Sunday, 18 February 2018

New Year's High

Welcome back!
Sabadell City Hall.
The Church of Sant Felix in Sabadell.
So I know I'm writing this a little late - it's now February! Things have been very busy since the move back, finding work and a place to live - both of which are now well and truly sorted and going well. It hasn't been hard adjusting to real life here in Catalonia after South Africa, I have friends here (that I count as family) that have made that transition much easier. Strangely, my body took a bit of time getting used to the food again. Traditional Zulu food really agreed with me and having 'Western' food after so long was a slight shock to the system! The weather was a bit of a shock too - although Winter time in Barcelona is very mild, the South African Summer is very, very warm! The day I left was 40c, arriving in Barcelona to a chilly 15c or so. I have been lucky with the flat and job though - December isn't the best time to be looking for either of those things! English teaching jobs open in August and the start of September, rooms are normally taken by September too as the students have gone back to University and are all sorted. All that aside, the first month back here has been great. Although it was a big change going from baking heat on my last day in SA to Winter here in Barcelona, and although it's not as bad as Central Europe, the temperature has already dipped below 0c in some cities and snow is here and there too. I love mountains and the snow, a little less the cold weather but I enjoy 'dressing up' for it - gloves, scarf and multiple jackets to head out. I was also looking forward to being in Sabadell again - a city I am truly starting to feel at home in. A good-sized city with all the amenities you need, work, places to go out or go shopping, friends, transport, close to Barcelona and more importantly, the mountains and Great Outdoors. What more could you want?

Adventure this way - the start of the Via Ferrata Cinglera del Resistent.
Your life-line on the climb... and the view!
My friend Carles doing the 'ceiling.'
Hanging in there.
One of the first things I did after getting back was to get together with my friends and have a few beers and tapas. The great Spanish tradition of beers, food and friends - nothing like it. Although the word 'tapa' means 'lid,' meant to stop people from getting too drunk as they eat a small snack with every beer served, tapas just makes me want to drink more and so doesn't quite work. Nothing wrong with being a little tipsy - and I don't think a tapa has been invented yet that can stave off the effects of a large Gin and Tonic! Going out and having a few is all well and good, but what I really needed was some mountain time! Three of us heading off on a sunny Saturday to go and do a Via Ferrata - oh how I'd missed this! I had actually packed my climbing gear and taken it all the way to SA, but never had the opportunity to use it. The one we chose was close to where we all live, and although we'd done it before, this particular course has multiple options, making it different every time and also harder if you want. We got in the car, not starting out too early, but not too late either as it's dark by 5:30 here now, and drove to the village of Castellbell i Villar. This ferrata, the La Cinglera del Resistent, is actually rated at a K6, the hardest rating for these courses. The day was warm (for December) and we started out very excited - a chance to revisit a climb that we did back in Summer. The views offered by this Ferrata are amazing - you hang off the side of the rock, over the Llobregat River and the town, with the Holy Mountain of Montserrat always in view. The combination of exercise, sun and a breathtaking view is priceless! Last time I was here I did to 'the ceiling,' a 90 degree part of the climb that is extremely tough - the K6 part. There are two of these hard climbs and last time I managed one, but was too tired to do the second climb straight after. This time I completed the second one and I couldn't be prouder of myself! It was very hard on my arms, which were shaking in parts, as well as your legs and your mind as well - you have to think and plan where everything is going, where to hold on to, when to un-clip and re-clip onto the safety line. A complete workout!

The town of Castellbell i Villar - the starting point of the Via Ferrata.
It's starting to look a like (Catalan) Christmas!
Very political at the moment.
The referendum for independence.
Just before New Year's Eve, I made a trip by train to the northern Catalan city of Vic. Again, I'd been here before, but that can make it better sometimes - visit places you missed last time, see your favourite things again and of course, see everything in a different season. It's also a wonderful city, famous for it's spiced salami called Fuet. The train is a lovely way to see any country in my opinion - it's relatively cheap, good for the environment, as well as letting you see a whole different perspective on the landscape without having to worry about fuel, parking or even concentrating! It was so good that I even had a little sleep on the train. While I'd been away in South Africa, a lot had happened here in Catalunya - mainly the big referendum for independence. The Catalans have been pushing this issue for years, ever since I arrived in 2007, but it has really come to a head this year. The parliament organised the referendum and it went ahead, against the Spanish government's wishes, and was met with a lot of resistance from the National Police and right-wing nationalists - polling booths were broken into and votes confiscated, police used their force to remove people from stations and stop them from voting... all at the command of Madrid. This is a big issue, the country has been arguing about it for so very long, and one I won't say too much about anymore as I'm tired of the whole thing... that and the internet is not the place to put your political views out there, unless you want to start more arguing. Vic, a city that is very Catalan, were displaying their point of view and perspective of the whole issue, in a peaceful and correct way. The main square in the city, Plaça Major, was decorated with a huge Christmas tree in celebration of the season, but instead of a star or angel topping the pine, a large, yellow ribbon was adorning the prized position. What does this mean you ask? It is the way the Catalans are showing their support for the politicians who have been locked up after the referendum (which was illegal and against the Constitution according to Madrid) and also showing their distaste for the way the whole thing was handled by the Spanish Government. Also on show around the plaça, on nearly every building, were posters with messages on them: "democracy for Catalonia," "freedom for the political prisoners," and so forth. I agree on these things - democracy for the country and political leaders should not be in prison for holding a referendum for their constituents who wanted it. A country should be for the people - politicians should be dancing to our tune, not the other way round.

Freedom for political prisoners.
Plaça Mayor decorated for Christmas - but there's not star on the tree this year.
Pedraforca at sunrise.
A touch of snow on the trail.
New Year's Eve was fast approaching and like everyone else, I was thinking of what to do to make it a special day. There are friends to consider, who you want to spend the evening with, places to go, money, bookings and tickets, crowds, parking, getting home after... but these are for people who venture into the city, drive to some 'special' restaurant or club for the night, pay huge amounts of money for something that won't be that special in the end, just busy and expensive. No problem for me - to the mountains it was! Organised with friends, a group of around 20 people would be heading into the mountains and staying in a refuge near Pedraforca. The last time I was here at this amazingly beautiful, yet daunting peak, was back in July when I scaled the smaller of the two peaks, the Pollegó Inferior (2,448m). This time it would be hike to the Pollegó Superior (2,506m), an easier hike and no climbing involved. Half of the troupe were coming later, the 'young' ones would be climbing to the top on the last day of the year. I joke about the young part, as apart from the two teens that came with us, I was the the second youngest at 37, the youngest, a good friend of mine, a mere baby at 32. The climb itself wasn't that difficult I must say, I've done harder and longer. Within 2 hours we were right up there, the top, the peak, the highest point for miles and miles - what a feeling! It was terribly windy, the temperature dropped dramatically due to windchill, but the brain was keeping all that at bay with it's flow of endorphins.  We stayed at the top with just enough time to enjoy the view a little, take some pics and have a snack before making the descent. After this huge effort, we headed back to the hostal for beers in front of an open fire and a siesta. The life!

Pedraforca at the 'golden hour.'

A beautiful view of Montserrat from Pedraforca.

The start of the walk to the top - the village of Gósol.
The crew of Pedraforce '17.
The night's festivities started just before dinner time, as there were many kids and they wanted to be entertained - no Wifi at the hostel and no TV either. To be fair, the kids were great - not glued to their phones (much), but enjoying being where they were and keeping themselves busy and entertained for the most part. Dinner was served for the whole band and it was lovely! There was wine to go around, plenty of bread and even fuet and olives - even as a treat for dessert, traditional Turrons were served. These 'turrons' vary in what they actually are, but they are basically a bar of either some form of chocolate or roasted nuts with honey and sugar, even some more fancy ones like Crema Catalana (crème brulée) or even Gin and Tonic flavour. They are only available at Christmas time, so I always stock up to keep me going throughout the year - I adore them! I'm not much of a fan of New Years celebrations to be honest - I even cheated the Catalan tradition of eating 12 grapes with the 12 strokes of the clock at midnight by bringing a pack of 12 grape-shaped sweets. This one was a good one though - a room full of friends, some only new, others as good as family, all spending time together. This is what life is about, this is what we need to live for, not money, a promotion, a better car, but people, relationships and good times with good people. I may be poor in my pocket but I'm a millionaire in my heart.

The team!

A truly magical mountain - one of my favourites in the World.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Leaving South Africa

Working with the kids at ICDM in South Africa was an amazing experience.
Durban's beachfront.
Great kids!
Some of you know already that I have now left The Republic of South Africa, heading back to my second home - Catalonia. A time comes in every journey for it to end, but some end before they should, as was the case here I think. Most people have had some visa issues at one time or another in their travels, I've had several. I won't go into all the details of these, as they are reserved for times where the beer is flowing and I have people around to share stories and experiences, but they include prison (yes, real prison), leaving a country in a hurry (not related to the prison story), delayed at airports and also having to leave a country for a bit before returning. This one though was simple bureaucracy and red tape, which South Africa excels at. I was on a 4 month, sponsored Volunteer Work Visa, which allowed me in the country and to stay with the organisation. Sounds simple - I read up as much as possible (as getting answers from the embassy was impossible before applying), talked to friends there and went for it. I was told that I could stay longer, I just need a sponsor, like the original visa. I visited the office of Home Affairs in person, risking yet more taxi trips and spending 2 hours getting there, only to be turned away. I got to the office and was staggered by the line that had formed out the front door, along the main building and around the corner. Luckily (for me) this was the queue for IDs and passports. The immigration office was actually closed - I was advised by a guy also waiting that sometimes they need to go to court (to kick people out?) and would be back sometime today so I went off for breakfast and came back slightly less hopeful of getting to speak to someone. There was indeed someone there but he couldn't help in the slightest - the one guy at the desk had no pen, no other people in the office and even no furniture to be seen, not even a chair or posters or advertisements on the walls! It was like they'd been burgled by the most desperate criminals who were also hoarders. He told me to go to another office, but couldn't write down the address for lack of pen and refused to type it on my phone or even spell it for me, for risk of misinformation or just laziness, I'm not sure. A long story short, I went to the address he gave me (which was a company that had been outsourced to do the Government's job), tried to renew but was told that I would need to leave and re-enter the country - something that I simply could not afford to do. So, it's time to come back and make the best of what you're given - it may even be a blessing in disguise. You can only take one path at a time, so make it yours and walk it bravely.

The crazy kids at ICDM.

Always stealing my hat and sunglasses, but I will miss them!

Some of the kids from the local primary school.
The family dog, "Dog."
Before I start on my new adventures back in Europe, I still have a few things to share about Africa. Although I didn't go on any safaris this time, see any lions or dive with Great White Sharks, there was still plenty of things I did see and do! Living in the Valley of the 1000 Hills was a wonderful experience - most South Africans haven't even visited and nearly everyone I knew from Durban or other cities nearby didn't even know where it was! I must say that living with a local Zulu family was also a great experience. I was able to share their daily lives, eat meals with them and learn a lot, as well as feeling part of the family. My mornings started fairly early, as the family rose early to work before the heat of the day and also went to bed early. My breakfast was fairly normal - cereal with coffee or tea - but sometimes the family made "vetkoek," or as I called it, "fat cook" as I'd never seen it written before and that's how everyone said it, also what the Afrikaans word sounds like. Basically a doughy dumpling, a round ball of fried bead, but so tasty and filling - I would sometimes put cheese inside too! Eat these every day and you will get fat! Lunch and dinner was usually maize meal or rice, with a mixture of beans and meat (mostly chicken), usually with a good helping of vegetables too, like cabbage, pumpkin and my favourite - a spicy kind of tomato relish called 'sambal.' Although the food was very repetitive I enjoyed it and never really got tired of it - but I did feel I had to exercise afterwards due to the high carbs I was eating, rice and maize with beans on the one plate is a bit heavy. As far as things to do, there wasn't that much on the list - but I'm the kind of person that enjoys peace and quiet, mixed in with some exploring and hiking. I would pick a mountain, get my boots on, pack some water and snacks, get my camera and head out.


Lifeguards at Durban's beaches.

The kids of ICDM.
I miss the kids already!
My family looked after me - I was never hungry. They looked after me a little too much sometimes though, always worried when I went off on walks! So I was alone and a stranger, but there was never any danger, apart from getting lost in the wild, which I did only once - but when I say lost, I only mean 'lost' as in lost the trail, never my direction. Some days I would also help out at the family creche, where the little kids too young for primary would come. Meal times were particularly busy - feeding 50 four year olds isn't a quick or easy task! These kids were always happy to see me, they got so excited and called out to me whenever they saw me - calling me "malume," which means 'uncle' in Zulu. In the afternoon I would head down to the Isithumba Community Development Movement building, working with the older kids organise sports and other games, indoor and outdoor, as well as monitoring the trampoline and playground equipment. The kids were the sweetest in the World - not all could speak English, some very well though, but this wasn't a problem for them or for me. Kids here are 'real' kids, they are happy to be outside and play, get involved and want you to do the same - whether it's football or just playing on the swing, they want you there, hold your hand when walking somewhere, want hugs, liked to be tickled, chased and to be picked up and are just genuinely wonderful! Some days they didn't want to play anything organised, like a team game, so I let them do what they wanted to do - they were happy to organise themselves. Other days they wanted to play a sport all together and when they did, their enthusiasm and energy were sky high! No moody teens or lazy 10 year olds saying they're bored or tired - these kids never ran out of energy! I will truly miss them - their energy, honesty, sweetness and their down-to-earth childishness. My evenings after working with the kids got dark quite quickly, but I usually spent it with work colleagues down at the store, called 'the mall' by the locals. A nice cold beer with friends, watching the sun go down, chat and laugh, talk to some of the locals in their various states of drunkenness and levels of English, and appreciate exactly where I was and how beautiful it was. Not too bad.

Pretending to be camera shy.

Two Japanese tourists who visited the Valley - always great to meet new people.

A view I will miss - The Valley of 1000 Hills.
Zulu delicacy- cow's tongue!
A life-long dream of mine was always to have a pet chameleon. I know this is a strange dream to have - in fact, most people that I've told look at me very strangely. Chameleons aren't high on the list of pets - you can't pat them (well kind of...), take them for walks, have them on your lap while watching tv, or much else, but I still wanted one. When I first moved to Barcelona they were sold on the Ramblas and I always said to myself "next time," until there was no next time and I never saw them again. All my time in Africa I had been on the look out for one, I knew there were here, and I did mention this fact to my Zulu work mates. A few weeks before I had to leave, I was working with the kids when my friend called out "Matt! You have your chameleon!" It was a hot day and they'd been sitting under a tree and when someone looked up, there was a large, green chameleon looking back at them from the branches! I finally had my ultimate pet! I got a box for him, leaves and branches to make him feel at home, and excursions to the light outside my room to hunt for dinner became a nightly affair. It's not true what people think - you can't touch them or hold them, they aren't affectionate... whenever I opened his lid in the morning, Charles (yes, Charles the Chameleon!) would reach out for my hand, grab it and climb up my arm in his funny way and sit on my shoulder. Their little claws are incredible, much like little human hands even, and it seemed very sweet the way he would hold on to my fingers and then his little tail would form a coil around another finger. Ok, so he didn't do much, he sat there in the sun looking at you, but at the same time he never meowed for food, scratched at the door or peed on the floor... and his eating style is the coolest! I did manage to see his long, spring-loaded tongue in action, picking up crickets and moths and pulling them into his mouth, all done in a flash.

Not all animals make cool pets - this 'thing' was huge and kinda scary!

The coolest pet in the World - Charles the Chameleon.

A colour-runner.
All 'coloured up' for the fun run!
One regret I have about leaving South Africa, apart from not being able to stay and chase my photography dreams, was travel. I just didn't have the time or money to do much. I miss the big things like Kruger National Park and one place everyone must go when visiting South Africa - Cape Town. I've seen pictures and been told stories, all of which tell me how awesome the city is. Not that I wanted to swim with Great Whites, but to climb table mountain and see the city perched on the bottom tip of a continent would have been something! I was lucky enough this time round to spend time in Durban with friends. Something this city does like no other is a Bunny Chow. Often referred to as just 'a bunny,' this Durban-invention is basically a curry in a hollowed-out loaf of bread. The history of this dish dates back to the 1940s when Indian migrant workers were arriving to work in the sugar fields of Kwazulu-Natal. Working long days, they brought their lunch with them - what better way to bring a packed curry lunch than in a tupperware container that you can eat too! The best Bunny I had while here was at a big betting store chain called Hollywoodbets. It doesn't sound like a great place to have a meal, but the atmosphere reminded me of some clubs in Australia - good, cheap food served with cold beer while other people gambled on horse races. The restaurant service is always fast and friendly here and the prices are very decent. I also got the chance to help out with the Durban Color Run - a fun-run with loads of colour thrown in. I didn't do the run, although it's an easy 5kms around the city, but was helping set up, throw colours at the runners as well as taking photos. I'd never been to one and it's a lot of fun for everyone! It was an early start to the day, more so as we'd a Gin and Tonic party the night before which only ended about 5 hours before we had to get up again. Loads of paint was thrown, people running with their families and loved ones, kids, adults and the elderly took part too. My camera came out completely covered in blue powder - so did I but it was hard to see myself till someone showed me a photo which I could have sworn was papa smurf!

A runner getting her groove on!

The Colour Run Crew - all blued out!
The beautiful and green Valley of 1000 Hills.
The village of Isithumba.
I'm now back to a normal life in Catalonia, working and renting, doing all the normal things in life. Boring some may say, but essential as well. Sometimes you do miss the simple routines in life, enjoying a coffee before heading off to work and of course my favourite time of the day when work is done and you can relax and have a beer with friends, or even just sit at home on a sofa and watch a bit of telly. The normal life is needed, not only to save money, but to make you realise that life isn't always an adventure, it can't be, there has to be normal levels of excitement and adventure, to make those highs even more special. I want to thank everyone in South Africa who I met there for the first time, friends who I hadn't seen for a while and my host family who truly looked after me for 4 months. Although I didn't achieve all I set out to do, it was a great time and a great experience. The people that I'm thanking know who they are and they know how special they are to me and that my time was made even better because of them. A huge thank you to my Hilton friends especially though - they put up with me when I visited from the Valley, drove me around and took me places and I was extremely grateful to be able to spend my birthday down at the pub with you guys - I miss you already. My house is your house - whenever you are here and wherever in the World that may be. Now I must thank you friends that live here in Spain - it's time to start doing things together, hiking and climbing, visiting cities, going to festivals and just hanging out on a sunny Sunday morning drinking Vermouth! Visca!


A great experience, one that I will never forget - I won't forget the kids either.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...