Italy (Part III): To Avalon They Came, Families and Solo Travelers Alike

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In this third and final post from our trip to the Avalon Community I elaborate on the short-term volunteers like us who came from near and far to help with the olive harvesting. I elaborated on the details of the harvest, the objectives and the challenges, in the previous post. Notable challenges that year (2019) included excessive rains and olive fruit fly infestation.

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From L to R: Mario, Janina, Manuela and Irene taking in the sun.

Towards the end of the last post I introduced Janina, a Chilean lady, who’d spent the last year or so with the community. She was a big, strong girl with fair skin, lightly freckled around her nose, loose dark brown hair framing a round, amiable face and sparkling, inquisitive eyes. Probably the first thing new arrivals would take note of was her heavily distended belly. She was almost at full term when we arrived. Her due date was imminent.

It appeared that she was well liked and still a very present and active member of the community, helping out with most of the meal preparation and chatting good-naturedly after mealtimes at the long olive wood table or leaning against a counter in the kitchen in-between the lengthy meal preparation and cooking episodes.

I didn’t have the chance to chat to her much but one evening in conversation with one or other of the volunteers I learnt that she had graduated from university in Santiago and had gone on to work in a bank. A familiar tale ensued – the job paid well but was ultimately unfulfilling. Not long after coming back I tuned into a news bulletin or podcast highlighting the social unrest in Chile and years of gathering frustration among citizens fed up with the status quo, part of a greater pattern in Latin America at the start of the new decade. And so to Janina: she liberated herself by travelling first to Spain and by and by to Italy.

A familiar tale ensued – the job paid well but was ultimately unfulfilling.

As for the father of the child-to-be we never met him. Neither was much said, except it was rumoured that things hadn’t worked out between them. Well at least she could find solace, if needed, in Manuela and Victoria, two other single mothers living there. I asked Janina if it had been easy to learn Italian being a Spanish speaker.

“When I don’t know a word I just make it up. They know what I mean,” she said with a laugh.

Because the due date was so close a young Italian lady, Ale (Ah-leh), who had visited in the summer, arrived around the same time as us with the intention being a midwife to Janina and the baby. Ale had a tiny Fiat Panda, probably the best kind of car to negotiate the narrow rutted trail from the nearby Agriturismo. She was friendly and sweet with twinkling eyes, very short in stature and very focused on the job at hand.

Upon arrival we discovered a young German boy around 22 years of age who’d been there for at least 10 days already. He was of medium height with sandy brown hair, well-proportioned features, blue eyes behind round gold-rimmed glasses and exuding an air of quiet calm amidst the chaos.

Nothing seemed to perturb him much as he sat quietly reading a well-thumbed book in one of the old armchairs near the front door to the communal space cum open-plan kitchen. With his help we learned about the contents of two large wooden chests pushed up against the stone wall near the door which also doubled as a bench and convenient spot to lay one’s coat.

Nothing seemed to perturb him much as he sat quietly reading a well-thumbed book in one of the old armchairs near the front door to the communal space cum open-plan kitchen.

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The young man quietly engrossed in a book

These wooden kists held a variety of dry foods, amongst them a large bag of sesame seeds and another of barley. Considering that most of the residents were content with a piece of fruit for breakfast, washed down with numerous cups of strong black coffee, this sort of provision was essential to us. We had all come to enjoy our morning pap or porridge.

Mirjam had a small bag of oats since she was gluten intolerant but this wasn’t enough for the 3 of us. And so I set about soaking the barley and removing the assortment of weevils which floated to the surface. This didn’t bother me much having grown up with such things but one or two later arrivals baulked at the idea of eating the stuff!

When he spoke the young man had an endearing lisp, something some of the younger kids who came after us would make fun of in a the way that children do, without malice. After a few days a slew of new volunteers arrived: a young, recently married German couple, Niko and Verena; a lanky Dutchman called Rik; a family of four consisting of a British-Cypriot mother, Barbara, and her 3 children; and an Australian girl called Julia.

After a few days a slew of new volunteers arrived: a young, recently married German couple, Niko and Verena; a lanky Dutchman called Rik; a family of four consisting of a British-Cypriot mother, Barbara, and her 3 children; and an Australian girl called Julia. 

Niko and Verena had recently graduated as secondary school teachers and were taking a year out to travel with an emphasis on visiting intentional communities throughout Europe. My initial impression was of starry-eyed idealists. At first they kept a healthy distance, observing everything from the sidelines as it were, but they gradually engaged on their own terms.

Niko was tall, bearded and good natured. Verena too was taller than average with a good figure, shoulder length blonde hair framing a scholarly, bespectacled face. I imagine she attracted a fair bit of interest from other men on their travels and I wasn’t too surprised to see Riccardo the next day sitting close by her at the fireplace, the two each rolling a cigarette, and in focused conversation.

I observed the couple over the course of the next week and saw that they appeared very comfortable in each other’s company; none of that clinging insecurity from Niko’s side that some men affect with an attractive spouse or girlfriend. I liked him, frank and open in his communication, somewhat reserved but thawing with conversation. He wanted to teach literature and politics to upper school students (ages 16, 17, 18) and more so to challenge them in their perceptions. Judging by his engagement with Gabriel, an 11 year old English boy, I could see him excelling in the role. Gabriel came to adore him.

I suspected Verena was very brainy. I didn’t get much of an opportunity to talk with her but a cursory discussion of books and opinion on current affairs said as much. She appeared to speak very passable Italian which she’d picked up on a previous 3 month au Pair experience in Italy. That impressed me greatly. On the subject of their home nation they were both quite outspoken, scorning the prevailing fiscal policy of the Black Zero or schwarze Null intended to maintain a balanced Federal Budget, at the expense Niko told me, of investing in critical infrastructure.

“The country is suffering because of this narrow-minded political approach,” He expounded.

But then again that’s probably because he (the finance minister) is from Stuttgart, he explained.

“They have a reputation for being very tight,” he said with a grin directed towards Verena, who also hailed from that city.

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Mario, Rik and Mirjam removing debris from the newly harvested olives

Rik was a lanky gent who also took a little while to engage. He appeared quiet and softly spoken but when I got to know him a bit better I discovered that he was sensitive and also very smart. He’d studied International Relations or something similar and after doing a Masters worked as a Postgrad researcher in the area of refugee policy formulation. He had become frustrated at the lack of implementation by the establishment and after some consideration had decided to throw it in.

“The moment came when I had to make a decision to commit my life to this cause and I wasn’t comfortable with it, so I stepped back.”

He gave some excellent insights into the political machinations of the Netherlands, of which I  knew precious little, and the EU bloc as a whole. The trend in particular with regard to immigration policy was a movement to the right of the political spectrum as anti-refugee rhetoric and policies were normalised. Even the centrist parties were drifting in that direction he said with a look of concern. Rik appeared to be well-travelled in the context of Europe and, for now at least, expressed no desire to go further abroad.

The trend in particular with regard to immigration policy was a movement to the right of the political spectrum as anti-refugee rhetoric and policies were normalised.

Rik and Julia had volunteered together on another Workaway project and had planned to meet up here. Julia hailed from Melbourne and had a father of Italian descent. My initial impression of a sweet-natured but somewhat naive young woman turned out to be far off the mark. She had real metal to her. If I had to later summarise her qualities they would read something like this: open and affectionate with children, conversational, intelligent and modest.

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Julia at centre, me to her right, the two Raphaels to her left. In the orchard.

She was hoping to find somewhere in Europe to settle down in but not before she’d returned home for Christmas. At that stage of her travels she was missing home quite badly.

The thing with Julia was how candid she was when it came to speaking about her relationship with her mother. Suffice to say she painted a less than flattering picture of her. It seemed as though there was a complicated personal history there. What did emerge from the ashes of an evidently difficult and painful relationship and the associated family dynamics was that she seemed to be able to see it for what it was, to be able to rise above it and above her (her mother).

No surprise really that she had started (but not yet completed) an academic training in social work and volunteered on and off over the years in shelters for women seeking help from abusive partners. She’d also worked with refugees, another much-overlooked sector of our Western societies.

In age she was a bit closer to me, somewhere in her mid-thirties. I was impressed by how much life experience she had accumulated in that time. In younger years she’d been very involved in the Australian skiing scene, something I knew nothing about. She was pushed hard in that direction and had gotten pretty far, even representing her country in her age group.

There wasn’t anything about her that suggested she was especially sporty but a certain steely glint in her eye which I caught from time to time suggested hidden depths of stamina and ambition. Yet I don’t think that was an overarching quality. Rather, a desire to reach out with empathy and find connection in her sphere of existence.

There wasn’t anything about her that suggested she was especially sporty but a certain steely glint in her eye which I caught from time to time suggested hidden depths of stamina and ambition.

She’d taken a CELTA course (that’s the leading qualification in the field of English language instruction to speakers of a foreign language) after a clairvoyant or soothsayer or someone of that ilk had told her that it was as clear as day to her that she was born to be a teacher. She made some allusions to energy and spirituality which suggested to me some New Age thinking. I didn’t really care too much. From my time living in community I’d known many of them and the vast majority were fairly harmless, well-intentioned, free-spirits. No doubt there would be matters on which we might have conflicting opinions but I didn’t have the time, nor inclination, to discover them.

Her personal story got more and more interesting the more she divulged. Her grandmother had been a Polish refugee to Australia from wartime Europe. Now I struggle to remember all the details but I think it goes something like this: when she arrived in Australia she did her best to forge a new life there and forsake the past. She had been interned in Auschwitz and had even left her name engraved there, something Julia was able to verify when she visited there herself (imagine that!).

Her mother was conceived sometime during the transition from the one continent to the other and had grown up believing her biological father was an Australian man her grandmother came to marry. Only later when her mother submitted her DNA to an ancestry database did she discover that she had a brother back in Europe. Further investigation revealed that he was Hungarian. I imagine that these revelations in themselves would be enough to create shockwaves in any family. It certainly added a layer of mystique to Julia.

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A typical mealtime seating configuration at the long olive wood dining room table

And lastly to Barbara and her brood. If we thought we were daring traveling via public transport and hitching lifts with friendly people, it was nothing in comparison to Barbara’s little clan. They had arrived from Cyprus via Greece and had come the entire way overland and by ferry.

Barbara herself was in her late forties or thereabouts, with a dark brown complexion which she explained by way of some south Asian ancestry. She was also half Greek-Cypriot (like me) but had spent most of her life in the UK and spoke English with a distinctly British accent. Dimitri, the nervous Greek-Italian man I spoke of in the last post, was delighted to be able to speak Greek with someone else, being half Greek-half Italian and speaking both fluently.

Barbara herself was in her late forties or thereabouts, with a dark brown complexion which she explained by way of some south Asian ancestry.

I recalled the Goan community back in Zimbabwe and imagined that Barbara would, at least in appearance, fit in very well there. In truth she was a middle-aged woman living life on her own terms with the challenge of raising her three babies, as she often referred to them, in the process. The eldest of them, also called Raphael like my oldest son, was a boastful but likeable 13 year old who was the apple of his mother’s eye. The next, Gabriel (11) was a very sweet boy who lived in his brother’s shadow. The youngest, Ciara (6) was also likeable but rather needy. She latched onto Julia with some ferocity.

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Barbara, her eldest son Raphael and my own Raphy standing to his right

If the locals were annoyed by this sudden influx of Inglese for the most part they didn’t show it. If anything the general mayhem resulting from the suddenly inflated proportion of children in the community just added to the prevailing quasi-anarchist atmosphere.

But returning to Barbara, her choice of lifestyle begged to be debated in light of what was best for her kids. Was she being irresponsible? Or was she a bold, albeit unconventional woman, giving them the benefit of seeing the wider world at close quarters. I for one had mixed feelings. I think in the end it all comes down to motive: why was she living this way? What were her objectives?

Taken together the kids were sweet and really quite endearing, but their mother’s attention wasn’t equally divided. Both Mirjam and Julia were quick to notice that Raphael had a favoured status. He was a promising footballer and Barbara was quick to sing his praises and recount how football youth academies from Greece to Portugal were crying out for him to sign with them.

“He’s a left-footed midfielder you see, and they’re in demand,” she explained.

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The two Raphaels

Indeed Raphael (Raphy to his mum) displayed some impressive skills with a ball he kept with him possessively, juggling it from foot to foot and doing successive round the worlds in each direction. He had obviously grown used to the flattery because it made him arrogant, ordering Gabriel to fetch things for him from their room, and boasting incessantly about his various virtues.

Of course, behind the ego was a very self-conscious boy, eager to be liked. If what Barbara said was true then he could be their ticket to an easier, more financially secure life somewhere in the future. But what a burden of expectation to place on one so young!

If what Barbara said was true then he could be their ticket to an easier, more financially secure life somewhere in the future.

Sweet little Gabriel went everywhere in a sky-blue beanie or ‘head rock‘ as they called it. His siblings had jokingly dubbed him Noddy after the Enid Blyton character from children’s literature. He was a very sensitive young boy with humorous, sparkling  eyes, which clouded over unexpectedly from time to time, as if he was nursing a hidden hurt just below the surface.

He loved BMX bikes and was quick to pull one out from the assorted pile of bicycles near the workshop. He rode this down the hillside like a bat out of hell and also took to Dimitri’s diablo with a single-minded determination. Night and day he practised and was soon in dogged competition with the cocky, self-assured Ayur, Victoria’s oldest.

In contrast Raph spent much of the time moaning about a lack of stuff – hot chocolate, fast food, cafes, restaurants etc. I guess he was assuming the life of entitlement that comes with being a pro-footballer in the big leagues before he’d even gotten there! To his credit he would talk to all and sundry. After a few days of them getting there he boasted to me that he’d talked to everyone except Mario. I got a kick out of telling him there was a McDonald’s just down the hill (there wasn’t) and that I’d been relaxing there that very afternoon. He turned to his mum and begged her to go take him down without delay.

One evening Irene gave me and the boy a lift down to the nearest town, Casagrande, to get some supplies. Once at the local supermarket, Conrad, he was quick to flag a member of staff and quickly fired off a list of questions – where could we find the sugar? The raisins? The oatmeal? Why walk the isles in search of something when someone could just show you? After the supermarket I indulged him and bought the both of us a hot chocolate in a nearby cafe. The elderly ladies who ran the place cooed and smiled good-naturedly as he grinned his appreciation for the treat.

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Ciara poses with a Play-Doh pie

We’d left late in the day and darkness descended on us on the walk back up. Never mind the fact that we took a wrong turn and I wasted precious minutes (and mobile data) trying to find our position and direction. After walking for an hour or so we broke open a packet of jam biscuits and destroyed them in short measure.

It helped the morale and Raphy perked up and set about trying to flag down a ride with renewed vigour. He jumped up and down with arms outstretched and after a few cars passed us by, in the end it paid dividends and we were spared the ignominy of traipsing the remaining 5 kilometers or so in the dark along a rather treacherous, winding road.

Barbara relied on a monthly maintenance allowance of several hundred pounds from her ex- in the UK. Not so much to maintain a family of four but she was happy to elaborate on her methods of frugal living – sleeping on the beach in Cyprus in the summer months for instance – coupled with an itinerant’s eye for a good bargain. That’s not to say she was neglectful of her kid’s needs. To the contrary, she insisted on indulging in certain things for them like real oatmeal (and not the weevil-infested barley I was cooking up), fruit juice and various other things.

…she was happy to elaborate on her methods of frugal living – sleeping on the beach in Cyprus in the summer months for instance – coupled with an itinerant’s eye for a good bargain

She was an interesting person to talk despite being taken in by a range of conspiracy theories and ideas of nefarious systems of control, dark agendas and shadow powers. I wasn’t surprised to discover that she was anti-vaccination and pro-marijuana. Throughout our stay she regularly wore a Bob Marley T-shirt, if that means anything in itself. I liked Barbara despite these ideas which I roundly reject. She was shrewd but not unkind.

It’s anyone’s guess how things would turn out for the four of them. I imagined she would have to settle somewhere again, even if it was back in the UK. The kids spoke about life in North London, especially Raphy and Gabriel who took delight in recalling brushes with criminal elements alongside the monotony of life on a council estate. Their accents did nothing to suggest that they’d lived anywhere else but North London. But they also spoke about life in Cyprus, going to school there, and having to stand up for themselves as English boys. There had also been a previous stay in Portugal.

It also became clear that Barbara’s relations with her near family, other than her kids (she also had two older girls living back in England), were not good. One reason given was that they disagreed with her lifestyle and her method of bringing up the kids. That wasn’t so hard to imagine but didn’t go so far as to explain why things were as bad as she made them out to be. That was until one of the boys recalled the episode of being stranded in Toulouse Airport for 4 days or so without money. As in the character Viktor Navorski from the movie The Terminal I suppose many people are aware that certain persons become stateless and stranded in the neutral environs of international airports.

…one of the boys recalled the episode of being stranded in Toulouse Airport for 4 days or so without money.

In Barbara and the kid’s case this had something to do with missing a flight and not having the money for new tickets. Raphy was proud to say that he’d made friends with key members of the catering establishment therein and ensured the family a regular supply of nachos or fries or whatnot. It sounded a bit harrowing, especially since I’d once experienced the discomfort of sleeping overnight in a departure lounge, fluorescent lights glaring and PA announcements yanking me from the deeper cycles of sleep that I so craved. The idea of spending four days and nights in that environment made me shudder.

In the end Barbara had managed to beg one or other of her family to bail them out financially. I was sad to learn from the boys that they were one of four families stranded in the airport. Extrapolate worldwide and you can only imagine the situation at any given moment. Evidently there was more to the story but at some point Barbara forbade the boys from telling me any further details.

Besides the complement of volunteers there were a few other individuals from other communities who came by for one or several nights. One of them was a very sweet, Swiss lady called Nicola, around my age in years. She had twinkling eyes and an elvish face. She lived in another commune an hour or two to the north of us in Tuscany. She told me that she divided her year between there and Switzerland, 6 months in each. She had a daughter of 14 years, fathered by Riccardo. How present he was in her life (the daughter) I could only assess indirectly but Nicola and he appeared cordial to each other.

Nicola worked in a theatre company in her native Switzerland and her skills as a puppet-maker were evident when she crafted a wooden horse on a stick for my Raphael which he was delighted with. He roared around the communal rooms, neighing and rollicking and before long the head had parted from the stick. We got quite used to sticking it on again periodically.

Nicola worked in a theatre company in her native Switzerland and her skills as a puppet-maker were evident when she crafted a wooden horse on a stick for my Raphael…

Then there was Cristina, an Italian lady from Genoa who also had a little boy of 4 or 5. Her partner, A Moroccan man with braided hair, features in the title image alongside Raphael and Ciara playing table-football in the workshop. She was very helpful to us in the final days when the terrible weather and other unforeseen circumstances conspired to prevent us from leaving. Sadly, like so all the other relationships there, she and her partner lived apart. They had come together on this occasion because of the child’s birthday.

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Mirjam and Cristina

Although she was probably a few years younger than me still, she seemed a little world-weary. On the last Friday we were there we’d had a pizza night at which there was alcohol (the community was officially ‘dry’ but exceptions were made) and one or two single women drifted in from beyond. While we chatted the next day Cristina lamented her partner’s weakness for other women and alcohol.

“As I expected and even though he promised me not to, he got drunk. And of course he was trying to impress that French girl,” alluding to the newcomer, a not unattractive young woman with arched eyebrows, and sporting a leather jacket.

The conversation drifted to Avalon generally and she poke pityingly of Mario’s ambitions and how he had sadly failed to build something that would outlive him. She also scorned Riccardo, saying that he was more concerned with his personal appearance and ambitions in the Italian Ecovillage hierarchy, than he was with being a father to Nicola’s daughter. She revealed that there was another child by another woman somewhere else too.

The conversation drifted to Avalon generally and she poke pityingly of Mario’s ambitions and how he had sadly failed to build something that would outlive him.

Let me finally return to Janina. As you will recall me saying in the previous post, she was heavily pregnant and due any day. That moment came on the evening of the pizza event. We awoke the following morning, a Saturday, to learn it from Victoria or one of her children. We kept a respectful distance while a few of the women made broths, freshly squeezed orange-juice and provided all necessary attention to the new mother and child. I got a fleeting glimpse of the two of them the next evening, the mother and baby, blanketed and cosy in the warmth of a wood-fired outside cabin.

I hadn’t intended to go in there but I’d taken a wrong turn looking for something or someone. There was a moment when I opened the door, felt the blast of warm air and beheld the cosy intimacy of the three of them, that is seared in my imagination. It was in that fraction of time, no more than a second or two, that I realised my intrusion and quickly retreated with a mumbled apology. There were no recriminations, only a smile and a giggle from the new mother, whether out of embarrassment or sympathy I couldn’t say.

That was the last I would see of them before we finally managed to get a lift down to Pistoia the following day. We spent the last night in Cristina’s room which was kind of her considering how damp and cold our was in those conditions. The wind howled and the rain was incessant. I made a fire in the wood stove but after an hour or two it had burned down and the wind, which whistled under the door, soon carried the warmth away with it. I thought of Janina and the bay in the cabin and hoped that Ale was more adept than me at keeping a fire alive.

It’s always hard to say goodbye after being in such close communion with people for any period longer than a day or two. So even though two weeks is not so long at all it felt like we’d lived through an epoch! Our timing so far as the weather went was poor perhaps, but we’d met such an amazing selection of people, and even had the good fortune to be there when the 42nd child of the Avalon community had come into this world.

Our timing so far as the weather went was poor perhaps, but we’d met such an amazing selection of people, and even had the good fortune to be there when the 42nd child of the Avalon community had come into this world.

From Pistoia we would travel by rail first to Piacenza via Bologna, and the following day from there to Lago d’Orta in the north, to stay at the Centro d’Ompio, an establishment not dissimilar to our community back in Germany. But that is for another time, another post. I’m not sure I’ll get around to it any time soon.

Since our travels 4 months ago the entire nation has become synonymous with the Covid19 pandemic, the first nation in Europe to be afflicted by the virus, and the first to have implemented a nation-wide lockdown. These are worrying times but I have no doubt that they will pass. Life will go on. I do hope all the people I met here come out of it unscathed and resilient enough in their clans and communities to find the strength to weather the uncertainty and challenges which surely lie ahead.

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Italy (Part II): The People of Avalon

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In this second post from my trip to Italy and our visit to the Avalon Community I elaborate on the nature of the place, the olive harvesting and the various personalities who populated the community. This includes not just the regular inhabitants but also the short-term volunteers like us and other itinerants who came and went with the seasons.

At this time of year (November) we were told, picking olives should have been a full-time activity for all able-bodied individuals. They allegedly had something like a 1000 trees, enough to keep them busy for months. There was one major problem, however, and that was the unseasonable amount of rain. Even before we had arrived it had been raining for some time, weeks even, without much respite. A related problem was infestation by the olive fruit fly. The warm summer and wet autumn had provided ideal reproductive conditions for the parasite and both the quantity and quality of the olives was reduced quite significantly.

At this time of year (November) we were told, picking olives should have been a full-time activity for all able-bodied individuals.

Barely an olive could be observed without the characteristic puncture mark made by the ovipositor (needle-like appendage used to insert eggs into the fruit) of the female fly. The link to the Wiki article makes for some interesting reading if that’s your thing. The reality was that the harvest was adversely affected. With some apparent effort in shaping the words and a querulous voice Mario explained that in a normal year they could expect to harvest around 1500 kg of olives. In a good year it could exceed 2000 kg. This year they would be lucky to harvest 300 kg!

Beneath the trees, in the gullies in-between them and along the paths lay untold thousands of the small, black fruit. Many of the Italians sighed in a resigned sort of way or just shook their heads sadly when commenting on the wasted harvest.

There was no real routine at Avalon. If it was raining or had rained substantially during the night then harvesting was put on hold. I was informed that climbing a wet tree was hazardous, never mind the fact that it was just plain unpleasant to clamber beneath sodden branches while trying to lay nets and collect the fallen fruit. Of the two weeks we spent at Avalon we only had 3 or 4 days or so on which it was dry enough for part of the day at least to harvest olives.

It was at these moments that the community was most unified. Mario, despite his 68 years and declining health was often the first out the house, blazing a trail ahead of the others. The others constituted an assortment of people, young and old, from various walks of life:

Victoria, an Italian women in her 30s and her two children, a boy of 9 and a girl of 4 years;

Mirjam, the lanky, braided-haired Dutch lady I mentioned in my first post and her boyfriend Indiano, bearded and roguish, loud and brash;

Irene, teacher of biology and one of the pillars of the community;

Dimitri, an anxious man of my age (born within days of each other we discovered), seldom still and a compulsive smoker;

Frederick, a white-haired, middle-aged Belgian man, possessed of a quiet reserve and a steady presence, chopping wood and clearing out brambles from between the olives before most people emerged from their rooms in the mornings;

Caesar from Seville, dark-skinned, small and wiry giving the appearance of being slightly wild and untamed. He was always ready to impart a helpful word of advice while busy with something or other;

Sergio, another Italian in his late 30s or early 40s with a genial personality and loud guffaw; an older Italian man whose name I forget, emphysemic and wearing an expression of patient suffering;

Riccardo, a handsome man absent much of the time but helping out here and there;

Janina, in an advanced state of pregnancy but cheerful and energetic nevertheless; and various short-term volunteers like us who I will elaborate on in another post.

Below is a gallery of pictures from the mornings and afternoons we spent olive-picking. You can click on individual pictures to bring up detailed captions which describe what is happening.

The one thing that I hope comes across in these photos is a sense of togetherness and inter-generational tolerance. Everyone worked alongside each other regardless of age, nationality or creed. These things weren’t discussed much. Most people worked with single-minded intent, the locals breaking every so often for a smoke (usually hand-rolled tobacco) in a well-lit spot amongst the trees. Indiano would sing in his coarse, good-natured, off-key voice while sawing away at a branch. More often than not it was a Queen number sung with gusto. He always wore a good pair of boots with an assortment of pruning equipment attached to his belt.

The one thing that I hope comes across in these photos is a sense of togetherness and inter-generational tolerance. Everyone worked alongside each other regardless of age, nationality or creed.

Alongside him was Sergio, shouting out encouragement or comments in confident, heavily intonated Italian interspersed with barks of laughter. Braided-haired Mirjam strode amongst the trees with purpose, serious-faced, like so often masking her thoughts and emotions. I only saw her smile on a few occasions, usually to one of the children and of the few times she showed some strong emotion the one that stands out was when I made some inquiries regarding her former life in the Netherlands.

When I asked her where she grew up she replied Groningen, horrible place. She still visited her mother there from time to time and also worked seasonally to supplement her income. Or perhaps as her only source of income. Speaking to her reminded me of Dirk, the Dutch husband of Maria, my Workaway hosts back in 2015 in northern Greece.

Her comments mirrored his almost exactly. Living in the South of Europe was so much more free they said. Both spoke of the nanny state (the Netherlands) and people submitting to more and more intervention from a system of government who was gradually asserting a less-than-benevolent control over them. They alluded to the weakness of the average citizen who gave into fear rather than asserting their own rights to behave and act as they wished. This is actually quite a common world-view held by those in the ecovillage circles (EVs) and intentional communities (ICs).

When we’d finished gathering the olives into the ubiquitous plastic crates they were carried across to the side of the old house from where you had a fabulous view to the west beyond the villages and towns around Monsummano Terme to the flat lands beyond and further yet the hazy outline of distant hills lying between us and the west coast. On a clear day you could see a clear demarcation between the densely populated urban areas and the wetlands where the rectilinear bodies of water mirrored the sky above. Perhaps they grew rice here. I thought I saw something about rice growing alluded to on a tourist marketing picture in one of the towns but it may have been further north.

When we’d finished gathering the olives into the ubiquitous plastic crates they were carried across to the side of the old house from where you had a fabulous view to the west beyond the villages and towns around Monsummano Terme to the flat lands beyond

One evening I’d walked around that side of the house and stopped dead in my tracks. Most evenings the countryside below which I just described was a black palette punctuated by myriad yellow lights from streetlamps and households and brighter white flood lights illuminating commercial premises or factory warehouses. Tonight it was a uniform black canvas. My first thought was of a blanket power failure. That didn’t seem to be likely though and I went to bed still puzzled.

Only the next morning did the answer become apparent – a great pall of mist hung over the entire valley and plain beyond obscuring everything except the distant hills. Walking between the trees of the orchard above the house as the path wound its way up and along the opposing slope I saw the nearby medieval hilltop town of Montevettolini nestled like a floating castle on the blanket of formless cloud. The words of a song from the play Les Miserables appeared in my mind – “There is a castle on a cloud, I like to go there in my sleep…”

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The hilltop town of Montevettolini nestled in the morning mists.

As I was saying, returning to the olive harvest, the crates were placed together on the far side of the house alongside a machine of some sort. Its use soon became apparent.

Several of the resident men: Indiano, Frederick, Caesar and one or two others, used the machine to separate the leaves from the olives before taking them off to be pressed. One or other of them would tip the unsorted mass onto an inclined metal sorting tray while another of them directed a leaf blower over the mix. While the leaves were dispersed in the powerful gusts of warm air from the blower the others would keep pushing the jostling mixture of twigs, leaves and fruit back up the shoot until the weight of the olives took them back down the tray until they were allowed to fall into an open sack. The dispersed leaves lay inches deep all around the apparatus.

Away from the olives, as I mentioned, there was no real routine except for the preparation of food for lunch and dinner. Breakfast was the responsibility of the individual. I noticed that most of the residents didn’t bother much with breakfast, being content with several espressos, a cigarette or two and an occasional piece of bread or fruit (Kaki fruit and beautiful fleshy oranges hung from several trees around the house).

There was supposedly a roster where one could sign up to cook but it didn’t seem to be used very effectively. Mostly one or other of the residents would take the lead – Irene, the heavily pregnant Janine, or Caesar. They cooked big pots of pasta, rice or polenta accompanied by boiled or steamed vegetables and perhaps a salad and a sauce.

…most of the residents didn’t bother much with breakfast, being content with several espressos, a cigarette or two and an occasional piece of bread or fruit (Kaki fruit and beautiful fleshy oranges hung from several trees around the house).

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Lunch with our fellow volunteers at the black, polished olivewood table in the community dining room.

We were invited to sit at a long, evidently well-used olivewood table in the dining room but space was limited to perhaps 12 people or so. Raphael was usually given the privilege of sitting on a high chair at the nearside end and Mirjam and I would usually sit on either side. Others chose to eat sitting on one of the sofas flanking the ample fireplace in one corner of the room or on one of several wooden stools that could be moved closer to the warmth.

When the fire wasn’t burning the room could be quite frigid. The two main meals were always accompanied by hunks of white bread and several pewter decanters of olive oil. On occasion there were salted olives, salvaged from the harvest. They were bitter and unpalatable.

The two main meals were always accompanied by hunks of white bread and several pewter decanters of olive oil.

It was quite funny to see Raphael become accustomed to the addition of olive oil to every dish. After a short while he refused to start eating until a liberal dose was poured over his helping. As I said before, the Mediterraneans had a natural affinity for young children. The itinerant Caesar would squat down and chat with him in English or Spanish, much like our Catalan friend Pol had done when he lived with us at the Vlierhof, and dubbed him Rafaelo after a well-known musician back in his hometown of Seville.

Caesar told me he’d taught himself English working hotel jobs. His shiny, beady eyes took everything in at a glance and if I had to zoomorphize him I would think of a crow or a wily village dog – creatures adept at surviving adversity. That wasn’t to say he was cunning or calculating, only that he had a capacity for survival. He seldom stayed anywhere for more than a month or two he told me. From here he would travel south towards Sicily where he knew other people.

One thing that soon became apparent regarded the home-schooling – it wasn’t happening. A small room that adjoined the dining room contained an assortment of plastic and wooden toys, old magazines, boxes of crayons, and scattered sheets of manuscript paper and old drawings. It was in partial disarray when we arrived. It was also freezing cold, dusty and uninviting. Victoria told us that it hadn’t been used since the summer and not as a teaching room for longer still. A couple who had been instrumental in setting it up and running the homeschool had decided to relocate somewhere else with their kids and with their departure the remaining families had retreated to their own domestic routine.

One thing that soon became apparent regarded the home-schooling – it wasn’t happening.

Victoria was a burly, kindly woman with short, unkempt brown hair and crooked teeth. Nevertheless I detected a solidity to her and I imagined that if she needed to be she could be a force in her own right. She needed certain level of resilience being a single mother in those circumstances. Her boy of 8 years appeared to be a bit troubled and much in need of a masculine role model. He frequently threw tantrums and showed an unpleasant precociousness which verged on aggression. I became a bit wary of him as he loudly sauntered through the house looking for something or someone to rumble.

the younger girl, Melissa, was a sweet girl with big dark eyes, an olive-brown complexion and attractive dark curls. Her favourite playmate was the marginally older pig-tailed daughter of Manuela, the other single mother in the community. Unlike Melissa this little girl looked like a miniature version of her mother – short, blonde, blue-eyed with a strong, broad face and attractive smile. Not that I had seen much of that smile from her mother in our first week there. It was a good ten days or so before I could break the ice. She seemed perpetually busy which was no surprise really. Around 0700 each morning of the week she would take her teenage son to school down in the valley, usually tying it in with various other tasks, before coming back later in the day.

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The pile of rusty bicycles outside of the workshop.

I took it upon myself to try and mend a puncture on one of the kid’s bicycles so that Raphael could use it. There was a rusty assortment of them piled up next to the workshop and I assumed no-one would mind or even notice. In that I was wrong. One evening Manuela confronted me in the kitchen about the bicycle which was at that moment lying in pieces on the workshop counter. She seemed annoyed and explained how people were always coming with good intentions but never finishing what they started before departing for somewhere else. I could understand that from my own experience of living in community and I must have convinced her because she suddenly mellowed when I promised her that I would finish the job come what may.

She seemed annoyed and explained how people were always coming with good intentions but never finishing what they started before departing for somewhere else.

She smiled and fixed me with her blue eyes. I felt invited to share an unexpected intimacy which took me quite by surprise. I understood in that moment that there was surely a lot of emotion and unspoken feelings bottled up in this pint-sized woman. I suppose I gave her the right cue to open up about some of this because she proceeded to talk variously about family, the difficulties of living in community and various other challenges. She said something to me then which I will never forget, especially since it was the first and only time we got to talk like that. She thanked me for carrying Raphael around in a baby-carrier, something I did almost every day, especially when outside.

It’s not normal in Italy she explained.

Here we still live in a patriarchal society. You are a good example to the other men here. You show them what is possible.

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Mario playing solitaire out in the sun

Of the other notable women there, Irene, Cristina and Janina loom large in my mind. A little more about Irene the teacher who I already said a little about.

I remember her as a quiet yet strong presence. Her neat little room was situated next to our and when I peeped inside I was given the impression of an orderly and inviting little sanctuary, a wood-burner by the window and sparkly lights reflected off some sort of mirror-ball dancing along the walls. She was the one who had welcomed us and successive volunteers. Her large brown eyes conveyed an intensity and intelligence. I wouldn’t say she was pretty but she exuded a kindness especially when she smiled. I detected a hint of sadness or perhaps weariness at other times. As I said she cared deeply for Mario calling him an amazing, amazing man.

Here we still live in a patriarchal society. You are a good example to the other men here. You show them what is possible.

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Irene and Indiano set a net in the orchard

She was away teaching most days but stayed to help with the olive harvesting on one or two days. In the evenings especially on the weekend I saw her in the company of a well-conditioned younger man in his 20s. I forget his name. He was popular with the children and spent much of his time jostling with Victoria’s boy and some of the younger kids. I was quite surprised to learn that he and Irene were an item but I could see how his youthful playfulness could provide a foil to her seriousness and position of responsibility.

Janina was heavily pregnant when we arrived. She was from Chile and had come there earlier in the year. We would witness a birth before we departed! More on that and the quite amazing diversity of other people who passed through Avalon during the rest of our two weeks there in my next post.

If you got this far, thanks for reading! Next post coming soon…

Italy (Part I): Soggy Socks and Good Samaritans, the journey to Avalon

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So our summer break came around at last. We could have taken it when it was actually summer and not the end of autumn/beginning of winter, given the flexibility of the intentional community (IC) where we reside, but we had procrastinated until the summer ended abruptly sometime in September. I remember the timing because we had just had our annual summer festival in balmy upper 20/30 °C weather. The day after it ended the rain arrived and the mercury dropped 10 degrees or so and never returned northwards.

Shortly before we departed we had been informed that we would have to leave the community, our home of 3 and a half years.

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A good omen perhaps? The view from our bedroom window, two days before our flight to Italy.

In the succeeding months we did our part helping out in the various workshops that I had booked earlier in the season before Cora came on board. It had become apparent that she was being given the reigns regarding the running of the seminar house and probably the administration as well.

Shortly before we departed we had been informed that we would have to leave the community, our home of 3 and a half years. The founder, an Octogenarian variously called Anutosh or Wouter, liked to shake things up from time to time. Mirjam and I had sat opposite him and his fellow board-member Tineke at a table in the community dining room.

“I always intended this to be a place of growth and once you stop growing then it’s time to leave. I don’t see any further growth opportunities for you. You’re a great guy but it’s time… what are you going to DO with your life?” he challenged me, simultaneously scrutinising me with his one good eye while his other glass one stared out implacable as always.

So from the outset this was more than a late summer vacation, it was a potential relocation opportunity. People around us started to ask questions. We had done some research through the GEN Europe website. GEN is an acronym for the Global Ecovillage Network. Our community in Germany, the Vlierhof,  was a paid up member of the European EV network but we had little contact or collaboration with other members I’d discovered. However I liked their philosophy and resonated with their values and both Mirjam and I wanted to take the opportunity to visit at least one other EV before departing the Vlierhof.

… from the outset this was more than a late summer vacation, it was a potential relocation opportunity.

Considering the time of year we decided that a Mediterranean country was probably our best bet. Think sun and warmth. But we would discover that nothing could be further from the truth! Our immediate destination was Ecovillagio Avalon Elfi, a community in the Elf Valley in the vicinity of Florence. It was one of the few EVs in the RIVE network (L’associazione Rete Italiana dei Villaggi Ecologici) that met to our expectations i.e. open to parents and engaged in some form of homeschooling. We’d had a positive response from a guy called Riccardo and later someone called Victoria.

wp_20191108_11_09_19_proHere is a map of the northern half of Italy from the RIVE handbook (courtesy of Riccardo) showing the location of the various EVs falling within the RIVE domain. The label for Avalon (Valle degli Elfi) is about 3/4 of the way down the left-hand side.

Later Riccardo would point out that there were only a handful that he knew of that had a focus on families and education (he was on the executive committee of RIVE).

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Raphael gambols amongst the various items of hand luggage, Weeze Airport departures.

And so on the 4th November of last year we flew out to Pisa from our local airport, Weeze. It was only a few months prior that I’d flown to the UK from there (see previous post). Incredibly, everything we took we managed to take as hand luggage. In an effort to travel economically we only paid for two 10 kg cabin bags. The other items fell under our allowance. These days the free stuff is pretty miserly but we had the advantage of a baby, or was it the disadvantage?!

Not for the first time I was quite taken aback by the amount of stuff ‘needed’ for the two boys. Almost the entirety of the larger bag was taken up by fabric nappies, inserts, cotton wipes, polyester outers etc. My bag I shared with communal items and in addition the baby had his own small dedicated bag. We were at the very limits of what was possible for a couple with young children to do, considering that we would be traveling on public transport for most of the trip.

The RyanAir flight itself was reasonably smooth and uneventful and we arrived early afternoon at Pisa International. Our plan then was to catch the train inland to Pistoia and then take a bus as far as we could go.

The sky was a brooding mass of grey clouds moving with steady intent from the north. Once we got free of the city limits we glimpsed a surprisingly varied landscape, modern apartments juxtaposed with drab, unpainted commercial buildings and warehouses. Small pockets of cultivated olives would appear in the intervening spaces and disappear just as quickly. Trellised grape vines and fig trees adorned the gardens and courtyards of the houses that flanked the rail and gave the illusion of late summer. In the carriage the temperature was moderate but when the doors opened a frigid blast of cold air reminded us that summer had come and gone. At some point it begun to rain, a defining feature of our trip!

The sky was a brooding mass of grey clouds moving with steady intent from the north. Once we got free of the city limits we glimpsed a surprisingly varied landscape, modern apartments juxtaposed with drab, unpainted commercial buildings and warehouses.

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Our modestly-priced bus tickets from Pistoia to Casalguidi

It took us quite some time to figure out where to buy bus tickets in the regional town of Pistoia. At first glance there was nothing very remarkable about it but we would return later to discover that it had its charms. A crowded bus took us as far as the small town of Casalguidi. From here we only knew that we would have to make our own way to the community.

Night had fallen and we traipsed the affluent, suburban neighbourhood despondently. The few people we met were unable to help. Eventually we met a friendly passer-by walking his dog who pointed out a guest house on the same street. I dialled the number on the door and helpfully he took the call. A few minutes later an unassuming, middle-aged man in glasses appeared.

He disappeared into the little house and soon appeared at the front door. He ushered us inside as we said goodbye to the man with the dog who lived a few houses up. With apparent haste and few words of introduction we were showed a family room with a double and single bed and asked whether we would take it. I was on the point of saying yes when Mirjam urged me to tell him about our true intention which was the journey to the community of Avalon.

We showed him the address and after consulting his phone he announced that he would take us there. I was quite taken aback. Not only would he lose out on our business but he was actually prepared, at his time and expense, to drive us there. This sort of unsolicited hospitality was something we would experience time and again. The Italians held family in high esteem and were especially sympathetic towards young children.

The drive up to Avalon, a few hundred metres up the valley, was on a road so circuitous, winding and narrow that we could never have hoped to negotiate it safely without a ride. Our good samaritan took us as far as he could safely go  – the neighbouring Agriturismo Fiorito – but nonetheless organised a lift for us in a 4×4 from the proprietor. He refused payment of any kind and with a brief wave and inclination of the head he disappeared back along the dirt track which led to the tarred road several hundred metres further on.

The Italians held family in high esteem and were especially sympathetic towards young children.

Our arrival at Avalon was a bit of an anticlimax. It seemed as though our arrival had been forgotten and we had to make ourselves comfortable for some time in the communal living room while one or other of them scouted around for a suitable place for us. One of those helping out was a slim Dutch lady, around my sort of age and sporting braided hair and an indifferent attitude. At least that is how she came across.

It turned out that she was also called Mirjam. Back at the Vlierhof community we once had 3 of them present at the same time and there were currently two of me (Leo) and a Leon besides. Naturally a major source of confusion amongst new visitors. I will write more about each of them, Mirjam included, later in this post.

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A view of Avalon from above as it nestles amongst olive orchards (centre of photo) on a steep hillside about two hundred meters or so above the base of the valley.

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The south-facing side of the main house. The entrance to the passage leading up to our bedroom is at the far right of the photo.

Our little room was just one of many in the rambling old house, a relict of another era and falling into disrepair. It was pleasing to the eye in the way that rustic buildings often are but the reality was that our roof leaked from several spots along the width of the beam that supported our roof and there was absolutely no heating whatsoever. Our neighbours had their own wood burners but we were not so fortunate.

Our little room was just one of many in the rambling old house, a relict of another era and falling into disrepair…our roof leaked from several spots…and there was absolutely no heating whatsoever.

There were numerous black garbage bags filled with personal belongings beneath the bed and along one wall of the room were odds and sods including an old roll of carpet and an assortment of plastic kids toys. One lucky addition was a plastic potty for Raphael’s exclusive use. He soon discovered that one of the toys made sounds and before long Mirjam was imploring me to hide it out of sight. It was actually quite a hilarious mix of Italian and English accompanying various actions: pushing a bell; spinning a water wheel; opening a door; touching a cat…

The red clay floor tiles wore a coat of dust and gritty sand from outside. One of the first things I did was to sweep it clean or as clean as I could without getting down on my hands and knees and scrubbing it. It was too cold for that. The rain outside was fairly continuous and the rainwater trickled through equally relentless – drip, drip, drip.

We manoeuvered the camping bed Raphael would sleep on against the wall opposite our larger double bed and just beyond a puddle of water from the leaky roof. At this point both of us were probably thinking the same thing – was this really the place we wanted to spend the next month? 

It would take 4 or 5 days before we realised that we could survive there, albeit under some testing conditions. When we inquired about the possibility of getting another room, one without a leaky ceiling we were met with amused chuckles. All the rooms here have holes in the ceilings someone informed us matter-of-factly. I think it’s fair to say that I suffered the conditions least well and vented my frustration on Mirjam on about day 3 or 4. Not that it was her fault. By all accounts there are numerous ecovillages and communities around Europe in a similar predicament.

“All the rooms here have holes in the ceilings” someone informed us matter-of-factly.

Very few survive beyond 10 years and even fewer can truly claim to be mature, stable, self-sustaining entities. Of those that are you always hear the same story and that is of a small, stable core of persons and strong, directed leadership. Avalon was 40 years old but struggling. The doyen and founder of the community, a man called Mario, was in a state of decline and the community was floundering.

He appeared to be suffering from a progressive degenerative condition. I overheard Parkinson’s being mentioned. He was lovingly cared for by Irene, an Italian lady in her early 40s, who taught science at one of the local schools. She referred to him as an amazing man and a very special person. I will elaborate on both of them further in my next post.

The doyen and founder of the community, a man called Mario, was in a state of decline and the community was floundering.

In my limited experience I’ve come to believe that most ecovillages are inherently non-conformist, anti-establishment communities of fairly diverse individuals. Many of the personalities drawn to EVs and ICs are either fiercely disillusioned with mainstream society, instilled with certain ideals (usually on the far left of the political spectrum), or searching for a sense of spirituality and belonging. Quite often they attract people seeking asylum or refuge from life’s mishaps and misadventures.

I learnt from Irene that Avalon had always had an open door policy, but residence was not guaranteed. That was at the discretion of the long-term community. It was no different in our EV back in Germany. Another short-term volunteer, Julia, who arrived a little later spoke to numerous people and informed me that many of the residents were in fact recovered or recovering addicts. This didn’t find this particularly surprising but it was a revelation.

The main point which I wish to convey to you the reader is that it was a community, whatever its composition and aims, and that the people we encountered there were, by and large, kindly and non-judgemental. It would take some time for me to realise that as I mentioned before but when I did it allowed me to experience the place in a new way, to see it in a different light.

The main point which I wish to convey to you the reader is that it was a community, whatever its composition and aims, and that the people we encountered there were, by and large, kindly and non-judgemental.

 

A Peek at the Greek (way of life) Part I

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In the end it came down to a toss-up between Greece and Turkey. Turkey was never out of the question but money was one consideration. Flying there would require us to pay a bit more on flights and to acquire visas. I have visited the country on four separate occasions and have a deep affection for the landscape, food and culture despite, or perhaps because of, my Cypriot ancestry. Mirjam on the other hand has never been there. She was scheduled to spend a month there last year but I came along and with it another set of considerations. So in effect this was a chance to put things right in that regard.

The other big pull was that of my good friend Sofian aka El Kheer, the Algerian Anglophile. He teaches English in provincial Turkey somewhere a little north of  the geographic centre of the country. He is really a very good friend of mine and I can tell you honestly, right now, that not being able to see him was the biggest disappointment in making the choice for Greece. We chatted on Skype from our tiny little garden apartment in Nea Kallikratia which was nice but certainly no compensation. My sincere apologies dear friend.

He is really a very good friend of mine and I can tell you honestly, right now, that not being able to see him was the biggest disappointment in making the choice for Greece.

And what of the recent spate of terrorist incidents in Turkey I hear you ask? I’d like to say it didn’t affect my decision-making processes but it would be a lie. Of course such a scenario played on my mind as well, even though I know there is just as great a chance that the two of us could get run over by a bus en route to the Albert Hein store up the road. However, there was another major consideration: Mirjam was pregnant. How on Earth could I ever explain to her parents that I  took her to a country with a recent hike in terrorism-related incidents knowing that? We still hadn’t told them about it at the time of our departure.

And so on this occasion, regrettably, all I can write about is Greece and even then only of the Greece we experienced: a little bit of Central Macedonia and a bit Halkidiki to the SE of Thessaloniki, and of Thessaloniki itself. I’d actually visited the region before and not that long ago, in September-October 2015. There was no particular draw-card as such but the fact that I knew people helped. We were granted leave to stay with Lizzy Scott, a friendly and engaging  expat who rented an apartment in Thessaloniki. She’d moved there some years before to be closer to her son and grandkids. We’d met when she visited the vicinity of the area near to where the family I was volunteering for in northern Greece lived. Dirk and Maria lived in a rustic little village called Pendolofo.

I didn’t get a chance to write about any of this back then because I was pretty frenetic at this stage of my journey. I left Thessaloniki and Greece with only 5 nights or so before I had to be at a language camp in Warsaw, Poland, and I’d resolved not to travel by anything other than trains. I accomplished this objective arriving on the day of the day of the camp orientation on an overnight haul from Bratislava, Slovakia. It will stand out in my memory for being an extraordinarily varied week in my life: a succession of rail platforms; overnight sleeper berths; grey skies; brightly lit city centres; midnight border-crossings replete with grim-faced border officials and menacing German shepherd sniffer dogs; a bustling party hostel in the heart of Budapest; and a smattering of hopeful refugees heading northwards.

It will stand out in my memory for being an extraordinarily varied week in my life: a succession of platforms; overnight sleeper berths; grey skies; brightly lit city centres; midnight border-crossings replete with grim-faced border officials and menacing German shepherd sniffer dogs

And so I arrived back in Thessaloniki on the 9th of March, a Thursday. We were received by a smiling Liz and spent two nights in her apartment before driving back to Pendolofo with Maria and her two young boys, Arionas, 2, and Achilleas, 4. Maria was raised here and in Athens. Dirk is a Dutchman, a little older and very well-travelled. We wouldn’t see him on this trip because he was back in the Netherlands earning an income he couldn’t hope for in Greece. He would go back for several weeks at a time and we arrived bang in the middle of one of these working visits. Maria had intimated that she’s be grateful for some help with the childcare.

Child care is exactly  what we did for the proceeding 10 days with one or two days off in-between. It was tough on Mirjam. I probably shouldn’t have insisted on doing the volunteering at this time but we agreed that we needed to economise especially if we were going to rent a car and place for the second part of our ‘holiday’. As kind and accommodating to our needs as Maria was this leg of the trip was not a holiday. Young kids are hard work! Ha ha. The training ground begins here! I do think there’s an added pressure when you’re looking after someone else’s kids. What authority do you have? Can I exercise ‘consequences’ when they misbehave? etc

The area around Pendolofo is scenically very attractive: at the foot of the Mt Paiko range in Central Macedonia a short distance north of the ancient city of Pella, famous for having produced the legendary warrior king, Alexander. I did the museum and the excavated remnants of the city on my previous visit. On that occasion the last of the cotton harvest was being reaped and I cycled along roads where cotton lint festooned the branches and twigs of the roadside vegetation, giving it a faux-wintry look, as if the late autumn had suddenly ended prematurely.

The area around Pendolofo is scenically very attractive: at the foot of the Mt Paiko range in Central Macedonia a short distance north of the ancient city of Pella, famous for having produced the legendary warrior king, Alexander.

Testament to the durability of the cotton was the fact that the branches of these same trees and shrubs were still liberally spotted by the stuff several months later. We saw it on our drive north along the same roads some 15 months or so after I had last travelled them. The drive takes you from the region of Pella to Kilikis. Maria remarked with a look of resignation on the contrast between the conditions of the roads in the two regions. Pella is relatively well-funded whilst Kilkis is not. That said, beyond the road narrowing, I couldn’t say there was a noticeable difference in the quality of the tarmac. There were occasional holes, especially when passing through the smaller towns, but nothing to compare with the state of affairs in some parts of Africa I’d lived in.

Other than Mt Paiko, perhaps as a consequence of Mt Paiko, there are several monasteries in the vicinity of Pendolofo.

Other than Mt Paiko, perhaps as a consequence of Mt Paiko, there are several monasteries in the vicinity of Pendolofo. One of them, the monastery of St Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain (1), is a mere 20 minutes jog from Pendolofo as I discovered, literally at the end of the road. Perhaps ‘slog’ would be a more appropriate verb here considering the uphill ascent. I made it as far as the imposing gates where I discovered that my attire was unsuitable – trousers and collared shirt pictured for men, full-length skirt or shawl covering arms and legs for women – and returned a few days later with Mirjam in tow. (To clarify, we walked at a SEDATE pace appropriate for a pregnant woman and a man with unusually stiff legs).

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The monastery of St Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain near Pendolofo. Credit discovergreece.com

We entered the premises without encountering anyone but a priest in a black cassock pointed us towards a reception-cafeteria. I should add that the monastery itself is a towering multi-story building that appears to have been built in modern times, which should not be too surprising considering that this part of Greece was only relinquished by the Ottomans in 1902. We were met by a bearded father, probably in his early to mid-forties, who introduced himself as Father Seraphim. ‘Like the angel’ he told us in his halting English. He very kindly offered us tea or coffee and went off to prepare it. He returned a little while later with the beverages and a few Greek pastries.

We were met by a bearded father, probably in his early to mid-forties, who introduced himself as Father Seraphim.

We ate and then gestured for him to return since Mirjam wanted to buy something from amongst the impressive collection of newly printed colour-illustrated books on saints and liturgy, icons, holy crucifix, incense sticks, candles, oils and more besides. We engaged him again in conversation and the more interest we showed the more he divulged about the contents of the books, the life of St Nicodemus, and the various feast days on which their sacred icons would be on public display. Foremost amongst these is the Panagia  – Mary and baby Jesus – framed in gold and silver relief. He insisted we take a diverse selection of postcards and prints of the monastery, the icons and the processional displays. I’ve photographed them all together below.

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A collection of cards from the monastery of St Nicodemus of Mt Athos

I have to say he was a cheerful man with sparkling eyes and not the dour stereotype many expect to find holed up in a monastery on a remote mountainside. There was a touch of the religious fanatic one finds in many of the clergy of whatever faith and a sense of dire anticipation hung tangibly in the air when he asked us whether ‘we believed.’ We reassured him that we did and his sense of relief was endearing. ‘Thank God’ he proclaimed.

… a sense of dire anticipation hung tangibly in the air when he asked us whether ‘we believed.’ We reassured him that we did and his sense of relief was endearing.

After our indoctrination we were given permission to take a look at the main chapel on the ground level (there was one that appeared to be perched on top of the enormous building) and a smaller one skilfully built into the side of a narrow ravine a short distance away from the main monastic building. Although the first chapel possessed the more awe-inspiring articles, the gold-rimmed icons and menalia, it was the more modest of the two that appealed more to me. Built into the slope of the mountain one side even incorporated the volcanic strata revealed through its construction. The only downside was that it possessed the temperature of a walk-in fridge!

The Greeks are still a very religious people by and large. That is to say that the Greek Orthodox faith is deeply embedded in their culture and way of life for better or worse.

The Greeks are still a very religious people by and large. That is to say that the Greek Orthodox faith is deeply embedded in their culture and way of life for better or worse. I have just illuminated a few of the positive attributes – beautiful buildings and a sense of aesthetic in the iconography, carving and painted relief work. There may be acts of almsgiving and the like of which I am unaware of. I don’t really know too much about the charitable activities of the church. If I were to put the question to Dirk the answer would be none. He reserves a scathing criticism for the men in black. ‘They rob the widows of their pensions’ he proclaimed the last time I was there. Maria is also quite outspoken in her condemnation of the church, principally because they don’t pay any taxes to the state.

What Maria says she resents the most is the privileged position that the church takes in any economic consideration.

Maria has been trying for several years to help her parents run a guesthouse in the town of Goumenissa at the foot of the mountains in this part of Kilkis. Goumenissa is only a ten minute drive from Pendolofo and where Achilleas goes to pre-school. She and Dirk have tried hard to promote the potential of the area abroad, investing in heaps of marketing. Dirk acquired a fleet of mountain bikes for the more health-minded visitors interested in outdoor adventure pursuits.

What Maria says she resents the most is the privileged position that the church takes in any economic consideration. The mayor of the region needs votes to stay in power and a good relationship with the Greek Church ensures that he has their considerable backing. He scoffed at her suggestion that Mt Paiko be developed and marketed as a premier cycling destination and insisted that the region’s focus will be on the monasteries and encouraging more pilgrims to visit.

(the mayor) scoffed at her suggestion that Mt Paiko be developed and marketed as a premier cycling destination and insisted that the region’s focus will be on the monasteries and encouraging more pilgrims to visit.

The ability of the Greek Church to get its way on other matters was highlighted by Maria one morning in conversation with me. She had just heard the results of a local government vote on a proposal by the Monastery of St Nicodemus to increase its boundaries. Maria said that they’d alleged that local villagers foraging for wood on Mt Paiko (everyone is entitled to winter quota) were disturbing the peace. They were requesting a 1 km square ‘exclusion zone’ centred on the monastery she reported. The vote had just come in and only two members of the council had opposed the request. It was passed almost unanimously. I seemed a bit of a flimsy reason to me but it was unclear if this was a territorial expansion with land ownership passing to the Church or something more along the lines of a zone of exclusion as I wrote above.

Despite the mayor’s lack of enthusiasm I took full advantage of the geographic benefits of the region. I didn’t have access to one of Dirk’s bikes but I did have a pair of trainers. The views from the altitude of Pendolofo, at a modest 600m or so, are still breath-taking. You look down upon the fertile plains of Central Macedonia stretching south eastwards to Thessaloniki, illuminated best at night against the shore of the Mediterranean. Further to the south the snowy hump of Mt Olympus looms large on a clear day and to the northwest the Belasica range mark the junction between FYROM (Macedonia the country), Bulgaria and Greece. The snowline on this range was quite visible about two-thirds of the way up at this time of year.

The views from the altitude of Pendolofo, at a modest 600m or so, are still breath-taking.

Quite by coincidence the next run I took in the area was in the shadow of another monastery, that of the Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene of Lesvos. We were many miles from that particular island but the story of these venerated Saints is an interesting one. I first heard it from Brother Gregory. I’d arrived huffing and puffing at the gates to the monastery after ascending along a brand new stretch of road, another gripe of Maria’s, feeling a little awkward in my running attire. However it seemed of no consequence to Brother Gregory who ushered me in through the guest entrance to the impressively large complex of buildings.

Monastery of St Raphael icon

What appears to be the most popularised iconographic representation of the Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene.

Once again I was flattered to be served a mug of hot tea, a plate of pastries and a generous bowl of honey too. Gregory tended to the steady flow of local devotees visiting the monastery on this Sunday morning and chatted to me in-between. Although this monastery was only founded in 1992 the history of the Saints to whom it’s devoted goes back far further. I refer to a web source(2) for further information:

Sts Raphael, Nicholas and Irene suffered martyrdom by the Turks on the island of Lesvos (also called Mytilene) on April 9 1463 AD, after the fall of Constantinople. St Raphael was the Abbot of Karyes near the village of Thermi on the island. St Nicholas was a Deacon at the monastery, and St Irene was the 12-year-old daughter of the major of Thermi. The three saints were at the monastery with the village teacher and St Irene’s father when the Turks raided it.

These saints were unknown for about 500 years after their martyrdoms during the Turkish occupation of Lesvos. In 1959 the three saints appeared to the people on Lesvos in dreams and visions. They guided excavations of their own graves, called people to repentance, and cured many kinds of diseases.

I found Brother Gregory an engaging and thoughtful man. He told me that he’d given up everything to be there and that the story of the saints’ martyrdom and the relatively recent rediscovery of their remains had ‘changed his life.’ We talked for some time and he promised to send me the English version of a book on the three saints upon its publication some time this year. Many miracles have been attributed to these saints and some of these accounts seem to be strain the sinews of rational belief. Read more here. (3)

As it was a day of remembrance for the souls of the departed he allowed me to light a candle in the narthex of a small chapel near the entrance. I was also invited to stay for lunch and though I was sorely tempted I declined saying that someone was waiting for me back home. That much was true but there was also no way I could run the 5 or so kilometres back on a full stomach. Maybe I should have settled for an afternoon stroll and taken the lunch.

Web reference:

(1) http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.de/2009/07/st-nikodemos-of-holy-mountain.html

(2) http://www.orthodoxchristian.info/pages/sts_rni.htm

(3) http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.de/2014/04/the-monastery-of-sts-raphael-nicholas.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Across Zimbabwe & Botswana and a Week in Africa’s Biggest ‘Swamp’.

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Thus the curtain has come down on another visit to Africa and I fear it may be the last for some time. I arrived with few expectations from a wintry Europe back at the beginning of March. Things were not easy to begin with in South Africa – no car, no guarantee of work, not many friends – but after a few weeks shuttling around the Highveld looking for a non-existent post-doc position at one of two tertiary institutions I took a time-out and visited my extended family in various parts Kwazulu Natal. I’ve written about that a few months back so no there’s need to revisit it.

Ardmore Guest Farm set against the Drakensberg Mountains

Ardmore Guest Farm set against the Drakensberg Mountains

My salvation (again) came through Workaway, an initiative, or rather a platform, I’ve recommended before as a great way to travel economically. It took me to the Central Drakensberg, an area I’ve never been to, and Ardmore Guest Farm. A month as a volunteer, a month as an employee followed and the company of many interesting people: guests, employees and employers alike. I feel enriched and as a consequence rather sad to have to say goodbye (again), having recently returned for a further 2 weeks. In the long-term what has happened in-between will be of far greater consequence to me, having met my dear Mirjam at Ardmore.

Together we went by bus up to Zimbabwe, first to Bulawayo and hence to the Victoria Falls in all their high-water magnificence; camped several nights in Hwange Main Camp; returned to Bulawayo and walked her wide and bustling streets; continued on to Masvingo and the timeless Great Zimbabwe Ruins (last visited by me some 30 years + before); and finally the capital, Harare. I wrote quite a long post on Bulawayo last year which I hope did it some justice. A bit more on the Falls and the other stops prior to Harare.

The Vic Falls had a smattering of tourists but nothing like it was in the 80s and 90s. At least the streets around the more touristy parts are clean and free of rubbish (unlike the outlying townships). It goes without saying that desperate curio sellers hounded us at every turn. Many wanted to sell us old bearer cheques and bond notes from the ‘burning dollar days’ as a resident of Bulawayo recalled them. Others just wanted to sell a necklace charm – usually of the iconic serpent-like Nyaminyami River God – or maybe an animal wood carving, if only for a few dollars for their next meal or a bus ride home. It was sad to see and, being an empathetic sort, I usually gave in if they were desperate enough. Therefore I have a collection of charms and curios to impart to friends and hosts on my onward travels.

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We became friendly with a curio seller called Everton. I convinced him to take us to Chinotimba Township and the local restaurant I had eaten at the previous year, this time for Mirjam’s benefit as well as my own. She made a good go of a plate of sadza nehove (mealie meal porridge with fish and vegetables) and after the ample meal we agreed to go visit Evan’s family and brother in the neighbouring township. His brother had a T-shirt printing business and supplied a few of the shops in town with his prints. A little too touristy for my liking but he said he did well on the tour groups and had some agreement to supply one of the adventure activity operators as well. Evans told us that life was tough and that he was keen to get himself a passport so that he could try some cross-border trading.

The next day we ventured down to his market stall in the official area designated to them. I was astounded by the sheer amount of carvings and other curios in the general vicinity. I had no idea there was so much, some of it of exceptional quality. I spoke to a stone sculptor called Bainos who was busy chiseling a beautiful abstract carving in black serpentine. They were moderately priced at several hundred dollars but they suggested many hours of patient endeavour. I asked how business was and he replied that it wasn’t all that bad. His pieces were too large for the average tourist to just plonk in their hand luggage or suitcase so he would organise for international freight as well. Or so he claimed.

From Everton we bought a few trinkets and the like and then bid him and a dozen disappointed sellers goodbye. The problem with the local economy was that there just weren’t enough tourists for the amount of stuff these talented artists could produce. Many tourists probably wouldn’t venture too far off the main street fronted by the wealthier franchises and adventure outfits like Wild Horizons and Shearwater. Almost everyone we talked to subsequently asked us if we had eaten at the Boma but we didn’t. Sorry! We did splash out on a white water rafting trip which was fun but rather tame considering the reputation of the great river.

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After 5 or 6 nights in the Falls we took the Intercape coach back towards Bulawayo but jumped off instead at the Hwange Safari Lodge. It is a double-winged hotel of some size rather than a lodge and the extensive grounds in front overlook a water hole and acres of Mopane woodland. However, we wouldn’t be staying on our humble budget and caught a taxi ride instead to Hwange Main Camp within the confines of the National Park. To be honest I found some of the staff a little too keen to leverage our forex from us. We made it quite clear that we were there to camp and would consider the game drive after settling in. Furthermore, the woman who booked us in was loath to take my South African Rand from me even though it was most certainly legal tender.

We trudged to the camping sites several hundred meters away where we met a wizened old National Parks member of staff. It seemed as though he had been there for decades. He was happy to tell us where to set up tent and told us he’d be back later to stoke up the old Rhodesian boiler for hot water. It would also become our de facto camping fire for the sake of convenience. A little later strolled back to the NP offices and looked around to see if we could hitch a ride to one of the nearby water holes, perhaps Nyamandhlovu Pan. There were several land cruisers parked nearby with the names of lodges and private camps emblazoned on the door panels and chassis. We weren’t going to have any luck there I figured. Despite the lack of activity we were quite happy to sit and read in the shade of a large,spreading Acacia tree out front and watch the abundant bird and animal life. Go-Away birds, starlings, babblers, spur fowl and bulbuls competed for access to a stone water bath, although some of the glossy starlings showed more initiative and came to drink straight from the source, a tap connected by a leaky fitting to a hose a few feet from away from us.

After an hour or two we walked back through the very extensive Main Camp in a clockwise direction. It had been a decade since I was last there helping out on a foreign-funded conservation initiative, the Lion Research Project. I’d stayed with an old colleague from Rhodes University days in one of the old Park chalets. Nothing had changed. If anything the bush had encroached even a little further more than before and it wasn’t immediately apparent which were occupied and which weren’t. They were all in need of a lick of paint and a little care and attention. This was in contrast to the newly painted cottages and ablution blocks on the other side of the camp, including the area where we camped out.

Whatever the state of the accommodation the one thing that recommends the site to prospective visitors is the wildlife. Just walking sandy tracks around Main Camp brought us into contact with grazing herds of impala, pockets of zebra and wildebeest, giraffe, any number of different birds and at dusk, a trio of kudu, one bull and two cows. The kudu is my favourite antelope with a magnificent pair of ridged, spiral horns, tawny coat, long neck and attractive facial markings.

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We managed to hitch a ride to a nearby pan on our third and last evening there, courtesy of a young white guide and two black staff members from their private camp within the park. His blonde hair was bleached white by the sun, in contrast to his deeply tanned face and neck. He hadn’t planned to go via the pan but happily diverted there for us. Driving along at a sedate pace he stopped every so often to point out an animal in the vicinity and even passed back a cold beer or two for Mirjam and I, perched high up in the viewing seats behind the driver’s cab. God bless the man! In contrast the pan was a bit of a disappointment – only baboons and a few impala. A middle-aged Bulawayo couple gave us a return ride to camp.

We chatted about this and that but when I mentioned my intention to travel next to Tanzania there was an uneasy silence for a few moments. I wasn’t to know that their son, a professional hunter, had been gored to death by a buffalo there a few years before. They were still in close contact with his wife and young son. The sombre change in conversation was lightened considerably by the sudden appearance of several zebra and giraffe not far from the entrance gate. The photos of these animals are all Mirjam’s iPhone handiwork.

The following day we managed to get one of the park wardens to run us back to the Safari Lodge in his private vehicle for US$10 or $15. While waiting for the Intercape we went out to the front and had a cup of tea. A herd of impala made their way down to the water hole and entertained us for the next 30 minutes or so. The young rams dashed and pursued each other this way and that around the perimeter of the hole time and again. Several of them paired off and sparred in a light-hearted sort of way which suggested to me they were playing rather than preparing to rut with the females.

From Hwange it was back to Bulawayo and a few more nights as guests of the Einhorn’s. On the Sunday we hitched a ride with Pete to town and from there caught a taxi to the local bus terminus to find a coach bound Eastwards to Masvingo.

Masvingo was most memorable not for the nearby and infamous Great Zimbabwe Ruins but for the unassuming little guesthouse where we spent two nights. Not long before sundown the bus dropped us opposite the locally upmarket Chevron Hotel. Prices there started at US$60 per night, somewhat beyond our remit. We asked around at the local taxi rank for alternative options. Someone suggested

Titambire Lodge

Titambire Lodge

a guest house in the opposite direction but fortunately on our side of the main road. We traipsed that way, all the time rather sceptical, considering the suburban flavour of the place, but lo and behold it was there – Titambire Lodge – an unassuming white-walled house with a small red-concrete verandah, painted wire furniture fronting a row of large glass windows and a door. The important thing was that it was far more reasonable at US$10 p/n and clean! We had the use of a little two-plate cooking stove and a bedroom with blankets and clean sheets all to ourselves.

I imagine that it had once been a normal suburban home converted to the purpose of taking guests. In the nearest bathroom to our room was an ancient Monarch boiler above a large enamel bathtub inscribed with a nameplate which read Monarch: Salisbury, Kitwe and Ndola. So it was at least 36 years old (Salisbury is what Harare used to be called). The other bathroom had a shower whose use you had to request so that the geyser could be switched on. The water was freezing otherwise as we discovered to our dismay. A cold front was passing through at the time and standing naked on a cold concrete floor waiting for a non-existent stream of water was not really my thing. And then, even an hour of being switched on, there was only a few minutes of hot water available.

But for the budget price we sucked it up and besides the two male staff on duty were delighted to have us stay at the establishment. One of them, called Douglas, made polite conversation but was never intrusive. We left him some dinner one evening (tuna cooked with tomato and onion and some sweet potato I think) which he declared ‘delicious.’ We may travel cheaply but we do like our evening munch!

Masvingo town itself does not have that much to recommend it although it has always been locally important and a provincial capital. We discovered the local TM, now under the umbrella of the South African supermarket chain, Pick’n’Pay, was fully stocked with everything one could want for an average functioning household.  Mirjam had fallen in love with Marbella sorghum porridge and we found it at last along with selection of local ‘organic’ products. I have to admit that the porridge was actually very good. Most mornings began with a bowl of Marbella mixed with a large spoon of peanut butter, mashed banana, nuts and raisins.

Outside the supermarket the reality of life was evident: numerous vendors selling neat little pyramids of tomatoes and onion, boxes of cigarettes, phone chargers and other basic consumables and electronic goods. I never cease to be amazed by the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the local people, many of them with some sort of impairment. One blind man sat outside another store nearby, his guitar hooked up to a battery-powered amplifier which was in turn being charged by a solar panel. He sang a sad lament with a typically sonorous African voice. Another blind man tap-tapped his way past us, a black acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, a soiled jacket wrapped around his spare frame. Another man who had been on the bus with us from Bulawayo was selling faux fur jackets spread out on the sidewalk. He tried to get Mirjam’s attention but it definitely was not her sort of thing.

I won’t say much about Great Zimbabwe except that it’s an interesting sort of pace for a day visit and of great importance in the history of the nation. Not only does the country take its name from the place (Dzimbabwe roughly translates to house of stones) but the image of the half-dozen or more carvings of stone birds found here adorn the country’s flag, the conical tower in the main enclosure features on the coat of arms, and there are numerous other associations besides.

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At last we made our way to Harare in a shared vehicle with four other occupants. Distorted gospel music blared all the way to the outskirts of the city where we disembarked at around 4pm. The driver took me aside and implored me to ‘trust no-one’ in the capital and to be careful. I smiled inwardly but appreciated that he would be giving sound advice to a new arrival. For both Mirjam and I it was quite an eye-opener as we transferred by minibus taxi to downtown Harare. The place was shambolic, even by my reckoning. We discovered that people preferred to walk in the road and compete with the traffic rather than be squeezed onto crumbling pavements crammed with vendors and beggars. We were conspicuous by our bags, backpacks and Eurasian skin but no-one really bothered us, so frenetic was the flow of humanity at that late time of day.

We finally made it across to a car park on 4th street that I knew well and deemed to be a good collection point and waited for my friend Drew to arrive. He came as promised and whisked us away to the relative normality of northern suburbia. We would spend the next two weeks or so catching up with friends and immediate family. There is Zimbabwe and then there is Harare in its little bubble. And that’s not to say it’s any fault of the inhabitants, that’s just the way that it is,

Like everywhere else we had been people shook their heads and lamented the sorry state of affairs. The economy was wallowing in uncertain waters (again) and there was a chronic shortage of money. Nothing much had changed since my last visit. Our first evening there we joined my mum’s friend, Aurora, who hosted us for a week, at a quiz evening (we came 3rd). We drank coffee and wine, ate good food and met interesting people. The man across from me, Nick, remarked that he’d been a contemporary of my uncle Paul’s at St George’s College many years before. Another, Pierre, was well acquainted with in-laws of my cousin whilst the lady next to me wanted to know if she could put me in touch with anyone in the mining game including her ex in Tanzania.

I was reminded of the incredibly tight-knit community there and indeed how much I missed it, albeit with a good dose of nostalgia. Life had a façade of normality in northern suburbia but beneath the veneer I sensed the disillusion, anger and perhaps even a hint of resignation. There were friends talking of emigrating when just a few years before such thoughts would never have been entertained. My brother was one of them. He and his family are uprooting to Eastern Australia in December. They’d already ventured across twice and enrolled the kids in their respectable schools, and the perused the property market for suitably spacious properties. On that issue my brother expressed the sentiment of many Zimbo’s, unwillingly moving abroad: “it’s not fair on the kids not to give them the space they are used to.”

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After a few inquiring questions I learnt that my brother’s wife was the real driving force behind the move. I couldn’t blame her with all the prevailing hardship and uncertainty but the prospect of their departure saddened me in an indirect sort of way. Post-independent Zimbabwe had embraced a kind of multiculturalism embodied in multi-racial schools and a certain equality of the races but there were flaws at the outset. For some time the project had been failing and it seemed to be failing ever faster and more dramatically. There is reason for optimism though.

Days after we crossed over at Beit Bridge – a surprisingly pleasant experience on the Zimbabwean side and a somewhat unsurprising-but-still-frustratingly-fraught experience on the RSA side – there was an uprising of sorts amongst the local traders, sick of the extortion and repeated readjustment of the goal-posts. They took an exception to whatever latest tax/license fee was recently imposed and set fire to some infrastructure. Beit Bridge border post is desolate and unkempt as it is so it’s hard to see how it could be any worse.

Not very long after this and a matter of days after Mirjam and I departed the country a little over a month ago, this time via the Plumtree border post, there were widespread and coordinated stay-aways in the country and unrest in the townships. The government was evidently shaken. The inspiration behind the protests was a Christian pastor – Zimbabwe is still a very religious country – Evans Mawarire who mobilised a groundswell of support using social media hashtag #ThisFlag. Check it out and lend your support! The latest news reports that the influential War Veterans Association have withdrawn their support for long-time President Mugabe. Considering the violent and vocal support they have given him in the past this is quite some development.

The journey to Botswana was an interesting experience. We arrived late in the day in Bulawayo on a coach from Harare. En route all male passengers had to disembark at one of a dozen or more police checkpoints for a pad down and perusal of our hand luggage. I asked the cop what they were looking for.

“Guns and drugs” was the reply, but his efforts seemed half-hearted and he didn’t even bother to make us unload the baggage in the side compartments of the coach. That reprieve would later be rescinded at the border post where luggage was compulsorily unloaded and checked by the authorities. On the issue of the police, they were particularly loathed by the general populace in Zim because of their corrupt ways. Vehicles could be stopped at random and fines extorted from the drivers for trifling offences: in our case US$20 for not having a wheel-jack in the car we borrowed from Aurora; in other instances, lacking the correct-coloured reflective tape on the bumper for example. On the one hand it was commendable that vehicle roadworthiness and safety was taken seriously but it was the way in which it was implemented that left motorists fuming.

It was no secret that civil servants hadn’t been properly paid for months. Most government employees just had to suck it up but the police had the means to find an alternative source of income. I do not to imply that every cop in the country is corrupt. There are no doubt still a few good ones out there no-one had anything good to say about them on this particular visit!

Our chicken bus to the Plumtree Border Post

Our chicken bus to the Plumtree Border Post

So onwards to Botswana we went. We boarded yet another African ‘chicken’ bus from the roadside edge of urban Bulawayo. Our taxi driver, Enoch, who ferried us there from the Intercape coach drop-off point, advised us to exchange hard currency for Botswana Pula prior to embarking. We found a youngish guy loitering nearby who fitted the bill. He gave us a rate of 1:10 and assured us that a bus would pass by in the next 30 minutes or so. Whilst we waited I asked the currency dealer the cause of some serious scars on his right arm. His reply was unsettling but not surprising.

“Back in the 2001,” he began “I was going to buy a car from Botswana. What I needed was Pula so exchanged US$ 5000 at the border post with some money changers. But these guys they were crooks and they stabbed me with a knife and ran away with my money.” He shrugged nonchalantly as if this was just a sad fact of life. I remarked that it was somewhat ironic that he was now a currency dealer himself but he saw nothing strange in this and when I think back almost every Zimbabwean has been a currency dealer at one stage or another.

Our bus arrived filled to capacity so we made to stand in the aisle. Passengers in the rear half of the compartment observed us with detached interest for a few minutes before losing interest. Yet even in the discomfort and inconvenience of the moment there was humour to be had. Behind the driver was a neatly printed sign which stated – Patrons over 90 can travel free if accompanied by their parents. There were buckets and blankets and bags to contend with and when we stopped at each of the many road-blocks we had to duck down into the stairwell that connected the passenger deck to the rear side-door since we were evidently contravening the law.

We mysteriously stopped just short of the border and two of the passengers got off. I thought nothing of it at the time. The border post involved the usual checks of passports and baggage and we were all compelled to squelch through a tray of disinfectant at a foot-and-mouth control point before trudging several hundred meters to where the same bus would collect us after traversing the border post. A big neon sign declaring “Botswana at 50” greeted us there. (The country gained independence from Britain in 1966.) A local man co-opted Mirjam and I to join him, grinning, for several photos in front of the glitzy sign whilst his friend snapped away with a shiny digital SLR. That’s what I like about Africa – the cheerfulness amidst the struggle of daily existence!

We dined on two portions of sadza and chicken at a border store nearby and a little while later the bus arrived. We hastily threw the bones and gristle to one of several mangy curs hanging around the edge of the uninspiring establishment and re-embarked. We were back in the aisles despite the loss of a few passengers, or so I thought. A few miles on, night having fallen in the interim, we halted at another road block, this time on Botswana territory. A frenzied scuffle ensued whereupon an unkempt woman slithered past me, another converging from the other direction, both of them ducking into the toilet compartment adjacent to the stairwell. The reason soon became apparent: two police officers came aboard and started checking passport documents.

This took several minutes but they completed their check without accounting for the two in the toilet compartment. As we continued on our way they both emerged warily as people greeted them with smiles and probably a few pointed jokes as well. No one seemed in any way perturbed. A short while later at the next stop we were both able to get seats and I asked my neighbour what had just transpired. She described how those same two passengers, formerly undistinguished, alighted before the border post, illegally crossed without passports, and met us back on the Botswana side a little later.

The scramble to hide in the toilet was simply to evade the authorities who obviously dealt with this sort of thing quite regularly. I admired the fact that there was solidarity amongst the passengers and that no-one had spilt the beans. Life was tough in Zimbabwe and probably almost everyone there was only crossing to buy a few goods in Francistown to sell back home for a small margin of profit. I did meet a young guy from Bulawayo who was returning to study in Gaborone but most looked like working-class traders.

Botswana is a country of almost endless sands and scrubby vegetation, punctuated here and there by more established dry woodland vegetation and occasional salt flats and pans. After a night in Francistown we caught a cross-country bus to Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta. The next week was a wonderful experience, even considering the very conservative budget we allowed ourselves. If I am frugal in much of my travel Mirjam is even more so. When we broke our journey somewhere for a few days she would bake bread for the onward journey and almost never indulged in anything I would call comfort food or takeaways. She had an aversion to sugar but happily dined on nuts and fruit and chunks of homemade bread lathered with peanut butter. She was an inexpensive and uncomplaining travel companion.

By night we slept in a tent in the Maun Rest Camp, across the Thamalakane River from the Old Bridge Backpackers. We forsook sleeping mats and lay with sandy ground directly beneath us as we’d one in the Vic Falls and Hwange. Sometimes I tossed and turned in the early hours and I could often feel a dull ache in my hips and shoulders the following day but I slept well enough to feel reasonably well rested. The Old Bridge is a great place to sit and enjoy the numerous kingfishers, egrets, hammerkop, ibis and other water birds that frequent the river at this time of year. The waters had risen only a few weeks before, draining directly from the massive delta north of there, bringing all manner of life to its banks.

Most mornings and evenings we prepared our food at the backpackers on the other side of the river. It could be reached via the ‘Old Bridge’ referred to in the name of the place, about a 15 or 20 minute walk. At the backpackers there was a bar and main reception and it was usually a hive of activity. It also had the best view of the river and Hippo Pool directly downstream of the bridge (we never did see any of the animals though).

It was enough just to sit and enjoy the ambience of the place: the river; the shady sycamore fig above the outside tables and overreaching the pool; the half-dozen or more pied kingfishers plunging regularly into the shallows; and a pair of much larger giant kingfishers chattering noisily as the swooped from tree to tree. We also watched a moderately-sized water monitor (legavaan) wade along the river bank and up onto an artificial stone fountain on the edge of the camp he’d made his home.

The Old Bridge itself was in a state of semi-disrepair. The gaps were spanned by a series of large hardwood tree trunks lashed together and the intervening structure infilled with copious amounts of soil, a crumbling asphalt surface adhering to the top. It had an interesting history as testified by a rusty information signpost on the opposite bank. It alleged that the bridge was built in the first part of the last century to assist migrant labour from further north – Zambia, Angola, the Congo – making their way southwards to the great gold and diamond mines in colonial South Africa. These days young boys sat and fished for barbel on the leeward side of the bridge whilst couples loitered in the evenings with bottles of beer. All the while a fairly regular back and forth movement of pedestrians, ourselves included, benefitted from the bridge crossing.

I am really very of birdlife wherever I go. I am a self-confessed Twitcher. Everywhere we went I was doing my best to inform Mirjam of the local avifauna. “What’s that over there?” I would ask her later, testing her out. By degree she came to know a boubou shrike from a butcher bird, a sacred ibis from a hadeda. I think I probably drove her mad but she didn’t seem to mind too much. It is interesting how a few birds could be said to define our time together, be it in South Africa, Zimbabwe or Botswana. One was the boubou (southern mostly) which was locally common in all the towns, parks and camps we stayed in. Another was the African hoopoe with its characteristic crest and brown, white and black plumage. But probably the most characteristic was the fork-tailed drongo, present wherever we went and conspicuous by its mimicry of other birds, inquisitive nature and conspicuous foraging.

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After a few days at the rest camp we booked ourselves a transfer by boat upstream to the Boro Community Centre to where we boarded a local mokoro boat for a short trip into the delta itself. It was really a lot of fun and good value at 800 Pula per person, far cheaper than most of the other advertised activities. The mokoro is a boat, traditionally made from a long hollowed-out tree trunk (but in our case reinforced by fibreglass), pushed along by a man (or woman) much like a gondolier or punt, with the aid of a long wooden pole.  Since the delta is only a meter or deep on average this is not an impractical way of getting around. I was really quite surprised how fast our driver shunted us along.

That evening we camped on an island and the next day we went for a 3 hour walk in the vicinity. We were in a wilderness area which acts as a sort of buffer zone between the adjacent communal land and the Moremi Game Reserve further in. We were still some way from Moremi but there was plentiful wildlife here nonetheless. We saw several bull elephant, a small group of lechwe antelope, a large herd of wildebeest (over a hundred Mirjam counted), a herd of zebra and a reedbuck, not to mention a variety of birds: geese, ibis, plovers, stilts, saddle-billed storks, sand grouse, bee-eaters and many more beside. On the return journey the following day we even spotted a pelican foraging in the shallows.

I was sad to have to leave the delta without being able to explore further in, but time was pressing. After a week we jumped on yet another bus for the overnight journey to Gaborone. Packed tight for the initial part of the journey the bus became less compacted after a few people disembarked. A stowaway was discovered in the seat in front of us and ejected by the stocky ticket issuer who poured a tirade of abuse upon the unfortunate young man. Mirjam felt quite bad for him but in Africa many people have so little that seeing another person try benefit from cheating or theft elicits very little sympathy.

At daybreak we arrived in Gaborone and a short taxi ride later we arrived at our faithful Intercape coach, this time headed to Johannesburg. Fortunately tickets were readily available and 45 minutes later we were on our way. The border with South Africa is only a matter of kilometres hence so we arrived there shortly. The rest of the journey was not particularly exciting – certainly nothing to compare with what went before.

For Mirjam, this leg of her holiday was virtually over. She flew out two days later to join her parents in Israel. I will join them shortly. However, in the interim, as you may remember, I went back to the Guest Farm in the Drakensberg. It was hard settling back into things initially but by the time I departed yesterday morning I felt an integral part of the team once again. It’s hard uprooting but in this case it couldn’t really be avoided. At the Gaborone Border Post they had only given me a month’s leave to remain. As two of the new volunteers there commented, “You’ll be back. You belong here!”

Hiking in the Central Drakensberg

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I’m presently working as a volunteer at Ardmore Guest Farm in the Champagne Valley area of the Central Drakensberg, KZN, South Africa. I’ve been here a little over 2 weeks but I feel I’ve settled well. I am one of 4 volunteers,  the last of which only arrived today. More of that in another post!

I guess I’ve missed the hustle and bustle of the hospitality trade even though I can tell you it got my blood pressure up at times! Today has also been one of those days but it’s an exception to an otherwise pleasant stay. The landscape is incredibly scenic around here. At almost any time of day (poor weather notwithstanding) one can see a panoramic vista of the mighty ‘Berg from almost anywhere in the valley. Paul and Sue (the owners) have built a dozen or so chalets and bungalows, some mountain-facing, others garden-facing. You pay a premium to face the mountain of course but the prices are not unreasonable for a 3* establishment.

It took me two weeks to finally get a chance to walk along the mighty mountain range, oft talked of amongst those I’d met over the years, but never visited in my personal capacity. I remember my mum once talking up the possibility of a visit but sadly it never happened. Besides, in Zimbabwe we have magnificent mountain vistas and all that goes with it along the Eastern border with Mozambique. In part it’s a matter of home bias because all these places are unique. There is only one Nyanga, Bvumba or Chimanimani in Zimbabwe; likewise the Drakensberg of South Africa stands apart for its own sake. It extends over an impressive area towards the eastern seaboard  – I couldn’t tell you how much exactly – but I know that it encompasses the mountain nation of Lesotho and upland area of Kwazulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

So yesterday I had the good fortune to go walking from the Monk’s Cowl visitors centre into the Maloti Drakensberg National Park, actually designated a World Heritage Site. Paul dropped me off mid-morning around 9:30 and assured me that when I was done I wouldn’t struggle to find a lift back. If all else fails give the guest farm a call he added. Probably not an option I was thinking to myself, considering the lack of credit on my phone. However, it seemed a busy place and, not for the first time in my life, I put my faith in providence.

It had been a bit of a rush to get out off the far and as a result I forgot a few crucial elements – a water bottle and hat. Fortunately I had my wallet on me and was able to buy a plastic Powerade with its magic contents. If not for that… The choice of walks would have kept me procrastinating for a good while if it wasn’t for Paul. On his advice I set out on the walk to Blind Man’s Corner, a circular route of 12 kms and estimated walking time of 6 hours, give or take. The galleries record my progress.

The gallery at the beginning of the post shows the stunning view one can encounter within about 45 minutes of hiking. Also shown are the play of light in shadow in one of several of the mountain streams flowing down the mountain slopes and a species of Helichrysum (an everlasting). The next gallery shows the entrance to Monk’s Cowl curio shop and office complex and posing for the obligatory selfie near the turnaround point halfway through. Over my shoulder is the Cathkin Peak, one of the three highest in the range at over 3148m.

The next gallery is almost exclusively of mountain scenery, including the rather unusual one the Zulu people call Intunja, meaning “eye of the needle”. I don’t know why but it reminds me of an octopus head but I guess it’s really pretty subjective what you see! The two showing the gnarled and characteristic Protea trees are from the footpath through Keartland’s Pass which is an alternative route back to the car park and office.

There weren’t too many plants in flower but those that were didn’t disappoint. In the gallery above you can see the multiple yellow-flowering heads of a shrub that seems quite widespread in the Drakensberg here. There is also an old male flower head on a stunted Protea tree clinging to the hillside and a close-up of a pretty purple flowering plant eking out its existence in a crack in the sandstone. There is also a last look back at the Cathkin Peak and the Sterkhorn (2973m) to the right of it.

It is worth quickly noting the geology of the range, granted in a very generalised manner. I spent many year’s as an undergraduate studying geology and later as a tutor so I should know something at least! In short the Drakensberg consists of the upper groups of rock types that collectively constitute the Karoo Supergroup, predominantly sedimentary but with subordinate volcanics, sills and dykes. In fact the final event in Karoo deposition was the outpouring of large volumes of basalts (the Stormberg Group) which have given the mountain range a protective ‘cap’. This happened during the breakup of Gondwana well over 150 million years ago but through time, as the softer country rock was weathered and eroded, the peaks we see today stood out, capped proudly by these long-solidified volcanic strata. I have included a few ‘geo-shots’ in the gallery below.

Towards the end of the walk I have to say I was wilting. I’d forgotten my hat and even though it was supposedly heading into winter the African sun still maintained a certain ferocious intensity. Additionally, I only had a small ice-cream wafer on the way up and I felt my energy levels diminish. The Nandi and Sterkspruit Falls would have to wait for another day. A good reason to return!

 

Coach travel in the age of the automobile

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I’ve certainly seen my share of coaches during my adult life. I can’t remember the first but I seem to recall it being a cross-country excursion with two mates from high school to the holiday town of Kariba in my native Zimbabwe, but it must have been unremarkable because I have no real recollection of it.

My university career got off to a promising start after the folks dangled a return air ticket before my gaping mouth. I can’t quite remember why I was deemed deserving of such a luxury, perhaps as a belated congratulations for my decent A-Level results. My father had promised to take me out for a meal but as was quite often the case had failed to follow through on this.

What I can say though is that a return airfare to Port Elizabeth via Johannesburg didn’t come cheaply back then. It was to be a one-off. Besides the fact that I was literally sh*t-scared of flying at the time, I didn’t exactly impress my mother by using the return fare to ‘pop’ back during term time due to a bout of homesickness. Not being particularly sympathetic to my condition she had fairly promptly put me on a Greyhound bus bound for South Africa the following week. This was my first experience of long-distance bus travel. Whoopee!

Actually, back then the coach pulled in at the Rotunda which lay slightly apart from the Metro terminus. It was an unsalubrious part of town and not somewhere you wanted to linger very long. Subsequently there were extensive improvements made to the main Park Station and all the coach offices, arrivals and departures were relocated there. Even so I recall on the one occasion having to wait several hours between connections and being accosted by a variety of vendors all trying to sell me the same gold chain. It didn’t make any sense! Was I missing something?

I was at Park Station again earlier today and I must say that after further improvements prior to the 2010 Fifa World Cup it is almost as inviting as an airport terminus, but not quite. For one it is open at both ends and there is a constant flow of humanity from one side to the other, a minority embarking on coach journeys or descending to the lower concourse from where the trains depart. Most, however, are simply in transit to the ranks of minibuses which await their clientele at an extensive taxi rank built for the purpose on the one side of the building. Others loiter in the many fast food shops or cafés within the domed expanse of the station.

Surprisingly, there are TV monitors which display local news highlights and weather bulletins. One can also see the occasional policeman or woman ambling along, usually in convivial conversation with a colleague. I don’t mean to be disparaging but South African police-women especially tend to be on the chunkier end of the scale and I wouldn’t have much faith in them being able to apprehend a half-starved thief or junkie making off with someone’s personal belongings. I haven’t been party to anything of the sort but always try to be vigilant.

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A recent view of the overhauled Park Station terminus.

I noticed down the years that the Greyhound coaches I took within South Africa were of a substantially better quality than the ones on the route between Harare and Johannesburg. Yes, the Zimbabweans were being treated as less discerning customers. Whether or not this is true is hard to say. I distinctly recall that during my early bus days we were all given the option of listening to the on-board DVD/VHS movies via earphones which one could purchase onboard. At some point in the last ten-fifteen years the film audio became mass-broadcast over the PA systems. Whether this was because they couldn’t be bothered to supply earphones any longer or if it was a technical failure I couldn’t determine. The use of the PA would probably be deemed as an unacceptable invasion of privacy on a National Express coach in the UK, but here in Africa it’s met only with indifference at best.

I think it is cultural phenomena. African cultures are without doubt louder and more boisterous than their Western counterparts, at least in the public spaces we inhabit (anyone who has lived in England will know the effect a few pints of lager can have on the populace). My point is that Africans seem fairly inured to noise. Or perhaps they are just more tolerant of auditory intrusion? I am often quite surprised at how quiet the inhabitants of a minibus taxi are, even if the driver isn’t blaring his tunes at full blast, which is actually quite often. Certainly my recent experiences of a Zambian coach between the town of Livingstone near the Victoria Falls and the capital Lusaka made me realise that coach travel in Zimbabwe and South Africa is quite sedate by comparison. I think the following audio clip will speak for itself. (And yes, that’s an evangelical pastor onboard).

The last Greyhound coach(es) I took were over this Easter weekend, firstly down to Vryheid to see a cousin and then between Richard’s Bay and Durban. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if these were the same coaches that were operating at the time I was at university in the Eastern Cape. They are beginning to look their age: tarnished plastic mouldings, grubby upholstery and frayed curtains. I wasn’t very impressed but at least they got me to my respective destinations without incident.

The one and only time I experienced a breakdown was on a Greyhound coach en route to Durban when, quite fortuitously, we broke down near the Montrose service station outside Harrismith. It was actually quite hilarious because we instructed to sit tight whilst they assessed the problem on the side of the busy N3 highway. After half an hour it became apparent that we weren’t going anywhere in a hurry and first one passenger then another had made a wild dash across the motorway for the bright lights and promise of hot food and beverages afforded by the service station on the other side.

They had to send a replacement bus run by a third-party operator which arrived many hours hence by which time the allure of Montrose had most certainly worn off. In the interim I’d become acquainted with a few of my fellow passengers, many Durbanites of Asian extraction, at first through the mutual commiseration that comes through collective misfortune, and later through boredom once the usual avenues of conversation had been exhausted. A one Mr Reddy had ushered me aside in a clandestine manner, a knowing smirk on his face. He brandished his phone close to his chest and showed me a grainy pornographic video clip. It really wasn’t very exciting but he seemed quite pleased with himself.

It’s only now, on reflection, that I realise how many anecdotes and recollections I have of coach travel in various locations, which is what inspired me to write this post in the first place. I guess I should round off my recollections of regional coach travel by revisiting the Jo’burg-Zimbabwe route which passes through the notorious Beit Bridge border post. I can’t remember when exactly it became synonymous with long queues, surly border officials, bribery and filth but once upon a time I actually looked on it quite fondly. I remember a place called Pete’s Motel on the Zim side where there was a swimming pool, restaurant and a general good vibe. After dark the folks took my brothers and I down to the bridge over the river Kipling described as the ‘great grey-green, greasy Limpopo’. I felt a sense of anticipation and excitement as a warm breeze buffeted my face.

The romance of the place had certainly worn off by the time I was making my bi-annual sojourn to university south of the border. After an absence of several years I revisited the place last year en route to the city of Bulawayo. It didn’t disappoint. We arrived at dawn after departing Jozi at 2000 hrs the previous evening, joining the ranks of buses waiting to transit the dreaded juncture.

I should point out that I was on the Intercape coach this time around, not much different to Greyhound, except that I’ve never had a ‘breakdown’ experience. Oh, and Intercape is unapologetically a ‘Christian-oriented’ service. They inform you of this during the booking process. Consequently one is assuaged by ‘family friendly’ films, interviews with pastors, and a medley of Christian tunes encompassing rock, gospel and even hip-hop. To be honest I don’t really mind what they present as on-board entertainment so long as it’s not unreasonably loud. They are usually quite considerate. After all Jesus would be of he was on board, wouldn’t he?

Once upon a time these so-called luxury buses (as opposed to the ‘chicken buses’ that ply these same routes laden with bags, poultry and even goats bound at the ankles) got preferential treatment. Not so any more. It’s now on a first come, first serve basis. I am led to believe that the ‘facilitation fees’ became unreasonable and the operators stopped paying them. We had to wait several hours before we could even get to customs and immigration and several more after that. If you are fortunate you might be able to sleep a bit longer but the temperatures rise rapidly after dawn (Beit Bridge is, after all, not much above sea level).

However tolerant one is of the weather, there is no avoiding the noise of passengers moving about and the almost certain intrusion of a blind old beggar, man or woman, inevitably accompanied by a small child bearing a styrofoam cup or bowl for charitable donations. The old beggar will sing a sad lament and clap his or her hands in time as they walk up and down the length of the isle. Although it’s really quite sad it’s hard not to feel pity. In a way I admire the bus driver for permitting this brief intrusion into an otherwise mind-numbing wait. I can’t imagine it being sanctioned by HQ back in Johannesburg, but it reminds me that Africans too have a sense of charity even if the continent often seems so Darwinian in its antics.

I remember seeing a Zimbabwean customs official standing, arms crossed, for at least 45 minutes, before he deigned to inspect our belongings. Being a self-appointed investigative journalist I took it upon myself to photograph various aspects of the border crossing. I got a good one of my fellow passengers queued outside the bus with our bags at the ready waiting for our lethargic border official to spring into action.

An illustration of one of the delights that awaits the hapless traveller at the Beit Bridge border post: queueing outside the bus at dawn with all ones belongings on display.

At least the cockroaches were largely absent this time. I recalled how at one stage they would scuttle amongst the buses over the interlocking paving-blocks seeking shelter beneath bags and boxes. It was testament to the amount of filth and rubbish discarded in the vicinity of the border post. Even once a cursory inspection of the bags had been made we still had to await official authorization before we could proceed. I recall standing on the far side of the customs offices with a fellow passenger, a young guy returning to see his parents near Bulawayo.

I discreetly photographed some of the other passengers seated along the perimeter of the paving. Well, I thought I was being discreet, except that another young-ish fellow had sauntered over to us with a half-smile on his face. He stopped short of me and flourished some sort of identity card which proclaimed him to be an agent of the much-maligned CIO. The smile disappeared simultaneously. His jaw jutting out aggressively he asked me what I thought I was doing.

“No photographs here. Don’t you know this is a security zone? Heh? Are you Al Qaeda? Tell me, are you?”

Perhaps this was a tongue-in-cheek jibe directed at my bearded countenance. I was only slightly alarmed and replied that I was very sorry being an ignorant tourist who just wanted to show everyone back home the lovely country I was passing through. He sniggered at this most obvious of lies and with a final caution he turned his back on us. My friend from the bus was not very impressed. “You have to be careful man, these guys don’t mess around.” I’m not so sure they don’t.

The photograph that almost got me in serious trouble. Passengers bask in the sun waiting for their coaches to clear customs and immigration.

On the other side of the world in Europe coach travel tends to be far less eventful. The English for one do not like travel to be eventful. It is mostly about punctuality and lack of incident. There are no on-board movies, animated evangelicals, hop-on, hop-off beggars or the like. If one feels the need to use a mobile phone, one is asked to be respectfully quiet. One is not prevented from eating but fast food is a definite no-no in direct contrast to the African coaches where a distinct aroma of fried chicken pervades the interior cabin after a lunch break. Seat belts are to be work at all times.

Probably the best coach I’ve been on was in Poland where each seat was provisioned with a console, much like most modern aircraft. There was a selection of movies, TV programs and music to choose from. Over in Turkey coach travel is remarkably efficient between the various far-flung towns and cities. Although the country has a surprisingly well-developed domestic air industry coaches remain the most affordable means of travel. In some cases they come with seatback consoles but the material was inevitably in Turkish. The real bonus is the coffee and soft drinks that are served during the journey by the stewards.

I’ve met many interesting people on coaches, your average Joes and others who would be more difficult to categorise. I didn’t expect to meet an observant Muslim man who was also an avid collector of British first day covers on one of the Turkish routes for instance; nor a young lady of African descent who took quite a shine to me on a trip up from Durban. We later met up for a drink and we even held hands walking through central Johannesburg, a proposition that made me feel wonderfully rebellious. That would have been outright illegal 25 years ago and would still have raised eyebrows a long while after. My peripatetic lifestyle precluded any further development to the relationship.

So in the age of the automobile, rail and burgeoning air travel I hope I can make a case for the humble coach. We occasionally read of an unfortunate accident such as the one that claimed the lives of a dozen students in Spain recently, but considering how many journeys must be made every day, it’s quite admirable that there aren’t many more. Statistically it probably isn’t as safe as air travel but I’ll no doubt rely on them for a few more adventures before my travelling days are done.

Waiting to purchase my ticket at Park Station behind the four wise men…