But fiestas, of course, must go on. And here's The Local's view of the ten weirdest in Spain. I was pleased to note that two of these take place here in Galicia. And one of them is in the birthplace of the lovely Ester's husband, Jacobo. I must attend it this year. Actually, there's another weird event much closer to home, at the monastery in Lerez I can see from my window. On the feast-day of some saint or other, the faithful walk round the church, throwing stones over the roof. And what goes up must come down. Meaning injuries. I doubt this is the only place in Spain this happens but a quick search hasn't thrown up anything.
I see the UK government is bringing in on-the-spot fines for 'anti-social' driving. Offences will include sticking in the middle lane of a 3-lane motorway, and tailgating. The latter doesn't seem to be an offence here in Spain. On the contrary, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was compulsory. Similarly, UK officers will be able to fine motorists who don't give way at junctions, something which almost never happens here on the autopistas. There's no suggestion that listening to podcasts via earphones will become an offence in the UK. In contrast, again, you get a 200 euro fine for this here in spain, some readers may recall.
The Spanish government is planning to make it an offence for cyclists not to wear a helmet. There's a groundswell of opposition to this but Madrid will surely prevail as it'll be yet another easy source of income for the police. Ironically, no one in their right mind would ride a bike on the roads here; they prefer the safer pavements. Safer for them, of course, if not for us. Only today there was a sidewalk meeting between a lamppost, a (helmeted) cyclist and me. Guess who gave away.
As it happens, I was thinking of cyclists this week, when noting (afresh) that the Spanish use the word humanización for 'pedestrianisation'. I can't help wondering whether this avoidance of any word stemming from the Latin for 'foot' reflects the fact we pedestrians have to share the pavements with not only cyclists (infant and adults) but also people on skates, scooters, snowboards and even bloody segways. Another contrast - in the UK the segway is classified as a powered vehicle, subject to road traffic law - and banned as it doesn't meet safety standards
I touched on the Galician language - Gallego/Galego - the other day. Here in Galicia, it's co-official with Spanish, usually referred to as Castellano. This means it should get equal treatment. In practice, it gets far more than that, at least in places where the mayor is from the Galician Nationalist Party, as here in Pontevedra. The result is that he who pays the piper calls the tune and so our monthly Guide of Events is entirely in Gallego. As were every one of the labels for the fotos of early 20th century Pontevedra I enjoyed in the Turismo office today. And this is a city where possibly 5% of the population use it as their first language. Must go down well with visitors from other parts of Spain.
In English, you can pronounce the letter H as either aitch or haitch. Only the former is correct but it seems the latter is taking over. Presumably because, as in so much else, today's teachers have no idea of what is right and wrong. Ditto hóspitle and hospitúl. My personal bugbear.
Finally . . . A sort of treat. My novelist daughter, Faye, is in Guatamala, researching color locale for her third novel. She's sent me today the start of her travel diary and I set this out below. It's crap but worth a quick read.
1. The Journey: Madrid - New York - Miami - Guatemala City
I hope one day to stop surprising myself with the risks I’ll take for an extra 20 minutes in bed. Missing the cercanía by four seconds put me on edge, as I’d been told to get to the airport three hours before my flight (after missing the previous day‘s flight). And those three hours had already taken a philosophical shaving.
Turned out that I was well-advised though, as there was only one person working the AA desk, and she took 40 minutes to attend to the first people in the queue. I was assured several times that this woman was the only person among the relaxed and plentiful AA staff who was trained to change a ticket.
Nothing was improved by my having drunk a bottle of red wine the night before. On waking I had soaked up 600mg of ibuprofen with a mug of Frosties. Then on the plane, early turbulence persuaded me that I’d need at least 4mg of Valium to stop sweating. Which all made for a queasy in-flight experience. An aisle seat seemed to confirm my recent streak of bad luck. But that was abated by the meal, which was arrestingly edible: a nice pasta dish with a cajun crust, quality biscuits, fresh salad, and a mini Twix. Nicer than any meal I’ve ever had on American soil.
Then the Valium kicked, and I slept until woken by my resurrected headache.
Changing plans in JFK, I got the usual kick from the New York bonhomie, especially in those Janus-faced customs bastards. I bought a copy of Vanity Fair, my infrequent and only magazine indulgence. Why have we nothing that comes close to those US magazines in the UK? We used to have The Face, but that was when I was a teenager. Nothing serious but fun ever replaced it.
It was a lovely day in New York and I had to resist quite a loud voice that told me to abandon my connecting flight, stroll into the city, and throw myself on my friend Faris’s mercy.
I didn’t, and was rewarded with a window seat for the Miami flight - but Lady Luck kept me humble by sitting me next to the kind of man whose breath you can smell from a foot away when he’s not even facing you. I resented him awhile. Then thought about my fraught, shower-free morning, and realised I’d probably got my own back on him without even trying. How beautiful life can be. It occurred to me that if I was a real citizen of the world, I’d tell someone like that how badly they stink. It’s the kind of thing that could turn a life around - and they’d never have to see me again. Anyway, Reader, I didn’t. I fashioned myself a pair of tissue nose plugs.
My second coffee of the day had me feeling relieved that I don’t have to worry about my children’s children.
Miami has got to be one of the strangest places in the world. Everyone operates in a dreamlike state as though they can’t decide which mood to be in. Looking for a hair product (having had mine ripped untimely from my rucksack in my aborted flight fiasco), I found myself at a small Kiehl’s counter. The assistant drifted over in a trance, as though it was the first time she’d ever assisted someone. We started talking, but the smell of my pizza sent her over the brink of distraction, and we somehow came to a tacit agreement whereby she would keep feeding my with free samples while I gave her the exact coordinates of Pizza Hut. In the airport. Where she works.
Boarding my third flight of the day, I wondered how I’d managed to keep hold of all my belongings. I wondered too, whether this was the longest day of my life. It was certainly up there, its main competition being the time I went with my lovely friend Claire to Rome. I’d been up all night and we’d arrived at the airport to find our flight delayed by hours. Iberia, that quintessence of Spain, refused to give us even a free coffee for our troubles. I didn’t really mind, but Claire took it badly. She decided we should put in an official complaint, and that I should be the one to do it because my Spanish was better. I went from being too tired to care to coming close to a fist fight with the rudest customer service representative in Spain. And that is saying something.
Then there was the time when the prudent Ciara and I flew to Antigua and were delayed by hours in Paris. (I say prudent, but that was the end of Ciara’s prudence for the holiday, as I recall.) Anyway, the night before, she had prudently decided not to come out in London - and had found me in the shower earlier that morning drinking pink champagne. I fell over in Heathrow and was almost sick on the plane. Then those sweaty hours of delay in Paris. And that was all before the frank Frenchman on the final plane informed us that the six weeks of work we had planned on cruise ships were unlikely to happen because it was hurricane season. That was a long day.
The Miami plane was frisky, but at least I didn’t arrive in a tropical thunderstorm, as feared.
Guatemala City: Day (night) 1
The airport may as well have been Madrid. And the little I saw from the cab by night seemed pretty low key compared to Mexico City and Buenos Aires. But perhaps we just skirted it. Before falling asleep, I chatted to the cab driver about the city. He said the big change in recent years has been the number of violent street gangs. Apparently they’re composed of young men who moved to LA, formed gangs there for self-protection/a job, then were deported back to Guatemala with no communication from the US government as to their criminal status (stati?). I suspect resentment of the USA is going to be a bit of a theme here. Conundrum: obviously I’d really like to see these tattooed thugs (maras), but don’t want to go near them. I’m thinking of arranging a kind of city safari, in which an armoured vehicle drives me around the barrios mas chungos.
Antigua: Day 2
I woke up at 5:52 - and still didn’t see the bloody dawn. Doubtless it was her and her trucks that woke me.
An hour and a half until breakfast with just me and my thoughts. A most unusual situation. Starving hungry, I scoffed everything I had left over in my bag from the plane(s), and when it finally came, ate a breakfast of which even Ciara would have been proud: beans, tomatoes, potatoes, fruit and pancakes.
I suspect that Antigua is Central America lite, if not superlite. It’s a town of cobbled streets, low colonial houses and quiet people who don’t stare at my hair. No one’s even really tried to sell me anything. Except an American woman who stopped me on her bike to give me a leaflet about massages. She expressed surprise at my speaking Spanish (which she must have gauged from our greeting). ‘Ahora podemos hablar,’ she said as she rode off. Well technically, I thought, we could speak before.
In the afternoon I had coffee and juice in the little garden patio of a place called Fernando’s Kaffee. My waiter was a boy of about ten. Apart from the outfit, he had an arresting aspect of the man about him. When I asked if he spoke English, he told me ’very little’ in a way that suggested he’d rather that was an end to the subject, but his professionalism would bring it out if I really needed it. Later, he made a wry comment about the rain as he took in the cushions. But it was as though he had other things on his mind, like love and taxes.
Walking, in the evening, still felt like an unnatural mode of transport. I took myself a short distance to a little bistro called Hector’s, sat at the bar and ordered a Portobello mushroom quiche, for Tom. That, the breakfast already mentioned, and a lunch of ‘traditional’ chicken and vegetable soup doused with lime, made the sum of the day’s food squarely delicious. Over dinner, sat among romantic couples, I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I like better as Hardy gets darker and more misanthropic. No one’s attempted to make friends with me, and I’ve attempted to make friends with no one, which leaves the friend situation at a kind of stalemate (if you’ll pardon the pun). This is okay with me as, the three tourists who I’ve interacted with so far have been wankers. Another upshot is I might get through a couple of the zillion classics on my Kindle.
I suppose I should say something about the potted ferns and hibiscus flowers, and yellow butterflies, and mists over the mountains, and fireworks over the 18th century Spanish churches, and women in Mayan skirts selling fruit, and mynah birds on the rooftops, and the balmy days and cool, damp nights, and the tranquil traffic over the cobbles. Consider it said.
Antigua: Day 3
I have a lovely room with one whole wall of windows, a deliciously hard bed with six pillows, and a private plant-decked terrace, which makes me feel like a visiting dignitary - or a woman widowed on her honeymoon but without the pain, or pesky police investigations. I might take my mosquito net down though, since I’ve only seen one mosquito - and that was ore interested in a plant than my blood.
I was awake at 5:41 this morning. Still no dawn witness, but boy do I feel virtuous. Effortless virtue is always a delight. The only problem was my Nazi stomach, which growled like a cheated tiger at the idea of waiting two hours for breakfast.
This - no alcohol nor company, cold showers, early mornings, and eggy breakfasts reaching beyond my visual range - sits oddly with me, but I like it. I’m always happy to try on a new personality for a while. Actually, the solitude isn’t that new. This past year has taught me nothing if not to spend days on my own.
A mildly apocalyptic Sunday morning: while helicopters roamed the moody skies, the priest in the cathedral preached over a sound system to a motley crew of believers: men in surf T-shirts, highland women, and families with beautifully kempt matching daughters. I asked the tourist police about the helicopters, but they said they had no idea. So I went to the supermarket to buy some more Gorilla Snot hair gel and some factor 30 sun cream for Sophie. Not because Sophie worries about me getting skin cancer, but because she says if I’m too brown when I get back, she won’t let me stay at her house.
The town was full of Guatemalan tourists with their four-by fours, fat bellies, and poodles in T-shirts. I wonder where they fit into the picture. The maids in the hostel not being very forthcoming, I paid a guide to give me the low down not on the 18th century convent we were in but the country as it is right now. He told me that the power lies in the hands of around thirty-five families. The whole sorry history of Guatemala - of Latin America - is one of horrific social injustice, with the violence of the civil war having been replaced by the violence of drug cartels and extortionists.
It’s hard to reconcile your everyday Guatemalan with the tales of the guerrillas and murderous street gangs. In general they seem to be in a bit of a daze. Not the conflicted daze of the Miamians, but just rather subdued. I remember Paul Theroux saying he got practically nothing from them, they were so laconic. I wouldn’t go that far. They can be quite chatty, but almost as an afterthought.
Having spent my lunch money on the guide, I tried to get by on banana cake and crisps. When dinner finally came, I devoured it like a tiger who’d been kept for weeks on a lettuce farm. Don’t know what’s going on with my body.
I saw a border collie today. He gave me a Ryanesque sniff as he passed. That was worth the company of several tourists, who seem to feel the need to pummel me with their travel CV while I stare at them blankly.
Antigua: Day 4
Fucking travellers. Over breakfast I had to listen to a big English girl on a video call showing someone her spots. If anything could have put me off my food, it would have been that. Also, how many times do people have to say they love each other these days?
Having been told there were no shuttle buses going to the coast (not a massive tourist pull anyway, let alone in low season), I got the news mid-morning that there was one leaving at 1pm. So I got my shoes fixed by a tiny, impossibly worn-looking man, and stocked up on banana bread.
In two hours we went from rain and shrouded mountains to flat land covered with sugarcane, and heavy heat, and villages with pigs and chickens, and endless mango trees. The roadside shops here are painted with the colours and logos of three companies: Pepsi, Movistar, and Tigo (another mobile phone company). The driver politely withstood my constant questions (think me aged four, Dad) - ‘What’s that tree, bird, factory, crop, smell, etc.?’ He probably started making it up.
My eye’s getting more cynical as I start reading about Guatemala’s civil war. I’m reading a book called The Art of Political Murder, about the assassination of a bishop who presided over a huge enquiry into the massacres after peace was declared in 1996 at the price of an amnesty for the army. At a glance, Guatemala’s history would seem to be the history of Latin America writ small: they get rid of the Spanish, who are replaced by a succession of brutal dictators, who bleed the country of everything, normally with some help from the church. The US gets involved, buying up the fruit and the transport industries, which become one and the same thing. Then fears of communism lead to them instating some heavily right-wing dictator (disregarding the intricately linked CIA and industry captains, because they must be immaterial) and injecting some guerrilla action into the hills. Meanwhile, the mad dictator makes sure his army generals are worthy of the name, and jump to: soldiers ripping babies out of women’s stomachs and cutting the heads off village children with machetes.
The church is an interesting player in this case, because it was a cleric who started the investigations for justice. It made me think how, in general, there aren’t two sides of a conflict, but four - because within each side you have the moderates and extremists, who must hate each other almost as much as the enemy. Maybe I’m wrong about this.
I had stuffed tortillas for dinner - my first avocado in nearly four days! I’m pleased to report they were delicious. Sam seems to be under the impression that I eat like a bird. So I’d like to know how many bloody quetzales she’d be spending on food here because I’m not going to be able to afford to do anything but eat at this rate. And that’s before the trekking.