The Old Manse
5 to 13.3.’05
Only last year I noticed I hadn’t written a newsletter in ages,
so, pausing only to gather my thoughts, and visit a few places
that might interest a few people, I put pen to virtual paper.
I thought I’d start now and work my way into the past in a series of giant random leaps.
Today (5th March) here in Scotland, where it is often sunny but occasionally cold, I looked out of the bedroom window and thought it looked a little too cold outside to contemplate garden matters in situ, and that it was warmer inside.
While I looked I saw Maggie, our cat, change her mind, something not often observed.
To set the scene, there was a bright, clear blue sky with just a few of those fluffy white clouds on the horizon that seem perhaps, just a little more solid than they might be. You'll know them if you have visited. It was one of those days when one might be standing in the garden thinking of those things one might do, like doing some gardening, not just now, but soon and possibly this weekend and in the meantime just standing in the sunlight, thinking. For Maggie her reason was, no doubt, more cat-like. She was sitting in the place that she had decided she should be. This is why a cat is always right.
With little warning, the welcome rays were interrupted as though God had dropped the lid, and the sudden darkening was accompanied by a significant drop in temperature. She looked around for something to lacerate, but, before a target presented itself, a blizzard came round the corner of the house, fully developed and looking for trouble.
Maggie, as I watched, changed her mind about the place to be, and moved, giving the impression of an elasticated shadow. However she was several yards from the cat-flap, and the snow unkindly painted her white on one side.
A short while later, there was an unhappy cat in the kitchen, or rather two, since her son Errol was there, warm, content and not at all blizzarded. There followed a discussion about filial duty and the fairness of life, it involved a lot of the "scream and leap" style of argument and loosened a few carpet tiles.
A few minutes ago I was thinking that, if dressed warmly, I might stand in the sun and not do any gardening. Now the snow is passing the window horizontally.
It looks like the Enterprise at warp999 (little trekkie reference there for the devotee). As a result of this inclement weather I decided to stay indoors and to start the next newsletter. I suppose it's not really a newsletter if it's just collected ramblings, opinions and gossip, so I'll put a few bits of news in it.
Come to think of it, there are a few newspapers that wouldn’t qualify on that basis.
The garage is up and weatherproof, There are a few pictures on the projects page of our website, http://jimhewlett.homestead.com .
We’ve started the planning stage of the new conservatory. Its purpose is to gather a bit of the afternoon sun and to warm the south end of the house in winter. Hopefully it will bring a bit more light into the living room as well.
The garden fence has been driven back twenty feet and the ground cleared, exposing a lot of foundations, concrete, and rubble from the houses that stood there before. Convenient really because I’ll need a bit of rubble to firm up the ground where the new drive will go.
The caravan has a hardstanding space to sit on. A roof would be nice but it’ll have to do for now.
In the middle of November ‘04 Fiona’s planning came to fruition and we set off to Egypt with a view to seeing what a desert was like and peering at the odd sphinx. The trip was based around a tour organised by a company called Kumuka, they provide a lorry with a sort of coach body on top, along with tents, food, and all the necessaries like a driver and an expedition leader. Of the tourists there were about twenty of us, mostly Aussies and Kiwis, and they were all less than forty and more than twenty. So I felt a bit old, well actually I didn’t, but played on it so that when there were some real beds to sleep on, we got them.
Fiona’s planning and organising was well worth the effort, late in the year seems a good time, I wouldn't try later we found at the end of November a nice balance between crowds and cold, even in Egypt it does get cold, eventually, at night and especially in the desert. October might be worth trying. In the high season it gets very crowded. And hot.
In the middle of a night and in the middle of the Great Western Desert, I was lying flat on my back. We were a bit more than a hundred kilometres south of Cairo, the sandstorm had been going on for a few hours, and being sandblasted was not helping me to work out where the road was. My dignity was under attack as well, since Fiona had felt obliged to interrupt my cogitation by repeatedly interrupting what she ungenerously referred to as my “loud snoring”. The odd thing was that when I turned to Omar (to back me up), he was gone, as was the troupe of dancing girls. It’s a strange place, the desert, and it can do things to your mind.
Sitting in the vehicle, called the Big Fella for obvious reasons, eating up the miles, well kilometres, a sudden bang on the forward window, followed by several more. We had crossed the flight path of a cloud of pink locusts.
Making a camp fire on the edge of the Nile out of thorny (very thorny) palm fronds. They look quite harmless up a tree, but on the ground they would work as well as barbed wire.
Sailing gently down the Nile on a Falluka (like a Dhow but a bit smaller) watching the (ancient) world go by.
Making friends with an Egyptian and finding yet another country “where they really are the same as us once you get to know them”
Not exactly an amusing point, but definitely a strong memory, finding out how to say “no” politely but effectively in the crowded touristy bits. Out in the country the traders and opportunists are less persistent and it becomes possible to buy things without summoning a crowd. Do not give small children any gifts unless you have a really good escape route.
Some useful expressions, and a stream of thoughts that might help
Lah, shockran means "no thank you", but it's best to keep walking. “Imshi” is stronger and perhaps too rude even for a very persistent entrepreneur.
"Where you from?" This is not a so much a question, as a way of stopping you long enough to press a "gift" in your hand, there will be a request for money or a “present” shortly. Keep your hands behind your back. Most of the traders speak enough English to explain that they want some money, sadly they press so enthusiastically that it’s difficult to buy any thing for fear of starting an avalanche. Most of the souvenirs are of reasonable quality for the price they will haggle down to (about a third to a tenth of the first offer) but are not very sturdy as a rule. Buy the cheapest papyrus going, it is much the same, bigger and better executed is more expensive as you would expect, you should get a completely spurious certificate of authenticity (or a discount.) Black statuettes may be shoe polish, the black shouldn’t come off on your hands.
Don't get on a camel at the pyramids (or other popular sites,) under any circumstance unless part of a group, not even for a "quick" photo. There is a tendency of “guides” and camel owners to try to separate tourists from their group and to loosen the purse strings. This might seem a bit desperate but the local tourist police who are quite different to the routine ones are often on camels for a purpose. If in doubt, yell.
Wash your hands with a bactericide regularly,
you will get the squitters unless very careful indeed,
probably from the money, but it may delay the onset.
Carry the kind of Immodium that dissolves on your
tongue and always have toilet paper. Use every clean
toilet you find.
There is a curious "fever" which doesn't last long, but leaves
most tourists very tired for a day. Mainly in early winter, and
completely unexplained, presumably a virus.
Poor Egyptians are very poor, earning as little as one Egyptian
pound for two hours work. Not surprisingly they tend to expect
much more from tourists they see as multi-millionaires. And if
you look like a soft touch, you’ll find open hands everywhere,
even the regular police, and certainly anybody you include
in a photograph.
The visa you need to get into the country is available in the airport
on arrival, you just buy some stamps at the little banks just before
immigration control, and they stick them in your passport and then stamp them. They don’t tell you that anywhere, so it produces a confused queue. Don’t cross the yellow line till invited, in any country customs officials get upset if you don’t take the process seriously, even when the inspector gives the impression that he’s never done it before. It’s not exactly their fault, the government principle seems to be to get lots of people poorly paid jobs rather than employ fewer professionals at a higher rate. It’s the better option, I think.
The route we took led us around a series of temples and ancient sites, and by luck they gradually became more “modern” if that term can be employed. So they became more complete and gave a better idea of what they had looked like originally. At Giza the Pyramids and Sphinx are impressive, but…… well go anyway, it’s still worth it, and if you are in the area you have to tick it off your list of things to do before you die.
Just check that it’s not the last one on the list, if it was, wash your hands.
After Egypt we stopped off on Crete, charming place, remarkably steep here and there. More specifically those places that Fiona wanted to traverse or visit were very steep. The word precipitous doesn’t really do it justice. Vertiginous, precarious, vertical is more the sort of thing. There are places and buildings I saw from between my fingers that, if there had been but the teeniest, quietest, least exciting earthquake, would have, (on perhaps the shifting of a small post or few bricks), simply disappeared. I’m not talking “crash down the side of a mountain” here, it’s a sudden free-fall situation in complete silence, bar a faint whistling noise, for a couple of minutes before that place would have stopped moving as quickly as it started. Albeit reshaped.
Some idea of what it looks like, First off, it's a lot greener than most of the Mediterranean islands, especially in December, and quite prosperous because of that. It's certainly not as dependent on tourists as Egypt. There are two decent sized mountain ranges and most of the roads go through or rather over them. The mountains are very precipitous, some of the flat bits are at more than 45 degrees to the vertical. Most are vertical. Driving can produce some spectacular views, much more suddenly than your laundry maid would hope for. The local version of crash barrier has regular visual lessons in what not to do, and where not to do it. If you are lucky there is a practical demonstration of the fact a few hundred meters down slope. If not, well you will be educating others, the view on the way down will be spectacular, if blurred.
The Cretans have no fear of heights at all, or hide it well. The web page has a photo of a small town on a wide plain. It is taken from a tiny village on the edge of a cliff, so tiny that you can't photograph it. I’ll explain, if you can see it from the outside you have your nose stuck against a building, step back a metre and you have fallen off the edge or are inside a mountain and in either case can't see it any more.
You can go to the edge and look straight down onto roofs, very small, distant roofs.
There is one thing I feel I should mention, after a while, travelling, you do feel rather embarrassed at being British, our history there has some really bad bits in it. Most of it we can only apologise for, but next time you are in the British Museum(s) ask them, for me, to give the Egyptian stuff back. The Greek stuff too.
I try to avoid it myself, I think it just encourages “principles” resulting in apparently intelligent people using a lazy moral formula to support self interest, which will cost them more in the long run. Today the (Tarbrax) village strife comes from the fact that a local farmer wants to build a six turbine wind farm, there are going to be a few of them in the area if planning permission goes ahead, some with eighty units.
It’s odd, only one person has ever complained about the 300 million ton waste shale heap 200 metres from the village, and for various reasons it seems, most people rather like it.
Most people were vaguely in favour of the renewable energy idea until the reality turned up a couple of kilometres from the village. Now the vocal ones, speaking of course for the silent majority, think it’s a better idea to have Coal fired or Nuclear generators in somebody else’s back yard. Perhaps they’re thinking that global warming will raise their house prices by giving them a shoreline and a Mediterranean climate.
It might be a treeline and a Canadian climate if dire warnings come to fruition, as in “living above the treeline,” go to work on a skidoo and learn to love glaciers. It'll be easier to make ice cream, but the yak has to live indoors because of predation by the new minority group, Yeti.
On a happy note, Fiona has started making bread, my small contribution was finding the machine, which helps do it, or at least makes little buzzing and beeping noises, which seem to be part of the process. There are many variations on the basic mix, and some are really amazing, I’ll not go back to Supermarket stuff without a fight, I would even consider doing it myself, but I’ll keep that quiet for now.
The next trick would be a cow and some chickens, but they would have to come with somebody to look after them. I didn’t do 4am milking on the farm and have no desire to start now.
The Electricity board, or some of its representatives, popped by a while ago. We had given them permission to lop a bit off the top of a few trees in the garden, so that the power lines were safe for another few years. We found, later, that they had clear felled a sizeable area in the wooded area (outside the garden.)
Still all’s well that ends well, (an expression I’m not too sure about, but will use anyway), They did replace them with lots of new trees, some up to 20 feet tall, and we had them plant them away from the power lines, it seemed safer that way.
Wildlife, quite a bit of it, usually brought in by a cat, keeps turning up, there was the cutest baby rabbit on the top of the stairs and we have to catch a mouse now and then. If the cats decide to play with them indoors, they usually lose them behind the furniture.
I’m getting quite good at mice, but frogs are easier to catch, and birds usually find an open window if encouraged, though they leave non refundable deposits.
Outside, wildlife is also quite active, the starlings keep trying to get into the eaves and any other opening available including the chimney. We have a good local population of Kestrels/Buzzards and they’ll be interested in the recent arrival of rabbits in the woodland. There’s a wren that lives in the novelty bird box on the south corner of the house and makes more noise than the half dozen or so blackbirds. The purpose-built woodpile seems to be appreciated by hibernating hedgehogs, which I hope will keep the slug population down long enough for a strawberry crop. I think a bat box might be made available soon for rent to the better class of bat. Interviews could be tricky.
Sport. I don’t do sport, but I think I might have to soon. Fiona has been looking at Sea Kayaks. I wonder if they do one with a sun deck and a motor?
Good works. I’ve, almost accidentally, adopted a dog from the local dog rescue. He’s called Jasper and apparently can’t be re-homed. Now I’m getting letters from him, telling me of his life and aspirations. It’s a funny planet.
Work. Takes up altogether too much time, it is expanding rapidly from the original weekday 9 to 5. Not being helped by Lothian Council wanting everybody to walk to work. It (work) may have to be abandoned altogether, I’m on duty now (Sunday 4.10pm), if I get called in I have to pay to park, that riles a bit. Really must retire at 55 to fit everything else in. Only two years now.