Zesty Mumma's Words

A life lived without passion is a life half lived

Archive for the tag “help”

Stepford Wives to Kim Kardashian -The pressure on Young Women

Long ago in the dark ages, the 1950’s that is, poise and the ability to dress attractively were desired attributes for the cultured young woman. These and the ability to clean a home and cook a roast dinner all the while dressed as a Stepford wife.

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You may think that these standards are long since resigned to the depths of history, but let me ask you what is the difference between the pressures on those 1950’s housewives and the images the likes of Kim Kardasian and her ilk are transmitting into the brains of young women today.

Poise was important then and just so today. Think of the skill involved in presenting the perfect selfie to the world. Surely the poses required in those social media posts are a reflection of the type of “poise” desired for the young in society today.

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Ok so the Stepford “pearls and twinset” look has well and truly gone by the wayside but young women today are faced with an equally unattainable standard splashed over the internet and magazines. Thanks to the same Kardasian clan and lesser media starlets it is not good enough for young wives and mothers to be just cute, they have to be sexy as well. Seductively posed pouting in the bathroom mirror or suggestively filmed with breasts partly exposed, while driving their children to school. This is standard fodder for the all powerful social media platforms. So while the unattainable 1950’s and 60’s standards of perfection is thankfully no longer valid, it has been replaced by an equally unattainable standard – pole dancer style.

You might call me a dreamer but in the words that just dropped out of Amy Farrah Fowler, as I write this blog and watch The Big Bang at the same time, “why can’t we go back to the time when brains were sexy.”

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I love Paris but try to avoid Faulty Towers

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Barcelona’s Sants Train Station is grey and strewn with the jetsom of human travellers at 4.30am, most standing, some leaning drowsily on the external wall. All of us willing the clock to tick round to the magical 5.30 hour when the entrance doors slide open and we can resume our waiting inside. Not that it is uncomfortable standing in the concourse, let’s face it, it’s summer and its Spain. I’d had at least a 4 hour sleep but it was plainly obvious that many of the others had been there all night. Having slept uncomfortably for a few hours inside, they were then forced to exist the building at 1.00am when the terminal closed and wait like “lepers thrown out of the city” till it reopened.

Thankfully the Train to Paris is sleek and modern, and miraculously has enough luggage space for everyone’s bags, which is not always the case on some Spanish internal services. We quickly cross the border into France and the difference in the countryside is dramatic. Green and glorious, France shimmers in the morning sun, while river after river runs deep and wide to the sea.

The warm air of a late summer afternoon embraces me as I finally emerge from the Paris underground onto the Boulevard de Strasbourg, which in comparison to the madness of the overwhelming throng of Las Ramblas in Barcelona appears almost deserted. I hadn’t originally planned to visit Paris when I first considered my trip, it just wasn’t high on my list of priorities. However, as I left the metro it was love at first sight, Gigi”, “Springtime in Paris” and my favourite, “French Kiss” had never prepared me for how truly amazing this city really is. The elegance that is its lifeblood pumps through the streets infusing even the most humble of man made structures with beauty.

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The Appi Hotel, a quaint friendly hotel according to the listing on a well known booking site, appears as a doorway between two shops and on entering I almost run over a tiler who is working just inside. His presence is not unwelcome as access to the hotel is via reception on the first floor and my gigantic bag was not making it up the ancient spiral staircase without his help. The threadbare carpet could not fully disguise how easily the stairwell could be converted into a slippery slide, with each tread so worn they angled sharply to the ground.

In reception I unfortunately paid the full price for my six night stay without even looking at the room, which turned out to be a floor above. The room itself was not disgusting, just nothing like the photos on the before mentioned website. A spongy feeling the size of a 40cm circle under the faux wood vinyl flooring, directly in front of the wash basin in the narrowest part of the room, was a bit worrying. Being hot and tired from my trip all I could do was fall onto by bed and hope that I could rest. However, after an hour of meaty heat as well as banging and crashing, funnelled up via the internal cavity from the workman below, I did the only thing I could and left for the afternoon.

My return that evening with goats cheese, red wine, avocado and tomato felt much more promising but just like a slippery slide it was all down hill from there. The shared toilet was situated on a half floor between mine and the one below.  To get in meant tippy toeing to the narrowest part of the stair treads as the door opened outwards and without a landing you had to climb around it and up into the room. Inside the decor, very reminiscent of an outhouse found on farms, was complete with graffiti carved into the aubergine paint spelling the word “taken” (referencing the well known Kidnapping movies). Lets just say my breathing was becoming slightly exaggerated at this stage.

My hope for the bathroom above to act as a defibrillator was dashed after a similar climb inside (this time from below). With the door shut the gap between the doorway and shower cubicle was approximately 30cm (or two tile widths), the lack of towel rail or hook to hang cloths and towels on meant the floor had to be used. The shower, like the rest of the place had seen better days and likewise didn’t have a hook on which the shower nozzle could rest, rusty pipes and fittings also goes without saying. However, my favourite feature in an already overflowing tableau of dreadfulness was undoubtedly the cracked corner of the Perspex cubicle roof; into which generations of travellers had chucked the used soap packets and remnants of the fluoro coloured complementary soap. This and the accumulated dust producing interesting shapes by the dappled light shining down upon it from above, like some domestic post modernist artwork.

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The rest of this precautionary tale has highs and lows, the later being that I left after the first night with the owner refusing to refund my payment because apparently “there was nothing wrong with his hotel” and I am still in the process of trying to recover it. All I can say is thank goodness for credit cards because had I paid cash or eftpos I probably wouldn’t have a hope of recovering anything ( never thought I would say that).

The high, well while I was drinking a not so nice French red and feeling totally sorry for myself for being stuck in an extremely bad Fawlty Towers episode with Manuel. Who on this occasion was replaced with a French speaking Indian night clerk who suddenly couldn’t understand English the moment I told him I wanted my money back, I checked out another booking site. What I discovered was due to certain terrible events in Paris tourist numbers were down considerably and they were heavily discounting even the best hotels. The one I finally booked in an exquisite inner suburb called The Marais was reduced by 70%, which meant I was able to get five nights in luxury for the same price as squalor. Even faced with this amazing revelation I still hesitated cause I knew I would have a fight on my hands to get my money back from the evil wannabe Basil Fawlty. What finally pushed me into action was the fact I checked out the weather for the rest of the week. I knew that I would probably die in that tiny room with no ventilation in the coming heatwave ( which did turn out to be a doozy) and the only thing that would let let them know I was in there would be the smell wafting through the corridors.

Tips

  • Never pay for you hotel room until you have seen it.
  •  Quaint and friendly doesn’t equate to clean and comfortable
  • Always have a bottle of wine ready in case or unexpected trauma

Verdant Mountain Peaks and Gravel Pits -What Contrast!

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This weeks blog is the first part of my truly solo journey, dragging my greatly overpacked bags with me. I usually don’t make such a huge mistake with my estimation of what will be needed for a trip, but what can I say, we all screw up at sometime.

I’m heading north to Granada via Malaga by bus, which in Spain is a great cheap way to get around. The buses are modern and clean, with many many services to choose from. They also offer exceptional sightseeing experiences along the way.

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As the gentle hills of the coast give way to the towering peaks of the Sierra Nevada they form a dramatic gateway to the old Arabic fortress city of Granada. The modern day city however, is a melting pot of locals, tourists, artists and a strange phenomenon “German Hippies”. Two nouns I haven’t found synonymous to a large extent in the past, yet here in Granada they exist in great numbers complete with multiple piercings and dreadlocks.

The city is packed on this long weekend but in this case it only adds to the atmosphere. Colour and music fill the streets. Above the city the mountains are ever present and in spite of the heat it isn’t hard to imagine a winter backdrop of snow capped peaks. Sitting atop a smaller hill, watching regally over the chaos below, is the Alhambra ( the old Moorish palace) and its exquisite beauty can not be over estimated. Abundant clear fresh water gushes or tinkles or drips from the sides of the hill resulting in verdant, shady gardens and natural forest. Moorish poets described the Alhambra as “a pearl set against emeralds”.

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When the might of the combined Catalan and Castile Empires of Spain finally rested Granada from the Arabic Moores it caused great sadness. The last Emirate of Granada was so distraught at the loss of his beautiful home he sobbed as the caravan of family and possession’s made its way out of the palace gates. His mother, a woman that could give Cruella Deville a run for her money, was heard to to tell her heart broken son not to “weep like a baby for something he couldn’t hold onto like a man”. Ouch, that’s one tough mother!

Viewing the palace in the late afternoon from a neighbouring hill; the golden haze from the setting sun dripping like melted gold over her ancient turrets while flamenco buskers serenade the on lookers, it was easy to understand how this city could inspire such passion.

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The bus to Alicante, my next destination, didn’t inspire anything but a sore backside but the scenery was still worth the discomfort. Spain is essentially one gigantic rock. I know I have told you all about the romantic olive groves, the hectares and hectares of berries and of course the very very cheap wine Spain produces ( made with them grapes they grow) but to see the terrain as we head to Valencia state is to look upon a gravel pit. Popping up amongst the rocks here and there are the beginnings of the citrus groves this part of Spain is so famous  for.

However, there is a down side to all this agriculture in a country that essentially is desertlike in many areas. In 2011 a massive earthquake struck at a very shallow depth causing devastating deaths, major damage to infrastructure and left 10,000 homeless. A year on from the tragedy and an investigation ruled that the cause was the extraction of ground water, which had been going on for years.

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The scary thing is that the agriculture is still going on and it still doesn’t rain much in Spain.

Tips

  • When booking buses – if you are booking connecting buses that are run by different companies always make sure you have a couple of hours between the connection. In Spain buses run to there own timetable and you need to account for any delays that usually occur.
  • The Alhambra – Makesure you book your ticket to the Nazarid Palaces and Generallife at least a month before you leave, if you are visiting at peak time.
  • It is only about €15 for the ticket to all Alhambra attractions so don’t book on a sight that says it is €35 or €40 as these sites are for guided tours.

It’s Twistn’ Time, Twisting By The Pool That Is!

Finally my time in Huelva Province has come to an end and I am on the road again, not that I am sad to be moving on but having spent over two months in this relatively peaceful backwater, it is not with out some melancholy and sense of fondness. The two hundred and forty seven kilometre journey to San Pedro De Alcantara takes me from the far western edge of Andalusia to the most Eastern side, the playground for most of Northern Europe, especially Britain. In Australia we have the Gold Coast, the US has Miami but Spain has the Costa Del Sol.

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The road from Sevilla onwards takes a steadily climbing path to the Serrania De Ronda mountain range. Dotted here and there amongst the fields are the remains of castles and fortresses, it never ceases to amaze me how quickly we humans become jaded to the point of being dismissive of something truly magical when there is abundance. I can be just as guilty of this flaw.

Having never planned to come to Spain (that’s a whole other story) I hadn’t done a lot of research about the country. So the fact we were now heading into a mountain range that extends to the coast and  whose higher peaks quite obviously experience at least a smattering of snow in winter, was a total surprise. The mountains themselves are sharp and jagged with a sparse covering of vegetation while the valleys and lower slopes are dotted with the now familiar “Pueblos Blancos” or  white villages.

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Our first stop on the trip was a small village of Sentenil De La Bodegas. Built on a valley floor, it is famous for the house that are built under overhanging cliffs. Having experienced an Andalucian summer I totally understand the genius of this building method, just not so sure about winter but then I suppose there is always a cozy fire to sit by.

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We arrived at Sentenil via a narrow country road that wound its way through quaint fincas filled with olive groves and black pigs that feast on acorns, whose meat Spanish farmers cure to produce the famous Spanish Hamon. So quiet and idyllic the journey I was unprepared for what awaited us. Being a little insulated in Huelva from the influx of tourist to Spain at this time of the year it was a steep learning curve when we arrived in Sentenil. Parking in every village in Spain is difficult on a normal day, the narrow streets were never meant for the 21st century. The fact that it is summer, only about fifty kilometres from one of the biggest tourist destinations in Europe and a Sunday made it impossible, so we parked at the entrance to the village and walked down the hill. I really shouldn’t have had the second drink with lunch cause the trip back up wasn’t pretty!

Under the overhanging rocks the temperature drops dramatically, a great protection in the August sun. The actual name of the village comes from a Castillian word meaning “seven times” and refers to the fact that it took  the Catholic Spanish seven sieges to defeat the Moors and capture the village, the cliffs being so effective as a defence.

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The dramatic mountains of this range are matched by one village in particular, Ronda, the home of modern bull fighting in Spain. Precariously perched on top of a narrow ravine, the houses appear to be teetering on the edge. This is also a Mecca for tourists and any thought that you may be able to experience the glorious vistas should be dispelled, “it just ain’t gonna happen my friend”.

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The “New Bridge” at Ronda spans the El Tajo canyon and is the draw card for most of the tourists. It is very impressive from which ever angle you look and definitely worth the trip. However, I am reliably informed that the rest of the year is nearly devoid of sightseers and with many better photo ops.  Ronda too has a Moorish background and suffered greatly during the Spanish Inquisition. Interestly, to escape the persecution many Arabs escaped to the Huelva area and began new lives there.

Like most mountain towns the air in Ronda is clear and I can imagine crisp in winter, though not quite so in August. There are many amazing restaurants that sit on the edge of the gorge but unlike other tourist destinations are very reasonably priced.

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Taking the main road once again we continue rising up into the Siera as it winds around the mountain sides before the decent down to the coast.  I was struck by just how close the mountains are to the sea, with a clear view of the Rock of Gibralter and Jebel Musa, a mountain in Morroco. The closeness to sea reminds me very much of the kiakoura on New Zealand’s South Island but that is where the similarity ends.

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The Rock of Gibralter with Jebel Musa, Morocco to the left.

The Costa Del Sol is Australias Gold Coast, Miami in the United State or any of the other amazing beach destinations around the world that have been loved, in many ways, almost to death. Not that it is unpleasant, just filled with resorts, housing estates and shops for kilometre upon kilometre but the Mediterranean is blue and it has no sharks so I am looking forward to that.

So in the words of the inimitable Mark Knoffler  in “Twisting by the Pool”

We’re going on a holiday now
Gonna take a villa, a small chalet
On the Costa del Magnifico.       (That’s code for Costa del sol)
Where the cost of living is so low
Yeah, we’re gonna be so neat
Dance to the Eurobeat
Yeah, we’re gonna be so cool
Twisting by the pool

See ya next week.

 

 

 

 

 

Cadiz – City of the Ancients, Sunbaking Cats and Smooth Talking Old Spaniards!

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Cadiz, Cadiz, the city of the ancients, what can I say that hasn’t been said before. With a history dating back to the Phonecians it holds the title of the oldest occupied city in Spain and one of the 10 ancient cities of Europe. Sparkling like a gem in the summer sun for thousands of years, the Romans obviously knew a great holiday destination when they saw one and occupied the city from 200 BC, leaving their own unique mark. Cadiz is surrounded by water on all sides, except for a narrow spit of land, running for a few kilometres, that joins it to the mainland.

As you enter the city through the massive gates that form part of the fortification built centuries ago ( once again primarily to keep out the English) you can’t help being drawn back to a time when running battles between Sir Francis Drake’s ( or  El Draque  – the Dragon, as the Spanish so affectionately like to call him) English Navy and the Spanish Armada were a common occurance. From 1586, thanks to the first of El Draques attacks, a series of “bastions” were built. These forts, eventually saved Cadiz from English invasion and for travellers 500 years later gave some of the best photo opportunities in all of Spain.

However, like all Spanish cities the never ending rows of high rise apartment blocks lie between the main road and the beach front as you head to its heart. Some time ago I watched a documentary showing the amazing ruins of the early incarnations of these blocks of flats in Rome. They were called “Insulae” or islands and due to the staggering population growth the Romans built thousands of them, today surviving examples still stand up to five storeys. It seems that the Italians had a fascination with concrete even then.  Take the New York skyline as an example and how can we forget the “concrete boots” favoured by the Maffia. My point in all this is that the Romans occupied Spain for more than 700 years and the Spanish didn’t complain much, so it’s not surprising that a lot of habits rubbed off.

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Closer to the Old City the architecture changes, the ever present cobble stone lanes, wrought iron and narrow alley’s return. What Cadiz has, that the other old places I have up visited up till now haven’t had, is the ocean and a brilliant blue Atlantic it is. The sea wall that protects the city from the ever present surging ocean almost surrounds its entire circumference. Gigantic concrete blocks big enough to with stand the lashing storms of an Atlantic winter not only protect the inhabitants but also offer a home for the scores of feral feline Cadizians.

These cats I must tell you are quite well cared for by their human neighbours with food left at feeding points and bedding for them placed deep inside the blocks. One this hot June day they are sprawled out on the baking concrete, a gentle breeze wafting over them, oblivious to the interest of passerby’s. On the cold winter days when icy gales from the southern Atlantic close in they burrow deep into the walls cavities, warm and dry.

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Walking further along the wall you come upon a Roman Ampitheatre not 40 mtrs from the water. It is not hard to imagine the ancients lounging like the cats enjoying a sort cultural programme.  What can I say but “everything old is new again” and the present cult of summer festivals was old 2000 years ago. I’m sure I could just make out a poster on the wall advertising the “Summer Sun and Sea festival 100BC” (that is if my primary school Latin was correct). All joking aside it would have been an awesome spot for a concert.

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The highlight of the day was the Castillo de Santa Catalina and a little inlet that runs underneath the causeway joining it to the mainland. Built in the early 1600’s it forms part of the fortifications I mentioned earlier. Pitted by sand laden winds from North Africa ( the Moroccan coastline is only about 100 kmtrs away) the Castillo sits perch on a narrow isthmus, it’s low hexagonal shape giving it an appearance of solid security.

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The inlet running under an arched section of the causeway is purposely designed to allow water to flow from one side to the other in order to relieve any pressure than could create cracks  and therefore damage the wall. What it  has created over time is a clear, deep swimming hole; that on this melting day is enjoyed by groups of teenage boys showing off their diving skills and flexing their muscles to the ever present groups of teenage girls and of course  I went swimming too.

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On the walk back to the car I was approached by a lovely elderly man, who appeared to be in his seventies. Quite well dress and clean, with a present smiling face and a slightly lyrical voice, I didn’t hesitate when he held out his hand to me and automatically extended mine back to him. He grasped my hand firmly and continued smiling and talking to me in Spanish. I was becoming quite confused, especially when he wouldn’t let go of my hand.

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Thankfully my friend,who was walking with his wife a little way in front turned around and came to see what was happening. The two men then engaged in a brief conversation and I heard the mention of money at one stage but couldn’t understand anything else. I had been just able to extract my hand by this time, so when my friend flick his hand in a sign of rejection and walked away I scurried after him.

When I asked him what the old guy wanted, “oh he was just asking for money” Victor said. I told him I was relieved cause I thought he was asking if he could buy me and thought they might have been sick of me by now and actually considered his offer!

Tips

  •  Makesure you bring a hat – with 300 days of sunshine it’s always need it!
  • have lunch at the small cafe at the causeway entrance of the Castillo
  • never extend your hand to old men – you might just have to cut it off to get away!

 

 

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“Puedo Usar El Servicios Por Favor” – Ladies You Need to Remember this in Spain!

The yellow sun baked country of Huelva stretches before you on the motorway trip from Seville. It is a scene unchanged in many ways from the time of Don Quijote; rolling hills dotted with whitewashed villages, olive and citrus groves and abandoned haciendas.

The soil is old soil, washed and drained by rains and droughts through the milleniums to become  a sandy loam that cracks and crumbles with your touch, not unlike Australia.  The summer grass, quickly drying in the ever present, baking sun, shows no variance in colour from dirt in which it grows.  Native trees ( that’s if you don’t count the olive) seems to be limited, with the main example a type of conifer that takes the shape of a slightly flattened lollipop. This natural topiary I am told can also be quite tall but the ones I am seeing aren’t.

I will be based in Huelva province for the next couple of months and the main city only  10km’s away. From a distance Huelva city resembles an industrial boil on the delicate ecological skin of the earth. Huge silos and smoking chimneys dominate your sight. Set at the delta of the Rio Tinto river it is also a major port and the closest to the trade routes of the Atlantic Ocean. The vast river flats a haven in days gone by for multitudes of wading birds.

Multi storey apartment blocks which are the other dominant feature of the urban landscape, show signs of aging in the relentless Spanish sun without the benefit of the cosmetic surgery ever present in more affluent tourist areas. Did I mention that Huelva is the most untouristy place in the whole of Spain ( and there isn’t many of them). They even demolished their only surviving Roman dwelling some years ago to build a carpark!

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Huelva has one welcoming and totally unexpected surprise for this Australian traveller, Gum or Eucalyptus trees ( to everyone else in the world). I’m not talking about one or two, I’m mean forests of them. They are everywhere, beside river banks, around paddocks. Up in the hills there are huge plantations, which have resulted in self seeding populations almost rivalling the farmed variety. Originally  grown for wood pulp to feed the voracious appetite of the paper mills, they have spread to such an extend that they are a real threat to native flora. I reckon let a few koalas loose and you have an instant tourist industry, food for thought for those in power in Huelva, don’t you think?

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I read that around the world there is a love hate relationship with gums. They are on one hand lauded for there quick growing, usefulness and on the other hand despised as water guzzling ( they can drain a swamp as quick as look at it) , native vegetation stranglers (the Eucalyptus oil gets into the soil and inhibits all other plants). All I can say is Huelva Provence is little Australia!

I know that I have just spoken disparagingly about Huelva City and now I will make amends. The proverbial ugly duckling comes close to becoming a swan when you actually enter into its heart, nothing as spactacular as the old Jewish Quarter of Seville but nice enough. Narrow cobble stone lanes, black wrought iron and the occasional geranium lined balcony.

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Two friends of mine

The predominantly Spanish population of Huelva coexists with a generous number of Africans, some from Spanish speaking Equatorial Guinea, others speaking French from Malle, Senegal and Cameroon; still others speaking English from Gambia, Nigeria and Ghana all in the elusive search for better economic conditions. Unfortunating because they are here illegally they have no papers and the only work they can get is fruit picking. Hot, hard and long, most are forced to live in Charbolas ( make shift huts in camps that line the bush between farms made of cardboard, old wooden pallets and plastic sheeting) without proper sanitation or garbage disposal and yet they provide a work force that has allowed the huge berry industry in Huelva to flourish.

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There are also European escaping, not from poor economies but rather poor weather. They inhabit mostly the coastal areas and the large urbanisations that exist in Spain. Then there is the English; I noticed at the beach the other day a crumbled watchtower from approximately 1500. I could imagine some lonely, Spanish sailor watching night after night for the menacing English frigates that might appear. Five hundred or so years later all I can say is they shouldn’t have bothered cause they came anyway!

At Mazagon the  river flows into the Atlantic. A small coastal town where in winter you could literally let off a shot gun off in the Main Street without a chance of hitting anyone. In summer the story is completely different. The population explodes for a relatively brief period before reverting to its ghost town existance.

Spain has one big problem and the numerous pieces of tissue I saw blown the around low dunes on the 100 mtr or so boardwalk to the beach shows how bad it is. They have almost NO public toilets. On my first dip in the Atlantic since I was a child there were a couple of hundred beach goers at Mazagon beach and the only public toilet that the council provided ( believe me when I say that the fact there were some to begin with is very unusual) were locked.  Apparently they are only opened for special occasions, like the school summer holidays and they weren’t scheduled for another two weeks!

Which brings me back to Huelva city and the Africans. When the seasonal picking work runs out they are forced to do one of two things, other than travel to another part of the country which is hard if you have a family with kids. The first is to out right beg in the city. This option is usually only taken up by women and the occasional Romanian. A nice thing about the Spanish is that most seem to understand that they without social security the women are reliant on their donations and are generally willing to drop a few cents into the tin. One great thing about Huelva is that you can live quite cheaply, not the Hilton by any means but safe and dry. €100 a week will give you a room in a shared apartment and enough money to feed yourself and a child.

The African men however have actually developed a whole industry for the time of the year when there is no picking to be done. They sell tissues at the traffic lights. Why you ask, because as I said before there are few public toilets so you are forced to ask at a bar to use their toilet. Thankfully they are usually kind enough to let you, but often fail to provide toilet roll!

Tips

  • Always carry a packet of tissues – you know why
  • memorise this phrase ladies – “puedo usar el sevicios por favor ” – you know what it means!

 

 

 

How To Make It To SevilleWithout A Complete Meltdown – A Sangria or Two Helps

 

The air is surprising when I wheel my bags out into the street on my first day in Spain, clear and cool but with the hint of what is to come. Like a tap you turn on that first runs cold but slowly you feel warm water mixing with the cool, till finally all you have is hot.

My 500mtr walk to the metro is not uncomfortable, with the help of a couple of passerby’s, a little English and a bit of sign language, what I already knew was confirmed (the metro was straight down the street). I really didn’t need to ask I think it was more just for reassurance.

Once I had taken the escalator to the first level of the Metro it was another thing, no ticket office, no one to try and speak to, only machines, but thankfully a large map and three really lovely Canadian boys. You really don’t want me to bore you with the details of how I manage to hold on to all my bags, get my money out and pay for my ticket, lets just say it was hard. Getting through the turnstiles was just as difficult but thankfully Spanish men are really helpful as well.

Intercity trains are run by Renfe, which is situated at  Atoche, the largest of Madrid’s stations, the old terminal having been transformed into a tropical covered garden.  It was easy to find the customer service to enquire about tickets, but as it turned out, not quite so to buy one. After being directed to an office and a machine that spat out tickets notifying you of your place in the queue,  I realise in horror that my ticket said A244 when the LED display notifying the next customer to be served was only saying A103. With a single customer service representative working I quickly realised my dream of getting to Seville by lunch time was out the window.

During the next hour and a half I noted with perverse glee the many travellers that walked into the office and looked around in confusion, only to be told by another customer about the machine. Once they’d taken their ticket I waited for the inevitable series of reactions. Firstly a quick glance down at their number, then a corresponding glance at the flashing display for the current ticket to be called, followed by one of two actions when they realised how long the wait would be. The first was horrified disbelief, really entertaining. The best however, were the people that nervously scanned the seated customers with a half smile on their lips, certain that someone was playing a huge joke on them and they were about to “get punked”.

To be honest I’m really not that sure there wasn’t some comedy show being secretly filmed for Spanish television cause here is the rub, when I finally arrived at the glorious moment of my ticket being called, feeling like I had won the lottery, I was told ” sorry but this office is for pre booked tickets, you have to go to another ticket office to purchase tickets for travel today!”

All I want to say is I arrived in Seville at 4.30, took me longer than it should have, cost more than it would if I had booked and paid before I left Australia and it is my own fault. Train travel in Spain is actually brilliant, fast and clean and once you get the hang of it, very easy.

Seville is a seriously beautiful city, particularly the old Jewish quarter, which really is the only place to stay. There are far too many awesome sites to visit that I won’t mention them here, just google images and research them, totally worth it. The train station was relatively close to my hotel according to the map, so once again McDonalds, their black tea and free wi fi was greatly appreciated. I sat down drank my tea, had a wrap and sent a few messages to assure friends and family that I was still alive.  Unfortunately the last message to my son finally depleted my iPad battery and I realised with horror that my phone had died as well. Aargh!

I almost crumbled into pure panic at that moment because I hadn’t written the address of my pension down on paper and had no  idea of the name. However, just before I opened my mouth to scream I realised I had actually printed out the booking form, handing it to a taxi driver I sank with relief into the seat. Again as much as it pains my to say it, without a charged phone to follow google maps, there was no way I would have found the hotel if I had taken the bus. The taxi took me straight there and only cost €8. The narrow rabbit warren of streets and lanes in the old city was too hard to navigate on your own.

I had chosen La Montorena because of the position and price of course but also because of the mosaic lined foyer and roof top terrace and it turned out to be a good one. My single room was a shoe box but the bed was fine and the small bathroom opposite was mainly used by me alone. Again it may only have been €26 a night but the cleanliness was remarkable.

As I mentioned before but my trip to Spain is an extended one, nearly three three months in total then a month in England, so my bags are heavy. The narrow marble staircase up to the first and second floors made it impossible to drag up my huge rolling backpack. I had actually anticipated this and packed everything I thought I might need for the weekend into my  overnight bag, so I store the big one downstairs.

Seville was my first taste of the heat of summer in southern Spain and it is strong, but being dry it is bearable at the same time, not the sticky ever present humidity of the tropics. Walking around the scenic sites is therefore a mostly comfortable experience. Bars are abundant, food is cheap and beverages (alcohol included) is even cheaper so once the heat drains you a little it is easy to recover your strength. Sangria in particular is an effective medicine.

Low cost accommodation can have a bad reputation for many reason, noisy young travellers for one thing. Not that they weren’t present at La Montorena but they weren’t that noisy. These days however, you are just as likely to find older travellers, just like yourself, they love to talk and the roof top terrace was the perfect place meet the other guests.  I met a lovely Danish couple who had just arrived and were making a return visit. There is a definite comoraderie that you don’t get in resorts and upmarket hotels,  maybe a sense of shared experience!

Tips

  • Work out your metro train trip prior to taking it – mine involve taking 3 different train lines to the main station which I do think is weird when I was actually on the airport line to begin with but hey it’s Spain. And write it down – you will not remember!
  • Book and pay for your intercity train ticket before you leave home – you do not want to star in Spanish Candid Camera!
  • Buy a power  converter also before you leave home – we rely so much on technology today you CANNOT be stuck without your device, that is unless you want to have a nervous breakdown!
  • cafe/bars are cheap but even cheaper is grocery stores, the small corner store variety no exception. So if you are really trying to live cheaply  a knife, rice wafers, avocado, tomato and some smoked salmon under a roof top cabana, with a €2.99 2011 bottle of red is fabulous ( just make sure the wafers you buy don’t have some sickly sweet creamy substance inside because you couldn’t read the label otherwise your eating with your fingers)

 

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From Lunar Landscapes to Patchwork Quilt Cultivation

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Never, never, never book a long haul flight from Australia to Europe without at least one night stopover somewhere, that is unless you have the luck of travelling first class and that probably isn’t likely for most of us. This is my first piece of advice, it just isn’t worth the stress on your body.

Flying out of Brisbane at 5.00 am having not slept for twenty four hours seemed Like a good idea. My reasoning being that I would be able to sleep longer  and better on the flight if I was tired, but no this didn’t happen! I did manage an hour or so as we flew over Australia, then woke up only to find we were still hadn’t  even left the Northern Territory. It was then another hour till we exited via the coast of Western Australia.

You cannot help but be impressed by the enormous oasis in the middle of the desert that is Dubai and the airport a fitting match. Dubai Airport is enormous, so big that it takes a train to move you speedily for some distance to your departure gate. Like many of the other man made structures that appear in that part of the world it is a vast spiralling monument to those in power at the time of construction.

Peering down on the gulf states from thirty two thousand feet as we headed out of Dubai exposes the true expanse of the lunar landscape. No trees, water or seemingly vegetation of any sort (I know there really is some I just can’t see it ). I can’t help thinking in wonder at the resilience of the people that have called the region home for much of human history. Tankers, too numerous to even mention, steam back and forward, filling man’s insatiable appetite for petroleum products.

I handled the long, long trip from Australia to Dubai quite well really but the next leg of my trip however, was a different story. About half way over the Mediterranean I was ready to jump out of the plane. Again, not that it was a bad trip, it was just doing my head in being cooped up, too, too long! Even the magnificence of eastern Spain from the air wasn’t enough to totally dispel this feeling, and magnificent it is! A patchwork of gigantic proportions, laid out as intricately as any of their famous mosaic murals; fields under cultivation producing varying colours and textures, with small nutmeg kernel hills popping up here and there dotty the tableau.

Madrid Barajas Airport is a giant mausoleum on this Friday evening at 8.00 pm but later discovered that we had actually arrived at the newest and as yet under utilised runway. This also turned out to be another very fast, few kilometre train trip away from the main airport, it being much busier and just a little scarier.

There is a smell in the air that I can’t explain, I won’t call it a scent because that would elude to something pleasant. Not that it was offensive either, although I think it could be, if a little stronger. My nostrils tingled but realised that I better get used to it since it wasn’t  going away anytime soon!

My hotel booking was supposed to be very close to the airport, walking distance even, but I quickly felt like someone standing on one side of a raging river needing to get to the other side without a bridge.  After twenty three and a half hours travelling and a couple of failed attempts to find a shuttle bus I opted for a taxi. What I would have found if I had researched the transportation options better was that the train from the airport would take me one stop and  cost under €2.00. I then had to only walk 500 mtrs in a straight line to my hotel instead of costing €20.00 by taxi. Then again, as I said I’d had it and all I wanted to do was arrive at my hotel.

There have only been two times in my life where I have been genuinely happy to find a McDonalds (I haven’t and never will be a regular consumer of fast food) and both occasions involved an overwhelming desire for a cup of tea. The first after a long and uncomfortable bus trip from the middle of Laos to Bangkok, a city that never seems to close, except for a two hour window between about 4.00 and 6.00 in the morning, unhappily coinciding with our bus arrival. The only thing open in the whole of Khao San Rd was Uncle Ronald’s restaurant and those Giant  arches gleamed like the gold of El Dorado and made my heart happy as I sipped my “Lipton”.

The second was my exhausted 9.00pm Friday night arrival at the Hostel Aeropuerto, made even more euphoric by the unexpected discovering of the same gleaming arches directly across the road, calling me to my pot of gold (a cup of black tea and a garden salad), bliss!

My Tips

  •  Never book a long haul flight from Australia without an over night stop over.
  • Always research transportation option – including key words if not in English speaking countries e.g tickets – billetes (Spanish)
  • Sometimes it’s just worth it to pay a little extra to get where you are going
  • As much as it pains my to say it but MacDonalds can be a saviour.
  • Hostel Aeropuerto – immaculately clean, great staff,  comfortable, only €30 single room or €35 double

Boys Need Strong Mothers, Otherwise They Will Never Grow Up to Be Good Men

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I listened with delight to a news report today about an Australian Rules football player being left in Jail for four days because his mum refused to bail him out. If you are a younger person (or maybe someones son)  you may be thinking that was a bit harsh but believe me I am sure the decision by his mum was a long time coming. Most mothers love their sons and come to the tough love decision after more than one infringement by that same child.

It starts very early with your son, they nick the chocolate frogs from the fundraising box your daughter has been asked to sell for her ballet class and they swear that they didn’t do it. You know quite well that it is them but they snuggle up to you and there is nothing you can do.  They learn very early to wrap you around their finger, but eventually you wise up. My son moved to Mackay when he was twenty two. He and a mate went to North Queensland for a change. They spent the first couple of weeks sleeping in the back of a ute, chasing crocs and eating crabs and fish they caught. They were broke and being just after christmas none of the local builders had started back to work so they were stuck. It turned out however,  to be the best thing that could have happened to them. They literally had no money so they weren’t able to touch alcohol or any other stimulant that they may have previously resorted to.

Then a cyclone came and I had to help them out with a roof over their head. For some months after that there were any number of reasons why I should help them out. They were working but there always seemed to be an excuse for why they needed a little bit of help. That is until I did something that put a stop to it, stone cold dead.

My son rang one day saying he was totally out of food and wouldn’t get his pay for a few days. Poor starving child I thought but wasn’t going to be stupid enough this time to give him cash. So I negotiated with a large supermarket in downtown Mackay to allow me to buy a gift card over the phone, which for some reason they found to be a very hard thing to do. Anyway, once this was organised I rang my son and told him what I had done. To say he wasn’t happy would be an understatement to be sure. The coup de gras came when he tried to buy cigarettes with his groceries and discovered that I had imposed a limitation on the items allowable with that gift card. He was incredibly embarrass and because boys being as shame phobic as they are, it goes with out saying that he never asked me to give him money again.

In the case of footballers there doesn’t seem to be a week that goes by without some incident with a player from one or more of the codes played in Australia. I am sure this is the same in most western countries, footballers headlining the morning news because of trouble with alcohol, fighting and women (usually all three together).  I think they should sack the managers and employ mothers, we’d fix ’em!

Haast and Beyond, with Whitebait for Sustenance

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Heading south to Haast, the last outpost on the West Coast, you realise just how stoic the early European settlers must have been to eek out a farming existence in that verdant land. The bush closes in thickly around you at times and the ever present, misty rain implies a prehistoric past that is still very much present. This trip was my second on that road and no different the first time I travelled it.

Whitebait is a delicacy you may not have heard about but is so important to nearly every New Zealander that a love of them is almost a prerequisite for citizenship. What is it I hear you ask, actually Whitebait are tiny little fish, much smaller that sardines with a gigantic head (in comparison to their body). Every single kiwi I have met has at least one story about going “whitebaiting” when they were young, much increasing its legendary status. As you approach Haast a small hand written sign on the side of the road advertising whitebait fritters can be seen, make sure you stop. The fritters are a simple affair, prepared and cooked on a make shift bench in front of you and consist of beaten eggs, whitebait, salt and pepper, buttered bread and sauce if you want but well worth it.

South of Haast is the truly wild New Zealand, Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound and onto Antarctica. The main road turns east at this point and heads up and over the Alps. If you don’t have a convoy of Motorhomes breathing down upon you make sure at some point you stop on the side of the road to marvel, slack jawed at the beauty you are heading toward. It is scenery that no amount of words I could ever say would do justice to.

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This road will take you all the way to Wanaka and on to Queenstown, it is quite narrow in places but that is never a problem because there just isn’t that much traffic. Once you are over the top it follows a route around amazing blue lakes. This is sheep country and very high so the vegetation is sparse. This trip we chose to keep going through to Queenstown but Wanaka is a nice little town with lots of accommodation. Both towns are quite modern and generally busy in all seasons. Winter bringing the skiers and late spring, summer and early autumn the travelling tourists.

It takes about an hour to get to Queenstown from Wanaka along the highest public road in the country. Just before you begin your decent into Queenstown you come upon gravel clearing on the side of the road. Make sure you stop at that spot, the view looking down the valley and into Queenstown is a must see. Late snow was still clinging to the hills around the valley on my first trip but this time it was late summer so it had all melted, still beautiful but the snow made it spectacular.

 

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It is a 300 km bus trip to Milford Sound from Queenstown and I took it the first time I was there. Unfortunately, the only trouble with that is if you’re on a bus tour you have to take 300km trip home that day as well. Actually I am only joking when I say unfortunately because the trip there was nearly as good as seeing the Sound. After Te Arnau the road takes you through vast empty valleys that had once been farmland but are now part of the National Park. The drivers are well trained and have lots of interesting local knowledge to bring the trip to life. It makes it a long day but not one you would regret. To get down to Milford you have to pass through a long tunnel. If you are a nervous driver you would be best to take a bus trip like me. I’m not a nervous driver but I was very glad I went on the bus.

My favourite thing in Queenstown is the botanic garden. After you walk through the garden there is lovely little French café down on the lake that finishes off the visit nicely. The walk up Queenstown Hill is also great. It starts at the end of some extremely steep streets but becomes less so once you are up about a third of the way.

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Arrowtown is a quaint little town about 5 km from Queenstown, It is renowned for cute little stone cottages and other old buildings but it is heavily commercialised and really not my cup of tea. Having said that I had a venison pie at the local bakery was the best pie I have ever tasted.

 

Tips

  • Top up your petrol take at Haast.
  • Try Pine Lodge for budget accommodation. The room I had on my first visit was spotlessly clean. I booked it on a last minute booking website and managed to get a twin room for four nights for $200 NZ.
  • There are two supermarkets in Queenstown – a smaller one right at the end of Shotover Street in the CBD. The second, a large New World, is just a few blocks over, just out of the CBD.
  • Unless you know you have a bargain I wouldn’t really buy any souvenirs in Queenstown, very overpriced and all made in China.
  • The bus trip to Milford costs around $150 NZ

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