Author: mspellt

Bucharest: First impressions

20180317_122204.jpgBucharest has an air of faded grandeur.  I had heard negative things from friends who had visited it and read equally negative comments on travel sites, but I warmed to the city.

It has those massive imposing buildings that European cities do so well and the U.K. doesn’t do at all.  Sadly many of them look neglected and there is a lot of graffiti.  Not the colourful, imaginative, street art graffiti that I saw and loved in Latin America.  Just words sprayed in black.  There are also gaps where some buildings are skeletal and roofless.

But the old city, where I was staying, has a lot of bookshops and several theatres (always a good sign, in my opinion).

Do not believe the Foreign Office website when it tells you that most businesses in Bucharest will accept euros.  Despite being technically in the Euro Zone the official currency is the local lei (lions).  Pretty much anywhere I came across turned their noses up at euros, apart from my hotel which graciously deigned to accept payment in euros when I completely forgot the PIN for my credit card.

I can highly recommend the Romanian Museum of Kitsch which probably deserves a post to itself.  Watch this space.

From what I have experienced so far Romanian cuisine is delicious, filling, fattening and served in extremely large portions.  Good job I was walking around a lot.

The people I came across were kind and friendly (especially the waiter who ran after me with the mobile phone I had left behind on a table). They also spoke English.  Thanks to You Tube I can now speak about six words of Romanian and that’s it.

After a few days in Bucharest on my own, I have now joined up with my Angloville group to volunteer on an English conversation programme for a week, as I was missing teaching English, travelling and meeting new people.


Tights – the new exercise routine

The other day I decided to sort through my remaining pairs of tights to see which were wearable and which should be sentenced to cloth recycling.

This involved trying on every single pair of the twenty or so I found, to make completely sure they a) still fit me and b) weren’t full of holes.

After only a few pairs I realised something interesting – trying on tights is exhausting.  Their name is entirely accurate – they are tight and most pairs do not slip on and off easily.  Those which do are priceless beyond rubies and should be treasured for all time (or until they completely fall apart).

Mostly though, you have to wriggle in and out of them using a lot of effort and care in order to get your foot way down in to the foot shaped bit, without tearing the material, then carefully rolling/pulling the remainder up, hoping against hope that the crutch will actually align itself comfortably with your crutch and the waistband will stay up above your expanding waistline.  Then finally you have to gently coax all the wrinkles upwards, again trying not to tear anything, so your legs look vaguely respectable.

After I’d repeated this process three or four times I was sweating and breathless, just like I am after a good aerobic workout.  By the time I’d tried all of the adjectival things I needed to lie down for half an hour.  (The good news is they all fit and only one pair had a hole in it.)

So I realised there is a gap in the market for a new exercise routine involving this activity.  I plan to call it “Tight-ercise” (or, over the Pond, “Pantyhose-ercise”, but that just doesn’t have the same ring, in my honest opinion).


Health and other concerns

So I finally saw the cardiologist.  The ECG done at the hospital that day was fine and he obviously wasn’t too impressed with the one done at my GP’s surgery.
He discussed my activity levels with me and reassured me that I do not have a heart condition.

Because of my history of high cholesterol he is going to send me for a CT scan of my heart to see if the arteries are furred up, but that won’t be for another few months as it’s not regarded as urgent.

Meanwhile I have the go ahead to travel/work/take cardio exercise etc.

If only life were that simple.

Almost inevitably, as a result of my total failure to go to Thailand, my husband and I have been thrown back together and have decided not to get divorced after all.  Instead we’re trying to “make it work”.

So I can’t just rush abroad again and look for employment teaching ESL.  My husband works in the U.K. and his earnings pay our enormous mortgage instalments. Well, they seem enormous to me, as I expected to own a property outright by now.

Thus I need to stay in this country too.  And, ideally, find employment.  I have three choices for earning a living.  Lawyer, secretary, ESL teacher.

In all honesty I have no desire to teach ESL in the U.K.  The only point (for me) of teaching ESL is you get to live in an exotic and hopefully sunny country with a low cost of living.

I can’t really face doing clerical/secretarial work again.  So much stress for so little money.  If I’m going in for that lifestyle I might as well go back to Legal Aid work.  Assuming I can find any.

I was admitted as a solicitor in December 1992.  In December 2013 I transferred to the Bar and was “called” at Lincoln’s Inn.  For most of what I jokingly refer to as my career I worked in criminal defence.  During my entire working life I felt I was running in front of a juggernaut that was eventually going to knock me down, to wit: the ever increasing cuts to Legal Aid and the justice system generally.

When I last worked as a secretary a few years ago it was for the NHS. “Bank” work, i.e. zero hours contract, for a couple of local hospitals.  I seem to have a compulsion to work for important institutions that are being systematically destroyed by the government.

I have now sent out applications to the five local chambers that cover criminal work, two in Exeter, two in Plymouth and one in Taunton.  I am currently in that comfortable zone between applying and being rejected when one can fantasise about what the work might be like and how much one would enjoy it.

The reality is that any chambers which are recruiting want barristers with Crown Court trial experience, which I do not have.  I would love to get some – it’s a feeling of unfinished business I have in terms of my legal career.  But my time is running (has run?) out.

If I don’t find work as a barrister locally then going back abroad will be seriously tempting. And what happens to “making it work” then?


The not-so-nice side of international travel Part Two

I was going to follow on from the previous post with some cheery old bollocks about how despite travel sometimes involving stressful or unpleasant events It Was All Worth It In The End (sounds of heavenly choirs).

However, the loss of money from the scam in Costa Rica was just one of a string of problems.

Having made it to Cahuita I was keen to try the life style I’d always wanted: tapping creatively away at my laptop in an open air café, enjoying sunshine and the occasional cocktail.

And, for the couple of days in which I was able to do this, it was great!  Exactly as I’d dreamed of. Finally I was writing and writing regularly. The feminist Hemingway. An ageing digital nomad.  This was how my life was supposed to be.

Cahuita was tropically, stickily, hot. But hey, that’s what I wanted right?  A change from British weather.  So why complain?  Just get on and write.  And I did.

Until the flip side of the hot weather reared its ugly head.  As I walked back to my Air BnB early one evening the heavens opened.  I had never experienced precipitation like it. I was instantly soaked to the skin.

It was a ten minute walk back from the centre of this tiny town to the cabin by the beach I was staying in.  There was nowhere to shelter on the way so I just kept plodding on.  No problem, except later when I tried to use my MacBook it typed gibberish, totally unrelated to the keys I was hitting.

I had to cut my trip short and return to San Jose to find an Apple store (known as iCon in Latin America should you ever need to know).  The helpful assistant said I could either wait around for a few days while my Mac was sent off to an engineer, or I could just buy a bluetooth keyboard for $100.

I decided to go with the latter option.  The assistant felt I had made the right choice, as there was no guarantee my Mac’s keyboard could even be fixed.  His initial diagnosis?  That (despite being inside its own carry case and a small backpack) the Mac had been penetrated by the  torrential rain and was extremely unhappy about it.

I found it difficult to juggle using the blue tooth keyboard and watching the screen on my Mac at the same time.  Pathetic I know, but my writing dwindled to a halt.  Any excuse.

As well as these two incidents in Costa Rica I also experienced (in no particular order of importance):

  • Losing my dental bite guard (probably during an over-enthusiastic search of my hand luggage when flying out of Mexico City).
  • How incredibly tiring travelling actually is, as I constantly tried to see as much as possible in a short space of time while simultaneously planning ahead and booking my next flights and destinations.
  • The loneliness of a being a single traveller (or more accurately an older single female traveller).
  • The loss of one earring of a pair I’d bought in Mexico and was looking forward to taking home.
  • The MacBook suddenly made a full recovery and the keyboard was working again! Yay!
  • BUT THEN – the apartment I was staying in was burgled and my beloved MacBook, its charger and  pink neoprene case were stolen, together with my Tesco Hudl (a tablet, in case you’ve never heard of them).  The burglar did manage to miss the bluetooth keyboard.  I still have that.
  • The burglary took place the day before I was due to fly back to the U.K.  The police officer who came to the apartment swore he would have a copy of the police report delivered the next morning before I left.  No sign of report before I finally had to set off in order not to miss my plane.
  • The very expensive travel insurance (world wide, for a year) I paid for will not pay up for the loss of my MacBook without a copy of a police report.  The claim is currently being dealt with by the underwriters. I am not hopeful.

After all this I was depressed and felt the Fates really did not want me either to travel or to write. Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for this lifestyle?  Then things got worse.

When I returned to England I only expected to spend a month here. My flight to Thailand was already booked.  I intended to travel around sightseeing but also popping into ESL colleges touting my wares. I hoped to find work so I could stay on longer than the month allowed on a tourist visa.

While back in Blighty I visited my GP and discovered I have probably had a heart attack some time (or times!) in the last few years.  I was given medical advice not to travel and had to cancel my flight to Bangkok at the last minute.

So suddenly instead of being a blog about someone following her dreams and travelling the world, this became a blog about someone waiting for an NHS appointment. No wonder I didn’t feel inspired to write anything.

But in a couple of days I finally get to see the cardiology consultant and find out whether I get to travel again or not.  Having made a bullet list of my woes while travelling they look a bit petty, really.

So if the medics give me the go ahead to go abroad again, will I?  Too bloody right I will.


The not-so-nice side of international travel Part One

Ok I might as well admit to this straight out.  I just got conned, stupid gringa tourist that I am.

There is a scam by “taxi drivers” in San José, Costa Rica where they tell you the transport workers are about to go on strike at noon for four days and you will be stuck in San José for several days with everyone charging massive fees for overnight accommodation.

Very convincing, involving lots of “helpful” phone calls to try and assist you book transport out of the city, even allowing you to speak to someone who speaks English and says there are no seats left.

They then offer to drive you all the way, or part of the way, to where you are going at an inflated rate.

In my case because I had just arrived in Costa Rica the night before and hadn’t got to grips with the local currency, Costa Rican colones, (which is one of those confusing ones where you are pretty much a millionaire as soon as you go to an ATM and then you spend thousands on a cup of coffee) they scammed me out of about $440 (£337; €375).

I am such a GULLIBLE IDIOT.  Mainly I am just so angry at myself for falling for this and not being able to stand up for myself.  One of my very British problems was that I began to suspect fairly quickly that this may be a con, but did not want to confront this nice and helpful man and make a scene.  He even had his schoolboy son in the cab with him.

He put in lots of masterful touches: holding my arm as I crossed slippery ground to the ATM; advising me to always keep my luggage with me on the bus as he dropped me off and finally giving me a typical Latin American hug and kiss goodbye as he wished me luck and bade me farewell.

There is even a part of me (the former criminal defence lawyer part) that has a certain admiration for how well-crafted the scam was.  I blame myself entirely.  I don’t subscribe to that “fool me once, shame on you but fool me twice, shame on me” rubbish.  Fool me  once and it’s completely my own fucking fault.

Plus it has, of course, seriously messed up my budget for this trip round Latin America.  And my faith in taxi drivers, who up until now have been a pretty regular component of my means of travel.

But on the positive side I was not hurt (another thing I liked about the grift, no threats or violence just pure charm), I did get taken in the direction I wanted to go and then after a couple of bus journeys I reached my destination safely.

My destination was Cahuita, a tiny townlet on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.  I have never seen the Caribbean before other than on movies.

And the first people I met here were three lovely ladies, who restored my faith in human nature, two American ex-pats living here and a local café owner. They took me to the nearest ATM and made sure I got to my Air BnB Ok.  My Air BnB hosts are also great and were most upset about my bad introduction to their country.

So now I’m back in positive international traveller mode, although I am rethinking some of my travel plans as a result of this incident.

However, I have been mulling over in the last few weeks the aspects of travel I really don’t like and this has reinforced those thoughts, of which more in a later post.


Memo to self …….

….. don’t ever get acrylic nails again.  Before I left Cuenca I attended the 25th anniversary bash of the college I’d been teaching at for the previous nine months.  As a lot of us hadn’t had a chance to dress up for some time we decided to make a real effort.

As part of my effort I had acrylic nails for the first time ever.  Long and beautifully decorated in colours to match my dress.  They looked good.  I was happy with them on the night.

I then discovered there were certain drawbacks to said nails.  It was impossible for me to put in, or take out, earrings without a high risk of dropping them on the floor for example.  Inserting contact lenses became a dangerous occupation.

But the biggest problem was when they started to grow out.  My nails grow quickly.  Soon two of the acrylic tips were regularly catching on things and eventually bent my own nails back to such an extent it was incredibly painful to perform the most everyday of tasks: taking money out of my wallet; trying to find something in my backpack.

Luckily in Mexico City I located a very helpful nail salon who swiftly removed my offending false nails.  My real nails, which were pretty crap to begin with, looked even worse once freed up.  The two injured ones had to be cut back practically to the quick (by me, the nail salon did not want to do it) to avoid them catching and ripping off in blood and anguish.  They are still pretty short and when I remember I paint nail strengthener on them.

Well, that pretty much confirms my belief in the overall troublesomeness of cosmetics and enhancing one’s appearance generally.

Election Time

Am in the middle of reading the Labour Party’s Manifesto at the moment.

I’ve had a somewhat turbulent relationship with the Labour Party throughout my life.  It was the party my Dad (mostly) voted for, so of course it was the party I voted against when I could first vote.  (I was part of the generation that got the vote at age 18.)

By the time I went to university I was voting Labour.  In my late twenties a Labour Party activist knocked on the door of my flat in Leyton, East London.

Having established I was friendly he asked me if I had ever considered joining the Labour Party?  I responded along the lines of “Well, occasionally, but if I lie down in a darkened room the feeling generally passes.”  However I did end up joining the local branch of the party and for the next few years being an active member was pretty much my social life.

I went to ward meetings once a week and was elected Women’s Section rep to the General and Executive Committees which met once a month. Don’t even ask – I’ve completely forgotten the arcane structure at that time, all I remember is that I effectively got four votes on everything: one as an ordinary member; one as a member of Women’s Section and two more on GC and EC.  For the latter two I was supposed to vote as mandated by Women’s Section, but fortunately we usually agreed with each other.

I also became a school governor via the Labour Party and was one of the committee running our local social club.

Then drifting gently on the horizon came a dark cloud – New Labour.  An organisation apparently claimed as her finest achievement by Margaret Thatcher.  It became clear to me that, rather than trying to persuade the public what we stood for was worthwhile, we were prepared to sell out everything we stood for in order to get elected.

So I left the party.  This was at the time of Kinnock.  Things got even worse under Blair.  By then I was a Legal Aid lawyer, specialising  in criminal defence.  The Blairite government systematically trashed Legal Aid and cut back on the Criminal Justice system to the extent that it struggled to function on a daily basis.

I remember attending a protest march in London (by then I was living in Devon) about cuts to Legal Aid.  One of the speakers was Shami Chakrabarti, at that time director of Liberty, who reminded us that when Atlee’s Labour government set up the welfare state after the Second World War its three pillars were the NHS, the education system and Legal Aid.  “It took another Labour government and a Labour government packed with lawyers to destroy Legal Aid,” she stated.

Ah, neoliberalism, the ideology for Labour voters who cannot bring themselves to admit they’re Tories.

During this period I did not vote Labour because I cannot overestimate the depth of bitterness and betrayal I felt towards Blair and his cronies.  This was easier while living in Devon because the Liberal Democrats were the only party that had any chance against the Tories.  I even had a brief flirtation with the Greens back in the 90s.

To be honest I was relieved when the Tories got back in, at least you know what to expect from the Tories.  You can’t hate a slug for being a slug.  I figured things couldn’t get any worse and at least I wouldn’t  have any expectations to be let down by.

Ok, I hold my hands up.  I was wrong.

Then along came this Jeremy Corbyn guy who looked as though he might get elected to be leader of Labour.  When I say “along came” he’d actually been there for years, sticking to his principles and refusing to give up on the Labour Party.   So he had more guts than me.

I kept thinking maybe I should re-join and vote for him …… and not getting round to it.  Then he was elected and I re-joined Labour after an absence of over twenty years.  Me and a lot of others.

After that came the ridiculous spectacle of the second leadership election.  This pushed me into joining Momentum.  So now I’m a dangerous Trot.  You have a problem with that?

Here we are nearly at election day, the Tories having shot themselves in the foot with Brexit and now, possibly, by calling a general election which they assumed would be a walk in the park.

Corbyn has done himself and us proud with his rallies and speeches and properly costed manifesto.

I was shocked to discover that some of my supposedly left-wing friends did not accept Jezza as our lord and saviour.  “Well, he just can’t unite the party behind him, a leader should be able to do that.”  Ehm, how do you unite a Parliamentary Labour Party where at least a third of them have an intractable vested interest in getting rid of you?

Me and my husband have also had a few arguments over that one.

Don’t even get me started on my disillusionment with J. K. Rowling. Loved her books, admired her philanthropy and suddenly there she is tweeting nonsense about “we have to get rid of Corbyn before he drags us all back to the 70s”.

What was so bad with the 70s anyway?  I was there and we had a great NHS and a grant system that allowed those of us, who would never otherwise have had a chance, to go to university.  (I managed to screw up all the advantages I was given, but that was entirely my responsibility and not the Welfare State’s.)

Like the aforementioned Kinnock I was the first in my family to obtain a degree, let alone a professional qualification.  Two generations previously my Grandad had to go to work to shovel coal in the railway sidings, while in pain from an ulcer on his leg, because it was piece work and if he didn’t turn up he wouldn’t get paid and couldn’t support his family.  Nope, the 70s were all right by me.

Neoliberalism hasn’t worked.  Can we please just admit that and go back to actually caring what happens to people?

I cannot understand why anyone other than a bloated plutocrat would even consider voting Tory given the current state of the U.K.  And yet they do.  Apparently my age group are the worst.  I am told they are afraid of change.  God, change in these circumstances would be wonderful.

It’s true that both the main parties are guilty of entirely ignoring a complete swathe of voters who then got us all back by jumping up out of nowhere and voting for Brexit.  Oops.  The Labour Party needs to go down on its knees to some of its previous voters who are now tempted to vote Ukip and Tory and remind them that their fathers fought and died in a war against fascism, then ask what the Party can do to assuage their fears and make their lives better.

I think Corbyn and the current manifesto have tried very hard to do just that, but still the  dregs of the mainstream media hold sway over these people.  Irrational fears of immigration, fear mongering over “terrorist sympathisers”, empty slogans of “getting our country back”.

If we lose on Thursday it will be because of this iceberg of voters, mostly hidden but incredibly effective at blocking progress.

And as for me, what am I doing to help Our Glorious Leader reach Number 10?  Well I am one of the so-called WASPI women i.e. one minute I was supposed to be collecting my state pension at age sixty and the next the goalposts had been moved way down the field to when I am sixty-six.

So to cope with this and avoid ongoing domestic difficulties I left the country.  Currently I teach English as a Second Language in Ecuador.  So I can’t really get out and knock on doors, unfortunately.  I do what I can.  I send small amounts of money to the Labour Party and Momentum to help with campaigning.  I comment and re-post on social media.  It’s not much but it’s better than nothing.

Oh and I do have a vote.  My husband has my proxy and has sworn to me he will do what I ask and vote Labour.  Better not get divorced before Thursday then.

I did consider returning to the U.K. if Labour gets in.  If that happens (and it is looking vaguely possible compared to a few weeks ago) it will be one of the most exciting periods in U.K. political history for a very long time.

But then I thought how depressed I would be if they don’t get in and decided to continue with my planned trip to Thailand to look for work this autumn.

Thus if things go horribly wrong I will have something else to concentrate on.  If they go right I will only be away for six months or so.  I will still have the option to come back and be a part of it all.


P.S. I will continue to read J. K. Rowling’s books.  Bet that’s a load off her mind then.




The positive parasite

As well as visiting Peru I managed to spend a couple of days in Bolivia.  I have had a persistent stomach upset ever since leaving there several days ago.

It is possible I picked up a parasite (I knew I shouldn’t have brushed my teeth with the local tap water).  I am arranging to get a test and find out.

However, for the last few days I have been uncharacteristically positive and happy, had loads of energy, coped amazingly well with dreary everyday demands and I have written regularly.

So perhaps the parasite is eating all my negativity?

Maybe I should just keep it and give it a name.

It bloody rains a lot in South America

Just over four years ago I had my delayed mid-life crisis.  This mainly consisted of waking up in the middle of the night thinking “I don’t want to end up lying on my death bed regretting all the things I didn’t do”.

Eventually this crystallised into a sort of plan.  “I want to go somewhere warm and work with animals”.  The somewhere warm ended up being Ecuador.  So having always been a bit of a wimpy, middle-aged traveller even when I was a teenager (blame my parents, I do, for most things) I suddenly had to be adventurous and go to South America.

I spent six weeks in Ecuador, one month volunteering at an animal rescue centre and two weeks being a tourist, scratching a couple of things off my bucket list (Galapagos; rainforest).  I loved it.  So much that I came back last September, this time to work in Ecuador for nine months as an ESL teacher. Also I hope to travel around and see some more of Latin America.

But what concerns me is the “somewhere warm” issue.  On my first visit I stayed for four weeks in a city in the north of Ecuador (about an hour’s drive from the Colombian border) called Ibarra.  There was the odd rain shower but mostly it was sunny.  And warm. Even though it was October.

The Galapagos Islands were blazing hot and dry.  Yes, the rainforest was, well, rainy.  But it was hot rain and I was so distracted by the amazing things I was seeing that I didn’t really care.

So possibly I got a misleading impression of South America being mainly warm and dry.

When I returned last year I came to work in Cuenca, a city in the south of Ecuador.  It is up in the Andes, but so was Ibarra so I had expected a similar climate.  Guidebooks describe Cuenca as having “a year-round spring-like climate”.  This is probably accurate if they mean a British spring-like climate where it pisses down with rain a lot.  Plus it’s surprisingly cold at night.

Before I go any further I should make it clear that I love living in Cuenca.  It’s a wonderful city and I will write more about this later.  But for now I am sticking with the issue of precipitation.

One of the main reasons I was desperate to leave the U.K. was the rain.  Miserable, grey, cold, drenching downpours that make any journey a major effort.  My mood is vastly affected by the weather.  If it’s grey and rainy I am morose and immobile.  If the sky is clear, the sun is shining, a soft breeze is playing and the birdies are tweeting I feel I can conquer the world.  You get the picture.

What tends to happen in Cuenca is we have a wonderful sunny morning and then a grey and rainy afternoon. Sometimes followed by a grey and rainy evening. I particularly don’t appreciate this as my teaching hours start at 3 p.m. so I usually have to travel in the pouring rain.

Recently I went to Peru for two weeks.  I loved the desert climate of Lima, where it apparently rarely rains.  Yes, it is a little humid, but I am practising for my next planned teaching destination (Thailand) in my eternal quest for warmth and sunlight.

On my way to visit Machu Picchu I stayed in Cusco in the south of Peru and I was once again back in Cuenca’s climate – rain and cold nights.

However, I made an unhappy discovery.  When I was in Lima there was no air conditioning in my hotel room and I was too sluggish to do anything in the heat. There was no heating in my room in Cusco and I was freezing – but I still managed to put some warm layers on and do some writing.  So perhaps my plans to live in a warm climate while trying to be productive are doomed to failure?

And in case you think I’m exaggerating here is a video of a Cuenca rainstorm taken from the window of my apartment.  You may not be able to see the rain, but you will hear it.  In this particular storm hailstones, thunder and lightning were also part of the mix although I did not catch them on film.

So here’s the thing …

… I’m supposed to be a writer.  All my life, pretty much (well at least since I read “A Wrinkle In Time” when I  was eight years old) I have wanted to be a writer.  And I even wrote.  More than that I even sold stuff and got published.  Just a few short stories and articles, but it was something.

So why is it so incredibly difficult to make myself sit down and write?  Every time I think about it I start to panic.  The panic spreads into the rest of my life. Thus in my spare time when I should be writing I find myself sleeping; making cups of tea; reading other people’s writing; watching TV and films online.  Or just sitting paralysed and sick with nerves.  I even start worrying about the things I have to do before I can get some free time to start writing.

Now I’ve written myself into a corner because I finished the last post on a cliffhanger waiting for my husband to arrive.  So good practice would be to carry on from there.  Detail what happened and give some back story.  But actually I feel like writing about other things now.

So I think the only way to escape from this corner is just to publish this post.  As it is.  And then simply carry on writing what I feel like when I feel like it.  Otherwise I will never write at all.