Monthly Archives: May 2014

Fangirl

by Rainbow Rowell

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One book that I’ve found easy to lend to anybody (ok, let’s be honest, any girl, but not that that’s a bad thing) in the last few years has been ‘Attachments’ by Rainbow Rowell. It’s hard to explain what I liked so much about it, but it worked. The dialogue was zippy, It made me feel nostalgic for the late 90s, when email was still the best way to communicate and people wrote essays to each other. I don’t know the last time I wrote an essay length email that wasn’t work related. Well, I wrote superlong group emails from South America but I don’t really count those. When email was in vogue everybody complained that they were taking the place of letters. Now social networks and chats have taken the place of emails. You know that if Attachments took place in the present day it would be on a work based communicator. ‘This application is NOT to be used for personal communication!’ And it wouldn’t work as well.

Last month I went looking for a book as a present for a friend’s birthday. As she is a new mother I figured I’d try to look for something light but easy to read, snappy. I’ve complained about the lack of decent bookshops in Gibraltar before. I came across one I hadn’t noticed before and hoped there was some promise, but unfortunately it was hopeless. So I went to Casemates and the small selection of books upstairs. There I saw about 5 copies of Fangirl. Which made me happy, but since the girl whose birthday it was doesn’t even have a facebook account I thought reading a book about somebody who writes fanfiction might seem a bit weird to her. Or at least I’d prefer to read it first before giving it to her and there wasn’t time for that. If I’d seen a copy of Attachments I’d have snapped it up without hesitation. Also I really wanted to read this myself. I really wanted to read it myself. That was the main reason and I couldn’t justify buying two copies or contemplate buying it without the possibility of reading it straight away. So in the end I broke my bookbuying rule and bought a copy for myself and ‘Finding Colin Firth’ for my friend.

I’ve been disappointed by following the ‘this was written by the same author, therefore should be good’ train before, but this thankfully wasn’t one of them. I finished it in a day. Sometimes I wish I took longer with books I’m enjoying rather than just speeding through them, but I can always go back and reread, either in full of in part. I’ve done that a few times with Attachments which I still think I like better, but even so.

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Cath is a shy 18 year old about to start college, the same college as her twin sister Wren. She assumes that they will be sharing a room, but Wren thinks it’s time for them to break the cord. Cath has always found solace in writing fan fiction online and finds it easier to stay in her room updating her ‘Simon Snow’ novel rather than making friends or even talking to her roommate.

As I commuted to university in the first two years I didn’t have some of the immediate issues of Cath. I didn’t live in dorms and have to be away from my parents. I wasn’t really worried about college at all. I was 17 years old, happy to be finished secondary school and looking to embark on all the adventures that college would provide ‘Anne of the Island’ style. I did enjoy college, well except for my final year, but I think I expected too much. All through secondary school I was looking forward to college. Nothing could live up to that build up. Also, having to run for the last train/bus any time I was out did not help the ‘college experience’. It’s not an issue for somebody more sociable as there are always plenty of couches to be slept on, but sometimes asking seems too much. I don’t think I can ever be a completely spontaneous person, but even the ‘planned spontaneity’  I’ve developed over the years was not yet born.

 

At times I’ve been in an internet bubble so I felt an affinity with Cath, even if I’ve never read or written fan fiction. I do get how you can be invested in the lives of fictional characters and become unhappy with the direction an author takes so much so that you want to take matters into your own hands. It just isn’t something I’ve done, at least except in my head.

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Is it really bad to say that I skipped the fan fic excerpts in this book? Well not so much skipped as skimmed. I did note at some stage that her descriptions were obviously being influenced by what is going on in her life, but I just wasn’t very interested in the fan fiction except as a plot device. Simon Snow was obviously based on Harry Potter and while I’m sure I’ll read the last two books eventually I haven’t got round to it yet. I did see all the films except the last one, I think I just lost interest in the end. My Viennese roommate introduced me to the books back in 2002, as I’d heard of them but wasn’t caught up in the hype. I read all four that Spring, then only had a year to wait for the next one, which I read every waking non working moment, even on my walk from Cabra to Grand Canal Dock and back. I don’t think there was any particular reason why I didn’t read the next one. I can see that it came out the summer I bought my house, just before I went on my Russian adventure. At the time I felt I couldn’t afford the holiday but I’d already bought the flights so decided I’d just do it on the cheap. And maybe this meant not buying full price books, especially when somebody else was bound to have a copy to lend later on. I can never understand people paying full price for Dan Brown or 50 Shades of Grey when they will turn up en masse in a second hand bookshop a few months later.

So maybe I’ve missed something there, but when I was reading the ‘Simon Snow’ excerpts I wanted more description of what was going on between Cath and her ‘boyfriend’ and looked forward to the interjection every few paragraphs.

But really that was only a minor point.

I suppose this might be just an Irish/American cultural difference, but I can’t imagine anybody in their late teens/early twenties calling somebody their boyfriend if they don’t even kiss each other. I get that Cath is fragile and does not even feel ready and has some issues she needs to work through, but it just seems weird for me to describe somebody as her boyfriend or that she’s dating  somebody for months without anything more than a kiss on the cheek.

Also while reading the Simon Snow sections I found it difficult to immerse myself when the Hogwarts equivalent is called Watford. I’ve never been there but in my mind Watford is a very nondescript, possibly industrial suburb of London and the base of a company I used to work for. I could be wrong but I always see it as being similar to Slough, where ‘The Office’ was based.      

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At first when I read about Cath’s reluctance to go to the dining hall I felt it was a bit silly, I never had any issues going to the dining hall on my own in college. But then I did remember the time before starting my job at the Posthotel in Mittenwald the summer after 1st year. I didn’t eat anything before my first morning as I’d only brought Swiss Francs to get the train from Zurich and my Deutschmarks were in traveller’s cheques; not much use at the weekend. I was never so happy as when we stopped working one hour in , in order to have breakfast. My meals were included but I didn’t know the times and was too shy to ask. So I suppose I can’t really comment.

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Love Library: Well we didn’t have a library called that but the Lecky Library was called Club Lecky, because it was often a bit of a meeting point and people were not too concerned about noise levels. If you wanted serious study you went somewhere else. But I guess the real ‘Love Library’ would be the stacks, or it seems like it should be. I went there to read novels which were not needed by anybody but had been received because of the copyright and were held there temporarily before being moved offsite.

My own favourite library was the beautiful 1937 reading room, now renamed the ‘postgraduate reading room’, not for lowly undergrads any more!

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Cath receives a call from her high school boyfriend Abel and knows it means news. I don’t know why, but I never really got into the habit of just calling people for a chat. I think that might be one reason why I’m not very good at the long distance friendship thing. I don’t Skype people often enough. The invention of the text message came as a blessing to me. So I tend to assume that when somebody calls out of the blue, not a prearranged Skype session, that something big has happened. Somebody has got engaged, pregnant……or died.

Regarding writing on a laptop or writing longhand. It’s great to have Word to be able to organise your thoughts and what you have written before but I’m not able to bang out my thoughts and keep going. As Dave Gorman said in his googlewhack adventure, it’s really difficult to concentrate on writing when you have access to three billion pages of the internet.

So even though it takes longer, I prefer to write out my thoughts in some internet free zone and type them up when I got the chance.

Plus, how can you trust technology? Sure, I could lose my notebook, or it could burn, but in the same way, maybe one day my computer will crash, WordPress will decide to delete this site, gmail will fall to the wayside, hey I’ve had an excite/campus/oxygen account in the past. All gone! Or you save something on a format such as a floppy disk or a CD and then realise that you have no way to access these any more.

In a similar way with a Kindle you don’t own your books, you can’t lend to any friends. And I have hardly printed any photos since I went digital at the late time of 2007. a lot of my photos are stored on my bust up laptop. I really hope some genius can access them somehow.

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‘To really be a nerd, she’d decided, you had to prefer fictional worlds to the real one’. I’d say that was true of me growing up, it’s just that it was not fantasy worlds I wanted to live in, but Prince Edward Island or the prairie, not quite fictional, but the world of the books. Cath tells her creative writing professor that she would find it two difficult to write her own fantasy world from scratch.

‘Most writers don’t. We write about the worlds we already know’

I mentioned previously that I admired the writer of Game of Thrones for the universe he has created but I wouldn’t ever have the desire to create anything of the sort myself. Some great writers manage to write about things that are so distant to them and some are great even while they only write the familiar. Personally I always find it strange when a foreigner writes a book set in Ireland or with an Irish lead character, something is always off. Unless that writer has lived a long time in Ireland. For the same reason (and talking hypothetically here) while I’d like to send my hypothetical characters to Belarus for example, I don’t think I could ever write a Belarusian except as a supporting character. I have plenty of friends there but I only spent a year in Minsk and could never dream of being really able to get inside the soul of a Belarusian. One friend was a little bit insulted by what I’d written in the ‘Egg in my Soup’ post. I can only imagine the outrage if I tried to pawn off….but then again I did have an idea at some stage, set in Crimea, with no Irish people….but it was a children’s book and I think children are still not as clearly shaped by their nation.  Also I was planning my (hypothetical) research trip there, this doesn’t seem very likely now. Well we’ll see, I may change my mind some time and regret posting this.

I’ve just been to a talk by Javier Cercas, now if ever there is somebody who can use what he knows as a starting point and twist it in directions most wouldn’t consider, where you try to figure out at what point fact morphs into fiction.

So I won’t go any further into the plot because I’d rather leave it to any of you to enjoy for yourselves.

In case I haven’t made it clear I was so happy to be reading about characters you usually don’t come across in books except as sidekicks? I’d happily recommend this one to anyone even if they are as far from these types as I can imagine. If people like to read they’ll read good books none of that matters.

I think my favourite scene is the ‘are you rooting for me’ one. Perfect rom com movieness.

I loved reading this now, but I think I would have loved to read this or something similar as a teenager starting out in adult life, it might have helped a little with the message I’m still learning in my mid-30s. It’s ok to be yourself. You don’t have to fit into the norm. That doesn’t mean that who you are stays in one place and you really do have to move outside your comfort zone regularly if you want to grow, but don’t aim to just be society’s norm.

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Postscript

So since writing the above we were talking about our forthcoming move back to Dublin and all the things we would have to take and some things we might leave. I mentioned my old laptop and that I’d like to get somebody to look at it and see if they could salvage all the old photos on it.

Guilty looks.

‘Ummm, I think I dumped that last year.’

WHAT!!!!!!???

Words were exchanged, to say the least. All our South America photos! Just gone!

Thank God for picasa and facebook; at least I have some decent middling quality versions. I know you’re supposed to backup but….ok, I didn’t. So yeah, I’m an internet addict with old fashioned technophobia. I’ll have to be more careful in the future. And maybe it’s about time I started printing photos regularly. And maybe it’s about time I invest in a physical wedding album.

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Like Water for Chocolate

by Laura Esquivel

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On my flight back to Spain now and I’ve just finished this book. The whole way through I’ve had a niggling feeling that I’ve read this book before and I think I have, though I couldn’t really remember it. That says something.

I enjoy magic realism as much as the next person, but I wouldn’t count this as a fantastic example. Maybe most of it is to do with the book itself but I think part of it is also due to reality seeping in after a journey home. I had an amazing time at home, but also I was reminded of a lot of problems that get pushed to the back of my mind when in Spain.

When people comment how lucky we are to be living in Spain I always reply that we still live a normal life, go to work, have the same everyday problems as anybody else. But it’s not quite true. You are removed from your family and friends from home and with that you don’t always get told what is going on. A few things happening over the last few days have reminded me that many of what I perceive as being problems of living where I’m living should really just be classed as inconveniences. So maybe if you do want to avoid dealing with family and their issues you should move to the Costa del Sol and avoid the phonecalls.

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However to me it’s just not life. My main complaint is loneliness. The fewer friends and family you have around, the fewer problems. And also the fewer friends and family. I’m sure when I am home and deep into ‘real life’ I will often long for an escape to the blue skies and the peace. But despite my awkwardness and my lack of social skills I am a social creature and I need that community and despite some inroads I haven’t really developed it in the last 4 years.

So, mulling over the ‘real life’ to which I will shortly return, perhaps I wasn’t as accepting as I should have been of this story.

I thought Pedro was a whiny spineless lech who caved in too quickly when told he can’t marry Tita. Tita herself was too much of a saint and Rosaura too much of an ugly stepsister and Mami Elena too much of a witch. These are broad strokes and I can accept them in a fairytale (I’ve been reading plenty of those lately, post coming…), not in a novel. Pedro does not try very hard to convince Mami Elena. Tita is only 16, he could have waited. The plan of marrying one sister to be close to the other makes no sense, not even in a novel such as this.

At times I felt the passion of this great love between Pedro and Tita but I got bored of it. I thought John was one of the better written characters and would have much preferred the slowly building love which could be shown to outgrow the puppy love of Pedro and Tita. Thank God Tita at least tells Pedro, when he has the gall to suggest she shouldn’t marry anybody else: ‘next time you fall in love, don’t be such a coward!’

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And the ending, I’m sorry, but no. I’m reading this in the week of Gabriel Garcia Marques’s death. Maybe I was in a much better mood when reading 100 years of solitude (by the way Cartagena is the most beautiful city in South America, go visit it!) but this felt like a pale imitation.

The food as an emissory of love/sex I’ve read in other stories such as The Chef and the Food of Love. Those have been written since this and I suppose nobody has a monopoly on those themes, but the scene of the last wedding reminded me most of the orgy scene from ‘Perfume’.

Mami Elena is given some humanity after her death when letters are discovered between her and lover. Such a pity that this did not give her the empathy to understand Tita’s pain. It is as if she feels she was made do without this love so it should be the case for everybody else too.

When Rosaura’s daughter is born Tita decides to make peace, until she realises that Rosaura is also planning on forcing Esperanza to look after her into her old age.

The one thing that I think I ‘remember’ from a possible earlier reading is Gertrudis running away naked from the party. It’s just so strange that I remember so little else from before. Though it’s not surprising if I have read it really. I expected that on moving home the number of unread books I own would at least double, but most of the books on my Irish shelves have already been read. If I remember, of the books I’d read I only took a small number of precious ones. And I don’t see any reason why this would be among that number.

I am not denying that this wonderful passion may not exist between people such as Pedro and Tita, just that it would not survive such a long time unscathed. Resentment would creep in. No matter what the reason or how seemingly pure a love is I don’t think it can survive the marriage of one to another. Whatever remains is something different.

When Nights were Cold

by Susanna Jones

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One day I’d like to gather some friends together and take them to the refugio de Crestellina. When I’m on my own and heading for a walk my favourite route is up to the refugio from the village. I’ve never actually seen it open. I suppose, as a refugio it’s pretty close to civilisation. There are piles of branches beside the open air barbecue but the door is firmly shut. I was actually surprised to see on a local website that the place can be rented out, because it doesn’t look like the doors have been opened in years.

Apart from when there are groups of hikers taking advantage of the picnic tables it’s a very peaceful place.

I just have this image in my head of a rag tag gang of friends, backpacks full of food, the steep hike up and then picnic heaven, Maybe if we did get the keys and stay the night we could walk up to the viewing point and watch the sunset. The mirador here is one of the most amazing views of anywhere I know. To the south you have the Mediterranean, Gibraltar and behind it Jebel Musa the spectacular mountain rising out of the mists. To the west you gaze out over the Alcornales, to the north Sierra Crestellina of Casares, to the east Sierra Bermeja towering over Estepona. And just below you is the pueblo of Casares. As my sister said, if you took away the urbanizacion where you live it would be picture perfect.

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I like hiking, I wish I was just more motivated to do it on my own, or I could find some people to latch on to. Or that I could skip the years of practice and head out with my husband on his epic Sunday cycles.

My parents brought us hiking from a young age. We went on summer holidays in West Cork for a number of years until I was 12, when we went to the Alps for the first time. We went to Wengen in the Jungfrau valley and fell in love with the place. Two summers in the Austrian Alps did not compete in my mind. We returned the summer I was 15 and I told my parents I was going to come back and work in my summers when I was a student. I did work a summer by the Thunersee, but it was winter when I returned to Wengen, I had travelled 14 hours by train (reading material used up much earlier) and while on the last leg of the cog rail from Lauterbrunnen I was anxious. I’d just had a few emails and I’d had to borrow the train money from another student as my wages hadn’t come through. Also a few other students had left for Switzerland the week before and we hadn’t heard anything from them.

As I stepped off the train the snow began to fall and I watched a father pull his kid along on a sled. It was like a scene from a fairytale. There are no cars in the town, so one of the porters had an electric car for luggage and I trudged through the snow with the passengers.

Back then I had the same mini obsession with Switzerland that judging by my reading material I seem to be having for Ukraine at the moment. I ended up writing my first dissertation about Switzerland and couldn’t understand why my tutor assumed I must have a boyfriend there, the same way that years later everyone assumed I had left behind a boyfriend in Belarus. Why do people always assume there has to be a guy at the centre of all of these decisions?

That was 14 years ago and I haven’t been back to the Swiss mountains since then. I’ve been back to Switzerland twice in the last few years but just to Zurich on business. It’s a nice city but for me Switzerland is not about its cities, it’s the mountains that make it.

Reading this book really made me yearn to return to Switzerland. I missed out on the last business trip to Zurich, but I did not really mind, it would have been just another city trip. I want to see the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau again in all their majesty. And of course the Matterhorn. I went to Zermatt just once with an Inghams rep I’d met in Merligen. We met a Zermatt based rep that day and I remember at some stage having a conversation about young versus old people (let’s face it, hiking is quite popular with older people) and at the time my 19 year old self found it funny that the 38 year old rep was including himself in the ‘young’. Ah, youth!

Grace Farringdon was a similar age when she first went to the Alps. It wasn’t the Alps she’d been dreaming of though, but the Antarctic. As a young girl she followed Shackleton’s adventures and in the opening pages we read a letter volunteering her service and that of two friends. After this the Rebecca-esque opening line:

‘Last Night I tried to climb the Matterhorn again’

what starts out as a relatively straightforward coming of age story becomes more and more claustrophobic and you wonder about how truthful any narrative ever is, when it’s told from one person’s point of view.

In the early part of the book I found myself cringing at the views of Grace’s father, who does not believe his daughters should go to college. Catherine, the older, does not have the strength of character of Grace and submits to his will, a fact which eventually leaves her slightly unhinged, as her talents are left to rot. Or is that just how Grace sees it?

Her father later regrets playing out the Antarctic voyages and planting adventurous ideas in Grace’s mind. He himself loves reading about adventures to the coldest parts of earth, the highest mountains, the poles. He writes to the Times when he is not happy about something.

The headmistress in her school encourages further education but she herself is held up as an example of what might befall girls who wish to devote themselves to learning.

The Jungfrau railway is being built. Her father sees them as being a mutilation of Nature ‘we must protect the sublimity the mountain’. When asked about the Matterhorn ‘if they get away with building a railway to the top that’ll be the end of it as a proper mountain. You can take your wife up to the top and bring her down again half an hour later’.

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In a way I see his point. So many places are now accessible to so many people, whereas before it was God, nature and a few brave souls. However on the other hand, I have been to Jungfraujoch and delighted in the journey. It was also my first time skiing, aged 15 in shorts and Tshirt, fighting with the lifts on the way back up. This was the highest train station in Europe, but not the World, as that was one in Peru. That piece of information was tucked away and forgotten about until I started planning my trip to South America and decided I needed to do it, to go to Huancayo. It was interesting, but not one of the highlights of our trip. Especially since it is no longer the highest. That is now somewhere in China. Who knows, maybe I’ll get there some day. 

 

Grace goes to university and discovers cocoa parties the type of which I dreamed of when reading the Anne books. She idolises Shackleton and longs to go on an Antarctica adventure with him. She sees him speaking one day and on a whim steals his glove.

As the older Grace is telling the story from the time of the second world war we are told pretty early on that she is the only surviving member of her Antarctic exploration group, in fact, no spoiler alert needed, the back of the book tells us that too. I can understand the desire to visit the Antarctic. I really wanted to take a ship from Ushuaia, but economics got in the way. Another one for the list…

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The three others in her group are Lucy, a spirited actress who loves theatres in everyday life, Cecily Parr, an oddball who encourages the group to take up climbing and has some strong anti-suffrage beliefs and Winnie, who doesn’t want to push any boundaries but is just passing time until her fiancé finishes his studies.

There are plenty of clashes within the small group and Grace tries to keep everybody together. Cecily is the one who guides the group to active adventure rather than simply retelling the adventures of men.

We originally meet Frank as a bland figure in the background, a suitor of Catherine who fades ever further away when Catherine fails to stand up to her father. Grace meets him again in Wales, when the society goes on their first climbing expedition. To us, the readers, he seems like a different person, a romantic hero and we start to root for him and Grace but Catherine unwittingly comes between them. He notes ‘you’ve got so much more spirit than your sister’. And because of the original connection it seems that this romance is doomed from the start.

 

Cecily Parr takes effective control of the group’s mission and all year they are leading towards conquest of the Matterhorn. Even Winifred is on board, after she has been able to convince her fiancé that climbing is not unwomanly activity.

Random sentence I loved: ‘A Glacier was not always the jewelled floor of beauty I had imagined but something that moved from  brown to grey, was harsh with pleats, whorls and ugly growths that looked like tongues and fingers.’

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It does not end well, and Grace does not go back to university. Before the trip her father had died. Her small inheritance had funded the trip, but Catherine stayed in the house to look after her mother. Now Catherine felt it was her turn to be ‘free’. 

Frank turns up again, a new grown up, cynical man, not the idealistic artist he used to be.

I feel like I am just summarising a simple story here and it’s not a simple story. After the Switzerland trip Grace is changed, unsurprisingly, but for us the readers, she’s not somebody we can get behind and admire as easily any more. Everything, everybody is against her, but as we read, we begin to wonder how much of the craziness we encounter is Grace’s and how much everybody else.

I’ve never been a climber so I haven’t had the same brushes with death as the ladies in this book. I do remember one climb to a peak on the Thunersee. When I came back and told my boss where I had been she admonished me for going there without letting anybody know. Another day I was doing the loop Wengen-Männlichen-Kleine Scheidegg-Wengen when there was some terrifying thunder and lightning. I hurried up as much as I could (which is not very much in some people’s eyes I know) and was relieved when I was able to get back on the train and safely back to the motel. The owner was watching the TV in the breakfast room. ‘Any news?’ I said, not expecting anything interesting. But there was…and it was bad. During the storm a group had been caught in a canyoning accident and bodies were turning up in the Brienzersee. I couldn’t believe it, that this was happening further down the valley as I was trembling at the lightning. A total of 21 people died that day, a reminder that no matter how much we tame the mountains, there are always risks. 

This week we’ve read about the Sherpas who died in the avalanche on Everest, a harsh reminder that the mountains can be temporarily conquered, but that will not make it easier for the next.

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It’s been months since I started writing this piece and this May Day I’m back at the refugio. It’s closed and empty as usual. The birds are singing all around me. The sky is blue above, a blanket of fog is below. I’m going to miss this.

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I’m now in Zahara de la Sierra enjoying a cold beer after canyoning the Gargante Verde with a group from El Puerto de Santa Maria. It was amazing. It was just one of those times when going in nature out of touch from the ordinary life and feel so so so alive! Why do I bother getting manicures or facials or silly things like that (ok been some time, but even so) when I could just spend my time doing this. Why watch TV?

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I do love a stereotypical writer’s block. I’ve returned this morning to the end of yesterday’s barranquisimo. The icily cold water is spurting out of the canyon and while yesterday at this stage I was happy to splash about in it (being in the sun felt much mwarmer after the pools deep in the canyon). Today I’ve paddled a little before taking out my book. I do think the Sierra de Grazalema is one of my favourite parts of Andalucia and while Zahara and Grazalema are both beautiful villages, Grazalema tends to be a little bit overrun. 

I’m going to head back up now to meet D and hopefully find a slightly warmer swimming spot on the lake.

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Maybe I can then persuade him to drive back the way we came yesterday. I was too stressed about being late then to appreciate it. You know, I’ve got so many of these blogposts nearly ready, just needing to be finalised but I’ve realised today that it doesn’t matter. There will be plenty of rainy days in the future when I can do that.