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Travel Notes

  • Merlin's magic phone

    By the sea below Tintagel Castle in Cornwall is a great tunnel of a dark cave, known locally as Merlin's Cave.

    Visiting earlier this year I decided to clamber rocks to reach the opposite mouth of the cave where it gives out on the open sea. I got to a rock pool and reckoned I should be able to jump across it. As I leapt across, my mobile phone decided to make its transit by a different route, shooting out of my pocket and landing not on the other side but beneath the surface of the water. I fished it out and washed it through with mineral water. After 24 hours on a hot radiator the phone worked as well as it ever had.

    Some six months something strange began to happen. During calls, made at home, several friends asked where I was. From the sound of the call, all of them thought I was by the sea, or at the very least by running water. Perish the thought that the sound of Merlin's Cave had somehow entered the phone, and was calling it back to Cornwall...

  • Ibiza June 2000

    [archive post]

    It began with an apology. I was off to the island of Ibiza “but not the usual Ibiza” – just in case the check-in man confused me with the ‘Ibiza Uncovered’ crowd (as if I ever would). He mimed just the right amount of polite interest, my sky blue yoga mat and rucksack disappeared down the conveyor and two flights and five hours later I was in Dalt Vila – ancient fortified Ibiza town.

    The Phoenicians apparently thought the island had the power to heal; much good it did them when they chose to be buried here in a necropolis facing seawards just beyond the limestone walls of the citadel. The Moors took the Island, then Phillip fortified it and tried to make it part of Spain. The islanders are fiercely independent – even from Formentera nearby, and their own language lingers. The hippies came in the sixties, the tourists in the seventies, and ‘club culture’ arrived in the nineties.

    The island is dust dry today. The last streams dried up years ago and water has to be brought from the mainland and stored in huge concrete cisterns. Giant prickly pears, aloes and other succulents proliferate in the powdery red soil, basking in strong sun that rarely gives way to rain. The crops are olives, almonds, wine and tourists, with fishing continuing mainly as a hobby.

    Dripping I lugged my heavy rucksack up hundreds of steps to get a view of the sea from the fortress walls. Brilliant turquoise water against stark blue sky, rocks shimmering in the heat. Huge cargo ships on the horizon seemed to drift listlessly. An English family were agape at my seeming fitness. They plainly hadn’t encountered the yoga apprentices at Can Am des Puig where I spent the next week.

    The taxi driver was unsure where he was taking me. Right at Sant Mateu pueblo, then left by the blue stones after the vineyard. The directions didn’t mention a half mile climb up a network of precipitous tracks before I got my first sight of the house in a wood of scrubby swaying pines. Godfrey Devereux (or Sri Godfreyi as he was unbelievably described on one hand-out) set up the yoga centre three years ago, in a house built of great lumps of stone with three dry terraces stretching out in the wooded garden beyond it. On the terraces he put up US army bell tents and white teepees and in the furthest corner a large white geodesic dome for yoga practice with a clear wall facing out down the hills to the sea.

    Into the shaded kitchen, stone floor, terracotta walls, introductions and a cup of twig tea, made of some caffeine-free part of the bush and my first encounter with the macrobiotic diet. Imagine: no tea, coffee, booze, chocolate, meat, potatoes, flour, dairy foods, tomatoes, fish or eggs! You might think there wasn’t a lot left fit to eat, but I didn’t miss them (really), eating lots of fruit and vegetables, grains and pulses from large decorated terracotta bowls, chewing carefully as instructed. We ate mostly in the garden, looking out over the countryside to the coast below, sometimes talking hardly at all. The sounds were from the countryside: cockerels, distant barking and the harsh sound of a peacock in Sant Mateu below us.

    I confess to escaping for cool ‘Damm’ beer one night and to eating (without the slightest guilt and with huge enjoyment) several ice-creams and even the occasional tea on afternoon swimming trips. Godfrey’s German wife Anita is easily the most irrepressible person I’ve met. A big voice and a huge laugh that could be heard all over Can Am. They have a wide-eyed daughter with a great mop of bleached blonde hair and a fierce energy that copes easily with the weekly influx of visitors.

    I slept in a green tent cut with slits that made the early morning light shine like stars when a drum sounded the call to 8am practice.

    Improbably enough Buster the Swedish dancer effortlessly twisted himself into the yoga poses. Standing with a leg pulled from one toe out and up to his chest, then his head on the floor looking backwards between his legs. Legs spread, deep bends on one knee with his hands together in a gesture of prayer. Tanned in a tight slip, all lean sinew, his skill was matched by Dylan, a Harvard graduate, his girlfriend Hummaya (after a goddess), Sarah and the other apprentices. All glowed health, clear eyed with an easy energy. I was probably the least experienced among the new arrivals. They included an Akido teacher, a personal fitness trainer, a grad student/masseuse and a teacher of the Alexander Technique. Anglo-Indian Barry had practised for 25 years and had never encountered teaching so precise and effective.

    Godfrey’s instruction ranged from the sensations to be found in one finger to the spiritual aims of yoga (which means unity, oneness). Freedom from desire, from the encumbrances of the past, from inconsequential thoughts and from interpretations projected on to others made a kind of blissful contentment possible. In meditation after the three hour sessions people burst into tears: great racking sobs as something he’d said particularly touched them. The concentration was intense and as the sun grew stronger the air was steamy.

    On all but two nights when there was torrential rain I drifted into sleep easily, lulled by wind in the pines, needles dropping gently on to the canvas.

    Three of us hired a car and made afternoon trips to beaches and villages around the island. Irridescently orange and large transparent jellyfish made swimming difficult at several beaches, and we went several times to naturist Agua Blanca where great rollers crashed on to a white shore with cliffs behind.

    One afternoon I sat and read Harry Potter in the shade of a fisherman’s boat shelter. A frenchwoman who said she was “waiting for Buddha-hood” lent me her goggles - in the meanwhile - and I drifted in rocky pools gazing down at brightly coloured fish in the brilliantly clear water.

    Another day I walked for an hour down the hill from Can Am, following a zig-zagging path through woods and fields, past the view I’d put on the centre’s brochure cover (since I swapped design work for the trip) and finally down a sandy boulder strewn cliff path to a perfect rocky bay. I paddled lazily around some rocks at such ease in the warm-cool water. Just half an hour later I climbed back up to Can Am for a (punctual!) evening practice.

    Swathes of the Ibizan coastline has been spoilt by 70s hotel blocks – great tiered slabs of concrete slapped against the hillsides. In one town we saw the ‘hippy market’. It’s now an official tourist attraction with its own T-shirts and hundreds of stalls selling everything batiked, folksy and brightly coloured. I bought a Kashmiri silver bracelet of the kind I’d meant to find in India as a reminder of my trip there.

    On Ibiza a few of the Englishman abroad lived up to their reputation for beery swagger, beetroot colour and loudness, but most of the visitors were relaxed families, from all around Europe. We made one trip to Ibiza town at night, re-tracing my steps the first hot afternoon. Subtle lighting showed our way up the rampart steps and from a look-out we could hear the bats’ calls as they circled above us. Gay men seemed to be everywhere in the town that night: in the Calle des Virgens, where the bars are concentrated, cruising in the shadows at the foot of the city walls, and relaxing in the Plaza da Villa inside the walls. Barry and Mandy said they saw Peter Stringfellow decorated with an appropriately juvenile bimbette in the café A la Olivia: but that was the closest I got to the Ibiza club scene.

    I left on Saturday with a mixture of relief and a kind of anxious sadness. Sad to leave people I’d got to know and anxious that if I were to take away anything lasting from the trip it would need dedication and discipline I’m not sure I possess. I’ll keep in touch with several of them, I’m sure, and some are already making plans for further visits this autumn.

    On the plane I got chatting to (or was chatted to, for once) a young Spaniard from Barcelona who was part of a performance group that had just given a show in Ibiza. He asked me to read him Baudelaire (in French) and said I should re-arrange my onward flight to stay with him in his flat in the city with 3m high ceilings and a trapeze. A futurist arts festival opens there and his show (about fashion and morality) was to be repeated. Maybe I was insufficiently freed from my desires and projections, perhaps I was just keen to be back, but I thanked him and said I had to travel home…