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.

 

My Summer Workaway Adventures, Part I

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It is hard to believe that I have just come back from a four month Workaway experience on the continent. It seemed like I departed a year ago at least so rich and varied has the experience been for me. After returning from a memorable three months in Africa backpacking from Cape Town to the shores of Lake Tanganyika I didn’t think I’d be able to round off the remainder of the year in Europe in any way as exciting. How wrong I was to be proven.

After returning from a memorable three months in Africa backpacking … I didn’t think I’d be able to round off the remainder of the year in Europe in any way as exciting. How wrong I was to be proven.

I selected a varied number of projects on the site, Workaway.info, based on things I’d knew I’d probably enjoy and a few I wasn’t so sure about but which looked interesting. Workaway is a website which facilitates pairing hosts with volunteers for a number of different projects varying from farm labouring to au pairing to assisting in hotels and hostels.

The two parties enter into a non-binding contract whereby the host provides board and lodging and the volunteer provides whatever service is required of them (as per the host requirements on the website). Central to it is that the agreement between host and workaway is a purely social contract i.e. no money change hands.

Workaway is a website which facilitates pairing hosts with volunteers for a number of different projects varying from farm labouring to au pairing to assisting in hotels and hostels.

I made the decision to avoid flying, or at least to keep it to a minimum. I set off from my uncle’s house in Poole in early August on a cross-channel ferry to Cherbourg. I had set myself a conservative budget of about maybe 1200 pounds, the idea being that I was only going to pay travel costs and entertainment. If I was frugal I should spend even less.

My spirits had been flagging a little, due in some part to the uncertainty of setting out into the unknown, alone. It didn’t help that my arrival in Cherbourg coincided with a spell of rainy weather. The historic harbour – the 2nd largest artificial harbour in the world – was a strange, place-out-of-time experience. Before the buildings of modern Cherbourg hove into view through the mist there was for a while only the Napoleonic harbour walls stretching far out to sea and attendant fortifications, long obsolete. It was quite eerie.

Before the buildings of modern Cherbourg hove into view through the mist there was for a while only the Napoleonic harbour walls stretching far out to sea…

I struggled for the next few hours to find my way to a campsite on the edge of town. When I got there I found myself walking in the wrong direction, hopelessly lost. A chill wind was blowing hard off the sea. My first stroke of good fortune came in the shape of a Frenchman, Roland, grey-haired and lost in thought. I politely approached him and asked for directions. He steered me back to the camping/caravan site and before long I had a spot allocated me and my one-man tent.

He looked a little concerned considering the weather but the next day he picked me up and showed me some highlights of the district. An interesting and thoughtful man he also introduced me to his other half at the local market as well as his youngest son and Thai wife, selling SE Asian cuisine from a mobile caravan.

After two damp nights at the campsite I jumped on a train and headed to Bayeux, arguably the highlight of my trip through Normandy. What else but the Bayeux tapestry can elicit such emotion? An amazing work of historical art. Absolutely fascinating, accompanied by a charming audio commentary. Very much recommended.

What else but the Bayeux tapestry can elicit such emotion? An amazing work of historical art.

From Bayeux I continued to Caen and it’s chic riverside shopping malls and apartments. That said the charm soon wore off as I found myself walking for an absolute age looking for my hostel, or as they call them there, l’auberge de jeunesse.

As with other youth hostels I stayed in whilst in France I found it to be fairly utilitarian: clean and functional but without much charm. All the same I got my head down soon after arriving and was up early and refreshed. As I write I was trying hard to recall the exact route I took from there. I recall that it was a longer train journey this time to either le Man or Tours whereupon I had to change to another train to Poitiers.

Arriving in Poitiers I was met by Gerard, similar in age to Roland and also sporting a clipped moustache, but shorter and wearing a pair of round spectacles. He put me in mind of an old photograph of my great grandfather on my dad’s side of the family. He had a ready smile but his English was non-existent. Thus with some difficulty, initially at least, I was forced to use my schoolboy boy French. It was good experience and a necessary one dare I say.

Arriving in Poitiers I was met by Gerard, similar in age to Roland and also sporting a clipped moustache, but shorter and wearing a pair of round spectacles.

Despite the transient difficulties I had a wonderful time at le Jardin de Verrines, a smallholding on which Gerard grew vegetables and created all manner of articles from his barn-cum-workshop. We made a rocket-stove, a bicycle-powered washing machine and from his garden harvested an abundance of vegetables and fruit.

Everything was done in the spirit of permaculture. No artificial pesticide or fertilisers were used and boy did it taste good. “Tres bon” as I found myself saying time and time again. No superlatives could do justice to the cherry tomatoes! I dare say I could have gorged myself on those alone for the several weeks I was there.

We made a rocket-stove, a bicycle-powered washing machine and from his garden harvested an abundance of vegetables and fruit.

From Verrines I turned back north and caught a train to the historic city of Orleans where Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) rose to prominence in the early 15th century. There were references to her everywhere, at least one statue, a museum and a house where she had allegedly lived, now a national heritage site. I wasn’t there to see the maid of Orleans, however, but rather as an entry point into the much acclaimed Loire Valley along which many 100’s of kilometres of cycle lanes have been purposely built under a scheme called Loire à Vélo.

I hired a bicycle for several days (I had to extend it slightly) and set out from my hostel in the south of the city in a westerly direction. It was a truly memorable few days cycling in what was still late summer: long, warm days followed by cool, 8 hour nights.

The Loire is dotted with historic villages, towns and old chateaux.

The Loire is dotted with historic villages, towns and old chateaux. The latter are a big attraction and draw in much of the tourism alongside the wine tours; campers, caravaners and cyclists like myself; visitors to the towns and villagers; etc. The best part of this leg of my trip was simply the pleasure of riding alongside the broad river, periodically reading the information boards and all the while taking in the subtle changes in colour, character and landscape.

The best part of this leg of my trip was simply the pleasure of riding alongside the broad river

The birdlife was good and ensured that my binoculars were always close at hand. From time to time I could even see the fat, dark forms of fish lazily holding their position mid-stream. The occasional fisherman sat on the bank or stood waist-deep in the water, a study in patience, oblivious to the modern world and the buzz of its motorways, aeroplanes and passing traffic, me included.

I didn’t go quite as far as Tours but instead turned back towards Orleans at chateau Chenonceau. From Orleans I caught another train southbound again to Toulouse, known popularly as La Ville Rose due to the prevalence of pink-coloured stone used to construct many of its buildings. There I stayed with a friend, Rui, whom I’d been at school with in Zimbabwe. I had lived with him for some months in the the town of Luton in the UK where he worked in the aviation industry.

From Orleans I caught another train southbound again to Toulouse, known popularly as La Ville Rose…

It was no coincidence that he was in Toulouse, the heart of the aviation industry in Europe. As in the UK he worked long hours and I didn’t see that much of him. Consequently I had a good deal of time in the several days I spent with him to explore the city and enjoy the buzz of its many parks, cafes and squares.

Best of all was sitting on the east bank of the Garonne as dusk approached, a plastic glass of wine in hand (purchased from a 24 hr store near he apartment), accompanied by a packet of peanuts and a rolled cigarette. Guilty pleasures.

Best of all was sitting on the east bank of the Garonne as dusk approached, a plastic glass of wine in hand … a packet of peanuts and a rolled cigarette

Sitting there, watching the sun set behind the dome of the chapel of the Hôpital Saint-Joseph de la Grave alongside many other like-minded individuals, many of them students, gave me a sense of bonhomie and good will even though I knew none of them individually.

After a weekend in Toulouse I met my next hosts near St Cyprienne Metro station. Anne and Hector used to live in the city but now resided in a small town about an hour or so to the south. It nestled near the confluence of the Garonne and the Salat.

I spent only a couple of weeks with the family, busy with their varied lives, helping Hector insulate a barn-roof.

I spent only a couple of weeks with the family, busy with their varied lives, helping Hector insulate a barn-roof. The barn itself he had partitioned into an upstairs and downstairs area. The area beneath was living space and the upper floor was to be a large music room replete with stage and lighting.

The job itself was instructional but not particularly exciting. More of interest to me was being in a position to explore the surrounding area. One weekend I took Hector’s town bike, slung a sleeping bag, tent and some provisions on the back, and headed for the Pyrenees just a little further south. I cycled from Montréjeau to Luchon and took in a wealth of sites in-between: old monasteries; orchards; medieval towns and sweeping vistas.

One weekend I took Hector’s town bike … and headed for the Pyrenees just a little further south.

That night I camped up near a village calleed Sost, renowned for it’s cheese, and the next day cycled all the way up to Lac d’Oô, an artificial lake fronting some jagged, snow-capped peaks. There were signs saying beware of avalanches but the meadows and hillslopes were still green and cheerful. It was a magical weekend and will live on in my memory for many years to come.

My Workaway experience may have ended here as plans for the next stopover in Italy fell by the wayside. I had intended to make my way across Italy and the Balkans towards Greece but decided, somewhat spur of the moment, to fly back to Istanbul.

I’d been in Turkey earlier in the year teaching English at a language school near the capital and sharing an apartment with my old friend Sofian. If you have read any of my other travelogue you might recall him from an earlier Turkish chapter, a summer language camp in the provincial town of Merzifon. I had also visited him in his home-country, Algeria.

I would like to say that I was confident in my decision to travel on to Turkey but the moment I crossed into Turkish airspace I felt I had made a wrong one. Menacing grey clouds blanketed the landscape below and on the ground the city was inundated after days of incessant rain. I couldn’t help but feel the weight of it pushing down on me.

I would like to say that I was confident in my decision to travel on to Turkey but the moment I crossed into Turkish airspace I felt I had made a wrong one.

I headed out of the city towards Izmit, really just a satellite of Istanbul, to where I’d taught earlier in the year. I checked into a hotel in the meantime. Much of the novelty had worn off and now what impressed me most was the seemingly endless extent of concrete buildings, factories and apartment blocks for the 70 or so kilometres en route.

To get to the point I was offered a teaching place at a new language centre in a neighbouring town, Sakarya, but without the assurance of a place to stay nor a negotiated salary. I asked for a few days to think about it and returned to Istanbul. It was there that I realised that my journey was only half complete. I’d really wanted to go to Greece at the outset and I was only a stone’s throw away so to speak.

I’d really wanted to go to Greece at the outset and I was only a stone’s throw away so to speak.

I returned to Izmit and declined the offer in person and immediately felt a sense of lightness and relief. At last I felt the urge to meet up with several friends and students I had engaged with earlier in the year and the return trip seemed to have a purpose after all.

As an aside it is worth pointing out that elections were imminent after the failure to form a coalition government after a prior general election earlier in the year. This may have contributed to some of the tension I felt in the air. Additionally, Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict seemed to have intensified, as had the involvement of other powerful nations. The morning news bulletins were laden with infographics of Russian warplanes on bombing sorties although I couldn’t understand any of the attendant commentary.

The morning news bulletins were laden with infographics of Russian warplanes on bombing sorties…

On my way back to Istanbul prior to my outgoing flight out to Athens I took the intercity train for the first time. It didn’t go all the way into the heart of the city and I had to find a way to get across to one of the metro stations for that purpose. I was helped in that respect by a polite, somewhat reserved young man from Ankara University.

We conversed a little and he told me in halting English that he was studying medicine. He was on his way back to Istanbul to visit his parents for the weekend. That was a Thursday evening. On the weekend a terrorist bombing blamed on Islamist radicals in Syria would kill dozens of his co-students who were participating in a peace rally in the capital. It was a small consolation to know that he wasn’t amongst them.

That Friday morning I was greeted by clear skies, a good omen. An indirect flight, I had to catch a connecting plane in Izmir, a popular tourist spot on the Aegean coast. As I flew on to Athens, the Med sparkling beneath, islands dotted here and there, it seemed inconceivable that there was a tide of refugees attempting to cross those same waters to Europe. But more of that in the next chapter. The French leg of my journey was over and despite my Turkish diversion I was back on course for more adventures in Athens and beyond.

The French leg of my journey was over and despite my Turkish diversion I was back on course for more adventures in Athens and beyond.

The Marmaris Straights

You can read more on my French Workaway experience on my sister blog which include a few funny anectdotes at the end.

The GNP, Then and Now (And the Futility of it All)

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The following extract is from my childhood memoirs (unpublished except for chapter one, posted here) with reference to a particular place where I spent much of my adolescence. What photos are included are scanned prints taken by myself. Following this are some photos (mobile phone camera) and an account of my most recent visit to the GNP only a week or so ago on a return visit to Zimbabwe.

It was relatively early on in my high school career that I had met Mr. Rob Burrett properly, when my mother and I were walking in the green belt near our property one afternoon. Until this point in time it had been a neglected strip of seven or so hectares which was impenetrable in parts due to the proliferation of vegetation. The local gardeners and maids fished in the old farm dam up top, but the catch was usually small, as were the fish. However, a local initiative had recently commenced to spruce the place up, transforming it into a recreational area whilst trying to return it to a semblance of what it may have been like prior to the effects of urbanisation. Rob had been a master of sorts at Highlands Junior School, but I hadn’t known him then. Later on he had come to teach Geography at St. Georges.

He was a charismatic teacher with a sharp mind and an ability to bring out the best in his students, although he had a fierce temper when the marks were not what he expected them to be (they seldom were). I attribute Mr. Burrett’s teaching in large part to my later attaining an ‘A’ at A-Level Geography. It was a voluminous syllabus which he never quite managed to cover entirely, but nevertheless in sufficient detail to get me the grade. I stress emphatically that there were no favours on his part done to me. If anything he was harsher, and I very seldom got over fifty percent for any of the assignments he set us.

I never managed to figure out exactly how Rob, as I came to know him outside of school, had come to be involved with the Greystone Nature Preserve. He was more than happy to explain to me the aims and objectives of the GNP Association, which were to try and eradicate the invasive and exotic plants and re-establish the native flora and fauna. It resonated strongly with my own environmental inclinations and before long I was spending as much of my free time as I could hacking paths through the thickets of Lantana camara and prickly bramble. Best of all I was given permission to use fire to incinerate impenetrable clumps of shrubs and weeds. Perhaps I wasn’t given permission per se but I had observed a series of controlled burns around the dam and had managed to convince my parents that this other burning was equally within the mandate of the GNPA.

Perhaps none of the primal elements can invoke as much awe and wonder as fire. Retrospectively I have to admit to being something of a pyromaniac, but fire was an important part of the ecosystem there, something not always appreciated. A few weeks after a blaze, from the scorched earth would arise a multitude of shoots from perennial plants and shrubs whose roots and tubers housed the water and starch they needed to survive until the rains arrived late in the year. By incinerating the old plant and grass matter above ground, fire would provide a stimulus to the living plant below to send up shoots, and perhaps even germinate their seeds.

The analogy of a phoenix rising from the ashes could not be more appropriate. I remember Robbie Taylor being severely berated for having started a fire in the field or vlei nearest their house in an adjacent neighbourhood. “He’s such an unruly child” my aunt Nick had said at the time, “Lyn is very worried about him.” (Lyn was his mother). She must have been aware of my activities in this arena and maybe she spoke to my mum or others about me – I don’t know. But even if other people had voiced disapproval it wouldn’t have stopped me. After all, I was sanctioned by the GNPA who had an extensive lease on the area. It didn’t extend as far as Robbie’s house so Robbie was labelled a pyromaniac and further actions forbidden.

Busy, slasher in hand, pummeling a thicket of silverleaf in the lower reaches of the GNP.

Busy, slasher in hand, pummeling a thicket of silverleaf in the lower reaches of the GNP.

Squatting after my exertions and demonstrating how sticky were the multitude of seeds produced by the silverleaf plants.

Squatting after my exertions and demonstrating how sticky were the multitude of seeds produced by the silverleaf plants.

The other thing I was permitted to do was to spray herbicide on the undesirable plants; the noxious weeds perceived to threaten the natural order. This was initially restricted to Lantana camara, attractive when flowering but possessing acrid-smelling leaves as well as thorns that had a tendency to form thickets. It was poisonous to cattle where it had spread to grazing pasture in the countryside.

In time we came to use herbicide, Rob and I, on a selection of exotics. The flowering cherries whose blossom was so admired in suburban gardens, for instance, was a proliferating nuisance in the GNP where the birds would spread the seeds far and wide. The coppiced growth that arose after felling them proved to be very susceptible to the effects of Roundup, the herbicide of choice. Other plants were more resilient like a leguminous pasture shrub called silver leaf, introduced for cattle fodder was a problematic invasive and could survive the Roundup treatment.

The GNP became my own personal project, a garden where I was the gardener and the evolution of the space within of my determination. Perhaps it was an outlet for my frustrated soul yet I never thought that at the time; I simply loved being there. Like most habitats in the country that had not yet been overwhelmed by man’s activities, this area had a wealth of diversity, most noticeable in spring just prior to the rains and during the early part of the rainy season, before everything became swamped by the more vigorous plants like silver leaf and morning glory.

My favourite time was the weeks after fire had swept across the grassland; seeing the emergence of the red-winged pods of the shrubby ground Combretum and the delicate flowering stalks of the Gladiolus species particularly prominent amidst the various other herbs and shrubs. A local botanist, Mark Hyde, had remarked on the enormous diversity of the grassland flora and urged the Association to protect it. He lamented that the grassland habitats around the city had come under increasing pressure due to agriculture and land clearance.

I was never really lonely, except perhaps on a deeper level, but generally liked to be left alone and avoided contact with people walking there. In the evenings the older, middle-aged inhabitants of the neighbourhood would come out walking with their dogs. They were generally predictable in their routine so I could avoid them when necessary.

Other visitors included the inevitable young lovers, fingers interlocked, sitting together for long periods on the benches and sometimes wandering into the undergrowth for secret trysts. They were mainly black teenagers but white teens were present too, although they seemed to spend more time at the dam, especially with a few bottles of liquor on a Friday evening.

The dark profile of the 'praying tree', a little sinister-looking here perhaps but venerated by the individual I refer to.

The dark profile of the ‘praying tree’, a little sinister-looking here perhaps, but a sacred place to the individual I refer to.

Another regular was the Shona man who came regularly to pray beneath a particularly large musasa tree that grew not far from our house. He prayed loudly and imploringly, perhaps to God or perhaps to an ancestor and although I couldn’t understand much of what he said he imagined that he was praying for what most people prayed for: assistance in the rigours of daily life, good health and prosperity.

I can also recall the old medicine man or N’anga who would occasionally arrive to dig up the bulbs of plants, or collect aromatic leaves from particular trees and shrubs. He was old and stooped with matted hair and a lined and weathered face. He carried with him a plain, hessian sack in which he would collect the various articles. Once he even raided a hive of African honeybees with nothing more than a smoking roll of newspaper, extracting combs of rich, succulent natural honey as the angry bees swarmed about him. He remained undeterred.

I started the process of trying to ‘move on’ from the GNP when it became clear that I would be expected to go to university directly after finishing my A-Level studies. The thought of leaving home and my piece of Africa made me sad. I always felt I could identify with the Zimbabwean bush but I also felt an intense solitude at times when in the GNP akin to the one that Terry Waite experienced (see this extract). The closest I can come to rationalising it is to say that I knew there were some deep-seated problems in my life rooted in relationship dynamics (things that would come to light in the next couple of years actually).

I have written about the general facts and dates of my tertiary education in my biographical notes (unpublished). There was a 2 year stint at Rhodes University in SA which was quite excruciatingly difficult at times – socially and emotionally-speaking that is. In that time my mother decided, finally, to act on her suspicions regarding my father’s fidelity. She discovered that he was indeed being unfaithful (no surprise in retrospect) and after some negotiations divorced him. I was informed of much of this remotely so that, after dropping out after 2 years at RU, it was pretty much a fait accompli.

I did manage to vent a little of my considerable vault of anger at my father but he was in a state of self-denial which made it difficult to understand how much guilt he really felt. My mother sent me off to a psychologist, ironically enough, although it did help to have someone impartial to talk to. My one regret was that this particular bloke, John, obviously had his own issues, as we all do I suppose. I sometimes think he helped, at other times I’m not so sure.

Anyway, I digress – back to the GNP. It was at this juncture that I made the decision to get involved once again in the GNPA (A for Association), the body that ran the GNP. It consisted of a committee which met on a monthly basis to discuss things which needed to be done: the wages for permanent and casual labour; outreach programs; fencing issues; maintaining working relationships with various other members of the community and so on and so forth. I think I stood as a member without portfolio for one season and as VC for another. It was comprised entirely of Europeans sadly, but in theory anyone was eligible for nomination. I have no idea of the real demographics of the neighbourhood (except that it was mixed) and why no other ethnicities came forward for nomination.

As the youngest member of the committee I found some of the monthly agenda wearisome. There were a few personalities who always had to have their say and sometimes they laboured whatever point they sought to make. Another lady, Sarah, probably a good 8 or 9 years my senior, said how refreshing it was to have some other young blood to relieve the tedium of the ‘old farts’! To be fair there was also James, the son of our family GP, also in his late 20s or early 30s. He was also someone who liked to get to the point in a determined fashion. What I tried to do in my time on the committee was to inject some of the passion I had felt as a teenager. I wanted recognition and I more than anything I wanted to see my dream realised of turning it into something akin to modern-day Eden.

The scale map of the GNP which I drew up with the help of some early surveyor plans.

The scale map of the GNP which I drew up with the help of some early surveyor plans.

I energetically sketched drawings of bridges and pathways, mist-spray schemes to feed arboreal orchids, lists of trees to be planted and so forth. I constructed an enormous scale map of the entire area on a number of A4 sheets taped together, noting every prominent tree and all the various paths and habitats. When I presented my ideas to the committee it was met with a mixed response. One old chap thought it was a great idea but he was at the end of his tenure and about to go off and retire to another part of the country.

Roger, probably the most influential member on the committee, it’s founding father so to speak, gave a lukewarm response. The idea of an Education Centre had been mooted some years before but nothing had ever been done. I was keen to realise this goal but without Roger’s backing it never got off the ground. His was basically a hand’s-off approach. Essentially he just wanted the place to remain undisturbed so that he could walk his dog/s with his two boys. I respected that but it hurt nonetheless.

And so it was that my own enthusiasm slowly diminished until I realised that it was all a bit of pie-dream really. The country was going downhill rapidly as the government seized private commercial farms as part of its badly-executed land redistribution programme. Besides the exodus of people and skills from within there was a huge devaluation in the Zim dollar and a corresponding squeeze on people’s income. Everywhere in and around Harare the native inhabitants seized their hoes and picks and fell upon the land in a desperate attempt to cultivate crops to subsidise their meagre wages and diets. In the main this was maize, the staple, but I also saw squash, tomatoes and a local variety of spinach called rape planted as well.

As a result a number of other initiatives which sought to emulate the GNP ‘experiment’ – it was unique to the best of my knowledge in that it was leased from the municipality for the purposes of conservation – came to a grinding halt. The local councils actually did try for a time to crack down on the illegal cultivation, but the perpetrators were just too many and too desperate. If it weren’t for the perimeter fence around the grassland surrounding the dam and at the opposite end on Warwick Rd (where our house was built) I have little doubt that the GNP would itself have become victim to the illegal cultivation phenomenon. It was something of a miracle that it never did (even to this day).

What I managed to do was to divert some of my energies to other projects like planting an aloe and succulent rockery garden on our property and building the bridge shown in the previous gallery with help of the resident labourer, John. There were moments of satisfaction and I did love my rockery garden, but when I look back I can’t help but consider the toll all of it was taking on my mental health. I was estranged from my father, my mother had just died from cancer (November 2001) and I was soldiering on with a degree in geology for which I felt increasingly at odds with. I had only started it because I felt bad about what had happened to Wolf and because I was made to feel as though any other sort of job connected to ‘the land’ was beneath me and the family’s aspirations. It wasn’t as though I had much support for my bachelors degree anyway.

But continue I did, back to South Africa and the University of Pretoria this time. This was undoubtedly the most profound year of my life. The studies were incidental. Day and night I felt the heartache of separation from my father, family and the home I had once known. This was life interrupted. I found myself redirected on a course which I’m still travelling to this day. Sometimes I flounder and come close to giving up on this reality. Today is one of those days but I’ll feel better tomorrow.

My father too passed away in early 2006. It was meant to be, of that I have little doubt, but it has not made it any easier. Perhaps I focus too much on the man’s death and not enough on his life; as I do for my dear mother. Both of them were vital individuals, despite their flaws. Life shone from their eyes when I recall those same people, the parents of my childhood and adolescence. When I started this article I had it in mind to highlight the futility of my life in Africa but I feel that it is somehow a perversion of a complex truth and one that I have yet to fully grasp.

Over the years I have returned to the house in Greystone Park episodically and the GNP as well. Every time I go back it seems to be wilder than before and the weeds that we formerly sought to suppress, grow taller and taller still! How futile it was to try and create something pure and exact in this mad hybrid-nation that is modern-day Zimbabwe. I can see all sorts of metaphors in the tumultuous riot of native and exotic pants which choke the wetland areas:- poplar, syringa and Ipomoea competing alongside bush-willows and waxberries. It’s unclear who has the upper hand. It seems impossible for either side to win out completely and eliminate the other. Perhaps, if left alone long enough, an equilibrium will be reached.

This time around I walked slowly around the dam marvelling at how the trees and shrubs had encroached upon the grassland there. It was thick and green in parts but also quite moist, in contrast to the dam itself which was largely empty.

The main dam. now almost dry. A lone fisherman cast his line into the shallows. Whilst I watched he pulled out one average-sized fish.

The main dam. now almost dry. A lone fisherman cast his line into the shallows. Whilst I watched he pulled out one average-sized fish.

This dam bore many memories: fishing it periodically as a youngster, meeting new friends like big Ralph Heron, bird watching (literally and figuratively speaking), even drinking beer and braaing (barbecuing) on its banks. I greeted and introduced myself to a man and his young son, Tafadzwa, a common Shona name. He told me how the dam, now unseasonably low, had been plundered of its fish by unscrupulous netting, although I still noticed a lone fisherman casting several lines in from the bank. Whilst I watched he caught what appeared to be a bream of average size which surprised me. What usually came out of there was rather smaller. One season, however, there had been a huge harvest of catfish (locally known as maramba) and word had it people had been wading in and depositing them in sacks.

I continued around the dam and reached the other side of the wall where I could see someone sitting on a bench overlooking the dam. To my right was the spillway and behind me to the left a house that someone had started to build many years before but which remained unfinished. The wetland area below the wall was the usual riot of green.

As I walked below the main wall alongside the flanking property with its unfinished mansion I encountered an enormous stone wall, something to rival one of the perimeter walls at Great Zimbabwe. It was ridiculously large. Was it meant to convey power and superiority? Was it simply meant to prevent outsiders from looking in? Security perhaps? I didn’t know and the empty house stood in contradiction to all these possibilities.

A little further down I heard voices and peering through the vegetation flanking the stream I spied a pair of teenagers chatting on one of the stone benches the GNPA had built years earlier. He was black, she white. In itself this meant nothing except perhaps a reinforcement of the previous metaphor. At least this relationship appeared to be friendly. Whether it was anything more I couldn’t tell.

At the bottom end of the GNP I came upon my old property. I stopped a few minutes to take in the trees and the garden I had once known so well.

Intro

The thing that struck me was that, with the exception of the few plants that I had transplanted and which had survived, most of what grew here now had grown here before my intervention and would still be growing here well after it had ceased altogether. All the same I am glad that in some small way I did manage to leave a mark – not in what I sought to destroy but rather in what I created. In transplanting a few saplings in the right conditions I have endowed a legacy of sorts to the GNP. Perhaps they will survive this present period of turmoil and uncertainty and live to see the next era? God-willing an era of peace and prosperity.

 

 

 

 

Lake Kariba, Past and Present.

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I have some great memories from my teenage years which originate on the enormous body of water known as Lake Kariba. It lies on the north-western margin of the country. Not many people know it but Lake Kariba is the world’s largest artificial lake and reservoir by volume with an enormous storage capacity of 185 cubic kilometers (44.4 cu mi). The enormous mass of water (approximately 180 billion tons) is believed to have induced seismicity in the faulted basin, an extension of the active East Africa rift system, including over 20 earthquakes of greater than 5 magnitude on the Richter scale (wikipedia).

Although the mean depth is only 29m it extends over an area of 5,580 square kms. I traveled the length of the lake by ferry with my family back in the early 1990’s.

Map of Zimbabwe showing location of Lk Kariba

plan map of Lk Kariba, adjacent National Parks, towns, roads and national borders.

The building of the Lake Kariba was a huge undertaking over the half-decade 1955 to 1959 at a cost of USD 480 million – goodness only knows how much that would be in today’s monetary terms. As a comparison, expansion of Kariba South (Kariba South Extension), which will add an additional 300 MW capacity, is expected to cost between USD400 and USD533 million. This is in large part being financed by China Export and Import Bank (China Eximbank) who are providing a loan of USD320 million (allAfrica.com, victoriafalls24.com).

A perusal of material on the popular public domain video-streaming website Youtube has a few snippets of footage from the construction and the various challenges that arose as a consequence of the damming effort, including the controversial resettlement of a significant population of BaTonga tribespeople.

A brief synopsis of this policy is reviewed in the video below by Rudo Sanyanga of the organisation International Rivers. In it she makes repeated reference to the men without knees, with apparent reference to those Europeans involved in the Kariba dam project. If you are reading this and have some insight I would be curious to know the origin of this unusual metaphor.

A clip from Operation Noah, co-ordinated by Rupert Fotherghill, from the archives of British Pathe:

Whatever the controversy and cost of building the dam, once it was realised, there were economic derivatives, namely:

*Hydroelectricity: The dam was built first and foremost as a means to generate power by harnessing the energy of a controlled flow of water passing through turbines beneath the dam wall. Consequently the two hydroelectric stations in this vicinity (the north and south stations respectively) are vital power sources for Zambia and Zimbabwe.The Zimbabwean hydropower station (south station) is currently being upgraded as detailed above.

*Fisheries: The introduction of several commercial species including the Tanganyika Sardine or kapenta, actually a small, planktivorous, pelagic, freshwater clupeid originating from Lake Tanganyika in East Africa (wikipedia). It is an important source of protein for many people in the region. It is usually salted and dried in the baking hot sun of the Zambezi Valley. I have eaten the refrigerated kapenta (a little more expensive than the dried variety if bought from a retailer) and it’s really quite palatable. It is best prepared by a cook on one of the houseboats which ply the waters of the lake (see below).

Other commercial species include fresh-water crayfish and introduced Tilapia sp. which are farmed in large, submerged cages. The latter is a 15,000-ton yield per annum industry (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

*Tourism: Lake Kariba is flanked by a number of National Parks and safari areas e.g Matusadona NP, Chete and Charara Safari Areas; as well as sparsely-populated communities of people, some resettled from that area of the valley flooded by the lake today. The consequence of this is a shoreline populated with abundant wildlife. The populations of most are directly influenced by hunting and poaching pressures e.g. elephant and large antelope. Other species like buffalo have proven susceptible to the rise and fall of the water level of the lake and the influence that the lake level has on the amount of and quality of the grass for grazing (torpedo grass, Panicum repens).

There are safari lodges, hotels and camps in the proximity of the lake which give access to the local wildlife (National Park site) although many tourists, domestic especially, chose to enjoy the luxury of a houseboat from which almost any spot on the lake edge is accessible.

It is this mode of tourism that I remember best. What follows is a gallery of photos from various trips there over the years and an extract from a chapter I wrote on my childhood in Zimbabwe (unpublished):

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The Driftwood: a diesel-engine boat capable of cruising the lake in most conditions.

The Driftwood: a diesel-engine boat capable of cruising the lake in most conditions.

It was the ultimate leisure activity in Zimbabwe, and probably still is, to float around on Lake Kariba with a hold full of larger and soft drinks and plenty to eat, and to fish for the multitude of species which frequented the waters of the huge artificial reservoir, 280 kilometers long, constructed in the mid to late 1950s. Prized amongst the fish was the razor-toothed Tiger Fish which predates on many of the smaller species, especially the sardine that had been introduced from Lake Tanganyika, known locally as Kapenta. Only when my father’s law firm had acquired shares in one of the houseboats, the Driftwood, moored in one of the marinas in Kariba township, did we start spending holidays there as well.

Bull elephant on the shores of the lake. A common sighting from the boat.

Bull elephant on the shores of the lake. A common sighting from the boat.

It really was a magical place where one could see a variety of wildlife: enormous herds of buffalo, some of the largest in Africa, but prone to fluctuate in step with the variation in the water level; numerous elephant which would amble slowly along the shoreline and were visible from miles away; pods of hippopotamus in the quieter bays, lagoons and river mouths; herds of impala antelope; groups of waterbuck and birds too numerous to mention.

A typical bay in one of the more secluded areas of the lake, probably within the mouth of one of the many tributaries which run down from the escarpment.

A typical bay in one of the more secluded areas of the lake, probably within the mouth of one of the many tributaries which run down from the escarpment.

As a reminder of its recent past as a river ecosystem and not a lacustrine one, the perimeter of the lake was dotted with the numerous skeletal remnants of trees drowned when the river was dammed, except in the few bays where they had been cleared or where the ground was too steep. The ironwoods were most prominent because, as their name suggests, they are the most resilient of the natural timbers.

The old  lignified remnants of trees reach upward from the surface of the dam in many of the bays. It's their submerged remnants which provide the greatest hazard.

The old lignified remnants of trees reach upward from the surface of the dam in many of the bays. It’s their submerged remnants which provide the greatest hazard.

The pilots of the boats knew the waterways intimately, which never ceased to amaze me, considering the extent of the shoreline and how the appearance of these dead and sometimes treacherous trees would change as the water level fluctuated. We had hit the occasional stump lying just beneath the waterline whilst chugging along separately in the fishing tender boats which were towed along behind the main houseboat to the mooring spots; fortunately we never capsized although one or other of the tenders had been stuck for a while on one I seem to remember.

One of the two tender boats which serviced the Houseboat. You simply had to tie up to a dead tree trunk or stump at a prospective fishing spot.

One of the two tender boats which serviced the Houseboat. You simply had to tie up to a dead tree trunk or stump at a prospective fishing spot. From left to right: Ivan, me, Dan, my father.

A few exceptional memories stick out in my mind: the first is of a lion kill we witnessed first-hand on the banks of the Sanyati Bay where the victim was one of the multitude of buffalo. After a slight commotion the rest of the herd had continued grazing nearby as if nothing were amiss whilst the lionesses pinned their prey to the ground and slowly suffocated it. The old male of the pride had been in no great hurry to get there, giving an occasional roar as he sauntered over to the kill whereupon his bevy of females had moved to one side; truly ‘the king of the jungle.’

This had been before the buffalo population had crashed, in part due to a deadly outbreak of anthrax but of greater severity to them, the rising of the waters after record rainfall in the upper catchment leading to the loss of the torpedo grass habitat on which they so depended for grazing. It was recognised as a boom and bust cycle and today the population is rapidly increasing once again.

My grandparents don lifejackets before hopping aboard one of the tenders for an afternoon/evening game-viewing session.

My grandparents don lifejackets before hopping aboard one of the tenders for an afternoon/evening game-viewing session.

Another memory is of seeing a cheetah, released from a boma at Tashinga National Parks camp. This was a rare sighting, because cheetahs are Africa’s most fragile big cat species. I had never seen one in the wild before so this was exciting. Whilst my brothers, my father and I were out fishing, my mother, who was sitting on the deck of the boat, had witnessed something very unusual: one of the cheetahs making a kill. The prey this time had been an impala antelope and it had been killed right at the water’s edge she told them on their return. What had happened next was, in some ways, as remarkable.

The pilot of the boat and the cook had quietly disembarked the tethered vessel and alighted on the shore. Before my mother had realised their intentions they had shooed the poor cheetah, still not fully adult, off the kill and proceeded to lop off a hind quarter from the impala with a machete. By the time we returned it was dusk and the cheetah may not have come back to claim the kill before the other scavengers arrived: the jackals and hyenas.

The other memory that is seared into my mind was on another occasion when we had been accompanied by friends from the UK, Meg and Guy Applebeck and their daughter Mia. Us boys, our father and Guy were on the fishing tenders near the holiday lodge known as Tiger Bay which lay slightly inland of the Lake on the Ume River, accessible to houseboats for some distance. Not only was the river renowned for excellent fishing but there was good wildlife along its banks too.

On that particular afternoon we had been fishing peacefully in a small inlet not a stone’s throw from Tiger Bay when a large male waterbuck had come down to the water to drink. The serenity of the scene was shattered by an enormous explosion in the vicinity of the waterbuck as a mighty Nile Crocodile burst out of the shallows and clamped his sizeable jaws onto the upper leg of the antelope. He must have been a very big croc, because the end of his tail was a good ten feet away from his snout. The waterbuck did his best to resist but the leviathan slowly but surely started dragging him through the shallows towards deeper water.

A later fishing trip with my mother's sister Tess and her family. Here my uncle Keith sits between the captain, Bruno (L), and  Philemon, a young lad from Harare.

A later fishing trip with my mother’s sister Tess and her family. Here my uncle Keith sits between the captain, Bruno (L), and Philemon, a young lad from Harare. It was a spot just like this from which we witnessed the attack on the waterbuck with Guy.

We had all been too amazed and overawed by the spectacle to do anything at that point, but suddenly Guy became animated: “Quick, quick, we must save it” he had shouted. It was widely held and indeed decreed that people should not interfere with the acts of nature, no matter how distressing events may be, but it was too awful for us to contemplate doing nothing to help the afflicted waterbuck.

We fired up the engine and approached cautiously. Had we not interfered the croc probably would have had his way and drowned the animal but our encroachment caused it to act hastily and it had rolled over and torn the entire hind leg off the buck before retreating silently into the depths from which he had come. The waterbuck, never uttering so much as a cry, had staggered out of the water on three legs, standing proudly on the bank, its nose quivering, but unable to go much further.

The wound had to be mortal considering how much flesh had been rent from its body exposing the delicate entrails to infection, if it did not succumb to blood loss or predation by other beasts before that happened. We had approached the proprietor of Tiger Bay and implored him to go and put the animal out of its misery but he pointed out that it was a National Parks area and shooting an animal, even a fatally wounded one, was not permitted.

We returned to the houseboat solemnly. I remember Guy muttering darkly about the vileness and under-handedness of the crocodile, but that was what they had done for countless millennia; who were we to pass judgement? Both crocodilian and mammalian had lived side by side well before man had inhabited that environment. Most likely the antelope had become a meal for other meat-eating animals, whether lions or dedicated scavengers like the hyena, we would never know. This was way of the wild and it was harsh and unforgiving.

The houseboat years were some of the best I can remember from my time as an adolescent. There were trips to the Eastern Highlands and elsewhere but Lake Kariba was where we had best enjoyed time as a family.

One took these sunsets for granted when on the lake.

One took these sunsets for granted when on the lake.

 

Sprucing Things up with Some Multimedia…

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So I’ve been using WP.com for a while now but my advancement has been a gradual evolution interspersed with sudden progressive bursts where I’ve actually taken the time to read a tutorial or try a different theme. I like to think that I now have a semi-respectable blog but truth be told I haven’t really stretched myself as regards embedding multimedia. Only recently did I actually dare to try embed a gallery. It worked! I see one can tweak the appearance in a number of ways and I am very keen to do that. First, however, I would really like to successfully embed a video! Not any old video but one of my charming, albeit, amateur efforts.

The succeeding three videos contain footage from a road trip I did about 5 years back, in Africa. In my quest to try discover if I might not actually want to emigrate to the UK after all (I did) I thought I should at least investigate all of my options. I was long intrigued by the fact that there were other European communities out to the west of Zimbabwe (my turf). I had been to South Africa many times but never to any of the neighbouring nations. Therefore, in March or April ’09 I set out on my own, first to Botswana and from there to Namibia. In Windhoek I discovered an attractive little city populated by Europeans, black and mixed-race people alike. I stayed with a couple, he German, she Afrikaans, who had been living in the country for many, many years. After a couple of weeks in the city looking at the possibility of working (difficult) or studying (possible but also difficult) I headed back to Zimbabwe via another route on another mode of transport (a coach and then a plane) taking in the Caprivi and the Victoria Falls on both the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides of the bridge over the gorge. It was by no means a safari but there were some memorable moments and people along the way.

I have a written account to augment the videos which I will post as well. I think some of it should make good reading anyway.