*** Due to an outbreak of Covid amongst our judges, the result will now be published on Wednesday 22nd December. Our apologies for the delay. ***
Congratulations to our 10 selected short-listed writers.
Below is a list of their names and titles, followed by the articles beneath. They are listed in order of date of entry.
Its now down to you, the public to select you favourite three article by Friday 26th November. The three that receive the most votes will then be sent to our lead judge Jeremy Lazell to review them and select the winner and recipient of the £500 prize.
Voting it easy. Simply send an email with the name of your favourite author as the Subject/title.
Send it to email@example.com . One vote per email address, duplicate votes will be deleted. Voting closes at 23:59 GMT on Friday 26th November.
The winner and two runners-up will be revealed here on Friday 10th December. Good Luck to all our writers.
Astrid Aoko Okello – In my culture
Kinga Litynska – With every Indian cloud, there is a silver…
Raven Patzke – Breathless
Sharon Penwell – Turtle Town
Billy Finn – Ghosts, Memories and Lobster Rolls
Brittany Tadesse – Ghana’s Secret Garden
Johanna Griffin – A Deep Freeze in the Carpathians
Vanessa Couchman – Like Nothing I had ever Heard Before
Julie Heath – Full Bore with a Chance of Arrival
Rchard Conway – A well-earnt cup of tea.
Astrid Aoko Okello – In My Culture
“Afurika! Afurika!” Two young boys shout, pointing to my direction as they enter the train. They are accompanied by their parents. They giggle as they jump onto the priority seat. Their mother tries to calm them down, while their father turns to me and slightly bows, I guess as a way of apologizing. Afurika is the Japanese pronunciation of Africa.
Before the train stopped at this subway station, almost everyone minded their business. The young people were glued on their phones, while old people were busy reading those Manga comic books. Now, these children have shifted everyone’s attention. All eyes are on me, making me uncomfortable. So, I get out my phone and scroll through Facebook notifications. Soon, the doors close and the train starts moving.
Deep inside, I am thinking of the amazing experiences that I have had in this city. I am still amazed by how the system here works so perfectly for the citizens and how clean, green and orderly the city is, despite being the largest in the world. I have been learning a few words and sentences here to blend more into the culture. Indeed, I have learnt a lot, even though I keep forgetting to add the word “san” to names of people, and still have the habit of referring to restaurants as hotels, and convenience stores as supermarkets.
It is around 5 pm. I am going to see professor Sara-San for a discussion on her library project in Kenya. She is a famous professor of Socio-Cultural Anthropology at Tokyo University. She also serves as the director of the International Students Association at the University. She has written several books, two about African culture and has been to Kenya several times. She is Scottish, married to her Japanese husband. She speaks Japanese like a native and has blended well into the culture. She has also recently received her Japanese citizenship.
I first met Sara- San about 20 years ago in Kenya when she donated fairy tale books to my primary school in Kenya. I remember being selected to read some few pages of Cinderella at her appreciation ceremony. I was about seven. I was surprised to see her at the African conference at Tokyo University. I immediately recognized her bob-cat hairstyle and the wide gap between her front upper teeth. Twenty years down the line, she had not changed that much. She did not recognize me at first but was in tears when I reminded her of her visit to my school. When she learned that l was the young girl who had read the story, she hugged me tightly as she sobbed.
She shared her undying love for the Swahili language, and how she had constantly practiced it on her occasional visits to Kenya. She could’nt keep calm as she dropped Swahili words, explaining their meanings. It was hard to convince her that ‘Waambaje’ is a traditional salutation which we never use, at least in Nairobi. She was offended when I reverted to English, and reminded me to embrace my African culture.
Two months into my arrival here, my African origin has fascinated many. I have received lots of attention. I came here for a writing fellowship at Tokyo University after winning a creative writing contest. Whenever I introduce myself as a Kenyan girl with a degree in Sociology, and with a great passion for writing and environmental matters, my introduction seems incomplete. This is as long as it is not spiced with some African aspects, something like I have two lion pets.
On the other side, I have used this phrase “In my culture” for giving excuses, like those of why I cannot consume raw meat, or why I cannot drink “kohi” (coffee) without sugar.
After about forty-five minutes, I arrive at Harajuku, where Sara-San lives. I get on Google maps to locate her house, which she says is about ten minutes walk from the station, that is if I get out through the right exit from the station. It is a cold autumn; winter is fast approaching. It is now 6 o’clock and completely dark, something I have not processed as much as the fact that the sun could be up, shining brightly, yet still cold, very cold.
So far, I have been to Harajuku not once, not twice. Harajuku is my favourite spot in Tokyo. I love the vibe it gives and its sense of fashion. Unlike European streets, lined with famous cathedrals, Harajuku has beautiful shrines, beautiful parks and cornered restaurants. I cannot forget to mention its pop culture!
The sky is clear and the air is filled with anime tunes and people constantly saying the thank you word, “Arigatou.” As I walk down the crowded narrow alley, the aroma of Ramen from the cafés fill my empty stomach. I love Ramen, more than the famous Sushi. As I brush shoulders with people, I can hear them whispering “Afurika.” Everything is beautiful from the flower arrangements at the front of the houses to the beautifully decorated manholes.
I finally arrive at Sara’s house. She lives with her husband and her sister-in-law is visiting for the weekend from Okinawa, where she lives and works. I love how Sara-San has blended the living room with both Japanese and Scottish style, with a touch of Africa, represented by carvings of different wild animals on top of the cabinet.
On the left wall is a big picture of a small thin girl, shyly holding a microphone on one hand and a book on the other. She is standing in front of a large crowd. Among the crowd is Sara-san. I know it’s her, even though she has black shades on. I recognize myself as the young girl and for seconds, I get glued on the picture as memories of my tormenting childhood fill my head. The house smells of of Ramen, and I feel hunger burning in my stomach.
Sara-San introduces me to her family, then asks her sister-in-law to lead me upstairs to the study room to see the books she had collected for her library project in Kenya while she sets the table for dinner. The study is a small irregular room. There is an old desktop lying on one corner, at the centre is a small table with an office chair tucked underneath. Each side of the wall has a bookshelf, with books piled up to the ceiling. Among the book piles, I spot several familiar books including Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi and The River Between by Ngugi wa Thiongo.
Sara’s sister-in-law reaches the top shelf and lifts out a book. She blows off the dust on the cover and hands it over to me saying, “Afurika.” I take the book and flip a few pages before I read the summary on it’s back. It’s the story of the legendary Yasuke, the African Samurai who is believed to have been the first African to arrive in Japan in the 16th century. Now I know why she thought I would love it.
After dinner, Kiyosaki-San, Sara’s husband takes the lead and explains details of their planned library project in Kenya. He then shifts to other stories, including how he has been recovering from a minor stroke, which has seen him stop his teaching career for over two years. He has a PhD in music and brags of his mastery of foreign genres. He tells us stories of his first visit to Kenya and his love for the Kenyan coast. He narrates a near-death experience when he was attacked and robbed in Malindi town.
He goes ahead and mentions his dying love for “Zilizopendwa,” a famous Swahili music genre, so he pulls out an old guitar from the side of his chair and plays “Stella Wangu,” a famous Swahili love Song as he sings along with a ridiculous tune in his Japanese accent. He nods as he strikes the last note and we bow and clap simultaneously, then he turns to me and says, Afurika!
Kinga Litynska – With every Indian cloud, there is a silver…
Sticky air hangs over the city like an iron curtain. Immersed in their daily juggle amidst the world of bedlam and racket, in a silent rush, passers-by push through packed backstreets shrouded in clouds of exhaust gases that buses, cars and tuk-tuks mercilessly breathe. Their lungs are short of breath, mouths are full of dust, and nostrils instantly absorb all-encompassing aromas, fragrances, notes of incense and intrusive stench. The stench of an Indian toilet or an Indian river. The smell of the main bazaar or everything else at once. A rich country of poor people, in which bluntness and magic intertwine, ordinary becomes fascinating, and your attention is heightened by the infinity of diffused impressions.
The bewildering, untamed nature of this bizarre country needs to be soaked up with all your senses.
– How would you best describe India? – asked Kasia Zagorska, a journalist from the broadcast station Around the World.
– Too much – I replied.
– Too much of what?
– Too much of everything. Too many homeless people, beggars and cripples. Tuk-tuks, fumes, dust and noise. Too much rubbish, dirt, bacteria and information. Too many brothers, friends, touts and talking heads. Colors, smells, cows, goats, dogs, rats and inevitably – too many flies.
I was surrounded by wild masses. My attention was drawn to the live-in-the-box homeless, rickshaw drivers, grimy children and their begging mothers as well as street vendors selling fruits, chips and peanuts, whose heaped mounds filled rusted, metal carts. An old man with a foot covered in blood crossed my way, and dogs stealthily scurried away, lost amidst the human commotion. A stench reached my nostrils. A peculiar mixture of urine, the essence of incense and spices for the extraordinary bouquet of smells present on Indian streets makes a composition from a bewitched garden.
I squinted my eyes and noticed heavy, silver tools spilling out of some joint, and right next to them – in a kind of unique, Indian disarray – black, rubber tubes were piled up. Across the street, precious valuables, essential oils and perfumes filled the boutique, while in the adjacent artisan shop, a craftsman dabbled in making wood-hewn sculptures. I turned my head and spotted a small corner studio with marble figures of Hindu deities of various sizes as well as a stack of flowers which were soon to embellish the interior of many a temple. Next door – a bike rental and a bakery.
– Watches! Stickers! Cotton candy! – I heard from the left side of the Main Bazaar.
– Glasses! Stamps! Chestnuts! – came calls from the right.
The street cacophony unnerved me. My head was spinning – the result of either fatigue or the inflow of the local exoticism. Maneuvering between the porters, beggars and dogs, I scrambled through the whole mess. I was trying to overtake a man in rubber flip-flops waddling sluggishly through the narrow alley. On his shoulder, he was balancing an enormous, wicker basket brimful of vegetables and other greens
. My eyes were tracing the poor man’s footsteps, and I wondered what he would lose first – his cabbage or his shoes – when all of a sudden, from the opposite direction, with the speed of a race car, a black and yellow tuk-tuk came right at me. At the last moment, with my heart in my mouth, I managed to hide behind the basket. Phew!
And where was that noise coming from? The sound of a whirring engine and long, thick stalks meant only one thing – sugar cane juice! After a thirteen-hour flight and a good dose of Indianness, I was exhausted. I sat down on a little, metal bench next to the juice vendor, and in one gulp, I guzzled my ice-chilled, deep-green cocktail. Finally, a moment of respite. Really?
– Rupee! Chocolate! Pen! – a small, skinny, barefoot girl popped up out of nowhere, pulling my T-shirt.
She was grimy, disheveled and – just like me – covered in dust and sweat. She had a mop od messy hair and a dress full of holes. The child’s request for a pen seemed to me quite strange, but no more than anything else around. I had neither a chocolate nor a pen, so I gave her a coin.
And what is that? An enormous camel with a cart full of beets strapped around its long, giraffe-like neck, strode proudly through the city hub. Unbelievable! And just for the very reason that one Indian square meter contains a thousand western ones, mesmerizing unpredictability of what awaits you in the next moment, makes traveling through India an electrifying experience – after all, if it is not a camel, it is a disabled person. The man had no legs, and only a wooden plank with four little wheels attached to it served him as a wheelchair. Lying on his stomach, with his hands slid into rubber flip-flops, he pushed himself off the ground…
Time for a riddle. Should a man’s intrusion into the ladies’ room in India be shunned with indignation or welcomed with gratitude? If you reckon that the question is absurd and the answer unequivocal, come with me…
I entered some food joint. An attentive waiter showed me the way to the back room. which looked no better than the bazaar. Fine. I tried to close the door, but the lock was broken. So be it. It was too late when I realized that in the cabin there was no… toilet paper. How could I have forgotten! Oh, silly me! In a mad panic, I started searching my hand luggage which I still kept on my back – the floor was in the most appalling state that my eyes had ever seen. In fact, the room was boiling hot, cramped, stinky and smeared with a smorgasbord of unknown “delights.” Covered in sweat, I dived inside my little bag when suddenly the door opened. Through the gap, the waiter’s hand slipped in and along with it, a bundle of something white.
– Here you are, madame. Toilet paper for you.
– Thanks a lot! – I replied with great relief.
Welcome to India! Not-so-odd-any-more land – where with every cloud, there is a silver… toilet paper.
Raven Patzke – Breathless
I wanted a taste.
I shut my swollen, sunburnt eyes and basked in the aroma of the sweet, frangipani flowers as the strong rays of the afternoon sun beat down on my knotted blonde mane. It was my third day in paradise, or Fiji as some people called it. I’d spent my last two nights island hopping and, since spotting a spider the size of my palm in the showers the first night, my hair had been getting the ocean treatment, as I’d come to call it.
“When’s the last time you went?” the instructor startled me out of my haze.
“Uhhhh, last week,” I hesitantly replied, as I made internal eye contact with my panic-induced self confronting my last instructor by grasping his arm beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean miming “I. CAN’T. BREATHE.”
“Should be fine,” he nodded to the island boy who somehow earned the title of Captain.
I began wrestling with my wetsuit to dissolve its wishes of staying free of my body as Captain plopped a hefty air tank behind me. After hours of lounging on the beach, I figured it was time to get my adrenaline pumping.
“Arms in. Arms up. Now, stand. Okay, you’re good,” he notified me.
“Up here,” my instructor tapped the edge of the dinghy we’d ventured into the open waters with.
Mustering up the strength I’d incurred from all those years of missing the bus, I heaved my body along with the steel tank of death attached to my back toward the edge of the boat.
“On three, we do backflip.”
“I’m sorry, wh-“
With a swirl of blues, I was suddenly drenched in saltwater.
“All right, ready?” the instructor said as he grasped my hand and plunged beneath the choppy waters.
Left, right, left, right. My flippers were the only stability I had left at this point as my instr- as my bodyguard and I descended to the distant ocean floor and crouched behind an old coral reef wall. Now, eyes wider than the gap between my kindergarten teeth, I spotted something. No, I spotted a lot of somethings. Despite having that tank of fresh air I’d so graciously lugged around for myself, I held my breath as 30 bull sharks circled my so-called hiding spot. Ranking in the top three of unprovoked attacks on humans, these guys were not to be messed with.
I was completely, utterly, vulnerable. This reef wall, this bodyguard, this boat—nothing mattered. No one could have stopped these sharks, much less 30 of them should they decide I would make a better lunch than their fellow marine friends. This was a whole new world. A world where money, status and connections couldn’t get you out of trouble. Above water, we all had our own stories, but down here, we were all one of the same: Speechless.
As another diver from our group opened the chest of bloody fish heads he’d boldly brought with him, I began to hope the sharks wouldn’t be considering these offerings as the hors d’oeuvres. I watched intently as the diver stabbed a mangled piece of meat and offered it to the crowd. A few members went in for a bite, however, the bull sharks weren’t about to be crowned king so easily. A stealthy red snapper snagged the snack and sped off, being chased by some upset brunch guests.
Despite the commotion, I began to settle into my skin. After all, if this ended up being my last few moments of life, the little me watching me take my last breath from above would be extremely disappointed that I didn’t end it on a good note.
However, it was odd. I was 9,687 miles away from home, underwater, with a man I’d met five minutes beforehand, surrounded by millions of unknown creatures that all had the potential to end me, and yet I found peace. I found peace in the idea that I could be vulnerable and trust that those around me would do the same. As our tanks began to deplete their last supplies of fresh air, I took one last inhale and filled my lungs with the taste of freedom.
Sharon Penwell – Turtle Town
“Cuantos!?” hollered the cheery gap-toothed head-scarved Senora at the buzzing food stand next to the bus station. “Dos!” I yelled back, rubbing my belly. I certainly was hungry after stepping off the bus from San Carlos where I had been whale-watching. Two tacos would be welcomed and typically delicious.
The smell of bubbling corn tortillas on the fiery skillet dancing with sounds of sizzled melting cheese being drizzled with jalapeno salsa sauce produced a heady gastronomic perfume which would be washed down my dry throat with the chilled local beer.
I hadn’t reserved a room for this evening. Being January mid-week, it was predominately out of season in tepid Baja California Sur, and there was always plenty of last minute budget choices. I was en route to San Ignacio to kayak on the river and decided to stop over in Loreto one night. I had not heard of it before so this would be another new place to visit.
After my revitalising stop, I hauled on my backpack and trekked downtown to find a room at the low-priced hostals. From one place to the next I asked the price, but each time, I was told “Completo.” Full. For a small town of 20,000 in winter, this was strange. After the sixth attempt my happiness was dripping into despair.
Despair, myself and my backpack trudged across the main road. I slouched past an estate agent’s just as a woman came out through the shiny door, locking it behind her. She was a bespectacled lustrously raven-haired lady, mid-40’s, slim, elegant. Catching her eye, I murmured “Hola” and asked why all rooms were full.
She told me, in English, that today begins the 28th Annual Convention on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation… that Loreto is home to five out of seven of the world’s marine turtles. “This week Loreto turns into Turtle Town!” she exclaimed. I couldn’t have cared less at that point.
“So, no rooms” she added. “I must go, I have closed office.”
“I need a room tonight” I blubbered. Her eyes scoured me; trustingly she took pity on me. Ushering me into the office, she disappeared into the cleaning closet, emerging with a mattress, then a pillow and blanket. “You sleep here tonight” she announced, pointing at the office floor. My utter surprise and relief was evident : I thanked her profusely.
She didn’t want payment but I insisted she accept something. With my $5 offering, she’d buy pastries juice and coffee to leave in the staff kitchen for me. I was to leave before office opening at 8.30am. She wished me a good night and left.
I slept badly, not used to ever having overnighted in a Mexican office during a Turtle Convention but I was safe, comfortable and rested. I dozily wandered the town next day, ingested the joyous atmosphere, witnessed caring humans in turtle costumes…. and yes, bought the T-shirt!
I still wear it, 14 years later. A memory to the kindness of Maria and Turtle Town.
Billy Finn – Ghosts, Memories and Lobster Rolls: A Visit to Block Island and the Past.
We drove about three hours north from New York City, fighting traffic the whole way. It was a humid, cloud-choked morning in mid-July and we sat with slipping patience as endless lines of cars stuttered their way up 95 North like hesitant toddlers just learning how to walk.
My wife, Emily, and I were on our way to Block Island: a place I’d been many times and one that was quickly becoming a favorite of hers, an Indiana girl used to lakes and rivers still marveling at the very idea of an island surrounded by water in every direction.
As professional actors and musicians, both of us had been stymied creatively for over a year due to the pandemic, forced to cocoon ourselves in our cozily claustrophobic Upper West Side apartment and pursue whatever shreds of creativity Zoom screens and play readings could offer.
Newly married and fried from months of planning a wedding during a plague, we both needed a break. Choking the steering wheel of my car as we inched our way northward, I got the sense I needed something more than a respite; I needed a reset, a reclamation, a homecoming.
We hopped a ferry at Point Judith and headed for the small island shaped like a cartoon teardrop drifting just south off the coast of Rhode Island and just east of Montauk’s outstretched fingertips. The ferry bobbed gently in the green waters of the Atlantic as it curved around the northern tip of the island, revealing about 10 square miles of pale yellow shoreline, green, dappled hills and homes wrapped in gray clapboard.
We glided slowly into Old Harbor and the massive boat spat us out onto Water Street, the island’s main drag lined with souvenir shops and aged hotels whose bones were wearing the passage of time quite nicely, thank you very much.
We headed right on the sun-bleached asphalt and made for one of those hotels: the Block Island Beach House, formerly known as the Surf Hotel until it was sold, revived and renamed a few years past. The Surf’s gray facade still remained, salt-worn and absorbing the sun’s heat.
We bellied up to the bar tucked in the back of the hotel’s wraparound porch. I ordered a lobster roll and a beer and stared out at Crescent Beach, named for the way the eastern shoreline curves its way from Old Harbor to the bluffs on the northeastern edge of the island.
The sun was out now, finally freed from a blanket of early-morning fog, and the water in front of us burned blue. Gentle white caps formed and crashed onto the beach, foam hissing around the ankles of squealing children playing in the surf.
I felt comfortable. I felt familiar. I felt home. I started thinking about all the ways that memory and nostalgia color and distort our connection to place and time. Was it possible, after so many summer days spent here, to be objective about this place? To see it clearly?
For that matter, is it possible for any of us to be dispassionate or even honest about the family lake house or that annual trip into the mountains; those places that seem to be waiting for us before we even arrive, that bend time into wistful loops and make us remember things we thought we’d forgotten?
Turns out, for me at least, nostalgia tastes like salt water in the air, smells like sunscreen and fried fish, and sounds like an endless chorus of waves licking the sand, retreating backward into themselves, then repeating the cycle over and over again.
Settled by a small group of European families in 1661—and by the Niantic people thousands of years before that—Block Island is a laid back, New England gem; a green, beach-rimmed pear resting above the cold waters of the Atlantic; a possibly haunted, purposefully rustic piece of Yankee-fied Americana Summer offering white sands, panoramic views, hot lobster rolls and cold Narragansetts.
The island was a popular summer holiday destination for families across New England for most of the 19th and early-20th centuries before tourism exploded over the back half of the last century, coinciding with the local, year-round community’s commitment to conserving both the island’s natural beauty and historic charm.
Nearly half the island is under the protection of the Block Island Conservancy and Land Trust, and the environmental nonprofit The Nature Conservancy declared Block Island one of the “Last Great Places on Earth” back in the 90’s, one of only 12 such places in the Western hemisphere.
That spirit of conservation and protection extends beyond the island’s natural wonders. The smallest town in the smallest state in the country has remained admirably obstinate to modernization throughout the years, setting it apart from Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and other popular New England summer destinations and their strip-malled, seersucker sameness.
If you’re looking for coffee in the morning, you won’t find a Starbucks or even—horror of all New England horrors—a Dunkin’ anywhere on the island. There is, however, Persephone’s Kitchen; a hip little shack of a coffee shop just up the road from the Block Island Beach House.
The morning after we arrived, Emily and I began our day on the lawn outside the shop, sipping rich and earthy cold brew coffees and splitting a grilled cheese sandwich called “The Moon,” a tangy combination of melted cheddar cheese and kimchi on fresh sourdough bread.
After that, it was beachtime. We headed to Baby Beach, a thin strip of sand and dunes wedged between the much more crowded Surf Beach and Town Beach about a ten minute walk from Persephone’s. The water was clear and the refreshing kind of cold, the sun’s heat dulled by a gentle breeze sweeping across the warm sand.
After a few hours on the beach, we headed back to town to peruse the shops along Water Street. We snagged a pair of Del’s Frozen Lemonades and strolled the bustling street, navigating our way around scores of sunburnt beach-goers flip-flopping their way in and out of stores. We popped into the Glass Onion so Emily could buy a straw beach hat and into Star Department Store so I could buy my annual hat emblazoned with the island’s distinctive shape.
We passed through the Empire Theatre, a century-old roller rink-turned-movie theatre on the western edge of Water currently hosting a rotating collection of art, clothing and collectibles from local artisans and craftworkers. Crossing the street, I nodded reverently to the Statue of Rebecca standing proudly on her plinth in the middle of a traffic circle, her white marble skin glowing in the early-evening sun.
From town, we walked up the hill on High Street for pre-dinner cocktails at the Atlantic Inn, an impossibly charming Victorian-era dollhouse of a hotel come to life with a crisp, white facade and blue shutters draping its many windows.
We grabbed seats in a pair of white lawn chairs out front, ordered glasses of rosé and the cheese plate and enjoyed the best view on the island; a panorama spanning the Atlantic Ocean to the east, Old Harbor straight ahead, and a brilliant sky to the west, the sun slowly diving for the horizon and lighting gentle fires of purple and orange on its way down.
This is one of the many places on the island where time seems to stop, or at least slow down. These places—found at the ends of dirt roads, on the uneven cliffs of the Mohegan Bluffs, under the awning at the National Hotel—invite you to be totally present, or in my case allow the past and present to overlap.
All the previous summer evenings I’d spent on these lawn chairs on this very spot on this very island seemed to connect in that moment like puzzle pieces creating one picture telling many stories. All at once, I was a carefree kid running barefoot across the grass, a sullen teen drinking a flat soda and fidgeting in my chair, a (mostly) confident and comfortable adult, newly married and contemplating the passage of time between sips of pale pink wine.
After a few drinks, we ambled back down the hill into town for dinner at Eli’s, a cozy little six-table restaurant offering a short, seafood-centric menu tucked back against the bustle of town on Chapel Street. After dinner, we followed the sound of tuning electric guitars and booze-fueled laughter to Captain Nick’s, a charming, appropriately-grimy dive featuring live music most nights, especially on the weekends, and a pleasant mixture of island-goers.
It’s here where we ran into the girl with the septum ring who brought us our coffees at Persephone’s, and that wealthy, Wasp-y couple we chatted with during Cocktail Hour on the manicured lawn outside the Atlantic Inn. It’s here where all the disparate strands of type, experience, status and style that gravitate to the island seemed to converge at once to sip on overpriced Corona Lights and listen to a better-than-expected cover band cycle through songs by the Steve Miller Band and Sublime and the Talking Heads.
A few hours later, we stumbled (carefully) out of Nick’s and headed back to our hotel by way of the beach. The fog had crept back in under cover of darkness and I stared at the white lights of the cupola above the National Hotel burning mutedly in the distance.
We stood with our feet in the water and looked out at the dark ocean in front of us.
I took a moment to contemplate my luck, that three decades ago my grandparents had the good sense to say “yes” when some friends of theirs offered them two weeks in their new vacation house on this strange and sweet little island. That they loved it so much they decided to make it an annual trip, that my family fell equally in love with the place and carried the tradition forward after my grandparents got too old to keep it going themselves.
I thought about my family and about time, about the fact that erosion is steadily chipping away at the island, one grain of sand at a time. I thought about how one day—decades or centuries or hours from now—the waters surrounding Block Island will eventually swallow it whole, and it will be as if its beaches, its salt-weathered hotels, the sunken grave stones in the old cemetery, and every footstep buried in the sand had never even existed at all.
Emily’s hand slipping gently into mine woke me from my reverie. We pulled our feet out of the water and headed back toward our hotel and toward sleep.
Some people believe Block Island is one of the most haunted places in America. Many of those people happen to be tour guides for Block Island Ghost Tours, leading hour-long expeditions around Old Harbor’s most cursed locations three times a night.
The island was indeed a terror for ships throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and the waters around the island are littered with the bones of dozens of wrecks. One such wreck involved a ship called The Palatine, a British passenger vessel that got caught in a brutal winter storm just off the coast of the island in 1738.
There are several versions of the story, but the darkest one details how islanders lured the passengers ashore, murdered them, set fire to the ship and then set it adrift to sink into the frigid waters of the Atlantic. Locals still say that, on dark winter evenings, the ghost of the ship appears in the distance—a pale fire burning along the horizon known as “The Palatine Light.”
For me, the ghosts of Block Island are less spectral and more perceptual. Every corner of the place holds layers of memory, the whole island seemingly soaked in sun and sepia tones.
Before I even step off the ferry, I see my grandfather standing on the dock in his trademark yellow windbreaker and ancient bucket hat, cheerfully waving his grandchildren into the harbor with that familiar, toothy grin on his face.
Walking into Star Department Store, I see a younger version of myself—sunburnt and hormonal—trying on every hat in the place, searching for the exact right one.
Every shop, beach and pebbled road on the island holds some remembrance for me, making it hard—if not impossible—to be objective about the place. Is Block Island really as special as I believe it to be, or is it just so burdened by the weight of my own nostalgia that the sun can’t help but shine brighter, the food taste better and the breeze smell sweeter?
The answer is probably both, but I’d like to think that—whether it’s your first visit or your thirtieth—this island will charm the hell out of you if you let it. And if it doesn’t, then a version of this place exists somewhere for all of us, memory-laden and perfect.
Early on our last morning on the island—a gray and muted day—I rented a bike from Aldo’s in town and made my way up Corn Neck Road, the aptly-named, skinny stretch of road that connects the wide, southern half of the island with its diamond-shaped northern half.
I pedaled all the way to the very end of the road, where the chapped pavement becomes a thin curve of rocky beach. I walked along the sand, past the North Lighthouse to the very tip of the island, a knife’s edge of sand where the waters of the Block Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean converge, their waves pushing and shoving at each other like hungry giants.
Straight ahead, I saw the coast of Rhode island. Off to the west somewhere lay Long Island and the rest of the country. East was nothing but gray ocean and blue sky for miles and miles.
I kicked off my shoes and put my feet in the water, feeling the waves swallowing my ankles from both directions. I considered the island, the beaches and the shipwrecks, thought of the ghosts, the lobster rolls and the Statue of Rebecca standing serene on her altar on the edge of town.
Is this island haunted? Is it the greatest place in the world? If I want it to be, then it is.
Brittany Tadesse – Ghana’s Secret Garden
Through the unsuspecting fishing village of Dodowa, behind the dense African timber trees, and beneath Ghana’s blazing sun there is a shaded oasis blooming with life with water that flows from Heaven. I went through hell to reach it.
The summer had started as a dream that slowly unfolded into a nightmare. It started the fall before, when I had been contacted by an organization that wanted to move its headquarters from Thailand in Southeast Asia to Ghana, Africa. This was no small task. My first role was to locate a building within budget that had access to everything the organization needed. My second role was getting to know the culture of Ghana in order to lead the first outreach group that would be coming at the end of the summer. Traveling to help organizations like this had been a dream of mine since I was young, so I responded with the determination of a woman embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.
My sweet husband Gershom and I got married and three weeks later took off for Ghana. Our family and friends thought we were crazy, but cheered us on nonetheless. Looking back, I wonder if they always knew we were about to learn more about the world than we realized possible.
When we stepped off the plane, we immediately felt the sun of the African summer beating down and smelled the dust billowing up from the side streets, warning us that only those with grit can survive in the city of Accra. A representative with a kind smile and inviting eyes drove us along the winding, bumpy roads. As I peered out the window, I could see the scenery change with every curve of the street. I saw the shining, gleaming city of Accra with its malls, restaurants, and crowds quickly change into the winding outskirts of Konongo with its local fruit stands, elderly women cooking jollof rice in their doorways, and children running freely along the brush. As the moon crept across the skies we pulled into our new home- our first apartment together – in Kumasi.
The space was one room with beds as hard as a table and unreliable running water but it was on a hill, and when the windows were open in the afternoon the most peaceful wind would dance through the space, bringing a calm that only a summer breeze can bring. We made that place our first home, and I spent those early mornings walking to the fruit stand across the street to buy the best avocados from a sweet young mother named Martha.
In Kumasi, the people live outside the confines of time. They work hard throughout the day and evening, but they also spend countless hours just sitting outside their doorways with their families. If you take a drive through Kumasi, I guarantee you will see the women carrying babies on their backs, holding massive baskets of food and goods for sale on their heads. They run quickly along the cars, making sure of their steps. They wear their baskets like crowns upon their heads, keeping their posture upright and straight. Their eyes hold joy they have found in the midst of grueling hardship, their arms the softness of holding their young with the muscle of providing for a family. The people of Kumasi are beautiful people with a grit that comes with years of overcoming trials.
Gershom and I tried to replicate this work ethic in all that we did. We traveled for hours on the tro-tro (Ghana’s public transportation vehicles), packed into the musty vehicle like sardines, in order to meet with different representatives and office spaces. We learned to barter fairly in order to get groceries. We made food on our little hot pad. We showered using buckets when the water stopped working. We went for days without speaking with family and friends when the power went out. As we learned and grew, we developed an even greater respect for the Ghanaians, learning that living here meant working hard and staying positive during the longest days.
As our summer unfolded, my dream was shattered. The organization that had sent us went through a dramatic scandal. The founders were dishonest people who had been charged with embezzlement, leaving the organization at a startling halt. This meant that our mission had ended in the middle of our work. When I thought back to the dream I had and where it had landed me and my sweet husband, I was devastated. I spent the night lying awake, crying tears that I thought would never end.
As the sun peered through our open windows the next morning, I felt hopeless and queasy. Was this all for nothing? Did I come this far just to be sent home? Would Gershom lose respect for me and my dreams? He and I slowly walked down the dirt road as my questions swirled around my mind like crowded fish in a bowl.
It was then that we met Rastafar. Rastafar worked at the shop next door. His dreads were thick and long, and his beanie screamed Bob Marley. He saw our forlorn faces and asked the simple question that everyone should be asked more often- “Want to go on an adventure?”
Moments later, we were on a tro-tro heading East into Dodowa. “Fishing town,” Rastafar explained but that had already been made evident by the smell of it. The town was much different from Kumasi. It was surrounded by trees that were a deep shade of green I’d only seen in pictures. When we got off the tro tro, Rastafar bought some pineapple slices from the first fruit stand he saw and handed them to us with a wink. We followed him toward signs leading to the Dodowa Forest. We made a sharp left into the thick trees. Rastafar looked back at us, smiled, and pushed back the leaves to reveal the most breathtaking sight I have ever seen.
In front of us were the most dazzling rainforest colors. Greens and reds and oranges as vibrant as the sunset. The sun peeked through the canopy and painted specks of light along the tropical leaves. We could see mangos in the trees and hear flowing water in the distance. In the middle of it all was a man that looked shockingly like Rastafar sitting in a stick hut slicing little tomatoes.
“My brother!” He shouted warmly. He reached toward Rastafar and the two hugged, smiling. They beckoned us in and pulled up wooden benches for us to sit. I watched as the two of them talked in Twi and chopped up peppers. In the distance, I could see mangoes falling to the ground as another brother shook them from the tops of the trees. How he made it to the top I will never understand.
The brothers passed around the bowl of sauce called shito (I promise it is better than it sounds!) and laughed at our reaction to the alarmingly spicy sauce. Then they lead us to the source of the flowing water sound. We climbed over logs and branches until we saw it- Chenku falls. The waterfall poured down from the rocks into a glassy clear pool below.
Rastafar pulled off his Jamaican shirt and jumped into the pool. “Water from heaven,” Rastafar said. Gershom and I jumped in after him. The water was smooth and clean. I stepped under the waterfall and drank the water in. It washed over me, cleaning away the tears from the night before. Gershom took my hand and smiled at me as I breathed in the fresh air of the Dodowa forest.
It was then that I realized that we are not put into the box of one dream. Sometimes, what we thought was our end-goal was really just a stepping stone in the right direction. A failed attempt is not the end- it is a lesson we take with us into the next step. Although our summer in Ghana looked much different than I had expected, I know that it was exactly where I needed to be. So the next time I have the opportunity to fly to Accra, take a tro-tro to Dodowa, and walk to the Chenku falls- I will respond with the determination of a woman embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.
Joanna Griffin – A Deep Freeze in the Carpathians
No. It couldn’t be him.
I looked through the window at the hunched, shifty-looking character in jeans and a tatty black jacket, his greasy hair slicked back and a cap tilted over his eyes. He was chain-smoking next to a battered blue Citroen which had seen better days— around thirty years ago in my estimation. Its paint was flaking, a deep rusting gash ran along its side, and its fractured wing mirror was held together by tape and some nasty-looking foam that had hardened in the cracks. As nine o’clock came and went, I became uneasy about the beat-up car and its driver whose eye I now seemed to be catching as I waited for ours to arrive.
We were leaving Braşov for the baroque elegance of Sibiu, 60 kilometres to the west, following the line of the Făgăraş Mountains, the highest of the Southern Carpathian range. We’d planned the trip before experiencing Romanian driving, and the texting, speeding and overtaking on blind bends that represented a national disregard for road safety. In our naivety, we’d arranged a detour along the Transfăgărăşan Highway, Ceauşescu’s spectacular Carpathian crossing, built in the 1970s. We were bound for its highest point, the glacial Lake Bâlea, 2000m up, and I’d spent the past two nights sleepless at the thought of the jagged, cliff-hugging bends.
The man took a final drag on his cigarette, ground the butt with his foot, and entered the lobby. It dawned on me that he was in fact our driver, and this was the vehicle in which we would be tackling one of the world’s most thrilling yet treacherous roads.
‘I’m Ovid’, he introduced himself. ‘We’re going to have a great day together’. I had my doubts. As we settled into the grubby seats he turned to find me struggling to locate the seatbelt.
‘It’s OK, you’re in the back, it’s not necessary’.
In my desire to see the day out I insisted, and he proceeded to dismantle the back seats, muttering that they were in there somewhere.
‘Ah-ha.’ He was triumphant, finally locating the fasteners amongst the dust and general gunge. ‘Look how stuck down they are’. He laughed heartily. I tried to smile to show what a good sport I was, but he didn’t look terribly convinced.
Still, he was a cheerful chap, we were finally on our way, and the day was bright. Two days earlier, a brief storm had blown through, taking with it the Transylvanian summer and leaving behind a deep golden chill. Almost overnight the trees had turned to amber, and as we wound out of Braşov, their leaves spiralled and danced in the wind. My spirits lifted a little.
The Făgăraş Mountains loomed to our left but soon after we turned to begin our ascent, something splattered on the windscreen. Out of absolutely nowhere it had started to snow; sleet at first then fat, heavy flakes which dusted the pines and clung to the road. By the time we reached the waterfalls, halfway up, we were in the midst of a blizzard. Ovid had taken to describing the landscape in lieu of the real experience and I clung to the filthy seat as I listened to enthusiastic descriptions of ravines, gullies, and steep drops.
‘It’s a good job you can’t see anything really’, he chuckled.
As we climbed, Ovid fell unusually quiet and I suspected that he was no longer finding it very amusing either. We slithered the rest of the way to the top in silence and parked up. It was a complete white-out, and impossible to see further than a metre or two. The wooden cabins— the sort we’d seen selling Dracula keyrings and Vlad-the-Impaler paperweights—were bolted shut except for one, its light beaming through the blizzard and its rafters strung elaborately, and somewhat optimistically, with Romanian sausage and cheese.
‘The lake is over there somewhere’. Ovid gestured vaguely with his hand before lighting a cigarette and shambling off, but we only lasted moments in the freezing air before trudging back to the car. I was relieved to begin our descent. All of a sudden on the way back down, a crack of blue split the sky and the sun shafted through; only for a moment but long enough to glimpse the road snaking through the mountains, threading its way through the sweep of pines to the glow of autumn deep below. The sky closed in again and we continued on our way.
‘What an adventure. Wait until I tell my wife.’ Ovid pulled out his phone.
‘It’s a shame you missed the views’, he bellowed as he picked up speed and the car began to slide. ‘You’ll just have to come back’.
Tempting……. but I’d probably give it a miss.
Vanessa Couchman – Like Nothing I had Ever Heard Before
We shuffled along the unforgiving wood of the flat pew at the back of the church as more people arrived. And still they came. My arms were pinned firmly to my sides. I couldn’t move, even if I had wanted to. The scent of incense still floated around from the evening service, mingled with that musty smell that is unique to old churches. People talked in hushed, reverent tones, quite unlike the usual Corsican hubbub during their evening passeggiata. Even so, the sense of anticipation was intense and infectious.
“What typically Corsican entertainment can you suggest?” I had asked the manager of our Corte hotel earlier.
He regarded me for a moment, stroking his chin. “Well, there is a concert of traditional Corsican singing by a group called Meridianu. It’s in the church at nine o’clock.” He paused. “But it’s an acquired taste for foreigners. Perhaps you’d prefer something lighter?”
I shook my head. “That sounds perfect. Do you have to book?”
“No, just turn up. But make sure you get there early. It’s bound to be packed.”
Packed was an understatement.
From our table on the balcony of U Museu, my husband and I saw knots of people already making for the church across the Place Gaffori. We wolfed down our cheese pasties and wild boar stew with myrtle berries. No time for dessert or coffee.
We got there twenty minutes before the advertised time. Even so, we were relegated to the back.
The appointed hour arrived. Then five minutes past. At ten past, six men appeared before the ornate altar and stood in a tight circle. With their beards and deep-tanned faces, they looked as if they had just stepped off the mountainside after tending the sheep.
The hush was now complete.
Each man cupped a hand over one ear. They all closed their eyes. Concentrated. Focused. One man, a segonda, began to sing, a plaintive minor key melody that grew in intensity and volume. One by one, the others joined in. The grave, resonant voice of u bassu, the base, reached up into the echoing vault of the nave, while the lighter tenor voice of a terza elaborated on the melody.
Their swirling and sometimes dissonant song condensed the essence of Corsica. They sang with a passion rooted in the Corsican soil deep beneath our feet. I didn’t follow the Corsican lyrics (the songs were also in Sardinian, Greek and Latin). I didn’t need to. The depth of feeling that poured from the melodies transcended the words.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I’d had the same reaction earlier that week when I looked into the stern, granite faces of prehistoric megaliths at Filitosa. I felt a connection across the millennia with the unknown sculptors of those standing stones. The same elemental energy charged the music.
I learned afterwards that male-voice groups originated as lay brotherhoods, which sang at religious festivals and on saints’ days. The music was mostly sacred, like plainsong, but its distinctive quality surely reaches back to influences well before Christianity.
However, the songs Meridianu performed weren’t exclusively religious. They included paghjella, laments about love, loss and death, subjects close to Corsicans’ hearts.
The concert ended with a stirring performance of the Corsican “national anthem”, ‘Dio vi Salvi Regina’.
Someone called out, “Tous, debout!” (“Stand up, everyone!”), and the audience stood in reverential silence to hear the spiralling, soaring melody. A few joined in the chorus in muted tones. Corte has always been the heartland of Corsican independence. Few today would fight for liberation from France, but Corsicans are deeply attached to their island’s traditions and culture.
The audience started to applaud before the song had even finished. Forgotten was the silence that had greeted the singers’ arrival. Now, people clapped, whistled and stamped their feet in noisy appreciation, jostling us unintentionally in their enthusiasm.
We spilled out into the Place Gaffori, where evening diners still sat at café tables. The stone reflected the warmth of the late summer sun. The aromatic scent of rosemary, thyme and myrtle wafted from the hillsides.
The sound of the music continued to ring in my ears as if it had set off some kind of chain reaction in my brain. For a short time, we had experienced part of the culture that sets Corsica totally apart from the rest of France and stretches back over thousands of years.
The next morning, an anxious look on his face, the hotel manager said, “Well, did you go? What did you think?”
“It was like nothing I’ve ever heard before.”
Julie Heath – Full Bore with a Chance of Arrival
Every fibre of my being implored me to not look. And although I knew beyond doubt, that looking was a terrible idea, I did it anyway. The essence of that sentence sums up the narrative of my life. My children will probably have it carved on my head stone in large gothic letters ‘SHE KNEW SHE SHOULDN’T BUT SHE DID’. I had hoped that it wouldn’t be quite so soon though.
Looking over my right shoulder I watched in horror, as the inch or so of grass that separated us from an almost sheer drop, sped past. Like a rabbit in the headlights it was difficult to tear my eyes away, but finally, I forced my face forward and tried to relax. The vintage Lambretta beneath me, and Nick, the rider with my fate in his hands, would surely get us out of trouble.
Over the past two years, I had been gradually introduced to the marvellous mayhem of scooter rallies at many British seaside towns. Thousands of devotees ride their beloved vintage scooters to weekend rallies all over the UK. The weekend events tend to follow a similar script: meet up with friends, admire each other’s scooters, buy spare parts, and watch some fantastic bands. Ska, Northern Soul and Brit Pop are the tunes of choice, and dancing into the early hours is the norm. It is great fun, and I love it!
Now though, I was riding pillion in a group of 21 scooters to the 16th European Lambretta Jamboree, to be held this year in Leutasch Austria. We had docked at Zeebrugge three days ago and had left Saarbrucken this morning, making our way through the Black Forrest towards Villingen. For me, the trip was a revelation. The scooter suited my pace for travel and sense of adventure. I could feel the nooks and crannies of the towns and villages we travelled through. The experience of being off the tourist maps, of not knowing where we would end up each night, would fill the hearts of some of my friends with terror, but this uncertainty was perversely thrilling for me. The sense of achievement when we arrived was my reward. This was my first such trip, and it certainly wouldn’t be my last – if we could just get back on the road before the rough track slid down the mountain taking us with it.
Looking down to the left I could see that our way back to the tarmac, only inches away, was blocked by a kerb snaking its way along the side of the road. Seemingly, put there to avert vehicles from going over the precipice, it now prevented us from getting back to safety. The ground beneath us was diminishing rapidly and we were running out of options. This is it, I thought, this is how I die. After all the madness my life has attracted (not always my fault but shit happens), I’m going to end up as a collection of body parts, scattered across a beautiful patch of wooded mountain in Germany. What a stupid way to die. The wheels started to wobble which made the scooter jiggle and my teeth hurt, as Nick tried to keep us as close to the road as possible. A glance down to the right, confirmed my worst fear. The ground had disappeared. Any second now, we would be sliding and bouncing down to annihilation. There were many tall trees embedded defiantly in the mountainside and my only hope rested on catching one on the way down to interrupt my fall. Closing my eyes, I struggled to force my mind to its happy place, away from the incomprehensible truth.
I felt a bump and, thinking I’d have slightly more chance of survival if I didn’t get dragged along by the Lambretta, I released my grip on the back rest. Ready to jump I opened my eyes and was astonished to find we were back on the tarmac. The wheels had stopped wobbling and were now gaily spinning round, gripping the road with confident vigour, as though the last few moments (felt like hours) were already a remote memory.
I dragged my thoughts back from the brink of oblivion. The joy and relief threatened to overwhelm me, and I had to fight just to breath. Suddenly I was unequivocally grateful for everything in life. As well as the big important family/nature things, I was grateful for the stiffness in my knees after being sat on the scooter for hours, for the nosey neighbour who always popped round when I had visitors. I was even grateful to the person who had reversed into my car in the supermarket car park and sped off before I could hold him to account. Life was joyous. Every scrap of it. Eagerly, I looked at some of the other riders, trying to share my joy through eye contact with fellow compatriots. I had expected to see a reflection of the relief that I felt, something at least to hint at the drama we had just lived through but there was nothing. Settling back into my seat, a thought struck me. Had I overdramatised the situation? Were we never actually in danger at all? Perhaps we weren’t as close to the edge as I had perceived. Being the only female in the group, I certainly didn’t want to be the one pushing the panic button. I resolved not to mention it. A nonchalant and casual manner was called for.
We swung into a car park in the shelter of the mountain and came to a halt. Nick put his feet on the ground and pressed forward to give me space to get off, then he pulled the scooter backwards onto the stand as I began taking off my helmet and gloves. It was then that I saw, as Nick lifted his helmet, the fear in his eyes.
“Are you OK?” he took my hand as the rest of our group pulled up and were gathering beside us.
“I’m fine,” I said, attempting a detached shrug “it was a little tense but ….”
“I’m so sorry,” Nick cut in “I couldn’t get back onto the road because of the kerb. I’d swung in too close to the edge just before the kerb began and then we were trapped.” He was babbling, and a small rivulet of sweat was wending its way from his temple, down into the neck of his jacket. The rest of the group now joined in the commentary. I heard snippets of accounts: “thought you were toast”, “don’t know how you managed to keep her steady”; “was sure you were over the edge”, as I wandered towards a patch of grass and sat down with my thoughts. We had at least 3 days of riding before we would reach our destination. I wasn’t sure that I could carry off a nonchalant casual manner in the face of any more jeopardy.
Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for this type of impatient, unpredictable, and hazardous travel. I had just begun to mull over the feasibility of using a train for the rest of the trip when I looked up to see helmets and gloves being pulled back on, over damp hair and sweaty hands – the short de-brief was over. Re-joining the group, I swung my leg over the seat of Nicks GP200 and adjusted my seat pad (actually it was my granddaughters ‘bubble bum’ which I’d whipped out of the car before we left home). We pulled out of the car park and continued along the forest road, each rider instinctively checking the one behind. As the fresh breeze flicked my cheeks, and the buzz of 21 scooters bounced through the mountain air, a frisson of excitement tickled my bones and, in the words of Winnie the Pooh when he first met Piglet, I knew an adventure was going to happen. I decided to give the Lambretta another chance. After all, even when I knew I shouldn’t, I tended to do it anyway
Richard Conway – A well-earned cup tea
Rest. What is it really? The fabulous book ‘The Art of Rest’ by Claudia Hammond starts by suggesting that lying in a hammock swaying gently in the tropical breeze is a vision a lot of people have of what rest looks like but actually questions whether that truly is restful when you factor in things like the getting in and out of the hammock, plus the sustained effort of staying in it and not spinning around and being thrown to the floor like something from a Tom & Jerry cartoon.
Is that rest? It’s better than working, but possibly isn’t entirely restful and this conflict between what sounds, in theory, like one thing but in reality is the opposite, is something I consider when thinking about what constitutes a breathtaking travel moment. It need not always be swimming with dolphins or catching the perfect wave, both of which require patience and no small amount of good luck. Sometimes the breathtaking moments aren’t those that occur when your expectations are primed to the point where they could only be disappointed or, at best, met but they are the ones that sneak up on you. The moments where we haven’t followed the guidebook’s rehearsed itinerary and found the best case scenario view or experience, but stumbled on it ourselves. The moment where contentment floods through your body relaxing you and making you suddenly at peace with everything. These moments are capable of drawing you outside that world of bills, and to-dos, and responsibilities, and just for a few moments nothing else matters.
The last 18 months have been difficult for everyone. Cooped up in our own four walls working, or straining under the pressure to use the time to learn a new language or cook the perfect banana bread we have all missed the ability to travel. For my wife & I to get to Scotland for a break was wonderful and it was whilst in this rugged, yet welcoming country that I experienced a feeling of peace in the most unlikely place.
Everyone knows that Scotland is a spectacular place with vistas dominating a landscape made up of hills, burns and glens of all sizes which are themselves broken up by varying degrees of lake or river. Taking advantage of the unseasonably good weather we grabbed our walking boots and headed for a walk in Newport-on-Tay. Our guidebook of choice had parked us in Bay road in Wormit, right next to the River Tay with its views across the glistening water towards Dundee and beyond. There was no time for stopping though as the book swiftly dispatched us onto the coastal path towards Balmerino and first up was a small, dense woodland where the thick wild ivy bushes full of bees draining the flowers of their last dregs of pollen before last orders are called.
Having left the cover of the trees we found time to appreciate the pocket of sun-filled blue sky before it was replaced again with the canopy of more old trees just starting to lose their Summer foliage. Moving on we skirted the edge of farmer’s fields seemingly left fallow of crop or animals but taken over by thick swathes of wild flowers all reaching for the skies. Red poppies and blue cornflowers were interspersed with yellow flowers of varying sorts, and together they all swayed in the gentle breeze; just waiting for the bees when they are finished with the ivy.
Balmarino is a place that sounds like a Costa del Sol resort English retirees go to for sun and fry ups in the Spanish sun but the reality is a long way from that. The coastal path spits us out of woodland and down onto the shores of the river where the the path into Balmerino passes between white-washed cottages and the water’s edge. As we did the water was just a few feet to our right, but the same distance to our left was a cottage that we surmised only a painter of those beautiful landscapes one sees in local gift shops can live.
Getting our breath back we stood on the shore for a moment – in silence – just looking out across the river and beyond. Birds dipped and bobbed on the surface looking far too small to be on such a wide expanse, like the single bee in the huge flower meadows we had already passed. They dipped under the surface in search of fish before re-appearing with a splash that made us both draw breath in hope it was one of the seals we were promised in our guidebook. It never was.
A search of the village took us to a ruined abbey. Dating back well over 600 years the large grey stones remain as a permanent tribute to the building skills of the monks and a reminder of the asset stripping skills of Henry VIII.
Nobody likes too prescriptive a guidebook and it always feels more relaxed to have the licence to do as you wish but as we started our return journey through more woodland we found the instruction of ‘keep walking and you will find it’ a little too laissez-faire. Before long we were navigating the inside edge of a farmer’s field that we probably weren’t supposed to be in. Actually, it was whilst trying to work out later where we actually did go wrong (including recalling the hoot of the owl we heard near the farm) that the breathtaking moment hit me. The moment of pure pleasure.
Having made it back to our car we were sat on the shore wall; our tingling, de-booted feet dangling over the wall with the shale a few feet below and everything seeming so peaceful. To the casual observer (i.e. the man who was walking past bemoaning the fact that the birds out on the river should actually be far out to sea by now), we probably looked fairly innocuous with our metallic mug of tea and homemade cheese and ham roll. I was entirely lost in thought as to how these things taste so much better when you’ve earned them but then I looked up and properly took in my surroundings again. The lapping water sprawled out in front of me with Dundee airport 2.75 miles across the other side. Close enough to make out the small airplanes landing at the airport but not close enough for the engine noise to overpower the sound of the birds chattering on the water.
The water lapped onto the stones beneath me with a gentle rushing sound that some people sat on the tube in London will be trying to visualise through a mindfulness app on their phone; I was experiencing it for real and as the water come in and out I found my breathing politely mirrored its rhythm.
Taking in the landscape it looked like the sort of scene that would be the first task on programme 1 of a TV series, the Great British Paint Off. Each contestant each being given the vista and told they have only grey and white paint to use; the clouds, water, shore and sky all being varying shades of those two colours and yet still retaining a beauty and peace that stops you dead in that moment.
Overall, there was just a serene stillness to the whole scene where everything seemed to be in slow motion and from the train on the Tay bridge, to the birds on the water it all contributed to the sedate nature of the moment in that little bit of that beautiful country. Despite the birds and the paddle boarder (who claimed he had seen a seal on his travels) the peace remained. Even in the knowledge that nature is having to adapt to the changing planet around it we relished the fact that just for a moment we didn’t. No social media. No emails. No virtual demands at all. Not even a photo. Just a chance to stop and live that moment through our eyes and not a lens. To stop and reflect and rest. And no..being in a hammock would not have made it any more relaxing.