Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Above and Beyond Llanes

We left Llanes this morning by the beach and went up into the hills. The path follows a back road then goes into the hills by the sea. Llanes was one of the great centres of emigration in the 19thC, and those who were successful came back from the Indies and built great houses in the town. Many can still be seen, along the channelled river and the road that lead down to the port. Some are ruined, some distressed, some maintained, some modernised. The great days of the Indiano are gone, but a part of his history and decline is told in the mix of styles, of sizes, of states of repair. Today's route was mostly about villages and beaches. The village of Niembru, reached ny a road that winds around its estuary, where boats lie in the mud. You walk almost completely around a large church and cemetery which abut the riverfront, for no obvious reason, as they are outside and below the town, and there should have been plenty of room. It looks as though they are placed there to more easily receive the bodies of dead sailors and fishermen, and it could well be true. We passed close to several beaches that looked fun to lie or swim on for a while. It was warm and sunny and the sand and the sea are very attractive then. Each has its associated camping and caravan site and its modern holiday apartments. Low, house-like buildings here, not the high, often ugly blocks of the south coasts. I have often wondered why it is that the camping type, usually young and with little money, seems more attracted by the north of Spain, where he is quite likely to waste his holiday watching it rain. From Niembru we climbed up above the beaches of Torimbia and San Antolín, which was our immediate goal. Torimbia is a famous nude beach, hard to reach, long, wide, fairly empty and very good for swimming and taking the sun on. We spent a day there about ten years ago. By nude, in this case I mean clothing optional. Mrs Hickory and I are tolerant of other people's nudity but are ourselves of the textile persuasion. Today we were, as I say, heading for San Antolìn, a long beach just by the road where the hill path we were on drops down agaon to sea level. The river Bedón flows out there, cutting a channel across the beach itself. This is common on these coasts. The shoreline is mostly cliffs, and the beaches are at the rias, the small estuaries where the many streams take advantage of the points where the rocks fold into the ground to break their way through to the sea. There are even inland beaches, like the Cobijeru that we saw the other day, and the Gulpiyuri, where we are now, where the sea comes through holes and channels in the rocks below the water level, creating pools and depositing sand, and creating a beach that has no waves, no horizon, and is completely enclosed by rock. Again we were accompanied at random points by the FEVE, the narrow gauge railway that operates along much of the north coast. It is perhaps unneeded now, but I am very fond of it. It is a bright, colourful railway, small yellow trains run fairly gently between small yellow stations on lines that cross and are crossed by paths and village roads, and you can share the lines if you wish, walk along them and go where the trains are going, as long as keep your eyes and ears open. They are friendly, humble trains, quite unlike the AVE'S and Talgos, trains with airs of superiority, which race past on segregated, fenced off tracks, and refuse to even notice you are there. The village we are staying in is called Naves. The hotel is aggressively modern and comfortable, the owner has an air of Norman Bates about him (if there is no blogpost tomorrow it might mean that we were right), and the village itself was 'Prettiest Village in Asturias in 1961'. It is still pretty, in a natural, upbeat, untwee kind of way. The right kind of stone and an interest in flowers add a great deal of prettiness to a place. So does the sun.

Monday, June 30, 2014

What is Left When the Present is Gone

The road, like life, for which it is such a perfect metaphor, is as much about the past as the present. What remains when the rest of the journey has vanished are the good times, the many moments which made the road worth walking. Much of the labour, the drudgery, is lost to the mind, and only the beautiful, the striking, thecurious, the great, the baffling, the monumental, the surprisingly satisfying, the unexpectedly perfect, is left in the mind. The 'lubina' I had for dinner in a cider house in Pendueles last night, caught that morning with a line by a man from the village who still makes his living thay way, and grilled to perfection over the charcoal. The bull that blocked our path on the hills near Andrín this morning. Andrín itself, beautifully kept, the newcomers building in the old style, clean and colourful, and with wonderful views of the mountains rising opposite. The bufones near Llanes, sinkholes in the karstic formations of the area, some almost perfect circles, apparently bottomless cylinders going deep into the earth, throwing out sprays of seawater when the high tide forces its way in and under then. The river Purón, ankle-deep and clear and cold, running to the sea just there between high cliffs, looking as though it were a thousand miles from the sea, a pure, green, gurgling stream that you cross on an old wooden bridge. And although it is the road itself that matters, you remember the joy of getting somewhere, when you thought you never would. The path from Andrín to Llanes rose higher and highe and turned ever more away from the town it was supposed to take us too. A strong wind was blowing and I had the feeling we would never arrive, but be forever taunted by the unattainable town we could seen beneath us on the shore, and we would be forever rising and turning away until from fatigue or desperation or dramatic necessity we would reach an edge that we must fall from. The water at the beach of El Sablón felt that much better this evening, because we had arrived.

Friday, June 27, 2014

On The Road Again...

Yesterday we arrived at San Vicente de La Barquera, a pretty fishing village on the coast of Cantabria, on the Bay of Biscay, and one of favourite places anywhere. The old castle is high on a rock between the two arms of the river,closing and dominating the oldest, walled part of the town. Below is the old port, now with as many small pleasure boats as fishing craft. They come in a great variety of colours, but bright blues, greens and reds are popular, and they are moored not just in the port, but along the seawall, off the bridge and into the estuary. This, and the habit of painting houses in similar colours, those that are'n t made of stone and wood, give a slightly chsotic brilliance to the scene. Behind the port the main street has stone collonades all along it and the buildings are mostly attractive and powerful, looking as though they have always been there and always will be. Apart from the beauty of the village itself, iit has a long wide beach bounded by high green cliffs, good for swimming and surfing, across the estuary, a short walk over the bridge, and many paths along the river and through other villages or into the hills. By walking beyond the beach up and over the headland you can, in a couple of hours of pathswith beautiful views and details of evrything that makes the area woryh seeing, reach Comillas, where Gaudí has a number of curious structures and Alfonso XII had his holiday palace. Not too far away are Santillana del Mar, a village that is as it was in the late middle ages, bright and lively in the sun, and still lived-in, the Caves of Altamira, some if the oldest and best preserved of all cave paintings, and the caves of El Soplao, also fascinating to anyone with imagination and an interest in what we once were. We swam at the beach to refresh the limbs from the journey, then had dinner in the Boga Boga, which is the best place to eat if the reader ever finds himself there. The percebes were caught that morning, the nécora, a kind of crab, was grilled to perfection and the turbot, which had also been happily swimming that same morning before it was suddenly interrupted by a fisherman, was also perfectly done. It seemed a shame to leave this morning, but we had come to walk, to continue where we stopped two years ago, and so we hoiked on our rucksacks and set off. The route I had planned took us over the cliffs, through a handful of small villages, past fields of orange and purple cows, horses, donkeys, sheep and very small goats (you don't tend to think of goats as pretty, but these are, especially the kids). When I say fields, I mean any patch of hillside without too many trees that can be fenced off and where a sufficiently expert driver can handle a tractor without sliding backwards into the sea. This is not the broad, flat, dry landscape of Castille. The village we are in now, in a small and comfortable rural hotel specially built to look as though it has been here forever, is called Pechón and is high on a headland between two of the estuaries which break upthe cliffs every few miles all along this coast. You reach it by walking a couple of miles up a steep road that climbs beside one estuary, and going halfway across the headland. You could also get there by doing something exactly symmetrical from the other side. It is one of the things I like about, pleasing to the mathematical mind. From the balcony we can see the village below and the see, and the showers sweeping in one agter the other from the north. Green places are green for a reason. Where the road crosses the ría, before the climb begins, you can look to the left and see, within a hundred yards, the old road bridge, still used for some reason, the bridge where the narrow-gauge railway crosses, and the little station beside it, and high above it, the new bridge where the motorway crosses and buries itself in a tunnel through the hills. And the coloured boats on the water, of course. A living vignette of human movement and ingenuity through the centuries. It should have been a photo, not just a memory, but it started raining at that moment and I got distracted. Mrs Hickory is always determined to swim, especially on a new beach, whatever the weather and the attendant circumstances. I approve of thishabit in general. This afternoon that meant walking down- down being the significamt word- through a light drizzle to a rocky brach with a dangerous undertow to stroll bravely into the chilly water, do a few strokes back and forth to make it worthwhile, and then trying to get dry in the rain before climbing back up again to the village. This is fun, really it is. The beach is characterful and atmospheric, small and shut in by tough looking rocks, giving you the sense of being alone against the Atlantic and the whole of nature. That's why it's fun. Blogging by phone, apologies for typos etc

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year Hedgehog

Galatea and Hickory wish readers a very Happy New Year, for your own value of happiness.

The Holy Family, for some reason, are not amused by baby hedgehogs, but they'll get used to her in time for next Christmas.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

On the Purpose of Dictionaries

Do not pay attention, child, to the Academics (of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language). They are theologians of language, restricting, confining, limiting, fearing change, without art or imagination. Read the great writers, listen to the great orators, learn from the great communicators, see as great artists have seen. They are the mystics of language, and they will teach you what the inbred pseudo-knowledge of the instructors cannot.

There is an article in El País about the new edition of the  DRAE, which will be published next year. It starts off rather stupidly but in fact it's quite good. It praises it for being 'less sexist', apparently thinking that a dictionary which reflects what some people think language should be and how it should be used is better than one that reflects how it really is and how it is really used. 'Gozar' is still used to mean 'have sex with a woman' and a dictionary that fails to recognize that is not a good dictionary. The editor, Pedro Álvarez de Miranda, states that the point of the new dictionary is to be better, not less sexist, which is a good start. Then the article goes on to acknowledge that language is not what the RAE decrees it to be, and that no one looks at what the Academy has said before speaking or writing. On the whole, as I say, a good article.

The Dictionary has always tried to teach people how it thinks they should speak, and has been largely ignored other than by writers of style manuals and professors of language, who tend to use it as a reference (perhaps because they have to). It does not have anything like the scope of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is a magnificent work of scholarship and, like a swimming pool in Bali with pretty young waitresses serving chilled rum as you float by; once dipped into it's hard to get out of.

There are better dictionaries of the Spanish language. María Moliner's is probably the best, and for etymology the six volumes of Corominas are unequalled. The DRAE, on the other hand, is for people who want their homework to get a good grade, or their article to be accepted by a newspaper. A fine and useful work, but with a specific purpose to define what is good and evil in language.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Aboriginal Nimbys

I read this a few weeks ago (here, in the National Geographic), and I think it is worth a few observations from left field.

It is interesting in its assumptions,  both journalistic and anthropological. It starts off with, in fact it mostly consists of, a series of anecdotic little details, probably largely invented, about the lives of the people Michael Finkel was talking to and about. This is what journalists do, they call it human interest and learn it the first day on the job. The fact that a supposed science article is not tabloid journalism is rather lost on this chap, who probably isn't a scientist anyway. He's just a writer, he doesn't seem to have any other relevant background. He has some curiosity, which is something, but too many preconceptions and not enough ability to observe.

What is described is presented uncritically, as good, virtuous, a model for the rest of us. But if you set aside the casual racism which treats Aborigines, in the category of those who live differently and take their traditions more seriously than we do, as simple but exotic animals, and actually see them as people, they come across, as transmitted to us by Michael Finkel, as selfish and arrogant.

They do not live in harmony with nature. That is a silly idea peddled by hippies and believed by the ignorant. Primitive peoples live at the mercy of nature, and survive, to the extent that they do, by holding it off as long as possible. They live as they do because they can't live better.

The  village described is a dictatorship in which the tyrant is an old woman. Her right to arbitrarily control what happens and  what people can do is accepted not only by the villagers but also by those outside, who should know better. They appear to do no work, but live from other people's efforts, for which they show no gratitude. They have, they demand, that other people provide electricity for them, but they will not allow mining in their area. No planning process, no quid pro quo. Just the ukase of the matriarch. Classic nimbyism. They demand that others work for them and provide them with things, but it must be other people's land that is spoilt to provide it. And apparently this makes them virtuous. The writer has not thought this through.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


Not a story of mine this time, but one by Alfred Russel Wallace, in his great work 'The Malay Archipielago'. The book is mostly a description of his travels around the area of Malaysia and Indonesia, the larger and some of the smaller islands. There is a lot of talk of birds and butterflies and orangutans and other creatures that he hunted, and of the land and the people and the conclusions he drew from it all. I was struck by this anecdote, because it is told in a different style from the rest of the book, as a story. It's not a bad story, and is well told:
The Rajah of Lombock was a very wise man and he showed his wisdom greatly in the way he took the census. For my readers must know that the chief revenues of the Rajah were derived from a head-tax of rice, a small measure being paid annually by every man, woman, and child in the island, There was no doubt that every one paid this tax, for it was a very light one, and the land was fertile and the people well off; but it had to pass through many hands before it reached the Government storehouses. When the harvest was over the villagers brought their rice to the Kapala kampong, or head of the village; and no doubt he sometimes had compassion for the poor or sick and passed over their short measure, and sometimes was obliged to grant a favour to those who had complaints against him; and then he must keep up his own dignity by having his granaries better filled than his neighbours, and so the rice that he took to the "Waidono" that was over his district was generally good deal less than it should have been. And all the "Waidonos" had of course to take care of themselves, for they were all in debt and it was so easy to take a little of the Government rice, and there would still be plenty for the Rajah. And the "Gustis" or princes who received the rice from the Waidonos helped themselves likewise, and so when the harvest was all over and the rice tribute was all brought in, the quantity was found to be less each year than the one before. Sickness in one district, and fevers in another, and failure of the crops in a third, were of course alleged as the cause of this falling off; but when the Rajah went to hunt at the foot of the great mountain, or went to visit a "Gusti" on the other side of the island, he always saw the villages full of people, all looking well-fed and happy. And he noticed that the krisses of his chiefs and officers were getting handsomer and handsomer; and the handles that were of yellow wood were changed for ivory, and those of ivory were changed for gold, and diamonds and emeralds sparkled on many of them; and he knew very well which way the tribute-rice went. But as he could not prove it he kept silence, and resolved in his own heart someday to have a census taken, so that he might know the number of his people, and not be cheated out of more rice than was just and reasonable.
But the difficulty was how to get this census. He could not go himself into every village and every house, and count all the people; and if he ordered it to be done by the regular officers they would quickly understand what it was for, and the census would be sure to agree exactly with the quantity of rice he got last year. It was evident therefore that to answer his purpose no one must suspect why the census was taken; and to make sure of this, no one must know that there was any census taken at all. This was a very hard problem; and the Rajah thought and thought, as hard as a Malay Rajah can be expected to think, but could not solve it; and so he was very unhappy, and did nothing but smoke and chew betel with his favourite wife, and eat scarcely anything; and even when he went to the cock-fight did not seem to care whether his best birds won or lost. For several days he remained in this sad state, and all the court were afraid some evil eye had bewitched the Rajah; and an unfortunate Irish captain who had come in for a cargo of rice and who squinted dreadfully, was very nearly being krissed, but being first brought to the royal presence was graciously ordered to go on board and remain there while his ship stayed in the port.
One morning however, after about a week's continuance of this unaccountable melancholy, a welcome change took place, for the Rajah sent to call together all the chiefs, priests, and princes who were then in Mataram, his capital city; and when they were all assembled in anxious expectation, he thus addressed them:
"For many days my heart has been very sick and I knew not why, but now the trouble is cleared away, for I have had a dream. Last night the spirit of the 'Gunong Agong'—the great fire mountain—appeared to me, and told me that I must go up to the top of the mountain. All of you may come with me to near the top, but then I must go up alone, and the great spirit will again appear to me and will tell me what is of great importance to me and to you and to all the people of the island. Now go all of you and make this known through the island, and let every village furnish men to make clear a road for us to go through the forest and up the great mountain."
So the news was spread over the whole island that the Rajah must go to meet the great spirit on the top of the mountain; and every village sent forth its men, and they cleared away the jungle and made bridges over the mountain streams and smoothed the rough places for the Rajah's passage. And when they came to the steep and craggy rocks of the mountain, they sought out the best paths, sometimes along the bed of a torrent, sometimes along narrow ledges of the black rocks; in one place cutting down a tall tree so as to bridge across a chasm, in another constructing ladders to mount the smooth face of a precipice. The chiefs who superintended the work fixed upon the length of each day's journey beforehand according to the nature of the road, and chose pleasant places by the banks of clear streams and in the neighbourhood of shady trees, where they built sheds and huts of bamboo well thatched with the leaves of palm-trees, in which the Rajah and his attendants might eat and sleep at the close of each day.
And when all was ready, the princes and priests and chief men came again to the Rajah, to tell him what had been done and to ask him when he would go up the mountain. And he fixed a day, and ordered every man of rank and authority to accompany him, to do honour to the great spirit who had bid him undertake the journey, and to show how willingly they obeyed his commands. And then there was much preparation throughout the whole island. The best cattle were killed and the meat salted and sun-dried; and abundance of red peppers and sweet potatoes were gathered; and the tall pinang-trees were climbed for the spicy betel nut, the sirih-leaf was tied up in bundles, and every man filled his tobacco pouch and lime box to the brim, so that he might not want any of the materials for chewing the refreshing betel during the journey. The stores of provisions were sent on a day in advance. And on the day before that appointed for starting, all the chiefs both great and small came to Mataram, the abode of the king, with their horses and their servants, and the bearers of their sirih boxes, and their sleeping-mats, and their provisions. And they encamped under the tall Waringin-trees that border all the roads about Mataram, and with blazing fires frighted away the ghouls and evil spirits that nightly haunt the gloomy avenues.
In the morning a great procession was formed to conduct the Rajah to the mountain. And the royal princes and relations of the Rajah mounted their black horses whose tails swept the ground; they used no saddle or stirrups, but sat upon a cloth of gay colours; the bits were of silver and the bridles of many-coloured cords. The less important people were on small strong horses of various colours, well suited to a mountain journey; and all (even the Rajah) were bare-legged to above the knee, wearing only the gay coloured cotton waist-cloth, a silk or cotton jacket, and a large handkerchief tastefully folded around the head. Everyone was attended by one or two servants bearing his sirih and betel boxes, who were also mounted on ponies; and great numbers more had gone on in advance or waited to bring up the rear. The men in authority were numbered by hundreds and their followers by thousands, and all the island wondered what great thing would come of it.
For the first two days they went along good roads and through many villages which were swept clean, and where bright cloths were hung out at the windows; and all the people, when the Rajah came, squatted down upon the ground in respect, and every man riding got off his horse and squatted down also, and many joined the procession at every village. At the place where they stopped for the night, the people had placed stakes along each side of the roads in front of the houses. These were split crosswise at the top, and in the cleft were fastened little clay lamps, and between them were stuck the green leaves of palm-trees, which, dripping with the evening dew, gleamed prettily with the many twinkling lights. And few went to sleep that night until the morning hours, for every house held a knot of eager talkers, and much betel-nut was consumed, and endless were the conjectures what would come of it.
On the second day they left the last village behind them and entered the wild country that surrounds the great mountain, and rested in the huts that had been prepared for them on the banks of a stream of cold and sparkling water. And the Rajah's hunters, armed with long and heavy guns, went in search of deer and wild bulls in the surrounding woods, and brought home the meat of both in the early morning, and sent it on in advance to prepare the mid-day meal. On the third day they advanced as far as horses could go, and encamped at the foot of high rocks, among which narrow pathways only could be found to reach the mountain-top. And on the fourth morning when the Rajah set out, he was accompanied only by a small party of priests and princes with their immediate attendants; and they toiled wearily up the rugged way, and sometimes were carried by their servants, until they passed up above the great trees, and then among the thorny bushes, and above them again on to the black and burned rock of the highest part of the mountain.
And when they were near the summit, the Rajah ordered them all to halt, while he alone went to meet the great spirit on the very peak of the mountain. So he went on with two boys only who carried his sirih and betel, and soon reached the top of the mountain among great rocks, on the edge of the great gulf whence issue forth continually smoke and vapour. And the Rajah asked for sirih, and told the boys to sit down under a rock and look down the mountain, and not to move until he returned to them. And as they were tired, and the sun was warm and pleasant, and the rock sheltered them from the cold wind, the boys fell asleep. And the Rajah went a little way on under another rock; and as he was tired, and the sun was warm and pleasant, and he too fell asleep.
And those who were waiting for the Rajah thought him a long time on the top of the mountain, and thought the great spirit must have much to say, or might perhaps want to keep him on the mountain always, or perhaps he had missed his way in coming down again. And they were debating whether they should go and search for him, when they saw him coming down with the two boys. And when he met them he looked very grave, but said nothing; and then all descended together, and the procession returned as it had come; and the Rajah went to his palace and the chiefs to their villages, and the people to their houses, to tell their wives and children all that had happened, and to wonder yet again what would come of it.
And three days afterwards the Rajah summoned the priests and the princes and the chief men of Mataram, to hear what the great spirit had told him on the top of the mountain. And when they were all assembled, and the betel and sirih had been handed round, he told them what had happened. On the top of the mountain he had fallen into a trance, and the great spirit had appeared to him with a face like burnished gold, and had said—"Oh Rajah! much plague and sickness and fevers are coming upon all the earth, upon men and upon horses and upon cattle; but as you and your people have obeyed me and have come up to my great mountain, I will teach you how you and all the people of Lombock may escape this plague." And all waited anxiously, to hear how they were to be saved from so fearful a calamity. And after a short silence the Rajah spoke again and told them, that the great spirit had commanded that twelve sacred krisses should be made, and that to make them every village and every district must send a bundle of needles—a needle for every head in the village. And when any grievous disease appeared in any village, one of the sacred krisses should be sent there; and if every house in that village had sent the right number of needles, the disease would immediately cease; but if the number of needles sent had not been exact, the kris would have no virtue.
So the princes and chiefs sent to all their villages and communicated the wonderful news; and all made haste to collect the needles with the greatest accuracy, for they feared that if but one were wanting, the whole village would suffer. So one by one the head men of the villages brought in their bundles of needles; those who were near Mataram came first, and those who were far off came last; and the Rajah received them with his own hands and put them away carefully in an inner chamber, in a camphor-wood chest whose hinges and clasps were of silver; and on every bundle was marked the name of the village and the district from whence it came, so that it might be known that all had heard and obeyed the commands of the great spirit.
And when it was quite certain that every village had sent in its bundle, the Rajah divided the needles into twelve equal parts, and ordered the best steelworker in Mataram to bring his forge and his bellows and his hammers to the palace, and to make the twelve krisses under the Rajah's eye, and in the sight of all men who chose to see it. And when they were finished, they were wrapped up in new silk and put away carefully until they might be wanted.
Now the journey to the mountain was in the time of the east wind when no rain falls in Lombock. And soon after the krisses were made it was the time of the rice harvest, and the chiefs of districts and of villages brought their tax to the Rajah according to the number of heads in their villages. And to those that wanted but little of the full amount, the Rajah said nothing; but when those came who brought only half or a fourth part of what was strictly due, he said to them mildly, "The needles which you sent from your village were many more than came from such-a-one's village, yet your tribute is less than his; go back and see who it is that has not paid the tax." And the next year the produce of the tax increased greatly, for they feared that the Rajah might justly kill those who a second time kept back the right tribute. And so the Rajah became very rich, and increased the number of his soldiers, and gave golden jewels to his wives, and bought fine black horses from the white-skinned Hollanders, and made great feasts when his children were born or were married; and none of the Rajahs or Sultans among the Malays were so great or powerful as the Rajah of Lombock.
And the twelve sacred krisses had great virtue. And, when any sickness appeared in a village one of them was sent for; and sometimes the sickness went away, and then the sacred kris was taken back again with great Honour, and the head men of the village came to tell the Rajah of its miraculous power, and to thank him. And sometimes the sickness would not go away; and then everybody was convinced that there had been a mistake in the number of needles sent from that village, and therefore the sacred kris had no effect, and had to be taken back again by the head men with heavy hearts, but still, with all honour—for was not the fault their own?