The Lottery Tickets

Mexico City, early 1977

I had spent several pleasant hours in Chapultepec Park and at the castle and was walking back to my room near the Zócalo, through pleasant tree-lined side streets, when I spotted it in a second-hand shop window.  It was not fancy, nor did it seem to be expensive, and I decided that it would make the perfect gift for Dale, who had been such a good and generous friend to me in Los Angeles.

After a protracted haggling session, more for my pride than profit, I exited the shop with a machete, wrapped in plain brown paper and tied up with string.  The machete had an ornate handle and was complete with a leather scabbard.  It had probably once belonged to a rich ranchero; it did not look as if it had ever been used for everyday work.  I was very pleased with my purchase.

A example of a typical machete

Early next day I checked out of my hotel and set out on foot to the bus station, that served the cities in the north of Mexico.  It was a long walk and I was thankful that it was still cool, although the traffic fumes were already barely tolerable. The air was thick and every horizontal surface seemed coated with a layer of dust.

I had been told that on a clear day, one could see Iztaccíhual and Popocatépetl.  At nearly 5500m they are much higher than Mont Blanc and much closer to the centre of Mexico City than Mont Blanc is to Geneva.  If I had not seen the photographs of the two huge snow-capped peaks, I would not have believed that they existed.

Popocatépetl on a rare clear day

Eventually I arrived at the terminal of Autobuses del Norte. It was situated on one side of a large plaza and I bought a one-way ticket to Tijuana, via Guadalajara.

I found my bus already at its stand, with the engine running, the air-conditioning on, and the driver in his seat.  As it was not due to depart for more than half an hour, the driver told me I could leave my bag on the bus if I wanted to go for a coffee.

I remembered that I had some lottery tickets I wanted to check, so I set off for the plaza, where I was sure there would be a lottery seller with a list of recent winners.  As I was leaving the bus I decided to take my machete with me.  Although I was confident that my bag of travel-worn clothes would be of no great loss to me if it were stolen, I did not want to run the risk of losing Dale’s gift.

Once outside the bus terminal I could see a group of vendors on the other side of the plaza.  I took my lottery tickets from my pocket and set off to see if I had won anything.  When I was in the middle of the plaza I suddenly heard a loud whistle to one side and another behind me.  I could see some men in uniform running in my direction with guns drawn and turned around to see who they were chasing, to find others running toward me.  Within seconds I was surrounded by several hostile faces, with their guns pointed towards me.

‘Put your package on the ground and raise your arms’, barked one of the uniforms.  Bemused and feeling sure that there must be some mistake, I obeyed.

‘What is in the package’ said the same voice, which belonged to a smarter uniform than the others.

I explained and one of the soldiers ripped open the package.

‘You are under arrest’ said the authority, not even asking to see my passport or papers.

‘What on earth have I done wrong?’

‘Since the riots at the university, it has been decreed illegal to carry a weapon in public’.

‘But I had no idea’.

‘Too bad for you, you can explain that to the judge. Take him to the barracks’.

And one of the soldiers grabbed my arm and led me off to a car park, while another hurried behind with the machete and wrappings.  Rather bewildered, I found myself shoved in the back seat of a grubby decrepit two-door car, with the two seedy-looking uniforms in front of me.

What to do?  How to get out of this? And my bus was leaving very shortly with my bag on board.  I had heard horror stories of drugs being planted on unsuspecting foreigners, large fines being demanded, and weeks and months of waiting for the wheels of justice to grind.

‘So what happens now?’

‘You will be held until the judge has time to hear your case’

‘And how long will that take?

‘Who knows – one week, one month, maybe longer’

‘And what will be the outcome?’

‘Perhaps a sentence, perhaps just a fine’

I was trying hard to remain calm and rational, but I could feel my resolve starting to slip way.  I had about $150 in a pocket and some traveller cheques in another, but once in the barracks they both would most likely disappear.  And very minute took me closer to the barracks and further away from the bus.  I felt I had to act quickly.

‘If it’s a fine, how much would it be?’

‘No idea’.

‘If I give you enough money to pay the fine for me, would that work?  If the fine is less, you could keep the difference´’.

‘How much do you suggest?’

I took the money from my pocket and counted out $125.

‘That’s all I can afford; I need the rest for food´.

‘The machete is confiscated’

‘That’s fine with me.  It has caused me enough trouble already’.

‘OK, let’s go’.

An immediate U- turn amid the blaring of horns, waving of fists and expletives, a handing over of dollars and a short time later we were back at the edge of the plaza.  They let me out, shook my hand, wished me luck and sped off.  I almost started to like them, thieves though they were.

I decided to walk cautiously around the perimeter of the plaza to the bus station.  I could see several soldiers and I did  not dare to risk another encounter with them.  I reached the bus with five minutes to spare.

‘Did you enjoy your walk?’, said the driver, recognizing me.

‘It was quite memorable’, I replied, going back to the seat where I had left my bag.  After what seemed like an interminable time, the doors closed and we headed out.

I don’t recall much of that journey north.  I was quite shaken by the recent experience and the taste of my new-found freedom was almost intoxicating.

After Guadalajara I dozed off and woke up just before Tijuana, dreaming that the bus had been flagged down at a roadblock, soldiers entering, searching for a foreigner without a machete.

It was not until I walked across the border to the US that I remembered that I still had not checked my lottery tickets.


In case you wondered

I confess that the subject and content of some of my posts may seem random to the uninitiated. But there is a purpose to my ramblings.

Let me explain.

A few years ago I realized that I was the only one who knew the details of the history of my family.  Much of my insight results from thirty years of research in the archives in Belfast and Norwich, coupled with first-hand knowledge of three of my grandparents.

Some years ago I documented what I had discovered.  One evening during a skiing trip with my sons in Sweden, I read excerpts from my notes.  They listened with polite attention, but it was obvious that they were not easily enthused by ancient history; they wanted to know of my own travels and experiences.

But how to document it?

I have always had the view that autobiographies are usually an ego trip for the writer.  I did nothing further.

It was not until I recently read ‘La Colmena‘, by Camilo José Cela, that I found the inspiration and the technique to write up a series of seemingly random but ultimately connected events.

So one by one I am working though my long list.  And when I run out of inspiration, I will knit together the resultant product into a document that can hopefully be passed to my descendants.

And perhaps they will know me, although I may be long gone.

So wonder no more…

Old Joe and Young Joey

Old Joe Collins owned the farm opposite ours in Islandflackey.  He was known as ‘Old Joe’ to distinguish him from ‘Young Joey’, his son.  For generations in Ireland, most eldest sons were named after their fathers and likewise eldest daughters after their mothers.  I was one of the exceptions, having been named after my father’s father.

When we moved from Glenmanus to Islandflackey in about 1952, Old Joe was still working his farm, with his cows, plough horse, orchard and vegetable garden.  Small holders could never have afforded to own a tractor.

When I was young, probably no more than six or seven, I can clearly recall one day seeing Old Joe across the road, walking up and down in one of his fields sowing seed using a violin-like instrument with a bow and a hopper, which he had to regularly stop to refill from a sack that he had brought to the field in a wheelbarrow.  Not long after that that Old Joe retired from active farming, his animals gone and the farmyard silent.

An example of sewing seed

 Like most Irish farming families, the Collins had been almost self-sufficient.  They had their cows for their milk and they made their own butter.  They had chickens for their meat and eggs, and next to the southern sheltered side of the house, they had a vegetable garden and an orchard.  And potatoes were plentiful and present at almost every meal.

But Old Joe had more.  He had an area planted in gooseberry bushes and in addition he had three greenhouses in which he grew tomatoes and that were heated by means of a central boiler and pipework.  And the gooseberries and tomatoes he supplied to local greengrocers.  When he had enough to fill a couple of baskets, he would catch the bus to the town to sell them.

My father’s parents moved over from Norfolk when my brother was born, in 1953.  The rented the big house at the end of the lane that passed the Collins farm.  Old Joe was the caretaker of the house.  I never did know if he owned it or whether he had been looking after it for an absentee landlord.

The ‘Pink House’ which my grandparents rented

If ‘Young Joey’ had been interested, he would have continued to work the farm, but it was never big enough to support him too, and he got a job with the local electricity company.  Farming is a hard life and once sons escape to a relatively cushy nine-to-five job, not many want to return.

I never ever saw Joey walk anywhere.  He always left the farm in his little car, even to attend Sunday worship at Ballywillan church, which was about 200 metres away.  As the minister came out from his room and made his way to the pulpit and as one of the elders went to close the church doors, one could hear Joey’s car screeching to a halt and the bang as he slammed the door and his hurried footsteps as he rushed in.  He always just made it on time.  Nobody ever entered the church after the doors were shut.  That was simply unheard of.  And when the service ended, Joey was always the first one out.

Ballywillan Church

Joey eventually married a nurse and she moved in to the farmhouse.  I don’t remember her name for they married after I left home.  She had a severe back problem.  I don’t know the cause, but she became more and more bent over as time passed and she could not straighten up.  Her life must have been difficult.

Of course all are now long dead and the properties have been renovated, extended or demolished and replaced by something more modern.  I still remember as it was more than sixty years ago.

But I am quite sure that one thing has not changed in the neighbourhood with the passage of time and that is the unwritten rule that one does not enter Ballywillan church once the service has started.

Cachapas and Schwartzwälder Kirschtorte

We headed west out of Caracas on the Autopista Francisco Fajardo.  On the outskirts of the city I turned right onto a much smaller road that immediately started to wind and ascend.  We had not gone very far when my Venezuelan friend asked me to pull over at a roadside stand.  That was my introduction to cachapas, a thick pancake made of corn dough, lumpy from the corn kernels, and wrapped around queso de mano, a hand-made cheese, similar to mozzarella.  I found them to be delicious, but very filling.

Once more on the winding road, we soon encountered mist and then quite thick fog.  There was little traffic, but I drove very conservatively.  After about 45 minutes we arrived in Colonia Tovar.

And what a contrast in the temperature. We had left Caracas in a typical balmy spring-like morning, to find ourselves in a quite cold, damp and overcast midday.  We set off briskly to walk around the small town, but soon retreated to a warm and welcoming coffee shop.


Colonia Tovar is about 65 km west of Caracas and at an altitude of 2200m, some 1300m higher than Caracas.  It currently has a population of about 20,000.

The town was first settled in 1843 by a group of immigrants, mainly from Endingen in the Grand Duchy of Baden, in the south-western corner of what today is Germany.  The colonizing company consisted of 240 men and 151 women and included scientists, naturalists, writers and painters.

They sailed down the Rhine and eventually from Le Havre to La Guaira in Venezuela.  They had some cases of smallpox on board and were forced to quarantine at Choroní.

Eventually they were permitted to travel overland to Maracay and on to La Victoria, where they were welcomed by the president Carlos Soublette.  From there they made their way up to the present site of Colonia Tovar, travelling by rarely travelled paths.

For more almost 120 years Colonia Tovar was in almost total isolation, the first access road not being built until 1963.  Today the area is one of the most prosperous in Venezuela, producing a wide variety of vegetables and fruits and catering to the steady inflow of tourists.

Although the official language today is castellano, most of the inhabitants still speak alemanisch, a variant of German.  The houses, buildings, shops and the church are based on the architecture of Baden.  And the traditional dress and the foods are everywhere to be seen.

In the coffee shop I was sorely tempted by one of their traditional German sausages and a Tovar beer, but reluctantly settled for a schwartzwälder kirschtorte and a coffee.  I did have to drive back down through the thick cloud.


I went back to Colonia Tovar a second time, a year later, but the climate was even less inviting on that occasion, rain, rain and more rain.  I did not even stop for a  schwartzwälder kirschtorte,   but headed to the north on another winding road passing through the villages Petaquire and Catayaca to the welcoming heat of Catia La Mar on the Caribbean and eventually back up to Caracas.

One Tooth

Several years ago I first saw Jöte from my study window.  He used to pass before seven-thirty in the morning and return a couple of hours later.  His routine has been the same every day, even in the depths of the Swedish winter and he always wore a jacket.  I have often wondered where he went at that time of the morning.  Perhaps there is a communal breakfast for single retirees or he goes to the home of a relative or lover.  I noticed that he dragged his right leg and his arm seemed to hang.  I wondered if he had had a stroke, similar to mine.

Jöte has only one tooth.  Now that is quite rare in Sweden.  Swedes seem to have excellent teeth and if not, they have had cosmetic dental work done.  It is strange to see somebody, who is not a drunk or a recent immigrant, have only one tooth.

Jöte has a plot at the nearby communal gardens.  He only grows potatoes and occasionally red beans.  When one has only one tooth, they are easy to chew.

Jöte is a retired fireman.  I guess that he is well into his eighties.  He loves fires.  Every year at the springtime clean-up at the plots, he is responsible for burning the mountain of waste that has accumulated from the previous year.  But despite his fire department permit, he can encounter unforeseen problems.  One year a local woman was very angry with him and gave him a lot of abuse because she could smell the smoke in her apartment.  Another year he was attacked by a vicious hedgehog, prematurely woken up from its winter sleep.  And this year a passing dog startled a hare, which cowered behind Jöte, until the owner took the dog away.

Jöte is a gentleman.  If one of the older ladies has a problem with her plot, Jöte is at her service.  He digs, he cuts, he carries, he gives advice.  On a warm day he can often be seen sitting at the big table in the shade, being served a coffee with a slice of cake by a grateful lady.  With only one tooth, the ladies know that Jöte prefers crumbly cake to a hard biscuit.

I saw Jöte again early this morning.  It was just after seven.  He now has a little walking frame that he pushes along.  It is like a Zimmer frame on wheels, with a seat. He walks more slowly now and his limp is much more pronounced. He still wears the same jacket and usually returns by nine-thirty.

The Nagual

It was on a late Friday afternoon at the end of May 2014, when we arrived in Viana.  We had been walking for seven days since we left Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France.  The weather in that time had been quite ‘interesting’: torrential rain, sleet, snow, gale-force winds, flooded streams to cross, but then after Pamplona, perfect spring.

In my enthusiasm I was careless in the rock-strewn descent from El Alto del Perdón before Puente de la Reina, and ended the day with three nails on my numb foot bleeding and torn from the flesh and obviously going to be eventually shed.  So having a rest day in Viana seemed like a great idea.

We did not wander far from the hotel until the next afternoon, when we explored the narrow little town, built in solid stone along the crest of a hill.  There were a handfull of little bars and restaurants, all crowded.  The streets were deserted and the shops closed for the afternoon break.



On a narrow street, parallel to the main street, and close to the cathedral we came across the bar Nagual.  There was no sign. If it were not for the hint of a bright and verdant interior, one could be excused for having passed by unaware. But once enticed inside, the oak tree, the vine encircling the bar, the ceiling-high scene of a forest path and the bar laden with a wide selection of succulent tapas, alluded to a designer of excellence.



The owner was equally interesting with his black outfit, neatly trimmed black beard and his long salt and pepper hair tightly drawn back in a ponytail. When not serving customers he spoke to us of the interior design of his bar, of vegetarian food and of El Camino, which he had once completed. He showed us a shell tattoo on his wrist.

Later he told us of a bar in Logroño called La Taverna de Baco which had loads of Camino statistics on a wall. He was about to explain the significance of the name Nagual, when the bar filled and he was fully occupied. We left shortly after.

Two days later, when wandering around the narrow streets of the old district of Logroño, we were spoiled for choice for somewhere to have a glass of wine and some tapas; there were several streets of wall-to-wall bars and restaurants, most filled to capacity.  In the end I chose one that was not so busy, but looked very inviting.  It was not until we had sat down at a table and ordered that I noticed on the wall beside us a chart with a multitude of statistics of El Camino from 2009. And on the menu was the name of the bar – La Taverna de Baco.  It was the very bar that we had been told of two days previously.

We probably stayed there for a couple of hours, snacking on various tapas and sipping on Rioja; Logroño is the capital of the Rioja region.  Eventually I paid the bill and we were on our way to the door, when in walked the guy from the bar Nagual in Viana, together with an attractive woman and a young child.  Although he obviously recognized us, he appeared to be not in the least surprised to see us there.  We spoke for a short time and left.

It was not until after that the coincidences became apparent to me.  We had walked into the bar without being aware that it was the one we had been told of.  We had sat down at the only table that was next to the chart of Camino statistics, without initially noticing them.  And to cap it all, as we were leaving, in walked the guy from Viana.

Coincidence?  Perhaps, until recently, when I recalled the name of the bar in Viana, and did a search on the word ‘nagual’:

Nagual:  a human being who has the power to transform spiritually or physically into an animal form.  It originated in Mesoamerican cultures.

Was there something rather mysterious about the guy from Viana or have I just read too many of Paulo Coehlo’s mystic novels?


Consumer Prison

Situated on a hill overlooking the river, one block from the Montevideo golf course, and connected to the 26-storey Sheraton hotel, one can find Punta Carretas Shopping with its 180 shops, food hall and multi-cinema complex.  It is the most up-market of Montevideo’s shopping centres.  Once inside the austere external walls, there is little to differentiate this centre from any other American-style centre; the shops display most of the same global brands that one can find anywhere.  But the language is a South American giveaway: almost exclusively Spanish with a smattering of Portuguese from Brazilian tourists, or occasionally English from Sheraton guests or cruise passengers in port for a few hours.

But this building has not always been a shopping centre.  It was originally the notorious Carretas prison, built in 1910, when the area was well outside of the nucleus of Montevideo.  In the era of the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, many of the captured members of the Tupamaros, the urban-guerrilla movement, were imprisoned there.  In that same era, an estimated 14% of the Uruguayan population were forced into exile abroad.

In the years 1931, 1971 and 1972, there were three major escapes from the prison, using tunnels.  In 1971, 106 prisoners escaped through a tunnel that ended in the living room of a neighbour’s house.  One of those prisoners was José Mujica, who eventually ended up as President of Uruguay in 2010-2015.  He was shot six times, captured four times and eventually released in 1985.  With his austere lifestyle, refusing to live in the presidential palace, driving his own old battered Volkswagen and donation of 90% of his salary to charity, he became known as ‘the world’s humblest president’.  In the photos one can see Mujica as he was the day he was released and today.  Only the nose is recognizable.

After the end of the period of dictatorship in 1985, the prison was closed.  Following a competition, the building and site were eventually sold to a developer, and in 1994 the shopping centre was opened.  With its luxurious multi-storey apartments, desirable single family homes and restaurants, today the Punta Carretas area is one of the most sought-after addresses of Montevideo.  Apart from the external walls of the shopping centre, there is nothing to reveal the area’s undesirable past.

Many of the ex-prisoners are still alive today and at least one of them escorts curious tourists around the building and explains how the prison used to be.  For those ex-prisoners it must seem ironic that every day hordes of people, of their own will, enter the place from which they once struggled to escape.