One Christmas Eve in Gondar. (Part One) — lenawaltonWAYWARDDAUGHTER

How to cook locusts. Remove the wings and hind legs of the locusts and boil in a little water until soft. Add salt to taste and a little fat and fry until brown.

I had been trying to understand my Ethiopian drivers’ attempts to explain to me in his very broken English why we […]

via One Christmas Eve in Gondar. (Part One) — lenawaltonWAYWARDDAUGHTER

One Christmas Eve in Gondar. (Part One)

How to cook locusts. Remove the wings and hind legs of the locusts and boil in a little water until soft. Add salt to taste and a little fat and fry until brown.

 

I had been trying to understand my Ethiopian drivers’ attempts to explain to me in his very broken English why we had a problem going out for Christmas Eve as planned. I had employed Gabra for his steady driving, his cheek bones and lovely dark chocolate skin, not his conversation skills. Now it was apparent that perhaps I should have paid more attention to his command of the English language.

I had somehow interpreted his hand movements and his Pidgin English as thus. From out of the pages of the bible, Ethiopia was about to have a plague of weird flying creatures that had cymbals strapped to their abdomens to encourage females to mate with them. I imagined a hoard of singing creatures on a sexual rampage clashing cymbals loudly before embarking on a lust fuelled evening of insect debauchery. Even so however strange I didn’t really know how this would prevent me from going out for Christmas Eve.

Fortunately the compulsory armed escort that had come with the driver – Ethiopia was still at war with Eritrea when I travelled, spoke excellent English and he explained fully the problem.

A plague of locusts was about to spread across the country, devouring everything edible in their wake. The cymbals were in fact tymbals and muscles on the abdomen popped them in and out to make the chirping noise.

I had experienced many unusual phenomenon whilst travelling the world, but a plague of locusts was not one of them.

I do remember when watching the “Natural World”  as a child, seeing a program where a plague of the insects had been filmed somewhere in Africa, maybe Ethiopia, but all I can remember was the scene of the barren wasteland they left behind them.

Now here in Ethiopia I contemplated how the next famine was about to begin and how soon Bob Geldolf would be flying in for his sequel to his “Feed the world” concert.

Gabra had arranged to take me to his cousins home for an evening of Ethiopian hospitality, which would include for me the nectar of the Gods, traditional Ethiopian coffee, along with Tej the local brew of honey or mead wine would be available and special Ethiopian dancing to an instrument known as a massinko which can briefly be described as a one stringed violin.

This was not a tourist venue, it was going to be a group of local Gondar people who were happy to invite me to their home. An opportunity not to be missed, and all I had to do was supply cigarettes and a few cans of Heineken from my hotel mini bar.

It was the coffee that swayed it for me, that and the fact my parents had lived through WW2, if they could survive Nazi bombs I could survive a few locusts.

Gabra had suggested a, “handful from God of the flying creatures”. I guess it depends on how big Gods hands were as to how many locusts would descend on Gondar.

And so we left my hotel and drove down to the city of Gondar. On our drive down one solitary locust landed on the car, and I thought, “One locust does not a plague make”.

How big the hand of god was I would to find out later!

 

The “home” we arrived at was from the front an innocuous looking café. The first room we entered was painted a pastel mint colour and furnished with Formica tables and plastic chairs. On the walls were ubiquitous pictures of that hero of all Ethiopians and Jamaicans, Haile Selassie.

As I sat down a saw a dark man sitting on his own, he looked up but did not smile. I immediately thought, need to put the hand of friendship out and offered him a cigarette. Gabra’s face showed he was not happy, he took me aside, “Bad man very bad man, why you give him cigarette?”

“I didn’t realise there were going to be designated cigarette receivers. How the hell do       know who a bad man is?”

Gabra continued to be agitated, “No cigarettes for that man. Bad man, he’s a bad man.”

I looked across to the man, tried to read his face. Who was he, perhaps ex-army? Perhaps he was one of those government officials who hung men outside the gates of the palace of Emperor Fasilidas. I could only guess why Gabra didn’t want to include him in my making friends with the locals.

At that moment a lady of grace and dignity walked across the room, she held her hand out and gave me the traditional handshake that all of the countries men and women would give. It was like a Masonic handshake and I returned the hand shake in the same manner.

“I am Rachel.” she introduced herself.

And so the evening’s entertainment began, I handed cigarettes out and the cans of Heineken, under Gabra’s careful surveillance. He chose who received my gifts.

The bad man sat watching and I looked at his face I could see something dark about him, not the colour of his skin, the colour of his heart. He didn’t smile at me and I didn’t smile at him.

As the evening progressed I found myself confused by the number of men that seemed to come in and out of the front café. The “Bad Man of Gondar” sat watching the proceedings in silence. At regular intervals men came up to him and gave him money. He seemed to be collecting quite a stash of Birrs, the currency of Ethiopia.

At one stage I need to use the latrines. As I stepped outside the back of the café, I was surprised to see a complex of single level shack like homes rather like Pontins holiday homes. I guessed perhaps the bad man was some kind of land lord and that was why he was being given the money it was rent night.

As I crossed the square I heard the whirring sounds of insects in flight. The one locusts earlier was now plural and they were fluttering around my head.

As I came back out of the latrine the air was filled with the creatures and I started to blindly flail my arms in the air, batting ineffectually at the cicadas as they landed in my hair and I could feel the gentle vibration on my scalp. Not something I could say was that pleasant.

I rushed toward what I thought was the café door, opened it and slammed the door behind me whilst continuing to bat at the insects in my hair.

And then I opened my eyes and saw, two naked bodies on a bed. Both black. They literally stopped in mid copulation to stare at me. As surprised to see me as I was to see them. I stood embarrassed in the half light of the room. No one spoke for a second and then the man smiled and waved his hand as if to say come and join us.

I backed toward the door and opened it to the sound of locusts. The only way to describe a swarm of locusts a gentle exhalation of air like a fart. It is like they are having one big farting competition. Loathe as I was to step back into the night, I knew my place was not in the room with the two naked bodies.

I closed the door, cringing as I exited and turned to face the farting insects. (To be continued……..)

Slow Dancing in Lago Agrio

Lisa couldn’t remember the last time she had swayed her hips with such seductive abandonment and so close to a gorgeous young man. It felt so easy, so natural and so, so tempting.

She had stopped counting the beats of the music, mouthing the numbers in Spanish “uno dos, tres cuatro, cinco” and the faster “seis, sete, oche…” so much in tune was she now with her sexy dancer.

And she had become oblivious to her surroundings, that if it were not for the odd sound of gunfire punctuating the atmosphere, for the few brief seconds of silence when the music changed she would have forgotten she was on the Columbian border in the rather infamous drug dealing town of Lago Agrio.

It was just her and her beautiful young lithe dancer Miguel.

They had barely said two words to each other since meeting in the restaurant across the street from her hotel. But now here in the Salsa bar they had found a way of communicating that defied words.

After her initial reluctance and shyness to even step on the dance floor, they were soon in slow dancing embraces, drawing each other together and then flicking away and in Sevilliana swirls to meet again in each other’s arms. Her hips sashaying like a young precocious teenager. Enticing young hot males to her mercy.

As the first refrains of “Amor de mis Amores” played out, Lisa was lost in the moment.

The room was full of Salsa dancers but they receded into oblivion as Miguel teased his hips close to hers and their body heat was the only thing between them. By the time “I like it like that” was being played Lisa realised that yes she did indeed “like it like that”.

Occasionally there was the applause of fellow dancers and laughter rang through the hot smoky room. The sound of shoes taping on the wooden floor.

Only stopping for mojitos, laced with salt and lime, they danced late into the night and finally it was the musicians who stopped playing and Lisa saw that she and Miguel were the only two left in the bar. The band packed up their instruments and made a very swift exit from the back of the building. Avoiding any possible involvement with the drug fuelled actions going on in the main drag of Lago Agrio.

It was then for a split second Lisa felt vulnerable. But that was easily swept away like tumbleweed as Miguel with traditional Spanish machismo put a protective arm around her. With a casual “Haste Luego” to the owner of the venue Miguel led her out back into the main drag of the town to her hotel.

Once back in her hotel room they continued their slow, slow dancing. While the bright white neon light of “Hotel Agrio” flickered and buzzed outside the bedroom window, they slowly undressed each other, peeling of the final traces of any of her middle aged inhibitions.

Miguel was a hot Latin lover and he took Lisa greedily and selfishly. She enthusiastically clung to his warm, soft brown body. Fluid hip gyrations and slow twirls gave way to a more frantic rhythm, rigid back arches as Lisa dug her nails into Miguel’s muscular back.

She licked the final traces of salt and lime from his lips, from the mojitos that they had drunk so easily earlier in the evening.

Twenty years of marital boredom was shed away from Lisa in that first tryst. All those years of clinging to the sham of her marriage, to his cold, cold lies. Like a snake peeling skin to be regenerated, Lisa felt her old self go with her moans of sexual delight. By the time she reached her climax all traces of any remorse for her cheating ex-husband Alex had gone too.

When she awoke a few hours later, he had disapeared, and for a moment she thought that she had dreamt him. But she could still smell his body on the sheets, and a faint tang of salt on her lips. In the shower she sighed almost with pain as she watched the water take the final invisible traces of Miguel from her body.

Her slow dancer had gone from her life, Salsa’d away from her in Sevillian swirls and now all she had was the memory of his hips as he had led her so deliberately in the dance.

She fell back onto the bed, her arms outstretched, slowly a grin formed at the corners of her mouth. There could be many more Latino lovers like Miguel before the end of her trip. More slow dancing like at Lago Agrio.

Perhaps life as a divorcee would not be so bad. The memory of Miguel was already fading, as was the taste of salt and lime on her lips.

 

 

Magotts and Cheese

Back in the seventies the shopping chain Woolworth’s in my home town of Epsom used to have an open cheese counter. One Saturday my mother sent my sister and I with my dad shopping. A rare event in itself. He wanted maggots for bait for his fishing trip on the following Sunday and mum had asked for him to buy some cheese for a cauliflower cheese dish. Knowing that we would be going to Woolworth’s my sister and I had already cajoled dad for a bag of pick and mix sweets on the way out.

Dad purchased the maggots from the fishing shop that used to be at the bottom of the high street. And then we walked in to Woolworths. My sister and I both eying the pick and mix counter with high anticipation of a bag of specially selected sweets on the way out.

Once at the cheese counter my father handed the box of maggots to my sister Karen to hold. Karen with a squeal of disgust flipped the box towards me with the back of her hand saying “No, I don’t want them, you have them” as I put my hand up to deflect the oncoming box my hand hit the lid off and the box rose high into the air. Slowly the contents of maggots swirled like snow flakes down to their resting place on the slabs of uncovered cheese.

Our father meanwhile had sighed with resignation as he had watched the maggots flying through the air. Without a word he walked round the side of the counter, picked the box up that had landed with a clink on the floor and began to pick the maggots up from the buttercup coloured slabs of cheese. The assistant who had stood spellbound by the sight began to assist him, both remained silent as they completed the task.

Meanwhile several customers with their mouth’s open in bemusement stood watching the scene.

My father showed no flicker of embarrassment at all.

When it was apparent that there were no more grubs to be rescued, dad secured the lid on the box, walked back round to stand along side us two girls and then politely said to the assistant. “ Can I have a pound of the extra mature cheddar please?”

Both my sister and I wrinkled our nose’s up and grimaced repulsed at the fact he still bought the cheese that the offending maggots had been resting on, but we remained silent. At the same time knowing all hope of our pick and mix bag was disappearing rapidly.

As if it had been a perfectly normal turn of events the sales assistant cut the cheese and wrapped it in the paper and handed it across the counter to my Dad. With a polite thank you the three of us turned round and walked out of the shop. I glanced mournfully at the sweet counter as we passed. The sweets shone in pretty coloured wrappers like jewels, purple, orange, green , bright red, all dazzling hues protecting the chocolate and sweets hidden within.

That evening my mother cooked dad his favourite meal of cauliflower cheese which he ate with enthusiasm. My dad was half French , of course a few maggots would never put him off eating cheese. Now as an adult I am so glad it was a selection of English hard cheeses that were on display, the sight of a juicy runny camembert with maggots settling in would have been just too much. Neither my sister or I could even stomach the smell let alone taste it. And even today the sight and smell of cauliflower cheese has us both wrinkling our noses’ up and brings back to me the incongruous sight of maggots falling down like fat snowflakes on yellow cheese.

The Java Jewel

I have often been described as having no fear and in all honesty there are many times when that could be said as true. But there are equally as many times when my courage has escaped me and left me ashamed and unable to look someone in the face. This is one of those moments when bravery ran rapidly out the back door like a skulking cat!

 

I arrived in the capital of Java known as Yogyakarta at the end of Ramadan – a weekend of partying was ahead for the locals. But for me,well I was trying to survive the humidity that the city blanketed me in as soon as I arrived. I had booked into a Losman run by a local family and the owner immediately suggested that I get across to one of the islands in the chain known as Pulau Serebu also called the thousand islands. The winds from the sea would be cooling and it would be great place to snorkel and relax he assured me.

His daughter and a friend were going across and I could share the air conditioned car to take me down to the ferry. The two girls were then going to be taken across the Java seas in luxury, in a yacht called the Java Jewel.

I watched the two beautiful young girls clamber aboard the luxury yacht giggling with happiness and excitement. I in turn clambered onto my less then salubrious public ferry, but was already breathing a sigh of relief as I caught the first of the cooling breezes. The ferry followed in the wake of the yacht, it soon disappeared in to the horizon.

My journey across to the island I had booked to stay on was long and slow, the ferry stopped off like one of our London buses at every place somebody stuck their hand out for it, but eventually I arrived and booked into my beach hut. Dumped my luggage, stripped down to my bikini and hit the beach!

It was not long before the two girls found me and demanded swimming lessons. The Losman’s daughter was she told me 15 and her friend 16, both had a very good command of the English language. We spent the afternoon swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Java Sea, the seabed littered with sea cucumbers.

As the afternoon wore on I started to realise something was terribly wrong. The older girl told me she had been paid to come across with the group of men sat on the beach. Koreans, rich, fat and by the looks on their faces arrogant.

“It’s Ok, no problem. At first I hated it, but the money is good and now mother always demands jewelry when I return back to my village. I get taken to expensive hotels and eat in fancy restaurants. It’s easy money.”

The story however for the Losman’s daughter was clearly different. This was her first time.

“I don’t want to sleep with him. I like his son. See, the one sitting under the trees? There.” she pointed across to the solitary figure.

I returned my gaze back to this young girl and my heart sank. She was stunning, not just pretty but beautiful. Pale skin and jet black hair falling in tresses around her shoulders. Beautiful almond shaped eyes. And an innocence that I suddenly realised would by the end of this weekend be gone.

Did her father know what was about to happen? I decided that he couldn’t possibly know, he had been so attentive to her that morning, so fatherly. He really did think she was going on a weekend jaunt in a big yacht across the Java seas.

As the sun slowly set and evening descended I made my way back to my hut, showered and changed for my evening meal. I grabbed my book A Suitable Boy, assuming I would be eating alone and headed to the Al Fresco restaurant.

I was immediately ushered to the group from the Java Jewel. They had caught a monster of a fish earlier that morning on their jaunt across and wanted to share with me. By the looks of the number of empty bottles of beer and wine their end of Ramadan was going very well.

A large glass of wine was placed in my hand I gulped rapidly and then my eyes caught the face of the Losman’s daughter. She had a pained smile on her face and was holding a larger tumbler of what I could smell was whiskey. She was too young for that kind of drink, I thought. She came and sat next to me. We tried to have a normal conversation. About her education, (she was attending a local Catholic school) her hopes, her dreams but it was futile, her fate seemed set now.

One of the men explained that the best part of the fish was the part just at the back of the gills and this was offered to me.

The fish was I am sure exquisite but my taste buds seemed to have disappeared down into my stomach where they were brewing up a storm of sickness.

The Korean whom I assumed owned the Java Jewel continued to stare at me smiling with a way too polite expression on his face. I stayed for as long as it was considered acceptable, drinking too many glasses of wine and then I excused myself, retreating back to my hut on the beach.

As soon as I got into the hut I grabbed my own bottle of whiskey and gulped a large portion down.

Jesus what could I do? The man had paid for her. What could I do? Nothing. I was useless. I could go back and hurl obscenities at him but what would that do. Anger him? Make him feel he had to prove his manliness with this young girl? Make the whole thing worse than it already was?

I took another swig of the whiskey, flopped back on my clean white sheeted bed and stared up at the ceiling fan rotating round.

I slowly dozed, falling into an angry and impotent sleep. Vaguely I heard someone knocking on my bamboo hut door. As I awoke I realised it was the Losman’s daughter. I opened the door to a distraught girl. She stumbled in reeking of whiskey and something worse.

I closed the door. Tried to comfort her. I had almost calmed her from the hysteria when my hut door was kicked open and three Koreans stood in what was once the door way.

Drunk and angry they mumbled something in slurred and badly formed English.

I met the eyes of the biggest of the three. “Get out. You have no right to come barging in here, this is my hut. I have paid for this. I didn’t invite you.” I screeched.

With one powerful slap across my face that sent me sprawling across the floor ,the fat Korean grabbed the Losmans daughter and said, hrough whiskey breath, “ Yes and I have paid for this, and I will have my money’s worth.”

He dragged the girl wailing like an injured animal back in to the darkness, her howls hanging in the night like torture.

The remaining two men stared down at me, their fists clenched almost willing me to get up off the floor so they could hit me. I attempted to climb to my knees and I felt the first thwack, dizzy with pain I shook my head, a childhood trait, whenever I had a headache I would shake my head. I felt another smack and then the fear set in and then for once in my life I stayed down. But the anger remained. I waited for what felt like was minutes, but was in all probability a few seconds, one spat at me before turning round and walking out of the hut. Followed by his friend.

I stayed on the ground. I cried. I hit my fists on the matted floor and raged at my complete and utter uselessness. Finally my anger spent I got up and grabbed the bottle of whiskey, finished off the bottle and fell back on the bed in drunken stupor.

The following morning I prayed that I wouldn’t see any of the Java Jewel group at breakfast. I ate as much Nasi Goreng as my hangover could accommodate and packed my luggage to get the ferry back across to Yogyakarta.

My head was pounding, a mixture of a hangover and a bloody battering from the Koreans.

When I tramped down to the ferry stop I could see the large shape of the Java Jewel rocking gently in the sea.

The ferry was ready for boarding I climbed in. I was suddenly aware of someone waving and calling me. I looked up, it was the Losman’s daughter waving from the yacht.

I smiled and waved, glad that she was still alive. From where I sat I was just close enough to see her face, but couldn’t see if her lovely smile reached her eyes.

My last image of the Java Jewel was her hair waving in the breeze, black like the wings of a dark angel.

When I arrived back to the Java side there was no air conditioned car to drive me back to my accommodation. I got a taxi and whilst in the back of the car I started to wonder what the girl’s father would say. Would he blame me? Would he feel I had somehow let his lovely daughter down?

Fortunately it was his wife who greeted me, but my relief was short lived. I looked at her, round her neck a stunning display of black pearls. I barely managed to meet her smile. But I saw her gaze rest on the bruises that had now appeared on my face. Her demeanor was gracious, but it was wasted, the black pearls answered everything.

The Koreans words echoed back, “Yes and I have paid for this, and I will have my money’s worth.”

“I can’t stay, “I explained, “I need to get back into the city center. Can I just settle up? My taxi is waiting?”

“Of course.” In silence she wrote out my bill, I paid and I ran quickly back to the taxi and left.

I booked into a hotel called The Rainbow, air conditioned, well stocked mini bar, TV, shower, room service. I chose not to take up the offer of a personal masseuse.

So you see, no traveler’s tale of bravery, no rescuing of the maiden in distress. Just a bloody bruised face and a crashing hangover. And a sense that I had failed.

I hate black pearls. Fortunately I have never been given them as a gift. I hope to God I never will. For the price we pay for certain things is not worth the real cost.

 

 

 

 

Viva La France Je Suis Francais – Je Suis Spartacus Je Suis Charlie Hebdo

When I was sixteen I studied the French Revolution for my A level in History. It was a period of history that fascinated me. As did all the great philosophers that penned their ideas as the revolution unfolded and many who lost their lives. I felt quite sorry for Robesperierre and his pocked marked face and his disastrous dalliances with the harlots of Paris. Another one was the Russian revolution. Social revolutions, I am a socialist at heart. And also I am part French. I had a French grandmother on my fathers side.

I respected my grandmother but did not love her. For she did not love me and I was not her favourite.

But today I stand up to be counted among all the French who will being showing their defiance of the atrocities that left 17 dead in France.

I respect the way my grandmother insisted on keeping her French accent after 56 years living in England. How she got excited when she met my French teacher at school and rattled away in French. How she drank English tea cold. How despite being born on a champagne vineyard she insisted on putting sugar in her champagne. How Saturday evenings at her house where spent eating a pint of winkles or a pomegranate depending on the season. How she loved English wrestling I can still remeber her shouting at the TV in her French accent “Hold im down Haystacks hold im down.”  and that her favourite character in Starsky and Hutch was Huggy Bear. How my sister and I were only allowed one small piece of Cadbury’s chocolate before going to bed.

I respect the long scar down her arm which she never spoke about , she lived through the German occupation we know how she got that scar. I even respect the fact she could never trust a German. I respect the way she made cars in the high street stop so she could cross the road where she felt she wanted to. I even respected how she carried her pet Chihuahua in her shopping bag way before Paris Hilton made it fashionable. I respect the way she coughed her guts up on cigarettes ,no one could tell her what to do. I respect the runny smelly camembert cheese that sat on a plate in the pantry. I respect the fact she was French.

I loved the garlic in our food, the wine on the table. The way she refused to discuss religion , how wise was she! I loved the emotion and the defiance. I love escargots . I love the way any book could be read in her house without a shock reaction. How she loved the Sun newspaper and how she didn’t think any thing strange about page three -was bemused at the outcry when the first girl bared her breasts. When she first arrived in sleepy Epsom ,she stripped off with total impunity for a group of artists to paint her.

I respect how she pissed people off with her honesty and know I will be doing the same for many years to come!

So when I saw the events unfolding in Paris, it struck a cord with me. France is the home of modern democracy. The home of European socialism. And the birthplace of my grandmother!

I know that the French have a philosophy of you come to our country you live by our rules and I respect that. And please learn our language if you want to live here. The NHS could learn something from that!

And the fanatics who ran amok will never understand that the French will not forgive or forget and will not give in . The English French relationship is proof of this . I also know that we will have our own day of darkness and I will stand defiant for my own democratic country.

If you don’t like it don’t read it. If you don’t like it don’t watch it. But don’t tell other people what they can think, say ,do or read!

The papers are now full of the militants rants. They fail to see the reason they are allowed to be in print is because they are in a democratic country. The one they want to destroy

Only cowards shoot unarmed people. 17 people died because a group of cowards didn’t like a cartoon!

To my Muslim friends I know this is not what your faith is about. I know this is not you, you are not this atrocity.

And today I stand up and say I am Spartacus – Je Suis Francais.

My own battle of Hastings. (For my beautiful niece Sarah.)

During my evening job last week, Thomas the supervisor who is from Poland, opened up a discussion about the subtle nuances of the English language. When is the word could usually used and what does it really mean. Whilst trying to explain the grammatical correct time and place for the usage of this word. I suddenly remembered an incident with my sister, which basically knocked my explanation on the head.

Just after my mum and dad died my sister moved to Hastings. I thought it was an odd place to move, I mean there is no work down that way. But in all honesty things were not good in the household, so a fresh start was probably the intention.

I used to go down regularly to take my niece Sarah and my two nephews, Andrew and Joshua out.

I liked Hastings. I am from a working class family so Hastings had all the memories of a day trip out. Driving down in my dad’s taxi, winkles, whelks and the old town where all the smugglers would have had a pint after stripping the sinking ship of it wares as it slowly disappeared under the waves of the angry sea. It would not give up its secrets too easily. I loved the fact that the town was seedy and run down. That it didn’t really wake up until gone 12.00.

So at least once a month I would head down to Hastings and 9 times out of 10, I would force my sister’s three children out into the fresh south coast air. We would walk from St Leonard’s into Hastings, what ever the weather. I loved walking the coastal pathway. Sometimes depending on the season the sea would whip itself into such frenzy that foam would float onto land. Covering cars and trees like snow. It reminded me of when I worked at the school for the blind, dancing the waltz through soap suds with a blind resident who had messed the washing machine up. There was a foot of bubbles but he couldn’t see that, he was listening to the radio and the waltz being played. And so I was made to waltz through the bubbles with the soft refrain of music, he was good dancer.

I used to walk the kids down towards the bright lights of Hastings. I would hand a certain amount of money to each of them and I would sit outside the London Trader, my pub, my sisters was the Dolphin.

It was my kind of place, full of bikers, Goths and rockers and from there I could watch the three children enter and exit the amusement arcade called the Flamingo. They would, with what I now realise was obscene speed, spend the money I handed over, and they would run across and beg more money from me.

Occasionally they would return to show me their winnings. It was never Sarah, always Joshua. Sarah was born 13th October on a Friday. Need I say more? Joshua was born under a silver cloud! And Andrew well he was the guy that could achieve anything he wanted to.

So this particular weekend I parked up and headed towards the Victorian mansion where my sister now lived. Stain glass windows and sweeping stair cases. Huge rooms and leaking roofs and a draft that swept through from the sea like a mischievous ghost. And yes I encountered the ghost, but I kept quite about him because he lived in Joshua’s room, right up in the top of the house.

On this particular night we decided we would take a drive towards North Beach, my sister had found a fabulous pub that we could go to on Sunday for roast lunch before I headed back to Surrey.

We had the usual argument of who would sit in the front. I always said Andrew as the oldest got the trip out and on the way back Joshua or Sarah could have the front seat. We climbed in to my car and headed out from Hatisings. We drove past North Beach and that’s when ,Lord help my sister, kicked in.

There is a stretch of road where the beach is so close and the marshes bleed towards the road on the other side.

We drove singing along with the refrains of the God father. I was a fan of Patrizio Buanne – the Italian Stallion, I called him. Quite often I would drive through Hastings, windows down with Patrizio’s dulcet tones blaring out into the fast fading light. Joshua’s friends would often text him to tell him his crazy Aunt was in town.

And then she said it…..

“You can drive on this beach.” Yes I know what you are all thinking, but she is older then me. This is the problem being the youngest, no matter what, no matter how many years go by, you still have a begrudging reverence for your older sister.

“Can we really?” I replied.

“Oh yes.” she enthused.

So I veered off the road and drove across the shingle beach. Brilliant , until I stopped. And then I heard, Lord help the sister…”who is so daft to actually do what their older sibling tells them to.

We were stuck. I had a Peugeot 206 gti, it was front heavy. And so no amount of me whizzing my wheels around was going to move me from the beach that you could drive on.

A few cars drove past, but didn’t stop. It’s a solitary stretch of road and a car stuck on a beach wasn’t sufficient enough for anyone to stop and help. And of course suddenly no mobile reception.

By now Sarah was complaining and even the usually affable Joshua had an unhappy look on his face. The only one who seemed not the slightest bit concerned was Andrew.

A storm was whipping up, coming in across the channel and I suddenly pondered on how high the tide could get. Was my car safe if we just left it until tomorrow morning? But a line of seaweed and flotsam confirmed to me that the tide would engulf my car and it would probably drift out to sea.

I had the picture in my head of me ringing up work and telling my boss I wouldn’t be in work on Monday morning because my car was stuck on a beach somewhere North of Hastings. Fortunately a miracle happened of sorts.

A car stopped with four big burly men. They assessed the situation and decided they would need to go and get their truck. Assuring us all that they would be back.

Emily Thornberry would have loved those guys, for they were true working class English men. I had my doubts they would return, but return they did. Not a white van but a huge monster of a 4 x 4. And with lightening speed they had got my car off the beach. I offered them money for a drink, they politely refused.

“Why were you on the beach like that love?” one of the men asked.

“My sister told me I could drive on it.” I sheepishly replied.

There was a roar of laughter. “No worries, he is my older brother;” he whacked the guy next to him on his very big arms, “ I would have fallen for the same trick as well, twenty years ago.”

The salt of the earth guys drove off and we began to clamber back in the car. For some reason no one wanted to sit with me in the front. “One of you has to sit in the front; four of you can’t sit in the back.”

My sister quickly got in the back, Joshua was next and then for once without an argument it was Andrew who was left to sit with a now rather annoyed Aunty Lena.

“Why did you say I could drive on that beach?” I turned round to my sister.

“You can drive on that beach. I never said you could drive off it though.”

And there you have it in a nutshell. My interpretation of could and my sisters interpretation of could.

We drove back through Hastings, Patrizio was now singing about a big pizza pie hitting you in the eye. And the world shining like you have had too much wine. I parked the car by my sister’s house.

“Come on”, I said, “we will have a quick drink in the local – your mum and I can share a bottle of wine.”

By this time a natural phenomenon had occurred on the sea front. The ocean had disgorged hundreds of star fish onto the land. It was the first time I had seen this happen here in England. I attempted to pick the still quivering bodies up to throw back, but Joshua stopped me, “It’s no good Aunty the sea has given up on them. It will only spit them back out again.”

“Given up on them or given them up?”

“Same thing isn’t it?”

“No Joshua it means two completely different things.”

The pub was busy and it took a while for me to get served, but by the time we had the drinks, Sarah and Joshua had saved us a seat by the corner.

I placed the bottle of wine down and one glass onto the table. My sister eyed the solitary glass. Her face slowly developed a scowl.

“I thought you said we could share a bottle of wine.”

“Yes I did say we could, but I didn’t actually say we would.” I grinned. Relished the look on her face for a few moments and then produced the second glass from out of my bag.

And so Thomas as you can see the word could covers a multitude of sins. None of which can be explained that easily. And when misinterpreted can land you in quite silly situations.

Saints and sinners. An encounter with St Expedite.

I hesitated when the young handsome man handed the keys to the hire car, “When you have an accident.” were the words he used, not, “if”.

I had insisted on a Renault Cleo sport, as if that would make the slightest difference to my driving experience.

I suddenly wondered if I was doing the right thing driving round La Reunion, a volcanic island on my own, its main star Piton Le Fournaise was only too active.

I had a vision of myself in the little Renault Cleo desperately racing away from a red hot lava flow, round hairpin bends, the heat and flames melting the rubber on my back tyres.

But I managed to brush his words aside as I began my journey.

Dotted at various stages along the roads I noticed shrines depicting a saint in wooden frames painted in vibrant red and decorated with the gaudy plastic flowers that only people from Catholic nations could love. Candles and what appeared at a quick glance votives were placed by the boxes.

“St Expedite.”, the receptionist at the 1st hotel told me as I checked in, “The patron Saint of roads. The families of loved ones who die on the roads make shrines to him.”

The number of these shrines suggested to me there were more accidents then I wanted to think about.

St Expedite, even the name conjured up a sense of finality, no going back, no chance of redemption.

Later in the evening in the restaurant I asked the young receptionist a bit more about the Saint.

“Who was St Expedite? I don’t remember there being a saint by that name in the Catholic Church”.

The young girl smiled, “Oh no, he was not a real Catholic Saint. A group of nuns had set up a convent near the town called St Paul. And they were waiting for a statue of their own St Paul to be sent over from France. When the box with the statue arrived it was stamped with the words St Expedite, the nuns thought they had been sent a statue of St Expedite by mistake.”

I laughed, “Oh I see.” Saints always look the same, I thought, even to nuns. The porcelain white and pink features and the same benign look on their faces.

“But how did he become the patron saint of roads then?”

“Voodoo.”, she hissed at me, “If you want to get rid of someone you don’t like quickly then he is your saint.”

I arched my eyebrows, “Oh really. I’d better hope I don’t upset anyone whilst here then.” I said.

Before leaving for a drive the next morning, the receptionist who I had now found out was called Maria, advised, “Go off road and see the real island.”

So at the first opportunity I veered off into a sugar cane field. The cane was over six foot tall, probably soon to be harvested. I followed the well-worn tracks of the ox carts that still transported the harvested cane.

Huge heavy blossomed geraniums covered the wooden shack homes that Maria had called “cases”. Everywhere there seemed to be an influence of the Creole culture and I started to unwind and enjoy the drive.

Suddenly from out of the forest of tall cane a pack of dogs rushed with frightening ferocity towards the car. It was if the hounds of hell had been unleashed. They began snarling and snapping at the open windows, their teeth inches away from me.

I began to desperately close the windows, whilst trying not to slow down. One of the dogs jumped onto the bonnet of the car. He appeared to grin with his huge jaw, through the windscreen at me. And then he began to jump backwards and forwards, sparring like a boxer through the glass.

Knowing that moving forward was becoming a hopeless task; I put the car in reverse and began manically backtracking through the field of cane. And as quickly as the dogs had appeared they suddenly disappeared back in to the tall green forest.

I began to breathe more easily. If St Expedite didn’t get me on the roads then his fiendish four legged assistants would get me in the fields I mused.

At the first opportunity I turned the car round and headed back to the main road, any main road. Still slightly un-nerved by the canine encounter I continued down to a place near to St Paul, called the French Caves, where St Expedite received his sainthood.

There was a shrine to the rather dark saint with a statue of him in his full glory. Looking at him, I had to admit he cut a dashing figure. He didn’t look like your average saint, more like a Roman Gladiator. He was dressed with a silver breast plate and a red tunic. The warrior like aura was enforced by him brandishing a sword and underneath his feet he was crushing a black raven. He certainly was not a benign saint.

I left pondering on just how the heck the nuns had taken this St Expedite as their saint. On second thoughts it was obvious, he was saintly sexy.

I started to enjoy my drive round the island. The people were very friendly and seemed amused by my strange French accent. La Reunions mother tongue is pidgin French, known as Creole. My slow precise French was as alien to some of the villagers as them trying to speak English to me.

I stayed down at Boucan Canot for a few days, the St Tropez of La Reunion.

I then prepared myself for the infamous drive to the Cirque De Cilaos.

There are, depending on which guide book you read, between 300-400 hairpin bends on this road. And reputedly each year there was one death per hairpin bend.

I had contemplated making an offering to St Expedite to ensure myself a safe journey, but decided against it. Many travellers had done this journey and survived. The guide books were overreacting.

I have to say driving is in my blood, my father was a taxi driver. I could do this with my eyes closed; I didn’t need a saint for this journey.

The drive was exhilarating; driving to a height of over 3,000 meters, and looking down was really spectacular.

But as I pulled in to the hotel car park, I did breathe a sigh of relief, I had made it safely. St Expedite had looked after me; perhaps he was the same patron saint of taxi drivers back home.

I had decided that from here I would go to the star of La Reunion, Piton Le Fournaise. When I checked in at the hotel there was sign saying that the volcano was in the early stages of an eruption and helicopter flights were highly recommended. I booked immediately.

The pilot was French of course but said he would try to speak English if I wanted. But words were superfluous to the experience. My stomach churned as the flight started but once we were over the caldera it was fantastic, smoke billowed out and there was the faint red glow of the lava as it trailed down the mountain side. Again St Expedite was on my side. Who from my family could actually say they had flown over an erupting volcano?

My final stop before returning the car was La Hermitage, a destination for fussy French holiday makers. I was staying at the best hotel on the island. After the jungle of Madagascar this was my luxurious treat and I was ready for lobster and champagne. Oh and just annoying a few of the French holiday makers. My grandmother had taught me well.

As I made my way through the small town of Hermitage Le Bains towards the hotel I considered the traffic as rather annoying, perhaps I was too laid back, too careless, or perhaps it was time for St Expedite to receive his dues, who can say?

I pulled round to go passed a parked lorry; suddenly there was a sickening crunch of metal as the top of the car concertinaed. The windscreen of the car shattered and imploded. I had driven into the low loader of a lorry.

I have to admit I started to shake and sat dumbfounded. A crowd began to congregate round the car. People were peering in at me with concern. I eventually stopped shaking enough to attempt to get out of the car, the door opened partially and I squeezed through.

Within a split second my French had gone from mediocre to absolute zero. Trying to communicate was absolutely impossible. Eventually I managed to spit out, “Where is the police station?”

An elderly man motioned for me to follow him and we arrived at a small parochial station. The man explained what the stupid tourist had done. And with mutterings of St Expedite from both of them we returned to the scene of the accident.

Everyone was most helpful. Phone calls were made and the whole situation was resolved in what appeared to me to be minutes. The main thing I remembered was thank God I had ignored the hitchhikers along my route, because if anyone had been sitting in the passenger seat they would have been decapitated. St Expedites’ more unholy followers would have had a human sacrifice for the arcane rites.

I was driven to my hotel by the local gendarme. The hotel provided me with sympathy and a bottle of champagne. That was enough for me.

The next day a bouquet of lilies arrived at my door. “Nobody has died. I don’t really need these.” I said to the girl who delivered them. She smiled graciously and left.

Later there was a knock at the door. I opened the door and saw the Hertz man from the airport. I was for a second flummoxed, what was here doing here?

“I hear you had the accident, do you want a replacement car?” he smiled.

“No, I have had enough of driving. I will spend the last few days of my adventure here.” As I went to close my door, he smiled again.

“Perhaps I could drive you for your last few days?”

His smile was enticing; I had some last souvenirs to buy so I acquiesced.

As I walked to his car I remembered his words at the airport, “When you have an accident.”

I smiled at my misfortunate accident; surely it had turned out to be in my favour. We drove back into town and he pulled up at my first port of call, Lena’s Gold, a jewelry shop.

As I purchased my gold earrings, I looked across at my driver sitting waiting patiently outside in his car – he was cute!

How strange this St Expedite was.

I still have the box for the earrings, with one earring, miniature gold St Expedite! I will never tell how I lost the other one, but I always pay my debts even to a sinner of a saint

Giving a helping hand to save the Galapagos Giant Land Tortoise

In 1835 when the naturalist Charles Darwin disembarked from the ship the Beagle for his brief adjournment on the volcanic archipelago now known as the Galapagos, his eventual findings changed Western mans theory of the evolution of the species. Just six weeks turned the whole scientific world on its head.

Now, when people mention a cruise to the Galapagos, the usual thing that springs to mind is a rather expensive sojourn made by retired city bankers and their wives, or honeymooners splashing out on their last great holiday before the mortgage and the inevitable school fees.

I made a less luxurious trip to the enchanted islands, spending time working on a conservation project, working with the giant land tortoises. I was hoping in some small way I could help restore the ecological imbalance that man was so rapidly and blindly creating.

The giant land tortoises do not immediately spring to mind as being on the endangered species list. But unfortunately mans hand has played a part in the virtual extinction of more appealing species than these.

Hunted and killed for their meat and the fact that they could go for months without water in the hold of ships, both whalers and hunters severely depleted their numbers from the 19th century onwards.

Each island of the Galapagos has its own unique species and this has meant that certain breeds are already extinct. The most famous representative of the giant tortoise was Lonesome George, highlighting the importance of the breeding project. He was the last of his kind from the island of Pinta, and died in 2013 without an heir or a spare.

The trip to the island I would be working on was a bit of adventure. The island of Isabella is one of the more remote islands in the chain and at the time of my trip did not have an air strip.

I had met up with another volunteer called Amanda. We were both students at the Quito Spanish language school that I had been a student at for two weeks. Although my Spanish was still virtually non existent, this was not the fault of my tutor, but of me being so British that learning a foreign language was just that, a foreign language.

The journey started with a flight from the capital of Ecuador – Quito, to the island of Baltra. A rather enthusiastic Labrador sniffed at our baggage and once he had decided we had nothing untoward in our luggage we were free to go.

We then caught a bus across the small island to where a ferry was waiting to take tourists to the most popular island of Santa Cruz. And then a bus drive the full length of the island to the port. Where we brought tickets for the boat to Isabella which was another three hour trip.

On arrival at the small harbour of Isabella, Amanda and I had been told to look out for a man wearing a baseball cap with flamingos on, but by this time we were both so excited by the sight of seals and penguins swimming nonchalantly around the tiny bay that we forgot all about this arrangement. However two large white ladies jumping around with joy were rather conspicuous and Alfredo with his baseball cap found us quickly enough.

 

My days began with breakfast at 7.00 and then a walk to the Isabella Tortoise Breeding Centre, the most glorious walk to work I have ever had in my working career. Along pristine white beaches dotted with Iguanas sunbathing and dolphins enticing you to swim with them before work. No journey to work has ever matched it.

At work we were given an explanation (in Spanish) of the centre and its aims and were shown round a small exhibition centre. One of the things pointed out to us was the tortoises’ main predators, of which there were quite a few, and rather depressingly all introduced to the islands by man.

Donkeys and cattle, which destroy the nests by trampling over them. Back rats eat the new hatchlings. Fire ants which as their name suggests are extremely vicious, also kill hatchlings in their nests. Pigs and dogs dig up and eat the eggs.

And finally goats, they compete with the adult tortoises for food and destroy the natural vegetation of the islands.

I was then given my job for the duration of my stay. I would be looking after the small tortoises, cleaning them out, giving them fresh water and just making sure they were happy little tortoises.

The first thing that really surprised me was the size of the adult tortoises. They were huge. But when you looked at the tiny newly hatched babies you could not believe that they would eventually over many many years grow into the benign but prehistoric monsters in the corrals.

The main income for the breeding centre was visitors from the cruise ships. They would turn up immaculately dressed as if attending a summer cocktail party. And initially I would feel ashamed standing there covered in tortoise poo and sweating like a pig. But the visitors were always interested and impressed by the fact I was volunteering to work there.

The mornings kind of rumbled along in the same vein. Tortoises though endearing, do not pull up many surprises in terms of their behaviour.

Although one did attempt to bite a rather overly affectionate German volunteer. She was trying to hug him for some reason only known to her. Fortunately tortoises do not have teeth so no major damage was done. Why the hell the German lady wanted to hug a tortoise was completely lost on me and the rest of the crew.

Suddenly a rumour began to surface; some of the tortoises were going to be released into the wild on Vulcan Azul. It was just a rumour and a rather blurred one at that.

Fernando in slow Spanish said, “We will get up very early at about 5.00. Go to a boat to go across to the bottom of Vulcan Azul. We will then walk up the volcano for six hours and release the animals.” (What!)

For days this was the topic of conversation. I even dragged my hiking boots out of my ruck sack ready for this ridiculous six hour hike with tortoises strapped to my back. And then our expectations were dashed by the knowledge that Vulcan Azul had erupted and therefore it was not the best time for the release.

My stay on Isabella was soon to come to an end. And then on my last week we were told we would be releasing a group of young tortoises to an area known as the wall of tears. Which was a place where prisoners were employed to build what now seemed a pointless wall of bricks in a barren wasteland. No wonder they cried!

We all started running around, tortoises were handed up to be placed in the back of an open truck. One we had about 150 tortoises onboard fellow volunteers climbed in with them. For some reason I was given the luxury of sitting up with the driver.

Tortoises do not travel very well and as the volunteers climbed out of the back of the truck once we reached our destination, their appearance attested to this fact.

Tortoise poo is very green, their main diet when in captivity consisting of banana leaves and the variety of apples that are poisonous to man but that the tortoises love and can eat.

One particular volunteer, Jessica, was usually very white. But her legs were smeared with green, like some rather smelly camouflage paint.

And so we placed tortoises in sugar cane sacks and walked off into the harsh landscape. Eventually a somewhat bemused local stood scratching his head and said, “Here.”

With great ceremony we released the animals. Who ambled off totally disinterested with any of us.

And so I left Isabella, returning to Santa Cruz to embark on some island hopping.

But I first decided to drop down and visit Lonesome George. He lived his lonely life at the Charles Darwin Research Centre.

Fernando had phoned ahead, but I was still totally dumbfounded by the job offer made to me shortly after I arrived.

Lonesome George had once a very special carer. At the time that I visited there were several women who cared for Lonesome George and there was a vacancy, would I like to do the job. I was a bit bemused at first, did they mean clean out his corral?

No. It was then explained to me. They needed Lonesome George to produce offspring, And well given his age he was either a bit reluctant or he just need a bit of help! And back in 1993 Sveva a Swiss graduate was employed to help Lonesome George well get it up to put it crudely.

Lonesome George was so old that T-Rex looked like a young upstart! I could not but help think this was where scientists had got it totally wrong. The poor bugger was knackered. No healing hands were going to resurrect his love life.

I was almost beginning to believe the guy, that there was indeed an opportunity for me to use my gentle hands, and then I realised that although Sveva had been real, this was a wind up from Fernando from the island of Isabella.

I left the centre wondering if I had blown my chances. I could have spent another six months in Paradise. But then I wondered how the job remit would have looked on my CV.

“ Employed as Lonesome Georges personal erection assistant on the island of Santa Cruz.” I really couldn’t see many job opportunities coming from that one! Well not decent ones anyway.

“How do you feel you could contribute to an all male team?”

“Well I am very experienced at boosting the male ego…….”

No, I decided, the blue footed boobies on the island of Seymour where calling me! And so I left the old gent to his solitude and headed for the harbour for my next boat. The island of Seymour apparently was the best place to walk through colonies of boobies, the Spanish word for clowns.