Friday, 24 December 2010

Further Lessons in Gratitude

I have been silent for some months, though not for lack of wandering around, caught in the midst of routine tasks, mentally composing far more eloquent blogs than I will every write.  I am sitting here on the first floor of Swansea’s Central Library (in what used to be called County Hall), snatching the only hours of calm and relative quiet I seem to have managed over the last few weeks.

It is Christmas Eve and most people are either at their last morning of work before the holiday break or sensibly at home.  I am sitting at my favourite table (unusually, no one else is here to nab it) at the huge picture windows overlooking Swansea Bay.  The tide is high (I am told we have the second biggest tides in the world here, surprising for such an unknown little corner) and the small hill below the window is covered in snow.  All the white shines the sea a rare blue.  The water here is frequently dark and mysterious but rarely displays the lapis and aquamarine hues of postcards.  Today we have them, the end of the sunrise faintly pink in the sky above, the sea shining jewel-rich under the low winter sun.  I’m not sure the man walking by, rubbing his hands against the cold, is noticing these beauties, his dog trotting behind sinking in her pawprints.  A few evergreens remind me that there are other colours in this world than white and blue and I am almost shocked to see the green of the grass patches underneath them, shocked that anything can have escaped the snow.

We have had the sort of snow I have never seen in this country before.  Instead of melting almost as soon as it hits the ground, it has lingered and built for a week now, so the landscapes and streetscenes look more what I imagine of Scandinavia or North America (though I believe they clear their streets rather better).

Here is the view from my table at the library a couple of weeks ago, before the snows came.  It was about four o’clock in the afternoon and the sun was setting.


So this library is the first object of my gratitude, a (frequently not-so-silent) haven where I have been able to work and write – though judging from my blog output, not nearly as often as I would like.

It was strange and difficult coming back to the UK, as I knew it would be.  Though of course, knowing something and experiencing it are not the same thing.

I had come back to Europe via Spain (more on that jewel of a county another time) and as I walked around the airport in Madrid, trying to find some sign of my flight as it mysteriously disappeared from all the billboards, a voice rang in my head, over and over:

I am with you.  I am with you.  I am with you…

I am grateful for the reminder, because what was to come was not easy.

It was good and strange to see old friends in London, in the few days I passed through.  I had missed them and miss them still, but, with most of them, witnessing their rush and their worry and their struggle to hold things together in that city… well, I do not miss that.

I came to Wales, to Swansea, Abertawe, to give its Welsh name (which means something like “on the mouth of the river Tawe”), to stay at my grandmother’s house, in a way and for a period of time I have not done in memory.  My brother was here too until recently and it was a novelty to me, who has not lived with my family for more than a few weeks here or there since I was fourteen years old.  The boxroom I am in is full, the furniture in it full of things that are not mine and the bags and boxes around it largely full of things that are.  My clothes are still in suitcases, my papers still in bags, there is not enough floor space for even a very simple yoga practice.  Initially I found it very claustrophobic.  I walked by the sea, I found the library and with a little time I (mostly) swapped distress for acceptance.  There is just enough space on the floor of my room to lay two blocks and kneel and meditate, furniture and boxes and bags brushing me all around.  I don’t do this as often as I would like, but I do it.

Swansea is one of those unfortunate towns that was bombed to bits in the Second World War and put back up in fantastically cheap and ugly haste after it.  Efforts have been made to beautify it in more recent years, but the town is still nothing to write home about.  The countryside around it however is quite special, the Gower coast designated Britain’s first area of outstanding natural beauty some time in the fifties. 

Rhossili Bay
Moonrise over Swansea Bay on an autumn walk

On my walks, I occasionally thought to myself how glad I am that I could not look ahead when I was twenty-two to see where I am now.  I don’t know that my fragile optimism would have coped.  No home, no relationship, no career – all the things I vaguely assumed would somehow materialise as I grew older.  Of course, I am not entirely sure whether I want these things, whether they contradict me, as familiar seeming mutually exclusives tug at me.  But I often think it would be nice, comforting to have at least one…

And so I went for more walks, worrying over the fact that “no money” was also in that list and a growing problem.

So I found myself a job.  South Wales is beautiful in parts but also one of the poorest parts of the United Kingdom.  The news informs me (I am not sure how reliably) that Wales has the highest child poverty rates and lowest educational attainment in the UK.  Part of the reason for this is that there is very little work around.  Well, you take what you can get and so I took a near minimum-wage temporary job as one of thousands working for an extremely well-known online retailer in its enormous warehouse on the outskirts of Swansea en route to the motorway.

For two months, I entered into an Orwellian universe where every movement was monitored:  I was marked by three electronic tags as I came to work and clocked in.  Another three marked me as I left.  For my first three weeks, my location and rates of work were monitored by my hand-held computer as I “picked” stock, wheeling increasingly heavy trolleys around the ten football pitches that I am told are the size of the warehouse.  My shift started at six in the morning and finished at two in the afternoon.  In that I got a half hour break (again monitored by all the electronics).  We were routinely searched and while this could eat into our break time or delay our home-going, any lateness, extended breaks or absence on our part, for whatever reason, accrued penalty points which would result in disciplinary action.

The work was repetitive, heavy, exhausting and rather dirty, but I was grateful to be physically tired at the end of each day and that it somehow felt more honest than some of the other equally poorly-paid but more white-collar stupid fill-in jobs I have done over the years.  At least I was doing something tangible.  Someone somewhere was receiving an item because I had dug it out of its box, picked it off its shelf.

It being a proper Orwellian universe, it is full of jargon.  For a few days, I thought someone had put a sign high above the IT room as joke.  “SNOG IT,” it proclaimed to all us ants below.  No one I had come across in IT particularly appealed but sometimes I thought it might be worth a try just to alleviate the boredom.  I then realised that the G was in fact a C and SNOC must be yet another incomprehensible acronym.  It made me laugh whenever I walked past it, some security guard peering at the cameras, doubtless wondering who the inanely giggling woman is.

I have grown up around Welsh accents and usually have no difficulty understanding them but some of the voices in our “fulfilment centre” (no, not a warehouse because no one is fulfilled in a warehouse – yes our Brave New World has American jargon) were so broad I had to ask them politely to repeat themselves three times before I had the remotest idea what they were saying.  So hearing them talk of “totes” and going to find the “team lead” was quite memorable (“Can’t they speak proper fucking English?” was a not infrequent grumble).  Possibly my favourite was a sign I saw one day: PACKAGE MANIFEST PENDING. I still have no idea what that means.

I learned to be grateful for small things:  that my break was a bit later so the second half of the shift seemed shorter, that sometimes my picking route would take me past the windows. There is something very poignant about the skeleton of a tree against the sky when framed by concrete and seen through a twenty metre high corridor of shelved pallets.  That my machine would suddenly order me out of the sweltering, airless tower and to the coolness of the high-corridored racking.  I was grateful for the friendliness of my “team lead” who promoted me to “kickouts” in week four, which removed me from the constant computer scrutiny, put me in a slightly more social setting and enabled me to use a little judgment as I followed the (computerised) procedures for dealing with problematic packages that weren’t as they were expected to be.  There was less walking but usually more lifting, as I worked in the XL (extra large) section. The shippers on the line would occasionally shout as I struggled with a particularly unwieldy box “Oi Luce! That package is bigger than you are!”

I am beginning to think I should change my name to Luce.  So many people call me it anyway and it seems more grown-up and truer to its meaning than Lucy.  And of course there’s the French feminist intellectual Luce Irigaray.  Lucy seems a name for little girls and old maids… Then again, I have been one of those and I have every chance of also being the other.

One of the shippers decided I must be a great intellectual because I know how to pronounce Montague (a name on one of the shipping labels.  I hope Mr. Montague received his parcel in happy ignorance of the two-days of conversation he provoked).  The same shipper later asked me what an asparagus is, also “that yellow vegetable which can be big or small” (it turned out to be sweetcorn), confessed he had never eaten a tomato until he was eighteen and to this day only eats three kinds of vegetable (cabbage, sprouts and peas; it felt beyond the call of duty to try explaining that a pea is not a vegetable but a legume).  He lives in Port Talbot, which is a peculiar place, characterised by enormous steelworks, great social deprivation and for producing some of the more legendary male British actors (Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, and now Michael Sheen is making his way up there).  He would give me sweets and bring the heavy boxes over and put them directly on the scales for me so that I wouldn’t have to lift them off the floor.  The other shippers stuck a sign to his back one day which said “I love Lucy” but I don’t think he did.

I remarked to my team-lead that many of our colleagues were a testament to the parlous state of British dentistry.

“Put it this way,” he replied.  “There are five lads here, if you put them all together, you might have a full set of teeth.  You might.”

Another boy (there were definitely boys and men in this place, and far fewer women) I had studiously avoided, although he was friendly enough.  I felt rather guilty but he smelt too much of tramp for my nostrils (oh yes, I am so not headed for enlightenment any lifetime soon).  Around the Montague time, names were a theme and I spotted an incomprehensibly spelt Welsh one even more incomprehensibly on its way to London.   Mr. Odour, boyishly keen to prove himself, turned out to be the only Welsh-speaker amongst us and delivered the name in bewitchingly flowing tones.  I was quite stunned to discover such music amongst the dirt and boxes and stench and deeply regretted my olfactory compulsion to avoid his offers to improve my Welsh.  He spent the rest of the day picking fights with people and was banished to another part of the unfulfilment centre.

But really what I re-discovered amongst these people I would never normally meet is that the world is a fundamentally kind place.  At least, my world is a fundamentally kind place, full of fundamentally kind people (and the occasional wanker), from the stranger I meet by the boxes offering me the sort of sweet I would normally avoid like the plague before seven in the morning, to the chat with the old coal-miner who’s looking for a job that will take him through the next ten years.  And I have this sort of conversation, a sort I very rarely have:

A packer comes to my kickout station with a problem order.  The weather has been very bad and most people are snowed or iced in.  He tells me about his journey to work.

“I come from Llanelli,” he says.  “I live on the Felinfoel Road” (that’s VELINVOLE – long Welsh O at the end – for anyone unfamiliar with Welsh pronunciation. I’m not even going to try with Llanelli).

“Really?” I say.  “My aunt and uncle lived there…” which is not the sort of thing I usually say anywhere.

“What number?” he asks, and so it goes until we resolve his order problem.

In general, these blue-collar registers and cadences are familiar to me, familiar but unusual, because I only hear them from my grandmother and her brothers and sister.  It’s the first time I make this connection and I am careful not to tell her.  I don’t know what I make of having both so much and so little in common with the people with whom I work.

“What’s that voice? That’s not from around here,” men say to me.

Another giver of sweets, a forklift truck driver, shouts over to me one day:

“Are you on Strictly Come Dancing?”

“No.”

“What sort of dancing do you do?”

Well, how do you answer a question like that?  These days, I go for as briefly as possible.  “Contemporary.  You won’t see that on Strictly. Ever.”

An occasional curiosity about my dancing has arisen because a few people know that I am off to Massachusetts to take part in Nancy Stark Smith’s workshop at Earthdance in January (though I generally stop after the Massachusetts bit).  All the snow and ice is giving me a chance to road-test my thermals before I throw them at a North American winter (last time I was in western Massachusetts in January, the temperature plummeted to -29).  The thought of going is what is keeping me sane.  “Anithya, anithya, anithya”, I keep hearing Goenka’s voice droning in my head on my solitary walks.  It’s interesting how much my sweaty time in Cambodian Vipassana boot-camp comes back to me here.  I can’t even remember exactly what it means, just generally that everything is temporary.  “This too will pass”, I’ve kept remembering – as too will the time in Massachusetts, and savings on minimum wage jobs being what they are, I may well be back to it come February.

With the snow being so heavy, many pre-Christmas orders have been cancelled and there are pallets and pallets of parcels waiting for the lorries to collect them.  Work was grinding to an uncomfortable halt.  My pre-dawn journeys had morphed into a crash-course in arctic driving, but despite being one of the few who made it in every day of bad weather, my services were no longer required and on Monday I was let go a day and a half early.  Well, I could have done with the money, but it’s also nice to have some time – though that’s being swallowed up by the monster that is the pre-Christmas panic.

Mumbles under snow
Early in my stay here, on a beautiful autumn day, my brother and I took my grandmother into Ceredigion, near the coast in west Wales.  We went to a Nash estate called Llanerchaeron (good luck pronouncing that one) where Nana’s grandfather had been head gardener in the 1930s.  On the drive out, we stopped at the cottage where she and her sister had stayed with their grandparents as children.  It struck me that this is the closest I’ve seen to anything resembling the ideal home of my imaginings, with its remoteness, quaint local windows and the river Aeron running its last couple of miles to the Irish Sea through the back garden.  Now it’s a very pricey National Trust holiday cottage, complete with satellite dish hidden in the bushes.  I suspect it was rather less comfortable in the days my great-great-grandparents lived there, when there was no electricity, what heating there was came from the fire and my great-great-grandfather would carry the household drinking, cooking and washing water home with him as he walked the four miles from the main house every day.  (I couldn’t quite understand why they didn’t just get the water from the river.  Perhaps it wasn’t safe…)

Nana and Nino in front of the cottage

In some ways, I feel I am still in the state I was when I was travelling.  That is something I am grateful for.  Not always, but often, things seem less oppressive, less of a sentence I can’t escape, because I know they are temporary.  I am just passing through, I am just passing through.  Again and again the image has come to me that was a constant companion on my travels: of my feet walking and leaving no prints, the image of passing through this earth, passing over this earth and leaving no trace.  Instead of frightening me now, it comforts me.

I got my sleeping bag out a few days ago, as I began to gather the things I will need for my next trip.  (A month seems a very short time now.)  A fierce relief gripped me as I held my sleeping bag, a sense of coming home, being myself once again.  I drove out into west Wales two days ago, achingly beautiful in silent snow.  Part of me longs for a house, fiercely longs for a house in quiet and space, with a fire, a reading and writing room, a dance/yoga studio, a kitchen, maybe a dog, remote, surrounded by fields and hills and trees and not too far from the sea.  Another part of me equally fiercely knows itself at home when I am on the move and is relieved at the order, the simplicity of condensing my life to a suitcase, a rucksack, something very portable.

As I cannot afford much of either at the moment, I should be grateful that this is not a choice I have to make.  But I am not quite.

I am not sure if it’s the effect of my travels, the meditation boot-camps or just encroaching middle age but I feel myself better at accepting what comes to me.  Yes, I still find it difficult, I still get frustrated but monotony doesn’t reduce me to the neurotic and miserable wreck it once did.  Perhaps it is my increasingly conscious experience of impermanence, of change.  I have felt far more isolated over the last few months than I was at any point in my wanderings.  The two or three times I have had contact with friends who know or care anything of what I do and love and am, I have flooded them with a torrent of verbal diarrhoea, an untrammelled outpouring of recognition and relief.  But the isolation too is alright, if a bit sad at times.

Wyrm's Head, Rhossili
What makes it alright is the landscape around me.  I remember my friend Barbara coming back from a hike up the mountain in Dharamsala and saying to me it was so beautiful she felt like she was looking at the face of God.  Through the windows of the industrial warehouses, above the traffic on the road that borders the sea, on my walks, against the ugliest of Swansea’s ugly buildings, I have found the changes in the sky a bewitching comfort.  I can see the skies here as I never could in London and somewhat to my surprise, I have found myself falling in love with these landscapes, these skyscapes.  The dreary grey British weather that so depresses me has been conspicuous by its absence.  I was welcomed with a bright golden autumn that transformed into a bright white winter.  I have loved the snow and ice, the quiet of it, the light of it, the joy of children skidding on the plastic toboggans which have emerged from seemingly nowhere, watching adults pulling everything from their shopping to their toddlers along on the ice behind them.  I have been lucky in that I have been able to get out and about in it.  It’s as though the land has conspired to woo me out of my hostility to British weather, to British vistas.  Again and again I have seen the face of God as the clouds move over changing skies, in the seal pup that looked up at me from his rock, and in the silence of snow-bound fields.  Again and again it has comforted me.

I am with you.  I am with you.  I am with you…


And while my experience of god has little to do with mangers or virgins or plum puddings, this seems nonetheless a fitting note on which to wish you a joyful and beautiful Christmas.

From Lucy with love. x

Friday, 27 August 2010

Wild Life

Despite the bus misdirections (time of departure, final destination) given to me by my Ecuadorian volunteer co-ordinators, I arrived without mishap (unless you count a bag in the mud, but that’s standard) one drizzly night in Puerto Lopez, after the best part of twelve hours travelling. I was coming to volunteer for an organisation called Equilibrio Azul for four weeks, a marine conservation (dis)organisation whose website promised volunteers all sorts of exciting sea-bound activities with manta rays, sharks, turtles and the like. Crucially, it also advised:

We strongly recommend our volunteers to experiment SCUBA diving in Ecuador. For those who are already divers, our projects offer a big opportunity to expand their experience and knowledge while helping.

“Well hurrah,” I thought. “A chance to use all those diving skills I’d so enjoyed developing in Thailand and do something vaguely useful at the same time.”

My first challenge was to get through the lake of mud and water in front of the Equilibrio Azul house. Angelo (Italian marine biology graduate, hoping to start his PhD on coral soon) was there to greet me. He was coming to the end of four out of his six-months at Equilibrio. The other person in the house was Fabian, the biologist surveying the species of shark and manta ray pulled in by the local fishermen.

...

…I started writing this a couple of weeks ago and I’m now sitting on the plane to Spain, bemusing the man next to me with my predilection for contortionist plane-seat positions and wondering how much longer my increasingly decrepit battery will last.

It occurred to me some time ago (perhaps explaining the long gap between the start and finish of this entry) that if I give a blow-by-blow account of my weeks with Equilibrio, it will just end up as one long rant. It also occurred to me at various points along my adventures that there are few things more self-indulgently dull than travellers ranting about how difficult their experiences are. The descriptions of arduous and complicated bus journeys in apparently underprivileged corners of the world may be riveting to the persons who lived them, but I don’t find them inspiring reading. (And quite apart from anything else, my most frustrating encounters with public transport have all been in the UK, so I’m not sure it’s fair to complain too much about anyone else’s manner of moving people about.)

Not that Equilibrio Azul was a bus journey (that might have been easier to negotiate). Suffice to say, it was fantastically badly run and the person/s in charge of volunteers were uniformly unpleasant and incompetent. (The staff with no responsibility for volunteers were generally a bit nicer.) It reminded me of nothing so much as some of my more unpleasant times at boarding school and I found that I enjoyed such an experience even less the second time round, though probably handled it somewhat better. After my turtle-tagging briefing on my first morning, the volunteer-coordinator barely spoke to me again, certainly never pleasantly and rarely even politely, which considering we were all living in the same house, was quite a feat. “For an organisation that’s so reliant on volunteers”, said a nice young college student from Missoula Montana (should any of my friends from that particular town be reading), “you’d think they’d treat them better.”

The organisation’s attitude to its volunteers was beautifully encapsulated for me by a story recounted by Angelo. Angelo who is called on to do every shitty job the staff want doing and wouldn’t dream of attempting themselves. Angelo who is unendingly good-natured. Angelo, without whom, I’m pretty sure the whole organisation will grind to a halt when his term ends next month.

Here’s a moment of light relief with Angelo, after a beach rubbish pick-up at Playita. Thanks to Dan for indulging us in the snap:


One night, Angelo was in bed and heard a bit of a commotion in the house. The house being what it is, he didn’t think much of it and went back to sleep. In the morning, he discovered that everybody else in the house had evacuated it in the middle of the night, taking all passports and important documents with them. There had been some sort of tsunami panic after a distant earthquake. Luckily for Angelo, this was an entirely false alarm. But not one person, as they were gathering passports and so on, thought it might be worth waking Angelo up so he too could save himself from death by Pacific Ocean.

When it came to activities, my first week went rather well, with three excursions out on the little boat to catch turtles to tag, a couple of visits to the beach in the early morning to count the manta rays and hammerhead sharks (all juvenile, before they’d had any chance to reproduce) the local fisherman were dragging out of the sea, a very disgusting hour separating the dead bycatch into piles of different types of fish to count and identify (lots of bloody water involved in that one and a horrible smell), and a visit to one of the less accessible beaches on which Hawksbill turtles nest to exhume a spent nest (basically digging until you’ve got all the eggs out to work out how many hatched and why the others didn’t – a bit disgustingly gynaecological, despite the sand, but interesting). Here I am with my latexed hand down a nest, in full exhumation, surrounded by a pile of spent eggs.


Week two, we were sent to the Isla de la Plata, rather disparagingly known as “the poor man’s Galapagos” but much more interesting than that. More on that anon but for the moment, suffice to say I discovered in myself an unsuspected affinity with sea birds.

It’s just as well I made the most of those first two weeks as that was the end of any biological activity of any sort, marine or otherwise. The only volunteer who got to do any of the much-vaunted diving was Angelo, and considering it was only his third time in four and a half months, this was not a lot to shout about. The next two weeks, so half of my stay with Equilibrio, the three foreign volunteers (the Ecuadorian ones generally shared the staff’s happy knack of getting out of virtually all unpleasant work) got most of the filthiest jobs building a garden for a local school. This would have been fine, except we’d all volunteered specifically (and paid for the privilege) for marine biology related activity, and Dan, one of my fellow-volunteers, is a teacher at work and had no wish to spend his holidays back in school. He would have infinitely preferred to be out with some of the staff tagging manta rays, as would we all, and as we’d been led to believe this is what volunteering for Equilibrio Azul entailed.

Well, we live and we learn.

Now, gardening doesn’t sound dirty or unpleasant work, but then you didn’t see the state of the plot of land before we began. Nor did you see the very used motor oil (it had recently been in a boat engine) we were given to oil the wood for the fence (my delightful job as I’m not much good with a saw), nor how we then had to build the fence with the dirty oil still very wet (it not being designed to be absorbed by bamboo). We (the irritating gringo volunteers) had pointed out that the wall backing the garden really should be painted before anything else, only to be told that no, the school garden wall wasn’t being painted; it was the wall in the volunteer house we were supposed to paint later that week (thankfully, in the general disorganised lethargy, that handyman’s task never materialised). So once the extremely unpleasant job of building a fence from scratch out of long sticks of bamboo and filthy motor oil, and then putting it up in very unaccommodating ground was complete, we set about planting the garden with a class of endearingly enthusiastic ten year olds, who had cleared all the rubbish out of the plot of land first (quite a feat, as it literally kept emerging out of the earth).

Of course, as soon all the plants were happily ensconced in the earth, we were ordered to paint the wall.

Of course.

Now this wall was in such a bad state, that the touch of a paint brush caused it to crumble. But eventually it was done, and the newly-planted plants were covered in brick dust and paint.

Then we were told the children were to make a hand-print mural on the wall behind the plants. Which all looks quite nice, except in the general excitement, half the plants got trampled and now rather a lot of them are dead. And the one member of staff who showed up to help out a bit one morning thought it was a good idea to clean the paint brushes on the fence we’d spent a week building.

But the kids enjoyed themselves and have promised not to throw rubbish on the streets or in the sea. Who knows how long they’ll remember?…

So that’s enough of the narrative complaint. Instead here are ten memories of my colours of Ecuador:


1) A crazy, surreal day,
which started with a count of shark and ray species the fishermen pulled out of the sea in the morning, continued with a longish walk through brush and back for the turtle nest exhumation, and continued after lunch with a memorable turtle-tagging expedition on the little boat. This is the only time the volunteer-coordinator accompanied us out in the field, supposedly to show me and the new Ecuadorian volunteer how to tag turtles (which one of the resident biologists had already shown me a couple of times). The volunteer-coordinator spent the entire outbound journey canoodling with another member of staff (extremely hard to ignore when six people are balancing in a small boat on very choppy seas and two of the six are wrapped around each other on the floor in the centre of said boat). Once we’d all been out to look for turtles and I very proudly spotted the first one (here it is pre-tagging, Lucy-the-Hawksbill… Well, that’s what they said they’d call it; I don’t know that they ever did)…


… the volunteer co-ordinator showed no interest whatsoever in the proceedings, apparently too sea-sick to look. Which is strange for somebody who purports to be an out-in-the-field marine conservationist… So we made a detour to drop her and the Ecuadorian volunteer off at a beach so they no longer had to brave the choppy seas, and those four of us remaining (me the only woman, a fact more significant than I’d like in Ecuador) went out to catch and tag two more turtles, battling the setting sun, an uncomfortable swell and very chill wind. At one point, I’d finally got out of my cold wetsuit, dried and changed, only to be attacked by the onset of my first Ecuadorian tummy bug. The two other staff were diving at this point and it was just me and the captain on the boat. Well, a small boat leaves no option in such circumstances but to change back into swimming togs and jump into the sea for the tummy bug to do its worst. As I swam back to the boat half-hidden in the swell, it occurred to me that I take some quite surreal situations in my stride at times.

“Lucy la guerrera”, said one of the staff, after he’d asked me whether I wasn’t seasick.

“Si, un poco,” was my reply (amazing what a homeopathic remedy and a bit of concentration can do in such situations). That was the closest thing I ever got to a compliment at Equilibrio Azul, this bestowed after scribbling down all turtle measurements on the slate and taking turtle headshots as the little boat pitched precariously over inky seas in the fast-fading light.

I got back to the house after my twelve hour day to be told that the volunteer coordinator and friends were cooking for all. Did I want to join? Sure, I said.

In which case I needed to buy all the drinks. For eight people. The egalitarian maths of this rather eluded me but I paid my money in a tired daze and avoided all communal staff-coordinated-eating from then on.

But had all my Equilibrio Azul days been like that, I’d have got what I came for.


2) The sea was a new colour to me in Ecuador.
The Pacific under the overcast skies is a turquoise version of petrol, the variegated browns of the cliffs brooding over it around the turtle-swimming coast.


3) The Isla de la Plata,
so called (plata = silver) for three reasons: “el pirato ingles, Sir Francis Drake” is rumoured to have buried a never-discovered chest of silver on the island, the pre-Incan civilizations used the island for spiritual retreat (and human sacrifice), and it is full of sea-birds and so covered in (there’s no nicer way to put this without sounding stupidly euphemistic) birdshit – less offensive than it sounds as the island is a little desert and the whole lot is a fairly innocuous (silver) white powder.


The morning Angelo and I set off for the island, the Ecuadorian volunteer pulled out as she also had my tummy bug, a down-grading from the Dengue fever she’d originally claimed. (I, on the other hand, decided the tummy bug could do no worse on a desert island than at the Equilibrio Azul house.) In a summary phone-call from her six-day-weekend-party, the volunteer co-ordinator decided the new volunteer who had arrived at five thirty that morning should go in her place. It took me, Angelo and the nice college student from Missoula Montana to point out that after an overnight and sleepless bus journey and only a day and a half in the country, it might be an idea to give Dan a day to sleep and shop before sending him to an uninhabited island with no fresh water and no food except what we would bring. Oh yes, said the volunteer co-ordinator, he can go tomorrow.

Other than the park-rangers who rotate one week on, one week off, no one lives on the island. Tourist boats come in daily from around 10:30 and leave some time around 16:00, with a little snorkelling hop on their way back to the mainland. It was on these we hitched a lift there and back, and as the tourists are promised humpback whales, we got to see them too, jumping and singing.

Our work was three-fold: monitoring the tourists and their guides for the national park, monitoring the sea-birds and patrolling the beach at night for evidence of turtle-nesting.

The tourist monitoring was the most social but least interesting of the three and it never ceased to amaze me how great a proportion of the guides would flirt with me through the week, despite the fact I was only washing in the sea, had no mirror to hand but didn’t need one to tell me I was in dire need of leg-waxing. The attention was so undiscriminating as to be rather unflattering and my diplomacy (not to mention my gradually improving Spanish) was sorely tried on my last day when I was put in as an impromptu replacement for the park ranger, with responsibility for sending the groups on the various hiking trails with appropriate time intervals between each. I got a fair bit of the Ecuadorian equivalent of “Don’t you worry your pretty little head, darling, we know our job,” as they sauntered off regardless. At which point, I had no choice but to write on my sheet “NO ESPERA” (ungrammatical for “didn’t wait”) and point it out to the director of the national park who was visiting that day and very keen I should exert my authority on his behalf. At least he made a point of thanking me for the work, which is more than anyone else ever did.


4) The creatures of the isla.
Apparently, the Isla de la Plata is the only place in the world where you can find magnificent frigate birds, waved albatrosses, pajaros tropicales (I don’t know what those are in English), and blue-footed, red-footed and masked boobies, all together. My first day, going off along one of the trails after the tourists had left, as instructed but with no map and no knowledge of the island, I got totally lost. (I felt less stupid about this when I later discovered that the path I should have taken to find my way back was the one marked “STOP”, i.e. “don’t come up here”.) The sun had finally come out (we had three and a half miraculously sunny days on the isla, unheard of at this time of year), so the first hour I was quite happy in the beauty of it all. By the end of the second hour, with no shade anywhere and no hat, no water left and no food for many hours now, I was beginning to worry, despite telling myself that the trails were all eventually circular, so I must find my way in the end, even if it meant 20km up and down some extremely steep hills. By the time I eventually came across Angelo sitting across my path, overlooking the sea, I nearly wept with relief.

I was in for a treat, however, as he was albatross-monitoring. And this huge bird, which looks so majestic in flight, really does look exactly like a cartoon on the ground. It’s too heavy to take off easily and so needs a long runway, exactly like a plane. Disney’s The Rescuers didn’t make anything up. All the bird needed was some goggles. Here it is, setting up for its second run-up (the first was too short):


I fell in love with the albatrosses that afternoon, and over the course of the week watched them at their courting dance, nesting and flying.

One very early morning, we were sent to count masked boobies. “Do the ones sitting down count as solteros?” I asked Angelo. Just as well I did, because it took my fellow-volunteer to explain to me that no, those ones aren’t single, they’re nesting, and furthermore, I was supposed to check what they were nesting on top of.

Hmmmm, so how does one convince a nesting mother to show one what she is so carefully guarding?...

My method was unorthodox but I proudly boast 100% success rate (which is more than the preferred staff method – a poke with a long stick – can do).

I asked.

Nicely.

With love.

“Please sweetheart, would you show me what you have under there?”

And she did. Every time. Though sometimes it required waiting a few minutes.

Here’s a masked booby showing me her blood-striped egg:


“San Francesco que habla con los animales”, joked Angelo, in his Spanish/Italian hybrid. But the day we were trying to work out what the albatross was sitting on top of, he was up for anything that might work. “Did you ask?” he wanted to know, as he came up behind me in the sharp brush the albatrosses like as nest-armour.

I did.

And she showed me.

Five times.

Which was just as well, because the thing she was hiding was so new we couldn’t distinguish it from her feet for the first three demonstrations, even with the binoculars. A brand new baby albatross.

“Ask her again,” said Dan, who was trying to get a picture.

“She’s already shown me five times. You ask,” I said, reluctant to push my luck with this new relationship. “But you have to do it with love.”

“Oh, with love!” he scoffed.

So of course, she didn’t show him.

Too many magic moments on the island to number… I frequently felt I was walking in a cartoon, with the whales thumping and jumping in the bays I overlooked from the cliffs, sitting, waiting for the tourists to appear. With the turtles popping their heads out of the water as I stood thigh-deep in the Pacific, washing the dust and sweat from my t-shirt. Avoiding the rats as I went to wash the pots with sand down by the seashore in the evening. The rats, an introduced infestation, that were everywhere at night. I didn’t squeak unless one virtually ran over me. As I said, I often wonder at what I took in my stride, as I walked out to brush my teeth or deal with the tummy bug.

It wasn’t turtle nesting season, so none of us saw any on our nightly patrols. The nature of these dark solo walks along the bay varied dramatically according to whether the full moon had risen, according to how many rats were out, according to how low or how high the tide was dancing.

Despite all the annoyances of human (dis)organisation and the lack of comfort, I loved the Isla de la Plata. I am beyond grateful that I got to see it when the tourists were gone and the birds held sway over their domain, that I spoke to the birds on lonely pathways and they whistled and squawked back at me, cocking their heads in characterful contemplation. I am beyond grateful for the sun that shone much of my time there, turning the Ecuadorian greys to a translucent palette of jewelled blues. Here is a link to my Facebook album of pictures, for anyone who would like to see more than these blue-footed boobies:



5) Dan and Angelo, my fellow volunteers.
Standing on the beach of Puerto Lopez, watching the fishermen heave in their dispiriting catch of young sharks and manta rays, ranting about Equilibrio Azul:

“I’ve made a point in my blog never to write anything I wouldn’t want anyone I’ve met to read,” I said, “but sometimes you have to call a spade a spade.”

“That’s not fair to spades,” said Dan mildly. “A spade is useful. It does some work.”

Angelo rarely complained directly about conditions at Equilibrio. His favoured mode of protest was a variation on the following monologue whenever we passed a building site, or any site of particularly unpleasant and dirty manual labour:

“Tomorrow we go there at seven in the morning. First we pay them. Then we work all day. We work without stopping to eat. We work for twelve hours. But first we must pay them. They don’t pay us. We pay them. And then we work.”

I leave you to imagine the Italian accent.


6) Flesh
After my time in uber-conservative Asia, it was rather welcome to see random couples holding hands or even snogging in the streets without causing so much as the bat of an eyelid. All over Ecuador, but most especially on the coast, women of all shapes and sizes (and a few men) sheathed themselves in minute quantities of ultra-tight lycra, legs and bellies and cleavages, and even the odd nipple, exploding out in lascivious abandon. In comparison, the Europeans and north Americans, in their mercilessly practical outdoorsy gear and sporty sandals, looked rather modest. These same gringos in Asia, dressed identically, looked like they might be auditioning for a strange new brothel.

Another source of ironic amusement was Puerto Lopez’s transvestite beauty parlour. Now Puerto Lopez consists of its fairly pleasant Malecon (seafront road), six other roads and a lot of mud. But it’s big enough to have its very own transvestite unisex beauty parlour, where relentlessly macho Puerto Lopezian men sit and have their hair cut by some extremely butch drag queens.


7) My last week in Ecuador,
visiting the mountains. Angelo joined me for this, and I was grateful for the company on long bus journeys and shared organisation. We started in Banos, a volcanic spa town, surrounded by waterfalls.


It wasn’t until our final morning there that the queue for the thermal baths was short enough for us to gain admittance. At 6:00am it was already busy, but well worth the wait to sit cooking in a volcano-heated pool watching the waterfall and then cooling down in the showers of water diverted from the icy fall I’d been admiring.

But perhaps the clearest memory of Banos is the strange squishy toilet seat in our hosteria:



8) Violently ill at Quilotoa.
“No it’s not motion sickness.” I was getting impatient with the people who were trying to convince me of this. Violent cramps, uncontrollable vomiting and all the other nasty stuff that accompanies a bad tummy bug. The pain of the cramps echoed the pain of other distant mountains. In the Himalayas it was my hip that hurt so much it had me sobbing through the night and crippled for a week. I couldn’t help but wonder what the connection is for me with high mountains and pain.

The mini-bus had a flat tire. I stayed behind on the side of the Andean road, comatose in the bus, while the driver went to organise lunch and find a new tire (someone hadn’t replaced the spare), and the rest of the group hiked to the crater lake of Quilotoa (formed 800 years ago when the volcano blew its top and then gradually filled with water). I managed the odd trip to the very exposed field, under the impassive gaze of the Indios working in the one opposite. Yes, I take some very strange things in my stride. It occurred to me that I was probably better off there in the field, as the hosteria we were staying in had no water that day… I did eventually make it to the viewpoint to look over the lake underneath but I think I spent about eight hours that day in the bus, and was too ill to notice them passing.

In the Himalayas I’d had a strong sense of Shiva laughing with me in his mountain home, prodding me towards the amchi with her herbal pills and the staff of the Oriental who happily crushed them while regaling me with stories and hot water. Here, his Andean incarnation was taking care of the rather strong wind. By some fluke or divine providence, each time I was violently ill, the wind was blowing in the perfect direction to take it away from me. There was certainly no science on my part in this. It sounds like a small thing, but the thought of being covered in vomit (or worse) would have rendered a difficult day completely unbearable. And given the idiosyncratic nature of Hosteria PapaGayo’s laundry service, the evidence may have lingered for far too long.

So I continue to count my blessings where I find them.


9) The next day at Cotopaxi,
the highest active volcano in the world. Eating was painful, and so I wasn’t. Other than some unsurprising weakness, I seemed to be ok. The hike to 4810m was not easy. I wasn’t sure how much was the bug and how much was the altitude, but I was feeling rather strange. So I hung out at the refugio, dozing in the sun while most of the rest of the group hiked up another 200m to the glacier.

We were blessed with a gorgeous day. Here is Cotopaxi in all her glory:


The trek down was done on a mixture of feet, bus and bicycle. I am definitely more of a sea than a mountain girl, but it was very beautiful and stark and strange.


10) My last weekend in Ecuador in Otavalo.
Yes, I got that extra suitcase and filled it in the market of Otavalo. I like Otavalo. It’s very indigenous Indian (the South American version, should this confuse any of my Indian Indian friends) and for once many of them seem prosperous. The women wander about in their beautifully embroidered blouses and their woven sashes, the men with their long hair looking rather funky. People are frequently striking, dense black hair and dark slanting features.

The Saturday market is enormous.

“It’s very cold,” one trader told me, “because the volcano is moving…” Just as well I was flying out the next day.

The livestock market was a jumble of cows and pigs and dogs and guinea-pigs and puppies and chickens and kittens. I’ve probably forgotten a few. And a nice old lady who sold me one of the sashes she makes.

Otavalo is a nice mix of beautiful traditional crafts and surprisingly funky cheap cafes and bars. It may well be my favourite place in Ecuador.

So a good place to finish.



After nearly eleven months of wandering, I have completed my aerial circumnavigation of the Earth (I frequently think that if the world is indeed supposed to end in 2012, I am grateful to have seen a little more of it this year). East, east, east, always flying east... Last Sunday, I began my loop back to Europe watching another stunning full moon rising above pink clouds from the plane in Quito (ah yes, the story of my full moons)… I am now in Spain.

But the Spanish adventures are for next time.

Suffice to say that, in contrast to Montecristi (home of Panama hats – made only in Ecuador for complicated reasons), where every shopkeeper we met told me I was Spanish, nobody is making that mistake here.

My identity is as diffuse as it has ever been.
But whatever mine or yours, wishing you joy and sending you love.
Lucy x

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Quito

For so long on this trip, Ecuador had seemed such a distant prospect that I had in no way wrapped my head around the fact that I was going to South America for the first time in my life.  The Rough Guide to Ecuador I had bought in California came out in my last days in Miami (and having now sampled The Rough Guide to India and Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring – though their idea of a shoestring is certainly not mine – I can confirm that I much prefer Rough Guides.  Nonetheless, all guidebooks frequently make me wonder whether I am visiting the same planet as the one described in their pages).

I read that Quito is the second highest capital city in the world, at 2800 metres up the Andes (second only to Lhasa in Tibet, I am assuming), that the point furthest from the centre of the Earth is not the top of Mount Everest in Nepal, but the tip of the volcano Chimborazo in Ecuador (because of the way the Earth bulges at the equator).  My continual packing and unpacking was beginning to wear on me (made all the more lengthy as I worked out the storage quirks of a new rucksack) and these little snippets of information injected a much needed thrill of anticipation into my next destination. 
I liked the circle of mountains, beginning my journey in the Himalayas and drawing it to its close (for now) in the Andes.  I liked the fact that I was going back to the equator, where I had spent some searingly memorable years as a child.  And I liked the fact that I was going to be speaking Spanish (or attempting to), that the unfamiliarity would shift.  Now I would recognise the script of street signs (not always or even often the case in Asia) but their language would be unfamiliar. 
unfamiliar equatorial mountain tree in the courtyard of Quito's library

Ecuador was to be more organised than my other arrivals. I was being met by the organisation that co-ordinates a volunteer project I was participating in, an agency of sorts. They would meet me at the airport and provide me with a host family in Quito and three meals a day for a week, and then help me move on (for a fee, of course). I had thought that being in a homestay might give me a good insight and introduction to Quito and Ecuador, as well as providing some Spanish lessons. What I didn’t realise was that the homestay was actually a forty minute bus ride outside Quito (and that the bus stop was a brisk twenty minute walk away), and that the three meals a day basically meant my least favourite polystyrene-white-bread and coffee at breakfast (perhaps with a bit of fruit), that those same ingredients were what was available to me to make my packed lunch, and that dinner was generally pretty basic and not always very appetising. 


We house guests lived in a slightly grubby annex to the main house. My first night there was another Lucy’s last. She was on her way back home to Cardiff after a month or so volunteering in an orphanage. I was deeply thankful she was there to give directions on buses, laundry, internet, shops, all those useful essentials. The rest of the week I had to myself, which was a bit quiet at times, but suited me fine.

In the end, I only had three Spanish lessons in all, as the son who gave them to me was graduating that week and festivities were in order. He was following his father’s footsteps into the military and at sixteen, embodied a few teenage stereotypes I found frankly irritating: texting and phoning on his mobile while supposedly teaching, and resentful assumptions about how much money I have. “Tu tienes plata” was a favourite catch-phrase. All from a middle class boy whose family are adding to their apparently comfortable income with some rather overpriced and under-serviced foreigners’ accommodation and whose house contains more mod-cons and gadgets than any flat I’ve ever lived in. But there you go. We all make our choices. If he and his family chose to sell their house, they could probably do a lot more travelling than my budget allows. When I’ve pointed out this choice to various people along the way, they’ve looked at me slightly aghast. But we all make our choices, and the choice I made, to swap home for travel, is a choice open to many people I’ve met who complain they can’t afford to travel. What they can’t afford is to keep their home and to travel. And neither could I. I’m not saying everyone should make the choice I have, but there’s no point envying or resenting those who’ve chosen differently.

Of course, this was happening at exactly the time my budget was giving me cause for concern and I spent much of the week working out how I was to juggle it. In one of those pleasant contrasts the universe likes to offer me up, proving not all teenagers are a pain in the nether regions, the son’s friend who co-taught two of my classes was a pleasant and polite lad, off to study medicine.

I was quite competent at Spanish at school, but that was a very long time ago. When I was twenty-two, I had a plan to travel South America and did a month’s intensive classes. I ended up dancing instead and not using my improved Spanish at all. Many years later, my Spanish is at best rudimentary and my grasp of grammar and conjugations only sufficient to know that what I am saying is hopelessly incorrect. I often find myself perfectly able to ask a simple question but rather baffled by the answer. It’s taught me a lot of empathy for all those people around Asia who looked blankly at my English. The bar in Quito seems to be pretty low for gringos, as people would frequently comment on how well I speak Spanish.
Really, I don’t. If I understand a quarter of what’s being said to me, it is a very, very, very good day.

There was some confusion over my volunteering project. The whole point of choosing Ecuador as a destination in the first place, many months ago now, was an affordable local marine conservation project which was to involve diving and various other exciting things. I looked into similar offered by UK-based NGOs, which were demanding the equivalent of my annual budget for about four months. So Ecuador it was.

Only, some time before I left Cambodia, I received an email from my Ecuadorian volunteer co-ordinators saying that the project was no longer available. Apparently it was the quiet time of year and the various sea creatures were off somewhere else. I found myself wishing they had told me this months previously and disappointedly set about choosing from the alternatives, none of which really appealed. Having sent my mask, snorkel and coral-protecting diving booties back to Europe (which cost me a severe pang), I arrived in Ecuador only to be told that the marine conservation project, albeit a scaled-down version, was available after all. All the other possibilities required long bus rides at the weekend and possible overnight stays in distant towns in order to access any kind of internet. I didn’t feel this was helpful in the last weeks of my trip, when I would be needing to organise my re-entry into Europe and job-hunting. So, after umming and ahhhing and stressing over budgets, I finally decided that there’s no point receiving messages in meditation if you don’t listen to them. At which point, I stopped worrying, the finances fell into place and all was decided. At the end of my week in Quito, I was off to the coast to make some small attempt to save turtles, hammerhead sharks and manta rays.

Meanwhile, Quito was to be explored, and once I got my head around the bus system and the rather confusing layout of the backstreets of the old town, I had a grand old time visiting beautiful Spanish colonial plazas and churches. I also spent an intriguing afternoon at the Bicentenario, so-called because its opening in 2009 marked two hundred years of Ecuadorian independence. It houses the Centro de Arte Contemporaneo, which is a wonderful conversion from an old military hospital. The current displays are rather sparse but beautifully done, and I finally got to make use of my Birkbeck student card (still miraculously valid) and so entry was only a dollar.

Some of Old Quito on a rare sunny day: 



The Museo del Banco Central, in La Casa de la Cultura, is a fabulous museum. Sadly, the gold room was shut, so I only got to see one of the beaten gold Indian head dresses that live there. However, the archaeological room is huge and really well-organised with a lot of information about the various civilisations that passed through the different regions of Ecuador. Yogis amongst you may be interested to know that I saw at least four terracotta figurines in passable yoga poses (siddhasana, dandasana, urdhva dhanurasana , tadasana among them) and if you really push it, I’m sure you could decode a couple of mudras too. There is some argument over the age of hatha yoga (the physical practice of yoga). Some people argue that figurines from the Indus Valley Civilization show it to be thousands of years old. Others, perhaps less romantic and more pragmatic, point out that, in a culture where everyone sits on the floor, a figure of someone sitting cross-legged is not an indication of meditation in the lotus position. Anyway, these Ecuadorian figures are at least as old as the Indus Valley images, so perhaps someone would like to posit a new theory that yoga in fact originated in the Andes.

They share other similarities, namely an appetite for sacrifice, though I’m not sure ancient Vedic societies went in for the human variety, which most of the old Ecuadorian cultures figured seemed to practise. In the century before the Spanish conquistadores arrived, the Incas came up from Peru and took over most of Ecuador. To be perfectly honest, the local population doesn’t seem to have fared much better under them than under the later Spanish colonisation. Whole communities were moved by the Incas from their ancestral lands as political stratagem, the Inca language was imposed so efficiently that its descendants are still the languages spoken by most Indian communities in Ecuador, and virtually all productive industry was nationalised in a quasi-Stalinist manner. It was interesting to see the pots and utensils of the time, bereft of the imaginative exuberance that had gone before and utterly uniform in shape and pattern. Then the Spanish arrived for genocide and quasi-slavery. All very cheerful. But beautiful displays.

The other room open was that of Colonial Art. Lots of sado-masochistic Catholic imagery greeted me, with a particular penchant for blood and gore. I’m guessing the local population had plenty of first-hand inspiration.

Much more fun was the fantastically camp La Compania church. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside, and I doubt anyway that a photograph could possibly do justice to the staggering glitter within. The inside is covered with a reputed seven tonnes of gold leaf. The whole church is an exuberant twinkling gold, completely astonishing. It also has lots of pictures of the fun parts of the Bible that don’t usually get featured (Jonah and the whale) and a grizzly depiction of hell with graphic detail of the various tortures awaiting the different categories of sinners. Perhaps this was done to strike fear into the hearts of unconverted native Indians with their nature gods, but I couldn’t help thinking a lot of the sins mentioned (greed, cruelty, murder, theft) applied pretty tightly to the Catholic conquistadores.

Here is the top of La Compania from the church of San Francisco, across the plaza of the same name:


 
I was told I must visit Otavalo, a small town “only two hours” outside Quito that hosts the biggest market in South America. What I wasn’t told was that it would take me two and a half hours and four buses to cross Quito from my homestay to the bus terminal from whence the bus to Otavalo departed. It was exhausting, but I managed it in one day, even if I spent nine of my thirteen hour trip on or waiting for various buses.

I have a weakness for lovely woollen products (alpaca and cashmere are particular favourites; Otavalo is full of alpaca) and silver. Otavalo was to be my undoing. I did all my Christmas shopping for next December, spent double what I’d intended and now plan to go back with an empty suitcase in my last week travelling through Ecuador. Only this time I’ll stay the night. It turned out to be a great plan to go on Friday, when many of the stalls are already set up for Saturday market day but very few of the shoppers had yet arrived. The Plaza de Ponchos was packed full of stalls, and you can buy things for a few dollars that would cost at least ten times more in Europe or north America. Beautiful and lots of fun.
Here’s the lady who sold me some of my Christmas presents, made by her family:

 


And here’s the view from the bus back to Quito:




Now I’m down from the mountains and in Puerto Lopez (also known as Puerto Lodo, “Port Mud”, for good reason). But more on marine conservation in an equatorial Pacific rainy season next time.

From Lucy, with love x

(North) America

I was looking forward to the USA. I was looking forward to reliable modern plumbing, outdoor gear shops with quality-guarantees, clean streets and efficient public rubbish collection. I was looking forward to catching up with Barbara (my host), whom I had last seen one evening early in November as she helped me and my stuff down the perilous steps from my Himalayan guesthouse in Dharamsala and saw me into the taxi that was taking me to the bus to Rishikesh. I was looking forward to meeting the people I had been corresponding with about a possible doctorate (long, surreal, Indian story) and drinking overpriced chai lattes from monolithic coffee chains, that bear very little resemblance to their Indian inspiration (well, maybe in sugar content). Despite all of this, I was reluctant to leave Asia, suffering a big pang as I drove from my $4 a night hotel room through early morning Phnom Penh in my final tuktuk ride, drinking in the last of the incongruously piled-up motorbikes, fruit stalls and life and paraphernalia that seem to be the major common feature of the streets of the different Asian countries I have been lucky enough to pass through.

Flying over LA I felt fear for the first time. It was so enormous. And so full of concrete. And so organised. An endless grey grid, lit up by never-ending lines of yellow street lights. Barbara is normally a very organised person (she’s a nurse) but in a lapse of habit, she had managed to lose both the emails I’d sent her with my flight information. All she knew was my arrival time and that I was coming from somewhere in Asia. Now, LAX is a big airport. With two international arrival terminals. By the time she did eventually find me, waiting by my luggage trolley, she was nearly in tears. But all’s well that ends well.
Barbara gave me her spare keys and sallied forth on her very busy work schedule. For the next two weeks, I had the run of Santa Monica, an uncharacteristically easy place to get around if you don’t have a car. I walked long distances through huge sparklingly clean blocks and worked out the bus network (miraculously, there is one in this corner of LA, a city not known for its public transport). The local starry yoga studio (Exhale Centre for Sacred Movement) was doing a special 2-week introductory deal incredibly cheaply and so I signed up and checked out some of the yoga names that plaster DVDs and posters at a fraction of the price I’d have to pay if I were to try them out on one of their touring workshops through London. Santa Monica (Barbara’s home) is a bit like a Primrose Hill by Sea, all fashionable yoga studios with fantastically overpriced and rather gorgeous paraphernalia, organic chichi cafes and bars and beauty salons galore. Neighbouring Venice Beach is a bit more Soho-cum-Hackney by Sea (apologies to anyone who doesn’t know London). Wandering through Venice Beach one day, I was very amused to see exactly the same clothing on sale as in the street markets of Bangkok or Phnom Penh, only rather more expensive. Ahhh, globalisation.
Here’s somewhere between Venice Beach and Santa Monica:




One day last November in Rishikesh, Swami Aparokshananda in his Katha Upanishad class had mentioned someone he’d met who was doing a PhD in the States on yoga. This got me thinking. For a while now, I have been interested in the relationship (as I see it) between certain aspects of yoga philosophy and certain practices within postmodern dance. It’s research and work I plan to continue, in whatever context but this did start me wondering whether a doctorate might not provide the framework to make this possible. Some weeks, later, lost on Brigade Road in Bangalore, trying to follow a typically erroneous set of directions from some Indian friends (wrong street name, wrong crossing, but in true Indian fashion we eventually found one another against all logical odds), a gentleman approached me.

“Are you familiar with this area?” he enquired.
No I was not. I was completely bewildered. He proceeded to try and help me, with no greater success than I had had and then insisted on buying me tea. I had twenty minutes before I was due to meet Vibhinna somewhere mysteriously in the area, and after a bit of persuasion, I agreed. It turned out that Shrinivas (the gentleman) was originally from Bangalore but had lived the past forty years in LA and was back visiting family and studying some yoga. We got talking about my idea and he mentioned a professor at Catholic University in Los Angeles, Loyola Marymount (LMU). A few days later, I emailed this professor with my enquiry, who emailed me back a very charming reply, suggesting we meet when I passed through LA. I then emailed my yoga philosophy teacher to ask whether he had ever heard of this professor, who emailed me back singing his praises and informing me he was just posting his Christmas card. Then it was Barbara’s turn, the only person I know in LA, who waxed lyrical on the university in question. It’s amazing what you can find when you lose yourself in Bangalore.
This had been last December and we were now approaching the end of June. Amazingly, the bus ran straight from Barbara’s to LMU, with only the huge internal distances to walk (American universities clearly aren’t built for car-less students). I met Professor Chris Chapple on a few occasions over the next days. He was always charming and extremely helpful. The idea presented was that I should do their MA in Comparative Theology and then move on to my PhD. I was concerned about leaving the dance aspect behind for so long and was assured we could make special arrangements. The lovely lady in graduate admissions offered me a 40% scholarship on the spot, which was very charming. Nonetheless, the whole endeavour would still cost about £20,000, before living costs and before a whiff of the PhD. I am not closing that door but I’m not entirely sure it’s remotely viable - but interesting to make connections and explore and ponder.
My other major job in LA was to replace my rucksack and worn-our walking sandals, along with various other lotions, potions and vitamins (India and Thailand are well stocked in these things, Cambodia much less so). All this was done very successfully, leaving a huge hole in my budget. Ahhh, there is a cost to all this cleanliness and convenience and efficiency. And so many people looked so stressed. It struck me very forcibly, coming from Cambodia, perhaps the most consistently poor country I have ever visited, how unhappy so many people looked in LA, despite their comforts and conveniences.
Despite the “June gloom”, the cloud cover that comes from the Pacific and makes coastal LA really rather chilly at times, I enjoyed my walks, my occasional short bouts of sunbathing by the enormous Pacific on beaches where it takes ten minutes to walk from the start of the sand to the seashore.




I enjoyed wandering through Santa Monica Promenade where the buskers sound like stars (better than many of them). I enjoyed a father’s day weekend spent further inland with Barbara’s large family and freezing my toes off watching Barbara’s fire dancing troupe practise in the park one night. LA was a big shock after Asia and I never felt I fully adjusted to the space and the mechanisation and the huge car culture but I was glad to be there and grateful, grateful to lovely Barbara and her hospitality. Here we are as I headed from LAX to Miami, the next stop on my American tour.



In Miami, I was staying with my friend John, whom I had first met at the end of 1997 doing a stage combat workshop in Arizona. He got to impale me on his quarter staff six feet up in the air and watch me slide down it in my death throes. A beautiful friendship ensued. He is married to Jen and they have a lovely daughter called Isabella, who turned one a few days after I left them all.
John had passed through London a few times over the years and had stayed on various permutations and combinations of camp-beds on my various living-room floors. It was now time to swap roles, only I got an extremely comfortable spare room with double bed, all to myself, no camp beds in sight.
John was very busy running the tail-end of a festival of short plays and auditioning for a production of The Tempest he is directing in the autumn. I hung out with Jen and Isabella, watched John’s Tempest auditions and gave my tuppence worth on themes and castings (and oohhh, I do miss working with Shakespeare, such lovely stuff!). Although much warmer than California had been, it rained a lot while I was in Florida, so I only got to the beautiful Hollywood beach (the suburb of Miami Jen and John live in) twice.




Somehow everything felt more exuberant and jolly than California, big Latino families and restaurants everywhere (though I had heard a lot of Spanish in California too). I loved swimming in the Atlantic again, and enjoyed the fact (after Thailand) that I only had to wade out a couple of metres before my feet no longer touched the gritty sand. I kept expecting to see detritus from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but none was visible, only detritus from the rainstorms.
We went into town one night where I was amused to see this very Spanish-influenced church amongst the shops of South Beach. And yes, there are homeless people in the US too.




Here’s the Miami skyline that night (the spots are on the car windshield I took the picture through):





On my last day, John took me to the Florida Everglades, a “sea of grass” (which has been almost entirely cut off from its water source, a lake further north, by agriculture and urban development), home to all sorts of birds and alligators (all hiding in the water on the day we went). We cycled 15 sticky miles in very hot sun, chatting and admiring the view, as John is doing below.




We later drove round my first bone fide Indian reservation. The local Indians have made huge sums (they recently bought out the Hard Rock Café chain) on the casinos they have on their reservations, so the reservation itself was very spruced up with lots of extremely expensive cars in driveways. We saw a Florida panther in a cage in someone’s back garden, presumably rescued for later re-release into the Everglades. This was quite exciting and we purposely got lost up a driveway to double-check, peering through the windscreen, as the chances of seeing one of these shy endangered creatures in the wild are practically nil.
John and Jen spoiled me rotten and it was lovely to have ten days with them and get to know little Isabella. But soon enough, it was time to pack my bags again, leave the uber-development of North America behind me, head for my first new continent of my journey and straddle the equator for the first time in the many years since my last visit to Gabon. Hello South America. Hello Ecuador.
From Lucy, with love x