Fiftieth Anniversity

It was on this day – 8 July 1965, that I left Ireland and migrated to Canada.  Like several million Irish before me, I set off to travel and make my fortune.  I had just over £100 in my pocket and all my possessions fitted into a small suitcase, with plenty of room to spare.  I was just eighteen and still quite ‘wet behind the ears’.

Since then I have managed to see a great part of the world, but there are still many places in which I would like to spend some time.  I may need another fifty years of wandering.

 As for my fortune, it is still a work in progress.

And apart from a small collection of books, my few possessions still fit in a small backpack.

I could never be described as a conspicuous consumer…

Hot August Night

‘Eat, drink and love: the rest is not worth a fillip’ (Lord Byron)

The first time I came across that quotation was on a steamy summer’s early evening in a little Greek restaurant in London, in Soho, just down the street from the Palladium theater. The quote was incorporated in a large fresco of an idyllic Greek island scene. At the time I was insanely in love, but apart; she continued travelling around the US and I had to return to the UK to work. That quotation just about summed up my nascent attitude to life in that era.

Lord Byron (1788-1824)

After an early dinner, I went to the Palladium for a Manhattan Transfer concert and the next day I flew out to Nigeria to start a three month assignment with an multi-national oil company.

Manhattan Transfer

And today, sitting in the sun outside a bar in a little plaza in Leon, I came across that same quotation, and I recalled that night long ago. I don’t know if the restaurant still exists or if Manhattan Transfer still perform, and her path and mine only briefly crossed one more time. But I don’t believe that my attitude to life has changed much since that hot August night in 1978.

Pilgrim in Martigny

Yesterday in the Fondatión Pierre Gianadda, there was an interesting exhibit about the pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome.  It was the first time I had seen it displayed.  I had read of it, but the routes to Santiago have always been foremost in my mind and I still have many to complete.  If I survive long enough I may one day attempt the route to Rome.

Later I went into the church in Martigny and was sitting quietly contemplating at the back.  It’s striking how quiet the church always is.  The silence almost hurts.  Sitting in the church is something I seem to do every time I am here and almost always I have been alone.

Today an older man came in by the side door.  He was dressed as a pilgrim and had a backpack, and on it was the pilgrim’s shell.  He stood still for a long time at the front – perhaps for ten minutes.  He never looked around.  When he left, I immediately went out to find him and talk to him, but he was nowhere to be seen.


This morning when I was passing through the outskirts of Martigny, on my way up the valley to the Col de Forclaz and on to Switzerland, I saw the same pilgrim in the distance, ahead of me. Although I walked as quickly as my lame leg would allow, before I could catch up with him, he turned left onto the path to the Saint Bernard pass and Italy.  When I reached the turning, he was out of sight.

The upper end of Martigny, where the path to the Saint Bernard Pass turns left and that to the Col de Forclaz continues right

Was that a sign of where my personal path is leading me?

George Bernard Shaw

I am currently reading an autobiography of Gabriel García Márquez  – Vivir para contarla.  In it he quotes George Bernard Shaw – ‘Desde muy niño tuve que interrumpir mi educación para ir a la escuela’ ( ‘From childhood I had to interrupt my education to go to school’).

 George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

That also about sums up my attitude to formal education.

Over the years I tried very hard to shield my views from my sons.

I hope that I was not too successful.

Mendoza Parks

Mendoza is in the foothills of the Andes, on the main road that runs from Buenos Aires to Santiago de Chile.  It was totally destroyed in 1861 in an earthquake measuring 7.2 and of its population of 12,000, an estimated 4300 were killed and 750 injured.  The city was rebuilt in a nearby location.

The rebuilt city has a 6×6 block core, with plazas on each of the four corner blocks and a huge 2×2 block central plaza, known as Plaza de la Independencia.  Each of the plazas is well shaded by massive trees, that were probably planted during the redevelopment.  From my window in the excellent El Portal Suites, beside the Plaza de Chile, I can see a huge hawk on the topmost branches of a huge coniferous tree waiting for its even larger parents to return with dinner.  There are reputedly at least four hawks resident in this plaza.  I suspect that they keep the local pigeon population well under control.

 Plaza de Chile in the early evening

In Montevideo and here in Mendoza, it is not unusual to see jugglers performing at busy junctions.  As soon as the lights change, they perform and then dart alongside the traffic, collecting contributions.  Many of the characters are remarkably talented.  But here in Mendoza I witnessed an unusual act at an intersection; a couple dancing tango to their own musical accompaniment.  Not only were they talented, but the presence of their baby in a pram on the pavement raised the poignancy of their performance:  not only were the drivers contributing but also people passing by on the pavement.  A little while later I saw the couple sitting on a bench in the park, the mother breast feeding the baby.  I suspect that they would have an interesting story to tell.

About a twenty minute walk to the west of the Plaza de la Independencia lies the Parque General San Martín.  With almost 400 ha and 17km of roads and paths, it is one of the largest park areas in Argentina.  The park contains a zoo and an open air theatre, as well as an 800m rowing lake, a football stadium, horse jumping arena, a velodrome, an athletic track, a tennis club and a golf course.  And all day long, regardless of the temperature being in the 30s, a horde of runners, young and old, throng the paths.

 The rowing lake in Parque General San Martín

As well as the wide range of sporting facilities in the park, there are several open air restaurants with excellent food and wine.  It is not surprising that on each day of my stay in Mendoza, my feet, as if on automatic pilot, led me back to the park.

Herbert Robinson

Although I could never claim to have been talented at any sport, I have always loved football, cricket and squash.  But my passion has always been rugby – the social life and the comradeship were almost as important to me as the game.  In my native Ireland, in Canada, Australia, England and Nigeria, I played them all.  Sport dominated my social calendar for as long as I could remember.

When I arrived in Caracas in late 1978, to take up my new position with Maraven, the oil company – it used to belong to Shell, nobody seemed to have heard of any of my sporting interests being played locally.  I was taken to the office of Herbert Robinson.  I was told that if anybody knew about sports, it would be Herbert.

Formerly from Trinidad, Herbert was an ex-sprinter, who had represented Venezuela in international competitions.  And he still looked the part – lean and muscular.  He was not able to help me with my preferred sports – they probably did not exist in that era in Caracas, but suggested that I go with him that weekend to an oil industry 10km cross-county race.  I protested that I had never competed in a race of any distance, but he insisted that I looked fit and that I would enjoy the experience.  I acquiesced.

So that Sunday I turned up at the Parque del Este and, to my surprise, won the race by several minutes.  Soon after Herbert entered me in a public race, in which I came third and again soon after, with the same result.  I was hooked and in the next 25 years I competed in more than 350 races in several countries, although only very rarely finishing in one of the top positions.

After I moved on from Caracas, I lost touch with Herbert.  But I will be eternally grateful for his guidance and support.  And who knows, perhaps our paths will once more cross.

But almost certainly never again in a race.

Herbert Robinson, Iris, Jorge Herrera, Ivonne Garban and Len Blackwood

A Tale of Two Graves

What did Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Jacques Brel (1929-78) have in common?

At first glance it would appear that there was little, if anything.  Paul Gauguin was a French painter, better known after his death, and Jacques Brel, a Belgian, more famous in his lifetime, in a different era, for his songs and his film roles.

It was in 1971, while staying in the Hawaiian Islands, that I first became interested in Paul Gauguin.  I had been reading two collections of short stories of Somerset Maughan – ‘The Trembling of a leaf’ and ‘Tales of the South Pacific’, when I came across Maughan’s ‘The Moon and Sixpence´, a novel loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin, who spent much of his later life in Tahiti, in the South Pacific.  I wanted to experience Tahiti.

So I moved on to Papee’te and I was not disappointed in what I found – the climate, the friendly and curious people, swimming with the colourful fish in the lagoon, the tropical scenery, the massive mountain core. To me it seemed idyllic. 

But although Gauguin had lived and painted in Tahiti, I found that he was not buried there, but on the nearby Atuona, in the Marquesas Islands. 

Some years later I once more stopped off in Pape’ete, on my way to Panama, but I never made it to Atouna.

Paul Gauguin painted Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When will you marry) in 1892, not long after he moved to Tahiti.  In 2015 the painting sold for nearly 300 million dollars, at that time the most that had ever been paid for a work of art.

When first in Tahiti, my funds were low, so I traveled on to Australia, eventually found a job, and settled down for a few years, until the Latin American bug bit me.  But that is an account for another day.

In 1974 I attended a concert of Rod McKuen at the recently-opened Sydney  Opera House.  I had a cassette of McKuen´s songs and often played them as I went to sleep.  There was something in his gravelly voice, his poems and the music that appealed to me.  And McKuen explained that many of his songs were translations from lyrics of his close friend, Jacques Brel, such as ´If you go away (Ne me quitte pas)’ and ‘Seasons in the sun – (Le Moribond)’.  Many years later a Belgian friend gave me a collection of Jacque Brel’s songs.

Rod McKuen, as I remember him

Jacque Brel died in 1978, near Paris, soon after having returned to France for medical treatment.  Knowing that he was terminally ill, he had spent his last few years sailing in the South Pacific and had settled in the Marquesas Islands.  He was buried in the graveyard of Atuona, a few metres from the grave of Paul Gauguin.

Jacques Brel

Sometimes the world can seem quite small… 

Uruguay-Canada Friendship

When I migrated from Ireland in 1965, to see the world and make my fortune, more than fifty years ago, my first port of call was Toronto. I made many good friends there and had a lot of fun times.

But I could not stand the awful dark, cold, dreary winters, and after five years I moved to Australia, the climate of which suited me much better. Then followed a string of countries – eight in all, until I find myself today in Uruguay for the third year, soaking up the southern summer sun.

Recently on one of our daily long walks along La Rambla, beside the river, I noticed that a small park area at Punta Carretas had been cleaned up and a number of comfortable benches installed.

And today I realized that the park had been dedicated to Uruguayan Canadian friendship.

And the park is home to a family of herons that keep watch over it.