Time Lords and Holy Water

Two seasons of Doctor Who in as many weeks. That’s getting dangerously close to an addiction. Fortunately, it was as much a memory run as it was a time-filler; the buck stops with the last of the Tennant episodes. For some reason I never got into the Matt Smith series. Maybe I grew up.

Yeah. Like that’s ever going to happen.

If my last post made it sound like Eid was one long endurance test in the kitchen, this one ought to shed some light on the matter. If the truth be told, I spent both Eid itself and the following day very much out and about, purposefully burning off any and all calories gained over the weekend. With all those sugary Ramadan sweets, I had plenty of energy to burn.

True to form, I messed up. The calories got burned, well and truly, but so did my back, my neck and my legs. Talk about splash damage. But when splash damage comes in the form of an entire day on the shores of the Mediterranean, who’s really complaining?

I confess, beach days are not really my idea of a day well spent, but for once it was nice just to kick back and relax by the sea, happy in the knowledge that last week’s conundrum was, finally, resolved.

DSC_0065

Spot the Italians (hint: it’s got something to do with the Sun)

The Dar Loughat team has exploded from six to eighteen over the last week. The result is that the gatherings have got louder, cheaper and perhaps a little less personal. And perhaps for that reason I’ve been pulling away a bit this week, loner that I am. Curiously enough, that led me to spend the day after Eid with the Host. I didn’t have much of an idea as to what, where or why. The father simply knocked on my door in the morning and asked if I was coming with them. He didn’t say where. But aren’t they the very best of plans: the one that you have no idea about?

DSC_0027

Hello Africa!

The destination, as it turned out, was Moulay Abdessalam, a holy site and place of pilgrimage for the Sufis of Morocco, sat high atop a mountain in the Bouhachem range. If I hadn’t twigged that I was in Africa yet, I certainly did when I saw the shrine. At the top of a flight of rock-cut steps, the shrine – a small white building with a green door cut into the side – seemed to grow out of the rock, sheltering a huge cork-oak sprouting from its centre. The floor, too holy for human feet, was nailed down with smooth cork-oak bark, and men walked to and fro across it barefoot, chanting and praying and bowing before the tree. It was mystical enough a spectacle, but add to that the swirling mists, sometimes thick enough to obscure everything ten metres away and more from sight, and it was almost otherworldly.

DSC_0059

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

I suppose cameras aren’t particularly acceptable in such situations – I’m still stinging from that run-in with a couple of camera-fearing Chaouenis back in May – so I contented myself with a distant shot and resorted to sketching it instead, though how that is a less offensive practise than photography continues to escape me.

Continue up the mountainside a little way and you come to a telegraph mast, from which one of the locals willingly leads you to a metre-long fissure in the rock. According to local tradition, the rock is a test: those who can pass through the fissure will be blessed, and those who cannot will be cursed. Something like that, anyway. The words bendito and maldito were clear enough. As for the test itself, it revolves more around technique than skill: the nature of the fissure is such that there is a way to get through, though it requires keen observation and no small amount of manoeuvring.

DSC_0131

Claustrophobes beware

Yours truly made the cut in less than a minute. I put that down to a staunch refusal to grow fat on Moroccan cuisine than any skilful footwork on my part, though I have to say it seems a rather sexist challenge: I just about managed to squeeze through with the rocks grazing my back and chest. Any amount of gym, good eating or femininity and you’d have no hope in hell. I’m blessed, then – but at what cost, I wonder?

DSC_0116

Scarce Swallowtail – GOTCHA

We stopped on the way back to fill up on fresh water from for a sacred spring. To dispel any myths there, we were filling up industrial-sized plastic water bottles by the bootload, although I did suffer to drink straight from the well by means of a smoothed-out bark ‘cup’, as Moses and his followers might have done in the stories of old. Pretentious, much, but I was loving every second of it.

DSC_0149

How to drink, oldie-worldie style

We took a late lunch in the misty forests. I was in one of my strange, quiet moods and contented myself with watching the mists swirling through the trees. It was a pretty magical sight. This time last year I was dodging traffic, crawling into a hole with Henry Rider Haggard and steadily losing my mind in the dusty streets of 40ºC Amman. To think that at the same time of year I could be standing in a cold, misty forest with the wind in my hair and the sound of birdsong… It’s everything I wanted and more. Morocco, you’ve done me such wonders. Thank you.

DSC_0154

Africa, forest, mists, but no gorillas (there might be some macaques about, though)

Everybody’s heading out today; half for the mountains, half for the beach. As for me, I’ll be staying right here. Our Fes plans fell through due to illness, which isn’t so bad a thing, as I have a lot of work to do today. Essays – the bane of our lives. The sooner I’ve got some more of this work done, the sooner I can get back to enjoying my time out here. A target language research project is all well and good for assessing one’s advancement in a language, but it doesn’t half cast a shadow over your enjoyment of the year abroad. Just a thought, and not even mine, but one I adhere to. Katie certainly had the right idea there.

Well, three weeks remain. This time in three weeks I’ll be on a plane bound for Madrid, and then for home. But whilst it’s the end of the story for me, the story is just beginning for so many others (ugh, how crass a line is that). So, whilst you’re here, don’t forget to see how things are going on with fellow bloggers Alice Abroad and the dream-team at Langlesby Travels. Doesn’t everybody need a breath of fresh air from time to time? Blogging can seem a pretty solitary activity, but in actual fact it brings you so much closer to people by opening a window on a world you might never have seen before. It also keeps your writing muscles very well flexed. As an exercise, I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Which is odd, really, because I don’t go in for recommending exercise as a rule.

Until the next time, I’ll try to keep you posted as often as I can. The end is so near I can taste it, but I’m not about to lose sight of the goal with the final line in sight. Let’s smash these last three weeks, ya3ni. Positive attitude, that’s what it’s all about. That’s what it’s always about. BB x

Advertisements

Veni, Vidi, Victus Eram

And that’s that. My last working day in Villafranca is over. I only just got away with crying out of my final class. 4°A are total angels, the lot of them.

DSC_0103

What other class could handle Hobbes vs. Rousseau in another language?

I should make it clear that it’s my last working day of 2016… because I’ll be back. Sooner than I’d originally planned. The truth is that I’ve had such an amazing time this year, I don’t half wonder whether it would be difficult to top elsewhere. So I’ve burned my boats and taken advantage of the British Council’s four-year cap by deciding to return to Villafranca independently in 2017, leaving me another three years to wander about Extremadura, Spain and/or the rest of the Spanish speaking world if I so choose under the British Council. Maybe then I’ll be ready to train as a real teacher. Don’t call it unadventurousness on my part. Think of it as happiness found. Villafranca has been a wonderful home for the last nine months. And now, I suppose, I’d better do it justice – peppered with photos of some of my favourite moments of the year…

DSC_0520

…starting with this.

The hardest thing here is knowing where to begin. How do I possibly sum up what has been the very best year of my life? Do I start from the beginning – from touchdown in Seville airport? But you know the story from there. And if you wanted to know the details, the entire year is spread out across the blog. Just go back to the 23rd of September and follow on from there. I don’t think I’ve ever been more faithful to a diary in my life.

IMG_2571

Where it all began… under Alicia’s bridge in Seville in September ’15

It took the British Council all of eight months to provide me with the name of my home for the following year. Eight months that would have dragged immensely had it not been for my intense extracurricular existence. Protocol. But I spent a good part of my childhood as an avid birdwatcher, and that taught me that patience – even vain patience – always deals its own rewards. And that’s as good a metaphor as any to begin with.

DSC_0257

Hanging on a few hours in Badajoz and accidentally finding a vulture is a good example

Villafranca de los Barros is not exactly what you might call ‘buzzing’. If you were to tell anybody else that they’d be spending the year in a town of some fourteen thousand inhabitants with no nightlife and a lively farming scene, they’d probably jump ship in less than a week and make a break for the nearest city. That’s what the last applicant assigned to Extremadura did, or so I was told by my concerned supervisor before leaving Durham. But Benjamin has strange triggers, and is nothing more than a simple country boy at heart. I could spend my life traveling the world, but if the truth be told, I want nothing more at the end of the day than to come back to some quiet, village retreat that I can call home. After Amman, anywhere with a pop count below twenty thousand would have done for me. As such, Villafranca could not have been a better place.

DSC_0001

Spain does do some pretty spectacular skies on a regular basis

It’s been a formative year. You do all sorts of growing up when you strike out alone for the first time. Over the course of the year I’ve tried my hand at a whole range of new and crazy experiences, including:

  • Mobile data and WhatsApp. Frankly I don’t know how I’d have managed this year without the tech, as Spain as a whole seems incapable of functioning without it, but it’s proved absolutely invaluable as a last-ditch traveller’s aid. Except HERE Maps, possibly. Deceiving trickster.
  • Drinking. Ron Barceló isn’t so bad after all, but rest assured I’ll be back on the dry wagon when this is all over, if just because it’s a lifestyle I know and love.
  • Skiing. And I discovered that I am singularly useless at it.
  • Flirting. Likewise, useless. Try as I might, I’m just not the casual type.
  • Interpreting. Specifically, interpreting a spiel on Dadaist techniques. Talk about a challenge.
  • Olive-harvesting. Trust me, it’s really quite technical.
  • A (surprise) foam party. God bless Spain’s laissez-faire attitude to risk assessment.
  • Being the person that starts a conversation. Radical.

The last point is probably the most poignant of the lot. When this year began I was the kind of person who happily let others get the engine running first. Striking up a conversation with fellow travellers, calling the waiter in a restaurant, starting an essay… I’ve never been very good at starting things. It’s a running theme in my life. But this year I’ve seen myself talking to strangers on the road, setting up a bank account and even asking for help when a certain primary class got simply too much for me. These basic things were well out of my reach when I got off the plane back in September 2015. By hook or by crook, I’ve made it.

DSC05286

Proud to say I’ve done my bit for the local cooperativa!

Of course, it’s not all been roses. When I say it’s been the very best year of my life, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was flawless. There have been lows. Getting misdiagnosed with herpes was one. Getting the friend-zoning of the century on the night of what was supposed to be a romantic break in Madrid was another. And I seem to remember spewing my guts out for an entire twenty-four hours in a hotel room in Andorra, manacled by an ever-increasing tab from the mini bar; though it did spare me from more skiing fiascos, that was a definite low point too. And then there’s that primary class, a weekly nightmare that I’ve somehow survived. But my attitude to life is that balance is the most precious thing of all: life would be no fun whatsoever if there wasn’t the occasional crippling blunder to make things interesting. Not that I wouldn’t beg not to be given that lot if I were to go through it all again, but if they’ve done one thing for me, it’s left me in very good stead to be the father of Spanish children. I reckon I know all the necessary vocabulary after a year’s stint with that bunch.

DSC_0418

It’s largely thanks to this little star that my Spanish has come so far this year!

Now comes the most difficult part: listing the highlights. Since each and every one has its own entire blog post somewhere along the line, I’ll be as brief as I can. I’ve forced myself to choose only ten, though I could quite easily go on to make twenty-five. Still, ten it is.

  • A close encounter with a lost griffon vulture in Badajoz
  • Taking time out beneath the stone pines in El Rocio
  • Seeing El Rey León from the best seats in the house, Madrid
  • Accidentally getting the best views of the Semana Santa processions, Seville
  • Olive-harvesting with Ali and the family, Olvera
  • Sitting beneath the Monfragüe cliffs with the vultures flying in overhead
  • Spending the weekend in Cantabria with the wonderful Brocklesby
  • Getting a surprise party from one of my bachillerato classes
  • Discovering that simply speaking Spanish makes me happier
  • Hearing the first bee-eater calls of spring from my own bedroom in Villafranca

Tough call. And yes, I’m aware that two of those ten are vulture-related. If the number really had been twenty-five, there’d have been plenty more feathered highlights.

DSC_0164

Specifically for Cantabria, climbing Watership Down Hill was a high…. geddit?

As for what this year has meant in the grander scheme of things, it’s pretty much laid out the road beneath my feet. I was pretty hooked on this country before I came here. I was even pretty certain already that I’d be living out here someday. Somewhere in the back of my mind I always knew. I guess that’s why I never quite managed to lay down roots with a girlfriend or even a best friend per se. Perhaps I always knew I’d be leaving England behind.

DSC_0326

A ready-made fan club is also a major reason for coming back

Well, now it’s fixed. I won’t be swayed. I’ll be back for another two or three years of this auxiliar life, garnering experience as I go, before throwing myself at the notorious oposiciones and trying to carve a space for myself in the Spanish education system as a fully-qualified English teacher – without robbing the places of my friends and colleagues here, of course.

DSC_0532

Reasons to live abroad: a risk-assessment free foam party courtesy of the fire brigade

It was a remarkably easy decision to make. I’ve enjoyed teaching since I took my first class in pure spite of my flustered English teacher way back in 2007. Despite years of my parents warning me not to follow them into their trade, here I am, teaching, and loving almost every second of it. Being an auxiliar is all of the best parts and none of the bad, granted, but I reckon with another few years under my belt I’ll be ready to take on the homework and the discipline. It’s not like I haven’t been asking to help out all year.

DSC_0094

I also owe Concha Velasco Band for introducing me to Escuela de Calor. Tune!

Just before I go and christen the end of the Spanish stretch with a severe haircut, here’s a few goals for next time:

  • Learn to drive (car or motorbike)
  • Apply to work afternoons at San José
  • Share a flat with people roughly your own age
  • Likewise, find friends your own age in the area
  • Pack less… or buy less books

Just five. That will do. All of which would be a lot easier if I had a clear idea of where I would be living – which is one of the chief deciding factors in Villafranca Part II. And after that… Who knows? As of 2016 the British Council offers teaching placements across Spain, but also in Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Ecuador. I think I could afford to be apart from my grandfather’s country for one year. Especially now that I know I’m coming back – and coming back for good.

DSC_0762

Oh, and one more goal: get inside the goddamn Alhambra again. It’s been too long.

So today it’s neither a ciao, nor goodbye, nor even adios. It’s hasta pronto. Muy, muy pronto. Que te lo pases bien en mi ausencia, España. Y sera breve. Te lo prometo. BB x

Volver

‘What is he saying?’
‘It’s closed.’
‘Wakha. Fermé. No ferry.’
‘Closed? Why?’
‘I think he said there’s a strike… Huelga? Uh… grève? Est-ce qu’ils ne travaillent pas aujourd-hui?’
‘Ah! No lanchan ferry! Wakha, sadiqii, wakha!’
‘Pero, en serio Ben, tu te has enterado?’
‘A mí me gustaría mucho enterarme…’

You know what I was saying a couple of posts back about loving the multilingual melange that is Tangier? Well, I guess I got my comeuppance this afternoon. After a long shopping trip in the medina, loaded down with suitcases and food for the return journey, we hailed down a grand taxi for the harbour. But for the photography hiccup in Chaouen (and Booking.com refusing to refund me for a bungled payment), our four-day trip to Morocco had gone without a hitch.

So it’s only natural that the taxi driver would leave it until we got to the harbour to tell us that, due to exceptionally strong winds, the port was closed. This was swiftly backed up by both the police and the FRS office, as if we weren’t already doing a bad job of playing the trust card. If we wanted to get home, there was only really one viable option: we’d have to catch the big FRS ferry from Tanger Med near Ksar Es-Seghir, some forty kilometres up the coast.

DSC_0610

We should have seen this coming just looking out from the hotel, really…

That’s how I found myself still in the same taxi some twenty minutes later, rounding the bends of the twisting coast road for the port and trying to make one intelligible sentence out of the five-language jumble of our taxi driver. His Classical Arabic, French, Spanish and English were all perfectly reasonable, but his mixing-up of all four of them mid-sentence with his native Dārija made it nigh-on impossible to understand a word of what he was saying. Speaking four languages is one thing, but trying to make sense of them all at once is a step too far for me.

DSC_0608

So green – but how much longer will it last?

By some streak of luck we made it to the docks in time, and for a fair price, too; 180MAD for the car from Tangier, for the record, and not quite the 2500MAD that was his first offer (trumping even the villainous Oulad Berhil cabbie in greed). Predictably enough, we weren’t the only ones caught with our pants down by the closure of the Tangier port: at least two other boatloads turned up for the 14.00h, which was necessarily shunted back to 15.00h, and then 16.00h. Passport control was, for the once, the least of our concerns; a succession of connecting buses came and went, none of them bound for the FRS service. I don’t suppose I minded too much. I spent the last hour playing Peep-O and making silly faces at a little girl who seemed only too pleased at the diversion. By the time the FRS shuttle pulled in it was coming on to five minutes to four and tempers were running short. Mufasa would have been all too familiar with the stampede that followed.

a

God, I’m so evil

Despite repeated warnings from the bridge, I spent almost the entire journey out on deck in the hopes of seeing a shearwater (I’d seen a few dusky shapes in the gloom on the way out, but I needed to be sure). The Strait is also a very good place to look for whales and dolphins, so I had an eye out for them, too… whenever it wasn’t shut tight in a wince in the game-force winds, that is. The sea was choppier than I’ve ever seen it, making whale-watching a no-go and rendering photography difficult. At its worst, the ferry was tilting at a twenty-five degree angle from side to side, giving spectacular views down the deck into the ocean or the open sky at any given moment.

DSC_0683

Not the healthiest angle for a ferry

A sensible mind would have given up the ghost and retreated. But I’m not all that sensible, and I was rewarded for my obstinacy just short of the bay of Gibraltar by a single, chocolate-coloured seabird gliding effortlessly between the waves and a far-off but recognisable vertical jet of steam. Stubbornness has its rewards.

DSC_0689

The Bay of Gibraltar (plus very distant shearwaters)

Let’s just take a step back for a moment. This is now the third extracurricular adventure I’ve had with my colleagues, following Andorra and the Romanian exchange. Before Meléndez Valdés I’d never imagined life as a teacher to be anything like this. I’m completely and utterly sold on this way of life. This is my life, opening up before me: traveling Extremadura as a qualified English teacher until I have enough experience under my belt to settle for good. The oposiciones sound tough, but my colleagues here are encouraging me to come back and go for it, which makes it all the more worthwhile. Spain, you just keep winning me over. How I love you with all of my heart and more…

It’s coming up to ten o’clock, Spanish time. The sun set an hour or so ago. Eight o’clock start tomorrow morning. Ive had worse. On the whole it’s been a very good weekend, and my appetite for the summer is more than whetted. Only next time, I think I’ll catch the plane. BB x

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.

DSC_0267

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.

DSC_0291

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.

DSC_0295

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.

DSC_0346

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.

DSC_0301

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.

DSC_0332

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

Polo’s Bastards

With my summer plans in a near-constant state of flux, I thought it about time to set a few things straight. This time last year I still wasn’t sure what I’d be doing for the summer of 2016. By all rights, I figured I was still lumped with another two months in Jordan. Since then, it’s bottled about through three weeks in South Africa, chilling out at Olvera’s August feria, hiking the Sultan’s trail from Bucharest to Istanbul, crossing the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, ten days in Romania, another ten in Egypt and, somewhere, completing my four month minimum in Tetouan, Morocco.

Understandably, my brain is a bit of a clusterfuck at the moment. It’s partly because of that that I accidentally booked a hotel for the wrong night in Chefchaouen and had to pay an obscene 95€ just to cancel, it being less than fifteen days until our visit now. (This is why I prefer to stay in cheap-o hostels, people…) And it’s unnecessary expenses like that that make me reconsider.

So this is me, reconsidering. Let this exploration of yours truly’s very own version of Polo’s Bastards stand testament to any further meanderings. The following ten countries, in ascending order, are the top ten on my hit-list. And they aren’t exactly the easiest. (Spain, for various reasons, is not included – call me easily pleased, but it’d invariably take the top spot).

Southern Morocco

10

Tafraoute, Morocco

This one’s on the list despite the fact that I’ve already been because I was only there for five days or so, and it’s worth an adventure in its own right. Morocco’s south is famous for the Sahara, for Erg Chebbi and the reasonably easily-accessible camel treks that set out into the dunes from Merzouga. Morocco is such a diverse country, and merits proper exploration of each of its three zones – the Rif, the High Atlas and the Anti-Atlas – independently. It’s the south that bowled me over, not least of all Taroudant, by far the most charming city I encountered when I trekked from Agadir to Fes. It’s also the home of Abderraman Rajji, the kind old Berber who offered his house to Archie and I. Tafraoute in particular has been calling out to me ever since. The way things are going, I might even consider exploring the south some more in September…

Yemen

The Republic of Yemen

Jebel Shugruf, Yemen

You’re mad. No, seriously, you’re insane. But Yemen has been my top Arabic destination since the very get-go, being one of the contenders for both Sheba and the most beautiful country in the world in my books (it may or may not have something to do with having so much in common with the country in the top spot on my list). Since it’s been a war-zone for so very long and many parts are still tribal – the two may or may not go hand in hand – much of the country has been spared the glass-and-cement arm that has scarred so much of the Gulf. Not to mention the gorgeous, Ali Baba-esque mountaintop towns. Wallahi.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Mount Nyiragongo  tourism destinations

Mount Nyiragongo, Democratic Republic of Congo

I’ve been within a stone’s throw of the DRC twice. On both occasions I had this mad urge to throw caution to the wind and cross the border. Fortunately, a crocodile-infested river stopped me the first time and a hundred miles of unchecked jungle stopped me the second. Needless to say, my appetite is whetted. This is the true African stereotype, Conrad’s dark zone, peppered with active volcanoes glowing red in the night – and at the risk of further destroying any faith you had in my sanity, it’s the danger of the place that attracts me so. Doesn’t the name alone sound so powerful?

Argentina

7

Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

A curiously mainstream addition to the list, I’ve had just about enough of seeing the same mountain range on the front of Lonely Planet, National Geographic and Wanderlust magazine – and have therefore decided that it must feature on this list. Patagonia looks so very crumpled and torn apart that it’s almost unnatural. I’ve been in love with mountains my whole life, and Argentina’ Tierra del Fuego represents possibly one of the most perfect mountain ranges in the world, picture-perfect in every way. And hey – they speak Spanish!

Egypt

6

Abu Simbel, Egypt

Let’s face it, who doesn’t want to see the Pyramids? Or the Sphinx? Or the Valley of the Kings? Egypt was my fall-back for Arabic until the Arab Spring ruined everything… now it’s been relegated to the dust of lost dreams, which is rather fitting, though it’s resurfaced from the sand of late in light of the summer flux. My only issue with Egypt is the package-y nature of it. If I could go, I’d rather backpack it – and that is the first leg of Cairo to Cape Town. That really would be an adventure and a half!

India

5

Mehrangarh Fort, Rajasthan

One word: Rajasthan. Land of desert forts, of rose sunsets, of dark-eyed mysteries. It’s the realm of the Far Pavilions‘ Bhithor (I think) and of Valmik Thapar’s Desert Kingdoms episode of Land of the Tiger. Southeast Asia may be the flavour of the month for most backpackers, but I’d eschew the Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam trail for a month in Rajasthan alone anyday. India’s so massive and so diverse that you’d need more than three months to fully appreciate the place. And some day, I intend to do just that.

Ireland

4

Murder Hole, Donegal

I have absolutely no idea why or how County Donegal made it onto this list. One day it simply seized my brain and became the country of origin of my princess. I guess it all spun out from there; that, and that damned gorgeous accent they have up there in Ulster. Ireland’s a damned sight closer than any of the countries on this list (and is also, consequentially, the only European entry), but the only thing holding me back is the expense of traveling around; a fair hike compared to the others. Even so, I doubt it’ll be long before I’m drawn out to the Emerald Isle.

Cameroon

img_3316

Rhumsiki, Cameroon

As well as my madcap desires concerning Cairo to Cape Town, I have this less ambitious but no less adventurous urge to visit each of Africa’s four corners: North, South, East and West. Having seen central Africa already, I’m chomping at the bit to see the rest of it. It’s first on the list of countries I’d consider volunteering in, since I reckon it would really merit getting to know on a more human basis than backpacking could ever provide. It also has a serious bushmeat trade problem that I feel strongly about. On top of that, Cameroon has all that I love about Africa: fantastic food, spectacular countryside, great apes and a dark history. It’s also a necessary stopping point since one of my novels takes place here. Let’s just call it ‘essential research’.

South Africa

3

The Drakensberg, Kwa-Zulu Natal

Words cannot describe my love for this country that I’ve never been to. I’ve waxed lyrical enough about the land of Quatermain, of P.K., my ex-girlfriend and the Zulus before, so I won’t go on about it. What I will say is that I came with a hair’s breadth of going this year, barred only because my bank wouldn’t let me pay for both my flights and my brother’s in one go. Taking it as a message from above, I backed down. But only for a run-up. I’m not even close to the door yet.

Ethiopia

1

Gelada Baboon in the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

Truly, Ethopia must be the King of Africa. It’s Africa with castles, with Gods-in-the-flesh and sulphur fields. The people are – in my humble opinion – probably the most beautiful in the whole world, being a striking blend of Arab and African. I had a three-hour layover in Addis en route to Uganda four years ago and I guess it started there – there, or a few hours before, when our plane came down out of the clouds and I saw Africa for the very first time, a paradise of rolling plains that gave way to spectacular waterfalls and blood-red cliffs. The Simien Mountains also top the list for me in terms of beautiful mountain ranges… and I haven’t even got onto Harar’s hyena-men. Then there’s Erta Ale, Gondar, Addis Ababa herself, the Omo Valley… Ethiopia simply has everything – and less tourists than the other African giants. Perfection. All I’m waiting for here is another like-minded adventurer to join me and I’m there. Just you wait, Ethiopia. Just you wait.

There. When you’re struggling for an idea as to where to go next in a couple of weeks, or months, or a year, return here. These are my top ten. And one day, come Hell or high water, I’ll have seen them all. BB x

Griffonheart

Sometimes, when a bird flies low over your head, you can hear the rush of wind through its wings. Swifts do that, from time to time. Swifts and pigeons. It’s a quiet, singing sound like a sudden release of breath, over and gone by the time you’ve worked out where it came from. Now try to picture the same scenario with a nine-foot wingspan. The result sounds something like a gale, a genuine roar of wind, every bit as impressive as those giant wings. This is Monfragüe and this is a griffon, truly one of the most spectacular creatures on the planet.

Griffon

I don’t really know what it is that attracts me to vultures so much. They’re not the most attractive creatures on the planet. Their heads are snake-like and feather-bare, their eyes are cold and sinister and they spend their entire lives feeding on dead things. If birds are supposed to sing, vultures sound like they have a bellyful of iron filings when they make a sound – and that isn’t often. But for some reason, I’m obsessed with the damned things, and always have been.

DSC_0610

Extremadura is a very special part of the world, but doubly so if you’re as much of a bird nut as I am. The immense blue skies are almost always dotted somewhere in the middle with a black speck wheeling round and round on the thermals: kite, eagle or vulture. I grew up in the south of England where the largest soaring bird you’re likely to see is a rook, and I still remember the sheer thrill of seeing my very first vulture when I was about nine years old. For me they represented Valmik Thapir’s India, of cliff-forts and desert kingdoms. To see them wheeling lazily about the Spanish sky was like something out of a dream. And so the love affair with the griffons began.

5385452975_2c3babecc1_o

Since then, they’ve got me stranded in the mountains, terrified my little brother, warned me of thunderstorms and – in quite possibly my favourite travel anecdote to date – they even got me arrested by the Spanish military police. I kid you not. Apparently photographing vultures isn’t a believable excuse for wandering about the countryside alone at fifteen without one’s passport…

4555278683_0c053028e4_o

(Not even for results like this…?)

If I’d had any idea what kind of scrapes my passion for vultures would get me into, I wonder whether I’d have had second thoughts. Somehow I doubt it. Something tells me I’d have found my way to the same spot sooner or later.

DSC_0761

There are four kinds of vultures in Europe, and all four of them can be found in Spain – if you know where to look. The griffons are the most obvious and by far the most numerous, nesting in colonies that can number as many as a thousand strong. The other resident is the far rarer black vulture, recognisable by its sheer size alone; fully-grown adults measure three metres from wingtip to wingtip, making them one of the largest birds in the world. The Egyptian vulture is a smaller summer visitor from Africa, where they eat ostrich eggs by smashing them open with stones. But it is the fourth and final that is the most famous: the lammergeyer, a golden-bodied, diamond-tailed king of the skies that feeds almost entirely on bones. I’ve only ever seen one once, at an incredible distance, whilst in the French Pyrenees some seven years ago. It remains one of my greatest dreams to go chasing after the legendary quebrantahuesos, ‘the one that breaks bones’.

Like I said, I’m hooked on the creatures.

DSC_0857

I have to admit, they do have some seriously menacing eyes…

Dad was in a grouchy mood and didn’t let us stay very long. Must be something to do with the distance from Villafranca to Monfragüe (which, I should point out, is as beautifully in the middle of absolutely nowhere as are all of my favourite destinations). I could happily have spent five hours and more just stood atop the castle with the vultures wheeling about all around me, or sitting under the cliff and watching them plummeting out of the sky and onto the rock in a fierce rush of thunder.

DSC_0725

Needless to say I will be back. Everyone has their vice. Some like their drink, some like their fast cars, others have difficulty sitting still. I have this peculiar fascination with vultures and I’m not even close to understanding them. Yet. BB x

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.

DSC_0983

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.

DSC_1053

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.

DSC_1036

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.

DSC_0988

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.

DSC_1073

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.

DSC_1107

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.

DSC_1173

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