All posts by dragojac

The idea of moving to another country was first muted over a bottle of retsina in a taverna on the Greek Island of Samos. The fires were flamed by numerous other local, and sometimes disgusting, concoctions in far flung places around the globe until we decided it was time to stop talking and do something completely out of character-throw caution to the wind. Three years ago we swapped Manchester for an island that at one time we wouldn’t have thought exotic or different enough to have made it onto our holiday list, Tenerife. Yet the island we have spent the last three years learning to love and to live in, isn’t the same one that we used to read about and turn our noses up at. So now we’re on a mission; to spread the word that Tenerife is far more than a sun, sand and sea resort for weather weary Europeans. Although most of my work is writing travel pieces, I enjoy the freedom of creative writing far more, so this blog gives me the opportunity to indulge these impulses and have a bit of fun. Despite being born and brought up on a Scottish island, I spent most of my adult life living near Manchester, England and during that time developed a passion for Man Utd. Ironically, living here has meant that I've been able to watch nearly every match they've played over the last three years. The down side of this unexpected pleasure has been that most of it has been in the company of ABUs (anyone but United).

The true socialists

The rest of you are right wing, came the barrage,
As they sided with Trump, Johnson and Farage.
Down with the establishment, liberals, and elite,
Roared a rich Greek from his motorcycle seat.
Destroy the Beeb, burn the Guardian, and boycott C4
Alt news is king, journalism’s a bore.
The media’s our enemy, against it we’ll rail,
But don’t expect us to criticise the Telegraph or Mail.
You’re clueless puppets and we’re never wrong,
Is their mantra, a relentless battering ram of a song.
To infiltrate and destroy are clearly the goals,
Of privileged pricks pretending to be proles.
We’re the true socialists they cried whilst raising the fist,
But they omitted a word, and that word is nationalist.

Plastic Chairs in the Forest

When things aren’t the way they should be, something occupies a space it normally wouldn’t, our brains lock onto it like a homing missile, even when we’re not particularly paying attention.

Things like a white, plastic chair in the middle of the pine forest.

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I’m only casually paying attention to the rural landscape outside the car as we drive along a country road through miles and miles of stone pines. The presence of the plastic chair registers a couple of hundred metres after we pass it; my head swivels backwards, but it’s already lost in the undergrowth, so I don’t mention it to my fellow passengers. People dump all sorts of shit near the road, even out here apparently.

A couple of kilometres further on and I spot another plastic chair ahead; my mind’s more acutely tuned in to its surroundings now. This time, as we pass, I notice a woman standing in the shade cast by a tall tree a few metres away from the chair.
“There’s a woman and a plastic chair in the forest,” I blurt out, bemused.
“What?” A turns her head to look at me.
“There’s a woman standing beside a plastic chair in the forest,” I repeat.
It’s especially strange as there’s nothing out here. No towns, villages, shops, nothing. It’s just a country road linking A with B.
“She’s a prostitute,” J says knowledgeably from the back seat.
“Get away,” I laugh. “Why would there be a prostitute in a random spot in the countryside?”
Just at that we pass another plastic chair under the shade of a tree. This time there’s a blonde woman wearing a slinky red dress sitting on it. She looks like she belongs in a club rather than a pine forest. Her wildly out of place clothing seems to confirm J’s suggestion.

But why here? It’s not in the middle of nowhere exactly, but neither is it near, well, anywhere. The very idea of prostitutes in the forest throws up all sorts of questions.
Do drivers just accidentally spot these women lurking in the dappled shade and think “well, that was good timing, I just had a yen for a quick one beside the road” in much the same manner they might develop a hunger a burger at a roadside cafe? How do the women get there? There’s no car nearby. Is there a pimp bus which drops them off in the morning and picks them up again at night? How long is the shift? It must get pretty lonely out here on your lonesome for hours and hours. Is there an app which tells drivers which forests are best for a bit of off road action?
It seems random, bizarre. On a seedy, city backstreet we wouldn’t think twice about passing ladies of the night plying their trade, but when it comes to ladies of the forest that’s something very different. It’s a scenic scene which simply doesn’t equate.

Six months further down the line and we’re driving along a different country road in the wilds of Alentejo when a man in a blue tee-shirt and denims emerging from the forest catches my eye. My initial reaction is that he’s stopped for a piss; the parked truck on the opposite side of the road appears to back this up.

And then I spot the plastic chair.

The offensive shirt

Waiting to walk through the scanner at Manchester Airport, a security official asked me to take off my jacket and put it through the scanner. The ‘jacket’ was actually an ordinary shirt over a tee-shirt, which I pointed out in a friendly manner, expecting him to wave me through.

“Take it off,” he insisted.
“But it’s a shirt,” exasperation started to creep into my voice.
“Take it off and put it in the tray.”
“What?” exasperation turned to irritation. “You really want me to take off my shirt?”
“Yes.”
“Take off a shirt? Seriously?” I guess by this point my eyes had silently added “ya wee prick,” to the end of the sentence.
“Yes.”
I took off my shirt and stuck it into a tray.

I breezed through the scanner, even though I expected to be directed aside to be ‘swabbed’. Oh no, they had other plans for dealing with me.

I watched as the tray with the shirt headed along a different track to most of the other trays. It slid to a stop at the back of a line of other ‘suspicious’ trays. The crumpled olive shirt looking quite silly and seriously out of place among a long convoy of bulging flight bags.

“This is what happens when you can’t control your mouth,” A, who had waltzed though without incident, was annoyed with me. My shirt being singled out for further inspection meant we were going to have to hang around security for a bit longer, until it was my turn to… to do what exactly? Open up the shirt to show there was nothing suspicious in it?
A quietly fumed at me. Harshly I felt, I still believed questioning something as nonsensical as having to remove a shirt was reasonable. I hadn’t been offensive. My expression may have been of the ‘you can’t be serious’ variety, but I had generally reacted in a calm, if slightly exasperated, manner.

Eventually my turn rolled around, slowly. I expected the female official to simply hand the shirt to me, maybe with a an apologetic smile (she would surely see the ridiculousness of the shirt being in the ‘suspicious baggage’ line). I was going to smile back and remark “the colour must have really offended him.” Then we’d both laugh and all would be well. But she was in on whatever was going on, and they were apparently still punishing me for questioning having to take off the shirt.
“It didn’t scan properly, you’ll have to put it through again,” she didn’t even look at the shirt or my face.

A shirt didn’t scan properly? What bollocks. I knew it. They knew it.

However, this time I meekly replied“okay,” and did as I was instructed.

I was only too aware the next stage would probably end with me having a finger stuck up my anus.

What’s the deal with the box?

At first it was just a box.

Nine weeks down the line it has become a monument to a generational chasm; a symbol which could either be one of defiance, or simply indolence.

I saw the moment ‘the box’ arrived, delivered by M, the ever-smiling Brazilian friend and ‘fixer’ of Dona C, the man she uses to resolve the more technical problems around her farm. Directed by Dona C, M placed the cardboard box outside A and L’s window on their side of the large, colonial veranda we share. M opened the box, and rummaged inside the cover for a moment before he extracted a sheath of paper which he laid on top of ‘the box’ – assembly instructions.

I could see from the images on its cover that it was an exterior plastic storage cabinet, an extremely useful addition to a veranda which, over the summer months, had become increasingly congested with various items which ranged from inflatable airbeds to sacks of BBQ briquettes, and discarded cardboard boxes to an army of empty, reusable, environmentally-friendly supermarket bags.

That’s A & L’s side, not ours. On ours is a table, chairs and some nightlights. A border of pot plants, ferns, and low dragon palms separate the two. But we don’t stick to it, it’s a casual affair. The utility room we share is on our side of the terrace, the switch which bathes us all with light when darkness descends is on their side.

One summer afternoon, whilst quaffing beer, we’d all had a discussion about the lack of storage in the farm’s outbuildings which now served as both our houses. Ours had been the wine press before it was turned into a home. Although full of character, they weren’t designed for practical living. The arrival of the box looked like A & L had arranged to do something about their outside living space.

Except for the look of… the look of what exactly? Now I come to think back, the look on A & L’s faces when they returned home from work that night suggested they weren’t responsible for arranging ‘the box’ at all. It was the look you get from a cat when you replace its favourite bowl.

A ‘what’s this and why is it here?’ look.

A & L leave the house early and return quite late. The only time they have to deal with domestics is over the weekend. The first weekend ‘the box’ arrived they had friends staying. September is sultry hot here, life is still lived mostly outside. They sat on their side of the terrace with their friends all weekend, we sat on our ‘summer’ terrace at the rear of the house – it’s a tad wilder there, looking into the pines and the sheep’s field. It’s also facing west, so the sun kisses it for longer.

By the end of the weekend, ‘the box’ was still in its virgin condition.

We travelled for the rest of September, but when we returned home ‘the box’ still hadn’t been touched. Three weeks had passed.

‘The box’ stopped being a box and started to become something else. If anything, debris on the terrace had grown, but ‘the box’ remained untouched.

Over the following two weekends, A & L again sat on their increasingly smaller terrace with more friends, ‘the box’ remaining ignored, even though one of their chairs had to backed right up against it as space was now at a premium.

Why? Why hadn’t they assembled ‘the box’? It would make their lives easier, the terrace less cluttered to manage, to keep clean. The night that box had arrived I’d have been cross-legged on the ground, in my element, scratching my head trying to decipher simple construction instructions, and childishly ecstatic at having an opportunity to use the brace of tools I own which rarely get used.

But no, ‘the box’ stayed, well, in its box.

Our travel plans meant we hardly saw each other over the following weeks, the chance to converse limited to the occasional, “hi, how are things?” as we passed each other on our ways to do tasks which meant we couldn’t pause for a decent natter. Summer has now drifted away to be replaced by a cooler autumn. Our paths rarely cross despite our geographical proximity to each other.

Which has been hellishly frustrating as there’s a question that’s burning away which we haven’t been able to ask.

Three weeks became four, five, six, seven, eight… and now here were are. Nine weeks and the box within a box hasn’t been touched. It has, ironically, become the biggest item of clutter on the veranda; the king of the chaos.

Why? The question eats away at us.

I wanted, want, to scale the leafy border and carry out a raid on their terrace under cover of the night, dragging all the meaningless pieces out of the cardboard container to turn them into something meaningful. But when daybreak broke would this be viewed as the actions of a friendly fairy or an interfering ogre?

The untouched box is a conundrum. It has become far more than just a box; its bulk greater than physical. It is a statement of something, but what exactly?

There can be only two explanations.

The first is A and L never actually asked for ‘the box’ and view its presence as a negative judgement on them. Its virginal state is a stubborn statement of defiance. Don’t interfere.

The other is they are simply too lazy to take the time to assemble it. Their weekends are a time for relaxation and pleasure and nothing else. They are a lovely couple, in other ways considerate and friendly. But previous actions/inaction have revealed they can be domestically inept. Possibly they’re simply waiting for the day that M returns and puts it together for them.

Meanwhile the debris grows, sometimes blowing through the terrace like tumbleweed across a prairie. And I wait for the moment when we actually get to have a decent-length conversation with them so I can casually ask: “what’s the deal with that box?”

That’ll probably be sometime next spring.

The Modern Messiah

The stranger walked into the small village, arms spread wide.

“I come to share a gift which will enrich your life,” she beamed.

“Is it books so we can better educate our children?” Asked one villager.

“No,” smiled the stranger.

“Then it must be medicine so we can heal our sick?” Another villager suggested.

“No, it’s not medicine.”

“Aha,” a third villager exclaimed. “You have brought us tools so we can build better houses?”

“It’s none of those,” laughed the stranger as she revealed a sleek, rectangular object. “This is a smartphone. I’m going to show you all how to use Instagram.”

This, depressingly, is a true story, an example used at a travel conference to illustrate how some travel bloggers have supposedly impacted positively on the places they’ve visited.

The Year Facts Died

“Everything you have said is actually factually inaccurate and it’s easy to show you why.”

“But I don’t care, I’m still going to believe what I want to believe.”

There was nowhere to go. Intelligent reasoning has increasingly become something to be scorned and might as well hide out in the woods like a furtive fugitive; hiding from a platitude spouting populace whose brains have been turned to mush.

The zombie plague is upon us.

The magic trick hidden in full sight on travel blogs

“Are you watching closely? Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts. The first part is called “the pledge.” The magician shows you something ordinary. A deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it, to see that it is indeed real,unaltered, normal. But, of course, it probably isn’t.”

The opening lines to Christopher Nolan’s magical movie The Prestige are deliciously clever on a number of levels. They describe to you exactly what they’re doing as they’re setting you up for what’s to come.

Whenever I see a disclaimer on a travel blog it often reminds me of The Prestige. But then, like Michael Caine’s character, I know the business. I know the pledge (the disclaimer) exists for readers to examine to see that all is normal. This is someone you can trust.

But unlike with a magician, where members of the audience are there to be deliberately mislead, to be tricked, in some cases the writer doesn’t want the reader to know they’re victims of an illusion.

“Disclaimer – I visited Barundella as a guest of the tourist board but, as always dear reader, the words, thoughts and opinions are mine.”

A classic pledge. All is above board.

To be honest, for a while I fell into this apparently transparency-loving trend; although, it was a trend I didn’t like as I couldn’t see the difference, when invited somewhere by a tourist board, between writing for my blog (disclaimer recommended) or being commissioned to write for print (no disclaimer). But, hey, everyone was doing it (in some countries there’s no choice, it’s the law). So like a good little grass muncher, I followed suit whenever appropriate… until the world of travel blogging changed and bloggers started being paid to ‘visit’ places.

That was a game changer which transferred bloggers from being on the same bus as travel writers onto one which had huge ‘visit Barundella, it’s blooming brilliant’ slogans written in big, bright letters on its side. At that point they became marketers, promoting destinations for money; no different from ad agencies. I have absolutely no problem with that, it’s a shrewd and, hopefully, lucrative move on the part of those who do it. But it’s a very different game from travel writing.

Advertising agencies don’t criticise the product they’ve been paid to promote. This factor takes a sledgehammer to that ‘disclaimer’ which, whilst it might not lie, doesn’t reveal the whole picture. The complete truth is being concealed by dexterous sleight of hand designed for your inspection, to let you see the contents of the blog are indeed real, unaltered, normal.

This is the pledge. You, the reader, are being distracted.

If it really was meant to be sincere and completely transparent, the disclaimer should say “I was paid by the Barundella tourist board to visit the country and then promote it. But as always dear reader, the words, thoughts and opinions are mine.”

But who’s going to believe that?

The Evolution of a Travel Blogger

2012 :– “Guidebooks are bad, they’re useless… out of date as soon as they’re published. Don’t bother with them. Travel blogs are immediate, dynamic, with real up to date information. Guidebooks are doomed. They’ll soon be obsolete.”

2014:- “I’m an innovator in the world of travel blogging, I’ve just published an ebook full of essential information on what to do, where to eat, where to stay called ‘How to Live Like a Local in Rangoon’.”

2016: – “Don’t bother writing top 10 lists or mini guides to destinations on your travel blog, the Bluff Guide does it so much better so there’s no point. By the way, did I mention I’m now a contributor to the Bluff Guide series of travel guidebooks – YAY for me.”

And at some dusty crossroads in the middle of nowhere a man whose face is obscured by shadow but whose gleaming white smile is dazzling puts another soul into a little muslin bag hanging from his belt.

You’re a typical middle-aged, white male when it comes to racism

… And that’s when she lit the blue touch paper.

It was Nigeria’s fault for playing so poorly in the World Cup.

Ironically we both wanted Nigeria to beat Argentina but as the game progressed our paths took different directions.

Where I saw Nigeria underperforming. She saw injustice and prejudice… fuelled by sniping comments on the Twitter feed she was watching more than the match.

“Ah, I see what’s going on here,” was uttered more than once.

I knew exactly what she was suggesting. But all I could see on the screen was a team in self-destruct mode.

The flash point came during a call for a penalty to Nigeria which, quite rightly, the referee waved away.

“The referee is racist,” came the instant accusation. “I can spot all the signs.”

She went on to read out similarly accusatory comments from her Twitter stream.

“Unless those are from Gary Lineker, Rio Ferdinand, or anyone who knows anything at all about football I’m not really interested,” my patience had worn thin. “It wasn’t a penalty. And, anyway, how can you say the ref is racist?”

“He’s making decisions based on subconscious prejudice.”

“No he isn’t. He’s making decisions based on the laws of the game. Nigeria aren’t losing this game due to prejudice, they’re losing because they’ve played shite. They don’t deserve to win.”

“He’s racist.”

“How can you say that? You’ve no evidence at all.”

“I’ve years of experience in this area and I can spot it.”

We disagreed some more, heatedly, before she hit me square in the jaw with “Yours is a typically defensive and argumentative reaction by middle-aged white men when the question of racism is brought up.”

At that point what had been a heated debate turned personal… ugly… into something far more serious.

Many times during the week we’d talked of instances of gross injustices, prejudice, racism  and had been in accord every time. Insisting Nigeria’s downfall had not been caused by a racist ref but by themselves was the first time I’d disagreed.

“Oh, come on.” I was furious. “That’s bullshit. If you view this match without labels, without seeing colour, then the team which has played better is winning. It’s as simple as that. There’s only one person in this room who’s allowing prejudice to influence their judgement.”

I was hurt and angered by her barbed accusation. In my mind anger jostled with the slightest niggle of self doubt. I firmly believed Nigeria had lost because they weren’t good enough and there was no way she could know if the referee was racist, subconsciously or otherwise. But then again, there was no way I could know for sure he wasn’t.

There was one thing I was 100% sure about. I wouldn’t be watching a football match with this particular friend again. The match had been totally ruined. Hopefully our friendship wouldn’t meet the same fate.

Thanks for that Nigeria.