Friday, May 4, 2012

Under The Dominican Sun - Where Morning Trucks Go Past Stucco Walls Bright

I saw that the morning truck had come and had reason to travel through a small passageway couched by two tall buildings. The stucco walls were bright and clean there, and in places the windows could be seen when the sun wasn't too strong. Those windows waited with small and ornate railings in front - railings that were affixed to those good walls.
It was morning itself that I was after because some places, if seen properly, can be known to contain worlds within worlds, or else can be a world unto themselves. I would have been fine with only the walls and windows, the pathway behind that linked to the sand and the sea, and strange and wild shrubs that waited down the way. I could not see on that path any spirit world, but would have sworn an oath attesting to the existence of some kind of benevolent garden devas hovering.

The world had brought the truck and so I accepted the truck as part of the whole. Two rows of workers sat in the open aired back along horizontal benches facing one another, reminding me of an amphibious land rover I'd once seen. I decided I liked the truck because looking a little closer I could tell through markings and dents that it, like I, had arrived somewhat haphazardly across bumps and misfortunes.
As it stopped ahead, the workers jumped out and began their morning routines. I went back to thinking about the sky and the sea, the thick sturdy lawns and even a couple of birds testing nearby branches. I was interrupted when one of the workers said something to me. We spoke in curt words, like small clouds that only float past in quick whiles. Like those white parts of the atmosphere that have unlatched from their bigger homes. Our accents were divergent. He was on the clock, as it were, and his time was limited. We were strangers in the morning sun.
He was a heart-oriented person, amicable to a fault, and smiling. A breeze announced itself through our shared stucco wall corridor as he tried to guess my origin, labelling me as various countries.

-You are America.
-You are England then. I know this.
-You are Canada! No. Yes. You are Canada?
-Yes. I am Canada.
-That is better. So friendly.
-Good. That’s good.
-I know Canada and Bryan Adams! I know I know I know...And I LOVE Bryan Adams. Do you? Do you know?
-I understand. Ya. I know.

I smile, which is rare, and realize that it should not be so rare to smile. This lack of warmth on my part is symptomatic of something, some existential angst that is not cool or intelligent like the wise, natural morning sun and the way it carries itself, but instead is misplaced. I secretly hoped it was just because the sun is much older and has had more time to evolve. He smiled and I smiled. We looked to the sky for some reason but an awkwardness passed between us. It was a sort of silent brotherhood of the morning. I was visited by a semi-theory that I disliked in content and because of a lack of coffee, couldn't wholly form in structure. It had to do with the great entertainment conglomerates and multinational corporations, and all those globalist machinations of oddly esoteric origins.
Someone and something too big to pin down had placed a musical figure as the connection between two human beings saying hello. I wanted it to be something else. I didn’t know what IT was: perhaps a more soulful figure. Or else no figure at all. Real people like us were not supposed to know about such trivia. I decided that it was also my fault. I should have been stronger. I've never defended against the onslaught of media information including everything from points cards to pop idols. I know so much that I wish I didn't.

I should have hopped on the truck and grabbed a shovel. 
Been something. 
Be. Something. 
Some things. 
Some things. 
It’s too late. Too much thinking loses many things. 

So we shared a strange cultural reference point. One he obviously liked and that I had no feeling for one way or the other but I liked the worker’s intent which was pure and true. He wasn't jaded or cynical, or if he was he hid it well. We talked again here and there throughout the days. Sometimes he called out across the grounds, ‘Bryan Adams!’ He meant only to say hello, and I simply said, ‘Hi,’ with a good wave or type of half-salute half wave creation gesture.
Each morning the same stucco walls wait to meet the sun while at night the colours recede. I try to watch the invisible winds or listen to the sounds of the sea, hoping one or even both will impart some message to me. Nothing arrives. You can’t chase the sea or the air or the secrets they hold. Can’t wrestle them out or twist them off like a tightly fit lid of a jar. It’s like love. It has to find you unawares. Has to arrive when you aren’t looking.

My friend and the amphibious land rover that is really just an old truck eventually disappear. I head back to where I came from like the colours of the stucco at night. Once bright pastel blues, greens, oranges, and yellows go like the unseen and uncelebrated part of a wave, into the undertow of time and events.

Written by Brian Barbeito.

You can read Brian's full profile here.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Retirement: The Penultimate Journey

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this retirement malarkey. I get more than a little confused when I speak with other retirees (as they sometimes like to be called) about what they do with their new found time. Most seem to be of the opinion that they can’t imagine how they managed to find time to work before retirement. They are so full of activity now that there aren’t enough hours in the day to fit it all in. Frankly, I’m not sure what planet they come from; I'm on the other side of the retirement coin. My pre-retirement life was full to the brim. I was engaged, part of the team and my opinions were sought. Now it’s as empty as a politician’s promise and the majority of people only speak to me if they have to and then in a raised voice to make sure I’m getting it. I can only assume that before retiring these oh-so-busy others led very boring and uninteresting lives. Becoming a retiree has opened up many wonderful new opportunities for them such as “The Men’s Shed’, volunteer driving for local communities or painting by numbers.

When I was a working person and still a valued member of society, let's say 'pre-retiree', I would arrive home each evening and join my family for dinner. We'd talk about all sorts of things but rarely about my work or what I'd been up to all day. Now my wife returns home, she being a pre-retiree, and asks the question ‘what have you been doing today then’? Something about this smacks of the questions my mother would ask when I got home from primary school but, thankfully, without the added ‘little man'. My usual answer is ‘not a lot but thanks anyway for asking’. I have to admit, I’m confused. Is she asking because she wonders what the hell I fill my time with or because she thinks it’s unfair that I can stay home each day while she has to face the endless grind of employment? Or am I being mean by assuming either of these? Perhaps she's only asking because she thinks I need to be quizzed to give my retired life some meaning.

For the bored retiree, alcohol in its many wonderful forms can be a marvellous escape. It also doubles as a great pain killer and triples even as a reason for living on through retirement. Five or so large glasses of some five percent lager, two or three times a week, can make life appear to be a whole lot rosier than it actually is. Conversation with three or four mates, all retired of course, whilst enjoying these beers can reach incredible heights and being in such a position means you're both old and in turn very, very wise. We tend to make a lot of happy noises on our table which can sometimes cause concern and alarm to those at other tables - non-retirees who usually sit glum-faced over their beers, cursing whatever it was that went wrong at work. Sometimes they think we’re laughing at them whereas in reality we’re laughing at each other and the shared predicament we find ourselves in. Alcohol, retired friends and a local tavern, which must be surely one of man’s greatest inventions, can bring out the very best in almost any ex-worker. You see we simply don’t care. We don’t care if you're offended by our retiring conversations, we don’t care if you're offended by our raucous retiring laughter and we don’t care if we look like a bunch of old farts who have somehow managed to sneak past the front desk at the nearby retirement home. We retirees share a common thread: a feeling of all being in the same leaky boat, not sure if we'll make land before it all turns turtle. In some groups this can cause conversations to dwell on those less healthy subjects such as strokes, diabetes, heart attacks, hair loss and the cost of funerals but our retiree table doesn't speak of such morose subjects. We talk of bad women, cars with side valve engines, where you can get a cheap beer between three and five and how being retired is a complete load of old bollocks. We also laugh. A lot. Which they say is good for the classic retiree.

So to those pre- retirees out there who are busy counting down the days when you can join the ranks of the retired, a little advice: be careful what you wish for as you may find that being retired is not all it seemed from the outside. When your time comes and should you find yourself similarly stranded on the isle of boredom and frustration, fear not, as there may well be room for one or two more on our little table.

Written by Jeffrey Williams

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Scottish Sojourn

Floating Leaf, Pitlochry

Kite Flying, The Meadows, Edinburgh

Douglas Fir, The Hermitage

Rocket, Hopetoun House

Crocuses, The Meadows, Edinburgh

Rock Tower, Pitlochry

Daffodils, The Meadows, Edinburgh

Waterfalls, The Hermitage

Tantallon Castle, Seacliff Beach

Snowdrops, Hopetoun House

Lara S. Williams can't believe the sun has finally come out.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Trekking in the Picos – A Surreal Journey Through The Spanish Mountains

Above us projected the sharp peaks of the mountains, overlapping and competing for the sky. Below us were trees and fields of grass gambling with the altitude. Around us were the four panes of the cable car, the uncomfortably positioned handlebars of mountain bikes, and enthusiastic Germans discussing the mechanics of this gravity-defying structure. Armed with my walking boots and two good friends, I was exploring the Picos de Europa in northern Spain. The Fuente Dé cable car had picked us up from amongst the picnic tables at the end of the bus route, hauled us vertically up against the sheer rock face and spat us out into the mountains which stood desolate but gracious. As the operator, oblivious to the odd elbow nestling in his back, picked at the ends of his regal moustache, a single track cut through his rugged kingdom below, to reveal the fate which we were bypassing. Only a fool or a goat would attempt such a treacherous path.

Detangled from the mountain bikes, we barely had time to retie our boots before striding out, the whir of the cable car motor and hyperventilating camera shutters left behind us. After negotiating snarly shepherd dogs, who rose from their lazy stations in the shade to reveal their powerful physiques beneath ragged coats, we didn't meet another person. We dropped down from the unforgiving terrain to our path on the el lomo del toro; the spine of the bull. The track lay on a small ridge surrounded by steep green pastures which stooped away towards the slopes of the real, towering beasts either side of us. The grass was like paint running off to reveal the bare rock beneath. The spine of the bull slowly descended through the valley, negotiating its way between herds of horses and sheep, twisting to reveal a dramatic crag. The air was still and the sound of silence was calming yet there was something slightly sinister in the solitude: there was a crucifix silhouetted on an altar in the middle of a pasture. The mountain ridges around us lay dormant like the crested backs of prehistoric beings.

In the distance a cluster of buildings surrounded the path as it traced the basin of the valley. Ready for a break and curious to meet the souls living here, we slowed our pace and approached. The village seemed to morph into the landscape. To our left a wooden fence met the walls of a cave, creating a pen or enclosure. There was nothing inside. The terracotta roofs nestled in amongst the pastel colours of the valley, the dry stone walls as old as the limestone around them. A hand plough lay rusting against a wall. There was no one here. One building stood without a roof. Inside, the weeds and nettles had grown tall in the sunlight. Amongst the jungle a figure lay partially visible, dominated by the leaves. Its ashen bone reflected the midday sun, hollow sockets open, and two unspoiled, curved horns were tangled amongst everything. The skeleton lay disjointed, its limbs at peculiar angles, head slumped. We sat with our backs against the stone wall but the hostage remained inside. I imagined the village bustling and prospering during a spring harvest and wondered exactly what had happened here.

Further down the track we turned off into a separate scatter of hills. Clustered together and covered in thickening woods the hills encroached on us with a sense of claustrophobia. Whispers of mist met us with a chill. Concealed in this vacuum, our senses grasped for the world around us but were only met with the deep resonance of cattle bells to guide us. After a long afternoon battling through the mist, which became so thick we almost impaled ourselves on the horns of the grazing toros, we descended into Bulnes. Descend was definitely what we did – the path plunged into a valley so precipitously that no map’s contour lines could do it justice. It crossed over countless creeks and tributaries, conjuring up images of a swelling river at the bottom, engraving its power into the rugged landscape. The first buildings of Bulnes appeared alongside a narrow brook, slender and serene; we would find the menacing river the next day, further down the valley. To reach them we crossed a wooden bridge and were ushered into the small village square by a cobbled lane. Pulse rates dropping to a regular rhythm, we wandered off in different directions, thankful for an alternative to traipsing single file along the narrow mountain paths. Like a scene from a comedy, none of us had gone thirty paces before we hit the perimeter of the village and met each other again. Bulnes had a population of forty-five. The stone buildings couldn’t have imposed themselves on more than a 100 square metres of the green mountain valley.

Dazed, with our sugar levels in need of replenishing, we slumped ourselves on our packs and picked at the remnants of the bread, cheese and tomatoes we had rationed. The tomatoes from local markets were so red, succulent and foreign to me that I felt embarrassed to have called the pale, turgid things in Britain by the same name. The cobbles cooled my feet and with my eyes easily shutting they were the only indication that we had stumbled into a village – everything else was still except for the stream’s persistent chuckle. Only the shutters of one café were peeled back and crates of the local sidra (cider) were stacked behind the bar, against every wall and under tables. One bottle between the three of us was all our budgets and exhaustion could handle. We let the barmaid do the honours of pouring it traditionally from above her head into a glass held below her waist. It was rough and dry but refreshing and delicate as if bottled from a spring in the mountainside.

Until recently Bulnes had not been accessible by road, although we saw no evidence of motors as we searched for a spot to pitch our tent. Even the men constructing a stone dwelling across the river relied on donkeys to transport materials. Our tent, although concealed amongst foliage, looked out of place amongst the dry-stone walls and spluttering hand pumps; it was like taking a step back in time. After the perpetual trudge of hillwalking, heavy breathing and footsteps on the path, it was time to adjust to a new pace of life. An odd horde of goats, geese, chickens and an intimidating rooster gathered in a semi-circle around as we set up camp. Like a surreal story-time we contemplated each other, wondering what the other was doing there. By dawn the mist hadn't lifted, but had accumulated in the trees above us. Droplets launched an attack from the leaves onto our tent, eventually permeating through to our foreheads that peeped from the sleeping bags. Denied of any more rest we rose with a chorus of birdsong, roosters and hungry goats and prepared for the next leg of the journey.

As we walked out of the village and dropped below the mist, the river emerged beneath us, surging over rocks and propelling itself over waterfalls in rough, foaming shapes. The path narrowed and plunged precariously down to the river’s banks. The spray greeted us at the bottom and at ease walking on level ground, we crossed wooden bridges and negotiated stepping stones in the calmer bends of the river. In one sweeping curve a shallow pool had been created in the shelter of some boulders. Every pebble on the riverbed was visible and radiated in the reflection of the thick moss that smothered the rocks. Sheets of limestone rose above us and a ceiling of mist engulfed us as we floated in the cool water. Our aching limbs were soothed and our lack of showers alleviated. It would have been easy to let the flow carry us further down the valley but I'm glad we didn’t. The river eventually met the Carnes gorge - a domineering, fast flowing river. Where the two courses of water merged we picked up a road in pursuit of the next town. The spluttering fumes of locals abusing their accelerators came as quite a shock. We joined a sparse caravan of walkers, all appearing on the road from behind the folds of various valleys, some of whom we had walked alongside before reaching the cable car. It was as if we had all entered a fantastical land where any sense of time and place, altitude and distance, emotion and reason were suspended. Protagonists in our individual fairy-tales we reconvened in a silent awe, not quite sure what we had all just experienced. The rigid march of boots on tarmac brought us back to a reality we weren’t quite sure we liked.

Written by Ettie Shattock

Ettie's full profile can be found here.