Author Archives: Frank Burns

Trinidad: UNESCO World Heritage town

Not climbing back on the bike after breakfast can be a bit disorienting, but Trinidad is not a place you fly in and out of. 

It is one of only 5 original Spanish colonial towns in Cuba, and it is by far and away the best preserved. Mostly colourfully painted single storey buildings, it’s heritage is further confirmed by its rough cobbled streets, not very comfortable for either walking or cycling.

Founded in the early 16th century, it was a staging post for expeditions to South America and it was from here that Hernán Cortés launched his invasion of Mexico.

You can spend hours wandering the streets, negotiating the tour groups and touters, and be surprised by something interesting round every corner. I was waylaid my a museum called The battle against the bandits, 

and discovered it was about Castro’s bid, in the early years of his regime, to root out the counter-revolutionaries in the Sierra de Escambray, which is the backdrop to Trinidad. The exhibition was designed to be a war memorial to all those who died for their fatherland…..and there seemed to be a lot of literacy educators amongst the victims. 

Castro had created huge teams of teenage literacy teachers who went out into the countryside to teach the campesinos to read and write….it was claimed the target of 100% literacy in the nation was achieved in less than a year. Many point to this as one of the great achievements of the regime, but I bet many of those people have never been into a bookshop or library in Cuba. Let me explain.

Cuba may be literate but nobody actually reads anything….not even newspapers. The rare bookshop you find has very few books, no customers, and that’s because 90% of the books are about some aspect of the revolution and the other 10% are about yawn-inducing topics like the history of apiculture in Cuba. Even the libraries are empty, because all they have are fusty dusty ageing volumes on topics no one wants to read about. What’s more, they are housed in dark forbidding unwelcoming buildings. The people of Cuba are suffering from cultural and intellectual starvation, and nobody here seems to realise it. Or do they…..?

I would recommend anyone coming to Cuba avoids the organised packaged tour. Go independently, live and travel with the people. Experience something of the discomforts of their means of transport, their lack of choices in both food and consumer goods, their frustrating queues to get the most basic things (I queued today to get into a bank and to buy a WiFi card). People say they want to see Cuba before it changes, as if what the Cubans have now is romantic and cute, and capitalism is only going to ruin it. We need to wake up and stop being patronising. Do go and spend your £s and $s to support their failing economy, but get down there in the trenches with them and try to see the world as they see it. You can’t do that if you are forever retreating into an air-conditioned tour-coach or finishing your day back at a smart hotel that serves canapés and cocktails before dinner.

OK folks, rant over. I’ll be back on the bike again  tomorrow…..😊

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Sancti Spiritus – Trinidad

Cubans obviously don’t have enough mountain roads to really get today’s climb into perspective. Everyone told me, sucking their teeth and shaking their heads, it’s tough, very steep, you may not make it……probably have to walk….why not catch a camión? Well, I must confess, I was filled with some trepidation….but not too much…..after all, I’ve climbed over the Alps, Pyrenees, Dolomites….should I go on?

When I got to the top of a steepish climb towards the end, I suddenly realised I’d actually climbed it without realising….is that bragging, or are Cubans just unrealistic about constitutes a real hill? 

However, at the top there was a mirador (café with a viewing point) giving panoramic views over to the sea, with Trinidad just out of view.
At on of my pitstops, at a small roadside bar, I asked for bottled water, then a soft drink, but all they could offer was beer! Throwing principles out of the window, I had a beer, and met my namesake, Francis

except his second name was Jesus. Mother and grandma were ‘tickled pink’……just think, an Englishman with the same name as our little one…..

At another stop, in the shade of a bus shelter, I met Nivado,

 who entertained me with his meandering jovial chatter. He was the only one to temper his comments about the severity of the climb. He actually said I’d already climbed one that he thought worse. I immediately liked him. But he, like lots of others, thought I was gallego(Galician), because I speak with a mainland Spanish accent.

There’s a history to this observation. Like the Irish, the Galicians have been the greatest emigrators from Spain over the centuries, so anyone with a mainland accent is assumed to be gallego. Once they realise I’m not gallego, they popularly guess I’m from one the Scandinavian countries…..until I put them right. I’m not sure how many actually know where England is…..it’s over there somewhere, and it’s cold, wet and misty….all the time.

My route today was 73km, occasionally with a good tailwind, but mostly a crosswind…..

Trinidad is a UNESCO world heritage town, so I’ve chosen to stay a couple of nights….and allow myself to mingle with lots of other tourists……sigh!

Sta Clara – Sancti Spiritus

During my two night stopover as a guest of Elsa and Sergio, I feel they have become good friends. On the second evening, they invited me to supper, opened a bottle of Cuban wine (sweet, like an oloroso sherry), brought out the beer, and refused to charge me. In the company of an Argentinian couple, we talked for hours, me stifling my amusement at the Argentinian accent…..which I find very funny. 

Alone in the company of Elsa and Sergio, they plied me with questions, especially about my bike trips, but as I put details on some of the trips, I could see in their eyes a sad longing for all the opportunities they have missed out on. They were children of the revolution, and they’ve known nothing else. They have borne the restrictions and deprivations all their lives, but they never uttered a single negative word about it…..obviously great believers in all the revolution stood for. The ‘special period’ in the 90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was especially difficult. They had lost their only trading partner in the world, which meant their economy collapsed, and the shortages were so acute that the average body weight of Cubans dropped by 10%. Fighting their own battles, with no friends in the commercial world, means that if a crop fails, there is nothing to replace it. For instance, after the recent hurricane Irma, fruit crops were completely destroyed, meaning that they simply had to do without. At that moment bananas, the cyclist’s best friend, are completely off the menu…..but my breakfasts have still included papaya, guava, pineapple and orange…..so things are improving.

Sergio has expressed a serious interest in having my bike, especially since he had his stolen a few months ago. He likes to take his grandson about on a special kiddy seat he made of wood, and he is prepared to travel to pick it up ……so watch this space. I feel he will be a very worthy recipient.

Much of today’s 87km route was on a nicely surfaced country road, allowing me a couple of convenient pitstops in villages. But even better than that, a ‘cold front’ had come in, meaning the temperature had actually dropped to 20C, and the wind was generally behind me (in good panto tradition, of course)….it was a huge relief not having the sweat pouring off me for the whole ride. When it is hot in Cuba, it can be oppressively hot…..especially for cycling.

Santa Clara

I’m surprised Santa Clara hasn’t been re-named Ciudad de Che, because the town is largely a monument to his memory. It’s astonishing that, nearly 60 years after the revolution, the dominant message coming from all official quarters is that Cuba is still in revolution, and is still trying to achieve its ultimate goals through revolutionary action. 

The only national newspaper, Granma, is still tightly controlled and still preaches only one message: revolution. The vast majority of Cubans have known only one thing throughout their lives: revolution. I keep asking myself…..how do they maintain the momentum? Where does this continued enthusiasm for revolution come from?

The principal monument in Santa Clara is the Che mausoleum and its adjoining museum. His remains were returned from Bolivia 30 years after his assassination, along with the remains of some of his soldiers, and buried beneath this enormous statue of Che, the fighter and comandante. He was an enigmatic figure. It is easy to get to love the icon, his alleged caring attitude to the welfare of his soldiers, his deep convictions about the worth of the individual. He claimed he would sacrifice his life to make repressed people, anywhere in the world, free. 

On the other hand, there was the ruthless fighter, the killing machine, the extreme disciplinarian who would execute his own men if called upon to do so. What we have is the lionised version of the man created by Castro and his cohort……so this mausoleum has become the tomb of a revolutionary saint.

If there was just one military action that caused the lionization of the man, it would have to be the derailment of the train in Santa Clara (these are the actual wagons reassembled to depict the action) which was carrying 400 government soldiers and huge consignments of arms. With only 24 men, against 400 heavily armed men, the battle was won within an hour, and so emphatic was the victory, that it turned out to be the very last engagement of the war. Two days later, on January 1st 1959, the revolution had its final victory.

If you’ve stayed with this post to this point, well done…… I hope to get back to some cycling tomorrow.

Los Vinales -Santa Clara

I want you to be impressed, but not because I cycled the 500km eastwards to get to Santa Clara, in central Cuba. No…….. I want you to be impressed that I actually survived two ‘white-knuckle’ rides in colectivo taxis. The first was driven by Pedro, to La Habana, with four passengers (including two Swedes and a south Korean), and my bike strapped on the roof. His Lada was the equivalent of my £50 bangers in the 70s, with the same lack of any safety features. He drove it at breakneck speed through torrential rain storms, all the while on his phone touting for business for his return journey. And I discovered that everyone drives in the fast lane on the highway (and overtakes on the slow lane) because there are fewer potholes in the fast lane. I got out of that car feeling completely rung out. 

My next colectivo, from La Habana to Santa Clara, was a more controlled experience (and I shared this ride with three Cubans), but it broke down when we stopped at a service station in the middle of nowhere. After a lot of fettling under the bonnet, the driver finally kicked it into life…..and yes, it was yet another damned Lada.

So I am now in Santa Clara, a town which is synonymous with Che Guevara and his memory, where his mausoleum is situated, as is a variety of other reminders of when the Cuban Revolution came to a successful end, and when Batista fled to pastures new. But more of that later…..

My stay in Los Vinales concluded with an absolutely stunning 20km ride along the valley,

a lush green landscape noted for its tobacco crops and continued use of traditional methods of cultivation. Yes, fields are actually still ploughed using a pair of oxen…..and they are beautiful beasts.

I checked into the first casa I chanced by, met a neighbour who will look after the bike, and had a very interesting chat with the man of the house, and surprisingly, he knew all about Brexit, and had some stark things to say about Donald Trump. Of course, we all now know that the so-called ‘sonic attack’ on the US embassy in La Habana was completely fabricated by the Americans, seemingly as an excuse for severing diplomatic relations once again with Cuba……..I leave you to ponder that one for yourself.

Pinar del Río-Los Vinales

Accessing the internet is a curious business in Cuba. One thing that stands out is that Cubans are never seen using their devices along streets, in restaurants, or even at home. Why? Because there is no home provision of wifi for anyone other than important public servants, and there is definitely no mobile data for anyone. To get online, everyone has to buy a data card, costing at least £1 per hour, and they can only connect at hotspots, usually in small parks and public squares. The big question is: how to find the hotspots, because they are not signed in anyway. I’m sure you’ve already worked this one out……..yep, look for clusters of people intently using their devices. That is the only way….. Despite these restrictions, many Cubans seem to be very internet savvy, and everyone under a certain age (40, perhaps) will have a smartphone. But, of course, smartphones are not very smart in Cuba…..yet.

Talking of deprivations, the variety of food and consumer goods probably reflects what rationing was like for us in the last war. I have been in a number of little village stores looking for a snack and the shelves have been empty. If you do find a packet of biscuits, maybe even with a filling, the price will so high for the average Cuban that it will only ever be a treat. Don’t get me wrong, no one is underfed, but choice is extremely limited, making eating sometimes a boring repetitive experience…..but not for the average tourists, of course. This is a fairly typical breakfast, and never lacking in abundance.
 As a chocoholic, can I service my addiction in Cuba? Definitely not….I have yet to see any chocolate of any description in places where the locals shop.

As I climbed over the Sierra to Los Vinales, I caught this pig skulking by the roadside, appearing not to belong to anyone.

And as I crested the mountain, I was treated to this view of the famous mogotes of the Valley….so famous, they attract the tour companies with their hordes of tourists. 

And I, like every other tourist, don’t regard myself as one of those….No, no, of course not…..after all I do ride a bike. Erm……d’you think I might have a complex?

And sorry to bore you with bike issues again. One of the ‘new’ pedals stripped the threads off one of the cranks…..I eventually found a bunch of young bike mechanics who eventually found a solution…..another crank. They got one by asking around the neighbourhood….they are resourceful bunch of people.

Las Terrazas -Pinar del Río

Noel was the guy who came out on his sleek electric scooter to tout for my business, and I was not disappointed with his offer of accommodation.

 On the terrace of his newly-built green-painted bungalow, you could sit and gaze across the Sierra del Rosario and up to the high point where Che Guevara had trained some of his soldiers for the doomed Bolivia campaign. And by way of interest, Noel’s wife was called Milady…..

I also got to meet Inés and Malte (not a couple). We had all converged on the same accommodation….evidence of some good marketing there by Noel, who knows how to catch his customers. Inés was German and just taking 10 days out to hitch hike around bits of Cuba. Malte, who was Danish, was just coming to the end of 4 months travelling before settling down to begin his PhD. He had spent time in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia getting up to lots of adventurous things. They were inspiring company for the two meals we shared together.

30km into my ride to Pinar del Río, I began to suffer badly from the heat, so rather than draw out the agony, I climbed on one of the infamous truck buses (simply called camiones) and they helped to haul up the bike as well.

 It was packed with passengers inside, everybody enduring the discomfort of rudimentary box seating, but it was fast and cheap. And, of course, there’s something special about sharing the same transport as the local people…..

Havana-Las Terrazas 

My first night in a casa particular was a perfect introduction to the real Cuba. My host picked me and my bike up at the airport in an old Eastern bloc Lada, stuffed my bike in the boot, took me to his beautiful home, fed and watered me and gave me a comfortable room……and didn’t worry that I didn’t have the currency to pay him. No worry, he said, we can sort that out tomorrow.

In the morning, not only did I have to look for a cadeca to change my sterling into CUCs (which you can’t purchase outside Cuba), but I had to find a pair of pedals to replace the ones I had stupidly left on the garage floor at home. I found a young black African Cuban with a small tabletop stall selling bike bits, and it didn’t surprise me that he couldn’t supply a pair of Shimano SPDs…..so I made do with a simple pair of ‘rat traps’. 

So I and the bike were ready to roll by 10am…..
But my northern clime body had to make a rapid adjustment to the heat…as the day wore on, the temperature rapidly rose through the 20s, probably peaking at about 27C, and there was rain in the air….and later on rolling thunder claps that got ominously near. 

As I headed west, I was enveloped by images of the 1950s, of pre-revolutionary Cuba, with classic Buicks and Chevrolets all lovingly restored, but all sickenly belching out noxious clouds of fumes. The truck drivers had no idea that their ‘gentle friendly toots’ were deafening blasts of their claxons that made me jump out of the saddle. And what I took for cattle trucks turned out to be passenger bearing buses. 

In some cases they were open-backed lorries with the passengers standing shoulder to shoulder, as if they were being transported off to some far distant gulag.
When I got to Las Terrazas, I discovered a gated community with a 2CUC charge for entry. The gate keeper explained away my puzzlement by telling me I was entering a biosphere reservation, and then promptly promoted his brother’s casa particular for my night’s stopover…..the kind of marketing I would normally ignore, but Noel (his brother) came out to meet me, and I liked all his answers to my many questions…..and besides, he was already hosting a German lady and a Danish lad, so it sounded like promising company for the evening.

Free upgrade….

I’ve always wanted to know how to get a free upgrade to first class…..have something to complain about, knowing you are in the right.

The Midlands train that pulled into Bedford station was a proverbial ‘half mile long’. Station staff couldn’t advise me where the cycle space was, and before I had time to find it, I was forced to board by impatient staff, with my bike blocking the entrance/exit to the carriage. No one assisted me, no one was there to direct me, despite having bike space booked, so I complained vociferously to the train manager.

The reason he gave for not allowing me the time to find the correct carriage for my boxed bike was because “every second counts”. I assume that is a company motto drilled into all the staff. To me that was a red tag to a bull. Controlling my rightful anger as a fare-paying passenger, I let him know a thing or two…..and he knew I was in the right, and didn’t try to defend himself.

Result? “Sir, let’s put you in first class along with your bike”. Strangely, my rightful anger receded almost instantly….. Mm…..

A practical solution

Getting to an airport with a boxed bike, avoiding ridiculously expensive taxi fees, sometimes requires a bit of lateral thinking. My journey to Gatwick will be by train, but on a Sunday it means I have to change trains by commuting between two stations in London. This means a bit of trundling with the heavy box (only to the taxi rank, mind) so to minimise carrying, I have fixed a couple of furniture wheels to the base, in the hope that I’ll be able to pull it along like an oversized suitcase.

The theory is great, and I wonder what Heath Robinson would have said about its simplicity? But of course, its practicality will only be proven by its durability…….will it survive the journey? Platforms and pavements can be unforgiving at times….

The bike is now waiting for it’s no-return journey. After more than 25 years occupying a corner of our garage, it is now off to pastures new…..to a climate that can caress with its warmth, but can also scourge with its tropical rainstorms and hurricanes.

Will it survive another 25 years?

Cuba

Cuba map

If the winter weather deities are on my side, my Virgin Atlantic flight will take off from Gatwick at midday on Monday, and will deposit me at Havana José Marti airport at something after 17.00, a 10 hour flight that will allow me to gain 5 hours extra daylight that day. Somewhere in the hold my bike will be in an assortment of bits in a box, and the fact that we are both together on the flight will be unreal for reasons other than the weather……

You see, on Christmas Eve I felt one of those annoying winter infections beginning to take hold and, thinking I would be on the mend within a few days, it just got worse and worse, till I got to the point where this trip was very much held in the balance. Ten days later as I began to slowly emerge from the depths, a plan B gradually formed in my brain, the least taxing option being to just get myself on the flight and over to Cuba without the bike, and take it from there……either hiring a steed for the duration, or just on an ‘as-needs’ basis to do a few local rides.

Then a modification formed to that version of the plan, involving the use of my 25 year old Raleigh, the frame of which I had broken in New Zealand, and which had been repaired by a local boat welder in Queenstown. That was 6 years ago, and it had only ever been ridden sporadically since then for a bit of off-roading. Given that the Raleigh is now superfluous to my needs (my Dave Yates has now replaced it) my current plan is to ride it in Cuba and then give it away, saving me the hassle to boxing it up for the return flight, and providing someone with (perhaps) a much needed bike. Cubans, after all, are renowned for their ability to ‘mend and fettle’, and since bicycles are a bit of luxury for many Cubans, I expect it to find a new eager owner with relative ease.

The Raleigh Apex

Cuba, as many of you know, is a singular place. It is still suffering the austerity of a blockade by the Americans, and many everyday items are difficult to find, especially for resident Cubans. And with access to the internet being extremely limited, it is likely that posts on my blog will be sporadic and intermittent. A blessing you may say but, as ever, I promise to make my contributions to the world’s fountain of knowledge with pithy and ‘short-winded’ offerings.

Watch this space.

 

Stalin’s Children by Owen Matthews

Stalin's childrenWhen I picked up this volume from a library shelf, I never expected the term “children” to refer to the generations of Russian children that had grown up under the repressive regime of Stalin, whom they had referred to as ‘Uncle Stalin’.

The book is the story of the love affair between Owen Matthews’ parents: Mervyn, a failed British academic, and Lyudmila, a Russian lady who had survived 11 years of internment, and had been crippled by TB, in one of Stalin’s many prison camps. They met in the 1960s, during the cold war, when Mervyn was posted as a diplomat in Moscow, but found himself forever in the firing line of the KGB, who ultimately tried to recruit him as a spy. They failed to pierce his British membrane of loyalty, so had him expelled for ‘economic speculation’ (he tried to sell an old suit).

For six years thereafter, Mervyn and Lyudmila kept their relationship alive through love letters, while Mervyn exploited every diplomatic (and non-diplomatic) avenue fighting for Lyudmila’s right of passage out of Russia. Only when an exchange of prisoners, totally unconnected to their case, came about, Lyudmila was added to the deal as an afterthought. Sadly the marriage turned out to be unhappy. The epistolary happiness during the 6 years of separation could never be matched by the real thing.

Matthews, who followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a Russianist himself, travelling extensively in Russia as a journalist, and marrying a Russian lady, already had the imaginative background to pursue his research to discover some of the details of his parents’ tortured lives, during a period of Russian history when it was a miracle for both of them to survive.

A winter wander…

There are times when you just have to get off your home patch and find pastures new. The familiarity of repeated routes on home territory sometimes drives my ‘ philosophical ruminations’ to watery depths unfamiliar even to David Attenborough. An errand to Stamford (Lincolnshire) to pick up a re-built wheel for my Dave Yates bike gave me the chance to linger in the Rutland area and revisit some of the sweeping hills that separate towns such as Oakham and Uppingham and Rockingham

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……and coast along the picturesque valley of the Welland river…….

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…forgetting that I would be chancing by the famous Harringworth Viaduct, in all its 1.166km of glory, and its 82 arches. Its construction required the labour of 2,500 men, many of whom lost their lives…..in times when ‘elf and safety’ amounted to no more than a nod of acknowledgement that 10 men had died in a month……and it was all put down to ill fortune rather than the conditions of work. Whatever the statistics of life and death, it is a truly impressive structure and, I understand, is still in occasional use even today.

 

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A summer view

The strange little dog’s leg coming out of Empingham was a 3km out and back. When I discovered the untreated country lanes were still covered in very slippery frost, I opted to follow busier trunk routes for the morning session, until the sun had time to rise sufficiently to defrost the country roads. As the day progressed, I was feasted to the most perfect winter sunshine, and a sunset ‘to die for’……..well, not literally…..but you know what I mean.

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Young Stalin: Simon Sebag Montefiore

YoungStalinThis is a curious biopic of the early life of Stalin. What we know about Stalin now seems to bear little relationship to the man before he became the great dictator and the most notorious mass murderer of the 20th century.

In the early days he was an unlikely mixture of the ravenously hungry information-seeker and studious scholar, petty criminal, bank robber and womanizer. He spent nearly 10 years in Siberian exile, but he had used his time to study and create the network of contacts that would see his sudden rise to power during the Revolution of 1917.

Montefiore beguilingly portrays him as a loveable rogue, who excelled in working behind the scenes to further his espoused causes. His activities lay roughly at the level of minor mafia skirmishes, but he proved to be so useful and reliable to people like Lenin that his place within the party was assured. He had the knack and facility to bridge the gap between the educated bourgeois personalities within the party and the workers. He himself was from peasant stock, so many of his early ‘buddies’ in government came out of his own social network from Georgia.

This volume won the Costa Biography Award in 2007, and deservedly so.

Red Famine by Anne Applebaum

Red famineThis volume by Anne Applebaum (journalist and Soviet historian) fits neatly into the genre of popular history, but is, nevertheless, crowded with citations and archival references, which potentially give it an academic weight that some readers would find off-putting. Its subject matter, however, is still hotly debated and contentious.

Applebaum, who is partly Polish in her heritage, has been at odds for many years with the research and writings of typical western Soviet historians, who have generally ‘bought into’ the Soviet/Russian perspectives on history in order to gain ‘privileged access’ to archives and documentation. Applebaum remained rigorously independent during her formative years, gaining access to the people and the circumstances in which history occurred.

The dreadful famine of 1932-4 that killed an estimated 4.5 million Ukrainians has gone through so many permutations of interpretation that, at times, it has been difficult to know if it ever happened at all. The Soviet/Russian perspective has been dominated by propaganda and ‘fake news’ (according to Applebaum), but the thrust of the recent research (particularly amongst Ukrainians) demonstrates that it was not only real but it was directed and managed by Stalin himself. In other words, famine was used for political ends, in this instance to stamp out Ukrainian nationalism and to harness all the Ukraine’s agricultural produce for export, in order to finance the rampant industrialisation of the USSR.

A tough book to read because of its subject matter, but an important period of Ukrainian history that the Soviets tried to delete completely from the records.

Invernal radiance…..

Now into December, and morning temperatures hovering just above or below freezing, I have to remind myself of the spill on black ice I had 8 years ago when I broke my femur. Cars in our street were frosted over, so I used the early downtime for catching up on some reading, then headed out mid-morning.

It was one of those perfect early winter days. The temperature eventually rose to the 6-9C range, with a gentle breeze and a cloudless sky (for some of the day, at least). The roads were clear, visibility was good for several miles, and the countryside was looking its manicured best. The autumn sowings had produced a gentle green carpet that covered most of the fields.

My route took me through villages that I hadn’t visited in months, and when I got to Oundle (after 46kms), I called unannounced on a friend who very kindly invited me to soup and coffee……the fuel to propel me the 30kms back home which, incidentally, was gently aided by a north-westerly breeze.

The mapping App on my phone tells me I covered 75kms, climbing some 457 metres and (if I really want to believe it) I expended 2,900 calories in the process. Sounds like just cause for a big evening meal tonight…….:-)

Windcheater…..?

Windcheater? Who me? 🍒 picking again? Not taking the rough with the smooth, eh? I have to be careful here…..in the cycling world, there’s something called a ‘sense of honour’. Hard to define it exactly, but as in the world of yoga every posture has a ‘contra-posture’, so in the world of cycling….every downhill has an uphill, and every tailwind should have a headwind……life on the bike can’t be permanently downhill with the wind behind you. If opposites didn’t exist, the world would lack equilibrium. So today, I’ve done my little bit to unbalance the world……

You see, I thought I could use a bit of prestidigitation (let’s call it magic) and conjure up  a whole day’s ride to  have the wind behind me all the way. Dishonourable, I know….and I deserve all the scorn that more compliant roadies might vent……but I may have been caught on the cameras of some road surveillance system watching out for cycling cheats like me. Well, I’ll just have to sit it out now and wait for a potential ‘slap on the wrist’ from a Dixon-of-Dock-Green type bobby who may call at the door at any time. D’you think I care……?

 

I took a 10km ride to a nearby town to climb on a bus, enjoyed a free 2 hour ride to Buckingham (the joys of the bus pass….😊) and then caught the wind in my sails and headed in a north easterly direction. I’d like to say it was plain sailing all the way, but it never is…..IMG_20171123_125207556

Yes, I chose my spot to have an instant puncture, when the air just exploded out of my tyre, and was completely flat before I could stop. Beside a noisy road, and with 30-40mph winds, it was well nigh impossible to locate the blow-out, and then I couldn’t find the cause. It’s always a bit nervy when you put a fresh tube in the tyre without knowing what caused the puncture, but I did…..but that wasn’t the end of the story. When I had finished inflating the new tube, as I tightened the valve, the pin broke….hey ho……but the tyre kept its pressure, so I continued my journey with all fingers and toes crossed.

However, should I feel guilty about such brazen 🍒 picking? Would you?

Refuelling….

I don’t want you to think that my main breakfast fuel in the morning was just the farton……. because, as we all know, variety is the spice of life….even at breakfast time…..but a panadería full of tempting pastries only really pretends to sell you a variety of products. They have a very clever way of making you think that each regional pastry is vitally different from the others, with its own ingredients, method of baking and, most importantly, its presentation. Well, their deceit is now being revealed……..but I’m still buying into it.  All these wonderful pastries are made with the same base ingredients of flour, milk, sugar and eggs, but the ingenuity of how they are presented is the essential magic when you enter a panadería.IMG_20171111_090205964

Perhaps my favourite breakfast pastry in Spain actually originates in Mallorca, and its called the ensaimada. If you haven’t tried one, you haven’t lived. I would recommend even buying yourself a return plane ticket, spend a night in Palma de Mallorca, just so you can have an ensaimada breakfast in the morning before your flight home. Crazy? No, not really……..IMG_20171106_174418261_HDR

Or you can go to the foot of the climb to Mijas (pueblo) in Andalucía, have your ensaimada in a café, and really feel virtuous by cycling off the calories as you climb up to the beautiful pueblo blanco (white village) at the topIMG_20171107_124545509

and then look smugly down over the captivating panorama, knowing that the only direction back to the coast is downhill. Could it get any better than that?

Asanas on the sand….

For me, beaches are there to be enjoyed through some form of beach-related activity, never to simply lie on, and absolutely never for sunbathing and reading the latest thriller. Why would you want to do that……?

The frequently quoted holiday dream of the burned out 9-5 salary earner is to fill the suitcase with the latest bestsellers, fly several hours to a sun-drenched location, spending a few thousand £s in the process, only to lie on a beach sipping piña coladas and reading the latest Dan Brown…… The power of this illusionary dream is only reinforced by the frequency with which people ‘Facebrag’ with photos of themselves holding a (usually very) large glass of Pinot Grigio, gazing across a white tropical beach to an unrealistically blue seascape. The ultimate dream of the aspirational laid bare so as to make friends back in misty drizzly old Blighty envious of their good fortune. The social media equivalent of the “wish you were here” postcard…..but now we can geo-locate ourselves with pin point accuracy, and zoom in on Google maps to the very point we are sitting on the beach.

Our daughter, Rachael, is in the business of personal training, yoga teaching and Thai yoga massage, and sells a very different type of dream, but powerful nevertheless. Her classroom is frequently the beach on the Costa del Sol and, instead of the piña colada and Dan Brown, she can use the power of the environment to encourage stretching and relaxation, meditation and controlled breathing, all the while harnessing the power of the sun and the sound of the waves lapping gently against the shore.

I joined her classes immediately. No stranger to yoga, I have been practising (on and off) for nearly 30 years, but largely untutored since taking classes in the late 80s. Now I was being ‘held to account’ for some of my wayward practices, with the scrutinizing eye of my daughter to correct my posture, and adjust my movements from one Asana to another.

Although I am entirely biassed, I would say that ‘asanas on the beach’ would be an infinitely more realistic dream to promote amongst the overworked and hassled. As the sun rose over the horizon at 7.50am, I would go down to the beach and do my ‘salutation to the sun’ as it began it’s climb to its zenith….. then went off in search of a panadería (bakery) to buy my breakfast fartons……. I know what you are thinking…… but it’s the Valencian Catalan word for a pastry that comes from the small village of Alboraya…….but I loved giving the shop assistant an emphatically pronounced ¿me pones cinco fartons, por favor?

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Further afield…

Beyond Mijas lies a town called Alhaurín el Grande, a name bestowed on it by the Moors meaning the ‘garden of Allah’, and rises to over 320 metres above sea level. The climb up to the pass was long and laboured

But the descent was fast and exciting.

It still betrays remnants of its fortified past

but was overrun by the Christian forces under the Catholic Monarchs in 1485, putting in place another piece of the jigsaw of the Reconquest of Spain.

The day concluded with a spectacular rising of the moon over the sea, lighting up the surroundings with a spectral glow.

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