explain the inexorable march of McDonalds, Burger Kings and KFCs? How else to explain the popularity of pub carveries or the stubborn clinging to the tradition of the Sunday joint? I try to ignore all this and imagine a world where everyone cares about other living creatures. In other words I conjure up a fantasy world that reflects my own views and moral stance, but every now and then I am confronted with the reality of people eating animals and so get shocked and upset all over again.

Next up is war. I am against war because of all the misery, destruction, injuries and deaths it leads to. This is why I have been a supporter of CND and the Peace Movement for many years. Yet I live in a country, the United Kingdom, that is very militaristic and is frequently involved in making war. In the Tony Blair years, the UK went to war 5 times in 6 years. ( Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq again). Since then we have got militarily involved in Libya and Syria. The UK is also one of the biggest exporters of lethal arms in the world. Currently,  the weapons it has sold to Saudi Arabia are being employed to kill and maim the people of Yemen. The peace movement has large numbers of course but is almost certainly out-numbered by those who support the military and acts of war. This usually includes our Government and Parliament. Many people have sons, husbands and other relatives in the armed forces, so naturally support the causes they are fighting for, even though this involves invading somebody else’s sovereign country and killing its people. British soldiers are now routinely described as “heroes” and it would lead to many an upsetting scene to argue otherwise. As much as possible, I converse with pacifists and shield myself from the horrible reality of my country pursuing war.

These are just a few examples, and I’m not even going to get started on the EU referendum of June, 2016, which has polarised the nation into Leavers or Remainers. Just for the record, I  voted “remain”, which put me in the minority camp yet again, even though the margin of the “Leave” victory was very narrow.

So, for much of my everyday life, I just sit inside my comfortable bubble, mixing with people who mostly agree with me. I do this to preserve my own sanity and to keep the peace. Being constantly at odds with others is not conducive to a calm and happy life. My friends and most of my family share the majority of my views. On social media I usually swap opinions with like- minded people. For example, the vast majority of my Facebook friends shared my shock and dismay at the “Leave” vote and posts generally back up this common viewpoint. But every now and again, someone pops up who has a different opinion and dares to express it. This can lead to quite heated online discussions which can quickly disintegrate into unpleasant slanging matches. This is when I get to peep at the world outside my bubble. I think this is a good thing. It’s not always comfortable but always valuable to encounter opposing views. The thing about Facebook “friends” is that they’re not always genuine friends. They can be: acquaintances, work colleagues, ex-work colleagues, friends of friends, people you have met on holiday etc. I think it’s a positive thing because it gives one the chance to encounter alternative views and attitudes to one’s own. For instance, I supported one friend ( a genuine, long-term friend), who challenged the idea of Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, being a man of the common people. He did this by posting a picture of Farage at a fox hunt, something one usually associates with the upper classes. So Nigel’s claims that UKIP campaigns for the “ordinary man” (and woman) seems to have been contradicted by his life-style. However, the  response my friend got was full of  seething anger, bitterness and resentment. Many claimed that Farage was a hero of the people because he had freed the UK from the evil clutches of Brussels and others grumbled at the fact that he had been ignored in the New Year Honours list. The anger and outright bile exhibited in those Facebook responses was pretty shocking to me as such views don’t exist inside my bubble. It gave me a salutary but enlightening glimpse into another version of the country I live in ( almost a parallel universe.)

The world of work provides another opportunity to peep outside the bubble. One can choose one’s friends but there is no choice about one’s work colleagues. It’s important to get along with them in order to do a better job as cooperative members of a team. It also makes for a more peaceful existence. Constantly clashing and arguing with colleagues at work would make life a misery. So most people keep quiet if their views don’t fit, unless it is a work issue which should be thrashed out in an orderly and respectful fashion. Thus, when I was a full- time school teacher, I debated educational issues with colleagues in staff meetings or working parties, but seldom got into arguments about war, politics, religion or the morality of eating animals. I have now retired from full time work, thank goodness, but still do occasional casual work at 2 local schools as an examination invigilator.  In between exams I often sit in the staffroom and listen to the “crack” which is invariably amusing and/or informative. These staff-room conversations give me a useful and interesting insight into the alternative worlds beyond my “bubble.”

Only last week I learnt the following things. Many people still believe in the Death Penalty and would vote to bring it back if there was a referendum. Some think the persistent discipline problem in schools and in society at large should be tackled by bringing back corporal punishment, or reintroducing “Boot Camps.” ( This is despite all the stories of child abuse and public school beatings that unfortunately frequent the news waves.) Michael Howard, the former Conservative Home Secretary, who liked to think he was being tough on crime, would have been very pleased. One person actually claimed that the rot had set in when “Childline” was launched. So the juvenile delinquency problem is all down to Esther Rantzen! Everyone was dead against a local community centre being converted into a refuge for asylum seekers. We don’t want them here because we’re Brexit, was the cry! No comment was the safest policy. On a more trivial note, I found out that some people go to have spray tans before a special event like a wedding. You are not allowed to wash for 24 hours and it lasts for 2 weeks. I said nothing of course but couldn’t help thinking that this is yet another example of the fraudulent society we are creating — fake news, fake identities on social media, fake musical tribute artists, fake looks following botox or plastic surgery. Compared to all that, a fake tan seems mild.

Finally we come to the great Yorkshire Pudding controversy. The conversation went from diets ( always a popular topic), to food in general, to Yorkshire puddings. I had these as a child but they haven’t featured in my diet for years except in the occasional pub lunch. Well, it seems that everyone who was in the staffroom at that time has a Yorkshire pudding every week  with the Sunday roast. One person puts vinegar into the mixture as her husband likes his Yorkshire crispy. Maybe, it’s because Cleveland, where I live, is part of the old North Yorkshire. I listened quietly but then was asked directly how I liked my Yorkshire. It’s not the usual question one gets asked in an educational establishment! I had to admit that I didn’t eat them and everyone’s jaws simultaneously dropped to the ground. They couldn’t believe it and thought I was joking. When asked “why?” — I answered: “Because they’re fattening.” This answer was met with a stony silence. I had obviously broken a sacred, social taboo. I had committed the sin of making judgement on other people. I would normally have kept my mouth shut but was put on the spot, and didn’t realize my honest answer would cause such a stir.

So it’s very comfortable to live in one’s own cosy world but fascinating to peep out of it. The lives of others are always interesting. When faced with a direct question, I will try to answer as straight-forwardly and honestly as possible. However the best policy is usually to keep mum. It’s the coward’s way out I know, but I don’t really want my life to be scarred by constant arguments and upsets. This probably contradicts what I said in an earlier blog, when I argued that it was preferable to be honest rather than just polite. Maybe, I’m mellowing in my old age. Peeping out of one’s bubble is interesting and fine, but  constantly bursting out of it is not recommended!

Encounters with Portugal.

12 Mar

Portugal– a small country at the western edge of Europe which hardly ever makes the news headlines, except for the tragic disappearance of the British toddler, Madeleine McCann. Yet this is the country whose explorers discovered a large chunk of the world. It’s a country that had a world empire well before the British, French or Dutch. It’s a fiercely Christian nation that used to be Muslim. Just in the 20th century, it murdered its king, became a republic, endured a long dictatorship, avoided both world wars, had a peaceful revolution and joined the European Community. I’ve just been to Portugal, my second visit. On both occasions I didn’t go to Portugal’s popular and picturesque south coast, the Algarve, although I believe it is lovely. Instead I opted  for cultural sightseeing in Lisbon and Porto and all points in between. Typical history and geography teacher’s stuff really. Here are a few of the things I saw and found out about.

THE VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY and the DAY WHEN MY DAD LOCKED MY SCHOOL BOOKS AWAY.

At Belem, a suburb of Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, is the striking Monument to the Discoveries. It is a huge white, waterfront edifice in the shape of a caravel, the ocean-going sailing ship developed by the Portuguese to explore  lands beyond Europe. On it are clustered famous Portuguese explorers, kings, poets and priests. It was built in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, who did more than most to make the famous Portuguese, 15th century voyages of discovery possible. He set up a maritime school in the Algarve which developed great advances in navigation, cartography and ship design.

Portuguese explorers in the second half of the 15th century, gradually sailed down the west coast of Africa, dispersing the fog of the unknown and opening up the world that we know today. It was from Belem that Bartholomew Diaz embarked when he became the first European to sail round the tip of South Africa. He changed its name from “Cape of Storms” to “Cape of Good Hope.” Then in 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed all the way round Africa and across the Indian Ocean to India. He thus opened up a cheaper route to the lucrative Spice Trade than the expensive and dangerous overland one, making Portugal extremely rich and turning it into a world power. Even before this, in 1494, the Pope had divided the world between Portugal and Spain. The Spanish had become wealthy and powerful following the discovery of the New World of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Yet, even here, there was a strong Portuguese connection. Columbus, an Italian from Genoa, was married to the daughter of a Portuguese sea-captain and learnt all his mariner’s skills and knowledge on the Algarve.

I know all this because as a young teenager, I became fascinated with the age of discovery which I learnt about in my history lessons at secondary school. It was probably this subject that ignited my life-long passion for History. One could argue that Portugal was responsible for my subsequent long career as a History and geography teacher. I got so obsessed that I spent hours and hours producing marathon home-works which ran well beyond 30 pages of writing, drawings and maps. My poor teacher, Mrs Todd, must have hated me as she had all that extra marking to do! My dad got very worried. Surely I should be out in the fresh air, playing football or hide and seek with the other “normal” kids? In fact, my father got so concerned that he locked my books up in a cabinet and ordered me out of the house! It didn’t work though because as soon as he left for work I took my books out again and continued my absorbing studies.

MANUELINE ARCHITECTURE. — an exercise in Royal showing off.

The Portuguese got extremely rich through their discoveries and the establishment of their Empire. The 15th and early 16th centuries are seen as Portugal’s “Golden Age.” They even cashed in on the discovery of the “New World” by colonising Brazil, the largest country in South America. This proved to be a fortuitous move for gold was later discovered in Brazil and brought yet more wealth pouring into the Portuguese coffers. The Royal family, the Catholic church and others spent vast sums of money on lavish palaces, churches and monasteries.( for some reason, monasteries are called convents in Portugal.) I doubt whether many ordinary people enjoyed the benefits of all this wealth. Basically, it was a huge showing- off operation with each king or noble trying to  outshine the others. For instance, Mafra, a small town near Lisbon, is dominated by an enormous monastery-palace built in the early 1700s by the extravagant King Dom Joao V to celebrate the birth of his son and heir. It began as a simple Franciscan monastery, but thanks to the vast mineral wealth pouring in from Brazil, it soon grew into a gargantuan palace with hundreds of monks employed to pray for the Royal souls. Some people regard the spending on Mafra as obscene. Still, all that extravagance has brought great dividends to the modern Portuguese tourist industry. Cultural tourists flock to see these spectacular, over-the-top edifices. I saw similar grandiose buildings at Belem ( the Jeronimos Monastery), Coimbra, Tomar and Batalha, to name just a few.

The most characteristic style of architecture in Portugal’s Golden era is the Manueline style. It gets its name from King Manuel I ( 1495-1521).( no connection with the waiter in Fawlty Towers.) He used much of the riches of the empire to build fantastic monuments of self-glorification. His successor favoured a more restrained, simpler style so the Manueline period was relatively short. As I said, this extravagant style of architecture is a great hit with the tourists of today. Manueline architecture was a late, Portuguese version of the Gothic style. It involves elaborately carved stone-work around doors, windows and arcades. It includes: mock vegetation, twisted ropes, knots and swirls, crosses and globes. Sometimes it seems impossible that such delicate ornamentation can have been carved out of actual stone. A lot of the carvings are symbolic, representing the king, the church or the empire. Coming face to face with it, Manueline architecture makes your jaw drop. Brought up on modern architecture full of clean lines, tourists are taken aback by the forest of fancy ornamentation. It’s all very over-the-top. At the Convento do Cristo at Tomar, we saw the most brilliant examples of the Manueline style. It decorates the chapel and the multiple, arcaded cloisters ( some of them 2 storied). The whole display comes to a head at the hard-to-believe Chapter House Window.( Janela do Capitulo.) The window is swathed in intricate stone carvings representing maritime and Imperial motifs. Our guide talked to us for a full 5 minutes to explain all the symbolism in front of us. We had to pinch ourselves to remember that this was only a mere window! It is a rich, extravagant early 16th century fantasy.

AZULEJOS — beautiful glazed tiles.

Today Portugal is a Christian country but, like its neighbour Spain, it used to be ruled by the Muslim Moors from  north Africa. Much of Portugal’s history is taken up with the Christian re-conquest, led by organisations like the Knights’ Templar.( whose HQ was at Tomar.) However, the Moors did leave a strong legacy especially in the south. The most obvious relics of the Moors are the lovely glazed tiles, that grace both public and private buildings, inside and out. They brought this skilled craft over in the eighth century. The Portuguese name for these beautiful, decorative tiles is “Azulejos.” Some are pictorial, some show repeated patterns. Many of these ceramic tiles are in pale blue and white, but others feature pale yellows, reds and greens. We saw them in medieval palaces, 15th and 16th century churches and cloisters and even in 19th and  20th century Town Halls, shops, houses and railway stations. The entrance hall of Porto’s suburban rail station is particularly spectacular. Tiles are particularly apt for hot countries because they are so cool. Of course  they are ubiquitous in the Arab countries of north Africa and the Middle East. Portugal’s legacy from its Arab past is particularly rich.

We saw lovely early 16th century geometric tiles in the Royal Palace in Sintra.( Palacio Nationale.) We saw a lot of religious imagery in the churches such as the Sao Roque in Lisbon’s upper town. These were usually in restrained pale colours. Later more colourful, extravagent panels were commissioned showing: battles, hunting scenes and fantastical images  influenced by the Voyages of Discovery. Sometimes a large panel would cover a whole wall like a vertical carpet. In the later 17th the blue and white Dutch style became very popular, often showing images of flowers and fruit. Tiles were seen as good insulators on the inside and solid protection from rain and fire on the outside. After the industrial revolution, mass produced tiles were used to decorate shops and factories. We saw numerous independent shops and cafes in Lisbon and Porto, all sporting attractive decoration involving azulejos. Now that I am back in Britain, the beautiful ceramic tiles of Portugal are certainly an abiding memory.

PORT WINE – White, Tawny and Ruby.

As a child I was brought up as a tee-totaller Methodist. However, even my strict, non-drinking parents made an exception for Christmas. We all enjoyed a glass of port wine. OK, it was adulterated with lemonade, but it still counted. I still remember its rich flavour and heavy texture. I think we all thought we were being rather daring and just for once, were letting ourselves go! (Ha! Ha!)

Years later, when I first visited Lisbon, my girlfriend and I made a special point of visiting the Port Wine Institute for a tasting. We were ushered into what looked like the entrance hall of a rather grand, old hotel. It was cool and shady compared to the dazzling, hot sunshine outside. The atmosphere was hushed and still. It was like stepping into another world. We sat at a table in a partitioned booth, and waited. In front of us was a menu. It was a list of different types of Port, some ruby red, some white and some tawny.( a cross between the two.) An old, uniformed waiter approached us for our order. The deal was that we could sample 6 different ports for a special, subsidised price. Not having a lot of spare cash, we carefully chose the cheapest options. However, everytime we selected a cheaper wine, the waiter gravely shook his head, saying it was not available. It was only when we got to the quite expensive ( for us) category that he finally nodded, and after a short wait, brought us our samples. We drank 3 rubies and 3 whites, carefully trying to savour the flavours and look like connoisseurs. I don’t think the waiter was fooled for a second. We soon became talkative and giggly as the wine took effect. In the end, our heads swimming, we parted with a too large sum of money and staggered out into the daylight. As soon as the bright sun hit us we realised how drunk we were. So we retreated to the quiet courtyard of a nearby old convent ( The Carmo) to rest and slowly sober up.

  Recently, I was lucky enough to visit Porto itself and went with my tour group for a tasting at a wine lodge on the banks of the Duoro. We were given a long but interesting talk about the special grapes, their growing conditions and the processes they go through to finally produce the port wines. The soils, cold winters and long hot summers of the Duoro valley provide ideal conditions for the vines to grow and prosper. It was all very scientific and I’ve forgotten most of the technical details. Apparently the British were very involved in the development of the industry, such that we have ended up with names such as :Sandeman, Graham’s, Cockburn and Taylor’s. Most of the lodges are on the Gaia side of the river Duoro, on the opposite bank to Porto itself. We had an interesting and pleasant tasting involving one ruby and one white. Someone acquired a sample of tawny wine which ended up being our favourite. It was lighter than the others and slipped down more easily. I suppose this preference just confirmed that we are philistines but after 3 ports, we didn’t really care. We had tasted port wine in Porto, the drink that shares its name with its country. When you’re a serious tourist you have to do these things! My Methodist background just faded into the past.

The European Union.

  Portugal voted to join the European Union in 1986, over 10 years after the British. Membership of the EU guaranteed political stability. It’s first attempt at democracy after the fall of the monarchy in the early 20th century, had resulted in massive political instability. There were a staggering 45 changes of government in only 16 years. This led to the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar who, being a skilled finance minister, at least brought some order to the country’s economy. However, ordinary people were denied human rights, no opposition was allowed and the press was heavily censured. It was a one-party dictatorship. The country became backward compared to much of Europe and the ordinary people suffered poverty. The dictatorship was overthrown when Salazar stepped down in 1970 due to illness and dementia. The colonies were given up after damaging wars and a so-called “Carnation-Revolution”in 1974, overthrew the old regime and restored democracy. ( The protesters put flowers in the barrels of the soldiers guns.) I remember visiting Estoril in the mid 1990’s and seeing the atmospheric, decaying, empty mansions of the rich. Their gardens were overgrown with weeds and the gates were secured with rusty pad-locks. It was like a scene from the Adams Family! These supporters and beneficiaries of the dictatorship had all fled to Brazil and abandoned their sumptuous homes, fearing for their safety.

 Joining the EU gave Portugal much needed international support and stability. Its infrastructure was badly neglected and European money was pumped in to build roads, bridges, railways and all the other necessities for a modern nation. We were told that if there was a referendum about EU membership in Portugal today, probably about 90 to 95% would vote to stay, as the benefits for the country had been so great. The Portuguese governments had also used the excuse of EU membership to bring in some important reforms. Some measures would have been initially unpopular and might have led to the fall of a government. However, using Europe as the reason for their introduction, helped to bring in some much needed changes that were to the long- term benefit of the country. Our recent tour guide Tomas ( half Portuguese, half German) told us much of this as we drove around on a cultural tour of his country. I don’t think anyone failed to spot the irony in the fact that he talking to British tourists whose country had just voted narrowly to actually leave the European Union in the Referendum of June, 2016. It highlighted the great difference that now divides the United Kingdom from Portugal. On the face of it these 2 nations have great similarities. Both are in western Europe, both are democracies, both are sea-faring nations, both had “golden eras” and world-wide empires, both lost their empires in the second half of the 20th century and have had to come to terms with their diminished status in the world. However, one nation sees its future firmly in Europe while the other has decided, for better or for worse, to go it alone.

I have enjoyed my visits to Portugal and will certainly go again. There are many things I have not mentioned of course as this blog is not intended as a comprehensive guide, but merely some fleeting impressions. Two last images spring to mind as I near the end of the piece — the wonderful mosaic pavements decorating many of the towns and cities we visited, and the delicious pastries in the numerous bakeries and cafes we visited, especially the Pasties de Belem, wonderful flaky custard tartlets, sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar. These were some of the many treats we experienced in Portugal. ( Do you think the Portuguese Tourist Board will give me a free holiday now?)

 

 

Wildlife Encounters– Costa Rican Style.

1 Feb

It was none other than Christopher Columbus who gave Costa Rica its name. Although he “pretended” to be an ambassador for Spain and a missionary, the explorer was primarily a treasure hunter. Thus when he saw some of the locals wearing fine gold and jade adornments, he thought he’s hit the jackpot! Columbus named his latest discovery Costa Rica, or Rich Coast. Unfortunately for him and his greed, the natives he saw were important chiefs and the dazzling jewellery they sported was obtained largely through trade. Columbus never made his fortune here but today Costa Rica is indeed rich, although not in gold or precious stones. It is rich in pristine tropical rain forests and has a huge diversity of wildlife for such a small country. In an age when other countries are recklessly destroying their valuable rain forests to sell the timber or clear the land for cash crop farming, the Costa Ricans have bucked the trend and have succeeded in saving much of their forests and the increasingly precious flora and fauna that inhabits them. This is why I ended up following in Columbus’s footsteps, attracted not by gold but by the chance to see exotic: animals, birds, trees and plants in their natural habitat. A nature loving friend went there a few years ago and came back raving about what he had seen. Once I had saved enough money, I was determined to go and see for myself the rich wildlife of Costa Rica.

A blow by blow account of the entire trip would be too boring, but instead, here are descriptions of just a couple of my Central American wildlife encounters.

Wildlife on the Beach — Manual Antonio, Costa Rica.

Our hotel was set in tropical gardens just off the ocean front of Manual Antonio, on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. Vibrantly coloured humming-birds darted around, collecting nectar from the flowers and every now and then a large iguana ambled across the lawn. It was just before the end of the rainy season and we had had a very wet night. Our first rain forest wildlife walk had been delayed until the weather decided to settle. It was just like being on holiday in Britain — sitting in a hotel room waiting for the rain to stop. Except of course, you don’t see humming birds or iguanas in Blackpool or Skegness. ( at least I’ve never spotted any!)

We sat on our little balcony and looked out towards the ocean. Wooded islands punctuated the middle distance and in the foreground, swaying palm trees fringed the sandy beach. Black vultures soared around and then landed in the tree tops, spreading their large wings to dry. Just across from our room, a man quickly shinned up a palm tree, using no ropes or special equipment. He hacked at a clump of coconuts until they dropped down to his waiting mates below. His climbing skill was amazing. Again, I suspect that this is not a regular occurrence in Britain. I remember Keith Richards falling out of a coconut tree but that was while he was on a World tour, not back in his homeland.

When we had arrived the day before we had taken a walk on the beach. It’s one of those magical places where the rain forest sweeps down to the sea. It’s a popular spot. We had just passed someone having a massage, when we noticed people pointing up to the top of a tree that had encroached on to the sand. We looked up and there was our first ever sighting of a sloth! This was one of the main reasons why we had decided to visit Central America — to see exotic wild-life. Once one has got over the excitement of spotting a sloth however, the actual “spectacle” can be something of an anti-climax. This is because the sloth rarely moves. It can spend up to 15 hours a day sleeping and when it does stir, is officially the world’s slowest animal. In fact the sloth is so sedentary that algae grows on its furry coat. Its greenish tint helps to camouflage the animal as it sits high up in the rain forest canopy.  Luckily, “our” sloth, one of the 3-toed variety, was in a small tree so we got to see it more clearly than usual. It was hanging from a branch and its head was half-turned towards us, revealing  big, soulful eyes and a shy smile. It may not be the most thrilling of mammals to watch but it is certainly one of the most endearing. People love animals that seem to have human characteristics. The sloth’s natural mouth position makes it appear to be smiling, so as far as most people are concerned, it’s a winner.

Manual Antonio is a popular spot for picnickers but those that do so, find that having an open-air meal is not the most relaxing of experiences. We watched a lady and her children enjoying a bite to eat at the edge of the forest when they were suddenly surrounded by a family of raccoons which had appeared out of the trees. The lady let out a scream as a racoon snatched one of her sandwiches. She quickly had to pack away all her food and make her escape. This, apparently, is a very common occurrence. Later, as we were nearing the end of our  walk, a whole troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys bounced on to the beach, causing quite a stir. They sped around on all fours , sporting lovely, curling prehensile tails. Some had cute little babies clinging to their backs. They had been attracted by fallen coconuts which afforded an easy feast. However, like the raccoons, these intelligent monkeys are not afraid to grab human food it it’s unguarded or on offer. We were told not to feed the monkeys as this increases dependency and can lead to more aggressive behaviour. Being surrounded by a whole horde of teeth-baring monkeys can be quite intimidating. However, for us, just watching the coconut- eating from a safe distance, proved to be a fascinating spectacle. It made this Costa Rican beach so very unusual and exciting compared to what we were accustomed to back home.

NIGHT WALK IN THE JUNGLE. (MONTEVERDE– The Green Mountain.)

We had driven north along the Pacific coast on the Pan American Highway of Costa Rica. At one point we stopped on a bridge across a wide river and when we looked down, saw at least 20 huge crocodiles basking on its banks. Then we turned inland and started to climb. We were heading for the Quaker established settlement of Monteverde, up in the spectacular cloud forests. American Quakers had migrated there in the 1960s, in order to escape the dreaded Vietnam draft. Costa Rica is a good place for conscientious objectors as it is a peaceful country and is the only one in its continent to have no standing army. They set up a successful community and were instrumental in preserving large reserves of rain forest and cloud forest in the surrounding area.  After an hour or so of climbing, the road turned into a narrow, twisting, unpaved track. It has been deliberately left unsurfaced to discourage mass tourism which could end up destroying the very things the visitors had come to see — pristine rain forests and exotic, increasingly rare wild-life.

The rain started to lash down relentlessly, and as we slowly ascended into the clouds, it seemed as if we were travelling to the very edge of the known world. At one point the road had almost disappeared following a landslip. Our minibus had to manoeuvre very gingerly around the diggers which were attempting to restore it. Any slight mistake and we would have plunged down a precipitous slope to our right. Mid-November should have been the start of the dry season, but an unseasonal hurricane was hitting the north Caribbean coast and all the weather systems had gone haywire.

So, it felt as if we very lucky when, the next morning, we woke up to a fine, hot ,sunny day in the beautiful cloud forests. Some hurried off to go zip-lining or horse riding, but we, acting our advanced age, chose the more sedate activities of visiting a butterfly garden, a hummingbird feeding station and a tropical frog pond. Later we also visited a fascinating orchid garden.  Many of the orchids were so tiny that they gave us magnifying glasses to view them. However, irrespective of their daytime choices, the whole group came together for what was to be the highlight of the visit: a night walk, deep into the cloud forest.

I’ve always been frightened of going into dark woods at night. We had a large wood near where I grew up. I loved playing in it during the day but avoided it like the plague after dusk. So, when I heard of the Night Walk in the Monteverde  Cloud Forest, I was at first filled with trepidation. What if I got detached from the group and was left, lost in a strange, tropical jungle? I had heard the rain forest at night while down at Manual Antonio. After dark it was a cacophony of sounds — the constant loud chirping of the cicadas, the croaking of the frogs, the growls of the howler monkeys and all the other strange and frightening hooting and screeching. We heard all this from a road that ran alongside the forest, but now we were deliberately going to walk into that pitch black unknown! The prospect was a bit nerve- shredding. The trouble is, I had read too many frightening books about the jungle when I was a child. The rain forest was painted as a place of menace and danger with poisonous spiders, fierce wild cats and huge snakes dangling down to bite you with their venom or squeeze you to death. Then in the rivers and streams were crocodiles and razor toothed piranhas which can strip a man of all his flesh in just a few seconds. Why would anyone voluntarily want to go there?

However, as this was probably a once in a lifetime experience, I conquered my fears and signed up to go. Of course, I was completely safe. We were issued with torches and followed an experienced guide along well trodden paths. So it wasn’t really recreating Tarzan and Jane. The real reason for going at night was because up to 80% of rain forest creatures are nocturnal. In other words they are mostly active at night. For many, this is because they are safer from their predators. But “safer” is a relative term, as many of the predators operate at night too, as we were to see.

Our little group of 7 plus a guide set off into the darkness. We stayed close together. There was no hanging back to take that extra photo on this trip. We trained our torches on the ground as we didn’t want to trip over obstacles such as rocks or low branches. The first creatures we spotted were a couple of tiny tree frogs, one green and one a golden-brown.  They sat totally motionless on large green leaves. Think of the cover of David Attenborough’s original “Life on Earth” and you will get the picture. We would never have seen them without the guide as they were so minute. They didn’t seem to be bothered by our torches. A powerful telescope was trained on them and we were all able to have a close-up look. The guide could even take a picture with his camera phone through the lens of the scope. The same applied to a sinister looking scorpion, sitting completely still on a tree trunk in the middle distance. When the light was shone on it, the scorpion glowed an eerie, luminous blue. We could clearly see its curly, sting-tipped tail. Also completely motionless were yellow and green vipers coiled around branches with their heads in the attack position, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting passing mouse or small bird. We were warned not to go too close so as not to disturb the reptile and not to stray into danger. We heard of one foolish tourist who had touched a poisonous snake to make it move in order to get a better picture. He got bitten for his troubles and had to be rushed to hospital to be given the anti-dote.

The walk had many highlights. A rustling in the tree tops revealed a feeding kinkajou — a sort of ferret w Iith a large prehensile tail acting as a fifth limb. It was as agile and lively as a monkey. A rustling in the undergrowth revealed what for me was the most exciting spot — an armadillo. The silver, linked, armour-like body made it look like a tiny knight returning from the Crusades. Both the armadillo and the kinkajou took me right back to my childhood when I saved the Brooke Bond tea cards. On one side was a coloured picture of the creature and on the other was the description of its appearance, habitat etc. My sister and I bought special albums to stick the cards in. I distinctly remember our albums of: Tropical Birds, Wild Animals of Africa and Wild-life of South America. Maybe the planting of that early seed in my brain was one of the prime reasons that had led me to the jungles of Latin America all those decades later.

The next highlight was seeing a large, female tarantula sitting menacingly at the mouth of her lair, halfway up a bank of earth. When the telescope was trained on her she looked enormous. I was mesmerised by it and must have looked at the frightening, magnified image at least 7 times. The tarantula had orange and brown striped hairy legs. I know it posed no danger to us but a chill still ran down my spine. Maybe I was thinking of the scene in Ian Fleming’s “Dr No” in which James Bond, on a mission in Jamaica, finds a large tarantula crawling up his body as he lay in bed. Fleming, who lived in Jamaica, which is not a million miles from Costa Rica, greatly exaggerated the danger posed by the spider for maximum dramatic effect. The sight of a real tarantula just a metre away from me was still a pretty chilling moment though.

The jungle night walk lasted for 2 hours but the time just flew by. We saw sleeping toucans with their spectacular bills tucked into their feathers. We saw endless columns of leaf cutter ants and when we switched off our torches, we were surrounded by the incandescent lights of glow-worms or fire-flies. We also saw sloths perched high up in the canopy. One was actually moving, painfully slowly, collecting leaves to eat. Apparently they stay up there most of the time and only come down to earth to defecate, about once a week.

It was a memorable and spectacular walk in my opinion. It encapsulated perfectly the reasons that I had so much wanted to visit Costa Rica. I think it’s important to see and appreciate wild animals, birds, reptiles and amphibians while they are still with us. Destruction of habitat is threatening so many species around the world, especially in sensitive areas such as the tropical rain forests. Zoos are fine for getting prolonged close ups of animals and also have praiseworthy breeding programmes for threatened species. However seeing a creature in an enclosure or a cage is nowhere near as satisfying as seeing it in the wild , in its natural habitat. Catching a glimpse of a feeding kinkajou or an ambling armadillo is a priceless, probably  once in a lifetime experience for me. One churlish reviewer on Trip Adviser expressed disappointment that he had only caught brief glimpses of the jungle creatures. He said that he would have been better off staying back at the hotel and getting a superior view on Google images! Just think, if I had read this review earlier, I could have saved a lot of money and watched a DVD or TV wildlife programme back at home. Come to think of it, I missed BBC’s “Life on Earth2” because I was foolish enough to go on holiday to Central America!  I’m just joking of course. I couldn’t disagree with that reviewer more. I think the live experience thrills much more than the canned, on-screen one. My wildlife experiences on Costas Rica’s beaches and in its rain forests have left me with a whole array of wonderful, indelible memories!

 

 

 

 

 

Real Travelling? ( Thoughts on a Mexican bus.)

8 Jan

I’m sitting on a long distance coach in southern Mexico. It’s an 8 hour journey from Palanque to San Cristobel de Las Casas. There are 2 drivers working in shifts. The coach may stop at some point for a leg-stretch and a toilet opportunity( we all have our 5 peso coins at the ready.) On the other hand we may not stop, so we’ll have to cross our legs and stick it out. It seems to depend on the whim of the driver. I am in a small group of travellers and at least half of us have dodgy tummies. In this part of the world they call it “Montezuma’s revenge”! There is a toilet at the back of the coach but we are not encouraged to use it because of the smells.

Every now and then we slow to a near standstill because of major road-works. Sometimes it seems as if the diggers have only scraped the road into being just before we arrived! Periodically, we stop at toll-booths or get stuck in jams as we slowly grind our way through an unknown town or city. Some passengers try to doze or read but are constantly disturbed by the on-board “entertainment” — a second-rate Hollywood blockbuster badly dubbed into Spanish. Why am I telling you all this? Well, my question is: ” Is this real travelling?” Elsewhere in southern Mexico, holiday-makers are sunning themselves on the beaches of Cancun, flopping by their hotel pools or wallowing in jacuzzis. Many have flown huge distances to be there. Are they “real” travellers too?

This debate first started in my head when I heard someone describing a planned overland journey from Italy to Serbia by road and rail. It sounded like a really interesting and exciting thing to do and I was quietly envious. But then I was informed that this wasn’t “real travelling.” When I enquired what was, the answer was: roughing it in the back of a lorry crossing Ethiopia or some other remote area of east Africa. It seems that the journey from Milan to Belgrade was :too comfortable,  too predictable and too safe to be considered as “real travelling.” Maybe to be thought of as “real” by the seasoned traveller, a journey has to have elements of: risk, unpredictability or even danger. These are the ingredients designed to give one a real “buzz”. It’s when the adrenaline really starts to flow. Maybe this is why for some, travel is so addictive. It is a form of tourism but with a real edge to it. Unlike the everyday vacationer, the intrepid traveller does not seek out comfort, safety and relaxation. It is just the opposite that is the name of the game. In his book” The Great Patagonian Express”, Paul Theroux writes: ” Travel is not a vacation, and it is often the opposite of a rest.” He goes on: ” I craved a little risk, some danger, an untoward event, a vivid discomfort.” He even courted loneliness in order to achieve these aims.

I sense that there is a sort of travelling hierarchy in play here. The term “real” suggests that some forms of travel are not genuine and therefore are less valuable experiences.. These “lesser” travellers are given labels such as “tourists” or “holiday-makers.” Maybe we should not be judging travel experiences as “real” or “not real”, but should just acknowledge that they are “different.”

Travel for some is a kind of religion. They talk of having gap-years or career- breaks in order to go travelling. They congregate in hostels, bars and cafes, and swap travel stories. They ask questions such as “How long have you been on the road?”, “Where have you been?” and “Where are you going next?” For them, it seems as if it’s the journey that is more important than the actual destination. The implication is that this is not just a physical journey across time and space, but a journey of personal development. It is often said that travel broadens the mind. It helps one to escape the confines of everyday life. I agree with that. It’s why I look forward to my trips so much. However is there such a thing as a hierarchy of travel, or putting it less judgementally – can travel and travellers be categorised into distinct types?

Serious travellers live out of back-packs, endlessly journeying for months on end, visiting town after town, country after country. Some of the people we met in Central America were amazed that we were only visiting Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Why weren’t we going on into Panama and then the countries of South America? These long-term travellers are always restlessly moving on, travelling but never arriving. The journey’s the thing, not the destination.

The next category I suggest is the “ordinary” traveller, for want of a better description. For this person, travel is more of a hobby rather than a full-time occupation ( or obsession!) This person makes a journey, even quite a long one, but once he/she gets to the destination, tends to stay in that vicinity, exploring places of interest within striking distance of their base. The ordinary traveller is more likely to use a suitcase rather than a back-pack and only usually has to unpack it once. This person is often interested in the culture and history of the place being visited and is open to new experiences. He or she may well go to quite an exotic destination and suffer a mild bout of “culture shock.”  However, this type of traveller’s trip has definite parameters in terms of both time and distance. The journey has to be tightly organised and packaged to a certain extent because the traveller has only a limited amount of time and has to return, sooner rather than later to: work, family, the post, bills and all those other things that stabilise and ground many of our lives. I think for this type of “traveller”, it’s the destination that lures them to leave home rather than the journey.

To answer my own question, I think I am more of a “traveller” than a so-called “real traveller” I have only gone on 3 really long journeys in my entire life and all have been embarked upon in the luxury of my retirement years. This central American odyssey is one of them. Before, I was too busy working and raising a family to contemplate anything too ambitious or expensive. I had “staycations” in Britain or ventured on short trips into western Europe. On this trip I told a few stories about my youth-hostelling days in the English Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. ” Did you go back-packing when you were younger?” asked a young Aussie in our group. The answer had to be “no” because I always had to get back to work on Monday morning. Thus, although I travelled around on these trips, I couldn’t be regarded as a “real” traveller. They wouldn’t have been able to make much of a road movie out of my rambling weekends or music festival trips. I had to make my precious time count and didn’t have the luxury of being perpetually “on the road.” After-all, my name is Stuart Bates, not Jack Kerouac!

Our coach has slowed to negotiate a series of bumps that announce the arrival of a village. Street sellers laden with oranges and bananas move amongst the slow moving traffic trying to sell their wares. An old man sits under the shade of his little, improvised stall, his table stacked with pineapples. People walk around under umbrellas because the sun is so hot and high above. Others have a snack in a tacos restaurant. Another old man trundles slowly by on a sort of cycle-rickshaw. I’m surprised because this is rural Mexico not China or south-east Asia. We are on the coast and just out at sea I watch brown pelicans dive-bombing into the water to catch fish. Yesterday, we saw toucans and howler monkeys in the jungle and visited an ancient Mayan temple complex. Now, we are passing fields of swaying sugar cane. My leg itches and I look down at 3 red insect bites on my right foot and leg. Repellant is as essential as sun-cream on this trip. Is this “real travelling”? Maybe it is — I don’t know.

My final category of traveller is the humble and much derided tourist. In a sense, all people visiting places away from their own homes are tourists. They are on tour. They are so obviously different from the local inhabitants. However, for some tourists, the main attractions of visiting a different place are the hotter, sunnier climate and the chance to have a rest. They simply fly and flop. Their interactions with the locals involve mainly hotel and restaurant staff and the owners of souvenir shops in the resort. They primarily only meet local people who provide them with services and goods that make their holidays smooth and comfortable. In one sense, this can be seen as a sort of “Downton Abbey” scenario with the rich tourists playing the part of the aristocrats and the poorer locals being cast as the servants. It can be an unequal relationship based on the disparities of wealth, especially when people from the so-called “Developed world” visit a “Developing Country”. On the other hand, one could argue it’s a “win- win” situation. The tourists get an enjoyable, relaxing holiday, while the local people earn much appreciated cash and are provided with employment.

The question remains though –Is this type of tourism “real” travel? It depends on what one means by “real.” If one’s definition involves getting to know the country that one has travelled to, then this type of more sedentary traveller might not qualify. Is lying on a beach in Cancun learning about the real Mexico? Is visiting the expensive shopping malls of Dubai, enhancing one’s knowledge of Arab culture or of Bedouin lifestyle? The answer is probably “no”. Mass tourism with universal entertainment and international cuisine does not encourage an appreciation or understanding of local culture. However, hardworking people deserve rest and recreation, and are obviously free to spend their money as they wish. I may not categorise them as real travellers but I don’t suppose they give a fig for what I think. After-all, I myself am not a real traveller. I spend much more  time at home than on the road or up in the air.

We are now driving up into the spectacular mountains near the Mexican-Guatemalan border. My ears have just popped. We have been journeying for 7 hours with just one twenty minute break. The drivers decided to have a quick snack at a roadside café. Most of the passengers are asleep after eating too much pop corn to keep their stomachs happy. A young Liam Neeson is incongruously speaking Spanish on the coach video. It is nearly Christmas but nearly 30 degrees outside in the late afternoon. Is this “real travel”? Who knows and who cares anyway?

 

Now I Know the Way to San Jose.

26 Dec

As Chris and I set off on our recent travels, I could barely contain my excitement! We were journeying by taxis, trains and planes to San Jose! Ever since the classic Dionne Warwick hit; “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” in 1968, I had dreamed of visiting that magical sounding place. Penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the song tells of someone desperately wanting to escape the Hollywood rat race, where people seek fame and fortune on screen but often fail. They end up as gas pump attendants or in other menial jobs, thinking sadly of what might have been. The singer yearns to get away “to find some peace of mind” in San Jose, apparently her home town. So now, unbelievably, we too were going to San Jose. It would be a dream come true. It would be almost as thrilling as meeting the girl from Ipenema!

Our journey however, didn’t involve slipping on to the L A freeway and gliding off into the Californian sunset. It would involve catching crowded trains from N E England to London, chugging west on the interminable Piccadilly tube line to Heathrow, staying at an airport hotel and then flying across the Atlantic early next morning. We would then change planes in New York, an exciting event in itself, before flying on to our legendary destination. We would at last be following in the famous footsteps of Dionne, Hal and Burt.

That was our dream, but now, sit tight and I’ll tell you about the reality. The journey began on a small branch line with our train grinding its way through industrial Teesside. ( We live in a lovely seaside resort, but the industry is not far inland.) Finally we reached the delights of Darlington, the nearest station on the East Coast mainline. The express train arrived to whisk us down to the capital on this British leg of our exciting journey. To our surprise we were greeted by a large contingent of transport police! They seemed to be guarding the train from some terrible threat. We hadn’t heard of any terrorist alert so were completely bemused as we stored our luggage and sank into our seats. All the other passengers seemed to be quite relaxed so it couldn’t have been anything too scary.

Then we heard it — the loud, raucous singing of a large group of inebriated Scotsmen. They made a mockery of the concept of the “Quiet Coach.” The penny suddenly dropped. It was the weekend of the England vs Scotland World Cup football match at Wembley. The train was travelling from Edinburgh to London. The good humoured singing and chanting continued all the way south. We were quite safe but unable to use the toilet as it was permanently being occupied by an unending queue of kilted revellers. One wag in our coach commented that this was an interesting experiment in recycling, as the Scots fans were draining cans of beer as they waited to relieve themselves! It made for an interesting journey south. At Kings Cross we were treated to a spectacle of: hairy legs, bulging tattoos, swaying kilts and jaunty, tartan hats. Emblazoned on the backs of their dark blue football tops were the names of legendary Scottish footballers — Dalgleish, McLeish, Strachan. The echoing vaults of King Cross station resounded with the songs and chants of the eternally optimistic Scottish fans. Sadly, their beloved team got hammered 3-0 by England at Wembley, the next day.

By then we were up in the air, having survived the soulless automation of Heathrow Terminal 2. Instead of meeting a real person we were confronted by a row of machines. Presumably, many of the real employees have sadly been made redundant. It reminded me of the supermarkets back home where machines are rapidly replacing people. We now had to scan our passports, print our own boarding passes, print our own labels and attach them to our luggage by following the on- screen instructions. I quickly re-entered “grumpy old man” territory. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be getting a part-time job at an airport! We eventually made it through to our United Airlines plane which proceeded to sit on the tarmac for an hour and a half because some paperwork hadn’t been done properly. Finally we launched ourselves up into the sky and damp, grey Britain soon disappeared beneath the clouds. We were on our way to the blue skies and constant sunshine of San Jose. Once again  60’s tune and Dionne’s beautiful, velvety voice played in my head. ( I didn’t need head-phones.)

The journey to New York took 7 hours or so. I lost count. They tell you to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. This is nothing but a joke because basically we are stuck in a droning metal tube, squashed into seats with little leg-room. Attendants bring drinks and an excuse of a meal. Fellow passengers retreat into their head-phones. Chris tried to nod off, drifting in and out of sleep. I read my book for a while but got distracted by the movies being played on people’s laptops. I only saw the pictures as I wasn’t plugged in to the soundtrack. I was treated to the Ninja Turtles rescuing New York from a ridiculous looking monster. It was a clichéd blur of: fights, car chases, explosions and other daring exploits while hanging off skyscrapers or helicopters. This was mixed in with the adjoining person’s dated rom-com about 2 couples going to a tropical island holiday camp. It was the usual mix of: misunderstandings, flirtations, jealousies, confrontations and reconciliations. The break-ups and the make-ups were all laced with clumsy, slapstick comedy.

I drifted off for a while, then decided to check where we were on my back-of-seat screen. I studied a route map charting the plane’s progress. To my surprise and excitement the map showed we were just skirting the south-east corner of Greenland! The nearest town, hundreds of miles away was Nuuk ( or Godthab.) Now there’s a destination! I’ve never been to and never seen Greenland. So, trembling with anticipation, I leaned toward the window and looked out. And there it was  — Greenland, its rows and rows of snowy mountains glistening in the bright sunlight. Miraculously, the clouds had parted to reveal this magical, other-worldly sight. We were 1855 miles from London, flying over the North Atlantic Ocean and I was looking at Greenland! Suddenly every penny of the airfare was worth it.

I gazed at the myriad of mountain peaks, fjords and islands. The sea surrounding them was dark blue and very still. No breakers washed up on the shore. It was a completely empty, pristine landscape, seemingly untouched by man. There were no buildings, no roads, no people. The sea was devoid of ships. There was no vegetation either belying the island’s name. As far as the eye could see stretched long ranges of jutting, snow-capped mountains, fringed by the dark, still sea. I imagined being down there, alone and isolated. The hairs stood up a little on the back of my neck with the thought of it, a combination of excitement and fear. Wasn’t there a William Golding book about a man stuck on a rock in the middle of the ocean? “Pincher Martin” it’s called. Maybe I should read it. It was difficult to imagine an existence stripped of all the multiple technologies of the modern world. Imagine– no TV, no radio, no phone, no roads, no Internet! In reality, I wouldn’t have lasted more than a few hours in Greenland, what with the cold, the isolation and probably: the polar bears. However, looking down at this empty, beautiful, almost surreal scene far below, made me feel strangely calm and content. Slowly the islands and the mountains receded into the unfathomable distance. As we flew towards Labrador, the curtain of clouds returned. If I was being corny, I would say it was all like a dream!

We were now on our run-into New York City, crossing Canada and then New England. New York is another place I’ve never visited, but always wanted to. As we approached I could see nothing but cloud. By now I had forgotten all about the Ninja Turtles and the antics of the rom-commers. I kept looking out of the airplane window. As we descended towards Newark New York airport, another minor miracle occurred. We passed through the clouds and there were the clustered sky-scrapers of Manhattan, spread out below us. This was the second most thrilling moment of the journey because, as I’ve explained, I’m a New York virgin.

I had expected to be gob-smacked by the sheer, soaring size of the buildings, but to be honest, from up in the air, they looked like toy-town. At first I wasn’t even sure whether this was central Manhattan, until I spotted a small island in the bay with the instantly recognisable statue of a lady in flowing robes thrusting her hand up into the sky. We were too high up to distinguish the Statue of Liberty’s famous flaming torch. The sight of this huge statue was the welcome that millions of  poor migrants got in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After their difficult, dangerous sea passage from Europe, Liberty summarised all the hopes and dreams of a better life in the New World. Like the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal, the Statue of Liberty is something that every serious tourist yearns to see and tick off their “bucket list.” Now we’d seen it and it was definitely one of the highlights on our way to San Jose.

With the terrible threat of terrorism stalking the world, America gives a very suspicious, even paranoid welcome to its visitors. The passport queues are long and tiresome as each arrival is interrogated at length. The security checks are extremely thorough and the officers often brusque and rude as they bark out their orders without a “please” or a “thank-you” in sight. Sniffer dogs check your hand-luggage, presumably looking for drugs or explosives. But New York was not as bad as Houston, Texas on the way back, where we had to endure whole body scans and being shouted at for not carrying out an order immediately. It was all very intimidating, especially as we were merely tired travellers and not terrorists.

After another wait, we finally boarded our early evening flight to San Jose. We flew across the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan’s scrapers once more, and then New York disappeared. At last we were on our way to San Jose!

But now I must come clean. We had known all along that we weren’t travelling to the  idyllic-sounding Californian city made famous by Dionne Warwick’s hit song. That city, north of San Francisco, is now known as the “Capital of Silicon Valley.” Thus thousands of people have made their way to San Jose since the song was written in those far-away, pre-internet days. It doesn’t sound such a lovely or restful place anymore. Would I have really wanted to go there , only to be thoroughly disillusioned? The reality would probably have shattered my long-held, romantic dream.

No– we were actually travelling to the capital of Costa Rica, a tiny country in Central America. It’s chief city is also called San Jose. The Spanish conquistadores must have loved their saints as they murdered their way around the New World — San Francisco, San Diego, San Pedro, San Salvador, San Jose. They were named after favourite saints and Saint Joseph( or Josephine), must have been more popular than most.

We weren’t flying to Dionne’s “Mecca”, but were travelling to the Costa Rican capital to begin an exotic, wildlife spotting tour. We would be visiting rain forests, cloud forests, mountains, lakes and coast. We arrived at the Costa Rican San Jose after dark. We were exhausted and ready for journey’s end. Only one more passport queue and one final security scan and we were in. The hotel had sent a taxi to collect us. There was  just time to change some Dollars into local currency (Colones) and help an old, confused American lady who had lost both her luggage and her tour group. We drove into the city. a mish-mash of old and new dominated by traffic. It wasn’t exactly the kind of place to find “some peace of mind.” When we walked out into it the next morning we found a lively town full of street sellers shouting out their  wares in the local version of Spanish. We saw numerous people selling colourful-looking lottery tickets and street entertainers such as xylophone bands and contortionists. It wasn’t the idyll that Dionne had sung wistfully about 50 years ago. It wasn’t even the right San Jose! But it was the beginning of a fascinating and memorable Central American adventure!