Four Days without Reggaeton

‘You want taxi, my friend? No? What, you no want talk to me? Why you travel if you no want talk to people? You all the same, you think you are better than us, but you are wrong. We are better than you.’

Welcome back to Morocco, I suppose.

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Goodbye Tarifa!

There’s something endlessly enchanting about waking up in a new country. It breaks up the monotony of the everyday. It sends gears spinning that had until recently been lying dormant. It also comes with a change in breakfast too, which is never a bad thing.

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Bang in the centre of the medina and all you can eat for 10 euros a night…

On one of those fantastically last-minute whim decisions which I have been known to make , I decided to take up the offer of two of my English department colleagues to spend the puente de Mayo in Morocco. Four days isn’t nearly enough to enjoy Morocco – each town deserves a full day and night’s exploration to even begin to get a taste of the area – but when it’s so close that you can see the cars from the other side of the sea, it’s impossible not to feel the tug of the south. I’m not very good at saying no to anything, but when it comes to adventure, I find it exceedingly difficult to say no. So here I am, on the 12 o’clock bus to Chefchouen, saying yes – and loving every second of it.

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Getting Bourne Ultimatum vibes…

The last time I was in an Arab country was Jordan. Let’s not go over that again. Jordan’s going to be a bug-bear of mine for a very long time. It’s a name which carries greater fear for me than Syria, Korea and the Democratic Republic of Congo ever could. It wasn’t so much the country as it was the fact that I simply didn’t want to be there. Backed into a corner as I was with my commitments to the British Council, I wasn’t given a choice. And in that frame of mind, as always, I was defeated before ever I got on the plane. It wasn’t in my interest… And as my parents will know only too well, if something is not in my interest, the chance of me doing well is next to zero.

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The Rif: b-e-a-utiful

Not so Morocco. Maybe it’s the green hills and the icy rivers flowing down from the mountains and into the sea. Maybe it’s the jaw-dropping kasbahs of the desert south or the quiet, homely feel of the melting-pot medinas of the north. Maybe it’s even the simple fact that this is Africa. But I think that the real reason I have so much love for this country is because I want to be here. It’s a minor difference, but it changes everything.

Waking up with the dawn chorus in the middle of a city sounds ridiculous, especially when there’s a complimentary alarm service courtesy of the mosques at four in the morning, but in Tangier it’s easily done, and the soundscape is just as fantastic a mix as the city itself. There’s the warbling calls of flocks of roving bulbuls, that ever-present feature of Arab towns; on top of that you’ve got a chorus of roosters crowing at the dawn, interspersed with the occasional bubbling note of a laughing dove, two quintessentially African sounds; and then there’s the aggressive cackle of the gulls, which smacks more of Europe than anywhere else. Even the repetitive wi-tu wii-twii-tu wii-twii-tu of the house buntings echoes the sales pitch of the taxi driver, yelling the name of his destination over and over as though it were an object to be bought or sold.

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Spot the six species of bird in this picture (better still, imagine them)

And that’s just the naturalist in me. The linguist side of me is in his element: this is a place where I could be using all four of my languages – English, French, Spanish and Arabic – at any given moment. Across Morocco, but especially in Tangier. It’s like something out of a dream, and we haven’t even got to Chefchaouen yet.

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Tangier’s Kasbah is actually a lot more impressive than it is made out to be

But for a less-than-welcoming start thanks to a jilted taxi tout lying in wait at the dock entrance, it’s been so good to be back. And as I’m the only Arabist in tow, this time it’s up to me alone to do the talking – and that’s a huge plus right off the bat. I hope there may soon come a time when it’s safe enough to study Arabic anywhere, from Western Sahara to the Sudan, from Yemen to Iraq; to excel, I need to be on my own. And that’s what this year has been all about. I’ve learned from my mistakes in Jordan. Moroccan Arabic won’t be any easier than Jordanian, if not harder, but I’m going to tackle it head-on and alone – and better still, in a willing state of mind. I can’t wait. BB x

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Holy Gridlock, Batman!

I remember saying a couple of days ago that I was going to take it easy and travel less this year, beginning with Semana Santa. Predictably, that failed almost as soon as the words left my mouth. I’m now sitting at ease on the balcony of a cute little hostel in Córdoba, having spent the last four days traveling in a large triangle around Andalucía, from Matalascañas to the Great Mosque. It’s the Easter equivalent of last term’s ‘square puente’ to Lisbon, Aveiro and Salamanca. Only this time, I’m not alone, and it’s been a barrel of laughs from start to finish.

I’ve told you about El Rocío. Let’s start with Seville. Seville is one of those cities that I’ve always thought rather overrated. It’s the Spanish equivalent of Frozen; people come back from it raving about what they’ve seen to such an extent that by the time you get around to going to see it yourself, it’s difficult not to be disappointed. Unlike Frozen, however, it’s worth digging in and opening your eyes a little.

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No, I’m not the biggest fan of Frozen. Something to do with Elsa’s dumbstruck ‘of course, love!’ remark, as though love were entirely alien to a Disney film and its target audience… and let’s not forget that ubiquitous Let it Go.

I’m sidetracking. As usual. I’ve been very blasé about Seville all year, using it largely as a transit between Villafranca and other southern destinations – mainly Olvera – and never visiting the city for its own sake. Mistake. If you can find a place to stay for the night in Seville, do. Especially in Semana Santa. Having the freedom to see the city by night as well as by day is a treat not to be overlooked.

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In my current adventures I’m joined once again by fellow traveler/blogger Brocklesby, spending half of her Easter holidays down south. Traveling with a companion can be infinitely more entertaining than going solo, especially when you’re both new to the place, but it’s been super-helpful acting as a kind of lemming-guide. I’m something of an old hand with Sevilla and Córdoba, having spent about a month apiece in each of them when you add up the days, so – with the fifty-fifty assistance of the Arch Deceiver aka HERE Maps – I’ve been acting as a guide. It’s a lot of fun to introduce somebody to all of your favourite spots, as well as the main sights, but best of all you get to try things out that you never quite found the gumption to do alone, like this museum or that ice cream parlour. It’s a blast and I should travel in twos or threes more often.

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Travelers to Seville in Semana Santa should be warned: bring a compass, a map and/or plenty of patience. Navigation is made almost impossible by the processions. In most of the smaller towns, these are usually nocturnal affairs of some eighty metres in length that take five or six minutes to pass, and good seats can be had by simply racing ahead by several streets and waiting by the side of the street.

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Not in Seville. Not only is everyone in town in on the secret, so is the tourist population, both of which are immense. On top that, the processions themselves are enormous, trailing as many as three streets at a time and taking all of an hour and more to pass – and there can be as many as six happening simultaneously across town.

Understandably, this turns something as simple as crossing a street into a labour of Heracles. It’s a circumstance where shortcuts really do make long delays, and itinerant penitants and busy streets make the heart sink. I distinctly remember saying that ‘if you see Jesus, you’re screwed’; blasphemous, perhaps, but in accurate reference to the fact that the float bearing Jesus is almost always followed by the Virgin Mary some thirty minutes later, meaning that Jesus marks the very epicentre of the gridlock. Thanks Jesus.

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That being said, it’s something you have to watch at least once. And whilst it may not be all that much fun to watch the tips of the penitents’ colored hoods sailing by over the heads of a pushy multitude, if you can get yourself to the front, it’s surely one of the human wonders of the world to behold.

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I’m not a pushy person. I think I’m too English. So it would take a miracle to get me to the front of the queue. But God, or Fate – or an unusually benevolent Murphy – had other plans tonight. Having said that it would be ironic if we ended up walking down a street and coming face to face with a procession headed in our direction, that is exactly what happened, and with the grand finale, no less. We tried to duck out of the way through a gap in the multitude, but the Guardia closed it off and shoved us unceremoniously back into the crowd – which put us, quite by accident, right at the front. It suited us just fine, but it must have bothered those who’d been there long before us something awful.

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It might not have been as soul-stirring as the Olvera madrugada procession – which goes on all through the night and involves no small amount of mountain-climbing – but it was a genuine privilege to behold from such a premier position.

I’ll be back next year. Most certainly. A lot of Spaniards claim to be rather impassive on the subject of Semana Santa, but their dogged adherence to an age-old tradition far more authentic than any search for chocolate eggs says otherwise. I, like Hemingway and Irving before me, am yet another foreigner hopelessly entranced by the magic of it all; only, I’ve at least a quarter of Spanish blood in me, so I’m not a total stranger. I’d like to think that counts for something. BB x

Winter in Madrid

I’m spent. Completely and utterly spent, in heart and body and mind. Ready to drop to my knees and sleep for a thousand years like some twenty-first century Rip van Winkle. I’m back in Spain, I’m back home, and I’m back in bed, and if it weren’t for the sake of this blog, I’d be fast asleep by now. But that can wait.

I’ve dropped enough hints over the last few months for you to guess what I’ve been up to. I’m back from three days in Madrid with my dear friend Ali, who has stuck with me through thick and thin over the last few months and been a most valiant and enduring friend, putting up with more of my less-than-perfect Spanish than she deserves. As a way of saying thank you, and as a birthday present, I took her to the capital (a long-term dream of hers) to see El Rey León, or The Lion King (a long-term dream of mine). And since Madrid’s a long way from both of us, we decided to make a weekend of it.

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First things first, The Lion King. Oh. My. God. Words fail me. I’m normally fairly speechless when I leave a theatre or cinema, but Friday night’s performance had me tongue-tied for a record half an hour. It being almost entirely in Spanish – but for the Zulu and Xhosa lyrics – had absolutely no effect on the impact whatsoever. Shadowland and He Lives in You had me welling up like a new father and it’s nothing short of a miracle that I didn’t lose all control and burst into tears completely. There’s even a few fitting modifications to the Spanish version that make it – dare I say it – even better than the original in places. Timon in especial, and he’s not normally one of my favourites, was pure gold in Spanish, and a lot of the puns translate brilliantly. I know, I know, I’m late to the party as ever, but I’ll recklessly advertise it to you as its been advertised to me. You’ll simply have to see it for yourself if you haven’t already. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, and with seats on the first row of the platform, it could hardly have been better.

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There’s so much to see and do in Madrid – too much for a single day’s sightseeing – but we made good of the following day, taking in the Palacio Real, the Egyptian Temple of Dagón, the gorgeous Parque del Retiro with its street musicians and its Crystal Palace and, last of all, the Prado, home to some of my all-time favourite works of art, like Velazquez’s study of the Conde-Duque de Olivares and Goya’s Maja Vestida and Maja Desnuda, as well as the über-famous Las Meninas. If photos were allowed in the Prado, I’d have gone berserk. Naturally, they’re not. So you’ll have to look them up. We were herded out with the rest by the guards before we had the chance to find the equally famous Dos de Mayo, which is a shame, but that’s what you get for being thrifty and waiting until the 6pm free entry, giving you, and everyone else who’s in on the secret – which seems to be most of Madrid – just under two hours to appreciate it all. Fear not, Goya. I’ll be back.

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This weekend has also done one system a world of good, and that’s the thrifty-gifty BlaBlaCar operation that so screwed me over in December (or maybe it was me that screwed up…?). Getting to and from Madrid from our respective backwater neck-o’-the-woods could hardly have been easier, faster and more enjoyable. This year I will try to use it much more often, if not all the time. It requires a little bravery and certainly more social skills than simply hopping on a bus, of course, but I do believe I’m getting there. Consider me, then, a willing convert. And if you’re reading this, Mr Oulad Berhil taxi driver, you could learn a lot from BlaBlaCar. It’s all about the conversation, at the end of the day, and these can be worth their weight in gold, though it’s mere pennies you’re paying. Truly.

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Post script. Madrid is a capital city. By all rights, it should have scared the living day lights out of me. But with Ali by my side, it didn’t occur to me even for a second. I’d even go so far as to say that it was one of the best adventures yet. A lot of auxiliares living and working here use Spain as a launch-pad to other European destinations, but I maintain that there’s enough to do here to last you not just a year, but a lifetime. Oh Spain, how cruelly you play with my heart…

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Well, I guess it’s finally time to pack up the festivities, dust off the schoolbooks and get back to work. I’m none too keen to do so, but at the same time I really need to. The wind is howling outside and winter, it seems, has finally arrived. And long has it been in coming. BB x

The Many Faces of Lisbon

For a city that’s only a few hundred miles from the Spanish border, Lisbon and its environs could hardly be less Spanish. I guess I naively went in expecting Portugal to be no more different from Spain than, say, Germany is to Austria, or England to Ireland. Once again, yours truly demonstrates his supreme capacity for some Langton-style bullshitting.

This is a very last-minute holiday, even by my standards. Bus tickets bought, hostels booked and maps drawn less than twenty four hours before departure. And this time I don’t even speak the language. Either I’m getting more confident or more careless. So far, so good, so I’ll assume the former.

Lisbon is really quite something. As capital cities go, it’s a treasure. It’s not too big or crowded so as to set a country bumpkin like me off, and it’s not too small so as to be lacking in life or things to do either. On the contrary, for its size, it’s positively crammed with interesting sights to see. And with the Lisbon Card on hand – a natty little device that gives you free access to all forms of public transport for one, two or three days – getting around the place couldn’t be easier. Heck, it’s even entertaining to ride the Metro just for the sake of it, with that kind of freedom.

It’s also a tantalizingly great location for one of my favourite hobbies: people-watching. Capital cities tend to have a wider racial mix than country backwaters, so this is something that never fails to amaze me, but Lisbon’s got a damned beautiful pot-pourris of ethnicities going on. West African immigrants, in all their multicoloured splendour, rub shoulders with Berbers from the Rif and the Portuguese themselves, who are surprisingly different from their Hispanic neighbours. Beetle-black eyes, lemon-gold skin and blonde hair are a lot more common here than the dusky Moorish beauty of the Spanish south. As in Extremadura, I find myself trying to imagine these people dressed in seventeenth century clothes, wandering the streets of a pre-earthquake Lisbon or setting foot on the shores of the New World and beyond in the Age of Discoveries.

Forgive me that splurge into racial obsession. I’ve always been hooked on the beauty of the various peoples of our world. For every shade except my own, in fact. A reverse racism in the truest sense of the word. Fortunately, I’ve since learned to love my own nation for all its flaws, recognizing my angst for what it was: angst, some dim leftover from when my ego was torn to shreds in the wake of my first relationship. The healing process sure has been long enough in the completion.

Lisbon, Benjamin. You’re supposed to be talking about Lisbon.

I took a train out of town to the former royal retreat of Sintra, up in the mountains above the city. Once again you’ll find yourself in a world away from picture-book Iberia: with all the pine forest-covered granite slopes and the pink and yellow spires of the Neuschwanstein-esque follies poking out of the trees like decorated Turkish delights,  you might as well be in Austria. That, and Portuguese sounds decidedly Eastern European with all those zh and sh sounds. The gigantic überfolly that is the Palacio de Pena, the last word in Romantic architectural orgasm, looked just too ridiculous to be true on arrival, so I settled instead for the Castelo dos Mouros, the old Moorish lookout sat astride the Boulder-strewn hill opposite. Sometimes it’s simply easier to stick to what you know.

Best moment of the day goes to my main reason for coming this far west: not for Lisbon per se, but the windswept cliffs of the Cabo da Roca, Europe’s most westerly point. The headland itself was crowded – it being a gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon – so I wandered off in search of one of the cliff top trails. But for a couple of abandoned motorbikes, a young couple braving the steep, winding track down to the beach and a man piloting his camera-drone over the cape, I had the coast more or less to myself. It’s funny how most people rarely stray beyond the main sights, especially when the outskirts are almost always far more rewarding. See below if you don’t believe me.

  

Stunning. The sunset itself, salmon-pink and ablaze, was twice as beautiful again. The trouble is, it’s one thing to look on such beauty alone and quite another to have somebody to share it with. Here at the Cabo da Roca, as in Sintra, and on the train, and the Metro, and the banks of the Tagus, and every row but mine on the bus from Spain, I find myself looking out on a world of couples from my island. A decent half-hour’s meditation on the clifftop helped to doctor my heart a little, but it’s an unavoidable fact that humans are sociable creatures. We’re not supposed to be alone. Traveling is my primary means of fighting back against a world that rejects or friend-zones me at every turn, but it’s not supposed to be that way. So there, high on the cliffs, I contented myself with writing an imaginary letter from my princess to her lover. One day, if I should be so lucky, I’ll find the One who’ll hit the road with me. One day

Lisbon, Benjamin!

Shaking off the loneliness birds, I decided to investigate the famed brilliance of Lisbon nightlife. It’s definitely worth sampling, if you’re ever in the area. I suppose it’s no different than what you might find in London or Paris, but it blew me away. And let me tell you, after two and a half months of Reggaeton, it was a dream come true to have some Justin Timberlake, Uptown Funk and Notorious B.I.G blasting through the speakers. I ended up in a dance-off with a group of Guineans and it was insane. You know you’ve made it in dance when a black guy commends you on your moves. Box ticked.

Oh! But here’s a funny story for you. This ought to lighten the mood. You see, in a town the size of the one I live and work in, everybody knows everyone else, and the general atmosphere is overall more familial than friendly. And since I’m a rookie to city-hopping, I’m guilty of several major faux-pas, like putting my shoes on the bed and ignoring traffic lights. But tonight’s really takes the biscuit. I decided to take a side-alley detour back to my hostel and, in doing so, wound up in a rather seedy part of town; the outskirts of the clubbing district, in retrospect. I found myself alone in the street and thought it odd enough until two women came about the street corner (yes, you can kind of see where this is going.  I, funnily enough, couldn’t). They looked a little lost, and when one of them waved me over, I took my earphones out and asked what I could do to help. The answer I got was a husky ‘babe, you’re so beautiful’.

I don’t think I’ve ever run faster in my life.

The bus is pulling into Coimbra. Aveiro can’t be too far away now; another hour and a half, tops. I’ll close this report for now so that I have something to say in my next post. Até logo, morangos. BB x

The Griffon

‘Si te intereses a las aves, hay un buitre al otro lado del río. Hay mucha gente allí esperando que los bomberos lo remuevan. Por si lo sabes…’

The last thing on the hostel TV last night, after the late night showing of Colombiana, was a brief news report documenting the beginnings of a rise in interest in ornithology in Extremadura. I have to say I’m impressed; surprised and impressed. In my experience of living and working in Spain, the most interest the majority of ‘folk here take in birds is whether or not they go well with olive oil. Spain’s not unique in this regard. As my secondary school Physics teacher once said when I explained the risk the Bristol wind farm posed to migrating waterfowl, ‘if it won’t end up on my plate, I couldn’t give a monkey’s’. And that was in England, the biggest nation of bleeding hearts. Well, here’s a little proof that Spain at least is finally taking a turn for the better.

I’ve got a fairly long wait until the bus home, so I thought I’d take a walk along the Guadiana again whilst I’m here and look across the river to Portugal. The cormorants were out on the rocks with their wings spread wide after a morning’s hunting, so I got my camera out for a few shots with Respighi’s The Pines of Rome playing in my ears. And that’s when I got a tap on the shoulder and a friendly local pointed me in the direction of a grounded vulture on the east bank of the river.

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I haven’t power-walked so fast in years. A vulture? Here, in the middle of Badajoz? It sounded too ridiculous a notion to be a lie, so I packed up my gear and left the bridge and the sunning cormorants I was photographing behind in the dust. At first I thought he might have confused buitre with any other large bird – it wouldn’t be the first time – but this just must be my lucky weekend or something, because just a short distance before the second bridge…

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…boom. Sulking in the shade of the roadworks with a crowd of five or six startled onlookers. It could hardly be anything else: vultures are bloody huge, even youngsters like this one.

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I was worried that it might have a broken wing, as it didn’t seem particularly keen to get back into the air. What it was doing here, bang in the middle of the city, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was simply tired. At any rate, it wasn’t all too bothered by the two men who’d gone down to join it, both to have a closer look at something you normally only see high in the sky above, and to ward off any dog-walkers that might cause the bird any further distress. My heart goes out to those two.

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I have to admit, I probably won’t ever get a better viewing of a wild vulture than this. Not even in Monfragüe, which is the best place to see them in all of Spain. And here, in Badajoz, of all places! Bonkers.

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‘Watch out,’ said one of the onlookers as it came bouncing forward, ‘That thing’s got a beak that can bite through bone.’

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To everyone’s relief, there was nothing wrong with it in the end, because after some ten minutes it puffed up its feathers, made a few bounding leaps and took off into the air on two giant wings. It wheeled about over the river and almost flew headlong into the bridge, clearing it by little over a metre or so, and flew off in the direction of Portugal.

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Not something you see every day! And now I need to go in search of a USB cable or card reader of some description, because my memory card is chock-full. Well, gallinules, kingfishers, cranes and a griffon vulture, all in twenty-four hours of city-hopping! Now there’s a feathery micro-adventure for you. BB x

And the Manacles are Off

It’s over, at last! After almost a month of to-and-froing between school, the ayuntamiento and the Almendralejo police station, I have a Spanish bank account and the admin period is finally at an end. Alright, so there’s still some confusion over whether I really need a Spanish social security number and I’m not entirely sure how to top up my phone since it isn’t compatible with its own network app, but the most important stage (and one that, by the sounds of things, the other assistants accomplished weeks ago) is done and dusted.

So what better way to celebrate than with a little travel?

You see, I adore traveling. I’m sure I didn’t need to tell you that, but I feel like in the three weeks I’ve been here I’ve never had the chance to get out. Not for want of opportunity, of course, but I told myself right at the beginning that I wasn’t to go traveling until I’d finished all the paperwork. That was supposed to be before my (abortive) training course in Cáceres on 1st October. Well, now it’s the 16th. But that’s ok. Villafranca feels like home now, I’ve christened it with my first stupidly long walk, and I have to say I’m quite enjoying being ‘El Inglés’. But I’ve waited long enough, and now here I am in the Plaza Alta in Badajoz, enjoying a ración of some seriously high-quality croquetas as the city wakes up for the night.

A paltry three and a half euros took me all the way to Mérida, the regional capital of Extremadura. It’s also minuscule compared to Badajoz and Cáceres, for which the two provinces of Extremadura are named, which means you can get around the place in a couple of hours. I didn’t plan on staying long, since I only intended to use the city as a launch-pad for getting to Badajoz – there’s only one bus direct from Villafranca and it leaves at nine in the morning – but, as is so often the way of things, Mérida turned out to be a whole lot more than a collection of pristine Roman ruins.

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At first glance it looks a lot like Córdoba, with the Roman bridge and the great big river splitting the old town from the new. But then, so does Badajoz. It’s missing the beauty of the mosque, of course, but then, Córdoba is and always will be in a league of its own. What it does have is a spectacular aqueduct on the north side of town. If you see any photos of Mérida, it’s bound to feature in more than one of them. Unlike the one in Segovia the city gave it breathing space and there’s a park around it now, but that hasn’t stopped the storks from taking advantage of all those convenient flat-topped towers.

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Ah, but I can do better than that. It took me almost half an hour to cross the Roman bridge over the Guadiana this morning, not because of its length – you can span it in five minutes or less at a stride – but because I was held up by two of my favourite little riverside friends, both of them easy to spot because of all the noise they were making.

I haven’t been to Doñana National Park almost every year for the last seven years for nothing, and when I heard a distinctly disgruntled grunting cutting over the babble of an approaching horde of school kids, I was hanging over the side of the bridge and scanning the reeds in a flash; and sure enough, there he was. Old Longshanks himself.

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What can I say? Gallinules. Love ’em. Loved the ridiculous things since I first saw a picture of one in a book. The name’s daft enough – Purple Swamp-Hen, in full – but the feet are something else.

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I don’t know why I make such a big deal about gallinules over anything else, but they’ve always been the ultimate Doñana bird for me. Perhaps it’s because it’s basically a giant purple chicken. Mm, close enough.

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Feathered friend number two should be a lot more familiar to most of you. He’s also rather colourful, but a heck of a lot smaller and shinier to boot. And once you know what they sound like, you’ll see a lot more of them. It’s a kingfisher, of course!

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At least, I hope you know what a kingfisher is. Nobody here does. Not even if I give them the equally impressive Spanish name of martin pescador.

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I’m still waiting on that perfect kingfisher photo. The one everyone wants: wings spread wide, water droplets falling from a dive, fish in beak etc. but until that moment, they’re always a pleasure to watch.

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Everybody else was walking on by and doubtless wondering who that young loony was in the maroon hoodie-and-chinos combo with the ridiculous lens, hanging half over the bridge, but hey, I was having a good time. That’s my idea of a morning well spent, anyway.

Sheesh, long post. My travelogues usually are. Badajoz is rather beautiful, and if my right thigh weren’t still punishing me for that 45km cross-country hike last weekend, I’d probably be enjoying it more. I could do with a rest. It’s a lot bigger than Mérida and I had to double the distance when it turned out that the albergue I had in mind was a school groups affair. I was accosted outside by three young girls who asked me if I wanted a blowjob and called out ‘oyé, feo’ and ‘mochila verde’ after me when I ignored them. Then I tried taking a shortcut through the park into the Alcazaba, but shortcuts do tend to make long delays, and in this case the road came to a sudden and unexpected end. The door was there alright, but the road… wasn’t.

The adventures never end! Left the restaurant to soak up the night in the square and a wandering troupe of musicians asked me for directions to the ayuntamiento. I pointed them in the right direction, but their leader deduced that I clearly wasn’t from Badajoz. Back atcha, tío; ‘I’m from Villafranca de los Barros’. ‘Villafranca?! Hombre, somos de Ribera!’ (the next town along from VdB). It’s a small world. And I’ve just noticed that I missed a major performance from the best gypsy musicians of Badajoz at the theatre tonight. Only two doors down from the hostel, as well. Rats. I’ll be back.

I’d better call it a night there and head on back to the hostel. I might try for sunrise over the Guadiana after this evening’s gorgeous Portuguese sunset. On a final note, I had the happiest moment of the month on the road to Badajoz when I saw, in the distance, a giant V-flock of some one hundred and twenty cranes on their way south. It’s only the very moment I’ve been waiting for, the first true sign of winter in Extremadura. I was practically jumping out of my seat, I was so happy.

The photo hardly does it justice, so I’ll go hunting for them some other time when I’m not stuck on a bus. But that’s an adventure for another day. BB, which may or may not stand for Bird-Brain amongst other things, signing out x

The World’s Most Beautiful Women

Why am I doing this?

No, seriously. Why am I doing this? This isn’t Amman. This isn’t even vaguely Arabic. We’re halfway to Kiev on a bus that isn’t the Skybus that Google and Tripadvisor recommended. Come to think of it, I didn’t even ask the driver where we’re going. It might not even be Kiev. I’m going by the size of the city and the great big river we crossed earlier and assuming it is. Other than that, I really don’t know. I can’t read the alphabet. Any and all Russian I learned in those four after-school sessions has jumped clean out of my mind, except that the letter P becomes R and K, T and A stay the same. Ten points for effort for this worn-out linguist! I mean, there’s no escaping it this time: this is sheer lunacy, even by my standards.

‘We could be going anywhere right now,’ says Andrew. ‘We could literally be going anywhere.’

Well, this really isn't Arabia anymore...

Well, this really isn’t Arabia anymore…

We really could. It all looks bleak and Soviet; pine forests, grey skies and grim skyscrapers with peeling walls. Even the hooded crows look seedy. But I do have £33 worth of Ukrainian hryvna in my wallet (or at least, I think I do) and I plan for us to be back at the airport for six o’clock at the latest. So there is some semblance of a plan beneath the anarchy. Blimey, but what I wouldn’t do to have fellow linguists and Russian speakers Shahnaz and Rosie here with me now, if just to have a vague idea of what’s going on.

Nope, I don't understand any of this

Nope, I don’t understand any of this

If that whim decision to go for the twelve-hour layover bothered me slightly at four o’clock this morning, it was practically crucifying me by nine, when we’d touched down in Borispol Airport and navigated customs. Andrew managed a good couple of hours’ sleep on the journey from Amman; I did not, and it’s really beginning to kick in now, as I’m no longer constantly on the move. But fatigue is the smallest of barriers to the determined adventurer!

…once again I find myself picking up the mantle some two hours later. Two sentences later I woke up with the iPad slipping off my legs onto the floor of the bus. So I take that back. Apparently fatigue has other ideas.

I digress. After a minor financial confusion over the exchange rate of the Ukranian hryvna, Andrew and I made it to Kiev (it really was Kiev in the end) with six hours to kill. Cue at least half an hour of ‘wow’, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this’ and ‘this is absolutely bonkers’ as Andrew patiently bears my childish enthusiasm. We took a wander into the old part in search of the Bessarabsky Market to grab a bite to eat. Every single stall inside, without exception, was manned by what can only be described as the stereotypical babuschka. And no, try as they might, Andrew and I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying. But an idea struck me at one of the aisles and I procured a tin of caviar from one of the stallholders who was anxious for us to try a spoonful of all of her wares, from sweet to tongue-zappingly salty, from lumpfish to Beluga sturgeon. And if you think I’m exaggerating, I point you towards the sequin-scaled monstrosity lying headless on a mound of ice near the market door, barbels removed. It hardly needs saying, but this is a world away from Amman. Period.

Concrete block for make unification of great Russian Power and Ukraine

Concrete block for make unification of great Russian Power and Ukraine

The miracle of Kiev is that there is so much to see in so small an area. Like I said, a world away from Amman. In just under four hours we had covered almost everything there is to see. Beginning with St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, an elaborate Orthodox affair in gold leaf and black-robed majesty, we set off an a tour of the old city. There’s something really special about Orthodox churches. At first glance it all looks a bit showy: giant crosses, bold block colours, gold used just about wherever there’s breathing space, not to mention all the icons. But it’s a great deal more complicated than that. It was Andrew who pointed it out to me. The congregation, outnumbering the sightseers by about nine to one, were mostly women, in varying states of dress, but the one thing they all had in common was the wearing of a headscarf. A kind of step-down for us from Jordan, perhaps.

‘Surely it doesn’t work like that,’ says Andrew, as a scarfed young woman in high heels leaves the cathedral after making the sign of the cross twice across her chest and bowing out, a lurid pink thong showing above the cut of her miniskirt. Apparently, it does. You know what they say about book covers…

Overloading on the blue, much...

Overloading on the blue, much…

One of the subjects that came up in conversation with Fahed and Massoud yesterday was the subject of Ukrainian women, whom Fahed believed, as ‘proved by science’, to be the most beautiful women in the world. I set out to test that theory today, both to conduct some kind of fair test in light of such a sweeping statement (especially when any suggestions of Spain and Colombia had been overruled just minutes before), and more so to justify this ridiculous little side-quest into Kiev at the end of our labours.

Or you could just cut out the middle man...

Or you could just cut out the middle man…

I’m going to surprise myself, but Fahed’s got a point. Ukrainian women are pretty stunning. They must be, or we wouldn’t have run into not one, not two, but a total of seven weddings in the course of our wanderings. There’s also a heck of a lot of them; more than the men, anyway, at least from my observations. A bit like Elvet Riverside, come to think of it. But seriously, those weddings we walked in on (there was hardly any avoiding them, they were all over the place…) Flowing white dresses everywhere on a backdrop of marble steps, spiralling turrets and Orthodox spires. My heart was on a serious flutter. Perhaps it’s the healthy skin tones, the raven hair, or the eyes that shelter a mixture of light and dark? Or even the fabulous dress sense? No, surely it’s the curled smiles most of them are wearing… (I wish Nizzar Qabbani could help me out here, I’m teetering on the edge of the villainy of objectivity)

Somebody stop me before I make a rash move!

Somebody stop me before I make a rash move!

Before I go too far, I’ll throw you the anecdote that tipped me over the scale of utter disbelief of Fahed’s claim to conceding a little ground to the guy. In the grounds of the St. Sophia Cathedral, Kiev’s jaw-droppingly beautiful UNESCO cathedral complex, Andrew and I stumbled upon an outdoor recital by a young Ukrainian student playing quite possibly the largest lute I have ever seen. I believe, if memory serves, that it is called a bandura? We still had a good three hours to kill so we stopped to listen, and am I glad we did! No sooner had she put her fingers to the strings than the girl began to sing, and in all my years as the son of two music teachers I have rarely heard a voice so magical. Like a siren, but sadder and more graceful. I was totally drawn in – so much so that it took me some time to realise that the bandurist and I had been staring at each other unflinchingly for almost a minute before I snapped awake, and she’d been singing all the way through.

‘You should have got her number or something,’ said Andrew, as we moved on to the Great Gates of Kiev twenty minutes later. ‘You haven’t got forever. Get them before they’re all gone, that’s what my godmother told me.’

DSC04510

I’m not running out of time yet – at least, I hope I’m not. Maybe I should have done or said something. As ever, I was lost in the music, I guess. Too lost to appreciate that we kept looking back at each other after her set was over. My obliviousness reigns supreme. At the very least I have a good three minutes of her set on video, so I can listen to that siren song again if ever the mood requires. And by that I mean, of course, sleep. Andrew fell asleep during her recital. If I hadn’t been so entranced, I guess I might have done so too.

It's ok, as long as I have cats I'll be just fine

It’s ok, as long as I have cats I’ll be just fine

Water under the bridge, hey? But what an adventure, and what a way to end my time in Jordan! It’s been a pleasure to live and work alongside you, Andrew, and I wish you all the best in France (knowing that you’ll be back in the comfort of your own home by the time you read this, and that Babette won’t have to check on how you’re getting on in this long-winded fashion anymore!) As for the rest of you, dear readers, I shall probably take a few days’ hiatus to catch up on sleep, as I’m dangerously behind, and to clear my head. Just a few minutes in one of Kiev’s parks was enough to recharge my batteries right the way up – green, green, GREEN, oh my God, the trees, the leaves, the grass and all of the GREEN – but I intend to set up stores for the winter, as it were. Villafranca’s not lacking in countryside, but I’ve learnt my lesson, and I’m not setting off into the open world without a well-supplied heart next time.

There’s still another hour to go until boarding begins for the flight back to London. Farewell, До свидания and I’ll catch you all later. Yours truly needs a well-deserved break from all this madness. Until the next time! BB x