Tuesday, November 1, 2011

More Brazil

NOTE: Sorry - formatting's shot again... OK... so we'd got as far as the guy on reception telling me about the organisation his neighbour had started... On that same day I wondered into a juice bar, sat down with my açaí (awesome Amazon berry made into a sort of frozen smoothie with granola and banana... so good) and noticed a poster advertising an apartment for rent in Olinda. I asked the woman behind the counter and it turned out to be her place... the price was good, it had a swimming pool and it would be free in just over a week... It kind of felt like opportunity was handing me some signs. I decided to go with it. The next day I went to visit the organisation with Allison (the guy from the hostel - it's a guy's name here). Even better, we went on a day when they were holding a demonstration in the community against violence, so I got to join in with a march around the streets of Peixinhos (the community), blowing a little pink whistle, dancing to the drum music and stopping traffic on the dusty, crowded main street. I met Monica, the social worker at the organisation, heard about the different programmes they run including a social enterprise for young teens; a daily education program for children; a psychologist available to all children, young people and families; an intergenerational project with a group of local mothers and adolescents; and an anti-violence project in local schools. We agreed that I would just come and hang out for a week to get to know how they work and what they do. I figured I'd find some other organisations in the area and try to do the same with them, but in the end it worked out rather differently. I decided to go away for a week and come back and get stuck in when the apartment became avaliable, so I headed up to Praia da Pipa in the next state up. I spent five days just relaxing in hammocks, swimming with dolphins and kayaking in mangroves. It's interesting how my brain works, because I'd done a fair bit of 'relaxing' before this, but because I felt kind of purpose-less as I flitted from village, to town, to city and back again it felt like a sort of empty relaxation. In an odd way if I don't know what I'm relaxing from, then I find it kind of hard to really do. But now, with a plan and a purpose ahead of me I felt like I was taking a solid block of chill time before going headlong into my first 'work' since I left Berry Street in March. It was all the more glorious for the fact I had something to do. On a Friday night I headed back to Olinda. There is something really special, when you're travelling in a totally unknown place, about returning to somewhere familiar. It has a comfort disproportionate to the reality - I had only spent five days here previously, but it suddenly felt like coming home. That night I had to stay in the hostel again, because my apartment/studio wouldn't be available until the next day. So I booked into the same place and then took myself out for a Friday night on the town (which, for me, is a decidedly un-raucous affair). I headed up to Alto da Sé, which is the highpoint of the old town and where all the fun happens on the weekends. Stalls line the square selling a local dish called Tapioca. Kind of a cocnut pancake with all manner of fillings. I chose cheese and prawn... And then spent a week recovering. Long story short I just barely managed to move into my place as I got hideously sick. I rode it out for three days, but on day three when I still couldn't keep food down and felt my energy fading fast I was sent to Emergency (which made me cry - there is nothing so lonely as being properly ill in a foreign country and nothing so frightening as going to Emergency in a country with questionable hygiene standards) where they put me on a drip and within an hour I was significantly better. It still took another 3 days before I was able to eat properly. So I missed the week I had scheduled with the organisation, but something sort of amazing happened and I put it down to my first protein intake coupled with the euphoria of wellness... On the Wednesday I ate some beef - a tiny amount at a reputable shopping centre foodcourt (I've spent a bizarre amount of time in shopping centre here). On the Thursday I woke up feeling so well and so full of energy that I could have kissed every person I met... Instead I went on a mission. I had a couple of addresses for an organisation I was interested in meeting with. Only one of them looked decipherable, so I jumped on a bus and went looking for them. The Movimento Nacional de Meninos e Meninas da Rua (National Movement of Street Children) struck me as the kind of organisation I might find interesting if I could just find them... and I did! Tucked down a largely industrial street in one of the worst inner-city suburbs of Recife there they were. I stood gawping at the gate for a while and then thought, bugger it. I'm going to give this a go. Armed with my dictionary and my still-very-crap Portugues I banged on the gate and got to meet with the Coordinator. A round and energetic woman, she was obviously destined for this kind of work - her name is Socorro, which litteraly translates to 'Help'. Socorro explained to me that the organisation operates like a peak body or advocacy unit for the organisations that work with street children and with communities around Recife and Olinda. She told me that in some ways a lot has changed for street kids since the 80s and 90s and in others ther have stayed the same. I noted that I hadn't seen as many kids on the city streets as I had expected to see and she told me that, in part as a result of all the killing in the past, the inner-city numbers had significantly reduced. But what had happened instead is that all the associated social issues had shifted out to the communities and now the deaths and violence and drugs continue in the suburbs instead. We organised for me to attend a couple of activities in a Recife community with the Movimento and a day of activities with kids in the city office. I managed all this in Portuguese! On a high I headed over to the original organisation in Peixinhos. It's called Grupo Communidade Assumindo a Suas Crianças, which means Community Taking Responsibility for its Children Group... GCASC for short. As fate would have it the organisation, and in fact the whole community, had no mains water for the day (something I now know to be a frequent occurence, as I write they are over a week into a lack of consistent running water) so all the kids had been sent home. This meant that I was able to meet with Monica and Anjinha, the Coordinator to talk about whether I could come the following week. This turned into a much bigger conversation. The two women began a long explanation of what it is like living and working in the community of Peixinhos, and what it is like for the families they work with. They told me that they are celebrating 25yrs of working in the community this year, but their frustration is that very little has changed. They are still seeing a disproportionate number of adolescents dying on their doorsteps as a result of violence, often drug-related. They are still living in a community divided by drug trafficker's territory boundaries. Every year they are still supporting families who lose homes, furniture, health to the floods that come as the rain fills the filthy river running through the community and it bursts its banks rising to at least waist deep in a huge number of homes. They feel like they're operating in some kind of vacuum while the world outside Brazil is told that this is a country on the up, economically booming: An Emerging Nation. My mind was a-buzz. I had only three weeks left in Olinda and I wanted to be of some kind of use to these people if it was at all possible. I have reigned in my need to save the world, but I felt like I could at least offer some sort of support. So I suggested a project... I suggested that we could do a photography project with the intergenerational group of mothers and young people and that I could take the photographs back to Australia to raise awareness, and maybe some money if we were lucky. And I started to think big. The group of mothers that the young people work with are no ordinary group. They call themselves the Mothers of Longing. They are all women who have lost children to the violence in the community. Some of them have lost more than one child. Some have lost more than one family member. They meet every Friday and I've now attended two meetings with them. I want to explain this without sounding trite or over the top, because the experience for me was profound. These women gather in a room at 2pm on a Friday and there is a feeling that comes into the room with them. The weight of their sadness is so heavy, so completely hollow and devastating that it is almost as if you can see the very holes in their hearts. Over the course of the three hours they are together a very slow, but absolutely vital change takes place - they begin to lift, some even laugh, they connect and start to participate. By the end, while the holes in their hearts are no doubt as chasmic as they were when they arrived, they are not overwhelmed by them as they leave. They hug each other with real affection and fierce emotion and they wish each other well as they head off to their homes and, often, the grandchildren they now care for in the absence of the children who were once their parents. So what I am now doing with this group is this: I am visiting the mothers in their homes with the young people and together we are exploring what, for them, represents the good, the bad and the ugly in their community. Then, together we are working out how to represent those concepts in photographs (safely... we can't safely photograph the shootings and drug taking). I had hoped the mothers themselves would take the pictures, but the time constraints mean that there hasn't been time to train them to use the cameras, so we are doing it all the best way we can. So far the conversations have been both devastating and fascinating. My dream is to hold this exhibition back in Melbourne and make it big and special and successful. I would LOVE to be able to bring a couple of representatives from the community over to present the exhibition and to share the reality of where they come from. It won't change the world, but it might mean that they feel seen and heard... and sometimes that's important. Having made the commitment to this project on my day of protein-induced euphoria, I had myself a not insignificant panic the next day (when the euphoria had given way to just feeling normal). My usual reaction would be to back peddle out of this, or to kind of half do it. I am terrified of letting these people down, but I am also terrified of being the kind of person who backs out of things or onloy half does them. I think it's time I tried to do something properly. Something extraordinary. So I have a week left here now. I have to say that Olinda, Recife and Peixinhos have pushed me hard and made me think. I didn't love Brazil before, but I feel like I have started to understand it better. I feel like I understand what it means to stand on this ground, rather than just use it to get from place to place. I'm still so frustrated with my Portuguese, but I can feel it improving very slowly. It'll probably be almost brilliant just as I leave! As with the last post, there are a million other stories in between all the detail here... I am looking forward to boring people when I get home! Beijos Amigos - Até mais Lozzie xxxxxxxxx

Monday, October 17, 2011

Brazil so far...

NOTE: In the preview of this post I couldn't get it to separate the paragraphs... so I'm sorry if that's how it comes out in publishing - just one long paragraph... Hope you enjoy anyway! The problem with leaving it a long time between blogs is that you don't know quite where to start... And if you're me you also run the risk of writing an exceedingly long account off all sorts of random events and happenings since the last post. So the short version is this: Hung out at mum's a while, decided to fly to Brazil for 3 months, flew into São Paolo, travelled to Rio de Janeiro, Ilhe Grande, Salvador, Recife/Olinda, Praia da Pipa and back to Olinda, am staying in Olinda for the next few weeks doing some volunteer work/investigations into the work being done with street kids and local communities. That would, geographically, bring you more or less up to date. But what is missing is the colour... and we all know I love colour :) Brazil and I had a rocky start. I arrived to our first meeting expecting it to beat me to a pulp and steal every item I had on me every time I left the sanctury of a hostel. And I had leaned extremely hard on my denial reflexes in the run up to coming, so I really hadn't thought about being here at all. It took me two weeks to finally feel like I was here, mind body and soul. Do you know what I mean? I mean, obviously I got here physically, mentally there were probably some jet-lag issues for some of that time and to be fair I had intentionally chosen a place that would catapult me out of my comfort zone (it worked). But I had this bizarre lingering feeling that I just wasn't wholly here. Something was missing. I was enjoying myself, but it felt like I could have been watching myself on TV. I wasn't fully engaging. So, I took myself back to some of the things I learned on the Camino, one of which was that, if lost, my mojo can almost always be found at the top of a hill - preferibly one I have to sweat to get to the top of. And my mojo is also more likely to come forth if I tackle a trek through natural beauty, on my own. There's something in feeling like an intrepid explorer (albeit on well-explored tracks) that makes me feel all full of potential and strength. Obviously it's a sort of ridiculous middle class white girl version of intrepid exploring, but that stuff works for me... what can I say?! With this in mind, and fortunately located on the very beautiful Ilhe Grande (pron. Ilya Grandjay), I set off on a 2.5hr hike along the coastal path from the main town Abraão to a beach on the other side of the island called Lopes Mendes. It's an ideal walk for my 'explorer' requirements - not as clearly marked as some of the others, a series of steep inclines and descents, lots of jungle, stunning coastal views... and a boat service to get you back from the other end! My point is, that while I was sweating it out up and down the tracks along the coast, my soul rocked up. Something in the combination of solitude, massive blue butterflies, natural steps made out of tree roots, giant boulders that seem to pulse with energy and heat and the physical exertion brought me squarely and wholly into the moment. Finally. Ilhe Grande abounds with opportunities for this stuff. I spent one day walking to another beach, swimming in natural pools along the way and listening to nearby Howler Monkeys with their prehistoric roar on the way back. Stop-in-your-tracks-and-smile moments. In a sense I was sad to move on from there, but I was eager to get North East to the regions I was interested in finding work, so after 5 days I moved on. So let's go back a little before going forwards... Here I was arriving in a country where I didn't speak the language, hadn't done much research and was afraid I'd get beaten and robbed. Excellent work, no? I want to share a couple of things with you. The first is for your amusement, the second is a little 'Security in Brazil 101'. I stretched the truth a little when I said I didn't speak the language - I had downloaded and listened to several podcasts and audiobooks to aid in learning basic Portuguese before I left, so I'd picked up enough to ask where a toilet was, but not enough to undertsand the directions when given... Still, I figured there was no better way to push myself than to try a little conversation on the plane. I had worked out that my neighbour spoke Portuguese, but not English, so when he kept turning to me for help with understanding the Lufthansa flight staff I did my best to translate. I thought I did OK, in fact I felt pretty damn proud of myself, all things considered. Figured I still had that knack for languages. Unfortunately, to be honest it didn't appear to be helping - he didn't understand what I was saying at all... because he was in fact Ukrainian, as I discovered. Not just any Ukranian, but one who either had a significant drinking problem or was self-medicating his flying phobia with vodka - 4 doubles and two beers in two hours. Not really my ideal in terms of flight buddies. He slept fairly quickly, obviously, and had that delightful pickled aroma for the full 12hrs. At one point is alcohol addled dreams caused him to flail about and then try to hold my hand. Nice. One of my major concerns on arrival had been the possibility of having to withdraw cash from an ATM in view of the thousands of waiting robbers that I envisaged would be at the airport, bcause clearly no one has anything better to do than select newly arrived, idiot tourists to rob. I was relieved to have found thet the exchange place at Heathrow had Brazilian Reais (pron. heyais), so that problem was solved, but the prospect had given birth to a desire to create for myself a security system for my valuables and cash... that system has developed over time and experience... Let me preface the next bit by saying that I haven't actually seen, heard of or experienced any threat to my security directly as yet, but there is so much talk between both travellers and locals about the potential of violence and robberies that I consider my heightened paranoia to be a useful addition to my travel bag! High-Vulnerability System: I use this one on the travel days, when I am most vulnerable because I'm like some kind of beacon. The mix of ethnicities in Brazil means that even I can look like a local sometimes, but when I have a 20kg orange backpack on my back and a bright green daypack on my front there is no blending in happening whatsoever. I have EVERYTHING of importance on me... but it's distributed about my person... sneaky... In one of those sexy skin-tone money belts, strapped to my body under my clothes I carry my passport and any larger amounst of cash I might be holding. In a belt bag around my waist (this is NOT a bumbag, people. I reapeat NOT a bumbag. It's green leather and super cool like something a fire-twirling hippy might carry, not an American tourist with white socks on) I carry a smaller amount of cash, my phone and my camera. I also distribute extra cash in sealed pockets if I have any, so that if everything else gets taken, I still have enough to get myself somewhere safe. Night Out/Cash Withdrawl System: This is my favourite cos it makes me giggle whenever I have to do it. I use it if I'm going out for the night or withdrawing large amounts at ATMs. Basically is bra-based. The boy version is shoe-based, but that just seems boring. On a trip to the ATM I can end up with up to AU$300 stuffed in one bra cup, which can make a girl look quite impressive, if a little wonky depending on the denomination of the notes. The credit card sits in the other cup, for a little economic balance. If I'm wearing a dress I do have a cycling short version of this system, but it's not nearly as funny and makes me feel like I'm carrying some kind of weapon in my undies... weird. OK, back to the journey. Look, I get very tired, very quickly of passing through location after location, sight seeing, but not really seeing the country at all. I find it very lonely, as a single traveller, because you meet new people every few days and, for the most part, your conversations are the same (Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you goinjg? How long are you travelling?), you share some fun experiences and then you all head off in your own directions. It is all fun, but it feels like it lacks purpose, for me. I've always been like that with travelling. I can do a couple of weeks, but then I start to feel like I'm skating over the surface of a country, aware that the real stuff happens underneath all that. So my intention was always to get up North and see if I could find somewhere to stay for a month and do some volunteer work or something similar. I travelled from ilhe Grande all the way up to Salvador in Bahia State, which is a bloody long way... 34hrs in a bus. I can't even begin to explain the boredom levels that had kicked in by the time I reached Salvador! That aside, what was fascinating to watch was the visible change in landscape socio-economically. I could litterally see the rural poverty increase as I got further North. Salvador's population is very Afro-Brazilian. The whole feel of the city is much more akin to a Caribbean city than your average Latin American city might be. Palm trees, brightly coloured colonial buildings along cobbled streets in the Old City, drums beating everywhere like some sort of urban heartbeat. The music is quite incredible. I was there for 5 days and I don't think there was a single day that there wasn't music around every corner. The drumming groups are amazing and often use the streets as their practice space so you end up with crowds following them as they walk around the streets and drnks vendors follwoing behind to ensure the crowd stays suitably lubricated. Unfortunately Salvador is also flooded with Crack and its use is visible in the skeletal faces of children as young as 11 and 12. I asked around to see if there were reputable organisations I could perhaps find work with there, but I was really sad to hear that there are several organisations, but very few doing good work. I'm sure there must be some, but it looks like a losing battle at the moment. And in reality the month I had to offer means that I had to bea realistic about what I could be part of. Really sad. This is so frustrating! There are so many other little side stories to tell in all this, but I really want to publish this post today - I've started writing three times so far and abandonned all of the previous posts, so I'm determined today! Anyhoo, so from Salvador I took the much more palatable 12hr night bus to Recife in Pernambuco state. Now this turns out to be rather important, because I had forgotten the significance of Recife in my original interest in Brazil... Let me share. About 10-12 years ago I read a book called "At Home In The Street" by Tobias Hecht. This was an ethnographic study of street children living on the streets of Recife in the early to mid 1990s. I was so affected by the account of life on the streets at that time and in this place that it had stuck in my mind as a place I wanted to visit one day. You see, back in the 1980s and 90s there were some utterly awful things happening to kids on the streets and this book captured some of the feel of what it was like to try to survive in that time. For reasons no human being could ever understand city businesses and the government were 'allegedly' (I'm not sure any of this has ever been officially recognised or uncovered, but it was common knowledge at the time) employing what were known as extermination squads to 'clean up' the city. Groups of kids were regularly taken off the streets by groups of men in plain clothes and unmarked vehicles and would later turn up dead and sometimes with evidence of torture. Having worked in Guatemala with street kids at around that time I was fascinated. Similar things had been happening in Guatemala too. I was morbidly intrigued with how people could honestly believe that such a course of action was justified. How can they justify the killing of children to themselves even? And what does that do to a community, a population, to kids - seeing the impact of such hideous violence against their children, their peers. So my fascination was reignited when I arrived in Recife. Oddly it was the first time I had arrived in a new city and not felt immediately afraid. That may just have been the fact I was now a little more comfortable in the country as a whole, but nevertheless, Recife is the capital of what is statistically the most violent state in Brazil... you'd think you might be able to feel that vibe somehow... I didn't stay in Recife itself. Just next to Recife is Olinda, which is officially another town, but it seems like a suburb of Recife. It's a very laid back, very artistic and bohemian sort of town. More cobbled streets and brightly coloured buildings. More galleries and music venues than you can shake a stick at. And it's officially much safer - the first place I've felt safe enough to go out alone at night, which feels like such a beautiful freedom! I did a little asking around and one of the guys on reception at my hostel said his neighbour had started an organisation for kids on the streets and he'd be happy to introduce me... And so the next phase began... Oh, god there's so much to say here!! OK. I think I might stop at this point and then do a second post in a couple of days. For photos of the trip so far (actually I'm long overdue an update to these too), check out this album

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


It's sort of bizarre, just hanging out, isn't it? I mean, inevitably I feel guilty for not doing anything in particular.. Why is that? I've just walked 890kms, travelled through Spain and France, helped a friend prepare his holiday house for rental and helped my brother move house. It's not like my travels have been from beach to beach, doing nothing (not that that would be in any way scandalous). And I've booked the next leg of my journey which I anticipate will include some pretty challenging adventures and hopefully some volunteer work. So I'm not entirely sure why I have spent all day feeling a bit guilty and frustrated about not doing 'something'. And may I add that this inactivity has included what turned out to be a mammoth task of washing my sleeping bag, packaging stuff up to post to friends and doing a little bit of shopping for my mum... Ridiculous!

It is thus clear that the one thing I didn't get from the Camino is a zen-like calm or stillness.

So, guilt-days aside, what have I been up to and where am I off to next... Let me tell some stories...

For visuals to accompany the stories, please check out:
Camino de Santiago

Santiago to Fisterra with Mum

So mum joined me to walk the 90kms from Santiago to Finisterre, because she too wanted to know what it felt like to experience debilitating pain in her feet by evening and awake refreshed and ready to go again, by some sleep-induced miracle each day. And experience it she did!

We made it across the truly stunning stretch in 4 days and for the final two days we could see the sea and our final destination on the horizon. I confess to another bout of weeping when we reached the final drop down to the ocean and I am unashamed of fulfilling my promise to jump fully clothed into the sea as soon as we reached it. It was worth the wait!

After a couple of days relaxing in Finisterre we returned to Santiago. Mum flew home and I loitered for another two days. That was a mistake. Hanging around in Santiago after you've finished your Camino is a little like that awkward point at the end of a date where it is clear to you both that the date has run its course, but neither of you knows how to actually end it and walk away. For my part I had bought my ticket out, but it wasn't until a couple of days later so I was essentially loitering to pass time. I didn't want to walk away from the 'date' only for it to spot me hanging out just round the corner waiting for my bus that was still a fair way off... so I just kept on keeping on. Santiago is a pilgrim's town... I was no longer a pilgrim.

So with great relief I boarded my cramped and airless sleeper cabin on the overnight train to Madrid with three already-sleeping strangers (it was midnight when I got on board) and had a fitful and thoroughly unsatisfactory night's sleep before arriving in Madrid at 8am the next day... sick. Not in the cool youth sense of the word... I mean I was sick. I then spent 24hrs on shut down in my hotel room in response to a dodgy meat pie from Santiago... Awesome.

To make up for it, post pie-collapse, I hit the town with a freebie-finding vengeance. I picked up all the info about free activities from the tourist office and then went to seven photography exhibitions (utterly brilliant!), a truly awesome street dance show and a walk in the city gardens. I used the metro system with the kind of passion only a public transport nerd with a particular love for underground networks can. I walked until my feet reminded me we'd walked plenty already and I hung out trying to look cool and totally local in street cafes and funky suburbs. I also watched the staff of a restaurant chase a rat out of their establishment with a broom... and then ate my dinner there. Perhaps the pie-sickness was pre-emptive karma for stupid decisions like that one.

I left Madrid on a flight to Bordeaux (France) to stay with my half brother who lives about an hour and a half from there. My stay coincided brilliantly with that of his 6yr old twins, so I got to spend a full day with them concocting a plethora of terrifying sweet goodies (gingerbread men, a chocolate cake and a slightly scary 'cake' made of the leftover gingerbread dough stuffed with sugar and iced with melted chocolate) in aid of a suprise early birthday party for Philip (my half-bro). I was also treated to swims in lakes, a gathering with friends around a fire, a family dinner with his grown-up kids (minus two - Be and Ruby, you were missed!) and the twins, a pink picnic (all food and drink must be pink), some live and local music, a visit to a monolithic church (amazing) and a late night panic clean up of a friend's holiday rental when she realised, at 3am, that her next guests would arrive at 10am. Philip and I (and my brother Mark) have only met once before this trip, but it was a really warm, welcoming and lovely time... Thank you!

From the South to the North of France and Cherbourg where I stayed for a week with Tim, a family friend of old who has bought a group of old french farm buildings that he is gradually converting into the most beautiful set of holiday lets. So this was a combination of relaxing in a hammock, cycling around the local villages and down to the sea and helping out with some of the work on the buildings. The highlight being using the ride-on-mower. Excuse me if that's not the coolest item! It has the power to make one feel immediately capable of driving a tractor, should the need ever arise and it's hugely therapeutic, watching the result of your careful driving spewing out the side in a green cascade... Except if your me and you fail to consider what your actually doing there is the slight bitter-sweet tinge that comes with realising you're going the wrong way around the courtyard, thus shooting fresh grass clippings out the side of the mower and directly through the doors of all the buildings, including the nice one you're staying in. Sweeping is also satisfying.

Much to my joy and convenience at the end of the week Tim was driving his van over to my mum's place (via the ferry, obviously, although and amphibious van would have been brilliant) so I was able to catch a lift. I spent a glorious hour and a half at mum's in a rapturous reunion with the comparatively vast array of clothing I had left in the drawers in my room here. Given I had been travelling with 3 pairs of underwear and two outfits for the past two and a half months the ten pairs of knickers were enough to make me cry alone!

Wardrobe replenished, I drove straight up to my brother's place in Oxford to help him move house... and apparently to spend any money I had previously saved during the Spain trip on anything and everything I could get my hands on in Oxford... I don't think I've shopped that hard for some time!

It rocked to hang out with my brother for a few days, though. His old place was a feral cave of six men in their late twenties/early thirties. It was bad enough in some areas for my brother to ban me from cleaning certain bits (the downstairs bathroom would have excited a scientist). But between three of us we got most of it sorted and by the Sunday evening Mark and his mate Matt (and Matt's slightly scary python Spook) had settled themselves into their new place. They were understandably quite excited to find that they have moved smack bang into nurse territory (just behind a local hospital), but somewhat disappointed to realise that the modern nurses uniform is somewhat different to the Carry On-style of years gone by...

Mark and I took a trip down memory lane on one of his days off and hired a punt on the Cherwell river. For the uninitiated this is a very english version of an Italian gondola... It's sort of a flat raft-like boat that you put cushions into to sit on and then one of you stands at one end with a long metal pole using it to push the boat along and hoping to god it doesn't get stuck in the mud. Both of us are scarred by an image from a childhood punting trip where we saw a punter left clinging to their pole as their boat floated off down the river... Every now and then the suction in the mud lets you know it could happen at any time! We punted up to the Victoria Arms where, in a big group of families, our parents all used to stop for a few drinks and a picnic while the kids ran riot on the banks and played games that were all about coming as close to falling in the river without actually doing it as we possibly could. Mark and I were a touch more sedate about it this time - we had a bloody lovely lunch and giggled at the very posh old people who were there with their dogs and loud voices, before floating back down the river and walking back to his place.

And so now I'm back at mum's... And after waiting for some sort of 'message' from I-don't-know-who to tell me where I should travel next I finally kicked my own arse and remembered that there is one country I have always wanted to go to... Brazil. So I booked it. And I leave on September 1st... Watch this space lovely people - the Brazil Adventures, coming soon!!!!

'Til then...

Hope you're all well!
Loads of love


Friday, July 1, 2011

I made it!!!

Since I've shared the journey with you all, I thought it only fair you should get a peice of the arrival too.

So the final leg for me was a 20km stretch from Arca O Pino into Santiago. Predictably the over-eager among the pilgrims was up and rustling sleeping bags into backpacks from 5am. I, on the other hand, felt there need be no rush and along with only about 3 of the 120 people in the Albergue, didn't leave until after 6.30am (tardy!).

There's a clause in the Pilgrim's Code that says that as long as you complete the final 100kms you can still be considered a Pilgrim and are thus eligible for the sought after 'Compostela' (certificate, essentially). This means that from the largest town just before the 100km mark (Sarria), there are about ten times the number of pilgrims that were on the Camino previously. This includes (thanks to the school holidays) every church youth group in the North of Spain.

What I'm getting to is the fact that, although many had set of early, I still managed to find myself wedged between two or three large groups of teenagers with their portable music devices messing with my zen. So as we entered the forests outside Arca I dropped back to take some photos and let the crowds lollop onwards.

It was a mixed journey that morning. As we got closer the appearance of tourist tack increased, but we also seemed to go through some sort of retrospective of all the wildlife I'd met along the whole Camino. I saw poppies again for the first time since La Meseta and I saw a wild strawberry which I'd only seen previously in the low hills on the first day back in France. I saw butterflies and birds that I'd spotted along the way and the Oak leaves I've fallen in love with (have you seen their crazy shape - they're awesome!) were everywhere. And then, like a little call to home, there were eucalyptus trees EVERYWHERE. The eucalyptus forests started a couple of days before and in the heat the smell made it feel like I was walking on a bush track in Victoria somewhere. It's made me a little homesick, I have to say!

I've been without any firm 'friends' for the last week or so on the Camino, which has been both good and bad. It's harder to make new friends at this point, but even without those connections there is this incredible sense of community on the move. Lots of nods of recognition and 'Buen Camino' salutations and giggles when you realise it's the fifth time you've said that to each other that day. I'd had a think about the fact that I would be entering Santiago alone, with no one to meet me there. I found the prospect incredibly lonely at first and and then realised that this is a journey that I started alone and that ending it alone is, in fact, incredibly important.

So as I walked I started to reflect on what the Camino has given me to take away... I won't share it all here, but I will say that if I think back to who I was and how I felt when I started on the morning of May 19th I can feel the distance I have travelled. I'm not sure I can give it better words than that here.

The walk into Santiago itself is, like most entrances to cities have been, a little less than inspiring. There is a town just outside the city called Monte do Gozo where you can stand on a hill and see the Cathedral... I didn't. It was covered in people and I just wanted to keep going, which meant that I didn't actually see the Cathedral, which is the ultimate end of the Camino, until I was right in front of it.

The signage for the Camino seemed to get less apparent as I got further into the complicated little streets of the old city. In retrospect I'm not even sure I know how I found the way - I remember thinking I was just turning randon corners at one point, but I seemed to be heading somewhere. And then I was right next to it and a door was open... so I snuck in, with my pack on and my sticks in hand. It was the tail end of the Pilgrim's Mass that starts at 12pm every day. The heavily frocked priests stood at the centre with the incense burner above them, speaking words I wouldn't have understood in english, let alone Spanish (I never had a church upbringing... it often sounds foreign to me). The Cathedral was packed with people. All ages, all nationalities, all shapes, colours and sizes. And just as I was about to leave they all rose and started to file into the centre for the blessing of the Pilgrims... And I backed myself into my little corner and started to cry. Happy tears... or at least tears of not-sadness. There was such an amazing feeling of shared purpose, shared journeys and shared achievement in that space it was completely overwhelming. All of these people, we all walked every day, over so many days and through every kind of weather. We've shared incredibly intimate stories and experiences. We've shared meals and rooms and we've walked on the same pathways to reach this point. And now we're here.

I snuck out of the Cathedral and carried on down the steps to the square in front of the beautiful building. I found a spot in the sun in amongst the tour groups and the groups of hyperventilating teenagers and the encampment of protestors tents (a fixture in every Spanish capital at present) and I sat down. I pulled my bag close and sat and hugged it and cried some more.

It was quite overwhelming. For 42 days everything I have needed has been in that bag and in my physical and emotional capacity. And now it might be time to let some of the real world back in...

So as not to end on too serious a note, I will entertain you all with a story... It would appear that I am some sort of attraction magnet for elderly Spanish men (I know! Lucky right?!). I've had a few passing comments from toothless casanovas along the way, but it has peaked with a recent interaction with a fellow pilgrim.

I joined this gentleman and a couple of girls for a drink one evening. I should have known when they two girls made a swift exit as I sat down... I think they may have been looking for their out. I was it.

I'll summarise, but essentially, after wowing me with a couple of tales from his Camino, this particular older gentleman (who had been eating almonds which were now sort of encrusted around his teeth and the sides of his mouth - winning look on anyone) told me had booked himself a nice hotel room in Santiago and once he'd settled in a showered (thank god) he planned to go and take a turn about town and see if he couldn't find himself a lady friend for the evening. He used a line I can safely say, gents, should NEVER be used in any seduction situation. He actually said "A man has needs, you know". He explained that six weeks without a lady was enough and he implied in a round about way that I might want to join him for his turn about town... he did not mean as a 'wingman'. He made this clear when I saw him again in Santiago itself, but this time there was less implication and more direct invitation - would I like to come and eat seafood with him and then join him in his lovely hotel room. No sir, I would not. I don't think he'll ask again, bless.

So I'm here. I've had the obligatory post-Camino sickness (fever, exhaustion, nausea), but that seems to have gone this morning thanks to echinacea and aspirin. Tomorrow my mum arrives and we'll walk the 90kms to Finisterre together, which is the sort of optional extra stretch to the sea... I have dreams of dropping my pack on the beach and walking into the sea fully clothed. It has been too long since I was suspended in water!

I'll keep you posted.
Huge love
Lozzy xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Monday, June 27, 2011

This is a Life Cycle

No doubt the same could be said of many journeys - in fact I'm sure it has been, but it has occured to me, as I approach the end, that walking the Camino de Santiago has been much like a full life cycle for me.

I started in St Jean Pied de Port, wandreing out into the morning mists, fresh as a baby with my shiny new gear and all the enthusiasm and naivety of a small child. Back at the start we all seemed to be abuzz with surplus energy and an ability to overlook the scrapes and grazes we were getting along the way. I made new friends at every turn, got excited about every new corner and every view and I soaked it all up like a sponge.

Somewhere further on I gained just enough knowledge of what I was doing to have an adolescent air of superior knowledge. I could have told even those on their fifth Camino a thing or two about how to do it right. We all became 'experts' on blister and injury cures and the best distances to do or the best places to try and stay. No theory was the same, because we were all painfully unique ina rather predictable way... I wasn't interested in the advice of others and was thoroughly emersed in 'My Own Journey', which required long periods of silence and solitude.

At about the halfway point we hit the Meseta, or 'adulthood' as I like to call it. Frankly it was hard work. A lot of effort with well-hidden rewards. It sometimes seemed like I was walking for the sake of walking and I worried that I was missing something, but I wasn't sure what. I could see the scenery had some beautiful elements, but beauty was not the overwhelming quality of that period. It brought me to tears, made me sweat and exhausted me. But it also provided a time of great solidarity with other walkers - it was hard on all of us, and there was good friendship and a lot of laughter to be had as a result.

At the end of the Meseta, in León, I had what I consider to have been akin to a mid-life crisis. I wanted a hotel. I wanted a comfortable bed. I wanted a bathroom all to myself. I suddenly wanted to buy everything I saw - beautiful jewellery, clothes, anything I couldn't carry on the Camino. I wanted to be able to stay out past 10pm (the curfew of most Albergues) and I didn't want to be so immediately identifiable as a Pilgrim (honestly, you can spot us a mile off). I wanted to be effortlessly cool and Spanish for a day... and then for another day... and then another... Until it became clear that I was drifting from the Camino...

So I got back on it. And slowly began to move towards old age, or 'The Final Stretch'. After the mid-life crisis I struggled to get my full physical energy back. The aches and pains that had been a vague bother slowly began to increase their presence. My body began to move slower. Sitting down is easy... standing up again requires a full refresher on how each limb functions. I can't stay awake beyond 9.30pm. My friends of the earlier days have either reached the end ahead of me, or are a few days behind, so I spend most days and evenings on my own. At this stage it's harder to make friends, because we're all aware of how close the end is now. At the 100km mark it stopped being about walking and started to be about reaching Santiago. My body and mind feel like they can only hold out as long as the road does and each day is a major struggle to the end...

But it's not a sad space to be in. I look back at the most amazing six weeks (it will be 42 days when I reach Santiago) in which I have met people I am proud to call friends, I have seen places and sights that I couldn't have imagined, I have opened my heart and my mind, I have pushed myself to achieve things I would have thought impossible and I've learned a lot about myself, about others, about my world and about what is important.

In two days time I will have walked 800kms over 37 days (plus five rest days). But that's not the end. After five very welcome rest days in Santiago I'll carry on walking a further 90kms, with my mum for company, to a place called Finisterre, which literally translates as 'The End of the Earth'. Maybe that's like the after life... I'll let you know what it's like on the other side.

Massive love to you all, lovely people.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dear Olivia Newton John

Dear Olivia,

I am almost certain that most people (except for Alicia Doreian) thought you were, frankly, a little mad when you dressed up in your head band, leotard and leg warmers and bounced around telling us all to get physical. However, I am writing to let you know that, while you may not be able to hear it (what with being busy and probably meditating on a rock in California or something), I can most definitely hear my body talk. So much so, in fact, that I have not only started listening, but occassionally I also talk back.

Let me explain...

For the past four or five days I have been walking a section of the Camino de Santiago called La Meseta (the tablelands). The theory sounded kind of tranquil and serene - long walks on straight paths through rustic country Spain. The reality was physically and emotionally somewhat trying (I'm being polite... I think you were always more the fluffy pink version than the slutty version in Grease and i don't want to offend your delicate sensibilities).

The reality of the Meseta was a narrow gravel path alongside busy secondary roads in a roughly straight line for approximately 100kms... With villages cropping up perhaps every 8kms, but sometimes only every 15-18kms. And may I just point out that the vast majority of the villages we passed through were more closely related to abandonned movie sets than lively country communities. Fascinating, but completely ghostly.

So where one had previously pumped out 20kms without too much effort, the Meseta made every kilometre feel like 3kms and I found myself arriving at destinations utterly wiped out.

Livvy, I'm sure you can appreciate that these have been tough times. I won't bore you with the contents of my brain during this period... they ranged from dark and dismal to slightly delirious and hysterical... If you have read Shirley Maclaine's account of her Camino (which I haven't, but I've heard plenty) I'd hazard a guess that this is the stage during which she believes she regressed to a past life hanging out in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve (seriously).

What I'm coming to is the point at which my mind and body finally had to truly work together... I have to tell you I never imagined that the breakthrough in communication would happen on a long flat road. I think I'd pictured something a little more dramatic, like hanging from a cliff by only my little finger and somehow finding the superhuman strength to haul myself back to safety... Instead it occured approximately 3kms outside Bercianos el Real Camino, a little (semi-abandonned) village between Sahagún and León.

Just outside Sahagún I had found Patrizia (a German woman who speaks no English... My German consists only of the rather useless sentence "take the first street on the left") standing at a junction. Yellow arrows pointed both straight ahead and to the left. Some people, obviously in an attempt to clarify the directions, had added extra arrows and the words Francés and Romano to the two directions. Above these was a signpost to a village straight ahead that, according to some maps, sits on the Francés track... which the arrows said was left. This is likely to be making as much sense to you, ONJ, as it did to us...

Using hand signals and both forging on in our own languages and hoping the other understood Patrizia and I eventually made a decision and went with the Francés route to the left.

It could not have been a less inspiring 7kms if it tried. Olivia, I'm sure I don't have to tell you that walking alongside a road with passing cars actually seems to drain energy much faster than walking through fields and hills. Crazy energy shit, but true. Add unattended road works to the picture - lots of dirt, rubble and signs - and we're officially struggling. Patrizia walks faster than me (or just didn't want to have the awkward language situation for 7kms) so we ended up in this sort of solidarity by distance.

About 3kms from Bercianos I started to hear my body and it wasn't happy. In fact (you'll enjoy this mum and dad... and you'll know the sound too) it sounded a lot like my child-self whinging on walks when i was little... Sheer exhaustion had become a whingy child. So I stopped walking and stood for a minute... And then we had a chat, my body and me. This is what was said:

Me - OK, everyone (my body is a community, just FYI), you see that village over there? That's where we need to get to.
Body - REALLY!!???
Me - Yep. So listen... Here's what I'm thinking: If we hit a rest stop before here and there (by which I mean anywhere that looks like we can create a spot to sit without ants and car dust), I will sit down for half an hour, we'll eat and rest (shoes off) and get our energy back before doing the final push. If there isn't a rest stop, is everyone OK to push through if I promise that as soon as we get there I will lie down with my feet up and eat food for the first 30mins of being there?
Body - Ummm... OK. We can do that.
Me - Thank you everyone!

And on we went... And about 200m on we found a huge rest area with benches and a very jaded-looking Patrizia with her head in her hands. So me and my body, we rested. We ate food. We exchanged swear words in different languages with Patrizia to try and communicate our shared exhaustion (turns out I knew a little more German) and we took of our boots and aired our feet.

We made it to Bercianos, my body and I. We made it in one peice, whole. And it was worth every step to arrive in an Albergue run by two brothers who cooked Paella for all the guests, sang songs at dinner and made us all breakfast as they smiled and laughed... Sometimes it works out perfectly!

So, Livvy, the point is, that I got physical and I can hear my body talk. And i didn't even need the leg warmers.

Loads of love

p.s. Just for you Leash:

Thursday, May 26, 2011

How it works

Righty-o... Clearly not going to manage to keep up the day by day updates... Not enough internet access, not to mention brain space. So i thought I´d tell you a bit about how a typical day on the Camino works...

Each night I stay in one of the Albergues (pron. Albergays) which are essentially Pilgrim hostels. The Albergues are manned by volunteers who have to have walked the Camino themselves. The level of empathy for fellow pilgrims varies from place to place and a warm welcome can make all the difference, even if the place itself is less than comfortbale.

Albergues vary wildly in size, quality and facilities. The most flash I´ve stayed in (in Santo Domingo) had a lounge full of leather sofas (total luxury people), internet access, a fully equipped kitchen, awesome showers, great clothes washing facilites and relatively comfortable bed. The Hospitaleros (as the hosts are called) were a touch grumpy, but frankly I can overlook that in a place with sofas. Although I was one of the last to go to bed, because I planned on resting the next day... I haven´t been chased to bed by a middle aged woman in my life EVER... and it is not something I hope to experience again until I am also middle aged and said woman is joining me in that bed. This was not that occassion.

There hasn´t been a low point, accommodation-wise yet. There are some very basic places where you´re essentially in a barn-sized room of twenty bunk beds and you wash your clothes in the shower with you, but noweher has yet been so atrocious that I have been compelled to leave. I´ve heard talk of them, but so far I´ve not been in one.

So, I stay the night in one of these places and endure whatever snoring/sleep apnoeia/coughing might be going on before the first people start to stir at about 5/5.30am. I´ve adopted my own timescales over the last couple of weeks and they´ve made all the difference to how I feel for the rest of the day. I don´t get up until about 7am, by which time most of the high-speed eager beavers have upped and left, so i have more space to fossick around with my belongings and get my proverbial shit together to go out the door. In some albergues they provide breakfast, sometimes I buy it the day before and eat before I leave. Like a good English girl I have a stash of tea bags so I always have a cuppa before I head off.

I won´t take you through my full preparation regime, because, as any runners amongst you will appreciate, it involves liberal applications of anti-chaffing matter... best left alone, I think.

By about 8am I´m on the road. I´ve stopped wearing my watch in the day, though because I was working to time scales instead of what my body needed. So i leave when I´m ready... and I walk... Up to 25kms over about 6-7hrs depending on the terrain. Sometimes the Camino passes through villages with little bars that serve tea and coffee and sandwiches, so i might stopp at those and chill for a bit. Or I´ll find a hill to sit on and watch the fields around me and the passing pilgrims. For most of the day I tend to walk alone, but I can often see people ahead of or behind me. Sometimes, though, I´ll fall into step with someone else and we might chat for a while before one of us needs to stop or move faster.

At the moment I´m passing through the most amazing patchwork quilts of agriculture and crops - fields of every shade of green and gold (hello Australia!) with corn, wheat, barley, canola/rape seed. And the path itself is lined with bright red poppies, deep blue cornflowers and sprays of yellow and white wild flowers. The Camino path has been a white gravel for a long time, but we´ve come into red earth today, which looks stunning, but sticks like glue when wet, so you can see Pilgrims balancing on the dry sides of the paths to avoid making their boots like dead weights.

I carry fruit and sandwich stuff for the day and I stop every now and then to rest my feet and fuel myself for the next stretch of walking.

By about 1-2pm I´ve reached my destination for the day and I find the Albergue Municipal (the official one for the town or village) or equivalent and book myself in. I dump my gear, have a hot shower, wash my clothes and stretch my body in the hopes it won´t hurt the next day and then I chill. Sometimes I sit and write, or catch up with other people to see how their day on the Camino has gone.

inevitably we talk blisters and foot/leg injuries - these are as standard and unflinching as conversations among travellers about stool consistency in third world countries. ´People litterally hobble about in the afternoons. Every sit down results in an inevitable seize-up and you can almost hear them creak as they stand. One man I met suggested that the Camino´s purpose is to teach us all what it will be like to old... And then an 80yr old will pass you at pace the next day and you realise that old age is what you make it!

In the evenings some people make food if there is a kitchen. Otherwise there are always a handful of restaurants that offer a Pilgrim´s Menu - three courses with bread and wine for about €10... Standard stuff of varying quality.

So those are my days... I think, plan, sing and talk to myself as I walk. I stop to take a million pictures of mind-blowing scenery. I wonder what the people I love are doing (feel free to write and tell me!) and I breathe in the experience around me. I had a thought the other day: I love myself for bringing me here. It´s such an incredible journey in every sense (and you know I love a journey).

After the last post I found myself walking with a group who´s core was made up of an English woman, an Italian man and an American man. We became really close as a little group and picked up extras here and there along the way. It´s interesting, though (look away if you don´t do deep shit), I believe that people come into your life for a reason. You learn from each other and they may stay or they may pass through. These people taught me a huge amount in a short time, both about myself and about the Camino and they provided a very safe space to move in. And when I didn´t need the safety anymore, I stepped out of the group. I stayed in Santo Domingo and they went on to Grañon. I may well catch them down the line, but for now, I´m back on my own.

Having said that, in the town just before Santo Domingo I met two Aussie girls and we hung out together in Santo Domingo for a day and a couple of nights... Just qietly it was SO good to be able to Aussie it up for 48hrs - lots of slang and local jokes and awesome fun. Those girls were soul food for me and were key in helping me shift the way I was walking my Camino. This isn´t a race. I set off each day with no destination in mind and I use my gut and listen to my body to decide when to rest and where to stop. It´s funny how something so simple can make all the difference!

One last thing... As a huge fan of symbolism I have two walking tops that are hugely symbolic and special to this trip. I walk in my Berry Street running top (that´s who i work for, in case people aren´t sure), because it has the tagline "we never give up", which seemed appropriate (and I like the splash of yellow across it!). And I also walk in the top I was given for my London Marathon training. It says "Fox in training for London 2011"... The fox is me, in case you weren´t sure. I am one, let´s be honest. Anyway, people ask me about it all the time so it´s nice to have a story to tell.

Actually here´s the last thing... Things I have come to LOVE as a long-distance walker:
1. My sticks. I carry two that were a gift. They actually rock in the biggest way and make a huge difference to my walking day.
2. My water bladder. There is nothing more nerd-cool than that blue tube hanging over my shoulder and the knowledge that I can take a sip of water without fossicking for a bottle!
3. My boots. Truly. No blisters yet. ´Nuff said.

I´m in San Juan de Ortega for anyone wanting to track my progress. Heading to Burgo tomorrow. I hope you´re all looking after yourselves ´cos I love youse.

Take care
Lozzy xxxxxxxx

ps. for your laughing pleasure, today i went for a woodland wee (I binned the shewee on day 3 after a nightmare incident on the first day) and I chose a slight slope, forgetting the added weight of my bag... I had a small incident with a pile of brambles. Dignity only saved by the absence of any passing pilgrims since for sometime I was trapped with my bum hanging out as i tried to regain my balance and prevent myself from rolling down a hill. I have bramble cuts. Ouch.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Camino, Days 1-3: from Pain to joy

Day 1: The Solidarity of Pain
St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles

OK, so I think I explained the trip to St Jean pied de Port... This is where the actual walking kicks in. Did I mention that Day 1 involves a heinous ascent of 1300m? A full distance of 27kms? And an estimated journey time of 8hrs? I may also have mentioned there was the option of only going 10kms the first day... it turns out this wasn´t an option at all, unless you had booked ahead.

So, as advised I set off early. In the Albergues along the way that are specifically for Pilgrims the day tends to start early with the first alarm going off at about 5.30am. So it´s easy to be out the door by 7am. The Albergue I was in gave me the full experience - washing clothes in a bathroom basin, sleeping with olympic snorers, sleep talkers and coughers and dealing with the interesting whiffs that come with sharing rooms with people who have spent the day (and other days preceding) walking long distances.

So after a breakfast served by a very territorial old french lady who wouldn´t let anyone near her bench and therefore insisted on making all the hot drinks for people, I stepped out the door. It was a morning of low cloud, which I discovered was a blessing. I started on my own, but soon fell into step with a group of older Spanish men, Pedro, Jose Luis and a man they all referred to as El Coordinador for the fact he went way ahead of them.

Lesson one on the Camino... Just as in in life, do not follow blindly, assuming others know the way. And if you do and you discover you have gone the wrong way, accept that the fault is as much your own for having followed. Then turn round and walk the 1.5kms back to rejoin the Camino. And then you hit the hills...

Having been somewhat irritated by the number of pilgrims on the Camino, making my trip less unique than I had imagined it would be, this first day created the most amazing unspoken solidarity between everyone. Over 150 of us walked over that mountain that day. Many of us were completely unprepared for the distance, the exertion or the terrain. So this solidarity came through sheer pain and was expressed without actual words, more of a raising of the eyebrows and a massive exhalation (generally with your tongue out to emphasise) as if to say "fuck me, this is hard!"

The first climb to Orisson was entirely in cloud. I sweated like I was at Bikram yoga, I kid you not. It looked like my hair was sweating. The climb was constant and steep... Just quietly, walking the streets of Melbourne, no matter the distance, did not prepare me for this climb! But it was beyond worth it. We came up to the top, turned a corner and were above the clouds, looking at the peaks of the Pyrenees all around us. The sun was out and the mood changed... for a few minutes before the next climb!

Honestly, the walk on this first day was so completely spectacular, both physically and visually that it has been hard to compare days since. I know it may sound sick to some, but I loved the feeling of pushing myself up that mountain - it was completely me and my own legs doing the work. And the sense of achievement was unreal.

We had further to climb and it carried on being hard, but there was this slowly building elation thing happening. I stopped at the statue of the Virgen of Orisson for lunch. I set the camera up to take my picture and promptly sat myself so that my ankles rested in a pile of nettles... not cool. They left me with an angry rash for days! And the photo was crap.

From the Virgin we climbed up to Col de Lepoeder which was the pinaccle for the day, passing grazing sheep and horses all throughout the mountains. In fact the consistent sound of the Camino for the first three days was the sound of cow bells around the necks of the sheep and horses. After the pinnacle the track swept right and headed downhill at a rapid and precarious rate. You could see who feared for their knees as we did our best to traverse the slope, zig-zagging like pre-snow learner skiers.

After about 3kms of descent we emerged from the woods to the sound of thunder and the sight of the Albergue... The most enormous sense of relief!

Albergues are set up to house the maximum number of people. They vary totally in quality, but this one was nice. Comfortable, despite housing over 120 people each night. Clean (until we were let loose on it) and well equipped (which, to the average Camino Pilgrim means they had a space to wash clothes and a kitchen to sit in... we´re not a demanding lot!).

Pretty much without fail everyone crashed and slept before 9pm. The collective exhaustion was infectious.

Day one rocked. I felt really good and really strong. No major issues with my legs or feet and my pack hadn´t held me back, despite being about 5kgs heavier than recommended (and than most people are carrying).

I slept like a baby.

Day 2: The Grump of Exhaustion
Roncesvalles to Zubiri

If day one was characterised by stunning scenery and a sense of achievement, day two was characterised by the unapproachable grumpiness that comes from being physically exhausted. I was not a pleasant Pilgrim on day 2.

I felt good when I started and I fell into step with Paul from Carlisle. I hadn´t met Paul before, but I think we found each other mutually nice, but boring and so after we grabbed some breakfast in the next town he pretended to need to do something with his pack and I readied myself more quickly than I would normally and we separated, so that I could go and get lost again on my own, rather than dragging another pilgrim down with me...

Fortunately I only went a couple of hunderd metres out of my way this time before I realised there were no obvious indications that I was on the right track; bouncing backpacks in the distance, yellow shells on blue tiles, yellow arrows painted on walls or lamp posts... So i turned around and immediately met an Italian man also going in my direction. I ran my theory past him and he said something along the lines of suggesting that there is no wrong way... but I turned back anyway and soon found that not only is there a wrong way, but we were definitely on it since the right way turned right off the main road some way back. I briefly wondered whether to go back and tell him, but he´d be a good km away by now and frankly he seemed philosophical about the possibility, as if he might just assume it had been a message from the Camino if he found himslef elsewhere... who am I to get between and man and a message... Now I feel bad. Haven´t seen him since.

Anyway, I moved on... Look, the scenery was fine, but it was flatter than the day before and a lot of it was very similar to walks I´ve done in England many times over. The vegetation was similar and even the climate wasn´t too different. It started out very cloudy and cool before heating up after lunch. So the familarity allowed me to build the grump until I arrived in Zubiri like a little ball of angry and pissed off, with hurty bits all over...

Fortunately the first Albergue I came to had space and I had a room to myself for a while before others arrived, so I showered and then massaged my own legs and feet, stretched and then went to sit by the river.

I hung out by the river with Nikki from Canada who I had met the day before and we shared lessons learned from the day... My lesson for the day was one that should be obvious: it´s not a race to the end, enjoy the journey. For some reason I had been caught up in some sort of over zealous speed hunger. A lot of people have tight timelines or are following the 30 day guide that gets handed out at the start, so it´s very easy to get caught up in a race to the finish.

Anyway, so I had ploughed onwards after breakfast without stopping for a rest or for food for four hours. And it wasn´t an easy walk either. And in my race I passed a couple of beautiful moments that I thought "it´d be lovely to stop and look at that a while", but I was too busy aiming for my destination. Bad Pilgrim!

That night I went for the traditional and very cheap Pilgrim´s menu at a local bar and found myslef (not for the first time) on a table full of non-english speakers speaking a language I have little to no competence in. If I had been less tired and grumpy I might have been more able to engage (it was French, which I can speak in when I´m not otherwise exhausted and surrounded by spanish... I just couldn´t find my words at all!). Ah well, lesson learned.

Day Three: The Joy of Survival
Zubiri to Pamplona

I cannot express the joy that comes from setting out the day after the grump feeling awake, alive and totally able. I had such a spring in my step. I chatted to myself and Juniper (my bag... see previous post). I sang songs and I veritably skipped the light fandango. And the stay stayed awesome.

The clouds kept the temperature cool and I walked a sort of relay with my three Spanish friends from the first day. Sometimes walking with them and chatting, other times going ahead or falling back. Days like that are getting more frequent as i get to meet more people and as everyone gets more comfortable to take their own time and walk their own pace. Inevitably you´ll bump into several people at a village cafe or in a shady spot along the way, then you´ll leave each other and go your own way.

Today, learning from yesterday, I stopped regularly. I took the time to take photos and when i stopped, I rested properly. I felt like I had all the time in the world. I sat by a river in Trinidad de Arre and ate my lunch. Then only a few hundred metres further on I stopped at a bar for a coke and watched people in the square for a while.

From Arre, the entry to Pamplona is pretty spectacular. Arre doesn´t really end, it just sort of feeds into a suburb of Pamplona. From miles away you can see the Cathedral on the hilltop and you wind your way in through residential suburban areas until you cross the river and find yourself walking around the city walls like a proper pilgrim of old. It was the first time I´d really felt the history of the Camino... It may horrify some (not least my mother) to know I´m not all that interested in the history... unless I can feel it. And I could feel it here.

Pamplona was abuzz. It was siesta time on a saturday afternoon, which apparently does not include a siesta so much as a drinking session. So i walked through the narrow city streets following the silver markers on the floor, among the feet of the Saturday revellers until i found myself at Jesus & Maria Albergue up near the Cathedral.

In the Albergue, as is often the case I was reunited with some of the familiar faces of the journey so far: The Spanish trio, Nikki, A lovely Spanish woman who´s name I have never quite caught, A hoard of germans (there are so many here!) and some others whose faces I know but whose names I haven´t heard yet. It was so good to see these faces that have been part of my journey since I had decided to take a day off in Pamplona the following day, which in Camino terms means a shuffling of the deck - new people to walk with.

I said goodbye to everyone and Buen Camino after doing a black market-style exchange with Nikki - your two apples for my two yoghurts, if you keep it quiet I´ll chuck in these dried cherries too. And tucked myself into my top bunk for the night... New adventures in the morning.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Camino Day 0: Bonne Courage

OK, so I thought I´d start my story of the Camino by talking about my journey to the start line, as it were. I´d kick off with the moment I left Alan´s house (my lovely friend in London who put me up for a couple of nights), but apart from the epic hug we had before I left it was pretty unremarkable – London overground, London underground, Stanstead Express and an aeroplane… Having said that, the boarding queue at Stanstead was the first sign of trouble…

You see, I am disappointed to report that I am not a lone pilgrim, striding out over hills and mountains and musing at the heroism of my journey… I am instead part of a steady line of pilgrim ants, following the yellow arrows and scallop shell signs to various destinations. I am, on the other hand, pleased to tell you that the disappointment was short lived.

I could just tell you that I wrote the following in my diary: “I love myself for bringing me here”… but I´ve never been one for putting in 20 words what can be said in a thousand, so I´ll explain more.

I flew to Biarritz in the South of France, but I stayed overnight in Bayonne, which is basically the same distance from the airport as Biarritz itself. And the train I needed leaves from there.

Bayonne is stunning. Set on a river in three sections that meet each other across bridges, it´s an old French town, with old French charm. I wondered the cobbled streets and tested out my French (rusty, but workable) to get myself a lovely dinner on the riverside. I was booked into a shitty hotel, but I just used it to sleep in and spent the rest of my time wandering and trying not to buy anything gorgeous… there was a lot to buy!!

I´ll confess to a little self-congratulating on the fact that I seemed to be the only one of the heaps of pilgrims on my bus from the airport who wasn´t dashing straight to St jean Pied de Port… Smug? Yes thank you. Smugness wiped off my face on the train the following day? Yes indeedy.

The train was a little two-carriage affair and I think it´s fair to say that the stops at two stations along the way are entirely for show – no one gets on or off, because no locals use the train. It is a Pilgrim train, let´s be honest, people.
I saw a man get on in a kilt. His backpack said Pilgrim. His kilt said nutter. I have decided the two may be closely linked.

During the very leisurely and un-hurried train journey (more Train Grande Chillaxed than Train Grande Vitesse) a few things happened: I named my backpack since we will be so intimately engaged over the coming weeks. Her name is Juniper and she is a sturdy girl with a little too much weight, a little like me. I picked myself a theme song for the walk (not one of yours Megs – I didn´t get the CD in time) – Flaunt it, by Missing Supergirl (totally check them out) for the lyrics “You´ve got it, go flaunt it. Stop waiting for the moment. Let your feet start walking, don´t you know it´s only you that´s gonna get you somewhere”… appropriate no? And I made myself known to the other pilgrims on the train. Or rather, Juniper did when she threw herself at great volume from the luggage rack to the floor… They all noticed.

So once we arrived in St Jean Pied de Port we made a long and lovely line to the Pilgrims´ info office where they set each person up with a map of the first stage and break the devastating news that your first day of walking must be the full 27kms to Roncesvalles in Spain. This includes an ascent of 1300m over about 20kms and then about 1100m descent into Roncesvalles over the last 7kms. To be honest I think I went a little pale. I booked into the Albergue, which is a hostel for pilgrims run by the local Friends of the Camino. I was in a dorm with about 20 others… including three snorers, one sleep talker and a guy who thought it best to use the dorm to make phonecalls, loudly. It went well, I think. I´ll fill you in on the first day´s walking when I get to Pamplona tomorrow, but in the meantime, I´ll leave you with a lovely moment: On the way into town from the train station I nearly cried. A little old lady watched the wave of pilgrims coming up the street. She must see it every day. As we got close, most crossed the road, but in my ever-vain efforts to be a wild individual I stayed on her side of the road. As I passed her she smiled at me and said “Bonne Courage”, which is the French phrase used to wish pilgrims luck. I felt a little bit special.

I are an aufer…

So I put my mum´s GPS to the test and set it for the location of my writer´s retreat: Sheepwash, Devon. If you want country, this is where it´s at, my friends.
After wiggling and winding my way over Exmoor (really beautiful area… google it) I finally came to the little village of Sheepwash. Out the other side and along another winding track is Totleigh Barton, a part medieval farmhouse in the dip between several hills and alongside a river. This is where I and fifteen others were going to live for five nights in an effort to uncover the literary genius within.
This was a birthday gift from my mum and dad… Up there with hot air ballooning and my camera as one of THE best birthday presents ever.

Not only were the workshops delivered by two great UK authors, Tiffany Murray and Ross Raisin, but I was part of a truly lovely and slightly nutty mixture of individuals for those few days.

We spent each morning in workshops with Ross and Tiffany and then the afternoons were all about writing. The ominous prospect of having to read out some of our work in a Friday night celebration was enough to scare the living crap out of most (except those of us who are a little partial to the spotlight, even at the risk of making ourselves look foolish). But we were regularly reassured that it wouldn´t be nearly as frightening as it sounded, by the time we got there. And I think they were right. The standard of work read out on the Friday night was really amazing. It was honestly such a privilege to hang out with such a creative, supportive and lovely group of people.

It was also a ridiculously funny week. Inevitably there were lots of conversations about the stories from people´s lives… Oh my god I have lived a sheltered existence! There was also a night in which I learned about drinking shots with a dead man´s toe in (an initiation ceremony if you want to go search for gold somewhere in the US) and taught people about the lesbian finger theory… I´ll leave that one wide open to interpretation.

I think I found my writing mojo too… I hit on a story that I have always thought about, but never seen as a story, as such… turns out it might be… but I´ll let you know if I get anywhere with that.

In the meantime, I will move on to the walking trip… cos I´m two days in and lots to tell! Stay tuned…

Sunday, May 8, 2011

10kg Doesn’t Include a Laptop

And so the next step of the journey comes round… Tomorrow I begin my quest to write the next bestseller novel. Don’t worry, you’ll all feature… names changed, obviously. And yes, Tracey, I’ll thank you in the acknowledgements!

Thanks to my lovely mum and dad I’m heading into deepest darkest Devon to a Writer’s Retreat for a handful of optimists reckon they might have a bit of latent talent. Or at the very least want to spend some time seeing if they can drag a skerrick of something resembling talent from their mushy grey matter (that’s me testing out a bit of fancy descriptive work, right there… “mushy grey matter” is a creative high, don’t you think?).

So I’m off to try my hand at a bit of creative writing and then… on Tuesday 17th May I fly from London Stansted (only the most inconvenient airport in the UK, what with not actually being attached to an actual city… not even London, despite the name) to Biarritz in France. From Biarritz I catch a train to St Jean Pied de Port at the base of the Pyrenees and by Thursday I expect to be starting the Camino de Santiago by hauling myself and my over-sized baggage over the Pyrenees themselves, which brings me to my chosen title for today’s post…

It turns out that (as everyone on the forum agrees – 10kgs is the ideal maximum weight to carry on one’s back over the course of the Camino… So it is a touch concerning that, despite some serious stripping back of my pack contents I can’t get the load below 15kgs… As it is I risk alienating my fellow walkers with my lack of fresh clothing. If I take out anything else I will be walking naked by day and dining of an evening in nothing but a pair of undies. I’m sure a wise person has said at some stage that ‘a naked pilgrim does not a new friend find… at all… for the whole walk’. So I think I’m going to have to suck it up and strengthen my legs quickly. My heaviest single item is my camera, which I refuse to leave behind… I have already jettisoned the laptop (yes, Meaghan and Jurgen I did consider the ipad, but I considered too long and now I’m out of time… not to mention the impact on my budget).

So, my lovelies, prepare for some erratic communication (I’ll hold back on the erotic communication). The Writer’s Retreat has no internet (one doesn’t want one’s creative flow interrupted by Facebook) and I’ll be accessing internet from public internet cafes along the Camino as and when I can (and as and when I feel like it). If you’re interested and fancy a bit of a giggle I did find these Extracts from a Caminoist’s Diary very amusing and perhaps a little more informative than I needed.

I can’t even begin to explain how excited I am about this next stage. I’ve been so fortunate in having the time and space to lie low and relax with my family, but my muddled head is starting to crave some meditative walking space and the chance to push and challenge myself to think, create and grow. I’ve done enough reading and researching now to know it’s pretty straightforward on the Camino in terms of following the right trail, finding food and shelter and other basics. I’ve also read enough of the personal accounts to know that everyone walks the Camino for different reasons. Some head out with a mission in mind, others just have the instinct to walk, some are on a spiritual journey, others are expressing their faith and in some cases people don’t know their motivation until they start walking. For me it’s a mixture, but I can sum it up with a brief story…

Many of you will know I used to run a fair bit. I got into running (despite being built for comfort, not speed) and I loved it. I built up over time until I was able to run a half marathon (21.1kms), which I did, four times over about a year. I found it addictive, meditative and I was surprised at my own ability, never having been a sporty child. And then, about a year ago I decided to run the big one – to take on a marathon (42.2kms). I chose London, partly because it’s one of the famous ones and partly because it would mean I could run my first marathon in a place my family could come and shout on sidelines for. So I started training, building up as usual, bit by bit. But instead of finding my meditative headspace I seemed to struggle with every step. I started to dread runs, or avoid them altogether. I was getting injured all the time. The prospect of a marathon had killed my running mojo… I didn’t do London this year (I may one day still – never say never), because it turns out running half marathons is my limit for running for now. But walking? I had tucked some memories away somewhere and forgot that thanks to the striding pace of my mum and years of being dragged along cliff-top walks, over fields and hills, through parks, along beaches, up and down valleys at a pace most Olympic walkers would envy, it turns out I have been training since a very early age to walk long distances. Walking is a space where I find logic, peace and inspiration. I can walk for long distances without tiring too much. And it makes me really happy. So this Camino, this is my marathon.

I’ll look forward to keeping you posted along the way.

Loads and load of love,

p.s. In case anyone is interested, the sign on the road to the village has changed… There’s a Skittle Festival on at the Appley pub this weekend. They know how to rock out round here ☺

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Too Golf for Folk Music

So, sometimes the little screw-ups can land you in the most rich and exciting spaces… Like, for example, if one should only remember at the very last minute (car packed, GPS set) that one should have changed the accommodation booking in Edinburgh to allow for one’s arrival a day early and so one therefore contacts the hostel only to find that there is nothing available to accommodate the earlier arrival… So, being the solution focused type, one gets the map out, selects a random town name on the map that looks near Edinburgh, but not actually in it, and makes a call to the first B&B one google-finds, which, by some lovely coincidence has a room free…

Despite one’s past record for such ‘lucky dips’ having a rather vanilla outcome at best, this one turns out to be in possibly the most glorious location on earth, ever, in the history of glorious places… ever. And the B&B is like a little paradise within paradise, with toast!

My friend Caroline and I were convinced we had stumbled across a secret beauty – a beachside gem, bathed in sunlight and clear, cool air. We walked for miles on wide open beaches, refreshed ourselves in cosy Scottish pubs, watched birds, took photographs (me), painted (Caroline), and soaked up the fine Scottish air. We swore to tell only a handful of people about this beautiful place, for fear it would become over-run if we publicized our find too eagerly…

Bless our naïve hearts! On our last morning there, Caroline was surfing the inter-webs and came across the evidence that our ‘Secret Haven’ was in fact rather well known… Gullane (pronounced Gullen, which we discovered only after we’d said it wrong to about 100 locals on separate occasions… I’m sure they weren’t laughing at us at all) claims to be home to one of Scotland’s most famous golf courses… Just down the road in Aberlady is a highly-prized bird-watching location and the home of the Scottish Ornithological Club, where you can see some rare bird species… It seems a few people have been here before us!

Once we got over the shock of realizing we had not stumbled upon an as-yet-undiscovered Scottish coastal tribe, we were able to settle into the humour of a trip that would see us start with glorious twin-bed, ensuite B&B accommodation and downgrade with each move until we found ourselves sharing with vocal and frustrated walkers and selfish snoring tourists in a hostel dormitory with shared bathroom. On balance, I think we can safely say the Edinburgh hostel sucked the most. Although we had a private room, it was not private enough to separate us from the bucks night crowd who decided to continue their party back at the hostel at 3am. And thank god the locks were good when the group of holidaying ‘older’ gentlemen mistook our room for theirs at a similar hour the following night and tried to get in a couple of times. Nothing beat the grandeur, however, of the youth hostel in Loch Lomond… in a castle. Utterly spectacular and like something out of a horror film, but full of uber-healthy walkers and climbers (possibly the stuff of other people’s nightmares, but undoubtedly good conditioning for me in the run up to the big walk).

So, accommodation issues and giggles aside, things have been really good, thanks for asking. I’ve enjoyed what might constitute a speed-therapy session with a friend I hadn’t seen properly for something like ten years (condensing ten years of life into highlights, lowlights, emotional traumas, achievements and significant events); I’ve climbed rocks to look out over the sea (and thanked the Universe for the ; I’ve walked over vast sands on the beach where my grandparents ashes were scattered and explored the rocky beaches of my mum’s childhood; I’ve driven the length and breadth of the UK (sort of); worked out how to order a half-decent soy chai in Starbucks (desperate times, etc.); I’ve slept on the floor of my brother’s living room (house of six guys… floor possibly not my most hygienic choice, but the sofa was covered in tobacco); screamed at the top of my lungs in my car just to feel free; got myself a tan… from Scotland; enjoyed a folk music jamming session in an Edinburgh pub (thanks to the advice of the barmaid in Gullane).

For me, most importantly, I think I’ve started to find my rhythm. I made a very wise decision a couple of weeks ago in deciding to spend this week back at my mum’s instead of braving the chaos of London. I’m just not ready for the fast pace yet… But I’ll be there soon.

It turns out that the places that fill me with joy and make me feel close to bursting with excitement and potential are the places where nature makes me feel humble and where I have challenged myself to get to the place where that is apparent. I learned this while climbing over barnacle-covered rocks in my bare feet to get to an enormous rock pool and then going the precarious few rocks further (despite the sharp imprints of barnacles that were slowly slicing my feet) to stand at the edge of the Firth of Forth. And I learned it when I decided not to be afraid (long story, probably wouldn’t normally be afraid of a beach… read on) and I walked across the mud-sands at Silverdale (note the stuff about guided walks across the sands for safety) instead of taking the road back to the village. I let the mud-sands squidge through my toes and up my legs, before climbing more rocks and making my way across crumbling cliff paths when I couldn’t get any further on the beach. I don’t know if that stuff made any sense, but it feels exciting to me!

And finally, just a quick update on The Big Walk… I’ve decided to start in St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees – it adds about 20-25kms to the journey, not to mention a HUGE incline on day 1, but I felt like I was cutting it out for no real reason and I think I’ll feel like I haven’t properly done it if I don’t start it properly. I’ve booked my flight to Biarritz for Tuesday 17th… I’m excited now!!!

Next week is my Writer’s Retreat… No inter-webs available there, so feel free to abuse me at will, without consequences until a later date. And expect a classic novel by the end of the week… I feel it coming on.

Love youse… and miss my Aussies!!!!
Lozzy xxxxxx

Ps. The title of this post comes from a conversation about whether we could find any good music in Gullane… The statement was my conclusion.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Thank You for the Music...

Thanks to the genius of one Meaghan Holden I was able to treat my family to some brilliant tunes designed to remind me of Melbourne and cheer me along my travels – Thank you mate!!

So I believe I’ve mentioned my 26yrs-separated parents previously… well here’s an odd one for you: On Saturday afternoon we all took a trip down to Cornwall for the night (the ‘leg’ of England, famous for Cornish Pasties, clotted cream and smugglers of the non-budgie variety in days of old) with the aim of undertaking a long walk across the Cornish countryside on Sunday. When I say ‘all’ I am referring to my mum, my dad, my step mum, my step dad, my brother, me and three dogs (Buddy, Talisker and Indy) that may seem like an odd start to those who don’t know my family. Listen further... For accommodation we stayed at my grandparent’s place… It’s nearly five years since either of them was alive… The flat is part of an aged care facility and is completely unfurnished. So effectively all four of my parents, my brother, me and three dogs camped on the floor of an aged care home for the night. Good times for the gang!

I got to test run my new sleeping bag and the lovely walking sticks I was gifted (thanks Floss ;)) all of which worked a treat. I totally out-nerded my family and slightly horrified my brother by wearing my lycra running gear for the walk – a sight my work colleagues are sadly very used to (because I exercise after work a lot, not because I wear lycra at my desk), but one my family was previously unfamiliar with… I believe my brother exclaimed “Oh my god, I don’t want to have to look at my sister’s arse in lycra”… I helpfully pointed out that a) he shouldn’t be looking and b) it’s not my fault I’m so booty-licious. I take his silence as a victory.

So we set off on the All Saints Way, leg 2 (my four parents had done the first leg a while back… Just the four of them… this kind of weird shit happens all the time in my family). Starting in Lanivet and ending in Lanlivery – those aren’t the weirdest names for Cornish villages I think we passed a sign for Bodderdick at one stage, also not the weirdest.
Another unusually stunning day in England as we rose and fell with the landscape. Up tiny tracks, over ancient stone stiles and through kissing gates (no kissing). We passed farms, walked through fields, saw cows, geese, rabbits, horses and pheasants. We were guided by the occasional stone cross, placed by the original pilgrims on the trail centuries before (note I’m skimming over detail… I didn’t listen to the story too hard) and supported by a series of wooden posts with the cross symbol to indicate the All Saints Way.

In classic Oliver style my dad, my brother and I failed to resist the urge to make bizarre and loud noises as we passed under a motorway bridge. My brother does an astounding impression of a didgeridoo, just for your information. Possibly the result of being born in Australia, or a freak throat development, we’ve never been entirely sure. Anyhoo, it sounded completely awesome under that bridge.

Three hours later we ended up at a gorgeous little pub in Lanlivery where we had well-earned roast dinners (Yorkshire puddings!!!) and pints and the dogs collapsed.

In my personal tradition of over-sharing I’d like to share something with you… I was recently lead through a visualization exercise by my therapist (there’s the overshare) in which I had to picture a scene in nature. The upshot of the visualization was that every element in my image was relevant to something in my life. In the scene, among lots of other things, I pictured there was a single huge tree in a big field. I lay in the grass some distance from the tree, but it was a significant element in that image. For me that tree is my family. It stands clear and strong in my world. It’s a complex structure, but it is what grounds me. We’re connected by the ground beneath us. Today was one of those days where I felt myself slide easily into the rhythm of this family that forms my foundation. It might be complicated (and this has only described part of it), but it is without a doubt the most important tree in my world. Thanks Oliver/Barbieri/Williams troop. I had a lovely day.

Loads of love
Lo xxxxxxxxxxxx

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The colours of my mum's garden

My stepdad's stock phrase for my first day was "we mustn't get used to this", not in reference to the glory of my presence and an accompanying sense of doom at my eventual departure, but in reference to the fact that England had ripped out a series of uncharacteristically sun-drenched days. It would have been all too easy to imagine that this might be the nation's new natural state... It's not - today we have returned to grey and distinctly damp. Panic over.

I'm halfway through my first week here, and just coming round, I think. Nine months seems both long and short in an odd way. I arrived at 5.40am on Saturday and came through the arrivals gates to a vision of modern parenting - both my mum and my dad (26yrs divorced, but still great mates) waving frantically with one hand and filming/photographing my arrival on their respective phones with the other. Hilarious given they both subsequently confessed they have no idea how to send or upload said photos once taken.

It was a relatively quick drive back to my mum's place in Somerset in England's South West. This is proper countryside, people. You'll note the photograph from my previous post... I may have missed the Pig Races on Friday night (I can only hope they hold them more than once while I'm here), but I found in the paper a couple of intriguing events on Sundays: Meat Bingo and the even more worrying Fresh Meat Bingo. If anyone can suggest an explanation as to what these might involve, I will bring back my winnings for you should I manage to attend such an event.

It can fly a little close to a very English version of deliverance country round here. The local paper publishes full listings of the outcomes of court sessions including the full name of defendants, their crime and the sentence they received. Name and shame at it's very best. So I'm doing my little bit to shake things up. So far I have walked across muddy fields in an outfit that screams 'out of towner' - large red sunnies and flouro green wellington boots with pink lipstick kisses all over them. And I flustered the Lady at the Minehead WHSmiths by purchasing myself the latest issue of DIVA (lesbian magazine) with the proud headline 'The Sex Issue'... I do believe she blushed. Credit where credit is due - they had the magazine on the shelf. It's a good start.

Anyhoo, so jet lag... a devious companion. I thought that after nearly nine years of making this journey at least once every 18months I might have the whole sleep pattern and strategies for dealing with it sorted out. And it was looking good for the first two nights; pushing through to stay awake until 9pm and then 10pm. Admittedly there's nothing cool about waking at 5 or 6am if you don't have to work, unless you're about to take a ride in a hot air balloon, but I got the full 8hrs each night and was building up to the sleep in... And then day three turned me into an emotional sack of sleep deprivation, tears and weird hunger patterns. My parents must be thrilled to have me around ;)