Six days in Asturias

A last minute booking to try to escape the stain/strain of GMC tribunal horror. Rich had to stay at home to work. I got a return flight to Asturias for £107. Returning to the land of the Camino. A hotel in Oviedo booked for night one. The rest open to whim [or howl]. The forecast rain and cloud.

Thursday evening

At the airport, waiting for the Oviedo bus, I chatted to D. She was on her way to a Tai Chi course with a Spanish master. After 12 years of practice she was beginning to understand the inner workings involving her core. She also mended clocks.

She asked what I did for a job. 

“My mum told me I was diagnosed with High Functioning Aspergers when I was at school”, she said, when I told her. “I never looked it up or anything, I was just relieved to learn I was normal. I didn’t feel it at the time.”

M joined us. A recently retired economics teacher. She was going to spend a week volunteering on an immense course.

“Immense?” I said. “That sounds pretty important.”

“Immersion. Students of English immerse themselves in the language for a week with no Spanish spoken. It helps to cement learning.”

“I realised I talked all the time and didn’t listen,” said D. “On one of our retreats, someone said I wasn’t to talk for 24 hours. It made me realise that the quiet people, who I’d never even noticed before, spoke the most sense. The noisy ones I’d always engaged with said nothing.”

It was dark and raining in Oviedo. After some help from non English speaking locals, I found my hotel and checked into my room with a view. I felt like shite.

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Friday

The guy on reception enthusiastically scribbled on my map before I left to explore the city (of sculptures). With a final flourish of the biro he marked the Santa Maria de Naranco up on a hillside overlooking the city. I was to catch the A2 bus opposite the Campo de San Fransisco, two minutes from the hotel. The bus turned up straight away. I got on and said my destination. The driver didn’t understand me so I showed him the map. He shook his head and pointed to the bus stand behind me, making his fingers into a shape I think meant a letter rather than a rude gesture.

I got off and pointlessly studied the bus timetable written in Spanish for a few minutes.

Someone shouted. I turned round. Another bus driver asking where I wanted to go in Spanish (I think). 

I got the map out and pointed to the scribble. He nodded. The fare was €1.20. The church spectacular. I stayed a second night in the room with the view.

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Saturday

Early afternoon I was wandering around Cudillero, a dense and beautiful fishing town that tapered down the hillside into a harbour, with Alicia Wood and Henry Iles. Reminiscent of Portofino there were bustling restaurants serving seafood delights around the harbour front. Unlike Portofino, there were no designer shops, masses of tourists or fakery. Just a fishmonger, a vending machine or two, people’s smalls hanging on airers from windows in the narrowest alley ways and an enormous, damp smelling, dusty pink and blue flavoured church.

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We sat up into the early hours of the morning, eating traditional stew, drinking and putting the learning disability world to rights.

Sunday

A day trip to the Somiedo Nature Park with Alicia. A small beer in bear country before driving further into the mountains for a two part adventure. 

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Part One. Clear and detailed info from Alicia about what lay ahead. Eight kms of fairly hairy (pin bends) but doable driving. Passenger advice: don’t look right if you don’t like heights [I don’t]. We reached Valle de Lago, walked further into the mountains and had a picnic from the olden days, chatting about childhood books. Looking for bears.

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Part Two. No advice, just a creeping sense of horror as the road grew steeper and narrower. Small sections of wooden barriers with car sized holes appeared every so often. 

“There’s metal inside the wood. You can see where it’s snapped…” I said, leaning away from the window. As we ‘laughed’ hysterically.

Bend after bend, more broken fencing and the occasional oncoming car. We inched our way up the mountain road to a car park on top of the world. A mountain dog, torrential rain and extraordinary views. 

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After a soaking wet walk to a lake along a pink path worthy of a sci-fi film set we drove back down. With cattle for company.

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Monday

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I left Alicia and Henry and took the single track FEVE rail journey from Las Cabos to Gijon. Alone at first, I was joined along the 30 or so stops by a few Asturian locals. The odd set, perm and elaborately coiffed comb over. No chat. Just travel. Taking in idyllic hamlets, small towns, touching on bits of coast and the back end of industrial Aviles; apocalyptic, smoke belching ironworks and a hinterland of dust covered, unrecognisable landscape.

I was weepy for most of the day. An outcome of the extreme fear therapy we’d endured the day before? Or maybe it was because I was, unusually, able to think about Connor rather than GMC/NMC and other shite. I walked to La Madre del Emigrante (mother of the immigrant) sculpture we’d passed on the CaminoLB.

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Followed by dog and people watching.

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I had a room with two views in Gijon; the second window right above (and facing) this guy’s head. A second set of doors opened out onto the neighbouring square.

Tuesday

The sun shone and I felt brighter. The Gijonese were out in force and I did what they do. A march along the sea edge with my bag, a parade along the front, ice cream and book reading on the beach. 

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Ending the day with a cheerful and delicious final meal with Alicia and Henry. 

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This post is, in part, an unashamed plug for this strip of Northern Spain. An 80 minute flight to a land of delicious food, beautiful and varied scenery, warmth, rich hospitality and a wonderful way of life.

It’s also an account of easing into feeling human again.

#CaminoLB reflections

l1023817-2The #CaminoLB. Following the back end of a yellow shell for 8 days across the Northern route of the Camino de Santiago. Carrying the cardboard #JusticeforLB bus (made by the Boumelha family) to Aviles for an exhibition to be held on December 2. 160 kms of beautiful and constantly changing scenery (beaches, forests, mountains, towns, hamlets, woods, lakes, estuaries) and pathways (cliff paths, foot paths, dirt and gravel tracks, tiled sections, alongside dual carriageways, roads and railways). A backdrop of fresh air (with delicious whiffs of eucalyptus, rotting hay, mint, fig, lemon, orange and hazelnut trees). Constant and unexpected sunshine sometimes blocked by sea mist.

And hills… (mountains?)

Still trying to remember what joker told me the Northern Camino was pretty flat. Or maybe I dreamed it among the low level anxiety before we set off.

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Learning disabled people can’t walk (far?) was a message communicated to us in a meeting a few weeks before we set off. We’d crowdsourced £2k [thank you] to fund a group from My Life my Choice to join us for part of the journey. Sadly the language of social care diffused into everyday talk to threaten what was, essentially, a walking holiday. ‘Public liability insurance’, ‘support vehicles’ and the like, as ever working to bleakly colour and constrain the lives of so many people in the UK.

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As it was, we walked (miles), talked, ate delicious nosh, drank beer and cider, slept in dorms and laughed. The biggest [unanticipated] risks were snoring, farting, bangle wearing, decisions around the use of ‘she wees’ (we didn’t) and cheeks that ached more than legs because of hilarious contributions from John and Dave and, later, Dawn and Shaun.

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Fifteen people and two Great Danes pitched up at different points along the walk, facilitated by the extraordinary efforts of Mariana Ortiz, Alicia Woods and Henry Iles. We met all sorts of people en route intrigued by the bus. More officially we met members of a Spanish charity, Integra, and were welcomed at town hall receptions in Gijon and Aviles. A scruffy, cheerful bunch, carrying the battered but still brilliant cardboard bus, greeted by immaculately turned out dignitaries, film crews and photographers. Visible shock and horror expressed at the deaths of LB, Danny (Rosie Tozer’s son), Thomas, Nico and others.

“This is unimaginable…”

Reflection and clarity completely missing from public office/sector in the UK where LB, Danny and others were simply budgets and burdens.

There was other spontaneous support:

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And snatched moments of contemplation along the way. The enormity of why we were walking the Camino constantly with us. It was fitting that the walk coincided with the Dia de Todos Los Santos (Day of the Dead) on November 1. We marked this with (non risk assessed) late night candle lighting and tears on the beach.

l1024319-2With an irony meter the size of the hills we were regularly scaling, I ‘learned’ a shedload during this adventure. The biggy [howl] was the realisation (or  more accurately, recognition) of how I let LB down. No – no – response to this please (and don’t even go there Sloven, NHS Improvement, Jezza, NHS England, CQC, Health and Safety Executive and the like…) He was waiting for me to bring him home and I didn’t.

I also realised, or maybe recognised more clearly, that you just have to crack on and do stuff. Ditch the doubt, walk away from the blight that is big charity (non) work/public sector shite in the area of learning disability and just do stuff. Mencrap, NAS, Scope and other money spinning waste of space bastards totally miss the point. The conversations, chat, discovery, self reflection, delight and joy we shared/experienced across the journey – among those walking, people we met, and virtual campaigners – underlined this. Those who should do, simply ain’t going to. In the UK, anyway.

Spending time with Dawn, Shaun and Paul generated insights into life as a learning disabled adult. Dawn’s stories of living in a Mencrap home in the past were harrowing and her comment after an uncharacteristic stern moment – ‘Oh, I’d make a good carer’- was chilling.

I was surprised at how far we were able to walk. And the absence of complaint. There were some struggles, a few blisters and chafing (a story for another day). Endless uphill walks or clambering down rocky, chestnut and wet leaf strewn paths. I worried about the pain the walk would inevitably involve – I ain’t no walker – but it didn’t materialise. I wouldn’t advocate not training for a substantial walking trip but clearly backbone, guts and resilience go a long way.

It was astonishing how much we all gained from the experience. I don’t know whether this was the walking, the scenery, pilgrim life, the company or the underlying campaign… but there was an exhilaration, emotion and depth of something remarkable and immensely powerful. As Alicia posted on Facebook:

“It’s hard to know what to do after the incredible #CaminoLB. Such a powerful, hilarious and moving week that will stay with me forever.”

Whatever it was. It worked.

#JusticeforLB. Walking the walk.

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Flight of the Camino

Not long to go now before we set off on the CaminoLB. The route is here (it’s a bit anarchic organic and loosely formed). What we know so far: George Julian, John Williams, Dave Griffiths and I (me?) are setting off on Tuesday evening on the 24 hour ferry from Portsmouth to Santander. With the #JusticeforLB quilt and bus. Postcards of Awesome, the #JusticeforLB flag and anything else we can tuck in our pockets and socks.

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We hand the booty (other than the bus and the flag if I can find it) over to Alicia Wood in Santander in advance of the #JusticeforLB exhibition planned for 2 Dec. We start walking with the bus first thing Oct 27 with a cheeky 37 miles to cover in the first two days. Luckily John and Dave are doing those two days. Two comedians who are planning to train by doing a few laps of the deck on the ferry. John has Body Glide anti-chafe cream and Compeed. Dave will be wearing his crown.

Various people will join us along the route. With a build up across the final three days when five people from My Life My Choice (including Dawn Wiltshire, Paul Scarrott and Shaun Picken), Rosie Tozer, who is walking in memory of her son, Danny, and Ruth Glynn Owen join us. Paul points out that it may be the first time learning disabled people have done anything like it. I think it probably is. Demonstrating the limitations of the big charity guns – Mencap, Scope, National Autistic Society – who typically manage, orchestrate and erase the talk, enjoyment and involvement of people in a relentless drive for self promotion and self serving nothingness.

We’ll be meeting with Spanish school kids who are making gingerbread figures and local dignitaries during those last three days. Finishing the walk on Nov 3 in Aviles. Dropping the bus off where the exhibition will be held in December.

This afternoon my sis, Agent T (pitching up at Poo next Saturday to walk the remaining walk) and I caught up with packing plans. The weather forecast is spectacular. Coats/waterproofs ditched. Ipads/laptops still up for grabs (well, for me anyway). Various devices for having an unobtrusive piss en route to be tested. I’m running with some £4.99 jobby from Go Outdoors…

With the help of behind the scenes organisation magically sorted by Alicia, Mariana Ortiz and Henry Iles [thank you] we may well have the experience of a lifetime. Laughter, tears and, hopefully, more laughter.

Here’s hoping a few laps of the Brittany Ferry deck on Wednesday will reap rewards.

LB would bloody love it.

[And there’s always time for anyone (er, cough cough, Mencap, Scope, NAS… or whoever) to join us. Why not smash the boundaries and just do summat?]

The lost day… Helsinki way

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Up at 5am today to catch the 8am flight back to Gatwick after a wonderful weekend in Helsinki. My supersaver flight. £30. Such a blinking bargain. The airport bus was full of sleepyheads.

“Ah, I’ve found what I’ve been looking for…!” announced the driver after 20 minutes or so. “The airport. I stop at Terminal 1 first and then Terminal 2.”

The bus emptied out at Terminal 1. I waited on board wondering what all the fun was at 1.
“Er, excuse me,” said comedy driver getting back on board. “Where are you going?”
“Terminal 2”, I said.
“This is Terminal 2. You’d better get off or I’ll take you back to Helsinki…”
Blimey. Where was Terminal 1? The check in machine spat my booking reference out and told me to go to the help desk. I queued for ages with a few other people who had also fallen foul of the machine. When it was my turn, the woman looked completely perplexed and called for help.

“Is there a problem?” I asked.
“No, no. Not at all. The system is very slow, that’s all.”

The second woman called for a third woman as the queue behind me got longer. I turned round at one point and did a ‘Sorry guys, some sort of system error’ shrug to the grumpy looking passengers. They blanked me.

After a few more minutes and a lot of heated chatter and jabbing the screen, the third woman cracked the problem.

“This ticket is for yesterday” she said, triumphantly.
“OMG. No way. What date is it today..?” I yelped, looking around for a floating calendar. She flourished the ticket at me.
“Look.”

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November. Not yesterday. Not even close.

The three women, clearly relieved their system wasn’t faulty, pointed me in the direction of the Norwegian Air hidden service for losers who can’t book flights properly, two floors below ground level. In the dark space I found two guys with Norwegian Air logos on their t-shirts playing Pokemon (don’t) Go. They politely told me to get lost. There is no standby on Norwegian Air.

Back above ground I had to suck it up and buy a single ticket home. Flying with SAS. Leaving nine hours later via Copenhagen. A five hour trip.

From Terminal 1.

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A brighter moment from yesterday: the Sibelius monument.

Postscript: It turns out the cheapest flight back was business class. Luckily an eagle eyed SAS guy noticed some marking on my boarding pass and told me. I’ve now been in the SAS lounge for 8 hours and 20 minutes now. With cheeky white wine on tap. Funny times.

(Un)easyJet, home movies and Mexican waves

I don’t know. I get rumbles that some people think a) I make this stuff up/embellish it, or b) I actively manipulate some of the (travel) situations I find myself in to create blog fodder.

I don’t. And I wouldn’t.

Take my trip to Milan. Starting from Gatwick departure lounge. A place that still gives me anxiety sweats and prickles. Passengers for Flight Number Schmumber stood obediently under the announcement board from the second the departure gate was expected. I think we all knew easyJet rules about getting to the boarding gate on time. But nothing happened. Half an hour after the flight should have taken off, still nothing. No one moved their eyes from the board. I kept fingering the boarding pass in my bag. Just checking. Then the board changed;

‘Flight Number Schmumber. Gate 23. Gate closed’.

Whoa!

Pandemonium. Trolley cases burning rubber along moving walkways. The less speedy falling foul of the speedy.  Shouts of “Oy!” “Wait!” that couldn’t possibly reach easyJet staff, 15 gates away. At the gate it got a bit ranty, even though the gate wasn’t really closed. The speedy and bog standard boarders were united. The easyJet staff blamed Gatwick, passengers blamed easyJet. Then Italy scored and a Mexican wave rippled through the queue.

Once on the plane things took an unusual turn. I had an aisle seat (essential if possible). A large Italian guy dressed in a black suit and white shirt pitched up and took the middle seat next to me. Glossy mac air and glossy hair. He was Glossy Man. He cranked up his laptop and started watching a movie. Jesus of Nazareth. Without headphones.

‘Ooh.. bit controversial’, I thought. ‘No headphones? In a public type space??’

The sound was low though and other people were chittering away, so I kind of ignored it.

But then Olivia Hussey was replaced by a long, blonde haired woman in what looked like a road movie. Arty, careless shots through a car windscreen, the open road, a broad panorama of desolate scenery. Within a minute, it was over and he clicked on the next film in his itunes libary. Just seconds of footage of the same woman. Doing stuff. Cycling through a forest, walking round a house, dancing on a beach, standing in a car park.

Eh, wha?? Home movies? On a plane? With sound?  I tried not to peek but it was kind of compelling viewing. Maybe because of the seemingly careless ordinariness of the content. Maybe because I’m a sucker for reality TV.  By clip 28 I was creating narratives or imaginaries. Filling in the gaps. She was a government operative missing in action since 2003. Off the Dalmation Coast… She was a lost love, rather than the woman who might be waiting for him at arrivals. He’d lost her through his uncompromising behaviours…

“Ciao!” she shouted at the camera at one point, waving. “Ciao! Arriverderci!” I nearly shouted back.

Then the clips started to appear more haunting or sinister. For no reason. I started to watch them differentIy.

“Ti amo!” I imagined him shouting to her, his voice thick with emotion.

“Leave me alone you glossy stalker you!” she shouted back. “And take your mac air with you. Glossy bastard.”

I was relieved when we landed and she was minimised and turned off. He sped through passport control. I was stuck (as always, in the queue that stopped moving). She might have been waiting in arrivals. I don’t know.

An hour later, still on my journey, I was in the city centre.  Gridlocked in the back of a taxi, surrounded by celebrating Italian football fans. There were more Mexican waves. And an ironing board.

Travel tips 1: Getting to the USA

A brand new series of practical tips for the incompetent traveller, starting with the USA.

1. Do your research. Make sure you thoroughly read about where you are going and choose the hotel accordingly. Be aware that names like ‘Denver Tech-Center’ may not refer to the building in which your conference is being held, but an area of about 5km square. Remember that careless preparation can leave you staying in a hotel 15 km from the town centre with no means of transport and a lot of dual carriageways to negotiate.

2. Check everything at least ten times; date and time of flight, airport of departure and valid passport.

3. Apply for your ESTA visa waiver as soon as you can. Failure to do this may result in some very hairy, horror filled moments, especially if you are somewhere like a retreat the day before you fly with very patchy internet access.

Note: If the above scenario does happen to you, make sure you have a cool and calm mate handy, with internet access and savvy searching skills, to iron out all those creases, provide the relevant information and get you back on your way to the States.*

4.Still at home, make sure you empty your hand luggage bag/rucksack fully before packing it with the stuff you are taking on board.

Note: If you fail to do the above and realise, once you are through to the departure lounge, you have something like, for example, a big bottle of shampoo in your bag from your last weekend away, don’t panic as you could have bought it in Boots in the terminal.

5. If you have a connecting flight once in the USA, you will need to pack any bottles (from your hand luggage or bought in duty free) in your luggage for the hold. You will collect this luggage on the way through security.

Note: If you’ve forgotten about that (for example) silly shampoo bottle in your hand luggage, and have already handed your hold luggage back to some guy, you will need to dump the bottle in the nearest bin at this point.

6. At this point, recheck your hand luggage to make sure no other nasties got through accidently before you reach the US security check. For example, the matching conditioner to the shampoo in a different pocket of your rucksack. If you don’t, security will.

 That’s it for Travel Tips 1. Just remember, a good traveller is a prepared traveller.

* Indebted to Ulla for this one.

Sleazyjet and the balance problem

My recent sleazyjet experience cropped up during a fireworks do last night and I mentioned how on both outward and return flights, rows of seats were ‘shut’ to passengers.  There was no seat allocation but cabin crew directed us to particular rows.  They said we needed to spread around the plane to maintain balance because there were only 60 passengers. They’d put down the table things so we couldn’t sit in certain seats.

Continue reading

Sleazyjet and the boarding pass

OK. Cutting a long story short here as my tales of travel woe are boring me now, I lost my boarding pass at Gatwick on Sunday afternoon.  A boarding pass the size of a house and bright orange. I unpacked my bag, retraced my steps but nothing. It was gone. Continue reading