Friday, February 29, 2008

Less is not more

More is more - or so the legend above the entrance to the breakfast buffet assures us. On this, our last Vegas evening, we've taken in (that's the jargon) am amazing show, had a late Italian dinner, and walked back to the Luxor. The pic shows the beam of light from the apex - apparently bright enough to let you - or any passing alien - read a paper by its light 13 up in space. More is indeed more, eh?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Extra-terrestrial highway

This is the road to Rachel, Nevada. We saw no aliens (explanations to follow) but found the most absolute silence - a silence so complete that it seemed to press upon the ears. Magic.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Quit while you're ahead

Pic shows Mr B on a winning streak - la famille McIntosh did rather well tonight. The trick is to resist the temptation to go on playing these absurd machines, all variants of the same idea whose only difference is in the stakes. Crazy - and alarmingly seductive. And before the madness struck? A helicopter over the strip. And that too was seductive. . .

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Night and Day. .

. . It makes no difference. This pic from outside our room was taken at 10pm, but it'll look just the same when I get up tomorrow. After breakfast I'll bet with some of the cash Neil won tonight, but right now I need to sleep after a day in which we explored the bowels of the Hoover Dam and got pink in the hot desert sun. A footnote for those who care: I did in the end suffer for the excesses of yesterday's breakfast. Oh yes.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Reality check

Right - the deal is a photo with a moblogged post, or a proper post on Neil's Asus tiny PC. This is the latter.

I have never been in such a crazy place. Today I have visited Paris and Venice, to say nothing of the Sphynx outside my bedroom window. Today I kept feeling as if I was wandering in Second Life - and on more than one occasion forgot I was indoors. Today I had champagne and tacos for breakfast, as well as more conventional items like fruit, granola and bacon. Oh, and pancakes and maple syrup. There will be photos to record all this, but right now I'm too jetlagged to think of such things and need a wee lie down with the Oscars ceremony before we go to the Cheesecake Factory in Caesar's Palace for dinner.

Our tour leader, it has to be said, is displaying amazing fortitude and patience. The Cheesecake Factory is his reward ...

Sunday, February 24, 2008


This rather dim pic - taken through the tinted glass of our large car - shows the first sight of the Luxor Hotel, in which I've just unpacked. My body says it's 1.40am, but it's just getting dark and we're going out to eat. 5 go to Vegas or a Saga tour? Your guess!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"Home is so Sad"

For the benefit of all to whom I have quoted it over the years, and because I always think of it when I'm about to set off on my travels, I thought I'd reproduce Philip Larkin's poem here as I finish my preparations for another jaunt. Actually, I was always more aware of the pathos of the abandoned house when I was a child - perhaps because we tended to go away in the summer for 8 weeks at a time. At that time in my life, eight weeks felt like forever, and I recall how our house seemed totally strange when we returned at the end of the summer. Even the end-of-term feeling from the end of June seemed preserved and ineffably sad as we prepared to start school again at the very end of August, in the days when the summer holidays were not rudely terminated in the middle of the month. I think Larkin captures all I have ever felt about this phenomenon.

Home is so Sad
by Philip Larkin

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,

Shaped to the comfort of the last to go

As if to win them back. Instead, bereft

Of anyone to please, it withers so,

Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,

A joyous shot at how things ought to be,

Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:

Look at the pictures and the cutlery.

The music in the piano stool. That vase.

Monday, February 18, 2008

God-speed for a soldier

Once in a while, there comes a moment when everything seems fitting, timeless - and almost unbearably moving. We had one of these special moments in church today, when a family from the congregation were preparing to see their eldest son off to service in Afghanistan. As the entire family, along with the many friends from the area who had come to join in the prayers for this family, gathered around Kimberly for the Intercessions, I thought of the thousands of parents who through the centuries have seen their sons off to war, of how these very young men seem so grown up and serious, of the fifty years of CND and the very old-fashioned conflicts our soldiers are involved in, of our Scottish government wanting to get rid of Trident, of how many of my former pupils serve in the armed forces.

And we all thought about the Old Testament reading for today, of God telling Abraham to go into another land where God would make him and his people prosper - a land where there were already people living, who would curse these intruders and as a result be themselves cursed by God. A crucial moment, we were reminded, the reverberations of which are still felt in the world.

Somehow, today, all this came together in a great blast of relevance. And church felt like the right place to be.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Fire, fire!

Fire, fire!
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
For all Dunoon expats who remember the Gantocks Hotel as somewhere people met for a meal if they wanted out of Dunoon, it appears to be burning down. This is our view on this dreich morning when the rest of the UK bathed in jolly sunlight, and if I hang out of the window I can smell the smoke which is hanging in the chilly air. I'm always struck by how flames are in short supply in all but the most dramatic and out-of-control fires, but it looks to me as if the hotel has had it. Maybe it had had it anyway - it was pretty dreary the last time desperation and a long wait for the ferry drove me in.

Update: At dusk there was still too much smoke from the building to see more than that the roof had fallen in. Apparently the hotel was due for demolition. Hmm.

Severe in Las Vegas?

In view of my impending trip to Las Vegas I've been checking out the weather reports and forecasts at Weather Underground. Noticing that there was a severe weather report, I took a look - and found these delights:

Local Storm Report

02/13/2008 0700 PM

North Las Vegas, Clark County.

Non-thunderstorm wind damage, reported by County official.

Public works dept reports 5 street light poles down, 8
stop signs blown over, 3 intersection traffic lights
blown down.

02/13/2008 0700 PM

Las Vegas (downtowlefield, Clark County.

Non-thunderstorm wind gust m67.00 mph, reported by unknown.

At McCarran International Airport visibility was down to 4
miles in blowing dust and a port-a-potty blew across
runway 25... damaging Airport lights and a vehicle.

02/13/2008 0700 PM

North Las Vegas, Clark County.

Non-thunderstorm wind damage, reported by broadcast media.

Mobile home blown into a neighboring house

And on a completely different tack, a question: What's with all the blue lights on the blocks of flats to the south of the M8 as you leave the Kingston Bridge area, heading west? Is it merely a design thing? Or is it to stop the denizens from shooting up in the area round the foot of the blocks? I just wondered ...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Lenten thought.

When I first encountered the Episcopal church, I was fascinated by the structures and rituals by which ordinary people could order their lives. Brought up on the fringes of the Kirk, I had never even seen anyone kneel to pray in church - in fact, it was rare for anyone other than the minister to utter a word during the service unless in singing hymns. So when I became an active Episcopalian, I welcomed Lent as another opportunity to express my commitment - but to what? To God? Or to the church I had recently found?

Now I find I don't think about Lent in quite the same way. What I have done is spend time considering the relationship between the church and its teaching and the God we profess. And I find myself drawn to the idea that the whole structure has grown out of the difficulty of containing and expressing something too big for any of us to cope with. Perhaps all we can do, in Lent or at any other time, is stand in wonder and stop pretending we know anything.

But you don't make converts that way, do you?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Gender bias?

A visitor
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I've been posting my Madeira photos to flickr over the past few days, and this one is, I think, my favourite from the Carnival evening in Funchal. The figure at the window of the restaurant where we were eating seems to me to carry all the mystery and slight menace of the occasion, feelings which tended to vanish later in the exuberant crowds of the parade. This glamorous "lady" belonged to the group of wonderfully exotic dancers who were marshalling in the Old Town, and the excitement as the various white-clad figures appeared out of the shadows was palpable. You can read more about the parade here.

However, I realised this morning, some twelve hours after I'd uploaded the photos, that there were a couple which were considerably more popular than the rest - 9 times more popular, if the number of views was to be believed. These pics were of more scantily-clad ladies - and yes, they were actual ladies, not chaps dressed to kill.

Does this mean, I wonder, if most of the folk who flickr are, like the Carnival ladies, chaps?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Old times

A break from writing about Madeira - though I'm pleased so many people have taken the trouble to tell me how much they've enjoyed the recent posts. I suddenly remembered today that I had a dental appointment - a wee filling to deal with a chipped front tooth. (I'll be interested to see how long the filling lasts - the first test was my sourdough bread, the crust of which is of adamantine hardness)

Anyway, I was hailed in the dentist's waiting room by a former Chief Inspector of police, with whom I used to have dealings when I was involved in arranging CND demos in the Holy Loch area. He had been listening to a news item about the possible removal from the Clyde of the Trident missile base because of changed political circumstances, and had thought ... of me. Really. The picture that had come to mind was of himself supervising a march when he was seized by me and a fellow-demonstrator (now high in the reaches of school management) and had to walk the route of the march with his arms linked in ours. I recall this incident - we always tried to remain on the very best of terms with our local police - but had never known that his superiors, monitoring events in an unmarked car, had passed and noted it. Later, they had remonstrated with him that he wasn't supposed to join the demo.

And now Site One is no more, we have a Scottish government who want rid of nuclear weapons, and we were free to reminisce and reveal how close our politics had always been. An antidote, somehow, to current news stories.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Levada walking

Walking a levada
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Before you go to Madeira, everyone who knows anything about the island asks you the same thing: Are you going to walk the levadas? And then they give a wee smirk. And you wonder what on earth they mean by smirking. No-one, however, gave me any real notion of what this iconic activity would entail. Here, for anyone who ever wanted to know, is how I experienced it.

Levadas are irrigation ditches, ensuring that the rain which lands on selected spots on Madeira is used sensibly. Right now, they need to do more in this line, as they are already onto next summer's water supply and still allow 80% of their water to run into the sea unused. But these levadas are remarkable nonetheless, built at considerable risk to the labourers who made them. Each is about a foot wide, and beside it runs a maintenance path, sometimes in the soil beside the levada, sometimes on the retaining concrete wall. In either case, the path tends to be about a foot wide also for much of its length. This is what you walk along.

If you try walking along, say, a strip of newspaper about a foot wide, you should have no problems (unless you're drunk. Then it might be harder). But if that strip is above a sheer drop, so that you have water on one side and a view of the valley below on the other, it can be harder not to see the drop as well as the path. Remember, you have been told several times not to try to take photos or look at the view without first stopping, and to keep your eyes on the path. Sometimes your eyes feel as if they're on stalks with the effort of focussing. Happily, the steepest and most vertiginous bits are now protected by a fairly substantial fence consisting of two lines of plastic-coated wire rope suspended between iron poles concreted into the ground. Unhappily, on the Picos walk I described earlier, we saw one place where a rockfall had knocked a pole and its retaining concrete blob out of the ground, so that it dangled unnervingly above the abyss, still attached to the fence which, until then, we had all been clutching gratefully. A walking pole can be helpful in maintaining balance - particularly if the ground is wet - but it can also be a complete pest when the path is too narrow to accommodate it. Be warned.

Levadas are, by their very nature, completely horizontal, so you are contouring every bit of the way, covering miles of hillside, deep into valleys which you can reach no other way. When the hillside becomes too lumpy, they are in tunnels, some of which are so long you need a torch to cope with them. If you want to answer the call of nature - a delicate expression, I always think - you have to allow your compadres to get ahead of you and hope that no-one if following fast. Forget hiding behind a bush; just concentrate on not falling down the hill. If you want to stop for lunch, wait till you come to a place where the path is lower than and wider than the levada - otherwise you'll have to eat standing up.

Doing a walk like this lets you see some of the amazing plants of Madeira. Many of them are huge variants of familiar things - a dandelion with foot-long leaves, buttercups whose leaves are the size of water-lily pads, the heather trees already mentioned. It is incredibly lush, and the smells are amazing. We were completely unbothered by insects, and the birds were inquisitive and bold. Oh - and I learned how to make a fantastically annoying bird-whistle using the inner part of a montbretia leaf. I can't wait for summer to do it again...

Friday, February 08, 2008

Scrambles amongst the Picos

More mountains
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
In Madeira, it seems to me that you either sit in the sun drinking or you walk. We walked, covering about 45km and climbing a total of over 3,000' - sorry to mix metric and old money, but that's how my mind works - during our week there. This photo is taken from the same vantage point as the one on this post, on the summit of Madeira's highest mountain, Pico Ruivo (6,109' or 1,862m) Rather than look back in wonder at the day, I thought I'd relive it.

It is midday. We have descended from our starting point and traversed a somewhat vertiginous path round the contour to a second peak. Mr B still looks as if he wonders what malign fate has brought him to this place, but in fact has not succumbed to vertigo or decrepitude and is in fact climbing calmly. We have been promised lunch on the top of this peak, but the top is hidden behind a lump of reddish tufa. Mr B and I are quite alone - Adriano is back there somewhere helping the Gasping Lady, and the others went ahead when I stopped for a pee. We are in full sun, with clouds hiding the valley below. Buzzards swirl overhead. I think they may know something.

The trouble is the steps. Steep, red, rough steps of varying height cut in the volcanic rock to make the climb, well, possible. But I think they were not cut with a short-arse in mind, and some of them are 18" high. Each step is a huge effort. I stop after about ten of them and realise that I am panting uncontrollably. However, I don't feel that there is much air going into my lungs. We are at over 6,000' and - as I learn later - there is 16% less oxygen than at sea level. If it was a path over which I could pick my way it wouldn't be so bad, but here we gain height in a relentless and speedy fashion which is ... challenging. I feel a pain in my chest, under where my camera is hanging - I haven't taken any photos for about half an hour. Maybe I am having a heart attack. Mr B points out that there is nowhere suitable to expire here. I shall have to die standing up. I reflect that this would be a worthy and heroic end, much to be preferred to rotting in a home. But I don't die, and we crawl on, not a moment too soon finding the place where we can sit on a rock and eat our pieces and boiled eggs and look at the clouds below - and have our photos taken by a leprechaun in a green semmit.

For the rest of the day I feel invincible. There is a magic in walking all day above the clouds, and at the end I abandon my pack for the final Pico and float up. (That's artistic licence, by the way) A wonderful day.

There are two literary references in this post. Go on - you know you can find them!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Madeira, m'dear?

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Going away on holiday brings with it the proof of the old saying: You'll pey furrit. I spent yesterday in a nightmare of washing, dangling damp summer clothes around the house (it was raining. Of course it was raining). I also had to buy food, teach "Hamlet", eat a couple of pancakes and go to choir practice. By the time that lot was done I couldn't face blogging or anything else, but I need to say a few more things about Madeira... just a few.

For a start: why do so many old, decrepit or wheelchair-bound people go there at this time of year? It can only be for the wonderfully balmy climate, for there must be little they can do, other than potter on the prom - provided they can get there and back. Madeira has to be the steepest island I've ever visited, and the suburbs of Funchal are so steeply stacked you'd need strong limbs and lungs simply to visit the next street.

It is, however, a strangely fascinating place. The weather while we were there was like a seriously good week in our summer - temperatures between 18º and 22ºC during the day, and slightly cool at night, so that you needed a light jacket to go out. There was one torrential shower on Saturday night - great warm drops pelting down for about ten minutes and then stopping - and some rain fell another night near the airport. However, the locals are desperate for rain; they are already using next summer's store of water, as they've not had any real rain since November. But for me the oddest thing was to have this extremely European society stuck on a volcanic rock 400 miles from Africa, surrounded by banana plantations and exotic flora, cut off from all that Europe has to offer and inundated by pale, depressive Northerners. During our trip we talked to Swedes, Finns and Danes - and on our first day the discussion had come round to serotonin levels before the minibus had even cleared Funchal.

I'll save the trips we did for another post - I should have dealt with the photos by then. But I'll leave you with a picture of our homeward flight. Holiday flights pour into the island, and every one is packed. I felt more aware of this on our First Choice flight home to Glasgow, when I was almost brained by a walking stick with a heavy ivory top falling on me from the crammed overhead locker. The man beside me - the owner of the stick - trembled and sweated for the first hour or two after the trauma of getting to the airport, and I felt every quiver as I made myself smaller and smaller. And then a "wee lady" as the flight attendant called her collapsed just behind me and needed oxygen. As there was only one spare seat in the entire plane she had to lie with her head in the gangway supported by a crew member and her feet on her husband. No-one could pass until the emergency was over. She recovered - but it was a pretty hellish experience. I can think of other, less undignified ways to end my days.

That, however, is for another day.

Saturday, February 02, 2008


It's carnival time in Funchal tonight, and the town is throbbing to grotesquely amplified music - drumming, Mozart, brass bands - you name it, it's loud and we have no earplugs. The costumes are amazing and everyone is having fun at top volume. Cowal Games will seem tame..

Update: Having somehow uploaded a sideways image to this post via my phone, I've substituted a pic of one of the "ladies" who assembled near our restaurant before the parade. Shortly after I wrote the above, the heavens opened in a dramatic cloudburst - but apparently the carnival continued undaunted. I'd hate to have seen these feathers all drookit, though.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Gracious living

I could get used to this life - the pleasant rooms, the service, the sunny balcony - and almost more than anything the jacuzzi in the health suite, to which we are borne, suitably swathed in white bathrobes, in the lift. All aches and pains vanish along with the shine on the silver and the colour of my cossie - but every paradise has its drawbacks. Apart from this, I've realised we're going to be back in rainy Dunoon while folks here are in full Carnival mode. Think I'll just stay on..