Twitter seems to be down at the moment which is a little surprising. It never crossed my mind that social media sites would need to go "offline" from time to time for maintenance since they're like old friends - always there for you.
My latest read has been Araminta Hall's "Everything and Nothing". I took it with me to Cuba and devoured it in the two days we lay on the beach in Varadero. The new genre "nanny chiller" written about in the reviews had me intrigued, but I originally bought the book because it's essentially about a family in meltdown. I wanted to see how other authors portray broken relationships and damaged individuals, and how all that gets captured into a compelling storyline evoking empathy for the main characters. To make yourself a better writer, the simple truth is you must study the pros. Araminta's debut is the first of three books I've selected to explore the themes running through my own trilogy. The other two on my list are Elizabeth Haynes's debut "Into the Darkest Corner" and A.D. Miller's debut "Snowdrops". I picked Haynes because her story deals with obsession and abuse, and I picked Miller's because weather is used throughout the story to depict mood, setting and drama.
Coming back to "Everything and Nothing", what makes the book great is the fact most people can relate to it, which makes the characters believable. I don't have a husband and two kids, but I can understand the frustration depicted excellently throughout of working so hard you feel like everything else in your life is out of control. And that's ok for a while because you ride on the wave of euphoria your job brings you (hopefully, as long as you're doing something you like!) but pretty soon the cracks start to show. You miss an event. You forget a birthday, or an anniversary. You have to cancel a holiday because you're just too busy... In essence, you start sacrificing the bits of your life that are real and tangible, yet you have no time to step back and take a long, hard look at yourself from the outside looking in. Reminds me of the Adam Sandler movie "Click". Also the dilemma every working woman faces when they've had a child - to go back to work or not. The guilt, the shame, the unknown. The visions not matching the reality - whichever decision you make. What else? How two people can be in love one minute and then drift so far apart the next. The book takes on both perspectives - male and female - and does a fine job of getting to the heart of both. You want to hate Christian for having an affair whilst Ruth is pregnant, but you can't. Because he's stumbling around for answers as much as she is. Without giving too much away, rarely do you imagine the male species having an epiphany, and from a female perspective - how the hell does it happen and what goes through their mind??? If you want to know, all I can say is read the book...
So, besides all that meltdown stuff going on, you have indeed got a new genre - the nanny chiller - which in itself is a marvelous concept. For me this was a refreshing read, old and new themes mixed together to create something totally unique.
And that's what makes a great story!
Also in May...
In a bid to see more of my home country (another unofficial 1 of my 30 Things), I organised a hair brain week's worth of whizz around the UK for a friend of mine who was coming over to visit from Canada. We spent days, weeks, months putting the itinerary together because there was so much I wanted Pat to see - and she had a few prerequisites as well...
Anyway, it went a little something like this:
Taking the rail air link to pick her up at Heathrow T4 (yet another unofficial 30 Thing - I have been pampered journeying to / from the airports over the years so it was high time I attempted the public transport route) - which to my surprise went very smoothly and I didn't get lost (I can navigate my way around foreign countries but when it comes to my own, utterly useless I'm afraid) - we then "dashed" as best we could back to Bennys B&B in South Ealing to pick up her extra large suitcase (from travels around the Greek Islands prior to coming to England) and then "dashed" as best we could again all the way back to Fleet - only to have a quick cup of tea, unpack and repack before we headed back into London to meet a friend and then catch the overnight Caledonian sleeper train from Euston to Edinburgh.
I'm sure there must have been a simpler, smarter way, but for the life of me, I didn't find it.
So we got tipsy In London, told off by our sensible neighbours for giggling too loudly once we got into our berth, and about 1am collapsed into our beds as the train gently rocked us to sleep.
If you've never tried to wash and dress in a tiny berth - you should, just for laughs. It was compact, neat, tidy and all the rest of it, but you couldn't swing a cat! That hilarious little episode kickstarted our couple of days in Scotland's capital. We arrived to sunshine so made the most of it and you know, it was just another day in sunny Edinburgh... happened to see a Royal being whisked in black limousine right by our Trike as we cruised around the city (courtesy of the fantastic Trike Tours Scotland), stumbled upon a fantastic impromptu parade down the Royal Mile with fighter jet flypast, and enjoyed a cheeky drop of 12 year old single malt whiskey under the iconic Firth of Forth bridge...AMAZING !!!!!
I never see the danger in anything until after I've done it. I seem to hone in on rating the experience on the thrill-o-metre and then jumping straight in. However, Pat was very quick to ask Gordon (our Trike driver) whether he'd ever rolled this thing. One of two questions apparently. If it hadn't been that one, she was going to ask him how long he'd actually been riding. Cracked me up just a wee bit.
Now, I wanted to show Pat each place we visited in the sunshine one day and in the rain the next, which strangely is exactly what happened for the most part. A true, wet, miserable, cold and damp to the bone day followed so we decided to walk to the highest point (of course!) all the way to the top of the Royal Mile and visit Edinburgh Castle. An optimistic ice cream van tickled us as we entered the castle and all I can say is, thank goodness for the cafes dotted around selling steaming hot soup and the little gift shops offering free whiskey tasting. They made the day just about bearable.
Before we hopped on the overnight train back down to London, we engaged in some light, hearty political conversation with a Scottish gentleman in the pub at the train station, watched Prince Charles read the weather in Glasgow over and over again and polished off another bottle or two of very very nice white wine. This time we made sure not to get told off by our neighbours and it was homeward bound.
Next up - Bristol and Bath for a couple of days for family visits and meals and socialising and impromptu wedding ceremonies - not to mention a healthy dose of lovely old buildings and street entertainers. And I was surprised to see the Roman Baths had developed into this magnificent feature of the city. I remember school trips back in the day when it was just a crumbling ruin and we were able to walk right inside the baths. Now of course it costs 12 quid, but they have done it up lush. We drove this bit of the trip and Pat was able to see our English countryside at its finest. Everything so green and splendid (well it would be after 6 weeks of rain, right) and we were blessed with two fine and sunny days.
Leaving early-ish Sunday morning with our packed lunches from good old Mum (I'd eaten mine by half 10, can't have food just sitting and staring at me), we took a taxi to Bristol Temple Meads station to catch yet another train down to Penzance in Cornwall. Pat had great trouble understanding the taxi driver as he had a thick Bristolian accent. I found that rather funny. Actually, I think in general Pat had trouble understanding us as we speak so fast and martyr the English language with missing ts and likes and innits.
It was a beautiful train journey along the coastline with my favourite bit being Tiverton to Newton Abbot dubbed "The Cornish Riviera". We set about taking pictures (although Pat always attracted a hedge every time she lifted her camera to the window) and making lists of all the transportation she'd used on her month long jolly, all the cities she'd visited and all the quirky things she'd seen. A grand total of 27 stops later and we were almost at "Land's End", well, the train line ran out at least! Can't go any further than Penzance on the train. Here we stayed in a quaint little guesthouse called Cornerways with its winding staircase and rooms jutting off in all shapes and sizes, not to mention in all directions. Very oddly shaped house but pretty damn amazing all the same. Run by a very helpful young German guy and the only hilarious efficiency we found was Breakfast served from 8am to 8:45am precisely and on the dot!
I wanted to show Pat St Ives and it was a gorgeous afternoon, the kind you dream of in Cornwall, so off we went. Here Pat sampled proper fish and chips, proper Cornish fudge and proper Cornish ice cream. Oh, and I stocked up on rock and my fave - a gert slab of coconut ice! We had a wonderful view of the harbour as we sat and ate dinner. St Ives gets me right there every time. And the giant, terrifying seagulls were on good form as well.
The next day it rained of course. Our mission today was The Lizard for Cream Teas, but when I told a local from Mullion whilst we stood waiting for the bus in the pouring rain in Helston that that's what we were planning, he laughed me off the pavement. Thought we were nutters. Fair play. I think Pat thought it too, but when she tasted that Cream Tea (just as I promised), all negatives went out the window. I can safely say... she was in heaven! We got to see the back and beyond of Cornwall as the bus trundled through the tiny villages. How it managed to squeeze between the buildings, we'll never know. Sometimes it was so tight, you had to shut your eyes.
Our mini jaunt to Cornwall ended with a visit to The Dolphin pub in Penzance harbour where I ate the freshest crab I've ever tasted. The sun came out and all was right with the world again. Abso-bloomin-lutely divine!
We then finished up the whole trip with Pat trying a proper Cornish pastie with brown sauce, thatched roofs, The 39 Steps, a sneak peak of the MIB 3 film premiere in Leicester Square and a final, farewell dinner on Fleet Pond. Many weighings of her suitcases later and she was good to go.
What I will remember most about Pat's visit is how she often called me brat but in the most affectionate way, how it always felt like I was travelling with my Aunty because they both make the same noise when they agree with me, how I fell asleep most nights giggling to myself with the way Pat puffs air when she sleeps, and finally how she attracted some right weirdos as we travelled around. Lasting memories of a truly fabulous (and hilarious) experience.
Cheers me old mucker!
I am indeed loving Instagram (as you may have noticed) and generally getting sidetracked with many, many things (er hmmmm football) - which is why blogs are a little sporadic at the moment. But that's what I love about blogging. There are no rules, no regulations, unless you're working towards a plan.
As promised, I'm going to talk about Cuba today. We will return to all things writing soon, after I've told you about my May exploits!
So we pretty much covered the top half of the country in just over a week. Bombing it down the empty freeway a lot in the first five days to get to where we were headed. And I quickly learned (and giggled to myself every time) that squeezing your hand to the locals signals you're too busy or in a hurry so can't stop to buy their wares or give them a lift. Of course, this means an entirely different thing where I come from hehehe.
You know I'm a fast tourist. I've been trained to cram it in - see as much as possible in as less time out of the office as I can. Probably not the way it should be, but at least the concept makes you travel by the seat of your pants and hone in on the things you're really excited about. And we did slow it down towards the end. My theory is, if there's something that I really liked about the country, I'll go back at some stage to do / see / experience it all over again. If I wasn't fussed, I'll happily move on to the next adventure.
Well, I can safely tell you that there's plenty about Cuba I'd like to do all over again - and again - and again! Not to mention seeing the other half of the country...
So I flew via Toronto to pick up my travel bud (cousin Mel) and then we flew the easy peasy 3 hour flight (with no time difference) down to Varadero. Flying from Toronto to Varadero rather than to Havana shaved £300 off the flight price - it was a no brainer! The two hour taxi transfer Varadero to Havana meant we could chill out (after getting up at the crack of dawn) and soak up the Cuban countryside before meeting our guide and hitting lively Havana.
This is how I know I'm getting old - when my tour guides start to get younger than me. Robbie was only a baby at 27. What a lovely guy - quietly funny, very polite and full of knowledge about his country. Everything we could wish for. Robbie was coming to the end of his 2 years "social service" to his country as he chose to be a tour guide for this. He also spoke excellent Russian. Everybody warned him off learning a language he probably wouldn't have much use for, but he went ahead and studied it anyway - and now he's in a better position for it. When Russians come to Cuba for their holidays, he's one of very few who can actually lead the groups because he speaks the lingo! Genius.
Havana at the beginning was incredible. In a few hours I had done everything I set out to experience - cigar rolling (and smoking!), rum tasting (banana rum liquer is to die for), matching rum with cigars and coffee with cigars, a lesson on sugar cane crushing and tasting the sweet nectar, cruising around the town in a 1950s crimson Dodge !!!!! It was jam packed and so much fun. We stumbled across Voodoo in Havana's forest (didn't even know Havana had a forest!), drove by random crumbling buildings sitting next to pristine ones, learned that different coloured number plates indicate certain cars for certain people - blue for the Feds, green for the Government, red for a rental - and stood in Revolution Square... the list just goes on and on...
For me, Havana mesmerizes you by day and pulsates every fibre of your being by night. It catapults your senses and captivates your mind. What a place!
Next up came Soroa and Vinales - both beautiful for very different reasons. In Soroa we visited an orchid garden said to be created by a lawyer from Gran Canaria in memory of his daughter who passed away from cancer. I missed out on filming the humming birds, but was able to get some great shots of the many different orchids (which I love). I'd read so much about the limestone mogotes landscape in Vinales so, when it came to seeing it up close, I was simply blown away. In amongst these fabulous places, we also drank espressos for 25p (25p!!!!!!!), visited a tobacco farm, ate at a fabulous private restaurant where the food and drinks were to die for (Mel had lobster for next to nothing) and took a boat trip through part of the largest network of underground caves in Cuba at Cueva del indio.
We ended our Havana and Western Cuba stint with the famous Tropicana show. Wow Wow Wow what a spectacle. I'd waited years to see it. We went for the mid package - table next to the stage with a welcome cocktail, glass of champagne and some nibbles, and then a bottle of Havana Club and coke - plenty to keep us going. At the end everybody gets dragged onto the stage to have a boogie and my cousin happily obliged with a little prompting hehehe. I have the video evidence! Our table consisted of me, Mel, a lovely couple from Sheffield although the bloke was originally from my neck of the woods (what are the chances?!) and 4 very insane middle aged (if not older) Austrians. It was quite a lively night on (and off) the stage!
Our third day took us to a Cuban croc conservation farm (because there are only 3,000 left on the island), the Bay of Pigs, Playa Larga, La Cueva de los Peces (a 61 metre deep sinkhole filled with multicolored fish), Giron museum and Cienfuegos dubbed the Miami of Cuba. We had a great Cuban McDonalds in Cienfuegos. Literally a ham burger because beef is rationed to the max and farmers must report the death of a cow immediately. It's rumoured you'd get a longer prison sentence for killing a cow than you'd get for killing a person...
Unfortunately our time in Trinidad was a complete wash out as we had two straight days of rain (tail end of a hurricane in the States???) and feeling clammy and being bitten to death (when it was 26 degrees back home in England and Canada grrrrrrrr), but we went in search of the best Mojito and had a laugh with the locals in the bars, not to mention a bit of shopping and chatting with some lovely English ladies on a Saga tour. The locals thought we were nuts walking around in our halter necks and shorts when it was torrential downpouring. Make the best of it, right!
Sites close in Cuba for no reason at all. It's a country that ticks to its own clock. So, we were hardly surprised when we got to Santa Clara, to find the famous Che Guevara mausoleum closed. A real shame as this was another big highlight for me and Mel, but hey ho onwards and upwards. It was still raining and desperately clammy and we were enjoying the comfortable air con and crazy Cuban reggae tunes courtesy of the Rapper "Chocolate Nestle" (no, I'm not kidding) playing in the car. The songs Waa Waa Waa and Bom Bom Bom will be forever ingrained on my memory.
Now it was time to head to Varadero. Self indulgent Cuba. My first taste of true Caribbean life. And we needed to find that sun!
We eventually found it the closer we got to Varadero, thank goodness. Luckily we weren't self driving as the locals rub off on the road signs where the main towns are so they can lure you for coffee, rum, cigars and make some pesos. A good trick although you can tell the general direction you need to be heading by the big smudge on the maps! And, as Robbie pointed out, check the road. If it's well worn, you're driving the right way.
After saying "goodbye" to Robbie and our little blue Peugeot which, after doing 113,000 kms as a rental, was now being sold as a brand new car, it was nice to finally plonk our bums down on the beach at our resort in Varadero and take a long relaxing swim in the Atlantic. Ahhhhhhhhh, bliss. Robbie looked miffed when he left us as we'd had him staying at the old Plaza hotel in Havana and the Finca Ma' Dolores just outside of Trinidad where he'd caught a touch of man flu bless. Now we were lapping up the luxury - and he was going home!
I still don't fully understand the politics of Cuba as I hoped I might after this trip. Socialism and Revolution weaved itself in and out of what we saw and what we did, just as it should. Rations, baseball, Royal palms, the white butterfly flower, rum, cigars, coffee, being stuck in the 1950s, salsa, colours, vibrancy... these are the things I will remember about Cuba. And the fact that breakfast, lunch and dinner are the three biggest problems of the country. We had to keep reminding Robbie to stop for lunch! The Cubans have rhythm in their soul. Everywhere we went, we were serenaded to - and then offered the band's CD (for pesos of course). For me, this is a country where nothing makes sense except for the music and dancing and singing. The Cubans are busy doing nothing most of the time. Why should they work when the Government demands the majority of their profits and everybody gets paid the same anyway no matter what profession they take up?! The freeway (motorway) is empty even on a Monday morning, but you can't go too far without seeing a local selling his guava or cheese on the side of the road - which is illegal. When they see a cop car, they throw their wares in the ditch to hide them, only to retrieve them and continue selling once the cops move on. Nice!
As Robbie always says "Such is life" with a shrug of his shoulders.
PS. I love the fact I get to say "grassy arse" every time I thank a Cuban! I did that in Mexico too :D
Check out my impressions of Cuba in photos @ Instagram: peewee291982
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Blimey, where did that month go?!
I just want to tell you that we completed the 24 box set last night and OMG what a finale! Best 50 quid we ever spent. It's like watching one massive long movie that goes on for hours and hours (and hours). Recommend it to anyone who loves high octane action and thrill, not to mention a good deal of intrigue. It took me 10 years before I made time to sit down and watch it end to end, but so glad I have now.
Before I attempt to tell you all about my awesome month of travel - coming to you a week later than planned - here's a 30 Things project update for May:
Guess what - sorting out my storage and building a new desk area for the office are still "in progress"...
I can however tick off items 3 & 4 with a smidge of 30. I had a fabulous time on the sleeper train up to Scotland and then cruising around Edinburgh on our trike was magic! Can't even begin to describe Cuba to you (but I will definitely try in my next Blog post) and when I say a smidge of 30, I did walk part of the Thames Trail along South Bank. Still a fair bit to experience though, with my particular interest being the sections including Hampton Court Palace and Kew Gardens, and the most stunning part of the Thames Valley from Marlow to Cookham.
With the photography course (and tour of London) under my belt, along with the London Eye ride, next week I'm planning to visit my old Primary and Junior school to create a children's story with the kids. Providing the weather improves, I'm also flying a Tiger Moth next weekend.
On the slightly smaller list of "Unofficial Things to do before I'm 30" - still eBaying like crazy trying to clear the decks, garden re-design is now complete, large guest bedroom now ready to be decorated at some point, discussion for living room overhaul well under way... and an England International Friendly on home turf at Wembley has been attended.
So until the next time!
1. DONE - Fly First Class long haul from anywhere to anywhere
2. DONE - Take a photography course
3. DONE - Experience the Caledonian sleeper train to Scotland & ride around Edinburgh in a funky Billy Connolly style Trike
4. DONE - Visit 1 of the countries in my Top 3 “before it changes forever” list - Cuba
5. IN PROGRESS - Sort out proper storage for my favourite belongings
6. DONE - Try 3 new variations of foods
7. Walk the beautiful Jurassic Coastline
8. DONE - Complete a family tree with at least 50 people on it
9. DONE - Fun family photo shoot
10. BOOKED - Fly in a Tiger Moth
11. BOOKED - Tandem sky dive
12. DONE - Bake a marble cake just like my mum’s
13. DONE - Make a decent curry
14. Finish writing the Dalton Trilogy
15. IN PROGRESS - Self publish an informative eBook or a children's book on Amazon
16. Publish a paid article
17. Feature photos on shutterstock.com
18. Catalogue my last 10 years of travels
19. Lose 14 lbs
20. Host a dinner party from scratch (3 courses)
21. IN PROGRESS - Build a new desk area for the office
22. BOOKED - Do 1 presentation to an audience
23. DONE - Ride the London Eye
24. Interview 3 Indie authors from Twitter
25. (Market and) sell 100 copies of Little Child
26. Take a weekend TEFL course
27. DONE - Achieve 3000 unique visitor hits on my website in a month (Feb 2012 was 2816)
28. Make some serious progress on my Writers Bureau course
29. Local book signing
30. IN PROGRESS - Walk parts of the Thames Trail
Really excited about what June has in store, not to mention the Euro 2012 footie. Giant St George flag flapping on the side of the house in the unseasonable June gale force winds as we speak! I wonder how many hours of football I can clock up watching on the box? Hoping to catch as many games as poss... although looking at the items I have left, it's almost time to get my head down for some serious studying / writing / promo work to make the second half of the list happen before November 6th...
Blogging is an amazing concept so here I am giving it a whirl. You'll get words. You'll get pics. Sometimes a vid or two. You'll get tongue in cheek, the odd humble opinion and an honest insight into my travels and writing life. Maybe even a few gems along the way. I'll be musing on home turf as I see more and more of the UK and sharing my experiences further afield on holidays and adventurous trips across the globe.