Shifting Heavens

It was like being in a scene from a film. I remember the urgency with which the young man rounded the corner, making my heart leap there in Bethnal Green. Was I in the middle of a chase? Had Betty the dog and I got caught up in something?

’Look at the stars, look at the stars!’ He never stopped running as he shouted at the top of his voice, for it seemed that his mission was to astonish and wake up as many oblivious people as possible. ‘They’re all moving in the sky!’ My first thought was that here was another mad person. There are so many lucid mad people in London. 

I looked up at the sky, and sure enough he was right. All the stars were moving. Quite fast. The chimney pots and the roof tops were steady, but the stars, strangely clear in that London sky were all veering off in their constellations in an arc to the right. Were the stars moving or perhaps were we spinning faster than usual? My response was quite the opposite to the young man’s. I stopped still and looked and looked up at the sky as Betty tugged on her leash. Then there was a young couple standing beside me also looking up at the sky. They were sober and clear eyed and we verified with each other what we were seeing. What I cannot remember now (this was in the summer of 2013 or 2014) was whether the stars stopped falling, or whether I simply decided to go back in. Life went on. Betty peed on the grass. A drunk was flat out by the bushes. I could hear the evening getting going down Brick Lane, a faint roar of people determined to have a good time. I didn’t see it, but I suspect the dark silhouette of the fox was somewhere close by, sloping against the darkness of the walls or amongst the trees. Above us something had shifted in the heavens, clearly measurable against the London skyline.

The next day I searched the newspapers, I looked online, but it seemed that no one else had seen it or remarked upon it, other than me and the sober couple and the lad pounding the pavements. What was remarkable was how many people ignored him: another nutter, another somebody high on drugs, another person off the rails. 

 

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Thank you to the anonymous photographer who took this.  

Children of Burkina Faso

Walking about Dano, in Burkina Faso, I noticed how often the women walked in groups with each other, how the men sat in groups under the trees and how the children went everywhere together. As they made their way home from school, dressed in green uniforms, they would rush up to shake my hand and say hello. Up on the hill, outside the school, they shared with me the fruit they had been picking from the tree. 

I remember that evening down by the Total garage, when a group of us went to look for some dege, a millet pudding made with fermented goat’s milk. Quite a few of us had got a taste for it, and we had cleaned them out at the garage shop within days.

’Come back at six ‘o’clock,’ said the cashier. So here we were. The woman smiled broadly at us and pointed to the empty shelf in the fridge. ‘Wait for a bit, as I’m expecting a delivery,’ she said. 

We waited outside the shop as catchy music played on speakers. A family of pigs rooted about amongst the rubbish and savvy goats crossed the road with confidence. Women walked tall, carrying wood, fruit, grain and all kind of bundles upon their heads. The smell of roasting meat wafted down the road from where men were barbecuing pork in old oil drums. People stopped to tank up their bikes, babies strapped to their mothers’ backs. Many of the bikes were piled up with goods; boxes of fruit, an upended table, a goat folded into a basket with feet tied together, . 

And then suddenly there was a bunch of children in front of us, smiling and moving to the music. One minute there were five of them, the next ten, then twenty. There were little ones of about four years old and boys and girls as old as about twelve or so. Sarah, a bright young woman from Seattle, immediately started to engage with them, joining in with their dancing and calling out ‘hello!’ ‘Hello’ the children said back. They were quite used to doing call and response. I joined them too and within seconds there we were, pointing our fingers up at the stars. ‘Les etoiles,’ I called out. ‘Les etoiles,’ they called back, their eyes bright and their faces wide with enthusiasm. ‘La lune!’ We pointed up at the moon.

’I love you,’ called out Sarah. ‘I love you,’ came back thirty fold. Such a wave of love.

It seemed we were in a real live flash mob or else life had turned into the best kind of musical, where everybody just breaks out into song and dance.  

Soon Sarah was leading them pied piper fashion, circling up the steps and down again. A boy of about eight wanted to dance with both his hands in mine. I was torn between wanting to do this with him endlessly and wanting to include the others in our dance. 

At a certain point, I noticed a small girl sitting on the bench. She was about five or six years old and she seemed to have a different light about her, where that of the other children was sunny, hers was a cool blue. I’ve wondered since whether she would have stood out so much had we been in London or anywhere else in the West. But there on the garage forecourt, in Dano, in Burkina Faso, amongst all those smiling children whose faces were as open and bright as the full moon, she sat apart. There was something terribly alone about her, broken. Sometimes a child would reach out a hand to her, but she kept her own hands to herself and stayed on the bench. She seemed to just want to look and look at this dancing troupe. 

As we followed our pied piper twisting past the bench, my boy dancer’s hand in my right hand, I put out my left hand for her, and magically she caught it and now we were all snaking around the forecourt together. Her face remained serious and she didn’t want to talk. I was honoured to feel her small warm hand in mine. She made my heart ache. 

The conga broke up and then a twelve year old boy started to dance. His friends pushed him forward and he was breathtaking, isolating his body parts, moving with captivating elegance. We cheered him on. We cheered ourselves on. And then it was time to go home.

The next evening, as we were hanging out in the hotel dining area, Sarah and I noticed an array of small black heads popping up from behind the wall. We went over to let them in. It was the amazing dancer with four younger ones. He said they were his brothers and sisters.  

Sarah, Hazel and I decided to walk them back into town, and on the way I asked Amadou if his mother knew where he was. ‘She is deceased,’ he told me matter of factly. ‘And your father?’ ‘He is also deceased.’ They were orphans.

This landed like a stone in my stomach. I knew that being one of the poorest countries in the world, Burkina Faso has many children orphaned by AIDS. But knowing that is quite different to meeting some.

Amadou balanced along the kerb as we walked and told me that they lived with his elder brother. I didn’t have the heart to ask how his parents had died, but it seemed it was only last year.  His little brother held my hand and Sarah walked ahead with another brother and sister. The youngest sister was walking behind us, her hand in Hazel’s. ‘Is she tired?’ I asked Amadou, looking back at his little sister, who was walking slowly. ‘She’s hungry,’ he said.

I didn’t want that walk to end. I didn’t want to let go of the small hand in mine. I wondered whether the big brother would be waiting for them. At the Total garage, I brought them dege pudding, yogurts, sesame biscuits, packets of crackers and a box of cheese. As we got stepped outside the shop, a lady on a bike seemed to know the children, and they gathered about her. As I handed Amadou the food, I told him, ‘you are a true dancer. Never stop dancing.’  He nodded at me. ‘I know,’ and he took the bag of food.

 

 

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Dano, Burkina Faso

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Dano, Burkina Faso

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Market day in Dano

 

 

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Women making bean flour fritters, Dano.

 

Wolves and Hawks

There are wolves about. I heard a knock on my door and there stood Jérôme, a hunter from the village. He was holding a big bag for me, heavy with a quarter of a wild boar he had hunted. I staggered under the weight of the meat as he handed it to me and it landed with a thump on the kitchen table. He said that there hadn’t been so many boar about this year because packs of wolves have been scaring them off. Some lambs and a goat had been taken on the other side of Cereste. I already knew that the odd lone wolf comes down from the mountains, as my neighbour Mylène told me she saw one last year, but I hadn’t realised that there were whole packs of them around. 

Hearing this I felt a tremor of excitement, or is it fear? I don’t know, but it makes me feel alive, and reminds that where I live is wild. Wild, and that the balance of nature here is changing. Up until recently the wild boar and the deer had no predators other than the hunters and their guns. 

The morning after, Betty the doglet and I walked down the road to collect the post from the box. The track up to the house is too long and too rough for the post woman and her yellow van. Every blade of grass, every twig, every rock was outlined by the sunlight, everything still wet after the soaking rain. I could smell snow in the air. The mountains were nearer, brought into focus, smoothed out by snowfall, lit up and shining. Betty traced the ground with her nose, zig-zagging, avid, making the secret map of animal scents visible. She was onto something, a fox, a hare perhaps, a wild boar. A wolf? I continued walking down the road as flocks of chaffinches took flight from the bare poplars, wheeling and dipping and proclaiming the blueness of the day. 

In the distance, out of sight, car horns insisted, jarring and beeping. We might be far from Paris and Marseille and the most violent of the protests of the gilets jaunes, but their presence has been felt here too. They have set up shacks in the middle of the roundabout on the way to Forcalquier, where they burn scrap wood to keep warm. Every now and again they march slowly around the roundabout, bringing the traffic to a halt. My friend, Lesley missed her flight when her bus was blocked from getting onto the motorway. Most cars have a yellow vest showing on the dashboard in a show of support, although it might be expediency, as sometimes the gilets jaunes won’t let people through the blockades otherwise. They can be bullying at times. The police too have been heavy handed. It does seem that most people support the gilets. Taxes are high here in France. For many it’s hard to make ends meet. People are sceptical about whether the proposed higher tax on diesel was actually being levied for ecological reasons. They are en colère, disillusioned with Macron. He is seen as elitist, out of touch with the people. Revolution is in the air. 

 As I walked along the road, past some crows pecking at pumpkins which had been left to rot at the side of the field, I thought about the week before, when I joined family and friends in Parliament Square in London for Extinction Rebellion 2. Many were dressed in black, and a coffin was carried, as this was a funeral procession for all those species we have lost and face losing, including ourselves. There were passionate speeches calling for our government to wake up and to treat climate change as the emergency that it is. Sam Lee sang a beautiful old song that brought a tear to my eye. People stopped the traffic. We marched and called out for climate justice. We marched for zero emissions. When the police surged in to stop people digging a hole for the coffin in the middle of Parliament Square, the MC urged everyone to stay peaceful, to breathe. It was an edgy moment. The police kettled the hole as everyone about them linked arms and sang a gentle song. One or two of the policemen looked embarrassed.

Here in France, walking along the road, the distant dissonance of the car horns made me think of the uneasy change that is being felt. Europe is shifting. The old ways are crumbling. People are threatened and afraid. None of this is convenient. Something new is on the way, and we don’t yet know what that will look like. 

I thought of the wolves changing the ecological balance. Fewer deer and wild boar mean more trees will grow, which will affect all wildlife. This isn’t convenient to the sheep farmers, nor does it sit well with the hunters, but there is something bigger at play, something so big it is hard to really see the impact.

At this point I looked up and saw a hawk perched on top of the telegraph pole, surveying everything below, keen. It pierced me with its yellow stare and then it took off.  Yes, I thought, this is what we need now, the long view.

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Wolf and Hawk. Thanks to railtoonsanimations.com

Wise Cook

There was something trusting about the way that everybody slept on the night bus from Huatulco to San Cristobal. Upfront, the driver listened to romantic Mariachi songs for all ten hours of the drive, while behind him slumbering bodies were curled up and draped every way over the seats. Cáli and I were amazed to see a replacement driver emerge from a tiny cabin next to the luggage hold where he had been sleeping. There was an air grill so that he could breathe.

Pilar was waiting for us at our rented house with a huge grin on her face. ‘Welcome, welcome! You are going to love it here!’ The adobe house was in a courtyard behind a gate not far from the centre of San Cristobal. I was excited to see that we had a small fireplace and a stack of wood to burn in the evenings.

We hadn’t put our suitcases down before she was suggesting a trip to stay in a cabin in the country with some friends of hers. ‘You should come. It’s going to be great and you are going to love it. We’ll eat by the fire and walk to a waterfall. But I’m leaving in five minutes. You want to come?’

’Sounds great. How about tomorrow?’ I said, feeling my weariness after the journey. Cáli and I exchanged looks. ‘No, no, tomorrow is too late. I was supposed to have left fifteen minutes ago.’

Ten minutes later we were on the back seat of Pilar’s car, squished up against bags of food, jammed against a great coffee urn and some blankets, while other bags spilled over with flutes and shakers, ribbons and children’s toys. Pilar thrust spoons and pots of yogurt in our hands along with some biscuits, which added to the feeling of being a kid going on some holiday without quite knowing the destination. Pilar’s teenage son sat in the front. He was as silent as she was talkative. Words spilled out of her in florid torrents, sometimes in English and then when she got particularly enthusiastic she switched to Spanish. She even managed to interrupt herself. ‘So many topics, so many histories!’ After a stolen doze in the back, we arrived at her friends’ place in the mountains. We said hello to five friends, their three children and our hosts, Antonio a geologist, and his wife, Maria de Guadalupe. Her full name consisted of about ten names which is why she was known as Lupita. A table was set up in the shade of a tree, tortillas unpacked, a pot of steaming beans was produced along with omelettes and roasted green pueblano chillis doused in lime. We drank black coffee from paper cups and ate breakfast together as Antonio, a kind and intelligent man, told the story of how he met Lupita. He first set eyes on her where she lived in the jungle as a widow with her two young children and it was love at first sight.

Pilar clapped her hands in excitement. ‘How I love romantic histories!’ When he told the bit about how they flashed sunlight off mirrors so that they could find each other in the wilderness, Pilar couldn’t contain hersel; she leaped from her seat and made an impassioned stomp on the earth before sitting down again. ‘That is sooo romaaantic!’

As we got our beds ready in the cabin, Pilar told us to meet the other campers at dawn because she wanted to do a goodbye ceremony for Antonio and Lupita as they were shortly leaving for New Zealand on sabatical. ‘I want everyone to participate,’ she said, shaking a rattle above her head. I thought I detected an eye roll from Lupita. Both Cáli and I were exhausted, longing for sleep and Pilar’s enthusiasm was beginning to grate; it now felt more like desperate hyperactivity. It was a relief when everyone left the cabin so we could go to bed. Cáli and I agreed we would get up when we woke up, dawn or no dawn, ceremony or no ceremony.

It got very cold at night. We were at over 2000 metres of altitude and the cold air whistled between the boards of the cabin as we shivered on our lumpy mattresses, despite sleeping fully dressed under our blankets. When we awoke we were of one mind. We would make our way back to San Cristobal after breakfast and leave the friends to their celebrations. We had got swayed off our course, and over breakfast it was becoming evident that there was some tetchiness brewing amongst the friends, that they weren’t quite as close as we had thought. 

We walked over to visit Julieta and her family, neighbours to Lupita and Antonio. They lived in two bamboo huts: one was a kitchen with a fire burning on a waist high fireplace which Julieta tended, burning slim branches and dried corn husks; the other was where the family slept, and it was also where they kept their scythes and animal feed. The family invited is into the kitchen. There were a couple of small benches where Julieta’s husband and son were eating their breakfast of plantains and tortillas with coffee. The door was open and the son, a grown man wearing a leather cowboy hat, was caressing his favourite cockerel and feeding him tidbits. Julieta moved easily and efficiently about her kitchen as she made nopales in a frying pan on the fire. The cactus was trimmed of its spikes and sliced into fingers, fried in a pan and sprinkled with salt and a squeeze of lime. It was fresh and sour and had the slippery consistency of okra.

Ranged upon a couple of shelves, Julieta had everything she needed to hand and yet nothing more. Plastic bags and utensils were stuffed between the gaps in the bamboo walls. Julieta emanated sane goodness, the essence of which I can only compare to the most delicious tostadas I have ever tasted: golden, toasted tortillas made with home grown corn, roughly ground and cooked by Julieta on her fire. The taste was warm and fragrant and nourishing. It stayed with me all day and I think it shall stay with me much longer.

Next to the huts was a substantial altar, with statues of Jesus and Mary, family photographs and offerings of flowers, candles and husks of corn. Beyond the huts, the family grew vegetables, corn and nopales cactuses. A couple of dogs roamed around. Another was tied up and barked at us. We fed the breakfast leftovers to the chickens and turkeys, while pigs squealed in their sties, and rabbits and guinea pigs spread themselves out on the earth and panted in the shade. 

A look of curiosity crossed Juileta’s face when Cáli and I told her that we had travelled from Europe and from Brazil. ‘Muy lejo,’ she said thoughtfully - very far away. She was planning to catch one of the rabbits and cook it for dinner that day and she looked disappointed when we told her that we would be leaving on the bus for San Cristobal soon. I got the feeling she was enjoying sharing her kitchen with us. Cáli and I were also sad to leave her, yet it was time to make a move back to our base. 

Before Pilar would drive us back, she insisted on a group photo. But first of all she wanted us to shut our eyes and breathe deeply, ground ourselves, stretch this way, then that way, look down, bend our knees, connect with positive energy and think of something that would make us very happy. I went with the first thing which came into my mind which was a fervent longing for this extended photo shoot/workshop to be over as soon as possible.

’That woman has so much energy, she should find some chickens to herd!’ said Antonio afterwards,

We loved our days in San Cristobal surrounded by wooded mountains and the smell of woodsmoke in the cool night air, and the silvery sleigh bell sound of the gas bottles ringing against each other in the delivery truck running through the streets. We spent many hours in shops and markets buying clothes. We admired exquisite embroidery and woven cloths in the textile museum. More about the those to come soon.

Before we left, Pilar came round to the house with three bottles of Pox, (pronounced ‘posh’) a feisty liquor made from corn and sugar cane. Each bottle was flavoured with different fruits and had different properties. Pilar told us that it was medicinal and had been used by the Mayans for thousands of years in ceremonies. ‘It’s very sacred. We must try them all.’ She told us that she hadn’t much enjoyed the day with her friends on the walk and that now she was going to spend a few days by the sea and take care of herself and her cough. She had spread herself too thin. She shed a few tears and so did we and then we all toasted each other with the Pox, drinking to our dreams and our good wishes for our futures, our friends and our families and then we had hugs all round. We left her, feeling warmed, slightly more patient and just a little tipsy.

 

 

Julieta cooking nopales on her fire   

Julieta cooking nopales on her fire

 



Julieta cooking beans  

Julieta cooking beans  

The family altar  

The family altar  

Nopales cactus. Good for inflammation and for the stomach too. 

Nopales cactus. Good for inflammation and for the stomach too. 

Mexican Colours

Nearing Oaxaca as the bus twisted around the bends in the road, the sun slipped down behind the mountains, revealing them to be a series of profiles: dark velvet outlines of sleeping beings lying head to head, their noses and lips rising reaching skywards, some aquiline, some rounded, some more delicate.  

In the Zoccolo beside the cathedral, the square joyfully hummed with flutes, marimbas and  chatter. Couples of all ages strolled hand in hand under the trees, children running free holding onto enormous bright pink and orange sausage shaped balloons. There seemed to be almost as many vendors as there were people, selling tamales and tacos, soup and cakes and delicate birds made out of dried grasses. Women with long braids hanging down their backs walked about trying to sell the colourful embroidered clothes loaded upon their arms and onto their backs. I found myself smiling and smiling at this sense of fiesta on a Monday evening, at how the Mariachi bands burst into their serenades with comical timing, at how the grinning young girl half walked, half danced, her glossy black ponytail swinging behind her, making her way towards something good across the square, at the baby tightly wrapped up in a shawl strapped to the back of his mama as she sold coloured sweets, at the long line of people waiting for corn on the cob from the guy working exuberantly from his tiny stall, vigorously smothering the corn in mayonnaise, rolling it in cheese and then squirting it with six kinds of chilli sauce, ranging from vermillion to deep umber. I seemed to have burst through the cobble stones into a magical world where everything is designed to be as fun and colourful as possible. 

And then, walking home, I noticed a group of tiny older women, their dark braids woven with crimson cloth, cooking and eating and talking together upon the low wall. They had pitched up tents and made a little village in the square. A large sign demanded justice and care for indigenous widows. Their husbands had been killed in a massacre in 2010.

Cali (my travelling companion) and I headed up to Teotitlán del Valle, which is a village where everyone makes carpets. Pastora, from the women’s collective welcomed us and demonstrated how the natural dyes are made using herbs and barks and cochineal beetles which live on the cactuses nearby. She changed the colours in a flash by adding a few drops of lemon or a pinch of wood ash; orange turned to lime yellow, plum to fuschia. Later she unrolled the carpets and pointed out the symbols: of the four cardinal points, water, thunder, light, of the commmunity.

After another long bus ride, we arrived in San Agustinillo on the coast near Mazunte, Here the air is warm, the light crystalline and the sea clean. As Miriam, a local healer, gave me one of the best massages of my life, my inner vision was awash with colours, lime green, amber, ochre, sand, rust reds, spiced orange, deep turquoise, emerald green, hot pink, saffron, on and on they swirled in front of me, an endlessly moving sea of colours. 

Before going to bed I went to look at the inky ocean under the stars. I thought of the shadowy whales swimming out in the distance. The moon lit up a band upon every wave turning it silver and iridescent the instant before it crashed into white foam.

 

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Natural dyes for wool

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White cochineal beetle on cactus, squashed beetle on hand, some with a drop of lime added 

Winter Rain

The other night it rained. Properly rained.

The wind blew down the chimney, the dark sky flared with lightning, and the electricty cut out. As I read my book by candlelight and the light of the flickering fire, I could hear the rain gushing down the roof tiles and splashing onto the cobbles outside. I put my book down to listen to the rain soaking into the earth and a great peace descended upon me.

 It reminded me of the power cuts in the seventies. For the grown ups, hunting for candles and matches in the dark was a tiresome inconvenience, while we children loved the sense of adventure, the way candlelight transformed eating our supper into something magical, the way brushing our teeth by torchlight became exciting. 

This rain is much needed. It's been a dry year and there is nothing much for the animals to eat. Whether it is that my neighbour’s fences are lax, or whether his animals are particularly determined, it is true that I have been regularly visited by a lone sheep wearing a bell searching for the greener grass of my garden, the odd black pig on the look out for acorns, and now by a stray tabby cat with wild green eyes whom I have started to feed. Betty regularly sees her off, but is no match for Puss when she races straight up the great cedar tree and taunts her from one of its mighty branches. She sleeps in a cardboard box lined with a sheepskin under the back porch by night and yowls until I feed her, while all the while I tell her that she must not come to rely upon me completely as I will be away sometimes.

This week Betty will go and stay with the family on the lavender farm up in the Valensole, I will lock up the house and hope for the best for it while I set off for Mexico for unknown adventures. I may well write to you from there.

 

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