It is the last day of February. A day of thick snow. And sun.
It has been the sunniest February of my life.
And the harshest winter of my life. Perhaps every winter is.
This year, I spent a good third of my February in Portugal.
This means that now I can definitely say that you should walk to the ocean when in Porto and visit the Convento dos Capuchos when in or near Lisbon. This convent of the austere medieval brotherhood makes all that Scandi minimalism look like the lush landscape of a lucid dreamer.
But from the convent, you can walk through the forest of the Sintra-Cascais natural park. There is a man there, driving a small blue car, giving out homemade IPAs to travelers. The water comes from the local spring. The beer comes for free.
And after your walk you will reach a village. A village that is perhaps a 10-minute drive from the most westernmost point in the mainland Europe. But you don’t turn south but head north instead. Because there is a signpost to Praia da Ursa.
And to Praia da Ursa you should go. Not only to feel like a model in a Caspar David Friedrich painting and not only to witness a gang greedy seagulls keeping vigil over an odd dead fish on the sands. But to see weather beaten ladders attached to massive cliffs, to run from the ocean foam that asks you to dance whether you like it or not, or to just have a proper look at the wilderness next to which we are living.
To Praia da Ursa you should go. Everything else is optional.
The last weekend of August was one of those super warm ones. Hottest in a decade or in a hundred years or since the temperature recordings began in the UK. And that’s when I spent my 3 days in Cornwall.
It was a strange weekend. The land itself was ripped out of time and space. The rocky ground was very different from the luscious Newquay region I had visitied some years ago. The turquise of the ocean was a surprise to me once again. The vertigo-inducing holes in the coastal cliffs were magnificent and scary. Here was summer that lasted when the rest of the world was going to hell.
There was a Guinness World Records book attempt for most pirates in one area. There was a white caravan from the 1970s where the bed was surprsingly soft. There were cows on the hills, and cows standing against the flaming evening horizon, their black silhouettes giving them the feel of artistic cardboard cut-outs.
I saw a friend whom I had not seen in two years. The cancer she has is so rare that nothing can be done to hinder its growth. But there are some things that matter. The conversations, the I-can-still-hide-the-pain-almost smiles, and the sweet dreams for next visits. Actually, it is the taking each day as it comes approach that seems to work best. Even if you have to rip those days out of their surroundings, to make them less horrible.
The next day I walked on the South West Coast Path. The National Coastwatch’s “Eyes along the coast” magazine reported a local incident. They had copied the article to the wall of their bunker on the cliffs:
“A passer-by reported to our watchkeeper that a couple were having a very serious domestic close by, near the cliff edge. Naturally, the edge of any cliff is not the place to have animated discussions since heat-of-the-moment actions can have much more serious consequences than if they occur – for example – in your local High Street! Our watchkeeper kept a close eye on the situation in case help needed to be summoned but, thankfully […], after 20 minutes or so, it degenerated into a “Your Dinner is in the Cat”-type scenario, with one party storming off to the car park, followed, after a few minutes, by their partner.”
I have considered my heart to be the copy of the world. Yes, I’m a romantic, and yes, I also actually hear how that sounds. Still. This means that every new place I visit carves its shape onto it.
Fine, my soul and mind are probably sold to the mountains, but my heart also rejoices in the sounds of the Gujarati streets, in the dust and colours of Marrakesh, or in trying to hold steady on a surfboard on the tiniest of ocean waves. I go for the scorching sun of the Delphi mountains and the alpine peaks of Madeira as much as I go for the winds of the Scottish Highlands. The damp streets of Venice in November make me want to get lost in them as much as the backstreets of Beyoğlu do in May.
All this means that nothing prepared me for Malta. I guess I did have expectations of sort. I came for the sun, to see layers of history (especially of the Arab and Spanish times), the streets with labyrinthine structures.
I was totally ready to embrace the exotic and the new. The everything.
There are two versions of Malta. Neither of them is more alternative than the other, neither of them more or less true, or more or less shaded by the wants of the imagination.
My Malta was a Necropolis. It was a place where everything worth seeing came from the past (either from decades or from millennia ago). It is grand to have a choice of UNESCO World Heritage Sites on such a small territory. It is eerie when there is nothing else.
My Malta was a Kingdom of Silence. It is an island without a seagull sound. And island without the murmur of people. Even when visiting the Citadel on the island of Gozo, some builders came up to us, apologising “We are going to make some sound now”. Not to mention that the old capital is actually called the Silent City. Funnily enough, the loudest sound we heard was just outside of Mdina. There was a dog howling in a way some ships howl when they have already been taken over by ghosts.
My Malta was Un-living. Everything in here was old, empty or a car repairs shop. It was a place where most little businesses were closed, with the exception of the little run-down lottery houses that were open on every street. These gave the place an air of blind hope and desperation.
The locals told us how the other locals are against change. How they love the baroque. The old. The bygone.
In here, one needs to take a bus (to leave the capital) to find a food shop, any food shop, that is open.
My Malta was a Caravan Chalet. Once, we passed a row of caravans huddled together under a long tin roof. We took this scene to be a retirement home for beach huts only used out of mercy for their bygone glory. However, browsing through AirBnB revealed that those huts are actually rented out to guests, still. In here, the past is alive by accident but does not always feel like a natural part of the present.
My Malta was a Slap in the Face. We ran between ferry terminals in heavy rain with me praying for my headache to cough up its final remnants. We were told that “For a woman, a stroke is a very embarrassing thing” without an addition “That was a horrible and a chauvinist thing to say”. We were played birthday music in a restaurant without having asked for it.
My Malta was an island of nothingness where my imagination stumbled into a crevasse without a rope.
My Malta was an island dotted with small green lizards and Barbary figs. In here, lemons and limes grow on trees, and when you rub them against your hand, they actually smell of what they are supposed to smell. (Citrus fruit on trees – every northerner’s Romantic Vision Number One!)
In Malta, there is a quiet quirkiness to everything. In buses, people lean against fire hydrants, making them activate a sudden stream of compressed nitrogen all across the bus. There are roosters having proper show-offs for the hens and rock formations shaped like turtles huddled hiding in the quiet Mediterranean spring.
In here, even if you can’t buy stamps with a card, strangers will use their cash to buy them for you. In Malta, if you squint your eyes just for a second, you can see scenes from Game of Thrones coming to life in front of your eyes. Sometimes, modern times and the bygone do touch hands. And even if you can’t swim yet, you can look through the water until your eyes meet the sea bed.
Life is silent in here. And no one longs for the additional layer of modernity.
So. I visited Norfolk for the first time this February. Norfolk has a skull-shaped coastline but I did not discover it all on my feet. We wandered around Hunstanton and the Holme Sande Dunes instead. And the biggest thing that happened to me in February is straightly related to that visit.
Holme Dunes National Nature Reserve, Norfolk.
When the tide is out in Norfolk.
Into the great beige open.
Namely, I came up with a new theory about human nature which answers the most spike-y and acute questions I’ve had about what makes us all so different. (Well, technically, what makes us all the same, but using different means to reach that sameness.)(Uhuh.)
Imagine you get an unplanned job project that suddenly leaves you with you a nice amount of extra money. What’s your first reaction?
I, being a slow thinker, spent the most of 2015 and 2016 pondering over the following question: is it possible that not all of us feel the same thing in that situation?
Hunstanton Cliffs. February 2017.
The same cliffs, indeed. February 2017.
The answer: it is not only possible, but it also is the actual case. The actual life. With a perfect shock I discovered that not everyone is thinking about new routes, roads, mountains and destinations all the time. And that explains it. The difference of us all.
Yes, I have a job that’s my love and my hobby, and which I would also do it for free (for any clients reading this, only kidding). Yes, I’m reaching an end of a long academic road this year which just might leave me with a PhD degree. And yes, there is life, and a house renovation that is nearing its finish this year as well. But surely, SURELY, all one really thinks about is what unknown roads there are, just hours from their doorstep?!
Towards Hunstanton Cliffs. Norfolk, England, February 2017.
Definitely quite bleak.
Did not get bleakless.
New theory for human nature
Based on long hours of interviewing my friends, and on accounts heard from others, I am now convinced that humans fall into two large (and obviously not always straightforward) categories:
– people who get properly grounded, energised and refocused by visiting places they know well or where they have been before (visiting the same fells feels like visiting an old friend, a friend once said);
– people who get their soul back and reach their metaphorical home by going to places that are completely new.
In Norfolk, you shall find fossils, they said.
How the theory really explains it all?
Here’s why and where it can be applied. It shreds light on:
why some people are not upset when an idea of a trip gets forgotten because no one really takes the lead in organising it;
why people have savings accounts that are actually savings accounts, and not cover-names for Travel Accounts;
why some people follow maps in new cities and others could not think of anything worse;
how certain work and living choices get made;
why it is not the most shared dream of all people throughout all times –> to sit around a map or a globe, dreaming of places you can’t yet pronounce;
why some of us have a need to return to certain places that give us back the sense of self (a ritual of sorts, technically);
why some people always choose the new dish from the menu or never cook the same dish twice, and why some do.
Entering the rounded rock area.
Hunstanton Cliffs and Rainer.
Icelandic moon landscape of Norfolk.
Looks like a troll cemetery.
A ritual for relocating the self
Usually, humans need rituals to create a new space either physically or mentally. This is why we choose the same roads to walk on when feeling on the edge, and why we re-read the same books or visit theat same holiday spot. This is partially why meditation works, and why regular workouts keep us sane (apart from the funky hormones, of course). It is curiosity that’s been given a form. But there’s another way to handle curiosity.
Gaining security and strength from the new
The other way is the following: you are one of those people who feel most secure and yourself-like in places where you have never been. This makes a rucksack full of sense. In a new place, your idea of the self has no familiar triggers to bring on the feel of a certain image, so you can feel borderless and – in the lack of a better description – the most authentic version of yourself.
You probably belong to this category, if:
you’re willing to sit on a bus for 7 hours just to see a new place for one evening;
you feel like sleeping in the palm of your favourite god when sleeping in a new place (a bunkbed, an airport, a hotel, someone’s sofa, etc.);
you prefer hiking new trails to returning to a set of sweetly favourite ones:
your mind rests like crazy when having boarded a local bus or a train in a country you have never been in;
the unfamiliar makes you love and respect life and strangers more;
an amount of fear in the day renders the peace of your evening more serene;
it’s bliss to sit on trains for 12 hours withour internet or books;
you need the knowledge that you’ll never run out of streets to walk on. You need it for your daily sanity;
horizonless cities make you feel home;
mountaineous terrains make you feel home (ok, now I’m just talking about me, but mountains are some of the last areas of true wilderness left);
not having your things around you makes you feel creative again.
It was June. I travelled to Madeira with KJ, another dramaturge from Estonia who has an eye and a tooth for faraway places.
I’ll be honest – I only spent a week in Madeira. I have not hiked all of her levada trails, climbed all of her highest peaks or swam in all of her waves. But I have done portions of all of that.
Madeira makes you feel welcome. The atmosphere in here is so relaxed that every thing that your brain decides to distinguish gets interpreted as a greeting just for you. Maybe it’s that cute mongrel that is wagging its tail? Or maybe it’s that passionfruit mousse that has your first and (secret) middle name whipped into its fluffiness?
So, what are the ways Madeira greets you with even when you just have a week to explore?
1.The lounging rooftop dogs.
You know how cats usually rule lots of Mediterranean (or generally warm) towns? And how they can be seen curled up in flower pots and sunbathing on window sills? Madeira has dogs sleeping on shed and house roofs with their snouts hanging over the edge in the warm wind.
2. Never-silent lizard steps.
There’s an endemic lizard species on Madeira that can be seen everywhere. No, really, everywhere! Which means that the bushes and shrubberies are never silent. Whether walking in the interior of the island or passing flower beds in town parks, the constant littil rustling never stops.
3. Peaceful-looking ocean waves that still throw you onto the smooth but painful rocks.
In here, is better to jump in from a deeper place than try to approach the ocean on foot as you’d do on the shores of the Baltic Sea, for example. (You can trust my words or trust my bruises.)
A positive side to this is the sound of the receding waves over large pebbles and rocks. They sound like a rave where DJs play sped-up ice cracking recordings.
4. Blossoms. Everywhere.
Everything that can blossom, blossoms. The nickname ‘The Island of Eternal Spring’ really holds true. And if you haven’t breathed in the white Angel’s trumpets’ blossoms yet, you’re lacking a drug-like experience which will change your life forever. (Only a slight exaggeration.)
One man’s front yard really can be the other man’s botanical garden.
5. The demon ducks (?).
I mean, there are birds in the wide levadas that reach the ocean in different towns across the island that sound like demonic dog toys.
You can’t see the birds for the lush vegetation, but the sounds bear a resemblance to the common duck. Just be warned.
6. The post-rain eucalypt trees.
Yes, they smell nothing like pines. And they also look slightly magical. And being amongst those trees does feel like your lungs are getting clinically cleansed by a forest dentist.
7. Scarecrows of all sorts.
You will see the human lookalikes and the classic tin can men, but you’ll aslo see figures designed out of wood blocks shaped like bones. (Check point 5 again?)
8. Views from higher than cloud nine.
The highest part of the island lies away from its shores. For a superb view of mountain tops covered in clouds, head to Achada fo Teixeira in Santana. Only this is enough to give your horizons a stretch, but from here you can go for a pleasant hike to the top of Madeira’s highest peak, Pico Ruivo (1862 m). (It’s the descent at the other end of the trail that takes a bit more time.)
9. The rise of the vertical forest.
They say that Estonia is 50% covered in forest. The percentage must reach 85% in Madeira. (Actually, 85% of the island is a national park.) The shape of the landscape (let’s just say it: the mountains!) also offers you either Alpine or near-Hawaiian views. Many mountains in one, as they say.
10. Dolphins, dolphins, dolphins!
It will not be a beer commercial or an overpaid nature cruise. You just take literally any of the boat trips from Funchal’s harbour area and spend the next hours floating away on the Atlantic ocean, jump in if you want to, and of course, – seeing those littil friends come and accompany your boat for awhile. The spotted kind followed us, but there are others. (Ok, I’ve never seen dolphins in an ocean before, I’m still so so happy about this!)
11. Eye-catching sculptural works.
You know how in Europe you often come across the following sculptures: men on horses, a couple with one of the people lying in the other’s arms, little children wrestling fish and/or peeing, or men wearing funny hats while looking serious?
Not in Maderia. Here you see (a lot!) larger-than-life-size cogs and conveyor belt pieces, angels with fallen heads stranded in mid-air between apartment blocks or 2D farmers hugging 2D cows.
A very welcome addition to the first list, as I see it.
12. The Airport.
If you’re afraid of flying (I used to be), don’t look it up. Even if you already know that it has a motorway and a little boat harbour under its runway and that the latter * used * to be the shortest in Europe, just don’t look it up.
However, if you do like side-wind landings, this is your party time. (Only if you land on a blustery day, of course.)
13. Parasols made of palm tree branches on urban beaches.
Some of the parasols are older, so their branches are withered.(The branches are probably taken from the banana plantations, but I could be wrong.) And when the wind blows, they rustle in that classic tropical manner. And this is amazing, although it can probably feel like a catalogue-ordered amazement. I have never heard a withered palm tree branch rustling over me on a beach, though.
After a late afternoon surfing session, I decided to walk to Holywell. Sneakily, I was planning on walking to Newquay, but having checked the map and knowing the distance to be around 20 K (on the coastal path, so all the ups and downs added), I was not certain whether I’d make it there before the sunset.
It was strangely sad to leave Perranporth. Today, my body already knew more things than yesterday and getting up on the board did not register as a ridiculous concept any more. Everyone was still in the water when I started walking up the hills and just… Yes.
Next time I leave the city for surfing it will be for a longer period.
But the hilly walking next to the ocean leaves one no space for sadness. After all, after every corner, a new beach. A long, stretchy, not your typical English pebble. Every day, a new beach. This how this week has been.
Somehow, I managed to make it to Holywell without even noticing. Amongst houses, I lost the path. That is typical, it seems. I can spot it or take imaginary short-cuts on the natural terrain but as soon as there’s a house around, I become confused. It should be the other way around, really.
A bit of hilly heathland later, I was soon back on the South West Coast Path. And quite soon also reached the Crantock Beach. Somehow, I had managed to walk roughly 9 miles in around 2 hours (and a bit more). I don’t remember running it. I definitely do not remember any running. What I do remember is seeing a completely new natural phenomenon – a coastal meadow (very very close to the ocean) with low-growing greenery that all looked like Mediterranean ferns. God as a child, practising different terrains, this is what it looked like. I also saw a rabbit on the sand. In my northern country, the only place for rabbits is… everywhere away from the coast. But yes, technically, I saw a beach bunny.
And then someone turned the switch. Another time started ticking, another mindset settled in. I’m not kidding. Something funny happened in that neighbourhood. First of all, I doubted myself for the first time. Walked a bit up the hill, walked down to the beach soon afterwards, looked around for a possible ferry – there was a river there, separating me from my access to Newquay -, learning the ferry had finished for the day, tied my sneakers to my backpack and waded around the river a little, but seeing it becoming deeper, came back to the beach. Talked to some people.
One of the people I ended up talking with was not probably a real man. He was working together with another human, so I did not imagine him – not a real man in that sense. Just in a sense that he was not a man all together. Some other species, but I don’t know what. He was about my height, slightly shorter, and had hair of yellow-grey-greenish. But even better – he had the most otherworldly eyes I had ever seen. Mostly bright turquoise and just around the iris – a rainbow of darker blues, greens and greys. A water spirit? Definitely too big for a water spirit. A mermaid turned surfer? He did look awkwardly out of place on the land, though. Hmm. But, yes. Upon hearing my wish on wanting to reach Newquay he told me to wait an hour for the tide to go out, so the river would move away and reveal a bridge that I could cross if I were lucky enough. I would have to wait at least an hour for the tide, though. The other option was to walk through the Crantock village, turn left and just walk to Newquay, basically around the river. He also offered me a ride if I waited 20 minutes.
I could not wait. Not 20 minutes and definitely not an hour. I thanked him and started walking on the bigger road. Soon, I became surrounded by lush trees quite uncommon to the beach areas. And that’s when another switch was pulled. Church bells started ringing out of nowhere. Happy bells, bells for people waking up from the dead or angels brought to earth. I then saw the church tower and a white, wolf-looking animal galloping around the tomb stones in the church garden. I would just like to say that I’m not making this up. This all happened only a minute after I had found a small gate, barely up to my knees and covered with ivy, with a lady’s face carved into its wooden surface.
I walked out of the church garden, nearly seeing a trapped woman walking around this same place, but once again, not trapped in a bad, helpless way. It’s as if everyone had chosen to fall under a spell in here. And the village itself! The pub – definitely made-up. The fences and the garden gates – more than definitely made-up! Public pathways leading into arched passage ways of the unknown – khm!
I finally walked up to a mountain (managed to ignore my instincts twice and do a bit of to-and-froing), until I jumped over a low fence and started walking straight across a hilly field, down towards the river where it was supposed to reach its ending.
I still can’t tell how, but suddenly, I was back on the path again. And Newquay was just 2 miles away. (People on the road had told me it was an hour’s walk!) I now knew I had made it before the dark. And I walked towards the bottom of the valley – only to see that I was actually very far from the river’s end. However, where the river should have been, was just sand. The tide had gone out. And for the second time within one hour, I untied my sneakers and started walking barefoot. Straight towards the other shore, across the river bed. And there it was, the bridge that stayed under water, surrounded by sleeping boats and the golden hour. A lonely surfer carried his board across the bridge and I tried hard not to slip on the algae when our paths crossed. There was still a bit of water under the bridge, the deepest part of the river.
The magic realm came to a sudden yet unnoticed end on the opposite shore. Everything was done now, everything was safe. It was just the walk back to my abode for the night. Quite nostalgic, for some reason. I think Cornwall had started crawling under my skin a bit.
PS. On my way back to the hostel, I visited another cemetery. Once again I saw proof of health and safety regulations just really keeping the population levels artificially high. There was a sign on the cemetery gate advising to pay attention whilst walking – due to the ground being uneven. I….just…well… nothing.
I was not 3 hours early at the needed place today, as I had first thought.
I was actually 45 minutes late and at a very wrong place.
That meant no surfing for me on this Tuesday but at least I know where (not) to go on the following days.
I almost don’t have any explanation for this, except that I think my brain shuts down when surrounded by a high intensity of horror. Which, in itself, can be considered as some sort of a defence reflex and a very bad survival one. Luckily, it kicks in ever so seldom and my levels for extreme can probably be stretched every now and then. Well, at least the bus ticket for a half an hour ride is £2.- in here, so all sorts of exploring is encouraged.
Anything to say in my defence?
I got off at the right stop and that’s when it happened, really: I found myself in a trailer house town. A trailer house town. And not one that has been born out of difficult social situations. A town that had been quite newly built. It is hard to explain how the place felt and how it looked: ET on a bad acid trip having put together a suburb he kind of remembered, but not having houses at hand, so having used caravans with legs instead.
It was a town of sour hope and dejected dreams. Full of hetero families with 3+ children walking from Spar (yes, a selection of high street shops had been transported to the middle of this town) to the Pit of Forlornness, disguised as a pub. The Pit of Forlornness had a large blackboard behind the counter explaining how many pennies one would save buying a bottle of Merlot instead of 3 large glasses of the same wine. It explained away every wine they sold. From another building across the street, one of Elvis’s songs in major key could be heard.
The flip-flopping fathers of this place were wearing T-shirts by surfing brands yet looked like people who had touched the water around the same time they had last had sex. Which was not very recently at all. There were screaming children at an eerie mini golf ground, a small plane flying a beer banner across everyone dipping their fries into suspicious mayo and McDonald’s being called a restaurant on the road sign. The town also had a suburb. The suburb, however, was not made of trailer houses but only trailers. At least the sun was shining above the suburb and the weather was getting less hazy and more focused on its sunny ways.
The Labyrinth of a town had signs up for a surfing school. Not everywhere, but every now and then, so you could follow them and finally find the beach. (Something I’ve never had trouble doing before.) I was following all the signs very carefully (you really don’t want to get lost on the avenues of Doom Illustrated) and finally found my way down to the beach, only to be told there was no booking on my name. It was almost cruel. The waves where all there. The drizzling was stopping. The families with eight screaming toddlers were leaving.
They sent me back up, to their office in the Labyrinth of Despair. Having spent 20 minutes finding it, they directed me to the town’s Reception. Waiting 15 minutes in the reception, a young boy pointed out that my booking was with another surf school all together. So, hey, this was all my doing, then. But I hadn’t even thought about blaming anyone, I was too focused on not touching anything in case it might suck me in. But yes, the mistake was purely mine. Even if the school had a logo in the same shape and colour, and a name 88% similar to the other only school that had all the advertising up. There were no flags up for my school, so I could not go and find it. Even my mobile reception was lost amongst the Horizons (a popular house name) of these streets. The kind but slightly alarmed people at the Reception finally showed me a map of their town. I thanked them and I thanked the wind my school did not fit on their map nor was part of this Establishment of Endings.
I called my school, so I’m going tomorrow. All is good, the weather is getting better and warmer. The real feel is above 15C now. I have returned from the Nether Side of Nightmares, and am now back in Newquay where half of the population walks the streets carrying their big surfing boards. You know what they say: big surfing boards…. But the other half looks like aggressive sea hippies, so they make up for that. Aggressive sea hippie is just another word for a pirate, just making that clear.
I checked into charity shops for possible reading material. The options available were Your Talking Cat, In the Minds of Murderers, Pocket Guide to Australia and How to develop Your Sixth Sense. I can’t say I need any of those very specifically right now. Except for one, maybe.
Newquay is actually not that bad. It is probably even one of the most pleasant-feeling seaside towns in England I’ve ever been to. The corny fudge packaging is still everywhere as is the traditional piňa colada flavoured sugar candy, but there’s also a lot of actual happiness that is nearly tangible. It could be because Newquay is not trying to be something. That’s where its charm might spring from – the place is not exerting itself too much. Everyone already knows that the surf is good in here and that the pasties fill you up real nice. There is no need to prove anything to anyone and that makes the locals relaxed. Maybe all the flip-flop people are on to something, after all.
I do have my own reading with me. I’ll walk around this tiny ocean town and find a place to read it. Things can only go up.