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Pilot Whales: A Close Encounter

Monday, October 8th, 2012

Tarifa, 5th October 2012
Waiting for the Next Trip
Naturally, on my last day there was hardly a breeze blowing. Should I put my backpack into storage and go out again?

No. The hostel was too unwelcoming. Unlike any other I’d stayed in during this trip they didn’t even offer storage. Rather the signs on the walls proclaimed—in no uncertain terms, and in both English and Spanish—that check-out was by 10:30 at the latest: you and your luggage!.

The bus station didn’t have any left-luggage facilities either.

Part of me thought I should try the firmm office, but then I thought better of it. Talk about being unprofessional.

Mistake? To be sure…

But you know me by now, don’t you? I spent another three minutes vacillating, then shouldered my backpack and marched back to the hostel a toda prisa as they say in Spain. Luckily the place was only about 7 minutes from the bus station, on the way into town. The receptionist grudgingly agreed that I could leave my bag, provided I paid 2€ upfront. I kept hopping from foot to foot and popped a Valium while she went on with her cleaning. When I followed her into the courtyard she finally relented and led me to the first floor where she locked the backpack into a shower stall. One thing that can be said about the hostel was that it had a lot of showers.

“Come back soon,” she said and I hurriedly assured her that I would be back around noon.

By now it was almost 9:40 and I marched to the harbour to find the meeting point devoid of people. The first trip would not leave before twelve.

Oh no! My flight wasn’t until the evening, but buses from Tarifa are a rarity. Having missed the 9:30, the next bus would leave at 11:50 and after that times were a little hazy. There was only one thing for it: march straight back to the bus station to check the timetable.

At this time I almost wished that it had been windy and this dilemma would never have arisen. I wished for it even more when I arrived to find the bus station closed. I could see the timetables through the glass door. My binoculars (which turned out to have many surprising uses) brought them tantalisingly close. But they were at an angle and I could not read them.

What now? The station might open again at eleven, but by then the trip might have sold out. I stood—binoculars in hand—pondering what to do next when a man in a green striped COMES shirt and tie stepped up and gave me a strange look.

“I was just having a coffee,” he said.

And I was able to check that—yes—I should be able to make the 15:30 bus to Algeciras and connect with the 16:30 bus to La Linea, hopefully getting to the airport by 17:30, if I did not get get frisked at the border. Failing that, the 16:55 would go directly to La Linea, but that would be cutting it mighty fine.

This was one of those days. If I decided not to go there would be orcas and sperm whales and even migrating finwhales in addition to all the dolphins and long-finned pilot whales that are resident in the strait. The last time I’d seen pilot whales was on my trip to Bilbao, more than seven years ago, and I missed them.

On the other hand, if I stayed the wind might pick up, we’d all get drenched and I’d miss my flight.

But Nina at the firmm reception assured me that conditions would remain calm, so I parted with my last 30€. My multiple-trip discount meant that I received just about enough change for my bus tickets.

It felt like providence.
[read on]

Day of the Dolphins

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

Bay of Algeciras, 3rd October 2012
Common Dolphins
I’d been watching the wind forecasts for days, and finally it looked like conditions in the Strait of Gibraltar were calming down. My mind was made up. I left Malaga and made straight for Tarifa where—weeks earlier—a persistent sea state of 3-4 put paid to my plans to go whale watching.

Most of the cetaceans here are concentrated in the middle of the strait where common dolphins, striped dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales are frequently encountered, as well as orcas (who follow the bluefin tuna and have developed a knack of nicking it straight off the fishing lines, to the chagrin of the Moroccan fishermen in their tiny boats), and also sperm whales and the odd fin whale that might be passing through. So it was with great expectations that we set out. But there are forecasts and then there are actual conditions. Not for nothing is Tarifa known as one of the kite-surfing hotspots in Europe.

The wind picked up steadily and after getting thoroughly drenched without seeing as much as a fin, the good people at firmm (the Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals) promised us another outing, this time departing from Algeciras to see the dolphins in the bay (no pilot whales or orcas there, but I remember the wonderful experience I had when I first came to Gibraltar in 1987).

So we set off in convoy, with a kind English-Dutch couple giving me a lift in their car. As we crossed the hills into Algeciras the wind died down and the harbour lay baking in the sun. We boarded the FIRMM Fly Blue and set out into the calm waters of the bay with gentle waves rippling the surface. The sea state was 2—almost perfect.

Sweeping with my binoculars I half expected to see dolphins leaping in the distance, but it wasn’t until we drew level with the tip of Gibraltar that the guide pointed out the first group of common dolphins—and there was no need for the binoculars because we were nearly on top of them! In fact we were on top of them as two to three individuals swam directly underneath the bow, twisting and turning and darting from side-to-side.
Common Dolphins
[read on]

Excessive Expectations

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

*This entry has been called ‘Excess Expectations’ for ages. And I call myself an English teacher? Ouch.

Whenever I travel I usually look with disdain at expat enclaves, shut off from local life, their denizens mingling only at work or when playing tourist on their off-days. But it is amazing with what speed things can change when you take a suitcase along instead of a backpack, move into an actual flat and hang your office garb up in the wardrobe.

At that moment you enter a dual existence, and I have found out that living a dual existence can be dangerous for those of us who are not either bi-cultural or superheroes with secret identities, or else have a very solid social base (hence the enclaves). This is because the two worlds will clash and the expectations of one will run up against the demands of the other. And this can affect a person’s sanity.
[read on]

Drinking from the Dragon Well

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

The Longjing tea that is grown in Zhejiang Province is the most famous tea in all China. The original bushes were fed by the still and clear water of the Dragon Well, and maybe one of these days I will get to taste this water for myself.

An account of my adventures in China can be found here:

Final Preparations

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Is it really this long ago since I’ve last blogged?

Anyway, I’m almost done with the prep. I’ve developed a headache from playing Chinese character games and working through almost a hundred newbie lessons in Mandarin and downloading lesson plans and activities whenever there was time. Today the school has emailed me to say that the papers are on their way.

This means that next week may well be my last in the UK. I’ll attend a novel workshop, a graduation ceremony for two friends (incidentally I might receive my own certificate after belatedly graduating in absentia) and I’m hoping for a BBQ. Not to forget shopping for a suitcase!

Then it’s off to steamy Shanghai and on to Hanghgzhou, reputedly the most beautiful city in China. The modern China, that is. I’ll expect noise, smog and glittering sky-scrapers alongside tranquil lakes, hills and pagodas.

Not long now.

Tea to China?

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Apple tree closeup

During my travels I have rarely missed things other than the odd piece of chocolate or salty liquorice. Except for—on one memorable occasion—apples.

I was about to travel through Africa on my own. The group had split up and I was somewhere so utterly foreign that it may have well been on another planet, although one where people spoke French. I was wracked with longing for the rain-streaked streets of home, picturing myself sitting in the back of our old VW Beetle, behind both my parents, and staring out of the windscreen on our way back from town.

I had to forcefully remind myself that my father was dead. But the taste of apples remained in my mouth. We’d had a lot of apple trees in the garden. The shelves in our cellar were full of tiny, wrinkly apples that would last almost all year.

I pined for a while. But returning home was never an option. And one day, when I’d continued my journey, I found some strange berries on the market and bought a few of them, since I’ve always been curious about strange fruit.

They tasted exactly like apples.

I’ve never found these berries again. But I didn’t need to: the craving and the home sickness were gone.

And the morale of the story? Other than for a few pieces of salty liquorice I’m not in the habit of taking home comforts with me because the things you enjoy at home rarely taste right when you’re travelling. The craving for salty liquorice or the odd piece of chocolate is physical and fleeting. When I got my backpack stolen in Indonesia I didn’t miss my remaining liqs all that much. But when I went to Barcelona to do my TEFL certificate, I took teabags with me. I figured I needed them, and I was right.

They worked us hard and the tea gave me comfort, just as those berries once did.

A mug of milky tea is a piece of home.

Journey of My Life

Monday, May 16th, 2011

When I was a child I made a pact with the devil. I wanted to have adventures, to discover new things, to travel to distant shores.

The devil agreed, but of course He extracted a price. He didn’t want my soul, because there is no such thing as a soul. No, the devil is a sucker for entertainment. He wanted to watch me squirm.

He granted me my wishes.

But I could never call a place home.

The Adventure Continues

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

I may find myself in China shortly. Watch this space.

Cast Adrift

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

‘There are places in the world that will welcome you and where you can live. But the UK isn’t one of them.’
(Quote from a forum)

What was I thinking?

To my dismay I have discovered that I don’t have much money left. The TEFL experiment has reduced my nest-egg to almost nothing. There is just enough for a plane ticket to somewhere where there isn’t much competition and the living is cheap.

Costa Rica sounds like a cozy little paradise, but unfortunately I’m not the only one to think that. The rise in gun crime in San José may have scared away some of the gringos, but not enough of them. They get away with paying 4$ an hour, which is considerably less than Thailand.

Colombia may be a better option. The majority of gringos are wetting their knickers at the thougt of the drug war, but that has nothing to do with backpackers or TEFL teachers. However, travel to South America involves yellow fever vaccinations and malaria pills and for me it’s no longer a question of strolling down to the local surgery. And even if it was, I wouldn’t have enough dosh to spare.

But these days the wetting of knickers may apply to Mexico too. I don’t know whether it’s just the north—desert climate and macho men don’t appeal to me. But how choosy can I get? Who the hell wants a German TEFL teacher?

Come to think of it, there was a vacancy for a German teacher in China…

A Lack of Sunshine

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

Gaudi evening

For the past six weeks I have hardly paid any attention to this most unique of cities. In fact at street level Barcelona reminds me of my old home town. I think it’s the scale, and the shops. Barcelona has a far more European feel than any city in the UK and there are none of the chain outlets that disgrace every British high street.

But whenever I look up—that is once I stop running for the traffic lights and am forced to pause—I realise with a sudden jolt that I am somewhere else. Somewhere unique and decidedly Mediterranean. Not that I could tell from the weather. When the sun comes out there is no doubt about it: John says that in the UK we get winter days even in the summer, but in Barcelona we get summer days even in the winter. But, true to form, the sun disappeared once the pressure was off and it takes the odd near-collision with a palm tree to remind myself where I am.

The palm trees give me another jolt every time I see them. The current weather makes this place seem like an odd, twisted version of home—it’s as if I’m walking through a dream.

In an attempt to get to grips with reality—and to realise why I’m hard at work learning Spanish even though I’m speaking English all day at school—I’m going to spend the next week exploring Barcelona. I’m going to walk down the length of Las Ramblas, criss-cross the Barri Gòtic, revisit Park Güell and take a tour around Montjuïc.

Today I started with the university but it was closed and the area was oddly impersonal and devoid of students. I was reminded of melancholic weekends at Oxford. It’s been a while since I’ve contrasted weekends and work days and found the former boring. Maybe it’s time to start writing another novel.

Or to resume blogging.