The End of the Road

We have done it.. we have reached the end of the Camino. In front of us is the wide open blueness of the sea

There are no miles left to walk, we have run out of land.
Distance to the end of the Camino: 0 kms

There is one decision that everyone who walks this last leg of the Camino has to make: whether to end in Muxia or Finisterra.

“ You have to end in Finisterra,” the bi-lingual merchant banker tells us, “ everyone leaves their walking boots there or some other personal thing. You must leave part of yourself on the Camino. ..”

Immediately I am extremely relieved that we are going to Muxia. I stare at my dusty boots – they have kept me going across so many miles. It doesn’t seem fair that they should end their lives on a big, impersonal pile, plus they are expensive.

Ninesh tries to explain that we already have a studio apartment booked in Muxia but I’m beginning to think
Merchant bankers are better speakers than listeners.
“ Then there is a big bonfire,” she continues, and they burn everything… it’s like a big party.”

I look at my boots again and whisper “ don’t worry, I will keep you safe.”

When we reach the fork in the road: Finisterra to the left, Muxia to the right, we do not hesitate.. I sense the relief right to the soles of my boots.

Muxia is a small fishing town balanced on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. As we walk through our last long Camino day, we keep hoping that we will see the sparkling water over the crest of every hill. Instead the way seems unendingly long and the view remains resolutely land-locked. On one of our first days on the Camino, a peregrino who had locked her front door on her life in France and just started walking, told us that if you let it, the Camino will always provide. We nodded and thought secretly that she had bought into the spiritual myth of the Camino. But on these last 2 long days of walking, just when I was thinking that we had set ourselves impossible goals, solace arrived unexpectedly On the first day, in the middle of a forest, a hidden field of blueberry bushes suddenly appeared and a table holding punnets full of berries with a jam jar for donations and on this last day, the sea resolutely refusing to appear over the crest of any hill, a gardener, shouts at us. Thinking we have trespassed we quicken our pace, but he starts waving and keeps shouting.
Ninesh stops.

“ He’s saying apples,” he says.
We turn back and the gardener fills our arms with fresh apples from his tree. It is not the sea but kindness and generosity we should be watching out for over the horizon.

It is not until we have almost reached Muxia that we see the ocean, azure blue and forever, glistening through the trees.

The path for this very last part of the journey is mostly through shaded woodland. Being the less popular route, we walk on our own almost the whole way. The air is thick with heat, the silence broken only by birdsong. In front of us on the sandy path, dappled with sunlight, butterflies dance, gentle flashes of colour against the woodland green. It would have seemed fitting if the 7 Dwarves had crossed our path, hi -hoeing themselves to work. It is a Disney perfect day on this ancient route.It is not until we have almost reached Muxia that we at last see the ocean, azure blue and forever, sparkling through the trees.

The sea laps clear and inviting on the white sand as we hobble the very last km of our journey.

While I collapse on the warm rocks balanced on this Western tip of Europe, Ninesh walks a slope to the 0 km yellow arrow.

“ I’m not climbing another hill EVER,” I explain, probably more loudly than I meant to, when he suggests I go with him.
With the sun-warmed rock on my back and the sound of waves breaking all around me, I allow my mind to drift far away from aching legs and blisters. When we started our journey, 550 miles ,34 days and over 5 years ago ( we had to miss one year of walking due to Covid) it’s hard to know if we truly believed we would finish it. We were surprised enough that we had managed to start- it is rare in life that we actually do what we mean to – although being married to a man with such determination and detailed planning skills as Ninesh, makes it more likely. What I do know is that our journey across the North West of Spain has not been purely measured in footsteps. We have walked through lost villages and busy cities, across never ending fields of sunflowers and through gnarled, ancient forests. We have climbed mountains in the Spanish heat and walked beside gurgling streams in the cool shade of trees. We have spent days sharing stories with fellow travellers from all over the world, and hours walking completely on our own. We have learnt the joy of spontaneous conversation and the pleasure of solitude. We have learnt about paragliding in Argentina, the benefits of water melon for the kidneys, the luck that storks bring if they nest on your chimney in Japan and that one day someone, somewhere will realise the importance of Fabian’s Theory of Explosivity. We have met people walking the Camino for religious reasons, for personal penance, for the pleasure of walking, because it is on their bucket list or simply to prove that they can.

And over our years of walking, the world has changed. Since we started my dad has died, our children have left home, the UK has left Europe and the world has been gripped by a pandemic. It has made it harder to get here and will make it more complicated to get home.. but the Camino remains a constant in the confusion and chaos that seems to be engulfing this 21st century world. It is a relief to have arrows guiding us, to have to give no thought to the direction we travel. Real Life is not so easy. Often we find ourselves walking in the wrong direction, following the wrong arrows towards the wrong destination. We confuse desire with purpose, wants with needs, quick fixes with success. We rush head-first towards wrong decisions. We forget to stop and breathe, to allow ourselves time to think. If the Camino has has given us anything, it has given us the gift of time. Time to carry a thought to an end, time to reflect on what we have lost and what we have gained, time to admire the flutter of a butterfly wing and feel the warmth of the first rays of the sun on our backs. Life is precious and transient and full of beauty. It is not always easy to remember that.

And as for the final destination.. am I right? Is it about the journey not the end goal. ..Or is Ninesh right, is that just a load of crap? I watch the sun rise over the port of Muxia, the waters reflecting the reds and golds of a new day and realise that the actual destination has never really mattered.

We could have ended here or in Finisterra or anywhere else. Our final destination has never been a place, it has only ever been a concept, the knowledge that we have completed something that seemed impossible, the right to feel pride, for just a moment, in what we have achieved, a sense of completion and accomplishment. So much of what we try to do in life remains unfinished or is unmeasurable, the Camino has given us a finite goal and we have reached it. We do not need to burn our boots to know that, our aching legs are proof enough. And the bi-lingual merchant banker was wrong about something else too, it is not that you leave a part of yourself on the Camino, but that the Camino leaves a little part of itself with you. This is one journey, one path completed. Sometimes it has been pure willpower that has pulled us up mountains or through the pain of blistered feet but every mountain climbed, burst blister overcome has made it easier the next time because we know we have done it before.

Life is a journey full of different caminos, each with their own set of obstacles, adversities and people willing to help us. That’s what makes it an adventure. We will all of us keep on walking normally through it, until our little piece of land runs out and our journey ends. If, on the way, we have laughed with friends, loved completely, wiped away the tears of others and held out a hand to help a stranger climb a hill, then, whatever path we have walked, we will have reached the right destination.

Until then, Buen Camino.

Simply Camino

Day 6 Negreira to Oliveiroa 38 km

Our penultimate walk of the Camino today was long, almost unendingly long. 38 km. But the weather is kind, cloudy and warm and we have arrived in Oliveraio. Like many new villages on the Camino, Oliveairo would not exist without the Camino: a collection of homes supported by 2 alberges – filled with peregrinos too exhausted to speak.

We climb the stars to our room with the stiff legged walk of too many miles. Tomorrow we walk the same again but we will end at the sea.

The walk today has taken us through woodlands,

past the ruins of forgotten homes.

We walk along black tarmac roads that pass head-high fields of maize, still tended by the hands of the mostly ageing, landowners. This rural north westerly part of Spain seems to hold little for the young.

“ we have a group staying here for 10 days,” says our waiter at dinner “I don’t know what they will do, it is so boring.” And we can see what he means. We are surrounded by fields of maize and concrete is not a natural holiday resort.

“ When do you close?” We ask.
“November, then I go to Canaria for 3 months,” he says, “ here is nothing to do.”

At times it feels as though we were alone in the world. We have left the crowds and the partying young behind us in Santiago.
This last part of our journey is an add on to the ancient route. There is less of a fiesta feel, more of a determined sense of purpose. This part is not for the feint-hearted. Towns and villages are few and far between. The few other walkers often appear lost in faraway thought.

For a while Ninesh is joined by a cyclist who slows down to share a chat and eat an energy bar.

Camino chatting

He has followed the Portuguese Camino, cycling 100 kms a day. Today is his last day, a mere 60 kms left. His energy bar eaten, he cycles on, leaving Ninesh and me to the sound of our footsteps. There have been times today when it has felt as though we were walking alone through this Spanish world.

We rise with the sun and are often in bed before it sets. Our children and all the young party-goers in Santiago,
would not be impressed.

It is strange how quickly we become accustomed to this slower way of life, how quickly our days become shaped by the distance we have to walk, by nothing more than our departures and arrivals. At forks in the road we are guided by the yellow arrows.

Decisions are simple.
This is an uncomplicated life.

We rise with the sun and are often in bed before it sets. Our children and the young Camino party-goers would not be impressed.

Tomorrow we walk until we run out of road … but for now, the sun is setting and it is time to rest our weary legs…

Vegetarian Alienation

graffitied power supply in Santiago

Day 5 Santiago to Negreira 21 km

“ I tell you, it will be complicated,” says the waiter in O P.. as he pours me a big glass of local white wine.
We are discussing the problem with being vegetarian on the Camino. Really, It is not so much a problem as an alien concept .

“Vegetarien,” we ask each night as we walk into a cafe or restaurant. For a minute, the person we are asking usually just stands and stares at us. It’s as though we haven’t actually spoken. We think maybe it’s our pronunciation, so we try again. Usually the second time, the waiter or waitress raise their eyebrows questioningly..

Ninesh tries again. He points at the menu and asks “ sin carne ?.”

Generally the waiter or waitress will then look away, as though lost in thought, before shaking their head and saying, emphatically, “non.”
There does not seem to be any room for negotiation on this. For the last 3 days, after much discussion with managers, most cafes and restaurants have offered egg and chips. Sometimes 2 fried eggs, sometimes 3. The chips are always amazing, home- made and fresh,, but there is a limit to the number of times that an egg and chips dinner sounds appealing.

The strange thing is, that shops and restaurants are full of vegetables. They are overflowing with tomatoes and greens, “insalata,” is served with every meat meal, but somehow the link between salad and a vegetarian option is missing.

“ Between Santiago and Muxir ( our final destination) it is very complicated,” repeats our waiter cheerfully, “ I know, I am from there.”

“ But your menu in this restaurant has lots of delicious vegetarian food,” I reply, tucking into the cheese and walnut salad with a honey drizzle dressing, smoke rising from the portion of vegetarian lasagne in front of me.

Our pony-tailed, sallow-cheeked waiter smiles.
“ Thank you. I will tell the chef. She is my friend. But we cannot find people to work in this restaurant because the menu is so strange.”

And that is it, right there. Anyone who is a vegetarian in Spain, must be strange and probably on hunger strike. Vegetarianism is not a characteristic that can be openly admitted to. If you have a vegetarian in your family, it is probably something you hide from the neighbours and only admit to your closest friends.

“ If you are a vegan on the Camino, I think you will probably die,” says our waiter cheerfully, pouring half a bottle of gin into Ninesh’s glass. He stops pouring for a moment to consider veganism and then apologises. “ sorry, is this enough gin…?

Ninesh looks at his fishbowl glass now 1/2 full of gin and hesitates before replying. The waiter picks up the bottle and continues to pour.

“ I mean,” he says, “ this is your gin tonic, not mine.”

At 3/4 full, Ninesh says stop and I am left wondering why gin can be so liberally distributed but in a country that grows so many vegetables, vegetarianism is such an alien concept.

“ Well,” says the embryologist from Valencia who we meet as we started the very last part of our walk today, “ this is rural Spain. In the city it is easy to be a vegetarian.”

I look at the fields of corn and gardens and allotments full of swollen vegetables in this warm, wet climate, and try to find logic in what she has said.

As an embryologist, she is the creator of life, I think that maybe she is the maker of miracles

“ When people ask me if I have children, I don’t know what to say, “ she laughs, “I don’t have any children of my own, but I have made hundreds.”

She is waking the Camino on her own, this creator of life and bringer of hope, “ at first I was worried walking on my own. But now I know,, on the Camino you are never alone.”

For a few hours we walk together, a finite touching of unfamiliar lives.

Our waiter was right, in Negreira tonight, vegetarian pickings are thin. I can sense the imminent arrival of a plate of egg and chips,

But perhaps the future is different. Perhaps in every embryo that our fellow peregrino creates, there is the seed of a future vegetarian waiting to be born. And maybe, just maybe, one day soon even a vegan will be able to walk the Camino without going hungry.

Santiago de Compostela

Day 4
O Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela 20 km

So….WE HAVE DONE IT. 500 miles, 4 years and more packets of blister plasters than should be part of any life. But we are here in majestically ancient, cobble – streeted Santiago de Compostello, the epicentre of the Camino.

On this journey, all roads lead to and from here. Limping and hobbling the Camino-goers weave between the rich and glamorous city dwellers. In the square ,in the shadow of the Majestic cathedral, ruck sacks are piled high and danced around by celebrating, lithe limbed youngsters. This is how an arrival and an ending should be celebrated, with triumphant jubilation. The buildings, immense, magnificent, beautiful, seem to be watching, as they have for centuries. And for just a moment past and present seem to merge.

But we are on a mission. It’s not our time to celebrate just yet. We need to have our Camino passports officially stamped with the Santiago stamp from the Office of the Pilgrims. At every place along the way, the passports are stamped and dated with different images from the town or hostel where we are staying.. Proof that we have walked each step. This last stamp will complete it.

Strangely, on the whole 500 mile journey, we have never once got lost. The blue and yellow signs with arrows and shells have guided us unerringly along the route to Santiago..

It’s only in Santiago itself that these stop and we get completely lost. Bemused, back-packed travellers limp around in bemused circles trying to find “The Office of the Pilgrims,” which is nowhere obvious. When at last we find it, passports in hand, we are blocked by “ security,” – red-faced and defensive, he closes the gate right in front of us.
“Office closed;” he explains, “ come back tomorrow. 9 am.”
Behind us the stream of hot and foot weary travellers continue to grow. The air fills with choruses of
“ But We’re leaving tomorrow morning. “What are we meant to do.?” “ How will we get our final stamp.” “How will people know we were actually here..”

Security stands, arms crossed and does not budge, as more and more exhausted and blistered people gather around him, imploring, then angry.

This was not how we had envisioned the end to this journey, this walking of a way that is so old no one is completely sure when it began. We digitally literate car-owners who have given up all things 21st century to walk 500 hot and weary miles, we want. congratulations and stamps with hand-written dates from officials who still use quill and ink.. we had expect a red carpet, jesters, applause, Medieval music..all things celebratory and ancient.

Security shrugs.

“It’s full,” he says “too many pilgrims. Send an email.” And he closes the door.

And We are left standing in the hot cobbled street. Once the shock has worn off, I try to be philosophical.

“ If the Camino has taught us anything,” I say, “it’s that it is the journey not the destination that matters,”

Ninesh considers this for a moment.

“ What a load of crap,” he says. And picking up his ruck sack, he wanders off to find an ice cold beer.

We still have 3 more days of walking until our Camino ends on the Atlantic coast. Perhaps he will have changed his mind by then.

Bottled Camino Stories

Day 3

Arzúa to O Pedrouzo. 20 km

Less than 20 kms from Santiago, there is a strange sense of
almost-but-not-quiteness about this sleepy town. As with all Camino towns it is full of stiff-legged walkers. But we all of us know that tomorrow we will walk into Santiago de Compostello and for many, their 800 km walk across Northern Spain will be over. Perhaps we are all of us, too scared to admit that we are share a fear of anti-climax, that we are worried that once a goal is reached, we will lose the sense of purpose that has accompanied us across so many miles, through so many different landscapes, for so many weeks or months or years. Maybe that is why travellers like us choose to walk a little further, to continue until we run out of land..
But those are worries for tomorrow.
This morning we rise with the sun. As though sensing the beginning of an end, the mists linger on the meadows

and an oil-paint sun never quite disentangles itself from the clouds, warming the back of our legs as we walk westwards.

This Galician part of the Camino we have been constantly shaded from the Spanish heat. We wander along wide sandy paths under canopies of trees, wind through thick woodland on narrow paths or thread through the narrow streets of hidden towns and villages. In Galicia the Way is well maintained and tended. The distance to Santiago is counted down on pristine Camino signs every few 100 metres. The kms melt away beneath our feet.. that’s the joy of measuring distance in kms rather than miles. It feels as though you are making constant progress.

We stop to admire a cafe constructed mostly from empty beer bottles, messages scrawled on the peeling labels.

Bottled stories

And immediately I wish my Spanish was good enough to understand the bottled stories. My lack of Spanish is my biggest regret of the Camino. There are so few travellers now from outside Spain and it pains me that I have not tried harder to learn the language of the country we have been walking through for all these years. For so many years, the world has been growing smaller: cheap flights and being part of Europe has meant that travel across countries has been easy and somehow speaking English has been enough. Brexit and the Pandemic have changed all that. Countries have separated into safe bubbles, travel is limited by paperwork and visas. We few who can afford to travel and pay for tests are lucky. Travelling anywhere but your own country has become the domain of the rich and privileged.

“My head thinks in French, my job is in Spain, my love is in Belgium;” said the proprietor of the hostel in Palas de Rei.”
.. and right there is the unravelling of the world we had become used to, where borders did not equate to limits.

The world that had been becoming slowly homogenous, is separating, countries feel scattered and disconnected from each other. In this new post-pandemic life we are nationally isolated, globally detached and for a while we are forced to explore our own lands.. which is not always bad. And so, for now, Spain has rightfully reclaimed it’s Camino and it is truly time for me to learn how to say something other than “ Tengo una tortuga,” in Spanish

in Spanish.

The Casualness of Youth- Camino wandering

This far away from Santiago

Day 2
Palas del Rei to Alzua. 32km

As usual we leave Palas de Rei before the day truly begins. In the cafe where we stand to drink an early morning cortado, ; we bump into the Spanish-American investment banker from yesterday. She couldn’t find anywhere to stay so managed to persuade her cousin to come pick her up yesterday evening and drive her back at 7 am this morning. I’d expect nothing less but such powers of persuasion from a bi-lingual investment broker who is waking the Camino for a second time.

As the sun rose we were waved on our way by a statue in a small village,

Early morning waving

while around us the Camino groups gathered. Even at 7.30 in the morning, Spanish laughter and chatter fills the forest paths. Slowly we are overtaken by the youth, Teenagers who effortlessly stroll past us, who never seem to suffer from blisters or aching legs, who leave hours after us and arrive at our destination hours before us. Early 20 somethings who can party all night and walk 30 kms the next day without raising a sweat in the Spanish heat. As they walk, instead of concentrating on where they are putting their feet, they criss cross the paths, seeming to know where to go without searching for the yellow arrows. I’m not sure that I was ever so casually youthful. I would love to tell them not to take their flexible limbs and endless energy for granted. But I possess neither the certainty nor the language skills of a bi-lingual investment banker. So instead we wish them Buen Camino as they pass us and sometimes they stop their tuneless singing of American and English songs to nod at us sympathetically.

“ Remind me not to put The Final Countdown on my playlist,” comments my husband, Ninesh as the unmelodious group of singers disappear over the crest of the hill ahead and we are left envying their youthful legs if not their musical choices

We stop for a second Cortado and naranja naturel at a picture -perfect cafe by a river,

As we drink in the view with our fresh orange juice, we watch the stir caused by the arrival of a group of riders completing the Camino on horseback. Ninesh is unimpressed.. To us foot-weary purists, anything other than completing the Camino on aching feet is cheating.

“ Blue sky thinking,” suggests a friend when I text to bemoan the fact that it feels as though my feet might be falling off
“Have you ever thought of taking the bus?”

But here’s the thing about the Camino, we may no longer be lithe of body or young in years, but with every, sometimes painful, step we take, we are part of something ancient and magical that defies explanation and leaves your spirit soaring. The world we live in is complicated, too fast, unnecessarily busy..filled with uncertain, autonomous goals and confusing priorities; the Camino is slow and simple and our goal is shared and clear. We are ,all of us, walking in the same direction, sure of our destination. That is something that I could not say with such certainty of my fellow passengers on the number 3 bus to Brixton.

Camino dreaming

Day 1-Portomarin to Palas de Rei, 25 km

We are back to finish the Camino. ..A year later than we were meant to, we have stepped out of a changed-beyond-,belief world of COVID and masks and unrest, back into the sense of calm certainty that is created by this age-old pilgrims way.. in the rest of the world we are all running in different directions, uncertain of what it is we hope will happen. Here we are all of us walking in the same direction with a definite goal: to keep walking until we reach the end of the Camino.

We begin our fourth and last leg of the walk in Portomarin, 90km from Santiago de Compestello, 160 km from Muxia, on the Atlantic Coast, our final destination. Portomarin was where we left the Camino 2 years ago but nothing had changed. We left the taxi as the early morning mist rose from the lake at the foot of the town.

“Buen Camino,” smiled the taxi driver as he handed us our ruck-sacks.. and with those familiar words, we step once more into our peregrino lives.

We walked through ancient ash forests, wide open meadows and almost -touching -the -sky pine forests.

Early morning near Portomarin

And even as the sun was only just rising above the horizon; we were joined by throngs of walkers. In these strange times when proof of vaccination is essential if you wish to fly and travel involves tests and wealth and a huge amount of paperwork, we had thought perhaps, that the Camino would be quieter. Instead, by 8 am Spanish families, or walking groups or crowds of friends make the numbers swell.

Camino crowds

“It’s like a football crowd;” sighs Ninesh and we begin to reminisce about the days when we were part of the special few. This final stage of the Camino is through Galicia. If you complete these last 100km you can say that you have completed the Camino. So even before the Pandemic, this part was busier. The difference is that so far, in these pandemic days, almost everyone else is Spanish..

But even ancient ways have had to adapt. As we turn off a winding road onto a forest path we are confronted by a Camino mobile police station., In the past we would have assumed they were doing random drug searches or looking for an escaped criminal cunningly disguised as a pilgrim. But these are different days and this is a different world and as soon as we saw their uniforms we automatically reached for our vaccination papers.But we were wrong,..they were not searching for anything but welcoming us to the Camino by offering to stamp our Camino passports with their unique police stamp.. in the world of the Camino, we are apparently all on the same side, wherever we are from.

“ I walk the Camino to remember that there is actually life,” a Spanish- heritage investment banker from Chicago tells us. Her family live across and between the USA and Spain but it is Spain and the Camino that she comes back to to re-charge her batteries. Perhaps that’s what we are all doing now, Trying to reconnect with the people we used to be., with each weary step, the memories flood back. One day in and we are already Camino dreaming

Dear Dad


Dear Dad 

How are you doing?  Is the sun shining where you are? 

Are you looking down on us and watching the craziness that has befallen the world since you left it? Are feeling glad that you are not part of ti? 

 I can imagine how you would respond to lockdown. Moaning and groaning about the ridiculousness of it all, saying what does it matter to you anyway if you get ill, that you are old enough and ready to die, that seeing people is all that matters.   

But secretly you would have been relieved to have an excuse  to rest your crumbiling body and watch TV all day  

But I know this too dad. If you are looking down and seeing mum, you will be aching to take away her loneliness.  She doesn’t live completely without you. 

Still, after a year  (in the days before lock down) I expect to see you half asleep in your chair. Expect to hear you rouse yourself to discuss the latest political issue. Just deaf enough not to hear any response and so hold forth without interruption.  

We are all of us lesser versions of ourselves without you, dad. The spaces you used to inhabit, reverberate with your absence and we are, each of us, unsure of exactly how we fit into a world without you in it.  

In this time when so many people are dying, it is easy to forget the pain of losing just one person  

“It feels as though I have been cut in half,” mum said at the beginning. She would wander the house at night, looking for something she had lost, looking for you. . 

And I try to imagine how that must feel. 

To lose the person you love. 

To lose the comforting warmth of someone breathing next to you each night. 

To lose your companion, your best-friend, your soul-mate of so many years. 

How can you even begin to get used to that? 

But somehow she has.  

Somehow we all have… 

It is not a wild grief, dad.  

Not an all-consuming, world-faling apart, breath-constricting, heart-stopping sorrow, not anymore.  

But our lives are forever tinged with sadnessOur edges are less defined,  the vibrancy of our colours dulled. We laugh  together with the knowledge that something intangible is missing. 

The world has become more beautiful in these strange Corona Virus days. You would like the way birds and other animals are reclaiming the spaces that are rightfully theirs. The roads are peaceful, the skies are clear. I sit and look at our garden and remember how you would always make me stand and stare at the flowers every morning before taking me to school.  

Then I used to be irritated, annoyed by the time wasting that made me late every I wish I had lingered longer.  

We have learnt what it means to live without you dad, but I wish we hadn’t.  

But I hope you know that there is no part of your  annoying-always-rightness that we don’t miss. 

I hope you know that we are forever proud of all that you made of your unpredictable life,  

That we are unendingly grateful for your unquestioning love, 

We have unravelled our world and sewn it back together since you left us. But somehow nothing quite fits the way it used to. 

How can it? You are not here? 

I miss you dad.  

I always will 

All love always 

Beck x 


Cape Verde and the Cure for Scurvy

We are sitting in a cafe on the beach in Boa Vista, Cape Verde. Above us is a sign telling us to drink rum because it prevents scurvy and boosts morale. And as I take another sip of my mojito, I am tempted to agree, I can feel the scurvy vanishing.


But I’m not sure that the rum is the reason that my morale is improving. Perhaps it has more to do with the warmth of the sun and softness of the sand. Because the island of Boa Vista is one big windswept beach punctuated by clusters of brightly coloured buildings, matching the brightly coloured clothes of its people.


Teetering on the edge of Africa, Cape Verde is full of the vibrancy of a culture that seems to demand little from life other than a chance to live, laugh, dance and hope. A message reflected in the T-shirts hanging in the souvenir shops

“Cape Verde, No Stress,”

And with miles of barely touched white beaches and a climate that is constantly warm, life is slower paced, there is time for everything. No stress is how we tourist would define each day.



“ Does it ever rain.” I ask the Dutch owner of the Air B&B
He laughs, his face wearing the sun-weathered tan of someone who has chosen to be a permanent resident here.
“ Oh yes,” he says, “It rains for 4 days, in September. So you will be fine.”

And he is right, as tourists, no rain means days of unadulterated sunshine and clear blue seas, we will be fine. But for Cape Verdians, it means that there are no natural resources except for salt.  Nothing grows in the arid sands where it never rains. Only donkeys survive on the diet of  prickly bushes that grow here. There is not enough undergrowth to sustain cattle or chickens. All food and drink must be imported which keeps prices high and the water runs brown in the taps meaning that even this must be imported in bottles. Except for the silver fish hauled in every afternoon, food is at a premium, daily living is not cheap.


That’s what chisel cheek-boned Mustafa tells us when we bump into him in the part -constructed, part tumbling-down, town of Sal Rei, He grins at us broadly from beneath tightly braided dreadlocks.

“ I am from Senegal” he explains. “ I am here to work. But it’s not good work. Just souvenir shop. When I have enough money I go back to Senegal. Here is too expensive.”

He shakes our hands and wanders on, trying farewell greetings in several languages before settling on “Shockran.”


But his words ring true. Too expensive is a problem for many of the Boa Vistans. Not far from our Air B&B, the corrugated slums spread right up to the modern apartment blocks that have been built to accommodate all the slum dwellers. But gleamingly new, with incongruously pastel coloured doors and blinds, they remain empty.
The poor of Cape Verde cannot afford to live here officially.
Cannot afford the taxes and electricity bills.

Cannot afford to be a legal part of the vibrant community they have created.

And perhaps the human spirit here is too strong, imbued with the spirit and pride of Africa, they are not people who want to be housed in impersonal and identical boxes.

The wind is warm as we walk through the slums, past corrugated-roofed homes and children playing in the rubble. Everywhere houses are overflowing with people and music and colour. And I can’t help wishing that we were part of it all instead of uninvited,  westerners peering into a life we will never understand. There is a sense, on this close-to-the-equator afternoon, that everything is happening where we are not. An unspoken consciousness that “joie de vivre,”  does not depend on wealth or possessions but on a sense of community and living for today. Or perhaps it is just that, unlike Cape Verdians, we have forgotten how to party

Founded on the slave trade when it was invaded by the Portuguese, Cape Verde is battling to re-define itself as a touristic paradise.  And it should have a winning combination: a climate that varies between 23 degrees centigrade in Winter and 27 degrees in Summer, constant sunshine, soft sand beaches and wind that makes wind and  kite surface a constant activity.  Independent from Portugal since 1975 and so close to an Africa that cannot seem to win its battle with corruption, Cape Verde is hailed as a true, untainted democracy. And there is something in that knowledge that seems to make its people rest easy. Perhaps that is why there is a sense that even the poorest amongst them have a hope for a better future. Men and women are regarded with equal importance.   Everywhere we turn, women in brightly coloured clothes are dancing away a Saturday afternoon, laughing and chatting with friends; children playing at their feet or running up and down the streets. In front of them are piles of  mostly western clothes that they try half-heartedly to sell. Compared to the vibrant colours of their dresses and the head-dresses that women use to carry baskets and bags on their heads, the Western clothes look like washed out, symbols of a less vibrant, cooler, less immediate world .



IMG_0642And all around us in the slums and town, neighbours greet each other with cheerful waves and shouts and wander haphazardly into each other’s houses. The sense of community here is strong, the human spirit imbued with the rhythm of Africa without the raggedness.  We wander through the soft warm evening darkness and into a tiny cafe, near the slums, where the owner greets us with a wide smile.

“My wife is vegetarian,” says Ninesh.

“Veduras,” she nods, “come, come.”

We follow her up a narrow staircase to what feels like living room, except that it is full of tables laid for dinner. And true to her word, I have a plate of veduras, just that.  It is strange how a plate of boiled vegetables can suddenly become  so valuable in a country where nothing grows. Like water in the desert, fresh fruit and vegetables are almost sacred. And suddenly, a sign explaining how to ward off scurvy has more meaning, We wander back downstairs to the bar where they give us a glass of local grog and the daughters of the owner smile at us shyly.  There is a warmth to their conversation and laughter that wraps us in a sense of well-being as we stumble back, grog-filled and groggy, to our apartment.


And so we while away our days on still-empty, white-sanded windswept beaches. The skies are endlessly blue. From our balcony, the sea is wild-waved but there are places where it is clear and aqua-marine and perfect for swimming. Cape Verde is full of the potential for a better tomorrow. Its fabric is woven with hope. But in the meantime, we can hear the musical beat and laughter from a corrugated-roofed building. And we are grabbing an anti-scurvy bottle of rum and heading for the slums. IMG_0647.jpeg


The First Step

For the last year I have been setting up a university bridging module which offers the chance for those affected by homelessness and, often, addiction, to access higher education.

It has been a path fraught with challenges and barriers

It has been a mountain that has sometimes seemed almost impossible to climb.

It has been a journey full of anxiety and worry.

But most of all it has taught me to understand the strength of the human spirit, the power of determination to beat the odds, it has reminded me of the innate kindness of the human heart.

I still remember the first day, the sense of trepidation with which I stood in front of a group of strangers who had experienced more in their lives than I could begin to fathom.

They walked together through the door of the University,  And I could see it in their eyes, the uncertainty of the welcome they would receive.

This group of people used to being judged and ostracised, misfits expecting to be labelled and  rejected

I tried to imagine the courage it must have taken to walk through that door, the demons they had to battle to take that first step.

We all of us struggle with imposter syndrome, the belief that any minute now someone is going to find us out and realise we are not who we say we are, but for those guys on that evening I can only imagine how alien the world of academia must have seemed.

But from the moment they sat in the lecture room, they were transformed. They became hungrier for learning and thirstier for knowledge than any  students I have ever taught.

And as the year progressed, they became more confident and with each week, I became more humble.

I was and still am, overawed by their ability to link the theories that we talked about to the lives they had lived.

I was, and still am,  blown away by their intelligences and quick -wittedness.

And I was, and still am, overwhelmed by their generosity of spirit, by their kind heartedness. From those who have been out in the cold, I have received more warmth than from many who have never known loneliness.

From those who have nothing, I have learnt the value of a kind word and a smile.

From those who are used to being invisible, I have learnt the difference that treating people with respect and having just one person who truly cares can make.

And so, on that first evening, we began a journey that profoundly changed us all. There were times when we cried together, times when we almost gave up.

If you have no identity, no documents to show who you are, then it is hard to prove you are someone.

If your default reaction to stress is to reach for a bottle or a needle, then writing academic essays when you have never really been to school, becomes more than just an annoying challenge.

But there were times when the room was warmed by laughter, when the sense of achievement was almost tangible.

Some did not complete the course but what I have learnt, is that the sum of what we are trying to do is greater than its parts. It is not about completing a course but about offering hope, about understanding your own potential, about maybe, just maybe, making the impossible seem possible. And even when the dream doesn’t quite come true,  honesty and self-awareness grow.

“Sorry, but I struggled with the essay…every time I worked on it, I really had a bad craving for a drink …I almost relapsed,” wrote one student ” My sobriety is more important than a uni degree…but thanks for making me realise I had a brain.”

They learnt how  to reference, how to write critically. They read academic journals and spent hours in the library, leafing through books. Guest lecturers kept asking me if they could come back, library staff told me enthusiastically how hard they were all working. Almost without any of us noticing, they became absorbed into the fabric of he University as hard-working, dedicated students.

“Can you think of a time when you have been labelled?” I asked them. And of course I expected everyone to tell me stories of how they were perceived  as “the homeless,”  or “addicts,” ….but that is not the story they told me. One by one, sometimes whispered, sometimes angrily,  they spoke of a time when they were children and a parent or teacher called them “thick.” or “stupid,” or “useless.”

Education is transfomative but  being described as uneducable is one of the most destructive things that can ever happen .

It destroys  self-belief and self-worth.

It destroys trust and  love.

It shatters everything you were beginning to believe about yourself.

It leaves nothing but a sense of self-loathing, worthlessness and emptiness. And the best way to fill that is often with drugs or alcohol.

As parents and educators we need to take some responsibility for that. We hold the future of every child and student in our hands. We cannot protect them from danger or injustice, but we can fill them with a hope that tomorrow might be better than today.

We can give them the tools to make better decisions.

We can wrap them in the belief that they can be someone.

Because if I have learnt anything on this journey, it is that homelessness cannot simply be solved by cheaper housing ( although that will help) and addiction is not something that ever leaves us.

” I will always be an addict,” says someone from the course,  ” But I can choose whether to be a drunk addict or a sober one. ”

It is easy to walk past figures slumped in a doorway, to cross the street to avoid the Big Issue sellers. We only need to turn our heads away from what we choose not to see. We all of us have a pre-conceived idea of homelessness. Drunks and tramps and self-chosen outcasts. But as I talk with the ex-deputy headmaster who is currently trying to fight his way out of addiction or with the ex-head of a department in an internationally renowned firm, victim of an abusive relationship that destroyed her,  I am struck by the precariousness of life, by the knowledge that it could happen to any of us, by the awareness that next time it might be me.

I am climbing the stairs in the education department, on my way to a meeting when my phone rings. I glance at the name, one of the students from the bridging module.

” Hi,” he says.

“Are you alright,” I ask immediately.

For a second he hesitates.

“That’s why I’m ringing,” he says, ” We are always ringing you because we are not alright, because we need something, But today  I’m ringing to ask how you are. I know your mum hasn’t been well and so I’m just checking that you’re ok. You have done so much for all of us and we want you to know that we are all here for you.”

And for a moment I can’t move, paralysed by the depth of emotion that such genuine kindness evokes in me. That’s who they are these unwanted dwellers on the edge of society, some of the kindest, most generous people it has ever been my privilege to meet.

And at the beginning of September the first 4 students started at University. They shrugged off their past and stepped into their future and so far… they are blossoming. Every time I see them, sitting in the cafe, wandering around campus or chatting with other students, I feel my heart skip. I watch as slowly, very slowly, some of the weight they have carried for so long on their shoulders, lifts. I watch as they make their way to lectures, just another student, stressed out about essay deadlines..

And for a moment I feel as though I can almost reach out and touch hope.

And on the same day that they started, the next group of uncertain bridging module students stepped through the university door and holding their heads as high as they dared, started their journey.

And I know however long it takes, each small step will make our lives, theirs and mine,  more meaningful.

And every time I walk past someone bundled in a doorway I catch their eye and smile.

Because sometimes all it takes is a smile to make people believe that they exist.

Sometimes a smile is the very first step.