Fish guts in the sun
Smoke from a hundred improvised BBQ’s outside six seat restaurants, rallied by vigorous flapping of palm fans
Red mud drying in the dope heavy air
Sea salt and peppercorns
And around and above it all the mindful wreathing of incense from the temples and everyday shrines.
Vietnam tastes like
The yum yuck of good fish sauce, gnarly and funky
Banh Mi, an airy baguette, warm and yeasty
The crisp wet crunch into the hollow geometry of lotus root
The growing as it lingers burn of chilli on the lips
Pepper tea with honey, a fragrant prickle to the nose, surprisingly Christmassy
The complex flavour layers of the dry rub on a chicken thigh, cooked to a tender wither
Vietnam looks like
The intrepid dashing of tiny ghost crabs on the fringes of a gin clear tide
Clusters of Brownian motion motorbikes at intersections where traffic lights don’t apply
Roads that end without warning at a wall of jungle, Rousseau like and languidly threatening
Hive like lanes surrounding fishing harbours with houses stacked in layers and businesses in every home
Iridescent temples joyously garlanded with gilded dragons carrying LED pearls in their jaws
Pale pink plumptious Buddhas, happy, fat and yet to come
Vietnam sounds like
Really bad karaoke
Cement mixers in the distance
The incessant language of the motorbike horns
The screaming of the jungles at noon
The chirp of the pepper plantations at night
Far off thunder rumbling in the dark punctuated by the closer deep down low grousing of the bullfrogs
Vietnam feels like
A song in a language you will never understand, alien music
Sweet bursting sweat in a climate as comforting as a quilt
The surprising sink of sand under curious feet on remote beaches
The quick humiliation of your motorbike being briskly overtaken on a rutted road by an elder on a decrepit scooter with piled high panniers swinging like hips.
A world in macro amongst the slowly spreading corals in its shallow seas
It is two years since we left Turkey and there are days when the memories rise up thick and fast and I yearn to go back and do it all again. We were so lucky to live there at the time we did. It gifted us some beautiful bittersweet memories.
I remember Kirazli in the Spring, when the first of the cherry trees burst into blossom and the last of the snows on Gul Dag caught the pale pink of their blush and glowed too; in the sunset, in the dawn, in the waking warmth of a high speed spring after a hard fast winter of soba smoke and cold hands in the olive groves.
My neighbour would take the young goats in graze in the edges of the pine forests. Slowly she would meander along and the goats trailing behind her would stand on their back legs to reach the highest, sweetest, newest buds on the branches, hovering stilt legged and precarious. I saw a gold statue once of a goat doing the same thing, a gorgeous thing of black and shining metal on copper with lapis lazuli and shell. It’s in Phillidephia now, it was in the British Museum before that. But four thousand years ago it was made in Ur, far to the east of here, close to the root of here. Nothing has changed in four millenium, not really, certainly not for the goats.
It’s poppy time in Kirazli right now. I know that, I can still feel it, across all the miles. They will be blooming in the disturbed soil of the verges and in the edges of the vineyards. Blood smudges of drenched red amongst the multiple shades of green.
In the cemetery at the village edge they grow on the graves, driving up through the pale dirt and crying their hearts out under the shade of the yew trees. They were blooming like that the day returned to Kirazli after my husband’s funeral, eight long years ago. I think I should have buried him there, and let the poppies bless him every spring.
He took this photo, his last spring in Kirazli. I just make it more vivid with new software. He would have liked that; the instant results from apps on tablets, the software revolution we sit in the midst of. Thanks to him I notice how marvellous these things are, how they make fresh and enticing the old memories, rewrite them again and make them new.
In the blessed bright days of winter we would explore. Before the crowds of summer and the tour groups playing follow my leader through ancient thoroughfares we would have the most beautiful sites to ourselves.
Priene was a favourite. Sitting above the flat plain of the Mendares delta it is bijou and beautiful. There is a sense of idealism about it, its history is one of wonderful ideas, and it is laid out in convenient, classic style. Up tight against the flanks of the mountain it is a joy to photograph and its pine fringes and long views give it a romantic appeal; one senses Apollo is loitering nearby, ready to seduce some comely nymph and just out of sight Artemis is having a refreshing bath with her maidens in a secret pool.
There is a sadness now in the seas between Turkey and Greece. When we lived there they were a playground and summer was all dreamy cruises along the sunlit coasts where rare lillies grew in the sands and on the way home, laved by sun and lightly salted by a day in the sea, there was the hope of dolphins in the sunset.
The quiet beaches we loved so much have been made silent in a sorrowing way. Before they were peaceful now they have been marked with death and the sad crisis of the refugees has made the Aegean again a sea of bodies as it has not been for millennia.
This too shall pass, this too must pass and the cliffs and the coves and the opal waters will not be threaded with fear and despair. Let this pass.
We took our holidays on Samos, nipping across the strait between Turkey and Greece thanks to the blithe insouciance of our British passports. Fancy a few days away, okay lets go, no visa hassles or bureaucratic blocking for us!
We would pick up a car in Vathi and drive the smooth freshly tarmacked island roads, marvelling at them compared to our pot holed tracks in Turkey. Back then the Euro funds were flowing in and tiny islands had beautiful roads from end to end.
We saw Greece change over the years. We saw when the infrastructure started to fail; you could telephone Athens but not make a call to your neighbour. We saw the ferry schedules slashed and the supermarkets get less well stocked and the businesses close. But for all that Greece remained beautiful and the islands were picture postcard perfect and the days when we would explore ancient churches on remote headlands and paddle in the waters where Pythagoras bathed are happy memories.
I remember the perfect diving days. I remember the moment I took this photo. It was a day in late summer, diving with my friends at Active Blue. The last of the tourists were clumping the beaches in their little groups, the sunbeds were more empty than full and we were doing a cavern dive so it was a Tuesday.
Not being a huge fan of caverns I asked Emin if I could stay outside the cave mouth; I wanted to photograph some bristle worms – not glamorous, actually vicious little predators, slow moving and downright painful if their bristles get into your skin but vivid in colour and extravagent in costume, like a centipede going to Mardi Gras.
Emin agreed and after the descent from the dive boat he led the group into the narrow slit of the cavern and I hovered outside with the high walls rising above me, straight to the surface. The sharp rock faces were patched with Coralline algae in shades of purple and rust. The Corallines are encrusting species of calcareous algae; they cover rock in a hard skin a few millimetres thick. Bristle worms climbed amongst the coloured rocks and clung to the surface, looking like gummy worms from the pic n’ mix, all juicy colours and long fat bodies.
After photographing the worms I retreated to the tumble of rocks outside the cave entrance and waited patiently.
I breathed easily, ten metres down, nicely level in the water, rising and falling gradually as my buoyancy fluctuated with the air in my lungs. Above me the surface was dark blue, shaded from the hot autumn sun by the high cliffs at Adukale whilst below me the rocks glowed pearl with the extravagant frills of Funnel weed (Padina gymnospora). Delicate curls, like pencil shavings clustered together into pastel bouquets this delicate algae is found in shallow waters growing on dead coral heads and in patches on reefs. Also known as Curly Algae and Fan Algae it has a chalky appearance due to the presence of calcium carbonate on the upper surfaces.
I remember breathing out, slowly sinking down in the water as my lungs emptied, falling towards the garden on the rocks. I could see every ring growth in the weed, the delicate bands of time. The funnels swayed in the current and I was entranced by their dance, their wide open welcoming curls and I knew I could float there until my air ran out, just fascinated by the feel of their life in the sea.
I hovered, relaxed, with the clicks and tweets of the sea around me and the slow tickle of my bubbles against my face. That was a good day, there were so many good days there, under the sea, sometimes I wonder what kind of idiot I was to leave!
I took the sunlight for granted, which was pretty stupid. I spent a decade in countries drenched in sunshine but because I never went in search of the perfect tan and the only bits of me that weren’t Celtic pale were the bits not covered by a wetsuit I didn’t think the sunshine mattered. It was just an always there part of life. Then I moved back to Wales and the long winters and the gone in a blink of an eye days you get this far west began to make me not just unhappy but downright ill.
My doctor told me I need serotonin, serotonin from sunlight. My brain was used to it; those years of squint eyed gazing at blue horizons and the silver shimmer of the olive trees had changed me, my brain wanted the sun back and was telling me, very loudly.
Now I try to regularly top up my serotonin levels as winter draws in and November is a great month to explore those areas of the world that have been hounded by hurricanes all summer. This November saw Nick and I exploring the Southern Yucatan, travelling a thousand kilometres through mangrove swamps and cenote riddled limestone lands. It was wonderful and the sun did me good.
This is the southern Yucatan, a land where the roads run out after running straight for hundreds of kilometres. Where the vanishing point you drive into can mesmerise you and the emptiness feels post-apocalyptic.
South of the Riviera Maya the jungle fights back, creeping over the plaster statues of the Virgin Mary in the roadside shrines. Butterflies dance in the verges, flitting between rampant vine and lighting blasted skeleton tree held up by its neighbours. Huge opal blue ones, with black edged wings like fluttering book pages, that you want to follow just so you can stay close to them and tiny vivid yellow ones, moving like fairies on acid.
As we head further south the jungle turns to sky mirroring mangrove wetlands that flood the low lying roads with the clear, tea coloured water of the swamps until we come to a shore of thick white sand bordered by coral rubble blocks from hurricane hammer blows.
Here we pause a while, staying in off grid eco lodges along the shore. The sunrises sing from the sea, the sunsets sizzle into the jungle and the dark whorls of rain squalls balloon above the endless green of the wetlands and the roads peter out to sand tracks and lonely ends.
We turn inland, heading towards the Belize border and we find lake town Bacalar and we explore it’s waters and fringes, creeping in wonder through a massive resort half build and then abandoned to the snakes and the crawling green, haunted and haunting.
Here are the highlights, the eerie sights and the impressions left by the long road and the strange shores.
The Yucatan is honeycombed limestone, friable and sharp, riddled with caves and sinkholes that were sacred to the ancient Maya who saw them as glimpses of the underworld. The cenotes appear with magic randomness, new ones come, old ones change as the Yucatan continues to evolve in the rinse of the rain and the lipping of the sea. There is a cenote that cave divers can follow all the way to the sea, riding the thermocline wave, following the oil in water mix of salt and fresh, all the way to Akumal bay.
Beneath the flat scrubland and jungle the cenotes are other worldly, glass watered and silent. Spike stalactites glow with colour but I feel a sharp edge of fearfulness as the dark presses in and I sense the pressure of the sudden rainstorms above and I wonder how fast the water can rise.
In the silence underground I imagine the iron hard core at the heart of the Chicxulub impact crater, just west of us, lurking below the crust it barrelled into 65 million years ago, surrounded by a glittering halo of glass beads in rock. It is easy to let your imagination run away with you in the caves. The pastel shades of mineral in the rocks tease the eye, the strain of the swim through tiny spaces and the shadows thrown by rock forms play like Aluxo’ob, mayan sprites, in the light of Nick’s dive torch. It makes you think uncanny thoughts as the cool water laps at your face, soft licks.
Below me, in the super clear water the yellow strands of the ropes the cave divers follow whisper fearfully of consequences should you let go of the life line – it would be dark and chill below the thermocline, with the slowing cascade of bubbles from an exhausted tank ticking life away in silver coin flurries. I am not a huge fan of caves, it seems, I prefer the wide open waters of the sea where I have room to turn and flee!
When the roofs of the cenotes collapse they form wriggling watercourses through the land, heavily edged with foliage, packed at the rims with twisted mangroves these are sunny sacred places, smiling at the sky. Exploring them is much more relaxing. By kayak we trawl the perimeter, looking for the slow clumsiness of manatees feeding on the weed and snorkelling to find clouds of fish in the nurseries that form in the safe haven of the mangrove roots.
The sun burns down, washing my brain with serotonin rain. My energy levels rise and my wanderlust wakes, stretches, demands new sights to see. We begin the driving, getting as far away as we can from civilisation, looking for old Mexico and road’s end.
In Mahahual there is a blasted tree hung with single flip flops, faded by the sun, riders on strange tides that have eventually washed up here, tangled up in the sargassum weed, to find their end on an almost deserted shore.
Mahahual lingers and waits, almost comatose in the sun. It still exists because a remote cruise ship dock north of town brings a few boats a week. On those days it wakes early and all eyes are on the horizon as the cruisers hove into view. Beach cleaners lug weed in a sweat, vendors in a fever turn empty lots into packed trinket shops. The day visitors from the cruise ships ride their Segway’s along the pretty malacon and drive open top jeeps through the shallow edges of the mangroves on roads they churn away on their almost adventures. Massages on the beach, cycle rides and snorkel trips, there are a few hours of brief frenetic activity and then Mahahual goes back to sleep, shuts the doors, lays up waiting for the next ship to dock and while they wait the rain storms make the mangroves bleed raging red water into the sea and the jungle bides its time.
This feels like somewhere that hangs on, against the odds and some would say, against reason. If you ever wanted to run away then run here, nobody will find you.
At the rag end of town I saw a semi-trailer parked up on a rough lot machete cut out of the jungle. It was missing the tractor unit. There was just the trailer, with a sagging black rectangle of an awning and a punch bag hanging on the edges. I wonder who lives there; some man who takes his anger at himself out on the punch bag whilst waiting for the pain of his past to be eroded away by the endless wind from the sea. I could write a book from that one image.
We drive up and down the coast from Mahahual, north as far as the edges of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, protected and pure and south to Xcalak where the road runs out and the Belize border is a skimming stone away across the sea.
On a quiet stretch of coast we find Almaplena eco lodge and feel at home there, enjoying nights of starry skies and a beach to ourselves. Scoops of pelicans do low level fly past’s in formation whilst flings of sandpipers scavenge amongst the weed. I find glossy sea beans in the tangled weed and they feel lucky in my hand.
This is the Lake of Seven Colours, Laguna Bacalar, down near the Belize border, a sixty kilometre freshwater lake floored with gleaming white sand, shaded with deep dark cenotes and fringed with reeds.
The backpackers have found Bacalar, they always find the best places first. They quietly fill up the hostels around this gigantic lake and bathe in the multi-coloured water and have bbq’s and epiphanies on its water lily edges.
The little town of Bacalar itself is sweet, quiet, typical Mexican with a zocala that hums with happy family life every evening and the scent of frying churros rises like sweet fog above playing children and strolling adults. It is wonderfully civilized. We adored it.
We swam in the vodka light water, scrubbed ourselves with the silver sulphur sands and explored the shifting channels that centuries ago led pirates in from the Caribbean Sea. One high cloud afternoon we snorkelled amongst the bulbous stromatolites that grow in the lake shallows. These ancient, almost lifeforms, trap sediment in mats and then gradually turn to stone, like sad grey green coral.
Bacalar is a place to return to, definitely, but I still want to go further south.
How the road goes on and I feel the itches of the forever traveller. The itch in the eye that wants to see around the next bend and the itch in the heart that longs to find somewhere else to fall in love with. The itch in the head that feels the world turning and turning faster and faster around me and wants to learn more, live more, find more and the itch in the feet that makes me want to run and run into the great unknown. Those itches twitch in me; once I start to feel them it is hard to ignore them and finally stop.
It takes a beautiful moment to bring me back to myself. We stopped at Akumal on the way to catch our flight home, staying the night well out of town in a small hotel on a quiet stretch of beach. That night the rains came, I saw the storm clouds building, a grey puree in the sky and I lay and listened to the mighty, land changing, rain fall. I got up at dawn. I went to photograph the last sunrise here and as I stepped onto the rain pitted beach, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the instantly recognisable flipper awkward flutter of a turtle hatchling struggling across the sand.
I have seen the sadness of the turtle dead, exhausted and worn by endless migration, washed up on our Welsh beaches by the gulf stream. I have seen the determination of the turtle egg laying, where the mothers, ungainly and huge, drag themselves ashore on Isla Mujeres and laboriously dig their nests. I have seen the living grace of turtles in the deep sea, swaying on the swells, gleaming in the blue. And now I have seen the piercing joy of the hatchling.
Soft of tread and wondering of eye Nick and I follow the hatchling across the beach whilst dagger billed frigates sulk on the palapas and the dawn sings a welcome. We watch over it until it reaches the lace edge of the waves. We watch it tumble in the wake, right itself, find its buoyancy, feel its flipper stroke. We watch the first breath it holds. We watch on and see the first time it breaches, twenty metres out, taking a breath of sunlight before it heads to the deeps for decades. It was a perfect moment.
“Will you marry me?” said Nick, and who am I to refuse such impeccable timing.
The roads we don’t travel – I regret the roads I didn’t take because I thought I had more time. When we lived in Turkey there was a weekly train service from Selcuk to Damascus. We talked about taking it. The names of the stations en-route conjured Silk Road dreams and stirred the old, almost memories that make them familiar from the dry recitations of holy books, Afyon, Karaman, Iskederum, and Damascus itself.
We should have gone. We didn’t find the time. We thought we had longer. But we didn’t and now I don’t know if that route will ever open again and I wish I had seen Damascus before these days came.
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