Thursday, 21 September 2017

Incendio

Our ADSL line was re-established yesterday (20 Sept) and with it our landline phone. Here's a quick copy of my story of the Moiano (Le Coste) forest fire.
On the aftenoon of the 19th August La Tenuta Le Coste experienced a large forest fire. Strong south-west winds propelled the blaze into Borgo Petroio. (google "Incendio Moiano") It swept through our property, destroying my tool shed, our greenhouse, our firewood storage and our entire photovoltaic array. The family is safe and the main house has not been damaged.
Hours before the fire, Alex and I discussed the final stages of our landscaping and finish work on the house. Isolde and Thomasina have grown up here and want to keep the house while Alex and I recognize that we'd be better off with our future wheelchairs on one level. I stepped outside, saw a yellowish smoke to windward and a tiny ash in the air.
"If you think property is a safe investment, just wait a few minutes." I suggested we gather a few valuables, put them in the wine cellar; and put on good boots. I moved the car out to the lee side of the hill, pointed down and away, then hiked back up to the house to round up the family. Isolde and I ran out to the workshop for one last look at the hillside and confirmed our fears. We grabbed a couple of bikes and I took one last photo. Running back, wind whipped a towel off the drying line and it burst into flames behind us. We gathered Alex and kept running, now down to the car where the fire crews stood screaming at us.
From the safe distance of Moiano we joined the town folk watching the destruction sweep across our hillside. A great plume of black smoke rose from the location of our workshop and photovoltaic panels. A fire department helicopter dumped great bags of water on our houses but from our vantage point it seemed totally futile. The fire now covered our entire westward panorama and driven by a strong wind, seemed able to engulf the entire estate and the downwind forest. Eventually, a seaplane arrived carrying tons of water from lake Trasimeno, saving the next hillside, but our Borgo looked finished.
The vigili (fire department) evacuated all residents from their homes at the last minute and did not allow residents to return to their homes that day and the next. Many gas bombollas and lost WW2 ordinace exploded into the evening. A few hours after the main firestorm, I walked in with three other homeowners accompanied by a crew member. I instructed the crewman to follow me to our new fountain where we filled garden buckets to douse numerous stump fires that threatened to ignite the remaining banks of brush. The neighbor's buried gas tanks continued to burn spectacularly and no attempts were made to extinguish them. I located our poor lost dog and jogged back down to join the family.
In a little side drama, we had a family of house guests staying with us. They spent a day at the lake where they could see the smoke and were shocked to find it was their house that was in danger! The mayor of Castiglione del lago kindly provided free accommodation for them. We spent the first and second nights with Jenny and Mike in citta della pieve.
Our uphill nighbors had a particularly scary day. The four of them got into their car but found the driveway blocked by fire department vehicles. With flames in the tree tops, they abandoned the car and had to sit out the fire inside their house. In panic, their son was separated and ran down through the woods on the far side of the house. They remained separated for most of the day. The vigili rescued the family after two attempts and took them to C.d.Lago hospital for burn treatment. The car they tried to escape in was totally consumed and slid down the hillside where it melted.
It was traumatic for us but we're trying to be sensible and balanced in our reactions. The girls wanted to keep a distance and limit our hours in repairing damage. This proved sensible because once one begins sifting through the ash, a strange hypnosis takes over and our whole history in this house begins to unwind. The process telescopes into an infinite waste of time: scrap metal in this pile, melted glass over there, possible salvage here, toxic waste in the bucket...etc. I carefully saved some tool bits only to find them distort into spirals when I tried to use them. Best to spend a few hours at this everyday and then get out!
Luckily, we were offered the use of Amie and Marc's house on the undamaged side of the estate where we stayed for two weeks. Thomasina joined us there for her summer holiday.

You should be able to view a photo album here.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Sri Lankan diary. Part 4

  In a particularly cold December, the beaches of Sri Lanka have to be the main attraction. Shortly
after we left, both Europe and America fell into a deep freeze making us feel even more grateful to Jaquetta for masterminding this vacation. Eveline and Charles's beach hotel was the final destination but our reservation began after Christmas. Long before leaving Europe Caroline booked the Daffodil Holiday Guest House on Unawatuna beach as the place to meet Scarlett and Isabella for our Christmas weekend.
  If the beaches are a main attraction, I'd say the lodgings, generally, are not. I shouldn't complain. We stuck to rock bottom prices, and they were cheap. In fact too cheap for the last place and too cheap for this latest place as well. Upon arriving, after a long and sweaty bus ride to a vague destination chosen from Google maps and a laden hike
into a crowded, tacky beach community, our Rastafarian host sheepishly asked for more money saying he mistakenly quoted, thinking we would automatically be taking the breakfast. Poor guy.  I didn't feel sorry for him. Scarlett and Isabella had their own room. Thomasina and Isolde had their own room. The eight of us took every room, and in this competitive little Beach town, a full house at asking prices can't be that bad. It didn't take much convincing. Our house in Italy is offered as an Airbnb accommodation and I found myself, at first, sympathizing with these small business having to cope with rude tourists. But now, writing this, I think they could have done better. All of them. And the whole process of relying on guide books is ridiculous. These places are creepy! Unfamiliar beds, weird plumbing, tasteless decoration, thoughtess furnishings. Anyway, enough ranting. Maybe I'll write a post about Airbnb hosting.
looking for the beach?
  While we were spreading out in our beach resort, Scarlett and Isabella stepped in off the street, dazzling everyone. We now presented six striking women, one fit dude, and an odd looking old man who needed a haircut. Walking down a narrow, winding concrete Lane, running the gamut of shanty tourist businesses, one had to peak between buildings to get a bearing on where the water was. Once gained, the beach was great. A rocky point with a Buddhist shrine on it protected a sweeping bay with a rocky island. The rubbish shanty bars and restaurants on the Lane generously spread nice shade constructions and comfy furniture out on the sand without ever asking us to drink or leave. The place was full of polite people having fun on holiday. After many days in the interior of a hot, humid country,
this, believe it or not, was the top nosh.
all you can eat and a roof top
dining terrace
enjoying their hot crowded buses, we were ready for a plunge. Thomasina, Isolde and Dominic must have felt especially ready because they got in trouble trying to swim to the rocky island. A local on a surf board had to be sent out to steer them back in. And, yet again, that evening Alex somehow sniffed out the best all-you-can eat rice and dal curry joint on the “strip” were we could take plates onto the wobbly flat roof under palm fronds.
  Before we left Europe, Dominic proposed we throw our names into a “secret Santa” lottery which was such a good idea that we appointed him the administrator. I drew Ev & Charles's young son Alex and decided the only thing suitable would be a Ferrari t-shirt. Sounds easy but it wasn't. In fact, it wasn't until we got to Kandy that I found one. This was on a quick stop in the market stalls which also netted me (and Isolde) a pair of leather peasant sandals along with the discovery that we had been seriously duped by the prices of ayuverdic essential oils at the botanical gardens the day before. I padded around proudly in my locally made sandals thinking I was blending in nicely, until I hit the salty sand and realized that one needs native feet to wear native sandals. I quickly rubbed up bleeding blisters that are going home with me.
   We spent two nights at the Daffodil which was a nice change. Too much of our valuable time was being spent on government buses ticking off well trodden tourist traps. The girls got a proper visit to the island in a glass bottomed boat along with a dive to see the little coral reef. This was Christmas day so we treated ourselves to a baked fish cooked on an open brazier on the beach with all the other tourists.
  On boxing day we backpacked out to the highway and caught the coast road bus to Balapitiya where we walked down a jungle lane and out of SriLanka and into the Calamansi Cove hotel, a white-walled compound of four private villas, two four bedroom owner's houses with private kitchens and big, fanned verandahs, a fresh water swimming pool, restaurant, bar, library, life-guarded natural beach front, and a white- jacketed staff to keep things cut, pruned, sprayed, and immaculately tidy. We arrived before EV, Charles and the boys, and met by a group of polite staff who immediately presented us with cool, damp white washcloths, lifted the bags from our shoulders, and led us to our private rooms. Wow. We weren't leaving for eight nights (Thomasina, Dominic and Caroline left early after six nights).
  And it was a lovely week of big family meals, lots of little outings on bicycles and tuk tuk, hours by the pool, and swimming in the surf.
  Happy New Year all.

Sri Lankan diary. Part 3

  On the 23rd of December our van driven by Blackie crested the mountain pass crowded with small vegetable farms and we descended a few hundred meters into the old tea station of Nuwarelia [“New wah rail ya,” accent on rail]. The guide books give it a pass, but Blackie drove us through at a stately pace, passed the golf courses, parks, and what must have been a polo or cricket field. He grandly drove us up to the front door of the grand Hotel, waving to the uniformed doorman and on down the road to the somewhat distant train station. Call me a sentimental imperialist dog, a capitalist pig, out of touch with the people, or an insensitive tourist; but I thought this place showed off Sri Lanka at it’s finest value. How I missed this on our itinerary, I don’t know. Here was clear cool air, good living, fresh vegetables, a minimum of awful squalor and a sort of harmonic feel of agreement with the mountain environment. We should have booked a stay here. If I were to do it again, I would. Catching the train here was a good strategy on Blackie’s part, and we could have done it without him had we only known. All too quickly we were through Nuwarelia and onto the not so beautiful train platform
where the intrigue reached it’s peak. Blackie corralled us on one spot, put me in charge of the tourists, took a handful of big denominations and began his bribery. One minute he was part of the gang, cracking jokes with us; the next minute he would vanish and return to introduce me to someone who didn’t speak English. “Wait here for this guy. He will reserve the seats for you, he works for the railroad, I have known him for 25 years [he didn’t look a day over 23], the seats might not be together. He will cost 5000 rupees.”
  The train finally rolled in. There was a great shifting of people. Damned few got off that I could
count. We stayed put. Blackie and his man could be seen shuttling back and forth among the rail cars. Then he reappeared with a shake of the head. No reserved seats. You must stand. Come with me. We raced down the platform, stepped into a car, “No! Not that one.” Back down the train. Another car. People scurrying like sand crabs, leaving us like clods in slow motion with our heavy backpacks. Up step. Cram in. 5000 rupees returned in the scrum, and we found ourselves waving goodbye to Blackie as the train slowly gained speed. Despite his failure, I wished him well and felt he had done his best to the end.
  I can't decide if it was the highlight of the trip, but it did deliver wonderful scenery, winding slowly through the mountains on a fairly high traverse. Local farmers did try to use it. One poor guy sat on the sink. A couple of others brought their collection of hoes, cultivators and sacks of potatoes aboard, tangling the feet of the tourists. We found ourselves across from the counter of the dining car, windows only on one side. The car was crowded. Those who stood at the windows across from the counter held their territory, but sitting on the floor at the two open doors at the end of the car
delivered the most fun, and comfort. The train would pass a little tunnel, emerge on the opposite slope, and the sitters at the door would find their feet hanging over a sick-making precipice. One valuable door seat was occupied by a snoring, tattooed backpacker who tempted me to roll him out on a suitable traverse. The rest of us stood, pitching and weaving, staggered by the ageing track, stooping occasionally for a peak at the countryside. This could be a bus trip in that regard except for one thing. No road. Without a road to deliver customers, there were no roadside vendors with piles of coconuts, stacks of worn-out tires, smudgy cook fires, rusting tractor parts, cheesy Chinese clothing, and empty, rotting vendor shelters soiling the country. The views out of the window looked a lot better. No wonder this train ride is so popular among guidebook writers. And the popularity didn't really hit me until we pulled into Ella, our highly recommended, “quaint” little mountain town. The great press of white faces squeezed out of the train and clogged the platform, everybody dressed in the backpacker uniform, like me, leaving the train luxuriously empty. A local, caught in the crush looked at me and said, “Badulla is better..” Badulla is the final stop, and looking carefully at the map, we missed a nice length of track. I'm haunted by the thought that Blackie had the right idea but the start/stop stations wrong, but I'll never really know.

 

 Ella, then. Our next goal, The Tunnel Corner Guest House, we found under a low corrugated, verandah roof. The disarmingly smiley host had our rooms ready and served up a nice, complimentary tray of undrinkable tea or coffee on our arrival. Our low room contained two double beds with full, four-posted mosquito nets and no room for luggage and people. The mosquito nets almost touched the ceiling. Once two adults and two teenagers filled the beds, the temperature became unbearable. There might have been a window but I don't remember it; but it's surprising what one is willing to forgive for a place to safely drop a heavy backpack in a hot climate. Next stop, the loo. And then, the Wi-Fi password. After the long train ride, we didn't have a lot of time left for Ella, but we did have the intention of walking to the top of Little Adams peak. And that was great. It was such a relief to get ones feet on the actual ground. Dominic ran to the top in an alarming show of fitness, then he ran back down to us and ran up again. We stood on top just at sunset.  Leaving Ella, we also left the Central Highlands. Our bus rumbled across increasingly flat, hot, and humid open country occasionally relieved by sodden rice paddies or small lakes and clumps of rubber and coconut jungle. Throughout SriLanka I felt frustrated by my poor preparation for the plant life.
    Back in Dambulla, I loved it when Ebony and Teak trees were pointed out. Mango, Jack fruit, Papaya all grew in a jumble and I tried to keep them sorted. Three types of coconut were identified, including the hairy brown ones for eating (remarkably tender and mild compared to the dried out pulp we find in the supermarkets), and a smooth yellow one that locals would try and sell. They would lop the top off and stick in a straw and charge 100 or 200 rupees. My favorite is the pineapple, it's rough skin sliced off and the fruit radially sliced to present big up when held upside down by the leaves. You break off chunks of the spears getting sticky hands. Mangos are sliced longitudinally alongside the big seed giving two “halves” the flesh of which is crisscrossed. Then when the skin is inverted, the fruit is popped up presenting little cubes and the hairy seed with its rim of fruit gets handed to the kids.
      Move. Eat. Sleep. Move. Eat. Sleep. We were becoming nomads and the act of actually living in Sri Lanka seemed to be slipping through my fingers. We walked the length of main street once, then back, then stood in front of a restaurant that had a gadget high in a tree that projected tiny moving colored lights all over the road. There was nothing to learn here, except that mass market tourism is king.
      Next morning up early for a bus to Tissamaharama on the boundary of the Yala national park. At this point we had a gap in our planning. Leaving Italy, we had been unable to connect the tour from the mountains to the coastal resort where we would join the rest of the Cadell clan. In the way, stood national parks featuring wild animal safaris. Blackie told us to go to Yala and to get an old scout to drive us and that's what we did. The day before, Caroline and I made an Airbnb reservation on the fly that looked like a remarkable bargain, and with that as a goal we set off. The host of The Tunnel Corner escorted us to the roadside and waved on a couple of busses until the right one arrived. We'd have to anticipate our jumping off point and hire tuk tuks but we were assured that this was the bus. It was surprisingly empty and we all found seats, but the comfort was short lived. Two or three switchbacks down the gorge we passed a truck on its side, somehow missing the precipitous plunge that some of its cargo experienced. After a couple of stops, I found myself compressed securely by my neighbor for the rest of the two hours across the flat alluvial plane of southern SriLanka.
       Shortly after we turned up in tuk tuks on the outskirts of Tissamaharama, La Safari Inn realized we were staying for cheap. Their listing at AirBnB allowed me to book all six of us for $24. I was put on the phone to the owner and held them to our agreement. Airbnb already had my money but unbeknownst to me, they cancelled our Airbnb reservation. That wasn't very nice. They finally agreed the damage was done and rather than risk a bad review, they let us stay. It would only be fair if we employed their Safari services to terrorize the animals. But they only offered a morning drive and we had already arranged something for the afternoon. The hotel workers were very nice and offered us bicycles to explore the surrounding rice paddies, which I did, and I tipped them nicely.  The rest of us took the Safari which went well, everybody had a great time even spotting one of the famous leopards. That evening we walked a kilometer or two to the outskirts of Tissamaharama where Alex and Caroline chose another dirty little restaurant which the rest of us would never dare enter. And, once again, we enjoyed several helpings of tasty stuff for next to nothing, entertaing the locals while we were at it. We walked back through dark jungle tracks. And next morning, we were on another bus.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Sri Lankan diary part 2

  I'm not speaking for everyone, but I loved the Ameelia Guest House. I think the girls hated it.
Caroline felt Alex and I got the best room. It wasn't especially clean or comfortable: No screens or mosquito nets, no soap, no hot water, a crude cabinet with a clothing rail but no hangers, thin mattresses on creaky wooden slats, spiders the size of tea cups, geckos in the shower, and a long way to the shops. And all this for 23 bucks a night. For two. We took all three spare rooms, Dominic and Caroline in one balcony room, Alex and I in the other. We stashed the two girls into a damp, windowless cell. For the first time since we landed, I felt we had finally escaped the well trodden tourist track and stepped into the country of the SriLankans. Kumari and her husband Abey have lived in the house for 30 years. It is named after their younger daughter who attends law school near Colombo. Ameelia was home for the holidays but I only spoke with her once. Kumari and Abey were clearly proud of their house and possibly blind to its shortcomings in the eyes of western travelers, yet completely generous with anything it could offer. The garage was spread with mangoes recently harvested from the huge tree over their driveway and ripe ones were selected for us. The house is built on a steep north slope with a nice view of high mountains to the north. Unlike the last stop, we were in a modest family home in the suburbs away from the noise and mess of town. It is a brick structure with a white plaster veneer. A clean, tiled verandah spreads across the front with an attached double garage alongside over which they have built two bedrooms with adjoining balconies and two bathrooms in the back. Their kitchen reminded me of the old masonry kitchens of rural ltaly with its crude gas burners mounted in a large masonry niche in the wall which was likely a wood burning fireplace originally, the whole thing fairly grimy with age. Every sink and water tap we encountered in SriLanka was loose, and the Ameelia house was no different. When you turned the tap handle, the spout would revolve until water poured off the side of the sink. I often found myself reaching underneath and finger-tightening the fixing screws. We didn’t encounter running hot water until we reached Eveline and Charles’s hotel. I tried to spend as much time as I could with Kumari and Abey trading stories of fixing up old houses and bringing up two daughters. Abey described the mix of the SriLankan population: a majority of Buddhists, ten percent Hindus left over from English imported labor, and a smaller fraction of Muslims and Christians. The Tamils grew out of the Hindu fraction and a militant wing has caused a lot of trouble until brutal suppression by the government has rendered the country reasonably stable. Kandy is an important city in the central mountain region. It's economy benefits largely from the tea plantations begun by the English and now entirely owned by SriLankan interests. Muslims, it was explained, were more acquisitive, more forceful business people and would be found in the cities. They were different, they wore hats. When it came time to visit the city of Kandy, we walked down the hill and caught the “government” bus to downtown.
  I recognized something in Kandy we hadn’t seen for a while. Sidewalks.  And more-or-less western style shops. Kandy is apparently prosperous enough to afford sidewalks and they were surprisingly welcome to me. Maybe it’s because I fall down a lot after wearing progressive bi-focal eyeglasses. In a couple of days I would miss a step and fall in front of an audience, skinning my shin. Luckily I didn’t fall down in Kandy.
  Kandy is famous for the huge Buddhist palace, the Palace of the Tooth. The tooth is a relic found after the Buddha's funeral pyre had cooled. It is capable of miracles, and it has been usurped as the symbol of royalty for thousands of years. The temple built to house it sprawls along the shore of Kandy's lake, and like all buddhist temples, painted bright white and brilliantly lit. It's entrance is graced by a large park and protected by a reflecting moat. One joins the “foreign” ticket que to enter, first paying an unusually large amount, followed by a somewhat lesser amount to safely leave ones shoes. Only Caroline and I felt it worthwhile. We followed the mixed throng of white-robbed faithful and curious tourists. Our que slowed and compressed until it became necessary to push with real, competitive determination. Two drummers, amplified to a painful level, tapped a somber beat, highlighted by occasional bangs, repeated hypnotically and joined occasionally by a recording of monotone, reedy chanting. Firmly sandwiched between strangers (Caroline and I mercifully separated), we inched along and up some steps until, suddenly, we gained a small window giving an incomplete, internal view to a ridiculously ornate golden, inverted cone maybe three feet high and ten feet away. Passed this, the pressure eased and we were able to escape and wander to admire
offerings


the architecture, people, and lesser relics; disoriented by the amplified nasal horn chant and drum bangs. We left with the gift of a small CD, hopefully a recording to hypnotize myself with later.
temple museum
    Now it was time to find something to eat. Alex and Caroline leading us again past respectable looking places with printed menus to sidewalk vendors with butane tanks and open burners (and no sinks!). We bought a plate of chopped and chillied tortillas leaving me yearning for simple dahl and rice. At the end of the sidewalk stood the Muslim Hotel with its open restaurant on the ground floor, a bank of stainless cafeteria chafing bins displayed threatening ponds of dark curries. Muslims eat beef and this appealed to Dominic. They also serve dahl and rice which appealed to me, and within a sort of glass phone booth at the entry point someone was slapping dough into a hot steel surface which appealed to the kottu eaters. We sat at a marble table in a lofty, noisy room and got no service at all. A white bearded fellow was doing the best he could with a full room and every so often a dish of something was slid onto our table as he passed. Thomasina reminded us to eat with our right hands until a few damp spoons arrived. Over in the back corner one was encouraged to use the public sink. Near the end of the meal, stiff paper place mats arrived which others appeared to be using as napkins. I was mesmerized by a neighbor eating alone who spent a long time tearing his tortillas to bits and building a small hill. He then dipped each bit into whatever curry was in front of
him. It all looked so appetizing I copied his method from then on, being careful not to bring my left hand near my mouth.
fresh mountain air
  The next day in Kandy, we rejoined the tourist trail. Over a mountain pass to the east sat a small town bragging a domestic elephant treatment center with a nationally subsidized botanical garden next door. The six of us, looking doubtfully at the confusing choice of buses, attracted the attention of a tour guide and his father's van. He quickly convinced us we would save no money on a round trip bus ticket for six vs. his very good value van, not to mention his deep experience and social connections. We expected a scenic drive in the mountains, but instead suffered an awful, nonstop, choking cruise through deep valleys lined with shabby, one room businesses stuck in a carbon monoxide inversion layer. Surviving this, we found ourselves paying to look at elephants unfit to slave
away in the logging camps, but cured enough to perform a few tricks for the foreigners. Next door at the essential oil farm, a talkative guide took us on a walk through a beautifully groomed forest with small bottles of extract at the base of selected plants. We were led under a palm frond shelter where a group of young, shy trainees quickly had our shirts off to practice the art of Ayurvedic massage therapy. I found it quite funny, maybe because I'm ticklish and horribly skeptical. Sufficiently softened, we then found ourselves subjected to a serious shake down in the gift shop which proved four times more expensive than the local markets. Safely delivered back in the chaos of Kandy, and satisfied with our true Sri Lankan experience, we ambled through the street markets and returned to our Muslim Hotel for supper.
   A backpacker’s website convinced Alex that one of our main goals in Sri Lanka must be the train from Kandy to Ella through tea plantation country. There was some agreement among train spotters on the internet that this was one of the most wonderful train rides anywhere.  Precise information on anything in SriLanka is never easy to nail down. Probably because nothing runs to schedule or description. It was suggested we try and reserve tickets for this train over the internet, but due to prevarication and an inability to agree on our touring schedule, we waited until we arrived in Kandy before trying to buy a train ticket. Which proved to be a month too late. Our public display of disappointment attracted the attention of a particularly clever van owner. “Blackie” began with Isolde,
Blackie's windshield
explaining the map of SriLanka and where we were and where we wanted to go. Then he picked away at me, working his way to Alex who clearly held all the cards. It took a bit of time and a bit of cagey diplomacy but he succeeded in proposing a plan to board the train at a halfway point in the mountains where he predicted many locals would get off. To get to this halfway point, he, of course, offered his van along with all his tourguide knowledge for a mere fortune, virtually guaranteeing success and Alex’s happiness. Unable to resist for lack of a better plan, and being pretty much fed up with Kandy, we accepted his offer. But not without negotiating a free pick-up from our guest house on the mountain. Six in the morning, there he was with his van waiting for us to finish packing and off we went for a long drive into the mountains.


  Honestly, it was a fairly spectacular ride. Most of it was an endless, switch back climb through gorgeously groomed tea plantations dating back to the British Empire. All the plantations are located at high elevations and all continue to be maintained in exquisite condition despite being owned entirely by SriLankans funded by SriLankan banking. The British names have been retained so Lipton still shows up on the signs. Blackie had a nearly new van with excellent, mild air-conditioning; and he drove well, stopping now and then to let us see the sights. Tea in Ceylon is not native but a creation of English business. In 1824, the first tea plant was brought to Ceylon from India as a botanical experiment. By 1870, coffee cultivation was wiped out by fungus, but in 1867 James Taylor
already began the rescue by starting the first tea plantation in Kandy. By 1972, the government nationalized the plantations and began strict control of cultivation. Today it is a $1.5 billion business employing millions including over 200,000 on the estates. According to Blackie, the pickers are third generation descendants of Indian Tamils first imported as cheap labor by the English to work the coffee plantations. Women do all the picking, men work in the processing sheds, and the jobs are hereditary. They pick a quota daily which they can exceed for more pay. It was impressive seeing them high on the steep slopes shouldering heavy bags either barefoot or with thin sandals. From the comfort of our van, I appreciated, with some feelings of guilt, the gorgeously manicured mountainsides, a stark contrast to the endless shanty shacks of roadside businesses that spoil SriLanka. Along with tea, the mountains provide an abundance of fresh vegetables that thrive in the cooler, pure air. It's agricultura intensivo requiring intricate terracing and complex water management, but the crops go year ‘round eventually finding their way to the messy markets in Dambulla. A nice contrast.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Sri Lankan diary. Part 1

 


mouse proofing the food
  Lots of advance planning built the anticipation for this special vacation. Jaquetta had the idea of a cousin’s reunion years in advance and, after one false start, announced the celebration of her 80th birthday. She bought tickets for everyone to the Cadell hotel in Sri Lanka. Her birthday falls on the 15th of January meaning the dates of the gathering centered on the children's Christmas school holidays. Thomasina joined Caroline and Dominic who flew from London to Rome to join us for the flight to Colombo. Kuwait Airlines was chosen on price. We booked well in advance, but they rescheduled us twice [I think] which fouled up our other bookings a little bit and reinforced our worries about the reputation of the airline. But that was a minor inconvenience. On the day before their flight from London, someone stole Caroline's bag from the car, luckily missing her passport but getting most of her carefully packed clothing and some of her money.
Isolde to Rome
   After a frantic shopping spree, the three of them flew to Rome where Caroline and Dominic would spend the night in a hotel and Thomasina billeted with her friends Bookie and Izzy at home in Rome. We decided to send Isolde down to Rome by train by herself to join the young girls on the 15th of December. Alex and I spent our last night at home, taking the train down in the morning to meet everyone at the airport. We pre-purchased excellent tickets, but the train came to a dead stop half way there and we found ourselves biting our nails during a 45 minute delay.
  Together we managed the confusion of Roma Termini train station, the airport shuttle, airport check-in and security; excitement and nervousness growing with every minute. Finally, in the air, we all settled down to an easy flight of four hours to Kuwait City soothed with meals and snacks and entertainment very unlike the bare-bones treatment we are used to flying back and forth to London on RyanAir.
in Colombo
   Kuwait City airport gets pretty rough reviews on the internet but I found it just fine. I prefer smaller airports with their shorter walkways and more intimate settings. We did have to pass through a security line but is was short and quick compared to western airports. Although we stuck out as obvious western tourists with our shabby backpacks, drab clothing, and clannish ways, we attracted nothing but polite smiles and courteous behavior. After a remarkably long shuttle out to our next plane we took off again into dark skies. Kuwait is nothing but hot, flat desert. Nothing lives out there except oil wells. It’s entirely featureless. Kuwait City is the only population center and it’s reported to be the hottest city in the world. During the first Gulf War, retreating Iraqi forces set fire to the oil fields causing terrible damage. Huge lakes of oil leaked out onto the flat sand where it partially burned. The remaining tar dried in the sun creating massive acreage of nothing but blacktop. I caught a glimpse of this on the approach, but take-off showed only the glimmering city in clear, desert darkness.
fruit stop on the way to Dambulla
   We landed in Colombo, Sri Lanka,  and emerged into the thick humidity and lovely yellow light of early morning. We had decided earlier to hire a van to take us inland and away from the big city immediately. This was a big push after a long day especially since the roads proved more chaotic than anticipated. The cheery driver, Alan, prepared us, saying that we must share the road with tuk-tuks, bicycles, pedestrians, cows and dogs but that he would do his best. And so he did, rocketing us around with great thrusts, bold passing maneuvers, and emergency brakings serving as constant entertainment. Seatbelts not even mentioned. Alex, who gets seasick on a boogie board, didn’t bat an eye passing around a variety of mashed up food from the bottom of her handbag. To my soft, over-indulged, American sensibilities I thought to myself the towns we passed through looked pretty desperate and I expected our well-reviewed destination to be much more attractive. Despite it all, and all the wild and strange sights, we eventually fell into a silent, dozy state until, two hours later, being suddenly delivered to the most ramshackle, run-down, pathetic ruin of a one-road downtown in the third world. Caroline had booked our first guest house, Tanaya Treats, based on the glowing reviews of Booking.Com (which I can't find any longer). The driver threaded his way through an easily missed gap in the tacky sheet metal, broken wood, and greasy windows of what served as “store fronts” for mysterious enterprises. We eased into a palm-treed construction zone. The boss was overly excited to greet us
the drivers left hand is on a stalk which controls the horn
which he plays constantly
and someone brought out a tray of drinks. The place was thinly populated by slow moving construction workers using crude hand tools somewhat ineffectively. There was no one else staying, but despite that, our room wasn’t ready and we were obliged to stand our sweaty, tired children in the “lobby” amongst the heavy pile of luggage. Then up two flights to a deck in the palm trees and a confusing choice of bedrooms. Dominic and the girls got the one with the bigger bathroom. Caroline and Alex took the other room. Both bathrooms filled with girls bathing and cooling and primping before everyone fell asleep leaving me to stretch out on a wooden luggage rack. Luckily I could find way to my luggage rack with a light I remembered to bring. A policy of hot, utter darkness was quickly enforced since no screens or mosquito nets could be found and we enjoyed our rooms for two days in groping darkness.
at the feet of the Buddha
  Months ago we planned the afternoon's outing to the ancient cave temple there in Dambulla thus fulfilling the demands of our guide book. The guide book neglected to mention how hot, sweaty, dirty and smelly we sensitive westerners would find this center of commercial agriculture. No sidewalks, just a narrow track beaten along between unpleasant concrete boundaries and suicidal traffic. We trudged along for a kilometre or two until the modern, outrageously gaudy golden Buddha appeared. Somehow we dodged the thousands of rupees in entrance fees and, skirting the collosal Buddha, we began our exhausting pilgrimage up to the top of a small rock mountain, dodging persistent peddlars and more pleasant monkeys.
  Over the course of the next few weeks, we would grow accustomed to the shocking appearance of everything and warm to the people. Once past all the flim-flam and face to face with the icons, I began to theorize that this calm and content religion helped encourage similar characteristics in the society. The Buddha statues wear Mona Lisa smiles and the greetings we would meet on the street would mirror this. I  tended to guard my girls, my rucksack, my wallet, and passport like an Italian in Naples; but at no time did I ever feel at risk, even when pressed hard in public buses or markets. Leaving a bus once after paying a fare, a man tapped me and handed back a credit card that had fallen out of my wallet. Always helpful. Never stern or confrontational.
 Alex and Caroline are experienced Asian travelers, visiting both Viet Nam and India and more. Following their leadership, we drank only bottled water and rarely, local beer (which cost a lot, being frowned on by true Buddhists). That evening the girls and I followed Alex and Caroline who followed their noses into a dirty doorway. There stood a sweaty guy creating a deafening racket with two cleavers against a steel grill. This “kottu” we eventually chewed on and I guessed it was a chopped up mix of cabbage, flour tortillas and chili. I brought from Italy our standard illness: a combination of feverish headache and mild tummy ache. Neither the long travel not the curried tortilla flour helped my troubles. Neither did napping on wooden slats. In fact none of this enlightened deprivation was doing much for me and I wasn't unhappy to get out of Dambulla the next day and head for a cycle around the vast ruins of Pollonaruwa.
  Wikipedia describes the world heritage site of the Kingdom of Pollonaruwa as the second most ancient of Sri Lanka’s kingdoms dating from 10-something AD. It’s a city spread over what feels like square miles of flatish thin jungle with the odd rock, ruin, and temple sticking up. A couple varieties of monkeys run the place along with a collection of birds. It’s so big that tour busses take loads of people from site to site but the most fun is to rent a bicycle and roam around. Among the attractions is an enormous man-made lake that is still serves to irrigate the local rice paddies. One may cycle the length of the lake to view a special sculpture and this we did, getting caught in a torential monsoon-style downpour. Experienced cyclists among us ducked for cover, but others soldiered on enjoying the cooling rain, spitting the party in two. We particularly enjoyed the museum [during the rain] which demonstrated the incorporation of hinduism into the older buddhist temples. There pranced Vishnu, Ganesh etc. around the outer shines while the sublime Buddha sat in quite contemplation within the center of whatever temple we were gazing at. The day remains a highlight of the vacation.
tourists on bus
   Another night overlooking the construction zone and another night listening to clattering “kottu” and we were packed and standing by in the street the next morning, waiting for a bus with six empty seats. Off to Kandy we were, and a first look at the mountainous region of central SriLanka. And a lovely sight it is, but not from public bus windows. The hot, crowded, sweaty buses with the ridiculous frayed curtains flapping in the open windows and the persistent back beat of popular music playing loudly over the roar of the mechanics. What an impact on the senses! And who knows where we get off? No idea. The seats are for women, children and elderly which describes pretty much everyone on the buses. The young men all own either tuk-tuks [which can earn you money] or motor scooters or small motor cycles. I was pleased to see Isolde and Thomasina engaging locals in conversaton on the buses and I didn’t pay much attention to the old grannies who warned us of all the letcherous males. Nobody really smelled bad [except me] and I quickly got used to the crowding. A two hour bus ride might cost 150 rupees per person [.75 pence, sterling]. Several bus lines serve the need. The oldest and most primitive are the ”government” buses, identified by their boxy, red look and noisy mechanics. Seats are thin as well as narrow. They are obliged to stop often and seem to stop wherever the passengers wish, often just slowing to allow someone to hop on or off. Blue buses are run by private companies and are often busily decorated, sometimes sporting loud sound systems. There are lots of buses, they are cheap, and they are all packed and heavily used; smelly, smoky, noisy and uncomfortable, their popularity testifies to how effective public transportation can be. We used them all the time and, despite being squeezed longer and more tightly than ever before, I grew oddly fond of them, as long as I had my earplugs. Of course, I had neglected to use the internet connection at the last “hotel” to get the phone number or address of our next bed and breakfast. This one was my responsibility and I had reserved it from Italy using AirBnB. Ameelia Guest House sat on top of a mountain looking away from the city of Kandy into the mountain ranges. It was a few minutes from town by tuk-tuk but where we got off the bus and how we contacted the host became a growing concern the closer we got to the town. By dumb luck, Alex sat next to young Australians who had a mobile internet connection. We followed them off the bus, lost in a new, crowded city. Using their phone, we called our new host and got meeting instructions. There we were, standing in the shade of the central clock tower in the middle of a busy roundabout, anchored by our luggage, providing the local traffic with a new novelty. Out of the blur, an out stretched hand, a smiling face approached, gathered us up and got us on another bus to a couple of tuk tuks and in a few minutes we were out of the city, standing on his veranda under a mango tree, enjoying a huge view.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

My Fall In London

 
  When a ten day return ticket to London turns into three months of home improvements, what is that called? A working vacation? What do you call it when you leave your family to live alone in an abandoned flat in a strange city for three months? Homeless? What do you call someone who chooses to live in an empty city flat with no phone, radio, internet, TV, or friends and family. A Recluse?

  The longer version of this rant has been lost in a rush of wrong button taps but, to make a long story short, I returned to hearth and home [and family] after three months with a remarkably changed point of view. Unlike the last 15 years, the long list of tasks, responsibilities, and impossible missions all had relevance somewhere far away. When I returned, I felt light, and free; able to stand up straight. Normally, I'm bent double by the burden of expected labor. Not to mention accomplished labor. In london it was especially serious since I was deprived of my support team, tools, car, and beloved internet. At least I could speak the language. [aside Theoretically: The cheerful greeting in London today is a strongly accented version of "Are you alright?" Alarmed, I fought the reaction to pat myself down, checking before replying "Bene! Tu?" It's a foreign land wherever I set down these days and I fear the damage is beginning to show. If they ask if I'm alright I think to myself that what's wrong has begun to manifest itself]
   On the twelfth of July our London tenants of five years wrote to tell us that they were moving on. My
initial reaction was to do what we usually did: dust off the old advertisement, raise the rent and reel in some new tenants. We could do all this by email. The unfinished business in Italy made me think that I couldn't possibly stop and go off to london. I put up all the regular arguments: "what about the plumbing? what about the kids science homework? how's Isolde going to get to the bus? who's going to supply the winter firewood? In fact, who's going to start the fires? and what about the car tires? And the bicycles?" etc. It was a desperate argument. Time had taken its toll on the London flat and not being there to see it, we had no real idea of how it looked. We had paid for repairs and addressed any complaints from the tenants during their time there, but nine months ago a fire raged in the apartment above, taking away the roof. Our beloved London flat was soaked by the fire department. The tenants had run for the exits at the moment the lease expired. Who could blame them?
   Who you gonna call? Me. Mighty Mouse is on his way. I flew into London on the eighteenth of August. By blind luck, I was able to stay at a friend’s house half an hour away for the first week. Plenty of time, I thought, to set everything straight. I bought a ten day ticket just in case.
   My first impression of our beloved London apartment was not a good one. For the past ten years or so what little money spilled over from the rent of our apartment we poured into our Italian derelict. It was like a siphon. The forces of physics sucked money out of areas of abundance to areas of want. Until we reached an equilibrium. In other words, our beloved London flat slowly became a derelict just like our Italian house. Only worse because I hadn't been there to fix the door hinges and Alex wasn't there to cook without oil. It slowly turned into a revolting tenement. The ground floor flat has a nice little private garden in the back and a narrow entrance garden. We’ve always considered these outdoor spaces precious and fun to care for. Plants and flowers thrive in the abundant English rainfall. Walking down the lane, I could spot our flat from some distance. The front "hedge" was so profound, it forced one to move over on the sidewalk. I had to duck to one side to find the door. It also protected burglars who had earlier breached the front windows and made off with lots of Apple computers belonging to the tenants. But even this didn't encourage them to pick up the hedge clipper. Inside, my owner’s
pride was spoiled by damaged plaster, peeling wallpaper, broken light switches, grimy walls and doors, filthy floors: everything either soiled with layers of oily cake, or broken, or worse. The kitchen clearly served three independent couples who obviously shared neither sugar nor cleaning. I found a pair of scanty pink underpants behind the cooker. The back garden had overgrown the outbuilding, covered an abandoned bicycle and Weber grill, obscured the overflowing drains, crowded a small table and chairs, and left a tiny patch to perch a folding clothes dryer. The quote from professionals to clear this microscopic urban garden was 800 pounds sterling!
   The fight with the insurance company over the fire damage had begun in Italy long before I left. They asked for quotes. We asked for quotes. The contractors asked for access. The tenants asked for repairs. The contractors couldn't get in. The tenants couldn't quit work [or play]. The insurance company low-balled. The contractors drifted away. Meanwhile the flat upstairs was fully renovated, the roof rebuilt, and the flat sold! Then the tenants finally announced they'd had enough. Bye-bye. The siphon dried up. Mighty Mouse is on his way. In London the insurance fight continued. I wasn't allowed to touch anything because the damage was the evidence. One week wait turned into two. Two turned into three, but I had plenty to do.
  First thing: the garden. Bushes, hedges, trees. Swinging a chainsaw made quick work of it but, dam! Dam London! A mountain of prunings can't just become a romantic bonfire. Garden waste must be bagged in bin liners. It's got to be reduced to toothpicks and crammed into plastic bags. Hundreds of them. But each house is only allowed five per week. For me that meant about 30 weeks, not counting the time required to reduce my trees to Toothpicks. And no heavy wood allowed. I had a problem. Solution: distribute my bin liners of prunings up and down the street in the middle of the night before the morning collection, and friends in London came to the rescue taking the sawn wood for their fireplace.
   I'm swipe-typing from a mobile gadget. Functioning well beyond my sell-by date. I'm doing it from a pub in London. And if you're a beer drinker, well, it doesn't get any better. But pretty soon I've got to go back to the flat on Wix's Lane, dig my sleeping bag out of the closet and find a clear space to lie down. With the tenants gone, I move in and can stay on the job 24-7. You might think three months in London in a "free" flat would be a dream get-a-way. No kids, no wife(!), nothing to do but prowl around and get acquainted with this remarkable city. But that would be the fantasy of a young, single man in a foreign port. Sitting in a noisy pub, alone, at a ripe old age, surrounded by people one third my age with full spectrum hearing isn't pleasant. I can’t understand a word they are saying. And a flat with no phone, no TV, no radio, no Wi-Fi, no life, no love, along with the responsibility for the family's biggest investment ignored for ten years, no! It's horrible. London is crowded. London is reluctant to tear down old (historic?!) buildings and build sensible roads. OK, fine! Old buildings are charming. There's a good mass transit system. Bikes rule, and driving a car is seriously discouraged. But what's left is too many old buildings and no way to get in and fix them. Add to that a gigantic international financial services industry with tons of employees, and all the people that are needed to support them: the restaurant's, mechanics, doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists, etc, and everybody fighting for a medieval housing inventory. You've got a London-sized problem. It's a seller's market. The rent a property owner can charge is... outrageous. criminal. Oh! There's some new housing all right. There's a new
tower on the south bank full of flats that cost a million a piece. It's been built with money from overseas as pure speculation. At night three quarters of it is dark. Uninhabited. For the investors their money is safer in an empty, million pound flat than any bank account. The condition of the properties that people like you and I might rent can be equally outrageous. The rent-paying public has been pummelled into accepting the shabby chic of cramp and damp. The disparity between rich and poor is greater than anywhere else in the civilized world. In the area around Oxford Circus life expectancy is near 90. Half an hour to the east, life expectancy drops by 25 years. And we've pummelled our tenants. Brutally. Luckily Clapham Common has always been considered desirable, but Wix’s Lane has limited parking, the street is only wide enough for one car to pass although it is a two way street. The living room of the flat is now called a bedroom because living rooms in London are now for the upper one percent. Many living rooms have been cut into two bedrooms and many apartments have been cut into two flats. A bedroom in Clapham will cost between 500 and 800 pounds sterling per month in a shared flat. Ours is still one apartment but what used to be one living room, one bedroom and a nursery is now three double bedrooms. London is crowded and expensive.

  The insurance company fight took longer than the garden clean-up so I started a kitchen clean-up and renovation. This led to IKEA, my idea of hell to which I am irresistibly drawn. Kind of like Donald Trump turned into a retail store. And that led to a deadline when my new kitchen would be delivered. The insurance company finally agreed to more money but their contractors refused to take the job. Guess who was left to deal with the mold, the blocked drains, the shorting electrics, and the ceilings caving in? Not to mention the problem of finding a builder, plasterer, plumber, and electrician who might not be wintering in the Caribbean. Without word of mouth you've got no hope, because as the owners prey on the tenants, the workers prey on the owners. Builders and tradesmen circle London like killer whales. None of them live in London. They live outside the city perimeter and sweep in on steep, "call-out" charges, not to mention parking fees. From Italy I had found a successful Irish builder by word of mouth and I felt smug. I felt that I had cracked the syndicate, but the quote after our interview left me reeling. His electrician’s quote alone gobbled up our entire insurance award. Thinking a quick trip to the pub was my only comfort, I bumped into some young guys wearing electrical tool belts tramping in and out of a neighbor’s house. After work, they came around; and after some careful testing with real instruments (unlike my Irish builder’s electrician) they gave me the bad news with a grave face. It was 20% of the original quote and I had found my electricians. And through them I found Adrian who they played football with every Thursday.
  So we introduced Adrian into the story. The side of his van says "Adrian Construction.
Word of Mouth" Adrian is Romanian. And so are his workers. They work for half the cost of a Brit. Cash. Adrian was willing to put off a much more wealthy client for a few days. Adrian wanted the work, he had the guys to do it. And he could do it for less. A lot less. Adrian Construction left me with new ceilings, plaster and paint as well as taking away an entire truck load of tenant rubbish and kitchen demolition.
  That left me with the job of re-plumbing the kitchen, installing the cabinets, cooker, fridge, dishwasher and sink, cleaning up the whole mess, and finding new tenants.
  So we introduce "Brexit" into the story. British exit from the EU. Meaning, for most UK citizens, a way to avoid a flood of people who don't look English, speak English all that well, or behave in an English manner. Theory holds that these non-English are costing the country loads in medical and education entitlements while stealing all the jobs, but a careful look demonstrates that it's the English themselves who are gaming the social services while the industrious immigrants are eager to work and are doing it for less. The large majority hold permits, live frugally and pay taxes. They don't want to get in trouble. It's the prevailing refrain all over the west but I'll refrain from a descent into statistics, politics and economics.
 Once the many formalities are untangled and Britain leaves the European Union, Adrian and his guys may have to go.
  And so may I. And the citizens will have it all back and be great again. And most of them won’t be able to pay for it and the wealth and life expectancy disparities will widen.


  But it's a nice place to visit. Now that my rant is over and I can look back with some pride at our little London flat; I can reflect on my many walks around the London streets at night.  I celebrated my birthday with fish and chips. I helped Thomasina get started in an English grammar school. I visited Alex's mother often, met Caroline's guy Jamie, saw Ramsgate, got to celebrate Scarlett’s birthday with a drink at the Ritz [thanks Jamie!]. I got to watch London dress itself first in Halloween gore, then Guy Fawlks explosions and finally Christmas lights. I watched the skateboard artists on Clapham Common, pantomime under the Eye, and anti-war protestors under Nelson’s column. Thomasina and I were swept along by the Zombie March. And Pat Sonnino and Dick Wayman took me out to dinner. And I returned to Italy and my family after three months to a warm reception.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

london christmas story

   Sore feet come as a shock. Walking, hiking, climbing, pedalling is what I do. Or have done.
   I value the act of self propulsion. It began out of love for my grandfather who himself walked Scotland as a boy and matured following the exploits of the golden age of British mountaineering. Heights don't bother me, they terrify me; but they excite me to go higher. I've cycled beyond the point of guts ache and diarrhoea. Passing landscapes are my addictive video.
    London is for walkers. And lately cyclists. On the real estate website Zoopla you can find a three bedroom flat south of the Tower Bridge for 3.5 million. Sterling. A major selling feature is it's half mile distance from the nearest tube station. That's a mile of walking every day. If you can't pony up 3.5m you will be walking more. Or maybe just cycling the whole way to your job in the bureaucracy. Probably in the rain. If you can't get on your feet you'll be selected out pretty quickly. Shoes sell well in London. Always have.
   Alex comes from London and for the past 10 years or so it's back to London we go. For many years we had the good fortune of a house-sitting assignment every time London friends of ours travelled to America. But our friends have aged, don't travel any more, and we haven't been to London for three years. But opportunities opened up, cheap tickets came available and at the last minute we dropped
everything, stuffed bags, left Giles in charge, said goodbye to Ciucio [the dog] and flew to London. Out of the sunshine, into the fog.
    Surprisingly London was warmer than Italy and not foggy at all. In fact, the Perugia airport was so socked in, our flight was delayed, the plane couldn't land, and they bussed us down to Rome for a flight some 4 hours later than our intended. We straggled into our digs in the dark, apologizing to Wiss and Caroline who we had intended to see for lunch.
   And so began ten days or so of marching. Walking in London is fun. You need a map. And you need an Oyster card. The Oyster card is a plastic card read by every bus and subway. You put money on the card and it can take you anywhere. Anywhere except where you are going. To get to your doorstep you have to walk. With your groceries or your luggage. Yes, there are lots of taxis, but they are for the one tenth of one percent, or at least those who pretend to be. Once you've figured out the basics, you are set for some of the best walking east of the Cascade range. History, art, architecture, street culture, fashion, theater, huge parks, public events, any kind of shopping, music, cool cars, lots of bikes, food, rain, and tons of people from all over the world. And most people you bump into respond to english and decent manners. It's all neat and tidy presenting a well repaired and scrubbed look, even the old stuff. Completely different from Rome where even the new stuff is broken. I suppose if you've just ridden home from work, in the rain, and there's no beer in the fridge; another splendid walk in all this wonder might not be so inspiring. I'm not saying living in London is fun, just walking. And I also suppose most of you have already visited London and know all this.
   But to get back to the point, all this walking gave me sore feet. I never imagined I would suffer from sore feet. I admire nice hiking boots. I buy fairly expensive insoles. I love my knitted wool socks. Some have said it's a fetish. And perhaps that's all the more reason this is such a trauma for me. I didn't even notice it for the first few days. I did notice I was falling off the pace at times. Alex sets a mean pace. And the effort to keep up did require effort along with a certain discomfort; but I was mainly careful with my metal hip splint, the result of a bike crash fifteen years ago. A little ache in the feet?  I'll change shoes when I get home. With four days to go I took the kids to Oxford street to see the post-Christmas shopping buzz. Luckily it was a lot of stop and go walking, but my feet were now becoming the main problem. The next night we walked to the Old Vic for the Lorax show and I was trying to hide my limp. The next day we toured St. Paul's and in the evening a stroll down Victoria Street to the Thames new year fireworks. I didn't want to go. The next day offered a pre-dawn luggage drag to the airport bus followed by a classic airport panic and a run to the gate. Finally, after landing, Alex and I walked four kilometers to our car parked at a nearby wharehouse.
   I've self-diagnosed a mild form of idiopathic pes cavus, which is a high arch of the foot that does not fully touch the ground when standing. I always thought it was healthy, the sign of a natural-born walker. But no. The joints of the tarso-metatarsal bones of the arch tend to buckle upwards, pinching and eroding the cartilage between the bones. Prognosis: not so hot. Treatment: asprin and suck it up as long as you can, then screw the bones together and lose your balance.
   I swear, ageing is the same for everyone. Every tick of the clock is another nail. Happy new year.