s a l v a d o r

[ 17:20 saturday 31 december – placa da se, salvador da bahia, brazil ]

the late afternoon sun casts angular shadows across the corner of the seventh-floor roof terrace where i sit. to my right the crumbling pastel-coloured baroque of the old pelourinho quarter spreads out around its piazzas, towers and steep cobbled streets. below me the derelict nineteenth-century palaces of the “low town” back the constant toing-and-froing of fishing boats and freighters around the port. to my left the baia de todos santos stretches right to the horizon. a hundred rhythms and cries rise intertwined from the streets below. the steady easterly breeze carries the salty scent of the atlantic. the cathedral marks the half hour with its elaborate chime.

this evening there’s a party for the whole city on the shore at barra, a couple of miles to the south. sergio and i will be there. as midnight arrives hour by hour in different time zones i’ll be thinking of my friends around the world.

the horn of an incoming container ship echoes across the city as the evening’s first fireworks crackle into the sky.

: c :

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b r a z i l

[ 09:50 tuesday 27 december – gate 13, gatwick airport ]

sergio and i are about to depart for natal on the north-eastern tip of brazil. we don’t have any specific plans, but the fernando do noronha islands and the city of salvador have caught our imagination.

i spent a few days with mum, dad and granny over christmas. it was a delight from beginning to end. after dinner we had an impromptu carol service. i hammered out the accompaniments on the piano (with some curious harmonies) whilst the others sang.

the final passengers are boarding so it’s time to draw to an end now. i’m back on the eleventh of january. have fun in the meantime.

: c :

q u a n t a

[ 01:00 thursday 1 december – shipton street, london ]

it’s a cold night here in london, nearing the threshold where i boot up the heating or light a fire.  my breath condenses in the air between my mouth and the screen. my family desensitised me to cold early on in life. during my year in the isles of scilly i remember choosing to spend the whole of the first winter without any heating to see what it was like. the islands have a mild climate but my experiment still required several layers of wool and thermal mittens to stop my fingers seizing up at the keyboard. before learning to make fire man must have inhabited a much narrower range of climatic zones.

these thoughts are in marked contrast to my previous despatch, sheltering beneath a lemon tree from the fierce cretan sun. that was three months ago. really three months. i doubt i’ve ever been more focused, more driven or more productive than during these months but they have passed awfully quickly. the business is humming, the team feels tight and well-aligned, there is a sense of resonance with the world.

the level of interest in what we’re doing doesn’t seem to vary in a gradual or continuous way. instead it seems to switch by quanta, jumping from one level to another almost overnight then staying more or less constant until the next switch. during the past three months i’ve observed two such shifts. the first occurred immediately on my return from greece. my first day back in london i went into channel four to meet a fellow called steve moore. a couple of hours later he’d engaged us to provide a platform for a relaunch of the channel’s education department. since then we’ve done two further projects with steve and it’s been so productive we’re forming a partnerhip. during the same period we’ve been approached for a slew of projects from smoothing out communications in an investment business to supporting new ideas across a network of ten thousand experts. i’ve no idea how many of these discussions will develop into actual projects. all i can say is we weren’t being approached like this before my holiday in greece. something’s changed.

the second shift occurred a couple of weeks ago when my weekly roster of meetings suddenly trebled in quantity and stayed at that level. on several days a sequence of meetings has commenced at nine in the morning and concluded at nine in the evening, with no more than ten minutes’ break at any point throughout the day. it’s positive for the business but it’s rather draining for me. i keep telling myself there will soon be more people to share the load.

i’ve tended not to write much about trampoline in these despatches. probably this was a protection of sorts, keeping at least one area of experience separate from the focus that has taken over most of my energy and attention. but in consequence i only really write when i am traveling or when the government is cheerily peeling off another set of civil rights. i think i should try to remove this barrier. i’m not sure what will come out. possibly it will be very boring, in which case please write and tell me so i know to stop.

: c :

m y r t o s

[ 12:34 monday 29 august – myrtos, crete ]

seated atop a wall in the shade of a lemon tree. barren scrubby hillsides ring the horizon around me. i’m waiting for the bus to ierapetra. who knows when it will come.

doves coo assertively in counterpoint with the dry scrape of cicadas. an occasional cock-crow or snatch of laughter drifts out from the village. across the road a man climbs a ladder and starts picking grapes. i arrived here three days ago because i missed a bus to the place i thought i wanted to go.

my previous despatch, written by the roundabout in iraklio, left a couple of gaps which i want to fill in. i left kampos at seven o’clock on thursday morning and spent the next twelve hours traveling. eastward via kissamoss, hania, rethymno; then southward across the plains to agia galina and phaestos.

shortly after kissamoss the package tour resorts started springing up and soon formed an unbroken strip along the coast. this kind of mass tourism puts me in a dark and misanthropic state of mind. wherever i look i see the gaudy death of the human spirit. i find it painful to see.

i had great hopes of phaestos, the second largest minoan site in crete. sir arthur evans turned. knossos, the largest site, into a kind of archeological disneyland in the nineteen twenties; enthusiastically rebuilding large parts of the palace complex. hence my choice of phaestos, which was spared his attentions. but here too the ruins had been heavy-handedly tidied up and the cement was all too visible. i suppose i came seeking some sense of “logos”, of reaching back through four millennia to touch the civilisation who lived here. the site was spectacularly located on an isolated hilltop with fertile plains all around. but i found myself completely unmoved by what i found there. i left on the first bus for irakleo, deep in my own thoughts.

after spending the night in irakleo and missing my bus the next morning i picked myrtos on the spur of the moment and started out. passing beyond agios nikolaos and turning inland through the harsh sun-baked mountains we finally left the resorts behind. it felt as if a shadow lifted from me and i was filled again with excitement. ierapetra, europe’s southernmost town where i changed buses, was small and unpretentious. an old fellow was snoring propped across two chairs in front of his shop. i went to great lengths to get a photo without being spotted.

from ierapetra to myrtos i travelled in a battered old bus hung with good-luck charms. a dozen chattering villagers and their shopping were clustered sociably at the front. a crazy old fellow sat beside me. from time to time he touched my arm, stared and muttered softly. i smiled reassuringly and muttered nonsense back at him. the hillsides west of ierapetra were striped with polythene-covered greenhouses, the most intensive agriculture i’d seen in crete.

drawing into myrtos i felt a peculiar sense of arrival, as if this was the place my journey had been leading to. there’s nothing outwardly exceptional about the village. just a cluster of bougainvilla-draped concrete cubes on the fringe of a shingly bay. a little old stone church nestles in the middle. four hundred people live by agriculture and tourism. one baker, two supermarkets, a shop selling trinkets for the tourists. a row of tavernas behind the beach that shut down in winter. streets punctuated by plane trees under which black-dressed old women sit, watch and cackle together.

wandering with my backpack along the deserted main street a  lady with a strong face emerged from a doorway, saw me and demanded “you looking for room?”. “maybe” i replied. she said “follow mylta!”. so i did, up a side street, through a door and up several flights of stairs into a light-flooded apartment. three-quarters of the wall area was glass. the furniture was simple but carefully chosen and positioned. i laughed and put down my bags. she brought me coffee and biscuits.

that evening i sat writing and drinking raki in a small taverna on the street below my eyrie. there were ten people eating and conversing at a table to my left. one of them took out a guitar and started tuning it. another produced a bazouki. they started playing, then another person began to sing. a drum appeared. then a flute. i sat listening, captivated, my first encounter with cretan music. from the standard of the performance i assumed they were professional musicians, but afterwards the taverna owner told me that the people on the table were his family. four of them were returning to work in athens the following morning having spent the summer together in myrtos. the dinner was a celebration to mark their last night.

i discovered there was an old minoan settlement on a hill beside the village. one afternoon i set out along the narrow thorny path winding upwards from the roadside. soon i noticed the outline of walls, a walkway paved with smooth-worn stones, a mysterious circular structure. as i climbed higher dressed stones and walls seemed to poke out from every bush and shrub. scrambling up to the summit i found a large paved terrace and a row of much larger rectangular stones, presumably the ceremonial centre of the complex. the view was magnificent, mountains on one side and sea on the other. i was completely alone. it was everything i’d hoped phaestos would be. the sense of time and history was overwhelming. i remained there until the last chink of sun had disappeared behind the mountains then descended to the village in the gathering twilight.

yesterday i felt oddly restless. it took me some time to figure out that i was basically lonely. i’ve had much less interaction with other people than i usually do when i travel. i don’t know why. maybe i needed some solitude. but yesterday i felt a strong need to connect with someone.

once i realised this i started feeling anxious that no opportunity would arise. but of course it did, just at the moment i least expected it and in a form i could never have imagined. yesterday night was intense and exhillerating and full of significance for me. maybe i’ll write about it sometime, but not now.

this evening i plan to take the overnight ship from irakleo to athens. tomorrow afternoon i fly back to london. these are probably my last words from greece. so, andio.

k a m p o s

[ 21:15 thursday 25 august – irakleo, crete ]

i’m sitting by a busy roundabout whilst sardines are grilled on a brazier in front of me. how good is that!

so, i made it to crete. my dawn bus from methoni to kalamata was half an hour late which meant i missed my planned connections. but it turned out there was an alternative route via sparti. this involved the most vertigionous mountain route, the very mountains from which the ancient spartans used to toss any babies they judged imperfect.

from sparti there was indeed a connecting bus so i got to gythia in time for the weekly ship. i crossed the causeway to the pine-covered islet where paris and helen consumated their ill-judged affair and had a sneaky skinny-dip whilst i was waiting. there was a fierce westerly wind and the ship arrived three hours late.

i slept through the whole crossing and woke as we were docking. it was three in the morning. the nearest settlement, kissamo, was several miles away. i started trudging along the road with my rucksack. after half a mile i spotted a cove below the road with a big old pine tree sotwenty minutes later my tent was set up under the tree and i was settling down to sleep.

the tree provided such effective shade that i didn’t wake til eleven. emerging from the tent i encountered my first cretans, an elderly couple who seemed slightly put out to have their morning swim intruded upon. i greeted them cheerily, had a swim myself, then packed up and continued on my way into kissamos.

my first requirement was coffee. having had a succession of unpalettable experiences i tried a different tack and ordered a “greek coffee” on the central square. revelation! what arrived was a bitter dark brew in a little copper jug, already sugared. it was delicious. i thought that greece had no coffee culture but i’d just been ordering the wrong stuff.

i studied the bus timetable and bought a ticket to a village called kampos. i knew nothing about it but it was the final stop on the farthest-flung route so it seemed like a good place to go.

getting there involved another hairpin adventure with spectacular views over the wild coast and pounding surf far below. i was the only passenger left by the time the bus got to kampos. i stepped off into a tiny mountain village, perched at the head of a verdent valley descending to the glistening sea. the bus turned round and started its journey back. the silence was only broken by the occasional braying of a donkey.

i got myself a room in a taverna, took a shower, then asked the bar-keeper which path to take for the coast. he looked at me with surprise and asked if i was going on foot. i replied emphatically that i was so he told me which turnings to take.

it was a trek, but it was magical. after following the valley down for an hour i stumbed upon a tiny whitewashed church in the mist of the trees. there was nobody around. palm leaves were placed around the door. a big rusty key was  waiting in the lock. i turned it and the door creaked open. unbelievable. the walls and ceiling were covered in byzantine frescoes, crumbling but still largely intact. the figures were simply painted but invested with great intensity. i felt moved to be there, alone with the wind and the passion of the men who applied these pigments a thousand years before.

to the side of the church was a rocky chasm where the ground fell away vertically to the valley floor far below. i felt sure this powerful point in the landscape was the reason for the church’s existence.

continuing down the path below the church i found myself pushing through much denser vegetation, nourished by the hyper-fertile soil washed down the valley by aeons of winter storms. wild vines twined through the trees and i picked off a bunch of perfectly ri grapes which i munched as i continued.

finally the path emerged onto a stony beach where the breakers were growling and crashing. a couple of ruined houses stood at the back of the beach. i found a sponge torn from its roots by the waves, its black membranes still intact.

the sea was too rough to swim but there was a sheltered harbour which offered enough shelter to go in. afterwards i dozed on the rocks whilst i dried out, then began the walk home.

at the taverna everyone seemed to know where i’d been and felt i needed to be fed. the plates put in front of me included wild vegetables from the mountain and, to my great delight, seaweed.

later on i was joined by a bearded fellow who didn’t look cretan. this was gijs van amstel, a dutch pschoanalyst-turned-writer who had decided to make kampos his home five years ago. he was an intriguing character, intelligent and slightly crazy. i admired his courage. he was the first outsider to come to live in the village and that can’t have been easy. i sensed his relationship with the villagers was not straightforward.

m e t h o n i

[ 23:10 monday 22 august – methoni, greece ]

rather than going straight to piraeus i decided to stay saturday night in athens. after dumping my chattels in an hotel i ate on a street terrace half way up the acropolis. the lights of athens glittered pleasingly below, particularly after several glasses of pungent retsina. on sunday morning i picked my way through the massed tourists in the flea-market by monasteriou. an old man was pushing an ancient pianola along the street, cranking the handle whilst croaking what sounded like a completely unrelated song.

by mid-morning i was ready to move on, but again i didn’t go to piraeus. i took a taxi to the bus station serving the pelopponese and got on a bus  to kalamata. i was the only non-greek on the bus, which i took as a good sign.

kalamata was deserted when i arrived. i walked off and found myself in a disused railway siding. five graffiti-covered steam locomotives were abandoned there, along with some elderly carriages and a two-car diesel set from the fifties. it didn’t seem to be a museum. there were no explanations and the exhibits were conspicuously uncared-for. it looked like the trains had just been left there when they were no longer needed and finally the whole line had been closed. rather surreal.

i had a cup of undrinkable coffee in a cafe by the port where old men were alternately playing cards and watching loud football on tv. then i returned to the bus station, where i learned from a gruff official that there was only one more bus that day and its final stop would be methoni. so i got me a ticket for methoni.

the village has just two streets, one of which was crammed with people eating and drinking when i arrived at ten last night. weaving through the diners i halloed an old lady sitting on a balcony above a sign saying “school of english”. she beckoned me come to a gate and twenty minutes later i was set up in a tiny apartment under her house. she and her husband made a big fuss, furnishing me with watermellon, home-dried currants, chillies and sage. what more could a chap want.

methoni is dominated by a huge venetian citadel built in the fourteenth century, when venice was the dominant power in the eastern mediterranean. it stands on a promentory with a sandy bay on the eastern side, a rocky coast extending northward and a mountainous island opposite. swimming off the rocks this afternoon there was nobody else in sight for several kilometres, incredible for the middle of august.

methoni’s an inspiring place but already i feel restless. i learned today there’s one ship a week from gythos to crete and it leaves tomorrow afternoon at four. if i catch a bus at six o’clock tomorrow morning i should be able to make connections in kalamata and inios and get there in time. but the timing will be tight. i’d put my odds at fifty-fifty.

: cH :

a e g e a n

[ 01:20 saturday 20 august – shipton street, london ]

for several weeks the need to escape has been bubbling up inside me. i’m getting stale. on ferragosto (the fifteenth of august) gabriele phoned to tell me he was going to the island of linosa, a rock in the middle of the sea between sicily and africa, and there was room for me. i leapt at the idea, but after several days hunting in vain for appropriate flights and ships and finding everything booked i admitted defeat.

so yesterday evening i booked a flight to athens. a taxi will arrive to collect me in four hours. i’ve packed my tent, a few clothes, a mosquito net, a couple of books and a great many rolls of film. i plan to go straight from the airport to piraeus and get on whichever ship seems like it’s heading in an interesting direction. santorini and crete seem like strong contenders, but i’ll wait til i get there.

i return at the end of the month.

: c :