Seeking cold

I went in search of cold weather. It was 16 degrees when I booked my flight but by the time I got there, temperatures had soared. I landed in Oslo to 27 degrees and wasn’t at all impressed. Then I discovered that beer (which I don’t usually drink) was about €10 a pint and that a glass of wine could be more expensive than a meal. And that’s where the disappointment ended and the infatuation began.  Oslo – I’m sold.

IMG_6520 (800x599)What is not to like about a country where, every June, you get 12.5% of last year’s annual salary as fun money – for your summer holidays. And where each December, you pay half the normal income tax. And where if your bus is more than 20 minutes late, you can get a taxi and reclaim the fare. Imagine a country where the minimum wage is €15 per hour, you work 35.5 hours a week and get 5 weeks paid vacation. Not to mention free education and health (ok, so if you’re paying taxes it’s not exactly free). And yes, Oslo, as the country’s capital, has its fair share of problems – rape and murder being the two that come to mind. And yes, there were parts of the city where I didn’t feel comfortable. But that said, the pluses far outweigh the minuses.

IMG_6510 (800x598)That Oslo is on the water is a huge plus in my book. Anywhere that has a promenade or a boardwalk automatically rates high marks. That everyone speaks English and Norwegian and the Lord only knows how many other languages makes life as a tourist so much easier. And that the people are so hospitable, friendly and helpful… well, it made me wonder if I’d stumbled onto the set of some utopian dream.

IMG_6765 (800x600)When I can navigate a city within a day without fear of getting lost, that’s a miracle. When I can plan to leave at 7.53 and arrive at 8.07 and know those times to be exact, that feeds my OCD. And when I can eat fresh fish, all day, every day, with a mayonnaise that (dare I say it) is as good as Hellmans, that makes me stop and wonder whether I’ve died and gone to heaven.

IMG_6527 (800x600)I’ve been missing Alaska a lot lately. Perhaps it something to do with catching up with my Alaskan mates on this recent US road trip. Perhaps it has something to do with craving some decent cold weather. Or perhaps it’s the remoteness of it all that I long for. Although I didn’t venture further than Oslo, and by all accounts it only gets better once you cross the city limits, I felt an immediate affinity with Oslo that transported me temporarily back to Anchorage.

To be fair, had I not had a well-read, well-informed, and multi-talented guide in FC, I might be thinking differently. Seeing a city from the perspective of someone who lives and works there is so much better than leaving it in the hands of a travel-guide writer who may never have physically set foot in the place themselves but relies instead on what others have written.

IMG_6509 (600x800)IMG_6504 (600x800)Like my intrepid guide, Oslo has attitude. Even its street sculpture has something to say. Around every corner, there’s something new. It reminded me a little of Bratislava in that sense. Some might say that there’s not much to see – a few main attractions and that’s it – but once you start looking, really looking, the city is like one big box of assorted chocolates there to be savoured or devoured, depending on the mood. It’s certainly not cheap, but if you do it right, get the weekly travel pass, visit the supermarkets, and watch for the lunch specials, it’s doable.

 

2013 Grateful 23

I’ve often wondered how Las Vegas came to be Las Vegas. What attracted all those casino magnates to the city? What prompted the glitz and the glamour?Vegas was born in the early 1900s, and in 1911, Nevada was the place to go for a quickie divorce. If you lived there for six weeks, you were eligible for one. These short-term, divorce-seeking, residents holed up at dude ranches, forerunners to the Strip’s hotels.  Who’d have thought?

In 1931, construction on the Hoover Dam brought an influx of workers and a boom to the local economy. And with all that money floating around, it was time to legalise gambling. The first few motels/casinos that opened had a distinctive western theme, like the El Rancho on Highway 91 which opened in 1941. This was followed by the El Cortez Hotel –  the first casino in downtown Las Vegas, and in 1942, the Last Frontier.

The glitz and the glamour didn’t arrive until St Stephen’s Day in 1946 – the day after Christmas, when Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo opened. Supposedly named after his girlfriend Virginia Hill (she had long legs that reminded him of a flamingo), the hotel was a flop; it closed for three months to regroup and reopened in March 1947. I’d love to know what they learned in that time. Whatever it was, it worked. The hotel turned a profit in its first month and is still going today.

But all this was happening in the desert – and it wasn’t until Siegel was murdered that the press came to see what was going on in the sand. Liberace made his debut there in 1944, Frank Sinatra arrived in 1951, and the rest, as they say, is history.

IMG_6451 (800x600)I first visited Vegas back in 1991 – and then I was enthralled. It was smaller then, more manageable. Action concentrated on the strip – the old strip. You had your plastic bucket to collect your quarters from the slots. You could spend a dollar or two on the roulette tables, or eke out your rent money playing blackjack. A breakfast of steak and eggs might set you back a fin. Waitresses were plentiful and the drinks, although watered down, kept coming. People dressed up to gamble.

IMG_6457 (800x600)Fast forward twenty-two years and the scene is a lot different. No more coins from the slots – now you get an electronic receipt you can cash in. Minimum bets are $5, show tickets start at $200, and a poolside chair will set you back $30. And yet the place is heaving. Air-conditioned walkways link the hotels so there is no need to walk the streets. Hundreds of young women in Vegas for hen parties queue up to see the Australian Chippendales. Hundreds more married women in their 40s and 50s escaping the humdrum of domesticity for a weekend, put on their glad rags and take to the town. Loud jocks and golf-shirted weekday dads walk around with jugs of beer – looking cool. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

IMG_6465 (800x600) (800x598)At night, it all looks great. But in the sober light of day, you see that the marble isn’t marble. The brick isn’t brick. The statues aren’t granite. It’s all fake, a front; there’s nothing real about it. I love to gamble and previous trips to Vegas and Tahoe and Biloxi saw many a happy hour at the tables. But this time around, something had changed. Just as I no longer felt the need to have my cards read in Madrid, my half-hearted attempt at the slots soon gave way to lethargy. I simply wasn’t interested.

IMG_6483 (800x594)This week, as temperatures in Budapest tip 40, I’m writing the last of a series of posts on my US road-trip. It was an amazing few weeks. I caught up with old friends and made new ones. I revisited places I’d been to before and discovered others I’d never heard of. With plenty of time to reflect on the meaning of life as we ate up mile after mile of asphalt, the trip gave me time to think. To evaluate. To see how I’ve changed. To remember what matters. For this I’m truly thankful.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

A hole in the ground

Why, I asked. Why would you want to see the Grand Canyon – it’s just a massive hole in the ground. That said, I did take that detour to see meteor crater, so that in itself makes me a bit of a hypocrite. And I hadn’t been to the Grand Canyon since the early 1990s and back then, when I looked over the edge it was impressive, yes. But I’ve been more impressed by smaller stuff.

IMG_6300 (800x600)On the website, the tour looked amazing. Ah the power of advertising and advertorials. Collected from hotel in Vegas, bussed to airport to catch a plane, then a helicopter, then rafting down the Colorado River, then lunch with the Indians and then back to the hotel via plane and bus. A little over seven hours in total. What wasn’t to like? If you’re going to do something, I say, do it in style.

IMG_6336 (800x600)That I was on the wrong side of the plane going out and didn’t see the Hoover Dam was a tad upsetting and no one’s fault but my own. We were weighed and seated according to weight. That the helicopter ride took all of ten minutes (at a stretch) was a little disappointing. That the rafting was more like a sedate float down the river without shade in 117 degree weather was a trifle discomfiting. That the lunch was bagged salad, frozen veg, packet mash, and a piece of chicken was torturous. All in all, having been picked up at 6.30 am, we’d done it all by 10.30 and didn’t get back to the hotel until after 3. Tired, cranky, and feeling more than a little cheated.

IMG_6334 (800x599)On reflection – was the tour worth it? Absolutely not. Next time (and I’d go again to this huge hole in the ground) I’d drive. And take my time. And pack my own lunch. I’d do the helicopter thing again – but for longer – and only that. Mind you, there were so many choppers in the sky it is a wonder more accidents don’t happen. Apparently someone falls into it every 2-3 months and in a country where Health and Safety are king and queen, there wasn’t a railing in sight. Great for the natural look, I say. Not so great for human stupidity. But the view the from air was magnificent.

IMG_6430 (592x800)

IMG_6339 (800x600)The canyon is 4 to 18 miles wide (6 – 28km) and is 277 river miles long (445km). In places it’s half a kilometre deep. It’s tilted – the northern rim is 1200 ft higher than the southern rim. It took the Colorado River 3-6 million years to carve it out (there’s patience for you!) Over 800 million gallons of water flow through it each day.

IMG_6343 (800x600)I listened to the facts being recited, by rote, both on the recorded spiel on the plane and by the boat guy, and then looked at those walls and wondered at the power of nature. How could we ever think, as mere mortals, that we could tame her?

I’ve spent many an afternoon on the flat of my back on the grass looking up at the clouds in the sky, fancying that I see a pig or a boat or a slice of pizza. I like to do the same with rocks and boulders, and when in South Africa a couple of years ago, I became all too familiar with the Lion Rock  and how deceptive nature’s shapes and shadows can be. So the highlight for me was Eagle Point and the fantastic natural shape of the rock.  That made it all worth while.

IMG_6367 (800x598)The outdoor exhibition of various Indian huts was interesting enough. But my heart went out to the trio who were dancing a tribal dance to an empty amphitheatre. Somewhere along the line, the lines between tourism and taste were crossed. There’s a lot to be said for knowing your audience. And while I would like very much to take part in a real Indian dance night, this was just a tad too twee, even for me.

IMG_6377 (800x600)IMG_6384 (800x600)IMG_6382 (800x600)And yet, had I been there sans the masses, and had I the quiet and the solitude all to myself and a few crows, it would have been quite special. But that’s the Catch 22, isn’t it. Discover and share – or keep to yourself and enjoy.

IMG_6394 (800x600) (3)

From boomtown to the boonies

I can’t get a handle on GPS. Being a moving blue dot on a screen just doesn’t do it for me. That annoying turn left, turn right, go straight is enough to drive me to distraction. So we navigated our way across the Mojave desert using a hand-drawn map that spanned 200 miles. There were times I wondered if we’d taken a wrong turn but there had been no wrong turns to take. For miles and miles, all we could see was road, and desert.

IMG_6252 (800x591)IMG_6246 (800x577) (800x577)Lines of lonely mailboxes were clear indicators of the inhabitants and the houses that blended in so perfectly with their surrounds that they were invisible. We drove and drove and nothing much changed. And then we happened across Kelso Depot. Marked with an X on our map, it was somewhere to stop, to break the monotony.

Once a boomtown, Kelso is now home to a renovated train station that houses a museum and a café – a café run by a chap called Mike who wants to sell out and retire, yet again. The 2013 version of this town is a far cry from the 1943 version when troops, tanks, and trucks were shipped through here by rail, creating a hive of activity that begot buildings, people, and commerce. All was well until 1985, when Union Pacific pulled out and the trains stopped pulling in.

IMG_6274 (800x600) (800x600)The old jail – a two-cell steel contraption – was used to house those who caused a ruckus after a few beers on a Friday night. Open to the elements, no one spent more than a night here – anything more would have been close to torture. The town was called after a railroad worker who won a competition to have it named after him. Its main claim to fame in the 1970s was that it was a town without television. Now its main claim to fame is that it breaks the journey across the desert and offers root-beer floats to thirsty travellers.

IMG_6278 (800x600) (800x600)I’d forgotten what root beer tasted like. But the concept of a root beer float (vanilla ice-cream floating in a glass of soda) was too all-American to pass up. And the decor, with its bar counter and  high stools, looked as if it had come off a TV set for a 1960s American sitcom. So we tried them. And didn’t like them. But struggled through. If you’re wondering what root beer tastes like, it’s remarkably similar to that horrible eucalyptus toothpaste – the pink stuff.  Bless him though, Mike didn’t want to take our money. But traffic was light that day so we compromised and paid just $5 for the experience.

IMG_6276 (591x800)America isn’t just big cities, skyscrapers, and football stadiums. At its backbone are people like Mike, ordinary people, trying to eke a living from the cards they’ve been dealt. America is more attitude than atmosphere. That instant familiarity can take a little getting used to but then you stop for sustenance in the boonies and spend a pleasant half hour talking about nothing with someone you know you’ll never see again. And that someone, that stranger, does something nice – like buy you a root-beer float – then you get it. However superficial it might seem, America has an abiding interest in other people’s business, a curiosity about the world outside, and a opinion on just about everything. And when you strip away the commercialism, the bright lights, the designer labels, and stumble across places like the Beanery, and see small-town America for what it is, the kindness comes out.

Getting from A to B

Someone commented once that all too often we are so preoccupied with the destination that we forget to enjoy the journey. We’re so focused on getting from A to B that we don’t see what’s around us. I’ve been arguing for years that life plans don’t suit me – I’m too afraid that I’d miss myriad opportunities were I to focus on one end goal. Granted, I have had one plan in life – when I was 17. I was going to be a teacher, marry a teacher, have two kids (boy and a girl, Tadhg and Maud) by the age of 27, and be ready to retire and travel by the age of 50. When I read that back, I see that my grand plan comprises a number of separate plans, not one of which has materialised. I failed from the outset because I didn’t get into Teacher Training College. I fell at the first hurdle. Never made the first milestone on my Gantt chart. Once I’d gotten over that disappointment (and it was a big one), I resolved that, in future, my plan would simply be to have no plan. And it’s worked – so far. When I travel, I might have a destination in mind, but I’m permanently on the look-out for some place interesting to stop along the way.

IMG_6207 (800x600)The city of Twentynine Palms in California is notable for three reasons. It’s home to the HQ of the Joshua Tree National Park. It’s home to the 932-square-mile Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command – the largest Marine Corps training base in the world. And it’s home to my mate AP’s brother.

The plan was to meet A&R for lunch and then head across the Mojave desert on the four-hour drive to Las Vegas. I was expecting a catch-up and a good lunch. I got both. What I wasn’t expecting was to find  the MAGTFTC and its 10 000 + military residents. I was fascinated and found myself talking in a rapid-fire parody of an AK47. Who? Why? Where? When?

IMG_6210 (800x598)Since falling for the man of all men, Jack Reacher, he of the Lee Child novels, I’ve had a fascination with Marine life. I would love to take a tour of a base and see for myself what I expect to be true – that they’re mini-towns complete with all the modern conveniences that any thriving town would have – cinemas, bowling alleys, shops, restaurants, etc., and there’s no real reason for anyone on them to leave. In Twentynine Palms, Marines get to train to be better Marines. A simulated rehearsal of sorts. Rumour has it that so real are their simulations, they actually go to Hollywood and hire extras so that the city/culture they’re simulating is accurately represented. Makes sense. But it could go horribly wrong. They would get some shock if they invaded Ireland expecting everyone to have red hair and freckles and talk like Tom Cruise in Far and Away. [I know I could pick ten bad Hollywood Irish accents but Cruise is the focus of my ire these days because he has the nerve to think that he can do justice to my hero Jack Reacher.]

So I read up on it a little and discovered that this place in Twentynine Palms provides training for any size unit from individual to regiment, for any warfighting discipline from infantry to logistics, and from all parts of the combat spectrum from full scale war to establishing local governance. And I found myself thinking how I’d like it if all that was going on in my back yard. But then I remembered the 6000 or so locals employed in civilian capacity on the base and figured that the US Marine Corps is just like another huge corporation … and Twentynine Palms is, in effect, a company town.

IMG_6213 (800x600)Now, I’m a peace-loving gal at heart. The closest I get to war is reading about it. My opinions on the subject can’t be boxed with any regimental accuracy. Yes, it fascinates me. In my darker hours, I see it as a great evolutionary joke  – we used to send our best and brightest way to fight our great wars and what was left behind added to the gene pool. I’ve written recently about the USA and its outward display of respect and appreciation for its troops and while the individual should be applauded rather than maligned for fighting for their country, those in charge occasionally leave some doubt in my mind as to their credentials.

The closest I’ve come to the US Military scene is a friendship with a couple of Coasties in Alaska, a date or three with a Army reservist in LA, and a quick conversation with a retired Marine here in BP some months back. Other American and Australian friends have sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and parents in the service and I know that this blood tie gives them a different perspective, one I can never appreciate fully.

I am curious though – so curious – about a living a life that has unquestioned obedience at its core. To my mind, with that obedience has to come an irrefutable trust in those higher up the command chain – trust that they’re making the right decisions for the right reasons in the best interests of all concerned. In what some might seem a little strange, I have no problem believing in God but I simply cannot get my head around blind trust from a military perspective. The invocation ‘following orders’ brings me out in a cold sweat.

Twentynine Palms was simply a stop along the way – but it now has me questioning so much. As Henry Miller said:  One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things. Let the journey continue.

IMG_6205 (800x582)

Joshua Tree

I met Bono, the Edge, and Adam Clayton back in 1983. We had a chat for 10 minutes or so in what was then the TV Club in Harcourt Street in Dublin. I had no clue who they were and I’m sure none of them remember meeting me. I was singularly unimpressed with yer man then and not much has changed in the intervening years. When I think of U2 now and play a word association game in my head, the ones I care to mention that come to mind are Boy, War, and Joshua Tree.

IMG_6183 (800x600)

Yet if the 64 million dollar question had asked me to describe a Joshua Tree, I’d have gone home penniless. I didn’t know it was an evergreen that could grow as high as 40 feet,  2 to 3 inches a year, and take 50 to 60 years to mature.  So if their ’21’ is 60, it’s not surprising that they can live 150 years. Growing only in the Mojave desert, they have an exclusive pollination agreement with the Yucca Moth, who has evolved special organs to collect and distribute the pollen onto the surface of the flower. She lays her eggs in the flowers’ ovaries, and when the larvae hatch, they feed on the yucca seeds.  Adds a whole new slant to the chicken and the egg debate.

Curious, I couldn’t resist a detour through Joshua Tree National Park, an area in California that covers about 1,234 square miles. But the song that buzzed in my head wasn’t anything from the album of the same name but rather The Fall, by the Black Lillies and that line where he talks about flowers being so rare in the desert.  And yet, all around us, the Mojave desert was blooming. Admittedly the colour palate was pretty short on pastels, but it was beautiful for all its sameness.

IMG_6146 (800x600)

Declared a National Monument in 1936, the Joshua Tree National Park wasn’t designated as such until 1994. When stopped to buy our pass, the ranger on duty, hearing that we weren’t exactly from around those parts, gave us a lecture on the dangers of dehydration and the record-breaking temperatures expected. Now, I believe that I’ve been in a state of constant dehydration since I was born, a fact reinforced by every beautician who has ever given me a facial. Cream of any sort soaks into my skin in a matter of milliseconds, no matter how much water I drink, yet even I was surprised at how many litres we put away on the two-hour detour on the road from Sedona to Palm Springs.

Dehydration aside, though, I was once again mesmerised by the desert landscape and the variety of what’s on offer. Apparently 250 different species of birds have been spotted here, including the Roadrunner, but he must have had a casting call that day.

 

IMG_6158 (800x600)

Just two hours from the California coast, it’s pretty hard to imagine the size of this desert unless you see it for yourself. That a cool ocean breeze could be blowing so relatively near while the desert air was stifling hot boggles my sense of climatic diversity. This intrastate variety is one of the many reasons that California is so ‘special’, and I use that word advisedly. I had  CA driver’s license for two years. I’ve served my time in a state where 80% of your personality depends on the type of vehicle you drive and the word ‘like’ is a form of running punctuation (Ok, so, admittedly, I was down South.)

IMG_6152 (800x600)

If ever you want to feel how insignificant we homo sapiens really are, spend a few hours in the desert. It simultaneously reinforces both the tenacity and the fragility of the human spirit. And if you’re a solitary soul, the sense you get of being alone on this planet is one to treasure.

2013 Grateful 24

I was going through some photos this morning and found a couple that made me stop and think about shadows and mirror images.

IMG_6314 (800x592)Plutarch, that Ancient Greek author had something when he said: I don’t need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better. I’ve had cause to reflect on this in recent months and know that no matter how difficult it might have been at the time, having friends who don’t pull any punches when it comes to offering their (un)solicited opinions regarding something I’ve said or done definitely gives me a new perspective of my reality.

That’s not for one minute to say that I believe it all – it is simply their opinion, offered in the spirit of friendship. There’s a difference between empathy and sympathy and no matter what the dictionaries say, I’ve learned that for the former, you need to have lived through a similar experience yourself before you can ever hope to really understand the feeling, while the latter is guided more by concern about the effect the feeling has had.

IMG_6322 (800x592)I’ve been known to offer my two cents’ worth of wisdom, either solicited or unsolicited, and while I might stand convinced that what I say has value, it too is simply  an opinion. Whether or not you take it on board is a matter of choice.

But when I got to thinking about it, I was reminded of a George Bernard Shaw quotation that I had to dig 0ut: The only service a friend can really render is to keep your courage by holding up a mirror in which you can see a noble image of yourself.

And then I looked a second time at the helicopter shadow and it became clearer. A helicopter is a complicated machine, big, bulky and capable of all sorts of aerodynamic wonders and yet for all its complexity, its shadow is a simple one. Too often, we make our lives more complicated than they need to be. We analyse and over-analyse a situation and turn it into something fit for discussion at a UN convention. More often again, though, we fail to reflect on issues at all and go through life in the hope that it will all come right in the end, sometimes shortchanging ourselves and not manifesting our true potential. It’s great to have faith, but faith, too, needs some work: finding the balance between the shadow and the self is as good a place to start as any.

While friends might appear to have all the answers and while the books might read as if they’re a blueprint for life, an honest conversation with ourselves about who we are and who we want to be cannot be avoided.

And staying with shadows: seeing such a small shadow might cause us to underestimate the size of the plane. The shadow of what we do and say stretches far and is often distorted to the point that it bears little resemblance to the original intent – for better or for worse. I can still remember snippets of conversation from 20 years ago that radically changed how I live my life. And I often wonder if the person responsible for what was said has any idea of the affect their words have had. No matter. I’m still grateful that I was there to hear what they had to say and aware enough to let those words take root.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

From the Danube to the desert – a church on the move

Before the aura reader told me that I should visit the solar plexus vortex, I’d already been. I can’t say I was strangely drawn to it for any reason out of the ordinary. It’s at the site of a church and I’m drawn to churches. Solar plexus or no solar plexus. And this church is a little more unusual than most in that the plans were drawn up long before the site was found and it was originally meant to be built in Budapest. Small world.

IMG_6077 (600x800)Way back in 1932,  a woman by the name of  Marguerite Brunswig Staude was looking at the Empire State Building in New York. Somewhere, in this edifice, she saw a cross. And from this got the idea of building a church that would also have a cross as its core. She showed her design to Llyod Wright and he worked on it with her to further develop it. In 1937, they were ready, and the Chapel of the Holy Cross was to be built in Budapest, Hungary, overlooking the Danube.

IMG_6078 (800x566)But the war came and the dream shattered. But she got to thinking… why not built such a shrine in the USA? Why should Europe have a monopoly on shrines? It would take 24 years for her dream to come true but finally, on a spur 250 feet high that sticks out of a 1000 foot rock wall, Marguerite built her church in Oak Creek, Sedona. Her wish? That the Church might come to light in the souls of men. And so it did, in 1956, the year of the Hungarian revolution.

IMG_6066 (600x800)

 

 

Out with the old

They told me that I needed to grow up. To get with the programme. To join the twenty-first century. They told me I’d outgrown him. That he’d lost his usefulness. That he was old, battered and not nearly as versatile or as attractive as a younger, more modern version. They told me that my life would change. That I wouldn’t know myself. That I’d forget him in time and move on. I tried to stay loyal, to hold my ground, to be faithful, but worn down by months of steady haranguing, I finally gave in.

Granted, it was fate that intervened. The universe conspired against me. I was perfectly happy with Fred, my old-fashioned, antiquated Nokia. He’d served me well. He and I had had a perfect understanding. He knew his limitations. I knew his limitations. More importantly I knew my own (technological) limitations. We got on very well together. He was incapable of any fancy moves. He couldn’t anticipate my every whim. He simply served a need and served it well. He kept me in contact with people.

 For each task, a tool

I had a camera to take photos. I had a laptop to write e-mails. I had a watch to tell the time. I needed Fred to make phone calls and send SMSs. Nothing more. If I wanted to know the meaning of a word, I’d check the dictionary. If I wanted to know the weather forecast, I’d turn on the radio. If I wanted to know how to get from A to B, I’d look at a map.  

I knew two things for certain. I didn’t want begin an incestuous relationship with a smartphone. To grow attached to it. To become dependent on it. And I didn’t want to be at the beck and call of the world and its mother, all day, all night, seven days a week, 365 days a year. I wanted to retain some independence, some distance. I didn’t want to be available.

 For each passion, a season

I’d seen too many of my friends fall by the wayside. I’d seen too many of them get caught up in a wanton affair with their android of choice. I’d seen too many of them interrupt our conversation, cut short our visit because of a beep or a buzz or a cute song-and-dance routine that heralded the arrival of someone more important, some matter more pressing, some opportunity more exciting.

Fred was self-sufficient. He knew his place. He wasn’t high maintenance and didn’t need constant checking. Ours was a purely functional relationship: if I had no need for him, he stayed put, silent.   

But then I won a Samsung Galaxy III mini (a generic, nameless beast that admittedly looks better than old Fred, but is a little intimidating). It took me three days pick up the courage to take it out of its box. It took me another three days to work up the nerve to take Fred to T Mobile for a lobotomy – to transplant his brain, his memory, into my new smart friend. And it took T Mobile three days to redress the damage it did to my SIM card. I lost half my contacts. I lost connectivity for the weekend. And I lost my patience.

 For each lesson, a school

But in that 72 hours when Fred was comatosed and my new smart friend remained inert, I rediscovered time.

I spent a lustrous weekend with Robert B. Parker. I visited with Harlan Coben. I had dinner with Michael Connelly. I took a bath Mark Giminez. I copy-edited eight articles on topics ranging from biotechnology to corporate social responsibility, from drug testing and analysis to greenhouse gases. I worked on a book about the Relics of Jesus Christ. I did three loads of laundry, lost three kilos in weight, and finally listened to every Gospel recording Elvis ever made.

I had no calls, no texts, no plans. I had no telephone numbers. I knew no addresses. I posted on Facebook that I would be out of commission until Monday evening and the world left me alone.

For each worry, a reason

But the holiday is over. My smartphone is ready to be unlocked, unleashed. Fred is about to be retired. My life is about to change. I am, apparently, about to discover a whole new world. 

My fear is that this world will be one where compulsive communication becomes my norm. Where my android (I can’t bring myself to name him) becomes my best friend. Where I discover, a little too late, that my greatest worry manifests itself in reality: that carrying a smartphone will be like carrying a tracking device, similar to one of those electronic anklets that prisoners under house arrest wear. And that someone, somewhere, will know every move I make, when I make it, and with whom I make it, too. I worry that life, as I know it, will be over and that I will finally have to join the twenty-first century.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 July 2013

Saddened by Sedona

Shop after shop. Mall after mall. Even the outskirts, 20 minutes from the main drag, were joined to the centre by an arterial ribbon of mini-malls, fast-food joints, and gas stations. Yes, it’s all tastefully done. The planners have kept a firm hold on what can and can’t be built in the city of Sedona, but for me it’s lost a lot of its magic.

IMG_6052 (800x590)You can barely see the houses nestling in the foothills, so well do they blend in with their surrounds. Hardware shops in this part of the world don’t do much trade in pastel paints, unlike the West of Ireland or the Venetian island of Burano or the Spanish city of Las Palmas. Here, it’s all muted tones and autumnal palettes. And for that one has to give thanks.

IMG_6091 (800x599)IMG_6096 (800x523)Downtown, once you escape from the main drag, the Tlaquepaque shopping village, originally conceived as an artists’ community, appears to have been around a lot longer than it actually has. A child of the 1970s, these 40 or so shops and galleries look like they’ve taken residence in a hundred-year-old village. There are many European planners who could learn a lesson or two in Sedona.

IMG_6100 (800x600)The main street itself though, leaves a lot to be desired. Overpriced food, half-assed cocktails passing themselves off as Margueritas (beware the newborn expert), and shelf after shelf of sameness was a far cry from what I remembered.

IMG_6103 (800x600)Sedona is famous for its vortexes… and yes, I have that pluralisation correct… in Sedona one vortex, two vortexes. We’d passed a few dust devils as we’d travelled across the Sonora desert, and knew vaguely that a vortex ‘is created from spiraling motion of air or liquid around a center of rotation’. Usually, that is. In Sedona, they’re created from ‘spiralling spiritual energy’. So it’s little wonder that the place is a magnet for new age therapists, mediums, aura readers, and such like. And yes, there was a time I’d have been right there in the midst of it all. But that was then.

I no longer feel the need to know the future – why live through the disappointment twice. But I did have my aura read (and photographed) just to see if my chakras were all open and in good working order. I got a clean bill of health. Lots of white and blue light. Am relatively sane and have a bevvy of spirits working in the wings guarding me night and day. What’s not to like about that?

IMG_6137 (800x600)