Tropical Thunder

The thing that really hits you when you arrive in the tropics isn’t the crazy sights and sounds so much as the feeling of the place. A warm damp blanket wraps itself around you the moment you step off the plane. The air is thicker; it sits heavy on your skin. There is a smell too: musky, humid, slightly rotten perhaps. It says that this is a place of fertility but also of decay. The very atmosphere is teeming with life, but it will sap you and make you lethargic. You move slowly here, you must fight your way through an environment laden with micro organisms, with heat and entropy. You must live out the dog days.

We are already dog tired when we arrive. The lead up to this trip has been a nightmare of logistics, planning and bureaucracy; skills that don’t come naturally to us. We flew from Madeira to Lisbon, holed up in an airport hotel for 48 hours, disgorged our life possessions into our budget family room. We made piles of things to come and things to leave and like shifting sand dunes they rose and fell by the hour.

We did bag-loads of laundry. We disposed of clothes, pots, pans, shoes, a spare surfboard, packs of pasta, half-full bottles of chilli sauce, olive oil, whiskey and aftershave. We struck a deal with a guy called Pablo to store our car for six months in a marine warehouse among the unsold speedboats. We conducted hushed phone conversations and tapped laptops late into the night while the kids slept beside us. We had a sudden panic when we realised Costa Rican immigration would require proof of onward travel and we only had a one-way tickets, so we spent frustrating hours on a badly designed website trying to purchase cheap coach tickets to Nicaragua. We spent more hours trying to upload insurance policies to a Costa Rican immigration portal, fill out covid declarations on a Spanish health portal, book our surfboards onto an Iberian travel portal.

Then came the trip itself. A 4AM rise for our first flight from Lisbon to Madrid. Then the layover – eight dull hours in a deserted airport where most of the shops were shut down. Arthur and I were carrying our skateboards in hand luggage so we amused ourselves by buying a Go-Pro camera and filming an epic skate video until we got busted by security and threatened with ejection from the airport. The twelve hours from Madrid to San Jose really dragged, we were stuffy under our masks, trapped on a decrepit Iberia plane that offered no hot food, alcohol or anything much really.
“No hay cerveza señor. Es por Covid” bored shrug. We heard that a lot. Es por Covid – a catch all term for anything unwilling or unwanted, anything you can’t do or can’t be bothered to do, a conversation killer.

But now we’re here: San José, Costa Rica. A rambling, unlovely, low-rise town that has all the energy, diversity and frenetic activity that you would expect from a Central American capital. Our hotel sits above Avenida Central and here we can see the region in microcosm. Most the business happens out on the street: there are lottery sellers with their talismans and lucky numbers; touts with bus tickets offering routes anywhere right up to Mexico City and beyond; street artists clowning around; clusters of mestizo women in traditional Guatemalan dress sitting with their textiles laid out in front of them on sheets. Old Indian men with creased faces squat down, trilling bird calls on ceramic pipes; sellers of plantains and pig hide stroll around shaking packets in our faces. Behind the action there are shady guys with missing teeth and prison tattoos who sit on doorsteps and stare at us.

The shops here are open-fronted and amazingly eclectic or amazingly specific – one store seems to specialise in a mix of flip-flops, car radios and push chairs, while another sells only watch straps. We go into a hunting shop to buy Arthur a bush knife and are offered tazers and pepper spray, ‘perhaps a machete for sir…’. Many shops have a DJ in the doorway, mic in hand, blasting out pop and static, shouting at ladies and crooning the high notes. Everything is loud here, everything is bright. People grab you by the elbow as you try to walk. There are butchers with tinsel entwined around cuts of meat. There are grocers with mad fruits that I have never seen before.

There is one thing that unifies this chaos: Christmas is coming to San Jose and it is a serious matter. From the nut seller with the dirty Santa hat to the giant inflatable elf above the auto store, everyone has made an effort. Garlands, streamers, tinsel, fairy lights, Santas and festive skeletons are out on display. While the decorations are varied and extreme, it seems that everyone agrees there is only one Christmas song that is worth playing, so one may as well put it on repeat. It is José Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad, a catchy jingle approximately five minutes long and with a grand total of five different words. After a few minutes the kids are swaggering down Avenida Central belting it out. We have arrived.

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Próspero año y felicidad

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Próspero año y felicidad…

Fever Questions

The fever came on and off for a couple of days, mainly spiking in the evening. It wasn’t particularly bad – some hot and cold periods, never more than 39˚, some sweats, stomach cramps, a bit of a headache.

Menna was worried though she wouldn’t say so.  She is the family doctor and all responsibility for anything medical is immediately outsourced to her.  I sit passively like a pudding (tiramisu!) while she sticks thermometers in my armpit, changes my dressings, prods my appendix, tells me to shower and opportunistically cuts my toenails.

While she discounts options, calculates probabilities and works on her diagnosis, I meander through a lazy series of scenarios and questions. What if it was coronavirus? Would I have to go to hospital? Here? Salinas? Would we be deported from Spain altogether? How would we even get back home? You can’t fly or take the ferry when you’re infectious. Drive then? I have a nice daydream about the insurance company springing for a private jet to repatriate us, realising we have no house to go back to and being forced to put us up in a nice hotel to recuperate. Then I remember about the pandemic exclusion clause that I found in the small print which pretty much renders our expensive travel policy totally invalid.

Is the whole family about to fall ill with this?  Will the incubation period mean that our infections are staggered, each one of us falling sick two weeks apart, drawing the whole thing out for a couple of months? What if Menna herself gets ill? Then we would be really screwed. She is the one who really keeps this leaky vessel fuelled and floating.

We would have to do contact tracing too, that would be fun. I think about trying to identify and reach out to everyone who was in Dreamsea, everyone in the ferry too. All those hundreds of intersections and interactions over the last weeks, like a game of tag where each touch leaves a radioactive afterglow. I visualise a wispy cobweb stretching across Europe, stretching and pulsating, the lines lengthening, splitting, unravelling, reforming; viral particles flowing through the strands as a sinister green illumination; nodes glowing; breakaway elements floating off to spawn new clusters that then grow and bond and strengthen and then radiate further, carrying the viral load out into the world. And imagine this new green network of ours transposed over thousands of other existing viral webs, in all the colours of the spectrum, together forming a deep-rooted, multi-layered tangle that grips and chokes the whole globe. Surely mankind is doomed.

I wake.  What if we needed to go into quarantine and isolate, then where would we go?  Can we stay here in this tiny apartment? Could I bear a wall of Brad Pitt staring at me for two weeks? (Sure I could! He’s an extraordinarily good-looking guy). But it’s probably already booked out to someone else next week and it’s going to be very difficult to find any new accommodation as a confirmed covid case. I would be a social pariah!  I suppose I could manage a couple of weeks sweating the fever out in a little tent alone up in the dunes. The family could leave me messages and packages of food outside. I would talk with the gulls, monitor the environmental impact of the Avilés factory emissions, carve strange evocative sculptures from driftwood.  Is the booking deposit on our next camp refundable?

Menna discounted coronavirus.  The fever pattern wasn’t right.  The abdominal pains weren’t consistent with Covid.  There was no cough or secondary symptoms. 

Was it a recurrence of endocarditis then? I had gone through some weeks of fevers a few years ago before finally getting diagnosed with bacterial infection – right in my frickin heart. On that occasion I spent seven weeks on a drip in the Royal Brompton hospital. That would be way worse than coronavirus! I imagined seven weeks in a Salinas hospital. I’d definitely improve my Spanish and the kids would be very accomplished surfers by the time I got out. Menna may well have run off with a salsa instructor or something by then though. The suspicion of another complicated illness sends her a little wild-eyed and manic. She was the one who really took the brunt of my last illness with all the daily hospital visits, looking after both kids solo, managing her work shifts and giving constant updates to a wide community of panicked friends and family. No way she’s sticking around for another one.

Menna eventually reaches a diagnosis:  “You have some non-specific virus that isn’t endocarditis and isn’t coronavirus. It doesn’t seem particularly bad.”  I am crushed.

I have forgotten that the world is still full of the same old nondescript illnesses that were always there. They still come and go with the same frequency, they have the same impact, they’ve just been pushed out of the limelight.  They aren’t interesting.

I feel totally fine by Wednesday. The fever is gone but the questions remain. I realise that life out on the road leaves us in more of a precarious position than I had believed. It is disconcerting. This is a time where there are no clear answers, the old protocols have eroded and with them the security of delegated responsibility. The rule book is being redrafted and in the meantime we will just need to figure things out as we go along.

We all go to a remote beach and explore some spectacular caves. From a responsible distance, we talk to an old fisherman gathering limpets out on the rocks. “Everything has changed now” He tells us, “the seas were full of life before, but now you see nothing. It is very hard. In twenty years it has all gone” He waves expansively at a black smudge that runs across the cliff face. “That is oil pollution there.”

Once humankind has been decimated by coronavirus perhaps the limpets will all come back, I think. And if we need to isolate in the meantime, those caves will do nicely.

The Desolation of Salinas

As we drove through the grim port streets of Avilés we were starting to feel really uneasy. This wasn’t how it was supposed to look. A rusted maze of industrial pipelines, graffitied warehouses, yellow smoke seeping from stained factory chimneys. The occasional pedestrian looked at our laden British car “Extranjeros?” they muttered to themselves menacingly, “Foreigners?”.

Menna is tense. She’s booked this one.

“I’m sure we’ll turn a corner and suddenly find ourselves in beautiful countryside.” I say comfortingly, but she’s hunched over Google Maps which tells a more precise story.
“We’re two minutes from our destination” she says.

And so it is. Salinas is linked to the industrial entrails of Avilés by a narrow sandy road that cuts through some scrublands. There is a screen of pine trees that blocks the worst of it, but it can’t hide the gantries and chimneystacks that loom high in our rear view mirror.

We haven’t researched this next leg very well. We have been nurturing an image of Salinas as a charming little surf town, telling others how quaint it is, but at some point in our journey today we have realised that this pipe-dream has absolutely no foundations. We got our first reality check when we scanned the surf report in Magic Seaweed and found a rather sniffy description:

Always crowded. Some localism. Ugly, urban setting with tower blocks and concrete walkways. Residential and stormwater pollution together with industrial pollution from the nearby factories of Avilés. Good beach facilities including a surfing school. Plenty of shops and bars nearby.

“Well, at least there are some shops and bars right honey?”

The seafront is indeed dominated by a row of imposing concrete towers and it turns out that our apartment is on the fifth floor in the last one of them. We’re met at the roadside by nervous masked Maite, who, with handbag under her arm, guides our car in an uncomfortable half-jog down into the subterranean carpark system. She tells us at length about a complex system of keys and the risk of getting imprisoned behind self-closing doors in a series of underground concrete corridors and steel storage vaults. We nod and smile exaggeratedly behind our masks, throughout her longwinded instructions, covering our internal dismay. In the meantime Arthur has exploded out of the car like a ferret out of a cage and wildly skateboards around the carpark, covering himself in soot and diesel. We shout at him.

The apartment is small and carefully decorated with black and white magazine pictures of film stars that have been cut out and glued directly to the wall. It faces not towards the sea, but back towards Avilés. There is a whole wall of homage to Brad Pitt, mainly taken from a single photo shoot which we date as of the mid-nineties, some point between Thelma and Louise and Twelve Monkeys. The place is immaculately clean and there is some heart there. The kids room is dark purple with a life-size mural of Spider-Man painted in a wild but enthusiastic hand, and they are immediately happy to be in there. The door closes and they start to rearrange the furniture.

Later we get a burger on the boardwalk and watch the waves, which are absolutely huge. The same swell that we saw in our last days at Dreamsea is still battering the coast. There are some great surfers out there and we get to watch a masterclass in big wave surfing.

The next morning we are up late and determined to find the best of Salinas. Architecture be damned, there is a hidden heart that beats in this city, we say, and we will seek it out.

Breakfast doesn’t start well. We can only find one nearby bar and all they will do for us is tostadas. ‘What is this?’ We ask stupidly. ‘It is toast’. Dry, white toast in fact that crumbles to powder. Four pieces piled up for us on a single plate with some hard butter that makes it disintegrate and apricot jam which we use to stick it back together again. The service is surly. The coffee is very good though we tell each other, aren’t we lucky. We must come back.

Arthur and I have brought out our skateboards, for there is a long smooth pedestrian promenade that runs along the sea front and it might well be the best thing about Salinas. We cruise along, feeling cool, weaving our way in and out of walkers (losers!). The girls meander behind. The sun is out, the waves look good and the day is yet ours.

Once we’ve checked out the boardwalk we peel off the seafront and head up into town to find a supermarket. On a bumpy towpath I do an exaggerated swerve round a couple of old ladies. As I smile gallantly at them, I hit a weird patch of tarry black grit that had no business at all being on the path, my board instantly sticks and I go properly flying. I hit the tarmac pretty hard and it hurts like hell. The old ladies come darting to help me and then they remember about Coronavirus and pull up, circling around me, clucking and twittering in Spanish, very agitated. Menna and Matilda run up and after a second or two I leap to my feet and tell everyone very loudly how fine I am. “Estoy bien, ningun problema! Un poco sangue, hahaha, nada màs!” I have a deep cuts on my elbow, both hands and my hip.

We limp off through a park, inspecting my injuries, and then we cut across the canal. In a surreal twist, I look down from the bridge and one of the old ladies is squatting right in the middle of a glade below us. She is peeing, her buttocks exposed like wrinkled white balloons. I look away shocked. “Don’t look down!” I mutter to Menna, all puritanical, but the kids overhear and immediately rush over giggling. We savagely whisper threats at them until they are back under control.

“What is wrong with this town?”  I ask no-one in particular.

I am still pretty shaken. Menna sits me on a bench and makes me eat dry croissants. We find our supermarket and load up on provisions for the week: fresh tuna steaks, salads, chorizo, olives, crisps, jamón, a really nice Rioja. We can still turn this situation around. Adventurers like us thrive on adversity.

I am gingerly skating home when I hear a primeval howl of frustration behind me. The zip has given way on our rucksack and Menna stands frozen in a pool of destruction. Our shopping is all over the pavement around her, ham glistens, tomatoes roll, olive oil seeps, shards of broken glass are glinting green in the sun. There are dark rivulets of Rioja running down into the gutter like blood. Matilda bursts out crying with the emotion of it all. A passerby tuts and shakes his head before hurrying on.

That evening I come down with a fever.

The Devonian Era

We arrived once night had fallen.

We had made a strategic stop for fish and chips on the beach at the next town down the coast, ostensibly to stretch our legs and give the kids a run on the dunes, but really to wait for sunset so we could sneak into our new accommodation undetected. We had felt self-conscious enough driving across country during lockdown. Non-essential travel was strictly vetoed, and nothing about our car, loaded as it was with surfboards, luggage and bikes, indicated that this journey was in any way essential.

(“It is essential though isn’t it, right?” we reassured each other periodically).

The roads had been impressively empty throughout the five hour journey. I had known that a police cavalcade could materialise at any moment and I was mentally committed to the high speed chase, screeching off the motorway to fish-tail our way down miles of dirt roads (those poorly-fastened bikes would come cartwheeling off around a bend and take out at least two of the pursuing patrol cars), along to the inevitable finale where cornered and desperate, I would be forced to drive the car off the Dorset cliffs into a technicolour sunset, with Camilla Caballo playing full volume on the radio.

I hadn’t fully gone through this plan with the family, but I felt they would be supportive. It didn’t come to pass though, and as we pulled up to pick up our pre-ordered takeaway, I felt kind of disappointed. Where was the challenge? The confrontation? The clever wordplay with the forces of the law? (“Well, why don’t you define ‘essential’ to me officer? I believe it derives from the Latin essentia meaning the essence of the thing. Well, stick your nose in here officer and smell my essence of musk car freshener! Yes, thank you. We will be on our way”) It almost felt like the journey had been too easy, like we had been lured into a trap.

This is just the start though, I told myself grimly. We would certainly face a difficult reception in the little Devon town that was to be our first stop. Up until this point, our destination had been completely untainted by the mark of corona, and so they would inevitably be resistant to strangers from the big city, potentially bearing plague and notions of an integrated European market.

I knew pretty broadly how this script would play. We’ve all seen the movies. It would start fairly subtly, perhaps a slight turn away whenever we met anyone on the street, maybe a refusal to meet my eye as I piped out a cheery good morning to a cloaked fellow walker in the mist. Conversation at the Post Office would suddenly halt as we walked up, and the participants would disperse silently in different directions. The door would bang shut and the sign flip over to ‘Back Soon!’ In handwritten gothic script, the cheery exclamation mark giving just enough encouragement to sustain a two hour wait in the drizzle before we would finally give up and go home. The Post Office would be the only source of food in the village of course, so we would be forced to live off chewing gum, wasabi peas and that melted box of Celebrations for the first few days before we could get an Ocado slot.

We would decide to ignore the provocations though and keep on making friendly overtures, still believing that we could overcome the hostility with dignity and good nature. That’s the Nicholls for you.

By the second week it would become apparent that this strategy wasn’t going to work. The locals would start crossing themselves as we came into view. I would be barged off my surfboard in the line-up by a man whose features would be hidden by a black neoprene hood. One morning we would awake to find dead seagulls had been hung from our car wing mirrors. We would find strange wicker tokens placed in the recycling bins outside. The wind would reveal crude desecrated likenesses of ourselves, made of driftwood and whalebone, half-buried in the sand dunes behind the beach. Arthur would go down to the local skatepark and return covered in tar, with a mess of feathers and crisp wrappers stuck to his head. He wouldn’t ever speak about what had happened.

It would be when they broke into our house in the early hours, masked and carrying flaming torches, to put a noose around my neck that I would finally have had enough.
“My wife is a fucking key worker!” I would shout, “She’s NHS for Christ’s sake, a doctor. Front line!”
The chanting would stop.
“Hospital or GP?” Would come a cautious voice.
“Hospital! She saves lives man. Now we’re homeless. We’re supposed to be travelling around the world but it’s all fallen through because of the virus. We’ve got nowhere else to go. We should be in Cape Town doing a wine tour in the Garden valley or a shark dive or something. But this… this… this is all we have now.” I would be sobbing pretty hard at this point.
“Hear that lads? We’ve got a bloody doctor in town! God save the NHS! Sorry mate, thought you were second homers, just down for half term like. We’ll tidy up after ourselves shall we?”

That was what we expected.

So once we had got to our new home, unloaded the car in the darkness, quickly swallowed a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, then found the oblivion of sleep for a few hours, I wasn’t surprise to hear a heavy knock on the door at 8am. I arose to meet the lynch mob in my boxer shorts, my hair defiantly un-styled.

It turned out to be the police. Or rather, a policeman. A fresh-faced honest-looking lad of a copper with straw coloured hair. The sun shone brightly behind him.
“I have been led to understand that this isn’t your primary residence,” he offered by way of an opening gambit.
I took a measured breath.
“My wife, officer, is a key worker…”

The Great Escape

We have attempted an escape, despite it all.

We have emptied our house of clutter, history and mess. We have repainted the walls to erase our scuffs and marks; mowed the lawn to soften the yellow rings left by Arthur’s tent; regrouted the bathroom where the kids swamped the bath nightly. We have unstuck the windows that we had accidentally painted shut, so now the air circulates differently through the hallways. We have dismantled the pile of equipment, tools, kites and kit so that our adventure junkyard is just a garage again, swept, sad and empty except for a few mysterious contraptions hiding among the cobwebs in the eaves.

Art, books and beds have all been sent into storage. Crates of food got boxed and banked. Jars of out-of-date pickles, mustards and chilli sauces had to be emptied in the sink and their lumpy contents finger-forced down the plug hole.

We have given away and thrown away literally thousands of toys, gadgets, tools, utensils, cords, containers, magazines, cushions, chairs, games and a whole lifetime supply of pens. Most stuff ended up on the pavement outside for passers-by to pick up. An amazing amount of random items went that way, most of it under cover of darkness. You get a kind of embarrassed feeling as all the clutter of your life lines up on the pavement outside like a public confession of your Amazon addictions. You realise just how much unnecessary crap you accumulate without thinking and you make serious promises to quit buying so much rubbish and get more eco. The future lives we will lead will be barefoot in the sunshine with no need for material goods. Even as our possessions disappeared silently away into the community we were jabbing at our phones, ordering more things online for next-day delivery. We needed a roof rack, a spare set of bungee cords, more bin bags, a battery pack, cables. We ignored the irony, deferred our good intentions and clicked through to checkout.

We have made some effort to throw out too all the opinions and advice that have been gifted to us over the last few months. The protests, amusement and disbelief. The raised eyebrows, looks of horror, guffaws (You’re going travelling? In the middle of an pandemic?) We’ve dealt with our own fears and misgivings. At least I think we have, though to be honest we’ve talked things around in so many circles now, I have no idea what is going on in everyone’s head. How much are the kids aware of what is coming up? They understand we’re no longer headed for Africa, or Australia, but driving instead to South West Britain for an indeterminate period until better options present themselves. Do they lie awake worrying about what this means? Is Menna really as on board with this crazy plan as she says she is? Am I? There comes a point though when you are simply committed, and speculation and worry is no longer helpful. We stopped talking about the future some days ago, and now conversation is tight and practical.

We burnt all of our confidential papers in a steel dustbin behind the garage one evening last week. Bank statements, bills, payslips, reviews, reports and appraisals went up in smoke as we sat around on camping chairs, listening to old rock n roll. I was chugging beer and poking the flames, all bare-chested, soot-smudged and channeling some fairly primitive vibes. We went a bit nuts that night. It felt heavy and symbolic, like we were burning our longboats on the beach in a flamboyant gesture of no return. Even the kids ran off to get their old school work to throw on the flames. There was some nostalgia in the air too; as though a part of our history and identity were somehow encoded into that P45 from when I got fired in 2002, the insurance policy from that trip to Bali. I manage to save my birth certificate at the last moment. I didn’t get to my GSCE certificates in time.

And then it was all over, all traces of ourselves removed from the property. We had vacuumed up all the scatter of our lives and condensed everything we needed down to one heavily laden car. Two surfboards on the roof, two bikes, two skateboards, one tent. A bag each of clothes. A bag of wetsuits and towels. Another bag of wires and chargers. A box of games. A box of school books. Two yoga mats. One laptop, three iPads, two Kindles, three phones. A first aid kit. Assorted soft toys. Some Lego.

I was grinning with what I could tell was a slightly manic air as we pulled off. The moment seemed hugely significant. I could feel a release of tension surging through my shoulders and arms, the physical aftermath of many days of non-stop packing, sorting, shifting, burning, dumping, heavy-lifting, and very little sleep. Menna was sobbing quietly beside me, mainly I think about the cat, who we had had to leave behind with our neighbour. Two pairs of wide eyes stared back at me in the rearview mirror, ecstatic at first glance, then worried and shell-shocked.

We drove off from our home of the last seven years and away from our jobs, our schools, our friends, our nicely ordered well-structured lives. It was 2:30pm and the sun was technically past it’s zenith, so I think you could legitimately say we drove off into the sunset. We headed off into the Covid-ravaged wastelands of lockdown Britain, homeless, jobless, and with no particular plan to speak of.
“It’s going to be fun” I kept saying to no one in particular. “It’s going to be such fun.

An hour or so later the mood had shifted considerably. The car was full of chatter and sunbeams as we trundled our way southwards down empty roads. Anything could happen! Drawn by ley lines and wild pagan impulses we swung off the A303 for an impromptu stop at Stonehenge. It was cordoned off with red and white tape.

Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose.
Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free.

Kris Kristofferson