Monday, August 27, 2007

Mountain bikes and markets

My cousin, Michael, and I decided to rent a couple of mountain bikes as he had done so in the past and enjoyed the experience. Being an avid bicycle rider (in the distant past) I was liking the idea and pictured a leisurely ride along the coast checking out the sites and shooting some pics, after all that´s why I am here. Michael obviously had other ideas when he pointed to a distant mountain top almost obscured by haze and announced ¨that is where we are going- Cape Formentor¨. I first thought he had said Cape Tornmentor which seemed the perfect name. Now I am well known for my enthusiasm and somewhat foolhardiness but very soon, I seriously doubted my ability to mount the peak so to speak and I spoke my words of caution but they fell on deaf Welsh ears (thank goodness this quality is one welsh trait I was not born with). So what the heck and not being a quitter, we headed off.

The coast ride was nice despite Mike´s need to race ahead. I simply sauntered behind at my own pace evaluating where the pains were going to first appear. My legs I guessed would be the first to go, perhaps my heart considering my advancing age, no maybe my neck from being hunched over with my head held up by neck sinews. I got it all wrong as it was the slowly developing blisters on my back end that started to shout for mercy- the screaming would come later.

We made it to the next village and I stopped for a chocolate croissant- fuel you know. I offered Mike one and he showed me his small apple and smiled saying ¨this is all I need mate!¨ I wished I could be like him as I devoured the freshly baked, chocolate oozing delicacy. Fueled up we started up the hill that went forever. Again Mike was soon far ahead and I was in the highest gears the bike could achieve and still I continued to slow. It then came to me that I could walk faster than I was pedalling and it would save my derriere as well. So off I got and got into my Pembrookshire rhythm and was soon making good time up the hill. Apart from the fear of cars racing up behind me and the sweat that was making my entire body a walking bath I was doing all right plus I had the added bonus of being able to easily stop for photos. Other bicycle riders would occasionally pass me with friendly hola´s and the occasional bus would also pass me coating my wet body with oily exhaust but what the hell, I am on vacation here and enjoying it.
Miles and hours later, or so it seemed I made the first lookout where Mike was waiting. The plan was to go on to the next and he kept asking me if I really wanted to go. Like as if he really did not want to go because he had practically killed himself doing the first leg but needed me to say no, I am too tired, just to y¡take the pressure off him. I played along to make him feel better and we then hiked up to the lookout with the other couple of hundred refreshed looking tourists to the lookout over the sea and coast. Incredible views and an amazing coast line. What a treat!

The ride back down was at high speed, pedal free, hair in the wind breathlessness. I loved it and managed to break some land speed records doing it. Coasting back into the village we stopped for some fresh zumo- juice and cafe con leches. Then back on the road to home. I manged to develop a new style of riding on the way back, one that allowed me to avoid placing my blistered butt on the wood (or so it felt) seat. Back at the apartment it was time for cerveza´s, a swim, and some bragging to anybody that would listen. The best part was the fact that Michael still complains 3 days later of sore everythings, while I am pain free.

The market in the old town of Alcudia is a site to see. Two days a week the parking lots and city streets fill with stalls, hundreds in numbers. Everything from vegetables to the imported beach vendor useless things is on sale. Mixed in were artisans selling their wonderfully crafted wares. The streets and aisles between vendors is practically impassable at times and I am soon covered in free suntan oil from rubbing up against so many people. I have become a potpourri of oils and smells. Despite the variety and opportunity I buy nothing as I am overwhelmed by variety and people but it has been fun to experience.

The Alcudia beach is another story of crowds and colour. The best time to experience it is late in the day when all the tourists have left and the Spanish take over. It is also cooler and quieter. My daily ritual is a walk along the beach with frequent stops at the cafes for some liquid fortification then on again. Once I have gotten as far as I think necessary for the days efforts I turn back again seeking liquid refreshments to keep me liquidated. Sometimes a veer into the ocean and walk7swim out as far as I can go and then float on back with the added buoyancy of the salt water. Then I slowly swim acroos the beach coming into land at my starting point. Not the greatest adventure but sure feels good. Again I have to celebrate this good feeling with another cafe visit to rest from my vigours.

Walking back home from the beach or from the cafe later in the evenings I am continously struck by the colourful display of the tourist´s beach paraphernalia hung on the high rise hotel balconies and every other possible place to dry for the next day´s use. I take photos to illustrate the some what whimsical efect of this tourist art.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Majorca, Spain

I arrived in Palma on the Island of Majorca, without my luggage. It seems that the airline forgot to put it on the plane! This was kind of a drag especially after reading lots of lost luggage horror stories in the British tabloid press (is there any other kind of British press?). Already tired on arrival from the previous night attempting to sleep in the airport waiting areas built-for-discomfort chairs, it wasn´t long before my patience wore thin especially after an additional couple of hours searching and lining up for info about my lost pack. Finally my turn at the wicket and I was told it would arrive at 1am the next morning. Great! I took a taxi into Palma, got a hotel room and then lit out on the town.

The Island of Majorca is legally Spain but once here it feels more like a separate country. In many ways it is a seperate country with it´s Castillian roots and long, colourful history. After the poverty and insanity of Pakistan, the remoteness of the Welsh coast, and the the English lifestyle plainness, Palma, the largest city, was a visual and aural treat. Everywhere there was beauty, life, music, people, and art. Tons of art. One museum I went to had Picasso´s and Dali´s. Outdoor sculptures abound, many of them huge and many of them quite challenging for the artist within us to accept. Take for example a miniature version of an upside down, half-built house or a row of huge, alien-like, Russian doll figures made of steel. One open-aired building, almost a sculpture in itself, has been built strictly to house ongoing exhibitions of outdoor art.

Palma has a rich and long history well illustrated in it´s architecture. It´s central feature is a huge cathedral surrounded by lesser, but equally impressive heritage buildings. Fountains, waterways, and statues of ancient warriors and gods fill the architectural gaps. Outdoor cafes , and street buskers fill every inch of available sidewalk creating a daily street carnival of the likes that I have never seen before. Around every corner is a new show, different food, and a thousand faces from all corners of the globe. I spent a lot of time sitting in the shaded outdoor cafes just watching the world parade by.

The joy of all this was lost to me when I returned to the airport at 2am to locate my missing luggage. After a couple of hours arguing and lining up again I managed to get back into the luggage arrivals area and found my pack sitting lonely and abandoned on an empty carousel. Thank goodness it wasn´t stolen as airport security, despite all the hype, is notoriously lax when it comes to departing luggage. Then back to my hotel room to sleep for what was left of the night.

After a few hours sleep following the early morning airport adventure I continued to explore the alleyways and back streets of Palma before returning to the airport again, this time to meet up with cousins arriving from wales and travel with them to Alcudia on the far side of the Island. We learned very quickly that the law in Majorca is 4 to a taxi only (no such thing as a mini van- at least not at the airport), so it was 2 taxi´s and a very hefty price tag for the 5 of us to Alcudia.
Alcudia is a strange but beautiful place. Beautiful because it sits beside the Mediterranean Ocean, the warmest body of water I have ever experienced. Strange because it is just like being in England except hotter.The Spanish are hard to find due to the thousands of Brits that flood the Island every week or two. British pubs, British fish & chip shops, stores with British papers, and British tele shows flicker on hundreds of screens on the main drag. You can keep score of a big football game by the roar of the crowds and the proliferation of England football shirts out on the day of the game. Signs often read: English owned; fried toast available here; full English breakfast; Guinness on tap; and so on. The beaches are full of very white, or very red, British bodies occasionally mixed with the deep browns of the Spaniard. The smell of sun tan oil smeared on very burnt skin seems to be the national smell of the Island.

The weather in Alcudia is very hot during the day and humid at night. While here the rains came a couple of times and the traditional uniform of the tourist- football shirt, designer T shirts and baggy shorts, was quickly replaced by cheap raincoats- multi-hued plastic bags with tight little hoods. The humour of it could not escape me and I had a large smile on my face as I watched the procession of pastels paraded by me as ducking in and out of the tacky tourist shops featuring cheap wares from all over the world. The rainwear colours were actually quite beautiful on the beach where I watched some brave souls wading colourfully in the afternoon rain.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Pembrookeshire Walk

I arrived at Newgale midday ready to walk 50 miles up the famous Pembrookeshire Coast Walk, a 186 mile walk along the wild Welsh east coast from Cardigan to near Tenbigh. My pack had been packed and repacked several times with the goal of lowering my carry weight. This was critical due to the weight of my camera equipment and I wanted success not crushing defeat.

After being dropped off by my cousin I looked at the trail climbing dramatically from the beach. I immediately started to question the fun of this venture but doggedly started on my way. Fortunately, being a photographer, I had the advantage of stopping every few feet to shoot a photo of the unfolding drama below. In reality I needed to catch my breath. I finally made it over the first hill only to find a long walk back to a beach level and then another climb, even steeper. This became the rhythm of the day till I arrived at the port village of Solva, a picturesque collection of buildings and pubs at the head of the bay. I gratefully quaffed 2 pints of reverend James Real Ale and devoured a plate of prawns. Refreshed I headed out for the next leg to Caerfi Bay which I arrived at, exhausted and sweaty, early in the evening. I was lucky to find a campsite, and luckier still that it was located next to a pub- the Welsh are so civilized!

Next step in the program was to set up my newly purchased ultra light, ultra modern tent. Being a reasonably bright man who always refers to instructions I learned that the first step in setting up this tent was to set it up at home first to get familiar with the process. Obviously I did not due this and paid the price in time and comments from passing campers (on their way to the pub of course). A typical comment I heard was "you shoulda set it oop at ome afore ya tried to do it ere yu know!" After an hour, Success. In my opinion it would have helped if the instructions were a little more clear but what the heck. The good news is that I made it to the pub with time for a meal.

Caerfi Bay is only a mile into St Davids City, the smallest city in Britain and home to the magnificent St Davids Cathedral named for the patron saint of Wales. Arriving in town I decided to spend the day to take in the sights and do a bunch of photos. The real reason was aching muscles and feet from the previous day. I found a B&B for the night figuring one night in a tent was already suffering enough and it was time for some well deserved pampering. I soon found the best cappuccino in all of Wales and I was happy. I explored St Davids cathedral and walked the town taking lots of photos. Also found the Farmers Arms, the city's most popular watering hole. Life was now complete. I then walked a couple of miles out to St Justinians on the coast where I took a jet boat ride around Ramsey Island, a bird sanctuary. Saw amazing landscapes, some of the highest sea cliffs in all of Britain and deep sea caves going deep into the cliff walls. Returned at dusk for a long walk back into town and my soft bed.

The next day I explored and photographed the empty town in the early morning before a full English breakfast at the B&B. The breakfast room was full of grey haired couples who all seemed to know each other. It turns out that the men were all members of the famous Welsh Men's Choir in town for their annual performance in the cathedral famous for it's acoustics. They gave me a cd as I could not make the performance as they reminisced of their past visits to Victoria. I left, full and replenished and walked back to St Justinians to rejoin the coast walk. Five minutes up the first hill something made a funny twang in my right calf and I was soon hobbling along the rail with a badly pulled muscle. I crippled my way into the next campsite at Whitesands Beach and set up my tent there. I spent the day walking the damage out and limped back into St Davids for a revitalizing cappuccino and dinner. I also got lucky and got to hear the Welsh Men's Choir doing their rehearsal and now appreciate the famed accoustics of the cathedral. Then another walk, slowly back to Whitesands.
Day 3 I left the camp set up at Whitesands and walked slowly back along the coast between Whitesands and Caerfi Bay arriving in St Davids exhausted and hurting badly. Reverend James generously provided some excellent medicine and I walked back in the dark to Whitesands.
Day 4 I again left the tent set up and walked the wildest part of the coast from Whitesands to Trevine stopping only in at Porthgain Harbour to meet my old friend R James. This was an 11 mile hike up and down some of the most rugged hills. My arrival in Trevine was heralded by rain and major exhaustion. Every muscle ached and getting up from the pub table was equivalent to raising the dead. I now what it will feel like when I am 100 years old. Fortunately there was a bus back to the campsite and an oncoming gale that had emptied the site of all my neighbours apart from a very drunk group of youths who generously sang me to sleep.
I woke up on my final day to grey skies and slugs in my tent. Four buses and 8 hours later I completed the last 100 miles of my adventure back to Ammanford and the welcoming soft bed of my cousin's house.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Back to the sixties

England for me represents my past, my childhood. It seems so strange to hear the crack of a cricket bat and, in my mind, feel the weight of the hard ball as it hits the English hardwood. Same goes with smells as a particular tree fragrance takes me back to the parks of my British youth.

To continue the theme of memories I attended an outdoor festival in a soggy farmers field outside of Wickham in the south of England. The occasion, me bruva's 50th birthday, whose wifely gift was concert tickets to the headliner at tonight's performance- Jethro Tull. The show is under the big top of old travelling circus times, a massive tent held skyward with 4 columns and hundreds of guy wires stretched taut. It is huge and the over capacity crowd is dwarfed by the structure. The stage is close and brightly lit. Nearby is a long tent occupied by 20 mini-bars and long lineups, with cold beer (can you imagine) the beverage of choice. Standing next to the bars, in typical British organized fashion, are the porta potties with equally long lineups. A uniqueness that I have never seen before are the large 'Gents' portas that can occupy ten at a time, much like a revolving door- in one end, out the other, and back to the beer lineup for more.

The festival grounds are much like our own folk festivals, dozens of vendors hawking everything from JT T shirts to typical ex hippie paraphernalia and clothing. The track between the displays is churned mud and it wasn't long before the inevitable mud started to climb the inside of trouser legs. The rain had just ended and, in a god-like fashion, the bigtop was blessed with a huge rainbow ending above the highest point of the tent, the pot of gold waiting for us all inside.

Jethro Tull were phenomenal, Ian Anderson outstanding as he contorted, danced, and slithered across the stage making the finest music with his trademark flute. One old favourite after a another caused time to speed up as the performance raced to it's climatic end and a huge outcry for more. The crowds cacophony was quickly rewarded with the return of the band and an even more rousing rendition of Aqualung. Following the song, Jethro Tull exited with hands held skyward in Churcillish Victory signs and the crowd exited ever so Britishly into the nights darkness. A great evening for all, and the happiest of all was me Bruva.