Wednesday, 10 July 2019


Distant view of Centre Court
Centre Court, July 2019
A form arrived through the post out of the blue a few years ago. It was an entry form for the ballot to go to the tennis at Wimbledon, and with a bit of detective work I found out that it had been 'arranged' for me by my badminton friend A. I'd never been to the tennis at Wimbledon, but I filled it in and sent it off and heard nothing. I repeated the exercise in the subsequent years, and this year I was offered two tickets for Court One on Day 2. Of course I asked A if she wanted to join me.

I was waiting at Leamington station when Sister D phoned to say that mum had got up that morning when the doorbell rang, fallen over, subsequently got up and answered the door, but was now waiting for an ambulance because she couldn't get out of the chair. Lola II and Mr M were on their way there, and for the rest of the day I had one eye on the tennis and the other on my phone.

My Wimbledon experience was obviously somewhat overshadowed by this event, but I enjoyed seeing in reality what I was so familiar with from the TV, and saw matches including the Ladies World number 1 (A Barty), the British number 1 (J Konta) and Rafa Nadal - all of whom won their matches, as they should with this being Day 2. Sitting on the Hill towards the end of the day we were offered tickets to Centre Court by someone who didn't need them any more, so we went and had a look there too - it's surprisingly small compared with Court One.

The whole site is manicured without a petal out of place, and everything is organised with military precision, making the experience a pleasant one. But I don't think I will bother going again, because although the live experience is a bit more exciting than the televised version, it isn't enough to make up for the cost and time for the trip. And it's nowhere near as much fun as world class badminton, which is also nice and local in Birmingham.

Mum is home and improving slowly, and we have experienced the 'Reablement' service, which I believe is the latest word for rehabilitation. It seems to be a service that occupies the ground between not providing anything and providing something that actually helps people who can't cope on their own - a clear exemplar of 'better than nothing'. It is also a demonstration of the wisdom and foresight of having a husband and three children.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Peace Festival and Work Stuff

Outdoor feature including wooden chairs and rockery
Pump Room Gardens, May 2019
It's been a little more eventful of late, which at least gives me more to write about.

The Peace Festival

This is the annual event held in Leamington featuring all manner of stalls and food and musicians, this year including Warwick Triratna Buddhists. This was my idea - now that I am completely suppressing all my Great Ideas at work, they are popping out everywhere else. After suggesting that the group take a stall at the Festival and the committee thinking this wasn't a bad idea I randomly invited some friends to stay over at my house at the same time. Luckily we did manage to rustle up enough helpers on the stall to allow me time off, and I could still help out on the stall and chill with the friends and it all worked out all right.

My particular task in the lead up to the event was to create some leaflets that we could hand out with some information about the group and the dates of the next introductory courses. I managed it with days to spare, unlike the person whose particular task was to create some sort of signage for our stall. For the whole of Saturday we were anonymous, which combined with the occasional downpours led to a largely unsuccessful sign-up rate. Thankfully the same person who didn't manage the sign did manage to borrow a large awning, without which we would have been drenched and would probably have given up and gone home.

We persevered, and on Sunday a small blackboard was procured for a sign to identify ourselves, the weather was much better, and people actually started showing an interest. We'll see how that converts to attendees at the intro courses. We'll be reviewing the whole affair at our next meeting when we'll decide whether it was worth it and what we would do differently if there is a next time.

Work Stuff 1

I made an epic mistake when I bought tickets to attend a festival in July - the same one that I went to last year - because somehow I put the wrong dates in my diary. Looking back, the dates were clear on the website and in the email to confirm the booking and everywhere else, so I can't quite understand how I got it wrong. But I did, and that meant that I had constructed my work schedule around the wrong dates, including a meeting, a course and clinics, not to mention the summer concert on the Saturday.

The realisation hit me with that sinking feeling in my stomach followed by disbelief and panic: I had full clinics on days I would not be at work and I'd cleared my diary on days when I would now be available. And there was no way the course could be moved, although the meeting could. My options were to come clean, in which case hospital policy is that clinics cannot be cancelled with less than six weeks' notice. The alternative was to try and make the necessary arrangements clandestinely and hope not to get caught out. I did the right thing, and a week later we have moved the clinics and officially switched my annual leave, although I'll have to head to the campsite after the course rather than have that day free to prepare. And no summer concert for me.

Work Stuff 2

I have made an application for 'flexible working', meaning that I have asked to reduce my 27-hour nearly-four-day working week to a nearly-two-day working week. The application went in back in January, at which point the Team Leader whose job it is to take my application forward had to have an emergency operation which took her away from work for a while. No problem, with six months to go there ought to have been plenty of time to work things out. But she never did - she was always saying "I don't have all the answers" and refusing to sit down with me and my team to work out how to take things forward. Then, about a month ago, she announced that the work in the nearly-two days I was giving up would be picked up by two different people, one of them being herself.

This was not an acceptable proposal and my team rightly protested, but again with the dragging her feet and not agreeing to a meeting. Eventually, when she happened to drop in to the department, I pretty much marched her round to one of my team so that they could highlight the problem.

There followed more procrastination, and then a suggestion of a meeting with her manager, and then with just six weeks to go the Team Leader announces to me that she's leaving altogether. All the delay and obfuscation was down to the fact that a) she wanted the extra hours for herself, while simultaneously b) she was applying for this other job. So we've got our aim of the whole job being done by just two people, but are left with much less time to prepare, and the manager above has now declined the meeting.

I could go on. It's really frustrating. There's lots more I could say, but it's not very interesting and leaves me feeling very negative. All I will say is that this is one of the reasons that I have determined to stop having ideas at work.

Quick LTRP update

Ilf has popped up a month earlier than he first suggested and has made a start on all the preparation for painting now that the plastering is done. There are holes and rough surfaces and plaster splatter all over the place - I got rid of a lot of it but not all. And more than a month after I told him about the blown LED light unit, Ulf has come and had a look, whistled through his teeth and gone away again. I discovered that the main cause for the delay was that his electrician has gone AWOL and nobody knows where he is. He has a new electrician, but I received a message this morning that it is slightly more complicated by the fact that the particular unit I have is no longer available, but we need something that will match the other lights. One thing I have learned through the whole span of the LTRP is that it always takes longer than you think, even when you are actually in no hurry.

Five of the crew at the Warwick Triratna Buddhists stall

Saturday, 22 June 2019

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover

The Hand of Fu-Manchu
by Sax Rohmer

narrated by B. J. Harrison
"Sir Denis Nayland Smith and his associates learn of a deadly organization that stalks the shadows. Their goal is to undermine the balance of global power, and they allow no one to stand in their way. They are the terrorist assassins known as the Si-Fan."
My Audible talking book subscription renews in June and I'd run out of credits, so was looking forward to filling the gap with this free podcast book, but it was awful. I didn't care about any of the characters and it is 'of its time' i.e. appallingly racist. So I stopped reading it, and Audible happened to be having a sale of all the works of P. G. Wodehouse. Perfect.

Image of the book cover

Blandings Castle
by P. G. Wodehouse

narrated by James Saxon
"Lord Emsworth is striving to remove a pumpkin-shaped blot on the family escutcheon, the Hon. Freddie Threepwood is making a last-ditch attempt to convert Lady Alcester to the beneficial quality of Donaldson's Dog-Joy, and in the bar-parlor of the Anglers' Rest, Mr. Mulliner fascinates everyone with the secret history of old Hollywood."
Only about half of the book is about Blandings Castle, but that doesn't really matter, it's the usual joyful fare from Mr Wodehouse.

Image of the book cover

Summer Lightning
by P. G. Wodehouse

narrated by John Wells
"Engaged to delightful chorus girl Sue Brown, Ronnie must persuade his uncle (and trustee) Lord Emsworth to hand over a large chunk of capital before they can marry. Meanwhile waspish Lady Constance Keeble is marshalling her forces to stop her brother Galahad causing panic among the aristocracy by publishing the tale of his misspent youth."
I think Wodehouse had got into his stride by this book, because the classic parallel story threads of romance, misunderstandings and pig theft are all knitted together beautifully at the end. One of the best stories, spoiled only slightly by the narrator's voices for various characters being so thick as to be almost incomprehensible.

Image of the book cover

Plague, Pox and Pestilence
by Kenneth F. Kiple
"Since people first settled, disease has proliferated and altered the course of history. As the horizons of the known world have been extended, germs and viruses have travelled with the explorers and destroyed the very lands and peoples that seemed to hold out such promise."
A big shiny hardback book from dad's collection of books about disease through history, with glossy pages and colour pictures. I don't know why it took so long to get through because it's really very interesting, giving a snapshot of many different communicable diseases through history. I particularly enjoyed the last section, as it described diseases that we no longer experience and we don't really know what they were - the Sweating Sickness for example, which tended to kill its victims in a matter of hours.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Nothing to see here

Distorted reflections of buildings in office block windows
Rio de Janeiro, April 2019
It's a week since my last blog post but there's nothing even remotely interesting to tell. Not that I haven't been busy, of course I have, with the usual badminton, Buddhists and work. But you've heard plenty about all of those and there's nothing new, not even anything in the realm of the LTRP to report. There's not a 'What I've been reading' post ready either because I've been doing surprisingly little reading - I've got through a couple of audio books but I've been stuck on the same print books since before I went to Brazil.

I have guests coming at the weekend so beds to make and catering to consider (and more cleaning) and a few less attractive jobs that I've been putting off. So I'm off to do that, and then it's the Peace Festival at the weekend where I know there will be stories to tell. Until next week, then.

Camouflaged moth on tree trunk
Spot the moth!

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Recent events

Alex in the prow of the boat on Juma Lake
Amazonia, April 2019
Lola II and Mr M have visited Lola Towers for the purpose of setting up the Gulloebl Film Festival (Leamington). This is very exciting and I have now chosen the films and started writing down all the things I need to organise, from Friday's canapes to compiling parking information. Mr M is still working on the spreadsheets and our new online booking site is nearly ready to go live.

In badminton news, both my badminton clubs have held their AGMs. My Monday club's AGM was in the pub for an hour after the end of the Monday badminton session, and my Thursday club's was in a Rugby club and also involved a competitive skittles tournament and fish and chips.

I am 'Social Secretary' for my lovely Monday club, which just means that I organise activities and social events whenever I feel like it. My 'report' at the AGM consisted of a Post-It note with the dates of all the events I could remember from the last 12 months. We have a very efficient Secretary who added the rest of the detail. They have asked me for the same social programme again this year which leaves me with a dilemma - everyone enjoyed the Disc Golf but me, so should I organise it but not attend myself, or just pick something else?

The badminton side of things is not going very well for this club - we only have seven permanent paying members, some more who 'pay and play', and our funds are seriously depleted to the point that the viability of the club is at risk. Having said that, the men's team won their Division in the League and will be promoted. We don't have enough players for any other teams and barely enough for the men's.

My Thursday badminton club is doing much better than my Monday club, with a healthy membership and about six teams in various leagues. Last year we had an informal agreement that if one of the other ladies captained the 1st Mixed team last year, I would take it over this year. It really is about time I put something back into this club and it isn't a very difficult or time-consuming job, especially as we have six fairly committed players and quite a few who will stand in if needed.

Buddhism news: apart from the regular Tuesday Buddhist group locally, I've been going to quite a lot of Thursday sessions in Birmingham. This is partly because I enjoy it but it's also strategic - my local group is going to have a stall at next month's Peace Festival in Leamington and I want to try and make sure we are supported, which I am hoping will be easier if I am a known face.

Then there's work. Work is challenging, mostly in a good way, but sometimes not. I have been trying to get my Team Leader to have a conversation with the DSNs I work with since January and she has steadfastly avoided this until very recently. There was a full and frank exchange of views and maybe her future plans may reflect this. I can say no more at the moment.

I have also been up to visit H+B and brought back some more of H's writings. I have offered to create a basic blog for him but he has to decide whether this would count as 'publishing' because if he should decide to try and get some material published, they often require it not to have been published elsewhere. I will await his decision.

Lastly, the LTRP continues, as it will probably continue until the end of time. One of the electric lights in my 'new' kitchen has failed, and as these lights consist of expensive sealed units that have to be replaced as a whole and which I was assured 'never fail' I contacted Ulf to ask for a replacement under guarantee. This led to a confusing series of messages because my communication that 'one of the kitchen lights has blown' was interpreted as meaning one of the glazed roof light sealed units. I am still waiting for a date when the light will be replaced. Apart from that, I have now cleaned up most of the plaster dust and re-polished the living room floor, making the room habitable again but potentially lethal to walk about in socks.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Getting wired and plastered

Son of Ulf and Sidekick posing for the camera
Son of Ulf and Sidekick, May 2019
There's been some satisfying progress with the Lola Towers Renovation Project. The last remaining large indoor job within Phase 1 is to strip, plaster and paint the walls and ceiling of the main living room, stairs and upstairs landing.

Ilf removed all the wallpaper a while ago. That was a major operation, and one that I don't think he relished - the wallpaper was old and the underlying plaster crumbly. Then I chased both the electrician and the plasterer for a while before pinning them down on dates.

Bill the Electrician came with his assistant plus a lad on work experience, dug out new sockets and put in wiring for a second overhead light and switch, but left me with only one usable light and one socket in the room. He told me that the plasterer would find it much easier this way, and he'd come back afterwards and finish it all off.

My chosen plasterer was Son of Ulf, who previously did a beautiful job on the plastering for the kitchen and picks up extra work at weekends and in the evenings while working with Ulf in his day job. He has a Sidekick who is even younger than he is. They ate a whole packet of biscuits in about 15 minutes on the first day, and they made a terrible mess of my parquet floor downstairs. I supervised quite closely on the protection for the new carpet in the upstairs hall.

Electric Bill took his time for the return visit, leaving me with the single light and one socket in the room for a week or two - not that I wanted to use the room until I'd at least cleaned up the floor. When they returned they found that Sons of Ulf had completely plastered over one of the new sockets and they had to dig it out again with much complaining.

Ilf has come round to view the work with approval and, I think, a hint of envy. I have spent much of my spare time in the time since the job was finished in cleaning the dust and plaster residue from every surface in the entire house. It is a time-consuming and filthy job. I have contracted out most of the time-consuming and filthy jobs within the scope of the LTRP, but cleaning is one thing that I feel I ought to do myself. This may be because I don't (yet) employ a cleaner.

Ilf is busy for several months and gave me a date quite a long way into the future for the painting. I commented that I could probably make a start on the undercoat myself, and while he gave me a couple of tips I could sense that he doubted my competence for this task. Given that I'm having trouble finding time to simply clean the mess made by the plastering, I'm not sure he need worry about me making much progress before he's able to come back.

[On an entirely separate note, I was browsing some old blog posts in nostalgic mood and was horrified to discover that the Brexit referendum took place before I'd even seen the architect, let alone started work on the new kitchen. Politics has been grim for so long that it's hard to remember a time before Brexit.]

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Libre update

Libre handset showing 5.6 mmol/L and downward trend arrow

While I was away in Brazil and for the last four blog posts, it's been quite an exciting time in the world of diabetes. The Libre flash glucose monitoring system, which a few short weeks ago was almost unobtainable, has now become very obtainable indeed.

There have been new (draft) guidelines that are much more inclusive than the previous ones, so that instead of almost nobody being eligible, almost everyone meets the criteria now. There has been a meeting attended by someone from the Trust who says we can go ahead and start as many people on it as we like, despite the guidelines only being in draft.

The situation is not completely relaxed though, because there is supposed to be some sort of monitoring and review of our patients to whom we give the Libre to make sure that it is having the positive effect that is claimed for it. Understandably the CCG does not want people to have a new and expensive bit of kit and then not get the benefit, which from their point of view involves a cost saving due to better blood glucose management reducing long-term health complications, and fewer prescribed blood glucose monitoring strips.

We are planning to use an online dashboard to collect information for us to review, whereby patients upload the data from their devices and we view lots of lovely graphs as well as recording auditable data. We can then report back to the CCG and support patients who are getting good results while recommending the withdrawal of the device from those who aren't using it or aren't getting any benefit or aren't using fewer strips.

And there has been a meeting with the suppliers, who gave us all a handset and sensor to wear for the next two weeks. I was delighted to be able to try some of the technology on my own non-diabetic body, although my nurse colleagues weren't very keen at all. We're all very used to looking at blood glucose results from our diabetic patients and being asked whether they are cause for concern without knowing anything about what is 'normal'. How high does blood glucose go after a high-carb meal when you haven't got diabetes? I was about to find out.

I managed to upload my data from the device (which wasn't anywhere near as straightforward as the suppliers led us to believe), and I even registered as a pretend patient with our service so that in theory I should be able to see my data both as a patient and as a Healthcare Professional. We all enthusiastically checked our glucose levels, and it has been mightily interesting. We used to say that without diabetes, fasting blood glucose levels are normally between 4 and 7 mmol/L, but we've never really known what a 'normal' post-prandial peak looks like, although pregnant women are set a threshold of 7.8 mmol/L one hour after a meal.

It turns out that our post-prandial peaks are often much higher than this - I managed to reach 12 mmol/L after a particularly nice lunch - but we do tend to come back down very quickly and stabilise within range. We also found that the sensor told us that we all drop below 4 mmol/L at some point in the night, which for someone with diabetes is classed as an unwanted night time hypo. The Libre license requires you to check blood glucose at hypo levels, but I couldn't check the 'real' state of affairs because I didn't have any blood glucose testing equipment, which someone with diabetes would have.

It was all going well and I was looking forward to seeing what happened when I played badminton, except that on Sunday night, after less than a week, the sensor came off when I removed my jumper. So that was disappointing, but it's also useful information to know that the glue isn't quite as sticky as we would hope. When I came back to work, I found that my nurse colleagues had become bored of the whole thing and had deliberately taken their sensors off after less than a week. More useful information about how patients might behave.

Glucose monitoring graph showing night time hypos

Then, about a week later, I was chatting to the paediatric diabetes team, and they told me that there was a stash of sensors in the department that I didn't know about. This time I put one on the other arm, and it has been behaving rather differently. It no longer shows overnight low glucose, in fact overnight is a very stable time when I sit comfortably around 5 mmol/L. So either there is a variation in the sensitivity from one sensor to another (Mr M's theory) or it matters which arm hosts the sensor because pressure on the sensor during the night is likely to confound its sampling.

Libre graph showing no night time hypos

So I did get to wear a sensor for badminton after all, and nothing whatever happened - no downward trend in the glucose level at all. Managing carbohydrate, insulin and blood glucose around exercise is one of the things that people who inject insulin find very difficult to manage, and the rest of us don't even notice.

I have three days to go on the second sensor, and in fact I'm now checking it less often and finding the results less interesting. The first group of actual patients with Type 1 Diabetes have now been given their sensors - unsurprisingly, everyone who had been invited turned up - and I think the second group session in June is already full. We anticipate that after this initial spike in demand everyone who wants one will have one, and we can go back to normal levels of patient apathy and non-attendance.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover

Lord Hornblower
by C. S. Forester
"Horatio Hornblower must rescue a man he knows to be a tyrant from the mutiny of his crew - a dubious chore, but one that leads Hornblower, with the aid of his old love, Marie, to the glorious conclusion of his own battle with Napoleon."
Despite not understanding any of the nautical or military content as usual, it's still a good yarn. It's obvious he can't be executed because a) he's the hero and b) there are more books, but how does he escape? I spotted the twist at the end for a change.

Image of the book cover

Relativity for the Layman
by James A. Coleman
"A simplified account of the history, theory, and proofs of Einstein's revolutionary conception of the universe."
With an endorsement by Einstein himself on the inside front cover, this was written in 1959, before any space exploration had taken place. A fascinating historical snapshot as well as a lucid and comprehensible explanation of the General and Special Theories. It includes the question of whether there could be a star so dense that light couldn't escape from its gravitational field...

Image of the book cover

The Gun
by C. S. Forester
"It is the time of Napoleon. The Spaniards are fighting a desperate, protracted, bitter and merciless guerilla war. Into the hands of a guerilla band falls a remarkable cannon, an 18-pounder that transforms the rebels into a besieging army."
Not a Hornblower saga, this small book relates presumably an imagined course of events within the framework of Napoleon's campaign in Spain, with Wellington fighting on the English front. The hero of the book is the eponymous gun, and the tales of its journey, its use and its demise are perfect reading for the traveller.

Image of the book cover

A House for Mr Biswas
by V. S. Naipal

narrated by Sam Dastor
"Born into poverty, then trapped in the shackles of charity and gratitude, Mr. Biswas loathes his wife and her wealthy family, upon whom he is dependent, and longs for a house he can call his own."
A long rambling book telling the story of the life of Mr Biswas - he is consistently called Mr Biswas even when he is a child - who is from an Indian family living in Trinidad. He is often touched by tragedy, many times through his own neglect or incompetence, and usually comes off worst in financial deals throughout his life. The book ends with his early death at the age of 46, but I was left wondering what was to become of his family, as he had failed to repay the loan on the house which is due any day.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Amazonia part 2 and Paraty

Heart shaped water-filled seed pod on the forest floor
Amazonia, April 2019
So my forest comrades had set off back to Manaus, and I was still in the Amazon jungle. My new companions were a young Israeli man and a Serbian couple who live in London, but they weren't in the same league as the friends who had just departed. This was the 'local homestay' part of the trip, and unfortunately it was the worst part of the whole holiday.

The local house we were to stay in turned out to be the home of one of Moses's brothers and his family. We were first taken to a local bar - not so much for our benefit I suspect, but because it was Saturday afternoon and Moses got to hang out with his mates. There was a football game going on which was joined by our football-mad Israeli, and it was interesting for a while to see people gathering, having a drink, there was a barber there cutting hair and I could glean a little from the TV in the background. But we were left there for a good deal too long before going back to the house for supper, which was chicken and rice again, and nice enough. There was virtually no interaction with the host family, however.

We were back sleeping in hammocks, but this time inside the house. By 7.30 p.m. it was dark, and Moses left us with a cheery wave and 'see you in the morning'. There were no chairs, and with no time to get to know one another I made a bit of an effort at conversation, but the other three didn't seem to want to chat, and the electric light went off at 8.30 p.m. After this second experience in a hammock I joined the dots - literally - and realised that my bites weren't necessarily from mosquitoes. Altogether I was glad to get back to the lodge for breakfast, even though it was now raining.

Deck alongside the river with hard chairs and resting dog
The next trip was to a local centre that contained the school that Moses had attended, which he said contained about 225 pupils, a shop, a doctor's surgery, a dentist and two churches. It was Sunday so the school was closed, there was a service going on in one of the churches, and there wasn't much else to see. After lunch the four of us went on another boat trip with Moses and saw more monkeys, birds and a quick glimpse of a snake before it plopped into the water. Despite the rain it was a three-shower day for me - I was hot, sticky, itchy, and yearning for a comfortable place to sit. I really would have been happy to go home there and then, but there was one trip more next day.

This time I went out into the forest with a different guide plus three Russians. Although we covered much the same ground as with Moses and saw many of the same things, there were still new experiences and lots to see. My main regret through the whole trip was not to have binoculars - the bird life was spectacular - and next time I'd take a cushion.

The trip back to Manaus was quick and efficient, and although this time it wasn't raining I still couldn't get a decent view of the Encontro das Aguas. Back at the hostel (soft chairs! bliss!) they let me hang out for a small fee to use the facilities because the flight back to Rio was at 2 a.m. I showered, repacked, went for a wander and bought some provisions for the flight, and was inundated by everyone's photos now that I was back in range of wifi. Ina and the unnamed Italian were still around so we chatted, and then the hostel called me an Uber and I was off to the airport. The driver was a P.E. teacher by day and driver by night - we couldn't communicate much but I can now add Uber to the list of transport options during the fortnight's holiday.

The next 15 hours or so were spent on the move. First the flight from Manaus to Rio with a transfer in Brasilia. Then I took a taxi from the airport to the busy and confusing coach station, where at least twenty different bus companies were offering tickets to various destinations, and where the maximum cocoa content of the chocolate in the sweet shop was 40%. Brazil's mass market chocolate really isn't much good considering that they grow their own cocoa beans. From the coach station it was a four and a half hour journey to Paraty in a comfortable air-conditioned bus. I was met at the bus station by T, my friend from school days.

8 packets of Brazilian soups
Souvenir soup
We went for a short walk around the town before T said he needed to buy a few provisions and was it all right if we stopped at a supermarket? He had no idea what he was letting himself in for, and after I'd pestered him to death about all the unfamiliar fresh produce he excused himself and escaped outside to make a few calls while I continued to browse the shelves, adding a few more interesting soups to my previous haul. Then we drove back to his house, which was about 30 minutes out of town up the mountain. T was very pleased to receive my gifts of Branston pickle, Piccalilli and Heinz Sandwich Spread, and I was very pleased not to be carrying them in my rucksack any more.

Bright blue and green birds
Watching birds from the balcony
I went to bed early and slept late, relishing the comfortable bed and slightly lower temperatures, even though it was still very humid and not sunny. I'd hoped to do a bit of laundry, but it would never have dried and I didn't fancy wearing or returning home with damp clothes. We didn't do much that day or the next except chat, mostly about Trump, Assange, Bolsonaro and Brexit. T isn't planning to come back to Britain, but despite this he is extremely vocal about the state of the UK and its government and politics. I sat on the balcony overlooking the Atlantic forest, watched the birds and meditated a little.

Greenish birds
Watching other birds from the balcony
T drove me to a local restaurant with a huge garden where I begged for a salad, after which we shared the traditional Brazilian dish feijoada, which is a bean stew with pork and beef in it, eaten in this case with rice and kale. It was delicious, but afterwards I found I was completely unable to eat anything else that evening or for the whole of the next day. It might have just been a reaction to the stress I'd put my body through. In the Amazon particularly I had been finding the heat, humidity and itching from the bites almost unbearable, as well as the discomfort of sitting on hard seats with no backs all the time.

I felt a bit more robust on Friday, and T had things to do, so I took a local bus into Paraty and joined a guided tour, where I was the only participant. The town was settled by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and prospered when it found itself on the route for export of gold that had been discovered further inland. When the gold started being exported via an alternative route Paraty continued to handle coffee and slaves, but today the historical town centre is preserved and the main trade is tourism and production of the local cachaça spirit. I wandered around a bit and found my first chocolate shop that had what I would describe as a decent selection, before catching the bus back to T's house.

Smartly painted two storey house with pineapple details
Paraty house
That was the end of the trip bar the 24 hours it took to get home: T took me to the bus station for the coach back to Rio, I found a local bus from the bus station to the airport, and spent some of my remaining local currency in the airport on the most overpriced sandwich I think I've ever had. I couldn't sleep at all on the long trans-Atlantic flight and managed less than an hour during the 5-hour stopover in Paris. From Birmingham I caught the train home and walked from the station. It was freezing! And how welcome that was!

I was happy with how much I'd seen in two weeks in such an enormous country. There is plenty more if I should choose to go back - a notable landmark I chose not to visit is the Iguaçu Falls, on the border with Argentina and apparently more impressive than Niagara. The Pantanal wetlands in the south-west holds an enormous variety of wildlife, the historic towns of Recife and Salvador on the north-east coast sound interesting, and there's always Fortaleza where I have been offered a homestay, and the cities of Brasilia and Sao Paolo. Now that I've had the nasty yellow fever vaccination I ought to make the most of it. We'll see.

T and me at the bus station with a backdrop of mountains
I haven't got any better at taking selfies

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Amazonia part 1

Thatched shelter, fire, four of us eating in a forest clearning
Forest camp, Amazonia, April 2019
Without doubt, the middle section in Amazonia was the best part of the holiday. Not just because of the setting and the sights, but because of the people that I met. Seven of us were booked to start the organised trip at the same time, but four of us were there for three days, two for four days, and only me for the five day option.

But before that trip started I was collected at Manaus airport and taken to my accommodation that night: an actual hostel, the sort that proper backpackers use (although I had a private room, with en suite and aircon! Bliss!) At reception I was asked if I was a backpacker, and I didn't know what to say. Does a rucksack instead of a suitcase qualify you to be a backpacker? If so, then yes I am! If staying in a hotel in Rio and then a private room in a hostel disqualifies you, then no. They also took a photo of me at reception. I imagine it's handy in case you don't come back from some ill advised excursion that backpackers might choose to go on.

Magnificent pink tiled building with dome in the colours of the Brazilian flag
Teatro Amazonas, Manaus
There was still some daylight left so I wandered down to the port and the produce market, but it was hotter and even more humid than Rio, too late for much produce to be on display, and it didn't feel like a very safe part of town. It was also too late to explore the magnificent Teatro Amazonas opera house. I was told that the city was booming since President Bolsonaro had taken office because of industry incentives, but the centre was still shabby and didn't seem to be very prosperous. Then I had some packing to do, because I was going to leave a whole lot of stuff in the tour office while I was on my Jungle Adventure.

I was collected early next morning. The first leg of the trip was a 40 minute car drive out of town to the ferry which would take us across the 'meeting of the waters' (Encontro das Aguas) - where the black Rio Negro meets the brown Amazon and the waters don't mix. If it hadn't been pouring with rain then the boat's plastic windows wouldn't have been firmly lashed down and we might have had a better view, but I got the idea and it was fairly impressive despite the limitations. There are many good pictures on the Internet if you have a look.

Two boats waiting at a jetty
The end of the road
On the other side a van was waiting to take us to the end of the road, which took about an hour. It did stop raining at this point, but no let up from the heat and humidity, and this was the last point for five days that I had a soft seat to sit on. At the end of the road we were taken by boat to the Juma Lake Inn, where lunch was waiting. Meals comprised rice, beans with chicken or fish and sometimes salad or vegetables or fruit. It wasn't fancy but it tasted fine. Not being a coffee drinker, I was limited to water - not just for this section of the trip but pretty much for two whole weeks, apart from a few bowls of Redbush tea towards the end (I had to use a bowl because T's coffee cups were too small).

I should introduce my Amazonian companions. My favourite by far was Thomas, a young Dutch graduate who had completed a law degree and was taking the opportunity to travel for a few months before moving to Amsterdam and getting a job. I am very much hoping to stay in touch with Thomas, but three days together in the Amazon may not be an indicator of a long term friendship. We'll see.

A leaf-shaped grasshopper in Ina's hair
Ina and an insect
Then there was Ina from Austria who was a bartender and waitress, and her Italian travelling companion whose name I shall never know. When we were introduced I'm sure he said Jonathan, or John, but later I thought someone called him George, and elsewhere I saw it written as Schorsch, but by the time I realised I had no idea what his name was it was much too late to admit it. He was a reckless youth who had no sense of his own mortality. While we were loitering deep in the jungle watching what our guide was about to show us, he was wandering off the path poking a stick into holes in the hope of dislodging a snake, scorpion, spider or other potential hazard. While we watched, Ina said thoughtfully, "I think that he would definitely die first." Ina was lovely.

Me, Ina and Rosel wearing crowns woven from palm fronds
Crowns for the ladies
There was also a heavily tattooed Swedish man called Alex who turned out to have Type 1 diabetes. I discovered this when he took out an insulin pen and injected himself in a way that was very unlike how an insulin pen should be used. This turned out to be because he had left half his diabetes supplies on a bus in Bolivia so now he was rationing his needle use and the needle was a bit old. He also told us about being mugged after coming out of a tattoo shop in Columbia onto a quiet street a bit too late in the evening. "This is why they take your picture at the hostel," I thought.

All the above people were in the 20-30 year-old age bracket, but the last two in our party were 75-year-old travelling companions from Germany, Rosel and Rolf. They were game for the boat trips and jungle walks but drew the line at the optional nights in hammocks and came back to their beds in the lodge on those days.

Moses peeling Brazil nuts with a machete
Moses peeling Brazil nuts with a machete
Our guide introduced himself as Moses, and we found out more about him as the days went on. He was a local lad, born and raised on the river quite close by, with five brothers and two sisters. He had never left Brazil and his English was atrocious, presumably picked up from TV and tourists. I could make out about 70% of what he was saying and I'm pretty good at English; I can't imagine what the others managed to understand with English as their second language. He was a huge practical joker though, with a big grin which made up for his linguistic deficiencies, and he did know his stuff - where to find caimans and monkeys as well as other wildlife and plants. I had a substitute guide on my last day whose English was really good, so I could ask him some of the more complicated questions about the environment and climate change, but I wouldn't have swapped him for Moses the rest of the time.

The lodge is situated on a tributary of the Amazon, the Mamori river, next to Juma Lake. That first afternoon we went out piranha fishing, each with a makeshift bamboo rod, line and hook. Moses had a bit of trouble finding piranhas for us - the first two locations he tried were piranha-free, but the third was a winner. I caught a fish for the first and last time, and Moses helped me to put it back in the water. The three boys went mad for fishing and could hardly be torn away while one of them hadn't caught the biggest or as many as the others. We kept the largest fish, and they were cooked for us. Verdict: bony.

Small crocodilian being held by the neck and tail
Moses caught a small caiman and brought it back so we could see it properly. He reckoned it was about five years old, and when he opened its mouth you could see there was no tongue. That poor creature was passed from hand to hand for photographs until eventually it was allowed back into the river.

We went out again at sunset although it was too cloudy for a good view of the sun going down. On this little trip we approached a tree that was covered in roosting white egrets or herons and black cormorants. As we approached they all flew off, black one way and white the other. which made me recall drawings by M. C. Escher which I have now looked up (this one, and this one). The reflections and depth of the river also put me in mind of Escher's drawings of reflections in pools of water.

Six fat white larvae on a palm leaf
We were invited to get up early next morning for a trip to see the sunrise, but again there was too much cloud for it to be a spectacular sight. We did see vultures perched and soaring, a hawk catching a fish, and pink and grey river dolphins - not much of them and quite a way off, but exciting enough for me, and some of the grey dolphins hung around in the river right in front of the lodge.

After breakfast we were taken for a forest walk, which allowed Moses to show us lots of the different plants, trees and animals but also gave him full rein to play as many tricks on us as he could manage. He pretended he was going to spike me with a huge thorn, and that he was going to throw a spear at Ina, and tried to frighten us with spiders, encouraged us to try climbing a tree, showed us how to use ants as insect repellent, made palm crowns for the ladies and bracelets for all of us, and sliced open coconuts to reveal fat white larvae that he skewered and 'cooked' using shavings from an oil-rich palm. We saw Capuchin monkeys high in the trees, an electric eel in a shallow stream, and many forest berries and plants and their uses.

A roiw of hammocks under a thatched roof
The camp bedroom
That night was when five of us (plus Moses) were going to sleep in hammocks in the jungle. The hammocks were made of thick blanket material, smelled foul and were slightly damp due to the humidity and being kept in large sacks. Mosquito nets were loosely fitted over the top of these and hung to the floor. We strung them up under a thatched canopy, then were sent to fetch wood for the fire and help prepare the supper. It wasn't long before a large black caiman, the dangerous type, was circling by the shore, no doubt attracted by the bits of chicken Moses was throwing into the water.

Nose and eyes of a caiman above the water
Black caiman
Moses made us a tablecloth of woven palm fronds, constructed a griddle for cooking the chicken as well as staves to hold it up and to hold the pan of water for the rice. The dinner was surprisingly well cooked, and then we went out for a boat trip in the darkness, under a brilliant starry night sky. Moses caught three large fish with his torch and spear - he said the torch picks out their eyes under the water. We also saw a huge tarantula on a tree trunk.

Huge black hairy spider
Tarantula on a tree trunk
Back at camp the caipirinha cocktails started to flow, my nameless Italian demonstrated a pyromaniac tendency and nearly ignited the fire shelter roof, Ina started to sing and everybody was in fine spirits. The group bonded. We would never find such good companions, this was the best way to live, travelling stories abounded - mine from thirty years ago, but still, we could compare modern times with the olden days. No mobile phones, no Skype, no WhatsApp, no Internet - true isolation that's hard for the current travelling generation to imagine. I was reminded about what I love about travelling, and why I should do it more often, even while my old bones ached for something soft to sit on.

Fire highlighting the face of Moses as he tends the barbeque
Moses tending the grill
I had done pretty well with my insect repellent up to this point, and had escaped with just a few random bites. The morning after the night in the forest I had acquired many, many more. With hindsight, that hammock was the culprit, no doubt harbouring all manner of biting insects, and the last few bites are still troubling me. At the time I hadn't considered this, and assumed that it was just a failure of my mosquito net. Anyway, I've had better nights' sleep especially as Alex had a powerful snore, but in the morning we cleared out and came back to the lodge for breakfast, after which I caught up with some sleep before our next outing, to a nearby house where a family made their living from their land. And, presumably, from their tourist visitors.

They grew produce of all kinds - mango and passion fruit, Brazil nuts, onions, cacao and a whole lot more. They had a small scale mill for manioc (cassava) flour, generally known as farinha, which when mixed with butter or oil makes farofa and is sprinkled on every dish. I'm sure that the bread at the lodge was made from farinha rather than wheat flour - it had that gluten-free cakey texture. There was mimosa, and biting ants, and I tasted my first Brazil nut straight from the tree.

After this outing and the first rain we'd had since getting there, sadly my four forest companions headed back for Manaus and further travels of their own. I was genuinely sorry to see them go. But I was staying for another two days, so I would no doubt meet alternative travel companions.

Four smiling in our boat
Moses, Ina, Nameless Italian, Thomas
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...