Frogs


frog-swimming

 

I booked a 10 day package tour to the coast of Spain because I wanted to swim.

I was a keen swimmer and had been so for most of my life, but I only ever swam in the ocean. I didn’t like pools: all that chlorine.

Ocean swimming was for me a kind of addiction. There was only so long that I could exist without it. After long winter months of living in a small apartment in a big city in Northern Europe, I was suffering from withdrawal symptoms. So with the first signs of spring, when a cheap, last-minute deal for a package tour to Spain came up, I grabbed it – or rather, clicked on it.

Within seconds, I became another consumer in a multi-billion dollar industry, something as slick and organised as cars rolling off a high-tech production line. 

 

 The entire coast of southern Spain is a wide belt of high-rise hotels and apartment blocks. Every summer, millions of people from northern Europe flock to Spain to gain some respite from the climatic tyranny of their own countries: the blanketing grey skies, the rain, the cold, the mists.   

In the part of the Spanish coast where I was staying – south of Barcelona – there were endless kilometres of high-rise mega- hotels. I was there at the start of the season when only some of the hotels were open. Others were in the process of getting ready to open. Walking along the empty, shadowed streets between concrete towers was like walking through a graveyard.

The season lasted about 6 months; for the rest of the time, the hundreds of mega- hotels stood there like Easter Island statues. 

 These mega-hotels were controlled by the tour operators.

The tour operators were big international corporations based outside of Spain

They controlled the entire package tourism industry.  In the age of the computer and internet, the seats on the planes and rooms in the hotels were booked well in advance. A typical package tourist deal was what was known as an ‘all-in’ deal: it included flights, hotel room and meals – all the meals plus snacks and drinks as well. This ‘all-in’ package tourism meant that local bars, restaurants and shops were marginalised by the big tour operators. The only benefits  the local economy got were in terms of cleaners and staff in the mega-hotels, and the miniscule taxes paid to the national government. The tour operators dictated the terms of the tourist industry. All-in tourism meant very low profits per tourist, so the only way that the tour operator could make a profit was to bring in as many people as possible; it was like the supermarket industry: the per unit mark-up was pared down in favour of mass volume.   

All of this was comprehensible enough. For millions of Europeans who wanted a hassle free holiday all- in tourism was attractive; there was a one down payment and everything else was looked after: jump on the plane and go. And as I discovered, if you tried to book the flights and hotels yourself, never mind the meals, you would end up paying at least twice as much as through a big package deal set-up. That how the economics of it worked and that’s why millions of people went with the system. But besides marginalising local restaurants, bars and shops, all-in package tourism also meant profligate waste. It encouraged people to consume, indeed, to massively over consume. It was the McDonald’s combi-deal transferred to the tourist market, supersize me Spanish style. The hotel where I was staying (500 rooms) was typical. The meals were in a mass dining room and it was a smorgasbord set up. You could eat as much as you liked. The range of food items on offer included soups, salads, fruit (fresh and dried), fish, white and red meats (cooked and cold), pasta, potatoes (boiled, fried, grilled), vegetables (raw and cooked), nuts, yoghurt, four kinds of bread and rolls, cakes, ice creams, pastries, cereals, coffee, tea, soft drinks, fruit juices…on and on…People were encouraged to overeat and that’s what they did. People were encouraged to drink too much and that’s what they did. If you didn’t over indulge you weren’t getting your money’s worth. I fell into that pattern too. It was only logical given the circumstances.  

Champagne with breakfast?

No problem, drink as much as you like. 

You could eat very healthy food if you wanted to – and you could gorge yourself on junk too.

 The logistics concerning the sheer amount of food and alcohol (and water) consumed in the course of a day in a typical Spanish package tourism hotel were, to use that hackneyed expression, mind-boggling. But when you then thought about the amount of food, alcohol and water consumed every summer in the thousands of such hotels lining the entire southern Spanish coast, then the mind was confronted with a hell of lot more than boggling. 

Many times, whilst piling up another plate with fish and potatoes and salad and pouring myself another glass of wine (I have no intention of sparing myself here), I thought of the hundreds of thousands of rooms which for 6 months of the year stood empty and the immense amounts of food and water that were consumed during the tourist season – enough to feed ten times that number of people in the underdeveloped world. And that world was not so far away; in fact it lay on the other side of the ocean which I swam in every morning before breakfast. 

Seen properly, the Mediterranean was really an oversized lake. On the other side of that lake there was very different kind of human landscape than the one I was lodged in as a package tourist. In Northern Africa there was widespread poverty, political instability and religious extremism; the driver behind these problems was massive over-population. In that part of the world women had more babies than anywhere else. It was a time-bomb ticking away, one which was right at Europe’s doorstep.

Sometimes sitting there behind the hotel dining room window and looking out – and eating huge amounts of food after my early morning swim – I felt guilty being who I was and where I was; but also comfortable and safe and ill inclined to be questioning my ridiculous good fortune at having been born on the right side of the sea.

But the frogs changed all that.

The frogs put things into perspective.

 

During the day I began going for walks along the coast.

With each day, I walked further and further until I reached a point where there were fewer hotels and often, vacant areas of land between them.

It was here that I saw the frogs. 

Saw?

Actually I heard them first.

It was sunny day and a strong wind was blowing. The sea was a pattern of breaking waves, pure white dots on an immensity of dark blue. Even with the wind and the sound of the waves, I could hear the frogs quite audibly. It was a strange sound, like a high-pitched wailing, and quite different to the deep croaking I normally associated with frogs.

At first I couldn’t work out what the sound was – birds maybe? – or where it was coming from. I looked around and then walked towards where the beach ended and the land began. I found a pool of water on a vacant area of land wedged between two hotels and surrounded by thin, wispy trees. Closer perusal revealed that once, that pool had been at the mouth of a small creek. About five meters away, inland, the creek had been levelled flat by bulldozers to make way for the future construction of yet another high-rise hotel.

There they were in that precarious body of water: big green frogs, dozens of them, swimming in between fine gossamer clouds of algae. 

It was a sight to be savoured.

Some Spanish joggers stopped and joined me.   

Those frogs were a tribute to the tenacity of life.

Yet in their incredible, high-pitched, bird-like croaking, I feared, was also the swan song of a doomed species.

In this modern world of ours, frogs were struggling to survive (like so many other creatures). Some species of frogs were already extinct. Many others were on the endangered list. There had been a lot of research done into the global decline of frogs. Amongst the reasons cited for their decline were: global climate change and pollution – frogs and tadpoles were very sensitive to any kind of change in their environment, whether it be stronger UV rays or pollutants. Another factor was loss of habitat – creeks and ponds for example were vanishing as suburbs and cities expanded. Spain was drying out too, with average rainfalls declining markedly. Old stone bridges built to span swirling rivers now stood above wide plains of gravel and weeds. In other words, the water I was looking at was unlikely and as remarkable as the frogs swimming around in it. 

 

After seeing those frogs on that wind-swept Sunday morning, the sheer size of some of the contradictions of our modern world loomed large in my mind: contradictions of which I was a well and truly a part.

On one side of the Mediterranean, that oversized lake, human beings were too rich and on the other side, too numerous. On one side of the lake the human beings were consuming too much  and on the other side, they were having way too many children.

On either side of the lake, the triumph of the human race, measured in such different ways, threatened to wipe out every trace of the animal kingdom. 

What hope did frogs have against these odds?

 The fate of frogs was symbolic of a world recklessly out of kilter.

 

Swimming is a form of meditation.

The main action involved is breathing. The in- and out- take of air is synchronised with the movement of the arms and legs.

In the silence of the water, the sounds of air moving in and out of the lungs becomes like a mantra. The normal process of thinking on land is replaced by an amphibious dream- like state. 

On the morning after I saw the frogs, a scene appeared before me during my swim: it was from my childhood when my family was living at what was then the edge of suburbia in Adelaide, South Australia. Behind our house was bush and hills. One of my hobbies was collecting tadpoles. I’d go to a nearby creek and net tadpoles from the pools of water and take them home in a jar and put them into an old bath tub sunk into the ground and filled with water and rocks. I’d feed the tadpoles with leaves of lettuce or cabbage and in the following weeks watch in wonder as the tadpoles got bigger, grew little legs (at the same that they also had tails) and then miraculously metamorphosed into frogs. The frogs would often escape and hide under rocks in the backyard. That was ok, their croaking could be heard at nights and it was a sound I liked (a view not shared by my parents). 

 On that morning in the cold Spanish sea, I found myself sitting next to a childhood creek. I could hear the tinkling sound of the water on rocks, the croaks of frogs, the clattering of gum leaves in the breeze, the lyrical fluting sound of magpies. I could see clear pools of water and tadpoles swimming back and forth. I could see the first ancient fish which left the water and began crawling on land, evolved into dinosaurs and later, mammals. In the metamorphosis of a tadpole into frog I could see the spawning of the human race. At the same time, whilst these images were appearing before me, I felt like I was being transformed into a human version of a frog, as if I was travelling an evolutionary trail backwards.  Out there, above the water, on either side of the big lake called the Mediterranean, frogs were rapidly disappearing but inside my mind they were safe, their tadpoles grew into frogs, the creeks had water and there were no bulldozers and no mega hotels. It was their last safe place. 

 The idyll of that childhood scene cost me a lot of body warmth. Lost in a trance-like state, I stayed in the water too long.

Suddenly the childhood idyll vanished and I realised how cold I was.

Heading to shore, life looked pretty simple: get out the water, get back to the hotel room, take a hot shower, put some clothes on, get warm – and then head to the dining room.

 

A half hour later, looking out the window of the dining room, surrounded by the milling sounds of people talking and cutlery and plates, I thought about the kind of world which would be safe for frogs.

What would need to happen to ensure their survival?

Well…..

We needed to live on a planet where the rich consumed less, the poor had less children and our collective carbon footprint decreased. We needed to live on a planet where technology was used to benefit us all instead of convincing some of us to eat and shop ourselves stupid. We needed to…..

Yeah, yeah, dream on.

It wasn’t going to happen.

Just forget about the frogs – and all the other creatures which were vanishing.

Collateral damage.

Until we became a part of the collateral of course.

 

Every day, during the remaining days at the hotel, I walked along the coast to look at the frogs and listen to them.

What else could I do?

 

 

swimmingly

 

 

 

Albania, May, 2012 039

Cold Turkey

 

When Anya and I went to the south of Spain to go walking, we chose to base ourselves in a town called Capileira. It was small – population 500 – and therefore easy to get out of (no sprawling suburbs etc). It was situated in hills but it backed on to the main Sierra Nevada mountain range. We didn’t know much about the place besides that it was popular with Spanish trekkers, that it had accommodation (we had found other villages in the area for example which looked ideal, but there was nowhere to stay) and most importantly, marked trails.  

 It took us two days to get to Capileira by bus.

We were surprised by what we found.

 There was a tight-knit mass of white houses, dominated by a tall church tower, perched on a long, steep, mountain side. Being winter, the surrounding fields were brown and the trees leafless, whilst the mountains directly to the north were covered in snow. The town reminded us of the Buddhist villages we had seen whilst trekking in the Indian Himalaya. 

 

 

On our second day there, we followed a trail which ascended a steep mountain side at the top of which was a trekkers’ hut called ‘Refugio de Poqueira’ or ‘Refugio’ for short. About 1000 metres below Refugio, was a stop called ‘Cortijo de las Tomas’ or just ‘Tomas’.

We didn’t reach Tomas until about 3pm – we’d left that morning at 10am – and we soon concluded that we didn’t have enough time to do the climb to Refugio and be back at Capileira before dark.

 Despite its romantic sounding name, Tomas was abandoned shepherd’s hut.

There was nothing there besides a few signs.

Looking up the steep, snow -laden side of the mountain towards Refugio, we saw a group descending. It reached a certain point not far above Tomas and then levelled off and commenced walking in a horizontal line across the mountain slope. They moved quickly. There was something there, a road maybe, which we hadn’t seen because of the snow. .

We ascended to where we had seen the group level off:  it wasn’t a road: it was an irrigation ditch, filled with ice and snow. It was a relatively simple matter to walk on the ice or on top of the side of the ditch. It cut across several successive mountain sides and ended near the top of a mountain peak directly behind Capileira.

 Whilst following the irrigation ditch, we were overtaken by a Spanish trekker, a man in his 50’s, who spoke good English.

 We stopped and the three of us began chatting.

 He’d lived in the area for 30 years and knew the mountains like the back of his hand.

He was intrigued that he hadn’t seen us earlier in the day. Most trekkers it appeared reached Tomas following the irrigation ditch. Apparently we had taken the longest and most tiring way possible to reach Tomas.  We discussed the weather and how warm it was. Unseasonably warm, he said; it was early January and 20 degrees Celsius. Unheard of up here in the Sierra Nevada.

 There had been only one major snow fall, he told us, which had been two weeks earlier.

But had brought a tragedy with it.

 Oh?

On the day it began snowing, two Austrians had got caught in it. One had died and the other been badly injured.   

  ‘Every year people die up there.’ He added, ‘but this was real bad luck’.

 I was interested in the fate of the Austrians and asked a bit more about them.

 This is what I was told:

‘There were four of them, they followed the ditch and arrived at Tomas around midday. Dark clouds were gathering around the mountain tops. They didn’t know it but there was some real bad stuff on the way, winds of a 100 kilometres an hour, lots of snow and temperatures dropping to -20. It hadn’t been forecast. Down in the valley it was sunny, warm, but up there it was covered in clouds. At Tomas, two of the Austrians, young men, decided to turn around and come back. The other two, a couple, decided to continue up the slope. Refugio didn’t seem far away. Well, in this weather it’s not! They thought they’d make it. Next day, when they were supposed to be back in Capileira, they didn’t appear. Their friends sounded the alarm. The Guardia Civil went up there. They couldn’t use the helicopter. The storm had eased but there was still a lot of cloud and it was still snowing. The guys from the Guardia Civil had to walk up there. They found the young man, near death, and the body of the young woman. They were a 100 meters away from the hut.’

 

 During the following days, as we followed trails elsewhere in the area, I found myself thinking about those Austrians.

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that only 7 months before, Anya and I had had a close call whilst hiking in Austria.

The memory of that incident was still fresh in my mind.

  

 We left early in the morning from the bed and breakfast where we staying and started out on a trip which was supposed to take about 5 hours. There was a walk through the outskirts of the small village (certainly no bigger than Capileira) followed by a marked trail which gradually ascended through forest and then went up a mountain side to the top  (3 000 meters, the same altitude as Refugio) and then descended back into the forest. The weather was patchy, with intermittent clouds and bursts of bright sun. The walk through the forest took several hours. As the trail neared the mountains, we passed a trekkers’ hut, followed by a sign post indicating various colour-coded directions.

Shortly afterwards, we turned on to the trail we wanted to follow (yellow). The trail began to climb steeply upwards through sparse pines growing in between boulders. On our right was a deep ravine. On the opposite side of the ravine were lower mountain ranges clothed in forest. Some of the ranges were enveloped in dark cloud and others basked in bright sun. We came to a point where the trees ended and we were confronted by a steep slope of bare rock. The markings for the trail – rocks here and there painted yellow – were quite obvious.

We followed the yellow painted rocks and found ourselves clambering up a series of rock faces, one after the other, sometimes requiring us to climb up sections using our hands as well as our legs.

An hour into the climb, a cloud bank moved in, rapidly restricting our visibility. We didn’t know how far we were from the top. What we did know was that once we got to the top, it was a rapid descent afterwards. The trail went up and then straight down. It did not stay high.

All we had to do was get to the top; after that, the rest was easy.

The cloud got thicker, darker. A wind blew up. Snowflakes flew through the air like bullets.

 Should we continue or go back?

 Anya was firmly in favour of continuing:

 ‘We’ve come this far, we must be close to the top and the descent on the other side. To turn around and go back would take much longer…’

 It sounded plausible. Yet: we were on a steep slope. There were some sections we could walk up but others we had to climb up on all fours. The visibility was rapidly declining. My inclination was to turn back, to get down out this maelstrom of wind, snow and mist.

 We continued but it was at a snail’s pace. Visibility fell to around 15 meters. I didn’t like it. I could feel the fear, the misgivings, rising within me.  

 The trail kept ascending. It didn’t level off.

 How far were we from the top, dammit?

 How much further to go?

 The wind brought steadily more snow. The temperature began to drop.  

 What if the snow got heavier?

 We could not survive a night caught up here. It was that simple.

Then came the sound of thunder: explosive ear-splitting bursts resonating up and down the valley.

 What was the best course of action?

We kept climbing.

When the lightning came, my mind was made up: turn back.

 Anya was against it. She argued that we must be near the top. In the end, she gave up.

 

On the descent the wind blew hard, sometimes gusting so hard I was worried we would blown off the mountain side.

The trail was difficult to find.

The rocks, including the ones marking the trail, were covered by snow.

Often we clambered down in the wrong direction and had to retrace our steps. It was a slow, slow, process. We seemed to go nowhere. We helped each down each section of cliff face we came to.

 The light began to fade. Where had the hours gone?

 At 3 pm we were still enshrouded by wind, mist and snow. I knew that in these conditions it would be dark by 5. Then we were finished.

 Every sense, every ounce of energy, was concentrated on one thing: survival.

 

 And then came the break: at 4.30 pm we reached an altitude where the snow turned to rain.

 The cloud thinned out. The visibility increased to perhaps 30-40 meters. We sensed it now: we were going to survive this.

 By 5pm the first trees became visible. It was lighter. Darkness wouldn’t descend until at least 6. We had at least an hour to find our way down through the forest.

 It was hard work. We were exhausted. Everything was wet and the rain was heavy. We were drenched, cold, tired.

We kept on slipping on the stones and the roots of the trees.

 

At 7.30 that night we appeared back at our bed and breakfast.

The owners had been worried and thought about contacting the police. Not that they would have been able to do anything until the following day – by which time we would have been dead.  

 It was absurd what followed afterwards: the hot shower, the dry clothes, the warm meal, and the glasses of wine.

 That night I found it impossible to sleep. I was on a high. My whole being resonated to a feeling of elation, of triumph: I was alive. We were alive. You couldn’t reduce a life to anything simpler: to be alive!  

 

 After the high, came the low. Drugs, even natural ones, have their shadow side. Go on a bender and there’s always going to be hangover afterwards.

On the following day we caught the train north and crossed the border into the Czech Republic. In the past we had been there many times to go walking. We had always enjoyed it. Often we walked from one town to the next with all our belongings in our rucksacks and booked accommodation as we went – or slept outside.

 This time however I was pursued by a feeling of anti-climax, of incipient boredom. It was as if a part of me yearned for the experience of being on the cliff face of life and death again.

 Safe green hills and pleasant medieval towns were no compensation. It took me some time to pull out of this cold turkey.

 

Yes, it was easy for me to visualise the scene of four people standing at Tomas, clouds moving in over the peaks, debating whether to continue – or turn back. It’s the kind of decision which everyone who ventures into high climes will confront  sooner or later.

A wrong decision can have fatal consequences.

Often it is well-nigh impossible to take everything into account. There are so many unforseen and unpredictable factors involved. The Austrian couple had almost made it to the trekkers’ hut. Had the storm not been quite so savage, they would have.

Yet in the final analysis, they made the wrong decision and paid the ultimate price for it.

 But then, what was the right decision?

 To stay home?

 Never venture above the low altitudes? Never take risks? Play safe?

 I thought a lot about that. I thought a lot about fear.

 Fear was an indispensable part of experiencing the full intensity of being alive.

Could we always live strictly in accordance with ‘common sense’?

 What kind of life was that?

   

 

Spanje, January 2015 012

 

 

 

Spanje, January 2015 008

 

 

 

Spanje, January 2015 007

 

 

 

Spanje, January 2015 013

 

 

 

You might also like to read ‘Marginal Land’:

https://serioustravelblog.com/2015/05/11/marginal-land/