Monday, 21 April 2014

Walking Through Spain

The Stories Behind Every Hedgerow

I rarely suffer writer's block. I put this down to my hyperactive mind and a low boredom threshold that sees me always eager to move on. Travel provides me with endless inspiration and raw material for short stories. 

Last spring I went walking with my wife in Galicia (NE Spain). The Camino Finisterre. I am about to do a longer Camino, the Primitivo, with my brother and a friend. But this was no ordinary walk. Lorna had persuaded me to undertake the extended Camino Finisterre from Muxia, on the Atlantic coast, to the ancient cathedral city of Santiago de la Compostela. This is a Christian pilgrimage that supposedly began in the footsteps of St James, the apostle who went to spread the word of Christ. His remains are said to be housed in the cathedral. Of course, like many religious sites and pilgrimages, many historians believe that this pilgrimage pre-dates Christianity. Finisterre literally means Land's End. There was a large Roman settlement there and it is thought that wealthy Romans came, believing it to be at the end of the land (Earth) where one crossed over to the after-life. The sea mists and rocky promontories easily lend themselves to this image. Many people who undertake the various Caminos (the most popular is a long route across France and over the Pyrenees, via St Jean, Pamplona and Burgos) are not Christians, but they enjoy the sense of pilgrimage nonetheless. They, like my wife and I, would describe themselves as spiritual, but not religious. In some respects I'm guessing this might have been true of many Romans.

The costal regions of Galicia in particular, represent an old style Spain. My wife and I lived in Spain (Barcelona) with our first child in the early 1980's and Galicia still seemed now to be further back in time than Catalunya was back then. This was a bonus to us. We spent each day walking along the ancient granite paths, through farmland and smallholdings with geese running about and friendly local people tilling the land. Outside each rustic stone cottage one could see a strange elongated stone hut with no mortar between the stones. These huts, called Horreos, are granaries and stand high on stone stilts with mushroom shaped stones at the top of each leg to prevent rodents climbing up. It makes for an ancient-looking, mystical landscape that seemed so different from other areas of Europe. There was little traffic. We saw fields being ploughed using simple wooden ploughs pulled by mules, yet the people were obviously not poor.

With little of the modern world to distract me, I quickly became mentally engrossed in the ancient way of life and the activities we saw going on at each side of the path as we passed by. Where did the women look for a husband? Did they still have local festivals where these rustic people went a bit wild with drink at the end of the harvest and found themselves with the cowherd or the landowner of their dreams? Were there feuds over undesirable marriages, pregnancies outside of marriage? Was divorce common? Did people go off to the city and make their fortune, then return to their hamlet to marry a childhood sweetheart? Was that old man with the crippled leg wounded in the civil war or was he crushed under a horse in a violent storm? 

There was plenty of time to think about all this as we trudged wearily over hills and plateaux. I began to engage ladies at the village springs in conversation as they did their washing or collected water. 
"How long have you lived here, madam?"
"I was born here, as my mother before me and my grandmother before that. Before that I don't know."
"Are you married?"
"No, my husband died twenty years ago, but I have a son who lives in the next town. He takes care of me. I have six grandchildren. One is a lawyer in La Corunia. My husband was killed by Franco's troops, God bless him."(she crosses herself)
"Have you ever travelled far from this place?"
"I went to La Corunia last Christmas. To my grandson's house, but I don't like his wife. She goes out to work - as a lawyer. My great-grandchildren come home to an empty house. She dresses like a tart and wears perfume. It's a sin, that's what it is." 
"Do you have friends here?"
"Oh yes, many. We talk a lot about the old days and sometimes we drink brandy in the evenings together. We talk about how different life is now and how all the young people leave to earn money. Everybody talks about money now. They don't care about finding a good husband or wife so long as they have money. They don't talk to their children or their old parents - it's a sin. My son is a good son though, I tell you. He comes every Sunday afternoon and during harvest time to help out. He fixed the outhouse roof. Not his wife. She wouldn't get her shoes dirty. She was brought up in the town. But at least she stayed at home and looked after the children. She's not so bad and she has a sense of humour. She bears children well so I shouldn't complain. Do you eat almonds, sir?"

During our week of rural walking, I collected many such dialogues that will no doubt at some point find their way into my short stories. I was inspired by many of the things I saw and heard over that week and felt a powerful sense of history as we walked into the city of Santiago de la Compostela at the end. There was an aura of revelation about it, although I could not say it was specifically a religious experience for me. But it did make me feel closer to my fellow human beings and to nature - within which I had been thoroughly immersed. I would defy any writer to take a long walk in the countryside and not come back with inspiration for at least one story. It's probably the oldest solution to writer's block that there is, and I would argue that it is still the most effective.

 The Camino Finisterre path has been walked for centuries.

 Horreos are still used for storing grain, maize etc. The gaps in the stones provide natural ventilation.

 All along the way one finds evidence of Christian dedication.

 Springs along the route provide clear water for washing. I drank it. I'm still fine.

Near Cie. Between Muxia, Finisterre and Cie, the Camino Finisterre follows the beautiful Galician coastline. 

Cathedral of Santiago de la Compostela

If you would like to read short stories by Mark Swain you can find these on Amazon, Smashwords

Monday, 14 April 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Peter

Given the amount of time I spend long-distance cycling, it is hardly surprising that I meet so many interesting people on the road. This is the third in a series of blogs about the more remarkable of those individuals. Enter your e-mail in the 'Subscribe' box on the right and you will be notified of each new blog post.

Tokyo 1984
In 1984, at the age of 26, I travelled to Tokyo, eager to discover what I had heard was a beautiful country and a fascinating culture. I knew it was expensive and that I would need to find work in order to stay. Nearly all the money I had, had been spent on the airfare. I got off the plane at Narita airport with around a hundred pounds and discovered that half of that was needed to take the coach into the city. Fortunately I had an address for a cheap working-men's hostel. When I arrived there I had £40 after currency exchange commission. A dormitory bed in the hostel cost around £8 a night. I felt sure, however, that something would turn up. 

Okubo House
The friendliness of the elderly hostel staff was an immediate boost to my natural sense of optimism. The hostel used to cater for Japanese workmen but more recently had started to take advantage of the foreign backpacker market. I understood very little Japanese and they very little English. The manager, who was affectionately known to western residents as Mosquito San, knew one or two phrases in English. The most memorable of these being "Mosquito drive away!" uttered with cruel intent as he roamed the dormitories in the evenings with a pump-up spray bottle. He was weird, but by no means the strangest person living in Okubo House. Within a day I had encountered quite a motley selection of long-termers who furnished me with invaluable information:
A US Vietnam Vet who told far-fetched stories of living underground and in trees in the Vietnam jungle and who ranted in his sleep. Israeli draft dodgers who knew all the best ways to live on minimal income in Tokyo and how to find temporary work such as in model agencies or film studios. A Russian shot-putter who hid men (or women) in her bed when they climbed in through her window evading curfew, and a timid New Zealand Irish alcoholic who ranted and raved around the house when he got drunk and was eventually barred. But there was one man to beat them all. 

Okubo House - Traditional Japanese Hostel (taken in 1998, now demolished)

Okubo House ran on military order. Mosquito San had clearly served time in the service of his country. There were posters around the place about cleanliness. The fact that these posters were in (comical) English (Rule 1. Never sleep the kwilt no pyjama), indicated that they were aimed at foreigners (since the Japanese are obsessively clean themselves). One was required to attend the communal bath every evening. Mosquito San kept a check. However, he was aided in this task (unsolicited) by a very odd young German. Peter would appear by surprise through a doorway and ask in a most accusing Orwellian voice "Are you clean?" This happened numerous times on a daily basis. New residents were petrified by the experience. Mosquito San and the other staff could never understand what the resulting hilarity was all about. 

Peter Sausage
Myself and a few of my newfound friends were fascinated by Peter. He was a little strange. We had each tried to engage him in conversation at various times and were left with the sense that he was mad. One evening we heard him in the foyer (this was a traditional Japanese building made of a wood frame with paper walls) having received a call on the house phone. 
"Jah, jah this is Peter Wurst."
Peter spoke English but it was not good English and he had a very strong German accent.
"Jah, I am English of course. My parents are English und now I am come here to living in Japan. I am liking to work as English teacher in one school like you language school. Jah, jah, I am having university certificate, naturally. When can I begin?" 
There followed numerous other calls involving laboured conversations of a similar nature. Although most people running these language schools were Japanese, most spoke good enough English to spot that all was not correct with Mr Wurst's English.
"My accent," I heard him say once, "jah, my accent is English of course, but maybe because mein father is von Scotland."

Peter told us he was an honest man seeking to earn an honest day's wage. Clearly his idea of the truth was somewhat different to most and it irked us that he might teach Japanese people to speak English like him. I was even suspicious about Peter's surname. Peter Wurst (Sausage) seemed a little too obvious for a man who told us he had been in Tokyo for two years working as what he termed a "Stick-man." 
"If you want earn big money in Tokyo my friend," he told us, "you need to find work as stick-man. Are you a good stick-man my friend?"
Peter's hand gesture left us in no doubt about what the job of stick-man entailed.
"There are much old women here who like the young western man for boom boom, jah? If you are good stick-man you can make much money. I do this for two years but now I am tired. I can give you phone number for agency, jah?"
He went into great detail about the type of clients one could expect and the nature of their usual requirements. In the interest of international relations and common decency I shall not relate the lurid details here, but suffice it to say that his descriptions were hilarious.

Mad times in Tokyo 1984

Helped by advice from the Israelis, I managed to survive on noodles and All You Can Eat Shakey's Pizza for two weeks until I found a teaching job. But Peter didn't forget about my interest in his previous work. On his nightly visits around the hostel enquiring about personal cleanliness, he would always ask me "did you find some stick-man work my friend?"  

If you would like to read short stories by Mark Swain you can find these on Amazon, Smashwords etc.