Saturday, 27 August 2011

A General Update

It's been a wet old summer.  A typically English wet old summer, with the sunny days as rare as rubies being welcomed by people with gratitude and adjectives followed by exclamation marks, such as "gorgeous day!" or "you can't stay indoors on a day like this!"

In the past when my parents would come to stay with me, I would suggest an outing and Dad would flick the curtain and say - "Mm, don't think so.  It's a bit cloudy."  Consequently we rarely went anywhere. 

When you live here you consult the weather only in the way that people check their watches - merely to verify how long you've got before the weather gets seriously bad.  Not because it might stop you going out, but in order to wear the right clothes.

I really don't mind this sort of weather, because I so hate feeling hot, and nobody has air-conditioning because it's not worth the expense for two or three weeks of the year (though when they come I'd mortgage my soul to have it installed right this minute...)

The job

I'll be changing jobs soon, though not venturing far.  For the past three years I've worked in research admin in the urology department of a local hospital, with some secretarial duties thrown in.  For some time now the funding has been uncertain - it's the same all over the NHS - and I'm on a rolling month contract.  This means I don't really know from one month to the next whether I have a job or not, and it was suggested to me that I see if there were any other research admin jobs within the hospital which had slightly better prospects.  I found one in rheumatology, and was lucky enough to get it, so I start at the beginning of October.  Mind you, it's only a 6-month posting, and at the end of March the hunt for another job will start again.  I'm sorry to leave where I am now, but the future there is too uncertain.  I'll be just a (long) corridor away anyway.

The weight

Sigh - not brilliant.  The band continues to protect me, and having gained some 5 kg, the numbers are staying put for the time being because I'm trying harder not to buy chocolate.  However it remains a fact that the band stops me from eating the salads and vegetables I love, and I haven't the patience to keep making soup.  It's the texture and the sense of filling up on low calorie foods that I enjoy and am unable to do.  I end up drinking too much milk, which is one of the reasons why I'm not losing.  And not to mention lack of exercise...

The blog(s)

A friend is helping me to do a makeover, and what you see now (pale green background) is the in-between stage.  Dark backgrounds are much better for showing off pictures, and ultimately I prefer the dark background and light print.  I do love having virtually the whole width of the screen to play with, and two columns instead of one.  I'm planning a special header, though my IT friend may tell me it can't be done.  We'll have to see.

As far as content is concerned, anybody who reads me regularly (bless them) knows that I've drifted away from writing about the lapband and weight issues, except occasionally.  I hold up my hands and admit that it's partly because I'm not doing very well at it for now, but it really isn't only that.  I'm very happy to read about other bloggers' experiences and updates, but I can't face writing a lot about it here:  what would happen is that I'd post less and less.  I've noticed that many of my favourites only update every 2 weeks...2 months... and longer, and if you're reading this, then I miss you, and would love to know what's going on in your lives, good or bad.  But I don't want this to happen to me.

The only way I could keep going AND enjoy it, was to write properly, not as a journal.  I had stories I wanted to tell, I wondered if anyone would be interested, and I told them.  I have lots more, and one of the changes I'm working on is to have a voting section at the end of the story posts (not the rest), to ask you to vote anonymously on whether you like that particular one, or not.  It'll help me look at how and what I'm writing, hopefully to improve.  I sense that the longer ones might be considered boring - or too packed with facts which make them difficult to follow - and I'm trying to address that, though some stories are necessarily longer than others. 

My blog is my home from home.  I can't wait to get back to it at the end of the working day, to see how many hits I've had that day, whether there are any comments, and to watch the list of countries of unique visitors.  I've been delighted at how the number of Argentines, Chileans and Spaniards has slowly crept up in the last few months, and this weekend Argentina has drawn level with Canada in this regard.  What is even more exciting is that in the stats I've been able to see that the Argentine readers have the greatest number of page views after the US and the UK. 

I'm of course most grateful to people of every nationality for taking the trouble to read me (as opposed to the 3 second visit where a glance at the heading sends them straight on to the next one!).  I thank you all, and particularly the lapband Followers who haven't taken their names away.

This is another little cross-pollinating from my other blog, Eavesdroppings & Stories:

Background: She is a highly organised individual, listmaker supreme and the tidiest mind I know. Some years ago she and her husband decided to cross hemispheres to have a long faraway holiday involving several mini breaks and stopovers within the holiday. Unwilling to hand over the responsibility of its coordination to an agent, she planned it efficiently and meticulously, compiling numerous interrelated charts and lists. Means of travel at every stage? Tick. Budget? Tick. Right clothes – and only what was strictly necessary to enable them to travel light? Tick. Medication ordered in advance? Tick. Visas, overseas driving licences? Double tick. All set, they departed for Heathrow airport, and once there headed for the correct check-in desk.
Check-in hostess: Passports and tickets please.... excuse me, this passport does not agree with the name on the ticket.

A stressful conversation ensued.

What he didn't say: For crying out loud, she’s brought her daughter’s passport by mistake! Little Miss Perfect – I DON’T think... What do we do now?

What she didn’t say: Why must I have to think of everything – he could have checked them...

Him: (annoyed) Well I’ll have to go on ahead on my own, and you join me as soon as possible, say a day late...

Check-in hostess: Ah, but just a moment Sir, you’ve brought an out of date passport – look, it’s got the edge clipped off by the Home Office. So where’s your new one? (Sees his flushed face) – ah... at home I take it?

What he and she said: Censored

(PS: There was a grumpy and recriminatory return home, and the holiday was eventually started three days late. The travel charts had to be torn up...)


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's photo archive

(All non-digital, except for the Gilbert & Sullivan pictures)

Sunset at Portishead

St Ives, Cornwall. 
(Another doorway for Zanna's collection.)

Gilbert & Sullivan's The Yeoman of the Guard, 2011

Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance, 2008

A fountain in Requena, Spain


A little robin in my garden


Saturday, 20 August 2011

Tales from Argentina - The Boarding School (Part 2 of 2)

I have dredged through my mind to bring every positive and interesting fact into the open, because my overpowering and abiding memories of those three years I spent there were unhappy. 

I was always hungry and dreaming of mashed potato; I was permanently cold in the winter months - at 5 I didn’t know how to tuck in my clothes to ensure I didn’t get a freezing draught round the middle; I had chilblains on the fleshy part of my hands at the base of my thumb, and suffered from constant earaches.  I was lonely and sometimes scared, because there was a touch of The Lord of the Flies (1) about my life there.  We were left to fend for ourselves and I remember feeling constantly anxious. 

In this show celebrating the national day in May, we were dressed in pale blue and white crepe paper, the colours of the flag.  This was autumn, and I remember the prickly grass underneath, hence the expression on our faces.  I'm second from the left.

Bullying went unchecked and I had to be careful to keep out of the boys’ way, particularly after an incident when I had climbed a willow tree and by mistake knocked off an oven bird nest (they are made of mud, and the oven bird abandons the nest each year, so there are many empty ones around stranded on tree tops) which glanced off the shoulder of one of the girls.  The boys all gathered round the foot of the tree and yelled at me that they would not let me get down.  I explained – then cried – that I had not done it on purpose, and I was sorry, but in vain.  I was kept up the tree for a couple of hours as I got increasingly frightened and wanted to go to the toilet.  They sat and watched, and eventually drifted away when dinnertime came and they must have got bored.
Oven bird nest (internet)
I don’t know if I was clumsy or just unlucky, but some time after that I unknowingly slammed the bathroom door on the finger of a little girl (who carries the scar to this day), and the following Sunday it was my turn to be dragged before the courts at Sunday Service.  I had to stand up and be told that I was cruel and careless, and had made the child cry.  Red-faced, I whispered sorry and sat down feeling thoroughly humiliated.

I was always frightened of the boys, who did exactly what they liked with the children such as me who weren’t good at standing up for themselves, though I would clarify that the bullying was never s.exual, probably because they weren’t old enough.  On my eighth birthday they took me behind a barn and gave me the bumps – one boy at each leg and arm, and bounced me up and down, then pulled my ear eight times, with the last pull being particularly vicious and which left me – again – with an earache.  It was a violent experience.

When it was hot enough to swim in the pool I couldn’t wait to get in, yet often found myself clinging to the edge because those who ventured into the middle got vigorously ducked (repeatedly) by the boys, terrifying for those who were still learning to swim.  We were organised to swim there in two batches, so there were at least fifteen children in the pool at any one time.  The adult in charge would look on impassively.

When as a child these things happen to you in the presence of adults and no remark is made, that's when you feel truly alone because you assume that their lack of response indicates that they are normal behaviour.

The same thing would happen when we were out riding.  The juniors like me were not given saddles, and we had to manage with a piece of sacking and a strap.  We therefore had no stirrups which would have helped us protect our spines, and at one point I had a permanent running sore on my coccyx which nobody noticed for some time.    But in those days, Sunday mornings and the mandatory “going for a ride because it’s good for you” would make me long to be ill and be able to stay in the dorm.  I was always the last because I was one of the smallest and couldn’t kick the horse into action, besides it hurting the base of my spine.  If I wasn’t last it would be because some of the boys would come up behind me and whip my horse, which taken by surprise would sprint off at great speed and fill me with terror. 

This was certainly because I was a 'townie', but at no point did anyone try to teach me how to cope – at any level.  Riding didn’t become a pleasure until many years after I left the school.

The country girls were tough; they had brothers and knew how to give as good as they got, and I’m afraid I wasn’t in this category.  However the worst thing you could do was ‘snivel’ and I struggled hard all the time not to – and usually succeeded - since I knew I would be held in contempt.  Nobody taught me how to keep warm, or told me that bullying was wrong and I was right to feel scared, that it was wrong to feel hungry, that it was OK to cry when I had a bruised coccyx and no one to look after me.  Maida my rag doll was my only proper link with home, and I was devastated one night when during a pillow fight in the dorm someone picked her up and threw her, and she landed in the middle of the room, face down in the half full chamber pot.  I rescued her and washed her face as best I could, and she still has pride of place on a shelf in my bedroom today:

Maida, aged 53

It took me years to work out that the problem with the school at that time was that there was no supervision of the children, no teaching of the basics which might otherwise have been taught by parents, and very little warmth or compassion from the staff.  We were little children of 5, 6, 7, expected to know how to fend for ourselves; it was hardly surprising that some of them developed feral instincts.  Taken together I construe it as neglect, probably because – along with the textbooks - they could not afford the extra staff it would have required.

End of year show 1961 - on a "princess and the pauper" theme

Now a pauper - with the other princess in the background

During the winter holidays in July 1961 my parents finally realised that despite having fed me up at Christmas I was once again run down, and after visiting a doctor for some minor ailment, he warned my mother that I was showing signs of moderately severe malnutrition.  Once again I was at home being allowed to eat exactly what and as much as I pleased, and on returning to school for the next term the headmistress’ response to my mothers concerns was a suggestion that I should be given a tonic.  By the end of the school year in November and following a row between my mother and the redoubtable Aunt Rose, they took me away from the school, and it was the happiest day of my life up to that point.

I have been told by people slightly older than myself who attended this establishment that  ‘townie’ children like me were bound to find it a bit difficult.   My response to this is to say that a verdict can only be given many years later, when its long term effects are judged.  You only have to read a few dozen autobiographies to know that unhappy schooldays are experienced by a great number of people, from the Royal Family and Jane Eyre on downwards, and I’m perfectly aware that I’m one of millions. 

But that doesn’t make it any better, or any more excusable.  The old British public school methods taught you to become leaders of men, but not good parents and friends.  They taught you to bear suffering in silence with stiff upper lip, which makes for a stirring story but not for a properly balanced individual equipped to withstand emotional pain and hurt without taking it out on others in later life.

If I must take on the whole of the middle and upper class British establishment as well as the farm children who coped with this life to say this, I will, and with confidence: seeing your parents once a month for a few hours and never alone, is at best quite wrong, and at worst crucial to stunted emotional development.  Can all these people honestly say that they have brought up their own children in the same way or watched their grandchildren being brought up thus?

This year is the 50th anniversary of my leaving the school in 1961.  I was there between the ages of 5 and 8.  Fifty years on I can say with absolute clarity that feeling permanently hungry - not to mention zooming up in weight every time I went home and losing a lot when I got back to school every term - sowed the seeds of what would become a weight problem all my life.  Being bullied by boys gave me an inability to communicate properly with the male section of society for the next twenty years, and a problem with communication itself.  Nobody remembers my stammering before I went to the school, but that I had a very noticeable speech impediment when I came home, which was so marked for the next ten years that I could only really say out loud what was in my head when I was at home with the family.  Not that I was dumb outside home exactly, but I never spoke without a stutter, and got teased a lot, even on occasion by teachers, in front of other pupils.  These issues are all understood better these days. 

All this created a feeling in me of always being left behind, or excluded, not helped by the fact that my schooling at the boarding school with no textbooks was so inadequate that I was a very poor student for the next few years.  However, I do recognise that this, and the fact that my stutter didn’t improve for so long, was also because for various reasons I kept changing schools.  Once I got to secondary school I became a very good student and won prizes – evidence if it were needed.

My parents’ – particularly my mother’s – upbringing had been tough, and the difficulties she encountered lasted much longer than just the first few years.  I imagine therefore that she wanted us to be like her and come out fighting.  Neither of my parents realised for three years that what might have started as my being one of several children slipping through the net,  had become neglect by the school, and she certainly was not aware of how miserable I was.  Her way of making it up to me was to let me eat as much as I pleased, and she always regretted that she had sent me there.

Aunt Rose and Uncle Ed continued with the school for perhaps another decade or so, before retiring to another part of the world, and the establishment was continued by one of their sons and daughter-in-law, until it finally closed in the early 1980’s.  The former pupils hold nostalgic school reunions from time to time and have a FaceBook page.

I recovered – of course I did.  I’m glad it taught me how not to do things, and it left me with a healthy and abiding anger towards bullying.  Telling the story on my blog is not meant as catharsis – I worked it out long ago.  I had just never felt I could write about it fully till now.


(1)   Lord of the Flies is a novel by Nobel-Prize winning author William Golding about a group of British boys in wartime marooned on a desert island following a plane crash, who try to govern themselves, with disastrous results.  They become increasingly savage, until the day a passing British warship sees them and a naval officer lands on the island.  This brings the children’s fighting to an abrupt halt.  In the final scene the main ringleader starts to cry, reverting to childhood once more.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archives

Buenos Aires

The posh Hurlingham Club created by and for the British community and named after its London equivalent, these days more egalitarian but still expensive...

...where polo is played.

The Torre de los Ingleses, gift of the British Government,
and said to be a small version of the tower in London
and the clock with Big Ben

Puerto Madero - part of the clean-up of the River Plate,
about which I have written in past posts.

Nostalgia reigns supreme - the colectivo from the seventies. 
There were still a few around in 1994 when this was taken.

La Boca, a suburb of Buenos Aires by the River Plate.
I submitted it to a competition at my camera club once,
 and called it "She's late", alluding to the man in the window.


Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Tales from Argentina - The Boarding School (Part 1 of 2)

I was five and a half years old when in March 1959 I was sent to a boarding school for three years.  It was located some 200km south west of Buenos Aires, in a flat corner of the country prone to scorching dusty heat in the summer and heavy frosts in the winter. Worse still were the rainy periods when the dirt road that went past the school turned into a quagmire.

Towards the end of their lives my parents felt differently about the decision to send me there, but at the time it was their considered opinion that it had three mayor factors going for it. 

Firstly it was both a school and a working farm with horses to ride and nature with which to commune.  This outdoor life, they felt, was the ultimate healthy environment in which to grow.  Secondly its biggest draw for them was that it was run along British lines by an English family, Mr & Mrs G, a couple in their fifties, and several of their children at various times.  In some ways it was (then) a miniature example of a British public school.   Thirdly, it was inexpensive – I would be getting a pseudo British education at an affordable price.   

The grounds consisted of a main house, with several outhouses and a smallish hut which served as one of the classrooms.  What had once been a barn was used as a makeshift dining-room with trestle tables on Parents’ Day, the Sunday once a month when our parents were allowed to visit.  In the afternoon it would be cleared of tables, and benches lined up to turn it into a hall and stage for us to perform our Parents’ Day show.  There were also fruit trees in the grounds and a small wooded area with, at one end, a couple of tiny playhouses made of mud and straw large enough for children to stand up in, and at the other, in a small clearing, an Australian tank which served as a swimming pool in the summer.

Surrounding the compound were paddocks with grass or stubble for grazing – I remember only ever seeing horses there, which were kept for riding.  The property lay on the main road between a town and a village, but in those days it was years away from being paved, so getting to the school was to a little girl like me a frightening adventure.  At best it was a slow and bumpy progress, at worst feeling we were isolated by the thudding rain and fearful of skidding in the mud; occasionally getting stuck and waiting for a kind passer-by to help push us out.  I remember mixed feelings about wanting to delay arrival and the beginning of a new term as long as possible, and on the other hand wanting the car sickness and the inevitable all round discomfort to stop.

In the late nineteen fifties there were about 36 pupils in the school.  Most children came from the farming communities where life was tough anyway; few of us were ‘townies’.  There were four dormitories two and even three bunks high, for junior and senior boys, and the same for girls.  Small chores were allocated to each child every day, such as making their own bed – no joke when it was a bunk – taking it in turns to empty the slopping chamber pot (shared by 8) in the centre of the room every morning, tidying the hairbrushes on the dressing table, and so on.  Few people would have had central heating in those days, and we had small kerosene stoves in the classroom to keep us going in the winter, though not in the dorms. Temperatures were often below zero - I remember seeing the frozen water troughs in the fields when we were out riding in the late morning. 

We were instructed to call the couple who ran it Aunt Rose and Uncle Ed.  They shared the teaching duties with other young women who came and went – they never seemed to stay for very long.  There were only two classrooms with the classes split by tables, so various levels were all together.  The cacophony of knowledge around me left me in a permanent state of scholastic bewilderment, and there were no textbooks.   

I remember sitting in front of a history paper looking in perplexity at the question “Why did the Tuscans lay siege to Rome?”  because the only bit I understood were the first two and the last two words.  I wondered what a siege was, and what involved laying it.  I stared at it in misery until my seven-year-old common sense prevailed.  Why does anyone do anything?  So I wrote as my answer “Because they wanted to”, though there was a niggling doubt in my mind as to whether Uncle Ed would consider it a proper reply.  Fortunately they found it amusing, and told Mum and Dad on Parents’ Day – who continued to laugh about it down the years, but I could remember the feeling of utter ignorance.

Our daily lives started each morning with breakfast consisting of a piece of bread with a pre-allocated scraping of butter and honey and watery mate cocido, South American green tea which when served to children is boiled with milk.  One week our bread tasted strongly of kerosene (paraffin) and we learned that a bottle of the fuel had spilled on the bread bag.  We were given it anyway so as not to waste it.  Once a week we got a boiled egg.

There were lessons in the morning, then lunch which was either gristly tough boiled meat and vegetables or rice (puchero), pasta in a thin tomato or beefy sauce or polenta with tough pieces of meat in it, and a milky pudding such as semolina to follow.  Then we queued for the highlight of the day – a boiled sweet each.  The afternoon could be a few more lessons or sports interrupted by a mug of very sweet black tea and a piece of bread, or we were left to our own devices.  After a light and early dinner we went to bed.  On rainy days we played with the collections of English games the G’s had – pick-up-sticks, tiddlywinks, draughts (checkers), halma, dice and cards.  There were a few old English books to look at, but they had no stories in them.

On Saturdays there was embroidery or Scottish and Irish folk dancing for the girls, and at lunch time we were each given the necessary to have a sort of basic barbeque-cum-picnic.  Sometimes you were allowed to go and cook it in one of the two playhouses, other times you had to make your own fire, then figure out how to cook your meat and potato in the saucepan provided.  On Sundays you wrote your weekly letter home, checked and read by the staff, and then went riding.  There might be swimming in the afternoon if it was warm enough.   

Sunday evenings were dreaded because we had a Sunday Service in the room which doubled as classroom for the older children, rainy-day dining-room, dance-room and Church.  We sang hymns in time to Aunt Rose’s harmonium playing, said a few prayers, and then came the tough bit.  Uncle Ed would stand up with a piece of paper in his hand, on which he had noted the list of misdemeanours committed during the week.  We had to stand up as the accusation was read, account for our bad conduct and public shaming would follow, with punishments doled out accordingly.   I  think these tended to be lines to write, and being left out of treats, fortunately there was no caning in the school.  In any case, being embarrassed in front of 36 children was probably punishment enough.  If you knew you were safe that week you shrank back on the bench with relief, guiltily enjoying the fact that it was someone else’s turn to be in trouble.

Every fourth Sunday our parents were allowed to visit.  Sick with excitement we would stand on the fence in our red checked pinafores waiting to see whose parent was the dot in the distance weaving ever closer, dodging from one side of the rutted road to the other. 

On Cloud Nine, Parents' Day

They would arrive at midday, weary from the appalling dirt roads, and full of stories of the number of hours it had taken.  We were allowed to join them after lunch, though not for long, because there was usually some entertainment prepared for them – sports day, a gymkhana, a little concert, a musical or a play commemorating a national holiday.

We would all have tea together and then the desperate sick feeling would return – our parents had to leave in daylight because of the terrible roads and the long journey home.  It was a very long and draining day for them.   I remember several parents days when I spent the afternoon trying not to be sick, and not succeeding.

There was little to fear from the fauna, aside from the non-poisonous snakes, which we learned to look out for, and a creature which still makes me shiver when I see it – the horned toad, or Ceratophrys cranwelli, (known as an escuerzo), a large, plump, brightly marked toad with an aggressive disposition, a liking for fresh meat for which it was willing to jump surprisingly long distances, and a propensity to give you a very strong and painful bite if you got too close. 

(From the internet)
(Fifteen years later when I saw a stuffed one at a Bristol museum – I had not expected to come across it - I jumped involuntarily, even though it was clearly dead and the other side of the glass.)

I learned to recognise the plants by smell and appearance.  I didn’t know what they were, but learned years later that the trees whose shape I had admired were weeping willows, and that the trees covered in fragrant blossom in the Spring were peach trees.  Other trees were good for climbing, and I would get as high up as I could to reach the canopy and feel far away from adults and other children down below.  I did fall off once, I don’t remember from what height, and landed sitting down.  That was my first experience of being winded, and understanding what it meant to take breathing for granted. 

We were very isolated from the outside world, and a great treat was to be taken to the nearest village in Uncle Ed’s old blunderbuss (as we called it).

On one occasion we were given the exciting news that the road in front of the school would be part of the route used by a national cross-country road racing team (Turismo Carretera) the following day, and that we should not even think of venturing beyond the gates.  Up until the early 1960’s these races were held on local dirt and asphalt roads closed for the occasion.  However there was nothing to stop us climbing the fence or perching on the gate to watch them go by in a cloud of dust.  That is until one of them stopped and shouted to us that he needed water as his engine was overheating.  One of the boys rushed for a bucket, and the catfish in the fish tank got a big surprise when the bucket was plunged in and the driver rushed off with it.  The boys later always claimed it was the famous Argentine racing driver Juan Gálvez.  If it was I never knew, though my research shows that he did participate in this particular race in 1959, which was held in the area near the school.

(From the internet)
Picture taken at the beginning of that race in 1959,
with Carlos Menditeguy in pole position.

(To be continued)

Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archives

Argentina 1994

Sierra Grande, province of Córdoba

More of Nancy's garden
(see post before last - The Healer)

Sierra Grande, province of Córdoba

Cheeky Benjie, one of my friend Michèle's sons


Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Tales from Elsewhere - Mind How You Go...

Hilda looked in stunned amazement at the damage done to her car 10 seconds earlier. 

She had been taking her 10-year old son Bobby to school down the solitary, narrow Somerset country lane which linked their home to the outside world, concerned that they would be late, since his carpool lift hadn’t shown up for some reason.  They had waited at home for half an hour before setting out, so were running much later than usual, and she wondered fleetingly if she had been going too fast.  But on Church Lane “fast” didn’t apply.  The tarmacked track was 11ft wide – less so when the hedges hadn’t been trimmed by the council, and she was normally very careful.  This had been a head-on collision of two cars moving at a sedate pace.

They had lived in the village since their children were tiny, back in the late 1950’s, when they purchased an acre of land on a hill which overlooked the Somerset levels from the Church, in whose ownership it had been since the 1300’s, and built their timber framed house and swimming pool.  In church records the plot was known as The South Plantation, and the name was retained, making it sound as if it were a property next door to Tara in Gone with the Wind. 

The acid soil had ensured that they had a spectacular garden with camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons in a profusion of all different colours, and a carpet of English bluebells every spring.  Hilda’s husband Ted had so landscaped the land that the sitting-room’s ample windows looked on to levelled land which dropped away into a ha-ha at the boundary, giving the illusion of ownership of the vista as far as the eye could see.

Having a very narrow lane going past the house ensured that heavy vehicles seldom ventured down there and they frequently heard tooting horns as cautious drivers negotiated every small (blind) bend in the lane.  In unusually harsh winters they stocked up on supplies because it was unlikely that snow ploughs would get to them for weeks at a time, and on one memorable occasion in 1978 Hilda, Ted and their youngest son Bobby were delighted when the grown up siblings visited them with their wives and partners for Christmas and were unable to get home until a week into the new year. 

Quiet and pastoral it was, yet there was the occasional drama.  Ted, erstwhile war hero, captain of industry, writer of books and leader of  men, while trying to repair the up-and-over-door of the garage, managed to lock himself in one afternoon.  He climbed on a box to attempt to reach a high rise window, the box collapsed and as he fell he dislocated his hip – again. 

Hilda was in town till late afternoon and he lay there for two and a half hours, his otherwise commanding and loud voice of no use to him at all.  Presently he heard a neighbour walking by outside and managed to attract her attention, which meant that before long the fire brigade was in attendance to get to him the other side of the jammed door of the garage, and an ambulance to take him to hospital.  Hilda came over the brow of the hill just in time to behold flashing lights, various people milling about and her husband being inserted into an ambulance.

Their tom cats also regretted having found a hidey-hole in the shed where warmer and drier shelter could be found among the canvas sun loungers and spare tennis nets.  When they disappeared for a few days Hilda and Ted had reconciled themselves to the fact that they might never know what had happened to them, but were destined to be proved wrong when Ted went to the shed to get something, and on opening the door, two extremely thin, screeching black streaks flew passed him in a blur and made for the kitchen.  What had saved their lives was the fact that it had been raining, and the shed leaked somewhat.   Their miraculous faculties didn’t end there – Hilda and Ted came back from holiday once to find their ‘tom cat’ nursing kittens.

Hilda waited for the driver of the offending car to get out, reflecting indignantly that in twenty-five years she had never even met anyone coming the other way on the lane, and what were the chances of meeting someone at precisely the time she was using it and was on one of the blind bends?

In fact the odds were high, because the lady who got out of the car looking equally stunned was the mother of Bobby’s friend, who shared carpool duties with Hilda.  Her son was also in the passenger seat.  Each mother had thought that it was the other’s turn, had waited at home for half an hour before setting out feeling stressed about getting their son to school late, and wondering what the other mother was doing.

The husbands reluctantly stumped up the repair fees on the cars, and thereafter if you were driving Ted home from anywhere, he would invariably tell you just before each of Church Lane’s blind bends –

“Remember to toot!”


Photo Finish
from Lonicera's non-digital archives

Pot Pourri

Fuerteventura (Canary Islands) above & below

Bristol Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society: 
The Pirates of Penzance 2008 (above & below)

One of the stalls at a street antique market in the suburb of San Telmo, Buenos Aires, in 1994.  If the detail interests you it's worth enlarging to see the interesting Eastern European paintings and the other bric-a-brac.


Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Tales from Argentina - The Healer

At the top of the Sierra Grande, Córdoba, Argentina

Doña Tina, the Curandera

Curanderas – or healers – are well known in South America, although their range of expertise varies widely from quasi witch-doctors to unqualified midwives and chiropractors with a particular gift for understanding the human body and spirit. 

As far as the hinterland of Argentina is concerned, they have a long an honourable history of curing people who live a very long way from anywhere, and should you encourage anybody to talk about it, without fail they will tell you their own splendid story about how they were cured.   I have one about my partner John, as sceptical and disapproving of such methods as any British subject you could hope to meet – until it happened to him.

During the 1950s John strained his back while lifting his racing dinghy to free it from a mud bank, and over the years as the weakness there got worse, he would from time to time get a sharp pain a few inches above his coccyx, to the left of his spine. 

He started on the long journey of trying to discover by conventional means what had happened and what could be done to put it right.   In Britain over the years he went from GP to specialist, from masseur to physiotherapist and osteopath to chiropractor.  In 1993 it suddenly worsened and he was in some degree of pain for long periods of the time.  Elaborate plans had to be made with regard to seating arrangements – not too hard or too soft, and definitely no gap where the base of the spine would rest, and cushions had to be carried around at all times to bolster his lower back while in the car or even sitting on someone else’s sofa.  He couldn’t sit down for more than a few minutes at a time, and as he smoked at the time it did his nicotine intake no good at all to have to get up from – say - the dinner table or a theatre performance, and walk around outside.  He even claimed that inhaling the smoke calmed the pain.

By mid 1994 he had reached a kind of compromise whereby the strict avoidance of certain movements and advance planning of outings combined with plenty of painkillers enabled him to live more or less normally.    We planned a holiday in Argentina; during the first fortnight I was looking forward to seeing my friends on my own after a five-year absence, and then John would join me and we would travel to the centre and northwest of the country by plane and hired car.  He had never been further south than Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and I was looking forward to showing him “my” Argentina.

Two days before I left he had a flare-up of his back problem but insisted he was alright and drove me to the airport dosed up with painkillers despite my offer to use public transport.  In a telephone call after my arrival in Buenos Aires he admitted he was feeling terrible, and every move hurt, but was hopeful that a new chiropractor he had been recommended would put him right.  We kept in touch over the next ten days and I began to realise that it was very likely that he would be no better by the time it was his turn to leave, and that he might well have to cancel his holiday.  The prospect of an eighteen-hour flight in his condition evidently horrified him, though he tried not to show it.

However his last session with the chiropractor made some difference, and he decided not to cancel.  Twenty-four hours later when I met him at Ezeiza, the airport of Buenos Aires, with some of my friends, we noticed straight away that he was very flushed and had a bright – almost wild – look in his eyes.  We soon learned that it was because he had been in such pain with painkillers having no effect, that the stewardesses had taken pity on him and given him a tot of brandy to help him through.  And another, and another… 

He told us that as he emerged from the plane thanking his benefactresses profusely for ‘helping him through the night’, he was informed that he had in fact got through most of a bottle of brandy by himself because they could see in how much pain he was.  He agreed with this assessment, and added “the funny thing about having had all that brandy was that although it still hurt, I just didn’t care.”

John, on that holiday in 1994

Sobering up and having to negotiate beds he wasn’t used to put him back to square one, and by the time we had arrived at Córdoba airport a few days later on the next stage of our holiday and hired the car to take us to the hills, he didn’t know what to do to make himself comfortable.

We stayed with Geoff and Nancy, a cousin of my father’s and his wife, who ran a hostelry in Loma Bola, a quiet village located in a valley the other side of the Sierra Grande in Córdoba. 

Myself, Nancy and Geoff, November 1994

It consisted of a charming colonial style house with a very large garden located in a valley which had its own microclimate. 

(butterfly or moth?) in Nancy's garden

We learned that there were five species of hummingbird in the area; they frequented the trumpet vine growing in profusion on the pergola in the patio, the contents of its droopy vivid red blooms evidently a gourmet’s delight for these little birds.

One of dozens of unsuccessful attempts
to capture these gorgeous little creatures...

At night time the frogs sat patiently below, waiting for various little creatures to land near their darting tongues, and glow worms drifted about creating extraordinary fleeting and jewel-like glimmers of light in the darkness.

Nancy's garden

In the beginning John noticed little of this, concerned as he was with making himself comfortable and not wanting to complain too much in front of his hosts.  Geoff understood the problem straight away, and recommended that he visit their local healer, Doña Tina.

“A healer?” John asked politely.  “Will she rattle bags of bones over a fire or something?”

“Nothing like that” replied Geoff.  “She’s from a family of curanderos who heal muscular and joint problems by manipulations – she’s quite famous in the area.”

“Well...” said John doubtfully... “if you think she won’t make it worse, I suppose anything’s worth trying...”  Geoff just smiled.

Reflections in a pond in the garden

The following morning after yet another sleepless night we got up early and made our way through the village to a property with a small house of recent but unfinished construction, a barn, a mud patio with a passion flower pergola, and a lot of chickens wandering about clucking and pecking.  There were also plenty of dogs, who slunk about yelping rather than barking;  thus it was peaceful, though noisy.

The format was that there wasn’t one:  you arrived early and sat on benches under the pergola, and waited for Doña Tina’s assistant, and old lady dressed in black with a very uneven gait, to tell you that it was your turn.  Slowly other people would turn up and take a seat on one of the benches, and you would chat idly as the day gradually got hotter and the chickens quietened down while the dogs lay down to sleep and flicked at the flies with their tails. 

There was an old couple who were clearly well known customers and on first name terms with the various workmen who wandered about, a woman in her forties in farming clothes with her hair pulled back in a ponytail who had lifted one 50kg bag of maize too many for her back and needed Doña Tina to wreak her magic, as her animals needed to be fed.  Another woman had brought her young son, who, she said, had “a bad liver” – a common complaint in Argentina, I’m not sure why.  They were all locals.

We complained about the heat, the mosquitoes and the lack of rain, we admired the passion flowers, the hummingbirds and the scenery, and in no time at all we were great friends.  I worked hard at playing interpreter because John has not learned Spanish and didn’t want to be left out.

What Doña Tina saw some three hours later was a somewhat unusual English couple – a man in his sixties looking pale and obviously in pain, and his plump companion some twenty-five years younger who spoke Spanish but with an indefinable accent.  As a recognised healer she was accustomed to seeing people from different parts of the world.  Many tourists came to the area after all, and pain was the great leveller.  Sooner or later they all beat a path to her door.

From girlhood the curandera had watched her father healing friends, relatives and visitors; he realised he had a highly intelligent daughter – and with no son to whom he could pass on his knowledge, he started to teach her everything he knew, and they would see patients together.  She was an enthusiastic and willing pupil and as she grew in experience and maturity, had the sense not to let on in front of the patient when she had perceived something her father had missed. She would find a way to reveal the information as if it had been his. 

Gradually his star waned as hers waxed, and eventually she took over his clientele.   By this time the laws in Argentina had tightened up on practices in alternative medicine such as these, and since she was not formally qualified she was no longer allowed to charge for her services. 

Her consulting room was thus a glorious jumble of gifts from grateful clients, ranging from modestly sized statues of virgins still in their clear plastic casings to ones the size of a small child; plastic plinths of famous Argentine football players from different clubs; splashes of bright colour in the form of huge plastic flowers; stuffed birds; delicate china; glass ornaments and exquisitely fashioned creamy lace pieces of embroidery.  Some were in crowded glass cabinets, others piled in corners; clearly there were so many grateful people and nowhere to put it all. 

For the people she served had very little money, and the other ‘gifts’ she received were in the form of chickens or meat and locally grown produce for her table.  She was a kindly woman who had enough to live on, and had no further ambitions other than to keep the high status she enjoyed in the community.

I was there as the interpreter, and after greeting us politely Doña Tina, a comfortable looking lady in her forties with dark hair and creamy skin, asked John to take off most of his clothes and sit astride a chair, leaning his arms on its back.  She sat behind him and ran her thumbs down his spine, nodding vigorously as she did so, telling me she could see he had problems here and there.

“His upper spine is not too bad” she said “apart from a few knots which I can soon deal with”…. And then as she got down to below his waist…”aha, here’s the problem.  See that bone here?  It’s three centimetres to the left of his spine and we must gently push it back to where it belongs.”

I was mystified by what seemed to be the scale of what she was proposing to achieve, and she set to work, as John tried not to wince.

“Have you been here long?  Yes, it is a lovely part of the world here, isn’t it?  I’ve lived here all my life.  Your cousin Geoff comes here often when he needs help with his hip.  How long are you staying?  Have you observed the hummingbirds we have around here?  Did you know there are five different types, and some of them are exclusive to these valleys.  It’s the ideal climate for them, and they love that trumpet vine…”

Another failed attempt...

“What are you talking about?” said John, “please don’t forget I don’t understand, and I need to know what she’s doing.  What’s she found?”

“Just a little bone she said needs moving from left to right by three centimetres” I said, “don’t worry, everything’s fine.  The rest of what she’s saying is all about hummingbirds.”

“Three centimetres?  What are you talking about?  How’s she going to do that?”

“Just shut up and think of England”, I said.

Doña Tina worked hard for about twenty minutes, and finally sat back with a grunt of satisfaction in her voice.  “That’s done”, she said.  She pointed to the point on John’s back which she had been working on “that bone I told you – it’s moved over to the right now.”

“However” she continued, he’ll feel only temporary relief.  It’s likely that he’ll be in pain again tonight, so I need you to bring him back tomorrow, and I’ll give his back a thrashing  (“le voy a dar una paliza”).

In Biblical fashion, John stood up and the pain had disappeared completely.  He bent right over and felt no pain, he stretched and felt no pain.  The happiness on his face was a joy to see and for a ghastly moment I thought he was going to sweep Doña Tina off her feet and swing her round the room.

Before leaving, she gave a John an alarmingly sized jar and asked him to bring a sample of urine back with him the following day.

Just as she predicted, he had another uncomfortable night, but clung to her promise that she would sort him out on the second visit.  We presented ourselves bright and early once again and renewed our conversations with some of the people who had been there the day before, while trying to deal discreetly with the outsize jar of urine John had dutifully brought with us.

They were smug about John’s sense of wonder – they knew perfectly well Doña Tina would cure him, and now welcomed him into the fold as one of those who had faith in the powers of curanderas.  The wait wasn’t as long this time, but there was an interesting interlude during this period.

As we waited, a large expensive car roared up the drive going slightly too fast, and drew up in a cloud of dust at the end.  As the air cleared, a couple emerged from its air-conditioned interior looking fresh as daisies, and very self-important.  They were in their thirties, the wife carefully coiffured, perfumed and painted, her arms and hands jingling with gold jewellery.  The man was slightly heavy, wearing designer jeans, open necked shirt and shiny leather moccasins with tassels, a heavy watch at his wrist, the key fob swinging this way and that on his thumb, as if he were handling worry beads.

“We need to see the curandera” he announced to the slightly bemused audience on the mud patio.  “Where is she?”.

“Ooh, somewhere or other” answered one of the patients casually “just sit down and they’ll call you eventually”.

“Can’t do that” said the man, still swinging his keys, now revealing that he was chewing gum.  “We’ve come all the way from Buenos Aires, and we’re in a hurry.   We need to be seen to straight away”. 

The stooped old crone in black appeared as if from nowhere.  “Just sit down and take your turn” she said tartly, “all these people were here before you”.

“But we’re from Buenos Aires”....

However she had limped away by now, and they had no choice but to sit down, some way away from us.  Like accomplices we all gave each other knowing looks with barely disguised glee.  The arrogance of the people from the capital of the country was legendary, and unfortunately they usually had the money with which to back it up.  But this time it wasn’t going to work.  The little people had won.

Every time the old crone came to call the next person, Mr & Mrs Important would stand up, and she would carefully ignore them and usher in the next person in line, to the barely disguised smirks of the rest.  Then it was our turn. 

John bashfully handed over the industrial quantity of urine, which Doña Tina studied carefully and told him it wasn’t clear enough, but she would give him some herbs to make tea which would solve the problem.  Then once again she asked him to remove his clothes all but his underpants, and lay him flat on his stomach in a room next to her consulting room.  For the next half hour she kneaded him up and down his spine, and when she had finished said –

“That’s it.  I won’t need to see you again.”

In a speech prepared carefully by John, translated and given by yours truly, I handed over an envelope to her which contained the fee which he would have paid a chiropractor in England for two sessions, and then doubled. 

“We understand that you generously don’t accept a fee from your patients” I said “but John has asked me to tell you that he appreciates there will be many people you cure who can’t afford to give you anything for your services, and it is they whom we would like to help.  Please accept this little contribution on their behalf, and consider it as from them.”

She seemed delighted by John’s speech, and we parted the best of friends.  As we made our departure we noticed that the Buenos Aires couple had sunk into a sullen acceptance and didn’t even glance at us as the rest of us embraced misty-eyed, like old friends that would never see each other again, and walked to the car.

Trumpet Vine

Nancy and Geoff's cat

We bade goodbye to my cousins the following day, and made our way north west to the foothills of the Andes, where I had predicted there would be a good earth road.  The scenery was spectacular, and my newly discovered photographic hobby was put to good use. 

Round every bend was an unmissable view, and I kept asking John to stop the car so I could capture it.  The road was stony, and as we rattled and bumped along I wondered whether the oil sump would survive. 

Valles Calchaquíes, Province of Salta

However the serious problem that day was John, who had felt reborn thanks to Doña Tina, and was now convinced he was being tossed back into hell by my choice of “good earth road” and frequent stops.  I was excited by the photographs I was taking, yet worried about John’s back and my role in its possible downfall.  All the same, I was optimistic as hour succeeded hour on this nine-hour journey and the car’s engine was the only sound breaking a silence that was even stonier than the road we were on, and when I would ask him how his back was he would reply grumpily “OK at the moment”.

We stopped at the lovely little town of Cafayate, where we installed ourselves in a small family-run hotel and ventured out for an al fresco dinner on the plaza. 

Street art - it was unusual back in 1994

Many glasses of wine and some excellent steaks later, John finally admitted that his back was perfect, not a sign of a twinge or any indication that the wine needed imbibing for medicinal reasons.  We have laughed many times about this since.

And as the saying goes, he was cured.  To this day, seventeen years later, although he’s had twinges in other locations of his spine, that area has remained completely pain-free, and John often dines out on the story. 


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's photo archives

More pictures from that holiday (Salta & Tucumán)

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