The nights on the bus were the worst part. There was no scenery to admire. Even if at times the view during the day was of an immense drop as the bus wound another mountain, it was more stimulating than the impenetrable darkness of night. There was also nothing to read. At 9pm the bus driver turned off all the inside lights. What we were given instead of scenery and literature was music which consisted of a maxed out casio keyboard, an assortment of pipes and a warbled voice. The racket poured out of the speakers for an hour and a half. The same five songs over and over. When the music stopped, the locals shifted in their seats, smacked their lips and drifted off to a peaceful slumber, aided and abetted by the gentle thrum of the engine. I envied their capacity to sleep. I was wide awake, cranky, stiff at the joints – and soon to be scared stiff.
It happened so quickly. One minute my travelling companion Louise seemed to be on the cusp of sleep. I was anticipating her little snores when suddenly she was screaming, babbling on about some strange creature in the aisle.
But wait, let me go back a bit. We were backpacking around South America and after hitting all the hotspots in Brazil we decided to go off the beaten track in Bolivia. Found ourselves in a town in the North of the country called Cobija. It was nice to get away from other backpackers and the tourist-traps, to rest up and watch a Bolivian town go about its business. Soon, the road was calling and we felt ready for the nation’s capital. Being off the beaten track, however, meant we had snookered ourselves in terms of transport options to La Paz. Our only choice was a 48 hour coach ride.
The days on the bus weren’t so bad. There were stops every few hours to stretch, go to the toilet, eat and breathe in the fresh air. The rest of the time was passed chatting with Louise, gazing out the window and reading my book Muttville Massacre. There was a certain freedom to it. Louise was good company: she never complained and shared my fondness for puns. In fact were it not for my inability to sleep and my uneasiness about our fellow passengers, I might have enjoyed the journey a lot more.
‘How’s the book?’ Louise asked. She angled her head to see the front cover.
‘It’s good. All these dogs in a place called Muttville get massacred.’
‘Hence the title.’
‘Who’d wanna kill cute little dogs?’ Louise asked.
‘That’s what detective John Hardy is trying to figure out. Thing is – Hardy isn’t like other cops.’
‘Is he not like other cops in that he’s a hard-nosed, whisky drinking rogue who doesn’t play by the rules?’
‘Exactly. And he’s rattling cages all over Dublin to get to the truth.’
‘Let’s hope he’s not barking up the wrong tree.’
‘Yeah. Cos he’s like a dog with a bone.’
‘Huh. And payback’s a bitch.’
We both laughed. Some of the passengers turned around to look at us. Nothing new there. As the only non-locals on board we were under constant surveillance. During the first few pit-stops we tried to strike up a rapport with our travelling companions. I asked a short, stocky woman in a long dress and bowler hat if I could take her photo. Her response went beyond the vocabulary of my pocket phrase book but it was made clear to me nonetheless she wasn’t going to be flashing her gold teeth and saying cheese. Any attempt we made thereafter to chat with the others was met with curtness. And walking back down the aisle as the bus pulled away again (we were always the last to board after pit-stops) all these brown eyes set in immobile faces just stared at us. It was a tad unnerving.
On the second night we got the fright. Yet it started so peacefully. In an effort to lull myself to sleep I had put my jumper between my head and the window and gathered warm thoughts in my mind: In the morning we would be pulling into La Paz where a shower and a bed awaited. A simple shower and a simple bed in a simple room was all my heart desired and every passing minute I was being taken closer to it. Sweet comfort was the other side of a big sleep. I kept thinking this over and over and slowly, very slowly I began to drift towards –
The bus stopped and the lights were turned on. It felt like a rude interruption. People blinked, rubbed their eyes.
‘Where are we? Is it a toilet stop?’ Louise asked.
I looked behind me and noticed that some passengers were getting up and taking their bags with them.
‘Jaysus, it’s a bus stop.’
About five passengers shuffled down the aisle, their faces a mixture of sleepiness and irritation. I was thinking ‘Grand, create a bit more space’ but then, people began to board and a small procession made their way past the valley of eyes towards the back of the bus; two stout and very cross looking women, two scared looking boys around 8 years old and three men – small, tough fellas who were stooped over carrying huge black sacks. Where the hell were they gonna fit them? I was relieved there were no free spaces near us. They settled somewhere down the back. The lights were switched off and the bus moved on. Sleep now seemed impossible as my uneasiness about our fellow passengers had just been given given steroids.
Her response was delayed and sleepy:
‘Whattaya think is in those black sacks those men had?’
‘What?’ She said, annoyed. ‘I dunno.’ She turned away from me.
‘It’s just… You don’t think it could be something dodgy.’
‘Whattaya mean?’ she asked in a tone that suggested I get straight to the point.
‘Like dead dogs.’
She sighed. I figured that was the end of the conversation but then she spoke. The words were directed at her chest but were unmistakably for my benefit.
‘You need to stop reading that book.’
If only I could get lost between the covers of Muttville Massacre. I fixed my jumper between my head and the window again and sighed. An army of slow minutes dragged by. I looked over my shoulder. From what I saw faces were either cocked up and to the side with mouths agape and eyes closed or chins were buried in chests. Nothing stirring. I tried to steer my thoughts back towards the bed and the shower.
I got such a shock I was almost standing.
‘Oh my God.’ Louise screamed again.
‘What? What? What is it?’
‘There’s something there!’
‘There!’ Louise said pointing at the aisle.
I leaned over her and looked down into a pool of blackness.
‘Did you see it?’
‘I can’t see anything. And you gotta keep your voice down. What was it?’
‘I don’t knowww. Something furry,’ she said.
‘What like an animal?’
‘Yeah. No. I don’t know. I dropped my bottle and when I put my hand down to pick it up I touched something…something furry.’
‘I don’t wanna sit here. Will you swap with me please?’
I wasn’t too keen. I mean Louise didn’t scare easily – we had encountered mosquito bites, mice and all manner of reptiles, all of which she met with her stock phrase; ‘Be grand.’ This was the first time I saw her spooked. It was also the first time she asked anything of me and I felt duty bound to step up to the plate.
Careful not to put a foot in the aisle Louise clambered over me and I scooched across.
‘Thanks,’ she said when she settled.
Straight away I was looking at the aisle space next to my new seat.
‘Can you see anything?’ Louise asked.
‘It’s too dark.I can’t tell if there is anything there or not.’
‘Well I touched something,’ Louise said.
Slowly I leaned over, my left hand going down, down into the darkness. It was like my hand was going on an exploratory exhibition. Louise clutched the inside of my right elbow. I touched something.
‘Jesus Christ!’ I said.
‘There’s something there.’
‘What is it?’
‘It’s like flesh like. I…I…’
I went fishing again.
‘Uggh. Jesus,’ I said returning to an upright position.
‘What?’ Louise asked. Even in the blackness, I could see the whites of her eyes.
‘It’s soft. And smooth,’ I reported. ‘It’s something to do with those men with the big sacks on their backs I’m telling ya.’
‘Oh God,’ Louise shrieked.
‘I have an idea.’
Every now and then a truck going the opposite direction passed and its headlights swept through the bus. I sat, eyes fixed on the driver’s window and waited for oncoming traffic… And waited…and waited…it was, after all, 3am on a lonesome Bolivian backroad.
Lights flared, then dimmed. My heart jumped. I watched the oncoming truck and as it got closer I trained my eyes on the floor. Bright light invaded the bus and I saw.
‘Fuck!’ I said.
‘What?’ Louise said.
‘It’s a boy! There’s a boy sleeping in the aisle.’
‘He’s wearing shorts. You must have touched his jumper or sock.’
‘Oh thank God. Thank God.’
‘Thank God? Really? We’ve been stroking a little boy and his parents are somewhere behind us. I mean I don’t know if you’ve noticed but were not exactly well liked on this bus. The last thing we need is for everyone to think we’re kiddy fiddlers.’
Thankfullly, the boy remained sleeping unperturbed. The sky began to brighten and so too did my mood. Sure what could be in those black sacks only clothes and knick-knacks? The fears that held me hostage overnight dissipated, edged out by the promise and distraction of morning in a big city. A new day was beginning and soon I would be in bed.
In response to January 2021 Writing Prompt ‘Muttville Massacre’ from Putting My Feet In the Dirt blog.
In his memoir Mark Lanegan grabs you by the scruff and drags you through the squalor from tour-bus to crack-house to park bench. It’s a harrowing read at times and his experiences as rockstar, drug-addict and drug dealer are brought to life so vividly you may feel the urge to take a shower after reading to relieve yourself of the grime.
Often rock memoirs start off when everyone is fresh-faced, idealistic and bound by a common goal. Screaming Trees skip that part and settle quickly into acrimony. Lead singer Lanegan detests the lyrics and faux psychedelia of the songs, written by Lee Conner. Actually he doesn’t like Lee Connor at all- despite the fact he’s the one who brought Connor into the band. He’d quit but he sees The Trees as his only ticket out of a one-horse town where he’s already garnered a reputation as a crook. It works; Screaming Trees become big names in Seattle and are soon touring Europe. Lanegan also releases a solo album ‘The Winding Sheet’ to no small critical acclaim. With things tense in the band and fed up with singing lyrics that mean nothing to him he decides to quit. To entice the frontman back Lee Connor relinquishes creative control and allows other members muscle in on song writing duties. Finally Screaming Trees are making records Lanegan is proud of and he settles into an easy life of music making. Or at least he might have- if it weren’t for that pesky heroin.
It’s not that he wasn’t warned. Sadly, many of his musician buddies have their talent and lives extinguished by their addictions yet Lanegan cannot stop himself going deeper into the abyss with what seems like an unfathomable drive for self-destruction. We can only wince as we watch the emaciated singer frantically pacing the shadiest parts of European cities in search of the medicine he needs to ‘get well.’ Such is his suffering we find ourselves willing him to change his ways, or even to score so long as he avoids another devastating withdrawal, an experience he says ‘must be akin to getting gang-fucked non-stop by satan’s whores for three full days and nights – and not in a good way.’
You get the picture: A light-hearted romp fluffed out with celebrity tittle-tattle it ain’t. That said, we are given an account of life backstage when rockstars with huge egos and drug habits collide. Step forward Liam Gallagher. Screaming Trees supported Oasis during a tour of the US in the nineties. Liam Gallagher did not ingratiate himself with the American when he interrupted his lunch and screamed Howling Branches (a play on the band’s name) in his face. The Mancunian was promptly told to fuck off. Affronted that a support band would give him such cheek Gallagher took every opportunity to provoke Lanegan, always sure to have his two hulking bodyguards present. Enraged, the Screaming Trees frontman was determined to find Gallagher alone and deliver an unmerciful ass kicking. He never got his chance. Liam quit the tour and fled to England. Time has not served as a great healer ; 25 years later, Lanegan vents his spleen. If there is a World Record for most insults per page, this has got to be in with a shout as an avalanche of abuse that spans a whole chapter is launched at the younger Gallagher.
Not that it helped. In an interview Lanegan described writing his memoir as an unpleasant experience that was not cathartic. However, he was heartened that dredging up the past inspired a new album ‘Straight Songs of Sorrow’ which is a good accompaniment to the book. The only down side of the memoir is that it fails to tell us about his work with Queens of the Stone Age, Isobel Campbell or many of his other collaborations. Nor do we get much insight into his life today. Perhaps he is leaving it for volume two. I recommend the audio-book. Lanegan’s voice is as you might expect of someone who has put himself through hell and lived to tell the tale.
The French lady at the Ryanair desk throws her arms in the air in exasperation as if to ask ‘Why must I deal with such idiots?’ The idiot, in this case, is me. I gave her my passport when she wanted my ticket and now I’ve just put my bag down on the belt the wrong way.
‘Well you don’t give very clear fucking instructions,’ I say.
Stupid move. My bag weighs in at 21kg. That’s 1kg over the limit. I could get hit with a fine.
Normally I’m not like this – swearing at people in the service industry – but all she did was grunt and wave her fingers, expecting us to iterpret her impatient body language. Not easy as we are functioning on very little sleep and there’s time pressure cos Jess’ sister is circling the airport while we say goobye. Also, I feel an urge to wrap this up in an eloquent way where I find the words to soothe us both. Blame Hollywood. I’m not doing a great job so far: In the queue for check-in Jess’s eyes welled with tears and I hugged her and said, ‘I’m not leaving you. I’m just leaving Bilbao,’ which just sounded corny. I could’ve sworn I saw the fella behind us with a black eye cringe on my behalf. In fact, the bruise was not so much black as brown and yellowish. I can describe it in detail cos he was not fucking social distancing. No wonder someone gave him a black eye, the nosy fuck.
Thankfully, the lady hits the button and my bag is carried away on the belt. Next.
‘Sorry but fuckin’ hell,’ I say to Jess, as we walk away from the line.
‘She was being rude to the people in front of us too,’ Jess says which helps make me feel a bit better.
With the bag drop done I’m left with two bags; a rucksack and a school-bag. We move to the side. There is no café. It’s a small airport so we just stand by the cordon for departures, well clear of Mr Blackeye. I shoulda prepared something to say. I wish I had cos I can’t think of much. We’ve said it all already. The plan is as follows; Jess is coming to visit me in Dublin for a weekend in October and I’ll visit her in Bilbao for New Years. Plus, Jess has applied for a graduate scheme to come and work in Ireland from March to May. That’s how we will manage our first year in a long distance relationship. I’ve rattled off the plan many times to friends and family over the last few months and each time watched as their faces clouded with concern. Yes, we know about Covid but we need to cling to something.
‘I’ll text when I get to Dublin.’
I’m trying to get a command on the situation when I see my Irish friend and her Basque boyfriend Enrique enter the airport. She is returning to Ireland and he has come to see her off. She will be back in Bilbao in September whereas I will remain in Ireland to resume my work in a primary school after a Career break . As the flights from Bilbao to Dublin are not flying at the moment, here we all are in Biarritz airport. This is inconvenient. They are great company but I don’t really wanna see them right now. Even though Jess and I don’t know what to say to one another we don’t want anyone interrupting us either. Irish friend joins the queue while her Basque boyfriend comes over to us.
‘I have a little present for you that will just take up a little space in your bag,’ he says.
It’s a Biarritz rugby jersey. Although we spent some great weekends together in Biarritz I cannot say I’m on top of their rugby team’s trials and/or tribulations. Enrique knows this but the shirt is adorned with flags and symbols of the Basque country and he wants me to wear it with pride in Ireland. I thank him and he moves off to leave us to it. He gets it.
‘Wow,’ I say, overwhelmed by yet another kind deed. The last month has been one big farewell; parties, toasts, a speech, tearful hugs, nice text messages. I feel the love – am bowled over by it.
‘It’s nice,’ Jess agrees.
I put the jersey in my bag and straighten up. It seems like it’s about time to leave her go. Her sister is waiting after all.
‘And of course we can do Teams or Skype or even Whatsapp video calls,’ I say.
It’s hollow consolation. We have a plan but the truth is we are staring down the barrel of a long distance relationship, an alliance that is made easier, expert’s say, when you have a date when you will meet again. We have a date but it’s being ganged up on by a whole lot of ‘ifs.’
I take off my mask and kiss Jess. We hug. There is nothing left to say but goodbye. I think about past goodbyes. When this relationship was in its infancy, three and a half years ago, I would walk Jess home after a night out. We’d small talk outside her house, kiss and part. As she walked away she would look back, catch my eye and say, Agur (the Basque for goodbye). In those early weeks – when I really hoped but wasn’t sure we had a future – this little gesture was packed with significance – Yes I would like to see you againsoon it seemed to say and it put a spring in my step as I walked home.
I’m about to say all this to Jess, ‘Usually, when we say goodb-‘ but the months ahead of separation come down on me like a lead weight, my throat catches and my eyes burn and blur. We hold each other tight for the last time in who knows how long. Fuckin’ Covid.
Like most second hand shops the air was frowsy yet held the promise of undiscovered treasure. I walked up to the counter and presented the box to the shopkeeper, a young Indian man with a calm demeanour. He unboxed the small heater, plugged it in, twisted the dial and the heater, mercifully, whirred into action.
‘How much do you want for it?’ he asked.
‘How much can you give me?’
‘I had been hoping for €10.’
‘I already have a lot of heaters,’ he said. With a smile he pointed to a shelf behind me. I turned and looked up to see three or four heaters just like my one.
‘Okay,’ I said.
He gave me the coins and I left the shop feeling lighter. Granted, it was hardly Wolf of Wall Street salesmanship but I had earned the price of a coffee and pintxo and also struck a blow against the ‘army of things’ surrounding me in my bedroom that needed to be reckoned with before my departure to Ireland. However, there was no time for sitting on a terrace sipping coffee and basking in the glory of a small battle won; Clearing out my room had become a war of attrition and I had to get back to the frontline.
In my room reality sunk in like a silent fart into a cushion. The shelves still bulged with books and my clothes were so plentiful they could not be contained in the wardrobes and made incursions onto the spare bed and chairs. Things accumulate insidiously, don’t they? Standing in the clutter I rued how when I left Ireland after the holidays if there was room left in my hand luggage I’d stuff in another book or garment, just in case. I also regretted all those minutes I spent staring vacantly into space as the photocopier cranked out twenty copies of a page that was gonna really spice up my lessons. My unconscious acquiring of items had come back to – if not bite me in the ass – then definitely give me paper cuts. I spent the next hour or two sitting on the floor ripping up notebooks, tests and photocopies.
Afterwards I took a deep dive into the wardrobe and winced when I unearthed a fishing rod, where it sat for two years, full of unrealised potential. I used it once – a cold, wet and miserable day. I tore the flesh on my thumb trying to bait the hook. Once baited I cast my line. The hooks grabbed hold of something and I pulled with all my might. The fucking thing was just caught on a rock and my line snapped from all the tugging. I never went fishing again.
I had thought moving out would be a case of slotting things into boxes but it was far more tiring than I anticipated. Maybe it was all the decision making. Each page, book, device and garment posed questions regarding its destiny; bin me? Bring me home? Bargain me or donate me to charity? So many things meant so many decisions. What to do now with the fishing rod, for example? Yes the line was broken but apart from that, it was mint. Plus, attached was a little box full of little things someone with more patience and perseverance than me might know what to do with. I decided to drop it into the charity bin down the road – give a man a fish and he’ll eat for lunch, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime. Granted, I wasn’t teaching a man anything, I was giving him a broken rod, hoping he’d learn to mend it and then teach himself to fish, but anyway.
Bit by bit I stripped the room down to its essence, depersonalised it. The beaming faces that had looked out from the walls all came down. My girlfriend gratefully accepted my cork board and a second heater. Books went into a box I was shipping home, clothes and devices into one of my three bags. It was like the worlds slowest burglary. That said, space was beginning to open up – I was gaining territory.
There was a tinge of sadness when I handed my girlfriend her toothbrush and pyjamas that she left in the cupboard for the nights she stayed over. There was no satisfaction in clearing that particular shelf and the moment had an unforeseen harshness to it. ‘There’ll be a new home for them in Dublin, should you decide to come,’ I said.
It was a little eerie to see my cupboards empty and shelves bare. My belongings which hadn’t been binned, sold or given away were squeezed into three bags and a box. The four of them sat in my room like tamed beasts. I was exhausted but felt a sense of achievement and had a new found resolve to keep things more minimalist once I got settled in Dublin.
My girlfriend was with me on the last day. ‘I’ve seen people go on holidays with more,’ Jess said of my three bags.
‘Take one last look Cari,’ I said. The four walls had witnessed the intimate moments of our relationship. They had also seen me suffer the many lonely hours of quarantine. For those weeks the room was my classroom, gym, dining room, bar, cinema, library and of course, bedroom. That said, neither of us got all that emotional. I closed the door and we left for the airport.
In this music biography Peter Culshaw tackles two questions: who is Manu Chao? And where is Manu Chao?
With regards to the first question we learn Manu Chao is a French born musician who started out in a band called Mano Negra. They played a chaotic fusion of rock, ska, rap and reggae with polyglot lyricist Manu penning the ditties in French, English and Spanish. Before you can say ‘International Appeal’ they were signed up by Virgin Records and pencilled in for a tour of Europe.
Manu had other ideas. Instead of building their fan-base in the tried and trusted venues of European capitals Mano Negra embarked on a four and a half month tour of South America with circus performers on a cargo boat. This may have sounded like career suicide but the band became heroes in Latin America and their unorthodox tour caught the attention of the European press too.
For the next tour Manu took the band and Circus troupe on a disused rail-line through Colombia. Apart from the forty degree heat and lack of running water on board, Colombia in 1993 was like the Wild West with rebel groups, narcos, stowaways and government troops circling the train. There were also pressures within the group and some band members resented Manu’s tendency to lead. Unhappy in a democracy where some people were more equal than others core band members defected. Manu and the remaining musicians carried on playing for free, bringing joy to the small forgotten towns riddled with crime. Manu said the tour was ‘maybe the greatest adventure of my life,’ but it came at a high cost; the band broke up and his girlfriend left him.
With his heart broken and unable to make decisions on a personal or professional level the only thing Manu could do was, in the words of another elusive character, keep on keeping on. This leads us to the second question; Where is Manu Chao? Rio, Mexico city, Havana, Barcelona, Madrid, Paris and London to name but a few places. ‘I had a bad addiction to travel,’ Manu admits and he couldn’t remain in a location longer than a fortnight. In many countries he visited Manu surrounded himself with local musicians, explored their religions and dabbled with hallucinogenic drugs – all the while recording the tracks that formed the album that would launch him to Interntaional fame.
Not that Clandestino burned up the charts on release. Without a band to promote the album and seeing that it was lurking outside the top 20 in France, thirty-seven year old Manu went to Africa, converted to Islam and got married. As you do. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, the man who was forever searching was being discovered by the backpacking community. Indeed that’s how Clandestino ended up in my house in Ireland. The calm but chaotic record was being played in every hostel and bar as my older brother travelled through Soth East Asia and became the soundtrack to his holiday. He brought Manu Chao’s first solo record home as a momento of good times in faraway places.
Thus, through word of mouth, Manu became an international star but keen to avoid the trappings of fame he keeps running, does not carry a mobile phone and chooses making an album in a psychiatric hospital in Buenas Aires over award ceremonies. Part of the book details the authour’s efforts to find ‘El Loco Mosquito’ and pin him down for an interview.
Manu Chao’s biography is a compelling read and Culshaw’s writing is so fresh it zips along like a punk-pop song. He is, however, clearly better versed in the catch-all genre of World Music than football – when describing the Mano Negra song Santa Maradona he states that Maradona’s hand of God goal occurred in the 1992 World Cup! That bum note aside this is a terrific book about a fascinating man.
The 3332 bus pulls up. A teenager and I board and beep our cards. She goes up the front. I go down the back. Five minutes later, in the town of Trapagaran, the teenager and I disembark.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ she says. She pulls off her mask.
‘Hiiii,’ I say and try to remember her name.
‘You’re going to the summer camp?’ she asks.
‘Yup. Back for another year. My last one,’ I say.
We chat all the way down Main Street. Often with teenagers, conversation is about as fun as playing tennis with a cat, but Enara (I gave in and asked her her name) is alert and bubbly. It’s a good start but I don’t expect it to last. Last year we clashed. I didn’t like her attitude. She didn’t like my rigidness. But for now, while she doesn’t have an audience and I don’t have my teaching materials, we get on fine. She tells me that she will be at the camp for five weeks. This is bad news on two levels. For one, Enara’s penchant for challenging authority can be wearying. Secondly, with my impending departure to Ireland I am keen to use up the stacks of photocopies that I’ve accumulated over the last five years at the chalk-face. I can’t use them on someone who has been at the camp last year. This means a search for new material and trips to the photocopy shop for the next five weeks.
We stop at the end of Main Street. We wait to be collected. The ascent to the Equestrian centre is extremely steep and neither of us feel like walking. It’s all uphill from here.
Monika comes over to introduce herself. She is new here. She is German, but I wouldn’t have known that had she not told me because she speaks perfect English in an English accent. She lived in Surrey for twenty years. She also lived in Wexford in Ireland for five years. She says Irish people are warmer and funnier than English people. Now she lives in Castro with her daughter who is thirteen. Monika looks after the horses and does odd jobs around the camp.
Germany, England, Ireland and now Northern Spain. There are many ways to live a life. I wonder what brought her here.
‘Enara, stay here a minute. I wanna talk to you.’
‘What? I didn’t do anything!’
‘You were using your phone.’
‘I wasn’t. I was only checking the time. I don’t have a watch so how am I supposed to know the time?’
‘If you need to know the time you can ask me. In English. Besides you weren’t just checking the time.’
‘I don’t know why you are keeping me back. I didn’t do anything wrong.’
‘Phones aren’t allowed, you weren’t wearing your mask and you disrupted my class.’
‘By falling off the bench.’
‘What? I was just trying to put the cup on the sink, like you say me.’
‘Yes. You kept banging the cup off the table, which was distracting and then instead of getting off the bench and walking over to the sink, you dived off the bench causing more disruption.’
‘I can’t believe this. Maitane was using her phone too.’
‘We aren’t here to talk about Maitane. We are talking about you.’
‘Just pick on me so.’
‘Cut the crap Enara. Were you using your phone? Yes or no.’
‘Were you disrupting my class? Yes or no.’
‘Were you wearing your mask at all times?’
‘No, but I wasn’t the only one.’
‘Still I’m talking about you. Do you know someone got infected in a summer camp last week and now all the public summer camps have closed!? You have to wear your mask Enara!’
Monika doesn’t do small talk. She’s taking a horse into the arena for some exercise. I’m filling up water-balloons.
‘You look like a proper Irish man abroad. Football shirt, shorts and hat. All you are missing is the lager,’ she says all high and regal on her horse.
‘It’s the perfect uniform for this heat,’ I say.
‘It’s beautiful isn’t it? I came out here after a man, my salsa teacher. Then I discovered he was dating half the bloody salsa class. Still, there are worse places in the world to end up,’ she says raising her arm as if to present the beautiful landscape that staved off a broken heart.
The Equestrian Centre is high in the hills, a dust land surrounded by lush green. Dogs saunter lazily about. Kids laugh. Bilbao glitters in the distance.
Monika doesn’t hang around to hear my response to her revelation. She digs her heels into the horse’s side and trots off. I wasn’t sure what to say anyway. All I could think of was ‘Fair play to ya.’
The girls are busy writing at the table. The only talk is a topic related question for me.
‘How do you say amable in English?’
‘Friendly. I’ll write it on the board.’
‘Who do you say generosa in English?’
‘It’s ‘How , How do you say…? Generosa sounds similar in English…generous.’
I don’t know how I didn’t think of doing this one earlier. Still, it’s the last day for many of the teenagers so it’s perfect timing. I call it Affirmation Accordion, cos I don’t remember its original name. Get a piece of paper, fold it three times, open it up so it’s accordion like, write your name on the top space, decorate it and pass it around the group. The remaining seven folds are for your summer camp buddies for the last few weeks to write something positive about you, in English. I had figured it’d fill thirty minutes, but we are fifty minutes in and they are still hard at it. I look over a shoulder to read a message.
Anne – you have been very nice to me. You are beautiful and you are great at horse-riding, Eliyah.
Each page is passed around the table and arrives back to its owner upon completion. There is a brief silence as they read, followed by shrieks of joy and sighs of pleasure. Next, the girls are on their feet and embracing one another.
‘Bri-an,’ Enara says, coming out of a hug with Virginia and wiping the tears from her face. ‘This has been a very good activity to do on the last day.’
‘Thank you Enara. I’m glad you enjoyed it but could you please stop hugging everyone.’
Before they return to the stables I’m delighted to see the girls carefully stow their Affirmation Accordions in their bags – most activities I do with the teenagers end up in the bin.
I’m on top of a horse called Gru. Elena is one side of me and Marissa is on the other. They are adjusting the stirrups to fit my legs.
‘Woah! Getting all the attention from the ladies!’ Ella, the boss, slags as she walks past.
It’s true but I’m not exactly basking in the attention from the two attractive horse-riding coaches ‘cos I feel embarrassed about all the fuss. This is my farewell; after four years working at the camp they have offered me a little horse riding lesson. The kids are gathered in the enclosure to witness the spectacle. Marissa’s brother Jon is playing Auld Aung Syne through the speaker. It’s odd hearing that song on a hot sunny day but I guess he feels it’s appropriate. Inaki, Marissa’s boyfriend whom I gave English lessons to last year, is acting like a paparazzi on the red carpet. The fella has taken about 100 photos of me. I try and play to the gallery,
‘Watch and learn kids. I’ll show you how the pros ride horses!!’
No-one laughs which ramps up my embarrassment to the point where I can’t follow Elena’s simple instructions on putting my foot inside the stirrup. Left becomes right, up becomes down. In the end Elena just jams my stupid foot into its perch.
Gru is a beautiful, calm white horse who obeys my every command. Perhaps ‘command’ is a bit too lofty – a word more suited for someone in supreme control. Suggestions. I make suggestions and Gru is amiable enough to follow them. Soon we are trotting – back straight and bum bouncing in the saddle. And like that, I ride off into the sunset to a chorus of goodbyes.
Well no, I take the horse back into the enclosure, dismount ungracefully, bump elbows, say thanks , walk back into the kitchen which has served as my classroom, tidy up, gratefully accept a sandwich and a can of Amstel from the boss, wave goodbye again to the kids who are now enjoying their lunch outside (only some return my wave as most of them are engrossed in their sandwiches or are totally over my departure) and walk off into the sunset/ early afternoon sun, grateful that I won’t have to do any photocopying for a while and that I’m not feeling any symptoms of the dreaded virus.
Las Arenas would certainly receive a nomination for The Worst Beach in Bilbao Award. It’s hemmed in between a promenade and a wooden jetty. Sailboats, the unused toys of the rich, crowd around the other side of the wooden jetty. Opposite, the promenade juts out like a bouncer’s arm, separating the Nervion river from the sea. The views are of the idle cranes in Santurtzi port.
The life-guards sit in plastic chairs, shooting the breeze outside their cabin. They have an easy beat. Further out the coast in Sopelana and Arrigunaga the waves boom and wallop the shore. Just standing in it is bamboozling yet neoprene clad thrill seekers attach 6ft boards to their ankles and -somehow – gracefully ride the chaotic swells. Between the surfers and the current trying to impale swimmers on the rocks, the lifeguards there have their work cut out for them, patrolling the shoreline blasting into whistles and gesticulating wildly in an attempt to communicate over the chaotic surf. But none of that in Las Arenas. Here there’s barely a ripple. In fact, no one seems interested in the water. There’s no-one swimming and the sunbathers are turned away from the sea – arms out and faces craned towards the sky, soaking up the glory of the sun. There are plenty of people walking the promenade in their Sunday best; immaculate white trousers, smooth tans and shades.
I walk down the ramp onto the beach, manoeuvre around the parasols and topless sunbathers and lay out my towel near the water. I’m not much of a sun bather. More than twenty minutes exposure to the sun and my skin would tighten in protest. I change into my swimming togs in a slow, distracted way. I watch a bird hovering over the water before arrowing itself into it like a kamikaze pilot. It’s in and out in a flash and a thin fish flops out of its beak as it rises.
The tide is in. I never go to Las Arenas when it’s out. With the lack of water the bare legs of the wooden jetty and the black seaweed clinging to the rocks make it seem like the long hair of an old man falling away to reveal liver spots. Plus, there’s no depth. You have to walk a good distance and the sand takes on a slime-like quality that gives you the creeps. Not that you’d be expecting much. The beach has the appearance of being tagged on to the city as an after-thought. It’s like the sea said ‘Fuck it, that’ll do’ and dumped its sand.
But when the tide is high, it’s grand. And it’s the closest beach to my house, being just over a 10 minute walk away. I make sure my card, wallet and phone are safely in my bag. I get my location. I’m between the ramp and the showers, in front of the blue and white parasol. Grand. Time to swim.
I begin the walk from towel to sea. My heartbeat quickens. My body and head are tired, Really do we have to? they seem to ask. No matter how much I swim I cannot bring myself to like this part. It’s just as well no-one’s watching (a glance to my left confirms not even the lifeguards are paying me any attention) cos it’s not much of a spectacle. People wanna see someone stride into the water and dive into its cool depths, then re-emerge glistening and victorious. You know – really going at life. But that’s not my style. I’m hesitant and slow, like someone leaving a supermarket who’s sure he’s forgotten something important but is unsure just what.
The shoreline’s speckled with twigs and other shrapnel. The sea wraps around my ankles. Hola! It’s great to be able to interact with something so natural and vast. It’s difficult to find the right words to do it justice. American poet Amy Clampitt does a fine job in her poem Beach Glass. Although not talking about swimming, she captures the mysterious ancient vastness of it. Here’s a few lines.
cumbered by no business more urgent
than keeping open old accounts
that never balanced,
goes on shuffling its millenniums
of quartz, granite, and basalt.
toward the permutations of novelty–
driftwood and shipwreck, last night’s
beer cans, spilt oil, the coughed-up
residue of plastic–with random
impartiality, playing catch or tag
or touch-last like a terrier,
turning the same thing over and over,
over and over. For the ocean, nothing
is beneath consideration.
The water splashes around my thighs like a tiny aquatic welcoming committee that’s very happy to see me. Once up to my waist, I lower myself into the greeny grey, brackish water. The shock of the cold on my chest, shoulders and head gives me a jolt and I burst into the front crawl, my legs and arms scissoring the smooth surface. Then I turn onto my back. Held by the water and confronted by a blue sky that’s interrupted by wispy white clouds, I feel wonderfully alive.
I was bursting for a piss outside the train station. My train was imminent but there were no toilets on board and I might not last the journey. What to do? I had vague recollections of seeing a toilet in the park around the corner. I dashed there and found a silver, cube like structure with lights that was either a toilet or a time machine. I opened the door. Yes it was a toilet but there was an emaciated couple huddled over a piece of tinfoil within. I had startled them. I closed the door and stood back. I looked to the hedges. I thought about pissing there but it was 10:30 on a hot, bright Monday morning – not 1am on Saturday night, an internationally okay time to piss outdoors.
Thankfully the door opened and the couple emerged. The man started speaking to me but my listening skills weren’t up to scratch and he wasn’t exactly speaking News broadcaster Spanish, if you get my drift. He was pointing to the door of the toilet. I smiled and said, ‘Sí. Gracias.’
I opened the door and entered. Just before the door shut I heard a cry in Spanish. Boy, did that lad like to harp on. As I undid my fly, the lights went off. Next the walls went clunk and suddenly there was water spraying from all directions. I turned quickly and tried the handle but it was locked. I was trapped in a strange metallic robot controlled toilet-shower combo. I pressed my back against the door. My urge to piss dropped a few positions on my league table of concerns. As the water pooled around my shoes, I could already hear the news report:
‘A 35 year old Irish male has been found dead in a public toilet in Bilbao, Northern Spain. It is believed he drowned in the water from the self-cleaning toilet. On further investigation the police discovered that before entering the public latrine the 35 year old blogger ignored a man in the park who had told him the toilet was temporarily unavailable. It appears he also failed to notice the flashing light indicating that entry was prohibited. A spokesperson for the police said in a statement that they do not suspect foul play and have concluded that the Irish male was ‘just a bit of a twit.’
I stayed tight to the door, in the only two feet of space not being blasted with water. After what felt like forever (but was probably only 40 seconds) the spraying stopped. The walls made another clunking sound and the lights returned. Metallic surfaces dripped and glistened. I was tempted to try the door and escape but instead I stepped over the puddles and relieved myself.
But it was too early to cancel my obituary yet. Would the door open? The answer, dear reader, is in the next sentence. Yes it would. I stepped out into the welcoming warmth of the day. The birds were tweeting and the world was going about its business as before. I ran through the park, into the train station and made my train by doing an Indiana Jones style leap as the sliding doors were closing.
Public toilets; they’re not the rundown, broken- locked ammonia smelling shitholes of yesteryear. Be careful out there folks.
Jimmy, Mike and I met in Spanish class. One day Jimmy said ‘Fancy a coffee after class?’ So coffee after class became a thing. One day over coffee Mike said, ‘Fancy a beer at the weekend?’ So beers at the weekend became a thing. And over beers I said, ‘Fancy seeing if there is a route from the river mouth to the centre of Bilbao?’ And yes, you guessed it, that too became a thing, but not as frequent as the coffees and beers. We’ve done it about eight times over the last five years. We call it the Riverwalk.
I’d recommend the Riverwalk to no-one. It starts off near the seaside and finishes in the city centre but a part of it entails walking on the side of a busy road where you gotta gather yourselves into single file and shout if you insist on being heard. The road is followed by a stretch of derelict buildings with graffiti on the walls and weed strewn yards. It’s not exactly the stuff of Wordsworth.
So why have we done it more than any other walk in a city embraced by mountains? Well, it’s rare you get to walk into a city for one. Usually you are shuttled there underground via a metro. The vistas consist of grey walls, polished white platforms, advertisements and red signs with white letters to tell you the name of the stations. Rising to ground level courtesy of escalators you find yourself slap in the centre of the city. Like this, it’s difficult to get your bearings. It also feels like a veil is thrown over the uglier parts of the city. On foot, you get the bigger picture, warts and all.
Another good thing about the Riverwalk is that it is straight and flat; get yourself to the Nervion river, stick to it and it will guide you to Bilbao . It’s a bit like walking on train tracks, without the fear of an oncoming train; you know you are going places and you are unlikely to get lost. And of course, there are the plusses you get with any walk; it’s a chance to bond with a mate and it’s healthy -ish. I add the suffix cos we usually have a few beers at the midway point. And the three quarter’s way point. Also on arrival in Bilbao. To be fair, this is the main attraction of the walk cos the scenery, for much of it, is pretty shit.
The plan was to leave at 10:30 but Jimmy asked if we could push it forward to 1 o’clock. I agreed, thus ensuring we covered the 10km when the sun’s heat was at its most intense. All 34 degrees of it. I met Jimmy at the Hanging Bridge in Getxo. Like me he was lathered in suncream. We bought bottles of coke and set off.
Clear of Getxo we passed a couple of car dealerships and then a string of non-descript premises that seemed to have something to do with engineering or rubbish collection. On our right was the sleepy, slate grey Nervion. Passing through Leoia the dregs of my Coke bottle were warm but cool refreshment was imminent. The 5km we had covered had a desolate quality to it so it was nice to see a side street in Erandio buzzing with people. A friendly waiter beckoned us to a free table. It was 2:30 in the afternoon and the street was alive with chatter, to which we added an international flavour.
We talked about previous walks with Mikey. He had left Bilbao two years ago. A common feature of living abroad is that friends come and go. The conversation turned from absent friends to absent cigarettes. I smoked my last one on March 15th . Jimmy stopped a week or two before that. Being a consistent smoker for longer than me and the fact that I bummed loads of ciggys off him meant that Jimmy’s achievement was bigger than mine. How’d he do it? Will power and a book by former smoker Alan Carr. On the fourth beer we got to talking about The Beatles. Did you know George Harrison was only twenty-six years old when The Beatles split up? Mind blowing.
Thirst quenched we got back on the road. Spray paint under a bridge told us we weren’t in Spain and a scarecrow hanging outside a building suggested we were in a good location for a punk rock video, horror movie or documentary showing gritty urban realism.
Once we got to San Ignazio (beer stop) the buildings brightened and we came across a new walkway / cycle lane. We joked that they should name the new path after us cos we had walked the route more than anyone else. Hilarious.
The gleaming white bowl of San Mames football stadium and the sleek sliver of skyscraper that is Iberdrola tower came into view. With our t-shirts sweat-stained and our faces sun stained – relief was the overriding feeling, followed by tipsiness, a need to piss and some nostalgia cos with a one way flight to Dublin booked for July this was my last Riverwalk for the foreseeable future, perhaps ever.
That said, before I leave I must get a few walks in around some of my fave industrial estates.