I grew up on a farm in Ireland and from the age of crawling, I was exposed to shit.

There was cow shit, horse shit, chicken shit, pig shit, sheep shit, goose, duck, goat, dog and cat shit, and other shit that I have trod on, but not noticed.  And more than once a passing bird has evacuated its bowels on my head, which Irish logic would explain why I have been exceptionally lucky all my life.

And there was the manure heap, with the daily contents of the piggeries and the chicken houses, together with the remains of dead animals and birds.  It was a veritable soup of bacteria, constantly stirred by an army of rats.

Of course, we kept ourselves pristine clean: my mother made me have a bath once a week, but only if I really needed it.  Now to some of you that may sound a little extreme, but one should remember that we had no running water until I was eight or nine years old, and then no heating.

The only times I ever had to take a precautionary medical measure, was when, on occasions I cut myself and went to the doctor to have a tetanus injection.  And of course, there was the ringworm infection that I had on my forehead, probably from wiping my sweaty brow on a warm day.  It started to spread towards my hair and I had to have treatment.

I still have most of my hair, albeit not as lush as formerly

When I migrated to Canada, I first heard of allergies.  It was a new word for me.  If it existed in Ireland, I had never heard of it before. So many people in Canada seemed to be allergic to something.  And there was the modern infliction of stomach ulcers and haemorrhoids.  As an innocent Irish immigrant, I was on a steep learning curve.

Some years later, on one of my last nights in Lagos, with some of my friends, I went to my favourite little French bistro in the city.  It rained heavily while we ate and when we emerged, the streets were flooded, and the parking lot, where I had left the car – I was driving, was a lake.  The sewers had regurgitated their contents, and the water was putrid.

I took off my shoes and socks –  I was already in shorts, and waded to the car and managed to start the engine and exit the car park.  When my friends got in, they were nauseated by the smell that rose from my legs.  When we got back to my apartment, to my amusement, one of the girls (a very city girl) insisted on dousing my legs with disinfectant, despite that I had already showered.

Once in Chamonix in recent years, with Lotta and some of my sons, just about to start dinner, Andrew mentioned that the toilet in his room was blocked.  ‘Leave it to me’, I said, and I leapt into action.  Sure enough, it the  toilet was filled to the brim and solidly blocked.  I plunged my arm up to the elbow, pulled and pushed at the blockage, and with an enormous sucking noise, it all disappeared.

Was I treated as a ‘hero’ for my heroic action?  Not at all.  ‘Yuk’, ‘OMG’, ‘how could you do that? etc.  And once again I was doused with all sorts of disinfectants. And dinner was a rather subdued affair.

Sometimes being Irish is no fun… 😦

When it comes to gardening, I can understand women wanting to protect and keeping their ‘hands soft and smooth´, but I have never understood why men wear gloves.  To me, gardening in gloves is comparable to sex with a condom:  to feel and assess the moisture content and the texture of the soil, one has to get one’s hands dirty.  I could never imagine my father or his workers ever wearing gloves in their work.

I remain totally convinced that exposure to germs, bacteria or whatever they are called, from a young age, helps to build a resistance that lasts a lifetime.

I appreciate that my view is diametrically opposed to that of the product propaganda of the cleansing and pharmaceutical companies and most city people.

But then, what do I know?



Caracas, 1978

Until I moved to Caracas in 1978, I had never lived anywhere within easy access to mountains.

The landscape around where I grew up on the north coast of Ulster, could be described as ‘gently undulating’, and it would be an exaggeration to describe the ‘mountains’ in the north of Ireland as anything more than ‘cuddly little hills’.

Likewise, Toronto and London are as vertically challenged as a slightly creased table cloth.  There are small mountains inland from Sydney, but they are at least a two-hour drive away.  On a rare day, clear of smog, from Los Angeles, with binoculars one can sometimes see the Rockies, but again a long drive.  And Lagos is on the vast delta of the river Niger.

So, on that morning in November 1978, when I was shown to my new office on the seventh floor of Maraven, in Caracas, and I looked across the adjacent city airport and saw that massive green wall rising from the northern suburbs, I felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to be there.

Pico Oriental (2640 m), with the city aitport in the foreground (from internet)


The mountain at which I was looking, was the western end of El Parque Nacional El Ávila, that stretches for 80 km along the north coast, and is about 16 km wide.  The highest point is Pico Naiguatá at 2765 m, with Caracas at about 1000 m.

For quite a while, the mountains were ever present in my mind, but by necessity they were in the background; I was busy settling in, getting my bearings, coping with the challenges of a new job, and above all, wrestling with the Spanish language.

But eventually the urge to climb that mountain and walk along the ridge was irresistible.  I asked around the office, but nobody seemed to have ever climbed the mountain, nor did they seem to know anything about the access paths.

It was my new friend and eventually my constant companion, Ivonne, who inquired at an information office somewhere in the city, and obtained some documentation.  So, one Saturday morning we set off to climb Pico Oriental.

There was nothing technically challenging about the climb; it was like going up steep stairs for 2-3 hours.  And it was a very warm day.  But the views from the top were incredible, with Caracas on one side, and the Caribbean far below on the other.  And we could see planes flying below, and landing at the city airport, and on the other side, at the international airport of Maiquetía.

Over the next year on several weekends, we explored most of the paths on the mountain, accompanied by various permutations of Ivonne’s younger sisters – Maureen, Vilma and Dayra, and two of our colleagues from Maraven – Aiden Lehane and Laín Burgos-Lovece.

We went along the ridge as far as the Humbolt Hotel, at 2015 m, then deserted and decayed.  It had been built in 1956, with a cable car climbing from Caracas in the valley and then down the other side to Macuto, at the coast.  It was shut down in the early 1970’s, due to operational and technical issues with the cable car system.  It was reopened in the late 1980’s as a School of Tourism.

Hotel Humbold at 2015 m


Kaare & Lonny Plesner (Danish friends), with the author and Ivonne Garban, in 1979

Ivonne somehow obtained a faded copy of a document that gave the history of the ascent of Naiguatá, so one weekend we set off from Petare, in the eastern suburbs of Caracas.

The front page of an old 8-page document about Pico de Naiguatá


And a map showing some of the possible ascents to Naiguatá


Once more there was nothing technical about the climb, it was just long, and in the valley, the weather was hot that day.  And once again the views were stunning.

View of Naiguatá from the western ridge
Anfiteatro Pico Naiguata, Fila Maestra y Pico Oriental
Looking west from Naiguatá, with Caracas on the left, and the Caribbean on the right


Although there were several paths up the south side of Ávila, I never found one descending from the ridge on the north side, down to the Caribbean.  The north side was reputed to be a naturalist’s paradise, with many different species of flora and fauna.

There was no road along the coast for the length of the park.  The road ended at a beach club on the western end of the park, and just outside Higuerote on the eastern end.  In between, there was about 50 km of a rough track, only suitable for a 4-wheel drive.

One day I decided that I was going to run and walk the 50 km. Ivonne drove me to Higuerote, and I started out just after the sunrise.  We agreed to meet at the other end at 18:00, around sunset.

As crazy as it may seem today, I took nothing with me: no pack, no food, no water.  I had just my running gear.  And of course there were no mobile phones in those days.

But the distance for me, was a little more than that of a marathon, of which I had already done several.  And a few weeks earlier I had run and walked 80 km in training in Caracas, so I was not in awe of the distance.

The going was rough in parts, particularly in the middle third, and it was hot and very humid in the sun.  I drank from streams and surprisingly, I found several banana plants, with ripe fruit, possible descended from a long-vanished subsistence plot.

I had no concept of distance covered, but I had calculated on it taking no more than ten hours.  When ten hours had elapsed and there was still no sign of civilisation, I started to feel a little uneasy, especially when it looked like it would not be long until the sun set.  I began to regret the time had spent on those idyllic breaks that I had taken, sitting on the beach, or cooling my feet in the streams.

It was quite dark when I finally emerged from the bushes to find myself in the car park of the club at Naiguata.  And there was Ivonne with one of her sisters, patiently waiting for me in my car.

Mission accomplished.

Since Caracas, I have had several opportunities to live close to mountains, and I have never lost my fascination for them.

But my memories of Ávila stand out above all others.


Over the last few years, Valencia has become one of my favourite cities.  Indeed, I have even been considering settling down there, although I confess that I am not yet quite ready for that big step.  For me, it is not easy to blow the full-time whistle on more than 50 years of my nomadic life-style.  That day will come, but not just yet.

Valencia has much of what I enjoy.

First and foremost, it has a wonderful subtropical climate, with a summer season lasting from April to November, mild winters, and an annual average of seven hours of sunshine per day.  That is almost double the average for northern Europe.  And only a precipitation average of 44 days in the year.

Then there is the glorious heart to the city, with its cathedral and its buildings, its history and the maze of narrow streets and alleyways.  And the multitude of inexpensive restaurants and bars.  The city throbs with life, day and night.  The typical Valenciano lives in the street.

And the beach is a short bus ride away.

But for me, the jewel of Valencia is El Jardín del Turia.

In October, 1957, the river Turia overflowed yet again, causing a lot of devastation and many deaths.  The authorities finally decided to divert the river, avoiding the heart of Valencia. In subsequent years, the bed of the river was converted to a sunken park, which was inaugurated in 1986.

Today, the park extends over 9 km of former riverbed, from Cabecera Park to the City of Arts and Sciences, and includes 18 bridges.


It is a relative paradise for a runner, with a marker every 100 m.


At the down-river end of the park, there is the group of futuristic buildings that comprise the City of Arts and Sciences.

The Opera House
The Science museum, in the shape of the skeleton of a whale
The Ágora, for special events

Throughout the length of the park there several bars and restaurants.


One of the unique features of the park is the Gulliver Park for children and the not-so-young.  Only from the air can one appreciate the size of the sculpture and the ant-like people.



The Palau de la Música, that houses the Valencia orchestra. In the foreground, the spectacular fountains are undergoing a complete restauration.


And if one forgets that one is on the bed of a river, there is the Puente del Mar to remind one that it was first built on the site in 1425.


For the sports minded, there are facilities for football, rugby, tennis, baseball, hockey, athletics than others that I have forgotten.

Yup, Valencia is my kind of place… 🙂

The Itinerant Sailor

Today finds me in Alicante, in southern Spain.  While most of northern Europe is shivering in near, or below freezing temperatures, I am in shorts and light shirt, basking in 25°c.  It’s not very hard being me.

Give or take a week, it was about this time of the year, forty-eight years ago in 1968, that I first was in Alicante.  And the weather was like today.

I was on my way south to Gibraltar.  As a child, I had read of the history of Gibraltar, a tiny enclave of Britain, at the tip of Spain and separated by a short distance from Africa.  It had fascinated me.

Gibraltar was ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, but unfortunately, there was no map of the boundaries, nor any detail of what was entailed.  Unsurprisingly, to this day Gibraltar has continually been subject to differing interpretations.

I have no recollect of how I reached the Gibraltar border from nearby Algeciras, probably by bus, but when I did, I found the border was not open.  It had been closed on June 8 of the same year, by General Franco, the Spanish dictator, and it remained closed until February 1985.

The border between Spain and Gibraltar, as it is in modern times (photo from internet)


I spent the night close to the border, in La Línea, in a pension, in the dampest bed in which I have ever slept.  The room felt as if it had not been occupied since the Treaty of Utrecht.

The next day I went back to Algeciras, and caught a ferry across the bay to Gibraltar.  That access was surprisingly still open.

On the ferry, I met one of the most interesting people I have ever encountered.  He was a retired English sailor.  From early teenage, he had worked all his life on boats, all over the world.  He was a small thin wiry man with scarcely any hair, with a deeply weathered and tanned face.

He told me that when he was forced to retire, he tried to settle in England, but he could not fit in.  He had no family, no relatives, no real friends.  He was too restless to live in one place, so he had taken all his possessions in a small backpack and set off to follow his nose.

In the next four years, he had traveled all over the world, in all the continents, sometimes working his passage across the oceans.  He ended up back in England, but did not stay long.  When I met him, he was on his way back south.  He said he was not going back to England again.

I asked him where he was going after Gibraltar.  He said that he was going to catch a ferry to Ceuta and then overland to South Africa.

And what if got ill?  He said that he would be treated like the local people, wherever he was.  And when he died, he said that they could have his few possessions to pay for his burial.

He did not seem to be lonely.  In fact, he appeared to be very content with his life.  In some ways, the old sailor reminded me of the legend of the itinerant Jew, although, in the end, the latter just wanted to die.

The last I saw of him, he was heading to the offices of the ferry companies, to get a passage to Africa, and I headed to the town.

Since then, I have often wondered whatever happened to the old sailor.