Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sud de France - The Carmargue

To be honest, I had not heard of the Carmague before picking up the guide book in preparation for our trip to the South of France. I read as far as mention of thousands of flamingos and knew we would head in that direction.
Situated to the South West of Provence, the Carmargue is a region and natural park encompassing Western Europe’s largest river delta. It comprises hundreds of square kilometres of briney reed covered marshes, lagoons and low lying fertile land.
Staying in Arles, it was a short hop across the mighty Rhone to enter the Carmargue and then a fair drive south across pancake flat fields before we reached the core to the region. There we found what we had been looking for, hundreds and hundreds of pink greater flamingos. 
This is an ideal habitat for this beautiful, if slightly odd bird, with plenty of minute organisms for them to filter through their bills as they awkwardly strut across the shallows. Visiting a well-managed reserve, we were able to get right up close along the reed banks. Only when next door do you realise how big these birds grow and the boys were mesmerised standing just meters away from dozens of flamingos preening themselves, hooting and filtering their beaks through the water.

Chris and I were, if anything more excited, marching around the lagoon to find more and more angles from which to view the birds. At the far side of the reserve we came across a massive cluster, who whirled around in a coordinated prance before taking to the wing en masse and performing what, from our perspective, was a whirry pink fly past. This was all accompanied by a chorus of deep, throbbing hoots. Such a pre-historic, base noise, it made me think of their dinosaur ancestors.
It was a wonderful surprise to find such flambuoyant wildlife up close. A fantastic experience, topped up with sightings of tree loads of nesting herons and the Carmague’s very own indigenous horse on the way back. I am so glad this type of place still survives in Europe.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sud de France – En Provence


Prior to this trip, I had never set foot in the South of France. Given that it is such a renowned region and close to home, I find this strange and somewhat of an anomaly in my travels. If I had to give a reason I would point to a combination of family ties to other parts of the Mediterranean and my desire since leaving home to venture as far away from the UK as possible.

Now with small family in toe, while the need to travel has not dimmed, the desire to go so far has momentarily diminished. The South of France therefore seemed a perfect place for a late winter road trip. Marseille to Nice via Provence, the Cote d’Azure and much else besides.

EN PROVENCE

“Provence” has an undeniable ring to it. A name which conjures up images of picture-perfect French villages, lavender and castles. A region of great history. It is this latter string which drew us to base ourselves in the city of Arles. Founded by the Phoenicians, built up by the Romans and finished off by the French.

On completion of a late night flight, confused drive on and off and on and off the same slip road, parking screw up and labouring lug of small children and gear up uphill streets (travel with kids is rewarding but rarely a breeze), we arrived at our guesthouse, knocked out and then awoke in a remarkable place.

The guesthouse was a lovingly restored 16th century town-house - all heavy stonework and hard wood furnishing - situated at the heart of the old town. Stepping out on our first venture, we turned right, up a winding cobbled street and were stopped in our tracks by a near complete Roman amphitheatre. Startling. We headed straight in.

Built in 90 AD with capacity crowd of some 20,000 it is one hell of a structure. Like many an ancient building that has survived to our times, it has done so in large part due to its continued use. To this day, it is a working stadium for the local form of bull fighting. Climbing up the steep steps, we entered the stands and peered down at the sandy stage of bloodshed, past and present. I could only imagine the atmosphere created by the thronging crowds packing this tight, high, almost claustrophobic arena. Climbing up the steps to the parapet, the elevation gave us a wonderful view of Roman remains, medieval town and countryside beyond.

Around the corner resides the remains of the Roman theatre. At first sight little seems to be intact, until a new angle and innovative explanations bring it to life; stage, stands, theatrics and all. I am not certain the toddlers understood the gravity of the place, but certainly enjoyed crawling all over the gallery steps and remnants of the stage.

Arles' Roman structures are a gem, but the town proved to have much more to it. Trips out were sandwiched with walks through the medieval streets to town squares, monasteries and churches, talks with friendly locals and meals at delicious restaurants. Strange as it may sound, I particularly enjoyed an hour spent at the local playground. In the shadow of the Roman defensive walls on a sunny Sunday afternoon, it was wonderful to see the small ones interacting with the local kids and watch the whole scene of local family life unfold.

Quite simply, Arles proved to be one of my favourite places in France.

CHATEAU DES BAUX ET SAN REMY 

We spent a day meandering around the countryside at the heart of Provence. A peaceful, pretty place of gentle hills and agriculture, occasionally punctuated by some unexpected, large French industrial project (I would hazard a guess that French politics includes a fare serving of local pork-barrel politics). We made two main stops, one exceeded our expectations, the other did not.


The former was the castle of Les Baux-de-Provence. Built in the 10th century, expanded through its 16th century heyday and destroyed in the 17th on the orders of Louis XIII, it occupies a towering defensive position atop a rock acropolis which dominates the surrounding countryside. It is a real crawl around ruin, that gets better and better the further you explore. A medieval village clings to its foot, and guides the way up to the front gates. The lower bailey comes complete with replica trebuchet and leads up to the castle proper, all ragged high ruins. Given its dilapidated state, it does a good job of retaining its grandeur and is a top-class climbing frame.

In all this, I should not fail to mention the phenomenal views. Every so often, a break in the wall or high point gave sight of rising, craggy land behind falling away to flat plains in front. A 360 degree panorama of Provence.

Our second stopping place was San Remy de Provence. Drawn by tales of family trips in the 60’s and a famed reputation, it left me feeling a little short changed. The town is pretty enough, with its outer ring of tree lined boulevard and tight-knitted inner old town, but somehow did not catch my imagination. The highlight was watching a game of proper-old man petanque in the town square.

That about sums it up.

AVIGNON

Nestled in a large bend of the river Rhone, Avignon is the most famed site in Provence. It did not disappoint. It is surrounded by formidable 13th century walls. In what looks with hindsight as an act of cultural vandalism, so many cities tore down their walls in the 19th and 20th century to make way for progress and wider roads.  Avignon is a happy exception, providing the visitor with a sense of discovery as you enter through one of the high gates into the streets within. We enjoyed our exploration leading up to some very civilized French dining in a grand square.

The main draw of Avignon is the Palais des Papes, an immense medieval gothic Papal castle and palace in one. It was the seat of the Roman church for much of the fourteenth century and, after the papacy returned to Rome, a couple of anti-Popes as well.

The scale of the place is very impressive, a reminder of the wealth sucked from the masses by the church. So much for living a simple life above the trappings of earthly things. Quite eerily the place is devoid of furnishings, having been stripped out long ago when the Avignon Popes were a thing of the past. This only provides resonance to the echoey shell and more room for small children to run amok in.

We climbed up the winding staircases all the way to the parapets. As was fast becoming a pattern in Provence, we were greeted by more memorable panoramics from the top. The city, bending, wide river and countryside leading out to the barren slopes of Mount Ventoux.

Our final stop was out to the famous medieval bridge across the Rhone. Rather unhelpfully, much of it fell into the river and it now ends part of the way across the mighty flows. This makes it somewhat of an oddity and an interesting place for a stroll. Best of all are the views back across to the city.

PONT DU GARD

Standing proud after nearly 2000 years, the Pont du Gard is exemplary evidence of the ingenuity of the Romans or, to be more specific, its engineers. The crowning glory of a 50 km system which provided constant flowing water to Nimes, the Pont du Gard is a giant bridge and aqueduct in one. It is the largest surviving Roman structure, standing the best part of 50 m high, crossing and dominating a sharp ravine of the Gardon.

Walking up to it, I was gob smacked. Rarely in my life have I seen anything manmade that is so impressive. Like the amphitheatre in Arles, it has survived through its continued usefulness. For centuries it was the main bridge over the river, maintained by those who benefited from the tolls charged to whoever wished to cross over the rushing river.

It was a great feeling to walk onto the bridge, staring up at the rows of arches overhead and drop to the water below. Firmly on my ‘to-do’ list is to return in summer and free swim beneath this lingering throwback to glories past.

This was a fitting finale to our swift tour of Provence. Onto the Carmargue and then the Cote De Azure…

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Passion, Festivity and Farce at the RWC 2015

Ever since “winning” tickets to four matches in the draw for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, I had been counting the months until the tournament kicked off. Brushing aside my bitter disappointment at England’s early exit, what follows is a brief account of how thrilling it was to witness those matches first hand.

FRANCE v IRELAND, Twickenham

The excitement began before we had even arrived at Twickenham. On a packed train en route to the stadium, disbelieving noises emerged from many a fan with eyes fixed to their phone. Japan were pushing South Africa close. That was not in the script. Could Japan really pull off the biggest shock in rugby history? As rumour spread, spontaneous updates rang out. Someone found a video link and dozens of fans crowded around a tiny screen with fingers crossed. Japan shunned a kick for the draw, went for broke and perhaps the most famous victory in RWC history. They delivered, the train went mad. Fan hugged fan. We had not even arrived.

Leaving the train, the suburban streets of Twickenham were abuzz with flags, fans, sizzling food and excitement. Entering the stadium, a tingle went down my spine as I took in the scene of 80,000 focusing in on the battle to come. The players ran out to plumes of flame and a raucous reception. Then there was the Marseilles. It might as well have been a home game. The overwhelming majority of the crowd were of French persuasion and raised the roof with a passionate, pulsating rendition of that all too catchy, triumphant tune. The tingle became a shiver and, lost in the moment, I hummed along.

The rugby itself was not much to write home about and therefore I won’t linger. Some huge collisions, many an error and the odd glimpse of brilliance. Despite the fact that the French were wearing red, as the technical away team, wave after wave of “Allez les Bleus, Allez les Bleus” kept up the atmosphere, but the only thing that came close to beating the Marseilles were the French rooster hats. Fortunately, a kindly Frenchman let me borrow his.

Final score – France 32 Italy 10

NEW ZEALAND v NAMIBIA, Olympic stadium

A complete mismatch, but a festive occasion. There was only going to be one winner and this was reflected in the more laid back atmosphere of the crowd and occasion. It was a case of all smiles as the masses filed through the Olympic park beneath a quite spectacular sunset.

Though mostly amateurs, Namibia put up one hell of a brave fight and were rewarded with the biggest cheer of the night for their second-half try. We, though, along with 95% of the crowd, were there to see the mighty All Blacks. The Haka, the expansive game, the legendary black shirts. It was all there, but so was a definite lack of precision. Error after basic error, alongside all the tries.

Unbelievably, Namibia actually won the third quarter, but bloodied and bruised (Shalk Burger’s beaten, swollen features were a sight to behold), they fell by the New Zealand wayside. The crowd cheered themselves with many a Mexican wave and an entertaining if not intense night came to a close.

Final score – NZ 58 Namibia 14

IRELAND v ROMANIA, Wembley

I will never forget the astonished, overwhelmed look on my four year old son’s face as stared out over an 88,000 crowd belting out “IIIIIRRELAND IIIIIIIIRRRELAND, FOREVER STANDING TALL. SHOUUUUULDER, TO SHOUUUULDER, WE’LL ANNNSWER IREEELAND’S CALL”. There was a tear in his wide open eye.

The passion of the crowd was fantastic. The largest ever crowd at a RWC match and they were going to enjoy it. Beer flowed, the crowd sang, swayed and cheered and the players played. Ireland looked very impressive, tearing Romania apart with some expansive rugby and a touch of finesse.

In truth, only part of my focus was on the pitch. We had taken with us our 4, 3 and 1 year olds. In the main, they lapped it up, entertained by the jubilant crowd and severe oddity of the situation. Just when focus was waning, a series of Mexican waves rolled in to bring them back into the occasion. Then try after try raised the crowd to their feet and our small ones to incessant clapping.

It was simply awesome to share the occasion with them.  It was never really a contest, but it never had to be. Alongside the impact of the passionate anthem on my offspring, two moments stood out. Firstly, the look of horror on the man next door to me in the urinal as he took in the sight of a small grinning girl clinging to my back and a small boy dangling from my arms (I was doing my best to point his outgoings in the direction of the receptacle… the joys of parenthood!).

Secondly, and best of all, our farewell. On departing the ground a few minutes early, Chris and I were surprised by a large cheer. This was followed by another and then another. Looking back at the crowd, hundreds of fans were waving us off. It took a moment before we twigged that our little girl had been serially waving goodbye to all her new, half-pissed, green-clad friends, evoking a grande depart from the surrounding crowd. As I already said, awesome!

Final score – largely irrelevant - Ireland 44 Romania 10

SCOTLAND v AUSTRALIA, Quarter-final, Twickenham

For us, the big one. The home side quarter final was not to be, but we still had tickets to a major match at the home of rugby. The only pity was that it was such a mismatch. The form side of the tournament and two-time world champions vs the side who finished bottom in the six nations. On paper, a bit of a non-contest.

Of course, as history will record, it was one hell of a contest. From the go, the Scots played ambitious, brave, hard-hitting rugby. Never a back step, heads never down, always believing. The Aussies, for their part, played an open game, scoring a handful of tries with width, swift-hands and guile. But, every time the Wallabies went ahead and looked to open up breathing space, the Scots would find a way back in. Near perfect kicking, a poorly defended dash to the line from a ruck, charge down score and, at the climax, a breath-taking intercepted try.


Having a majority Scottish heritage (two grandfathers and a bit of a grandmother), I put my dislike of the SNP to one side and bought a ‘Scotland the Brave’ scarf. Nonetheless, given my other half has an Aussie passport and is passionate about such matters, my plan was a tactical low-level support for the Scots. In the end I shouted myself hoarse, caught up in the riveting game and vociferously intense atmosphere.

The Scots crowd were brilliant and bolstered by seemingly ever more “neutrals” transformed into Highlanders for the day (that most of these were Englishmen is something to remind the anti-'south of the border' brigade). As minutes ticked by and Scotland hung to Australia’s coattails, enjoyment at the game being closer than expected “while it lasts”, morphed into excitement at “they couldn’t, could they?”, to disbelief at “they just might you know!”.

Scotland 5 points adrift with 5 minutes to go. The skies opened up with a flash deluge of rain, sheeting down through the headlights and pummelling the pitch. This was greeted by a guttural roar from 80,000 hyped souls. A shared primeval understanding that God had come to play. Next, a slippery ball, misplaced pass, interception and race to the line. As Bennett dived over the line, the stadium erupted, exploded, burst its foundations. I have not experienced an atmosphere remotely close to it.

A conversion later and Scotland were 34-32 up with 3 minutes to go. This was not meant to happen!! Alas, it did not. A dodgy (no, wrong!) refereeing decision at the death gave a very kickable penalty to Australia. All credit to them, they kicked it. The sight of the ball sailing through the post and sealing Scotland’s doom was greeted by a mix of disbelieving groans and hearty boos. By the time the final whistle had blown, this had upped into open hostility at the perceived injustice, so intimidating that the ref plain legged it off the pitch without so much as a handshake.

So ended a remarkable, exhilarating game and our attendance at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. It was brilliant. I just wish I had a ticket to Saturday’s final!

Final score – Scotland 34 Australia 35

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Ride London Surrey 100 - Cycle Sportive

I have wanted to complete a cycle sportive for a few years now, so the opportunity to take on the 100 miles of the Ride London Surrey in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) was hard to pass up. I signed on the dotted line…  www.justgiving.com/James-Sinclair5/

My friend Steve duly signed up to ride for Starfish Greathearts Foundation, and I was grateful to have someone to ride with.

Dedicated Training

OK, that would be a stretch. With the best intentions, I read over the detailed 3-month training plans that came with the sportive magazine but, before I knew it, I only had 2 months left, one of which was due to be spent on a small Greek island.

The combination of my Greek bike literally falling apart in my hands – having been corroded to the core by the Aegean winter winds – three kids to look after, and hot weather, led me to swap cycle training for daily swims across the bay. I can’t really complain, or at least I didn’t think I could until I took on my first hill once back in the UK. I had always heard that swimming was the best form of exercise, but that clearly does not stretch to propelling me up hills on two wheels. Taking on Harting Down, I foolishly locked to the wheel of a fitter cyclist and, by the top, had to stop and sit down, flashy lines crossing my eyes and heart palpitating.

This came as a bit of a shock and gave me the jolt needed to squeeze in some proper training around my hectic life. A month of after work rides through the South Downs followed. From Guildford to Chichester, up Hindhead hill twice, down Black Down at over 60kmph, on beautiful back country roads and horrible commuter trawls. It was great.

The Day

0430 alarm. Slap on some Vaseline, pull up the Lycra, and stuff so many carbs into my stomach that I want to puke. An ordinary start to the day. I understand trying to get 25,000 fun riders through the course before the pros necessitates an early start, but an arrival time starting with a 6 is tough.

As it happened, it was a glorious morning. All blue skies and crisp sunshine. This helped me get over my normal morning blues and, before we knew it, Steve and I had parked up in North Greenwich and were zooming through the Blackwall tunnel to the Olympic Park. By the time we arrived at our designated start zone, we had already clocked 8km. As if 100 miles was not enough for one day.

Barcelona Beginnings

I had been in a state of excited – if slightly hesitant – anticipation for days and this reached a crescendo as we lined up by the Olympic velodrome and we were funnelled onto the start line. Ahead and behind were thousands of cyclists, carrying out nervous last-minute checks. Music was pumping and the MC set off group after group to upbeat tunes.

When it was our turn (Yellow F), we were greeted and sent off to the forgotten tune of “Barcelona” (“…what a beautiful horizon...”), which made sense when we were informed that Sally Gunnel was in our group. Hero.

A shake of Steve’s hand, and we passed under the timing banner. Down the hill and we were off at pace through the docklands. Past the Wharf with a shiver and on into the City.

Our negative split plan (i.e. set off slowly, come back strong – or at least stronger than we would have if we had not set off slowly…) seemed to be going well, as the majority of cyclists whizzed past us. On closer inspection of our speedo, we were traipsing across the capital much faster than we planned, averaging a good 30kmph. It was just that most other people were either faster or more caught up in the exuberance of the herd.

At the beginning, we were greeted by a sparse crowd of confused hung-over people and the odd genuine supporter. As time went on, this grew to more and more people that seemed genuinely excited to have this mass participation race pass by their homes. Riding for GOSH seemed particularly popular, and I was buoyed on by well-wishers.

It was a fantastic feeling to pass by the sites of London on traffic-free roads. The Strand, Trafalgar Square, Kensington, Chelsea, across the Thames and into Richmond Park. We whizzed up and over Richmond Hill, barely noticing it compared to all steep parts of the Downs. On and on, past Hampton Court Palace and then back across the river. In the Sunday morning sunshine, our route through South West London was a real pleasure.

Into the Surrey Hills

Pouring out of London into the undulating greenery that is the county of my birth, we entered Surrey for the core part of the sportive.

We pushed on to Newland’s Corner and then up the first big hill of the day. Unsurprisingly, I soon fell behind the wheel of Steve, as my fitter friend (admittedly, on a lighter bike) sped up the hill. Surprisingly, once I got into my stride, I was passing a lot more people than passed me. Perhaps the month’s training and negative split plan was paying off?

At the top, we parked up our bikes and took a proper rest stop, stuffing our stomachs full of bacon butties and sports drinks. It was just under half and I was feeling on good form. Pity the big hills lay ahead rather than behind.

Setting off again recharged, we took on the fast, sweeping, long downhill in the direction of Shere. I have always loved this patch of road, and it was exhilarating taking it on amongst the throng of cyclists.

There is, though, a flip side to this exhilaration. Danger and accidents. We had passed three separate ambulance cases just on the first third of the ride. The problem is that in such an inexperienced crowd, very few people know how to ride in mass peloton. I include myself in that inexperienced number, but at least I had the common sense not to serially cut people up on either side, through tiny gaps without so much as a “on your right”. The situation was exacerbated on the downhills, where people would be hurtling down at varying velocities, often with little respect for those around them with inevitable wheel and handle bar clips.

Escaping unscathed, our road took us through the pretty villages of Shere and Ambinger Hammer, where smiling crowds greeted our transit. By chance, we met up with Sarah, a work colleague. I say chance – she could not miss the bright ginger side burns and incessant chatter which accompanies our rides. We rode on at a decent enough pace and prepped ourselves for the summit of Surrey: Leith Hill.

We wound round the lower slopes, before taking a sharp turn, into a decline and then, confusingly, joining up with another large stream of bike traffic. We were being diverted. The first thing I thought was that we had missed the cut-off time for the hill (there are series of sweepers along the course, ensuring we all finished or got off the road before the pro’s race). I checked the time and it did not seem possible. Not sure whether to be annoyed or relieved, we plummeted down the hill in a dangerous conglomeration of the fast and the slow which reminded me of a Delhi highway.

Snippet by snippet, we worked out what had gone on. Sadly, some guy had collapsed on the hill and the race had been halted in part, diverted in another, to allow an air ambulance to treat him. Tragically we found out the next day that he had not made it.


We pushed on to Dorking, where the crowds were at their best. Throngs of people beneath banners cheering us on. Then Box Hill. I have been up its famous – at least in Blighty – zig-zag road a couple of times before, and always found it hard going. I don’t know whether it was due to the training, adrenaline or lack of Leith Hill, but I shot up it, passing 80% of the crowd and felt well chuffed when I reached the stunning summit. Mountain it ain’t, but it is about as good as you get in the South East.

A whole lot more snack bars and fluid and we started back downhill on the final leg of the journey, back to the capital.  Feeling great, the negative split was paying off and we were going to whizz home in no time. Wishful thinking…

Troubles on the (inner) Tube

Down another long steep hill with a suicidal bend at the bottom – yes, someone did come off in front of us – and Steve shouted for me to stop. We quickly pulled up to the side and just as we stopped, his tyre blew with a large bang. He was bloody lucky it did not go at the 50kmph a minute before.

It seemed his new special “puncture-proof” tyres were anything but. They were also a right bugger to get off. After 20 minutes struggle, and with some help of a passer-by, we managed to replace the inner tube and get the bike back upright. No sooner had Steve put his bum on the saddle, the tyre had gone flat again.

Hundreds of bikes were zooming past and we were in a bit of a pickle.

Fortunately, we were less than a mile from the race “Hub” at Leatherhead and repeated mini-reflates just got us there. A kind lady in the mechanic shop identified the problem and replaced the inner tube. A gash had developed in the side of the tyre, but she thought it would be OK.

We were by now starting to run short of time, so took a final grab of bananas, cakes and energy gels on board and pedalled off. Within 15 minutes, we were stopped again. The inner tube had exploded once more with an almighty bang, and we were stuck on a roundabout feeling exasperated.

Being a gentleman, Steve urged me to push on, but we decided to give it one last go. The inner tube was harder to change than ever (the bloody “puncture-proof” tyres seemed too small for the rim), but we just about managed it. On an inspired whim, we stuck to half pressure and set off on last chance saloon. Nervous, we started slowly, before picking up speed as we entered back into London. Steve was doing his best to not put any pressure on his front wheel and it seemed to be working.

To the Mall

After about 80 miles, the tiredness kicked in. Snaking back through London suburbs, I had a 30-minute stretch when I had little option but to block it all out and put in revolution after revolution. Hills that I would not have noticed at the start were a struggle, and a surprising number of people were resorting to walking on the steeper sections.

I just about kept on and onwards, and was relieved to receive my second wind as we passed Hammersmith, pushing on through Putney and back across the Thames. With five miles to go, I felt great again. We pushed up past 30kmph again as we followed the river all the way to Parliament and through the crowds of Whitehall up to Trafalgar Square.

One final sharp left turn and we were on the Mall, racing towards Buckingham Palace and the finishing line. Positive emotion welled up inside me as we rushed past the throngs of cheering crowds along this famous thoroughfare. I even managed to rise out the saddle for a short stretch, but all ideas of racing each other to the line had gone out the window, as we finished wheel by wheel.

A fitting end to what had been an awesome day on the saddle. A quick Lycra hug and normal life was set to resume.

MOST IMPORTANTLY…

Thanks to the amazing generosity of 34 friends and family that have, to date, sponsored me on this ride in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity, this wonderful charity will be shortly receiving over GBP 1750.

Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity raises money to enable the hospital to save more lives, develop new treatments, build state-of-the-art facilities and support thousands of young patients and their families.

If you want to see examples of their fantastic please go to www.gosh.org/

If you want to donate or see my fundraising page please go to https://www.justgiving.com/James-Sinclair5/

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Kρίση - Referendum in Greece

 
The people are at their wit’s end and Greece is on the brink. A nervous populous is faced with a decision between uncertain futures and no good option.

I have been a regular visitor to Greece over the past decade and throughout the crisis (or "kρίση"). Over the past 5 years Greeks have become used to the depressing reality of the situation they face, to the point of fatigue. Only this Tuesday I was talking to a shop keeper who claimed the current mess was more of the same. “You will see, this is no different.” But it is. This was not optimism, but a case of the blinkers. Now, with queues at every functioning ATM, concerns over medicine supplies and non-stop animated argument dominating life from the kafe neo to the home and every TV channel, even those so recently in denial are waking up to critical position the country is in.

Anyone with Greek friends or acquaintances will know that passionate argument and discussion is part and parcel of Greek life, but what has so shocked me in the last few days is the unmissable strain of fear which sharpens opinions and lines faces.

I will not detail my own view of how it got to this point, but the reality is that the politicians and technocrats, of Greek and troika hue alike, have combined to leave the Greek on the street with no hope. A choice between grasping to a dwindling future which may have already have gone and rolling the die to likely catastrophe. I have Nasia, a Cypriot, to thank for teaching me the apt phrase – “bros kremos kai piso rema” - the literal translation being “in front a cliff and behind a ravine” or colloquially “between a rock and a hard place”.

The desperation is glimpsed through the invigoration of those demonstrating and proselytising between such opaque choices. Have you seen the question at the ballot box?

How is the everyman supposed to have a clue what this means? Add in the lies, political spin and bluff from both sides and one is swimming against the tide into a whirl pool of skata (Greek for “shit”).

Frankly, I do not know what to think and have no clue of what is going to happen next. There is no breathing space in the polls, any difference within statistical error. As those who know me are aware, I am an optimist, but I see no good outcome. Only varying levels of crap, at least in the near term.

A “Nai” (yes) vote has to be the safer option, with a chance of European reconciliation and future negotiation. This is though a rocky and highly uncertain path with little real upside. Another decade of austerity? I do not believe the populous can take it.

An “Oxi” (no) vote leads to the complete unknown. Probable melt down, but that faint almost cruel glimmer of hope. You can see it in the thousands who crowded into Syntagma for the “Oxi” rally on Friday night. Hysteria in grasping for some type of future. The polls show that those with more life in front of them are heavily weighted to “Oxi”. Change, any change.

Even with the best case scenario over the coming months, the actions and arguments of the present will divide this country for years to come. Events in the recent Scottish independence referendum have illustrated how referenda tend to harden views and polarise. Consensus will be hard to find in the difficult times ahead.

I choose to ignore the worst case scenario.

Time and time again, one phrase seems to have dominated communication between Greeks over the past week - “Ti na kanoume?” - “what can we do?” Vote and hope.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Cycladic Divemaster - A Final Refresher (part 3)

While a few weeks diving was great, I found getting to grips with what it means to work in a dive shop and start on the ladder to being a dive professional equally engaging.

There is the practical stuff, like fitting people up for gear, setting up the boat, filling tanks and the ritual post-dive dunking of gear to remove salt… and piss. Then there is the people stuff, explaining what the local diving has to offer, escorting divers around the sub-aqua sites, giving pre-dive plan summaries (I only did this right at the end of my time) and generally trying to make the diver trip experience as pleasant as possible. Inevitably, there is also the admin stuff, which seems to gobble up more permanent staff/owner time than everything else put together. Thankfully, as a short term DMT (Divemaster Trainee for the uninitiated), I was safe from the admin on this occasion.
Finally, there is the teaching or, strictly speaking as a DMT, assisting others' provision of instruction. This is the part I found the most interesting and enjoyable. During my Divemaster, I helped with pool sessions, OWT (Open Water Training) dives, refreshers, snorkel courses and discovery dives. A wonderful combo of sharing knowledge, calming nerves and invoking excitement in what diving has to offer. 
While most of this was straight forward, on my last day as a DMT I was given a stark reminder of the responsibility that comes with working as a dive professional. 

MORE THAN A REFRESHER

The task at hand seemed simple enough. A qualified diver was looking for a refresher, having had a prolonged break from diving. Yes, his demeanour was slightly odd and stuttering, but he seemed like a nice, competent person. We drove across the island to Agios Giorgos, did a refresh of diving skills and set up our gear. The sea was calm, conditions clear. All good so far. We entered the water.
We prepped at the surface, signalled to dive and submerged.  I assisted him to descend slowly and eventually settled down on the sandy bottom to continue the refresher skills. He managed with some, but struggled with others. Nothing strange in itself for someone who has not dived in a while, but there was something off which I could not quite put my finger on. 

We moved off slowly for a circuit, Peter out front with the dive buoy and the refresher diver a short distance behind him. I positioned myself slightly behind and to the side. We had barely gone a few meters when he shot to the side, arms and legs flailing. I pursued him, grabbed his arm and signalled for him to slow down and follow Peter. He nodded calmly and we moved off again. A minute later he did the same thing, but this time bolting diagonally towards the surface. Again I pursued, managed to catch up with some serious fin strokes, took hold of his arm and settled him down. 

From my limited experience, alongside heavy air usage, there are two main giveaways of a distressed diver: unnecessarily panicky movements and darting wide open eyes. He was displaying the first in droves, but the peculiar thing was that his eyes were serene, as if he did not realise he was doing anything out of the ordinary.

I signalled to Peter that something was pretty off. He had seen it too and we turned around back to towards our entry point. Just when I thought the refresher diver had found his comfort zone and buoyancy, he darted off again, more sharply upwards. As any diver knows, a golden rule of diving is to ascend slowly (rapid ascent risks various nasty gas expansion injuries). He was, though, shooting upwards at a ridiculous rate of knots, kicking and flailing his arms like a panicked swimmer. I reacted as quickly as I could, exhaled as I burst upwards, just managed to grab his leg before he broke the surface and bought us back down, dumping air from each of our BCDs (air fillable diving jacket). 

As we slowly descended to 5 meters, I signalled for him to calm down and level off. Again his eyes were calm. I just did not get it. I kept a levelling hand on him for our safety stop and all the way in.

As we got out and put the kit away, Peter and I barely said a word to each other, but a shared look of “WTF” said it all. Again the refresher diver was acting as if nothing strange had happened. It was only when back at the shop and the refresher had left, that Peter told me that this was right up there with his oddest instructor experiences, and he has seen a lot.
Diving is a statistically safe sport. When within dive limits and showing a bit of common sense, danger is at a minimum. I have dived with numerous types of poisonous, spiky, many-toothed creatures, in caves and wrecks, through tight swim-throughs, in violent currents and beneath heavy seas, but this was the dive which left me most on edge. It was a valuable lesson that the most dangerous thing to a diver is a diver.

DIVEMASTER AND BEYOND

So there you go. A strange way to finish, but I was now a Divemaster. I thoroughly enjoyed the course and my time with Blue Island Divers. Diving in Greece, while rarely spectacular, had exceeded my expectations. It left me with a real taste for more and desire to pursue my diving to the next level. The instructor course beckons… but not for a while, largely due to something (or, more accurately, someone) who quite rightly took up more of my time and attention on the island than diving. Welcome Nikolaki!