Category Archives: Travel

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 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.

Just leave the dog alone

“My mother would have phoned the police by now.”

“What?”

“She would have phoned the police or, at least, have rescued that dog.”

“Why?” I looked at the forlorn face of the mutt peering past us and into the restaurant. It had a hang-dog expression for sure as, and this was an assumption on my part based on years of amateur dog psychiatry, it was missing its owner who was clearly scoffing food somewhere in the depths of the same restaurant. But it was absolutely fine, its leash wrapped around a fire hydrant on the opposite side of the narrow, cobbled street.

“Because it’s in distress.” replied my concerned friend.

I looked at the dog again. “No it isn’t, it’s just feeling sorry for itself… as dogs are prone to do when they’re excluded from the social scene.”

“I think it’s been abandoned.”

“What? It has not. It’s just been tied up outside whilst its owner has dinner. I’ve seen similar plenty of times.”

“Well I have never seen a dog left outside a restaurant. In London the RSPCA would have rescued it by now.”

“Well, I have seen plenty of dogs waiting for owners outside bars, shops and restaurants, and if anyone took that dog now it would be a really shitty thing to do.”

At this juncture I have to point out my friend is from London whereas I grew up on a Scottish island where if a dog was left outside a bar nobody would think twice about it. I have seen it in many other small places… which were not London. This time was in an area of Lisbon where there’s still a strong feeling of community. I had no doubt the dog was ‘waiting’ rather than having been abandoned. But London is apparently the centre of the universe and whatever happens in England’s capital city is what dictates… even if you happen to be in a different country.

“Why did that guy duck out of the way?” Inquired an American man of his family on the table next to us. There was a World Cup penalty shoot out taking place on the TV on the other side of our table and the Americans had been giving a running, and quite surreall uninformed commentary throughout the football match. The ‘ducking’ man was a goalkeeper who had just dived the wrong way. Combined with my friend’s insistent and misplaced concern for the dog, I was not having the most enjoyable of dining experiences. Maybe this was also partly to do with the fado musicians, the singer’s soulful voice filling the place with an infectious melancholic saudade. I felt as depressed as the dog looked.

“I’m really worried about that dog.” She wasn’t going to let it lie even though at this point a pair of pugs entered the scene and the dog brightened considerably. His tail perked up and he forgot his owner as he bopped about trying to attract the pugs’ attention. “I think I’ll call the police.”

By this point I was exasperated. I didn’t want to, and it was embarrassing, but there was only one way to knock this nonsense on its head. I stood up and walked over to the barman.

“My friend…” I was making it crystal clear who was responsible for my question. “… is worried that dog has been abandoned.”

The barman looked at me like I was an idiot tourist sticking my nose in… which of course I was.

“It’s a local dog, everyone knows it around here,” he nodded toward a room where the fado musicians were. “The owner is in there. In Portuguese law the dog isn’t allowed in the restaurant. But the dog is fine.”

“Yeah, I know that,” I responded like a particularly sheepish sheep, my travel cred in shreds thanks to my friend. “But my friend’s from London.” I added, as though that explained it.

I fed back the barman’s response which, finally put paid to most of the worries about the dog’s welfare (she still didn’t approve of it being left on its own).

The irony of this little exchange is this is someone who is vehemently and vociferously opposed to the idea of Brits attempting to impose their culture on different nationalities. Apparently there’s an exception when it comes to how other nationalities treat their dogs.

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The authentic travellers

Two savvy British travellers who both refused to eat in restaurants where there were British tourists turned up at an off the beaten track restaurant supposedly only known to locals in Novara, Italy at exactly the same time. One held the door open for the other who smiled and said “Thank you,” to which the door-holder replied “You’re welcome.”

Both, on hearing the other speak with an obvious English accent, stopped in their tracks and stared briefly at one another with barely concealed distaste before turning and storming out of the restaurant.

Sometimes labels only exist in the minds of those who like to apply them.

Departure

It’s a ferry which feels like a cruise ship. A DJ plays loud Latino music; a troupe of dancers twirl, swirl and wave at passengers from their stage, a swimming pool barely bigger than the average bath tub. People stock up on plastic cups of amber lager. Beyond the stern, Tenerife’s hooded Auditorium recedes into the distance under typically blue skies.

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Departure.

It feels surreal. The party atmosphere makes it feel like a celebration of our time, more than a decade, on the island.

The cabin we’ve booked for the next 36 hours is cosy enough, the sea is calm and the sunset spectacular. All feels good with the world. Tomorrow a new and exciting day dawns.

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Dinner on the Naviera Armas ferry pops the party balloon. The buffet meal is cheap and the selection is… is what exactly? Not depressing at best. But it’s not even lukewarm. It’s cold.

Tellingly there is a microwave in the dining room. It’s a classy ship where you have to heat up your own food. A rough looking extended Spanish family are wise to the ferry’s culinary flaws, they’ve brought their own food stash and hog the microwave. We muscle our way in and one of them, illustrating how we shouldn’t make judgements based on appearances, helpfully shows us how to use it (we’re microwave virgins). It makes the food edible… just.

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Overnight we sail into rough seas and it sounds as though Poseidon himself is tearing at the hull with a can opener. The metal screams in pain. It’s unnerving. Our cabin is near the prow, right at the highest point of the arc where the ship pauses briefly after rising into the air before crashing back into the sea.

It’s not the best night’s sleep I’ve ever enjoyed.

The stormy weather doesn’t let up the next day. Getting from our cabin to the less violent rear of the ship involves a bruise-inducing journey of silly walks.

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There are far fewer voyagers in the lounge than the previous day. Many passengers are ill and stay in their cabins. Maybe many passengers are ill because they stay in their cabins.

It’s a long day. Only the ever-enthusiastic entertainment team provide relief from the irritated sea and limited selection of mediocre food. Still we will be on terra firma later, with food in proper restaurants to fuel deflated spirits.

However, an hour from docking and there’s no land at all in sight. There have been no announcements about any delays, but something clearly isn’t right. We should be halfway along an estuary by my reckoning.

I stagger to the information desk.

“Rough weather has delayed us four hours,” I’m told when I ask why there’s no dry land outside the portholes.

I’m not sure when they planned on sharing this quite important piece of information.

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I’m gutted. The sea has calmed but the delay means instead of dining in a restaurant in Huelva we have another meal on board to not look forward to.

We agree the food was so poor we can’t go through another dinner. Instead, I head outside to the the pool bar, the domain of serious drinkers and heavy smokers, to check what snacks they might have.

They have more than snacks, they have burgers and pizza. They have food which looks far, far, far more appetising than the tired offerings in the main dining room. The person in front of me is served with a generous sized, good looking beefy burger. If only I’d ventured outside before we may have ate if not like kings at least not like paupers. I order two burgers and try to avoid drooling.

“Sorry, that was the last one,” the barman informs me.

My misery is complete.