Ko Phan-gan: The “Dark Side”

This wonderful little island off the Eastern Coast of Thailand is famous for its Lunar Night Parties, and a general festive attitude, but we’re going to leave that all for the kiddies still wet behind their ears and look at the lesser known attractions on the isle of pleasure, hence the “Dark Side” in the title. See what I did there?

To get to the island, assuming you’re on a budget, like us, you fly into Bangkok, find your way to the right bus station – good luck! – , ride a twelve-hour but very comfortable bus down South to Surat Thani, get on a smaller bus that takes you to the ferry, then hop on the ferry that takes you to the island in a mere two and a half hours. If you’ve got a lot of baggage, like us, this is all very stressful and exhausting, so pack wisely!

Did I mention that you’re not, technically “there”, yet? You’re on the pier in Thong Sala, most likely nowhere near your accomodations. Which means, just bear with it here, these are professionals and they know what they’re doing, you’re going to be herded to the left where a parking lot filled with pickups that have cages on the back and loading “space” on the roof awaits. You and the hundreds of others you came over with are about to be prodded, divided up and alloted places in any of these rickety modes of transport, inside these “cages”, which will most definitely be overloaded and the luggage on the roof, not tied down in any way, might arrive at your resort with you but if not hey! they or it are or is still definitely on the island so hang loose!

Getting there is half the fun!

Let’s suppose you’ve got all of that behind you; you’re next step, if you’re not really interested in getting effed up and all stupid is to get to the ocean, drink a delicious fruit beverage or shake, catch your breath, make your plan. We’re up here on the Northern side of the island, which is a little quieter, and has two very special hiking trails out the front door just waiting to be navigated.

Let’s hit it!

Before you go on either one of these hikes make sure you’ve got plenty of water and a sturdy pair of shoes. Good sneakers will do, just remember the going can get a little rough on some of the trails. And don’t forget your mosquito spray, your umbrella, your face-net, a good pair of UV resistant sunglasses, compression socks, eye black, wrist bands, breathable outerwear, sexy underwear, a butterfly net, a flare gun, a harpoon, shark repellant, a satellite dish, and a Uranium Pew-36 Explosive Space Mod-ulator. But half of that crap will do, too.

Bottle Beach

From us, which is like East of that town that starts with “C” – GOOGLE BREAK – Chaloklum, we head East and follow the lone road around the Northern side of the island until the road ends in a dirt parking lot with usually fifty-two motor bikes that tell you that you should have came earlier. There’s a handsomely carved stump there if you like that sort of thing – it really is impressively carved, and you want to follow the path behind it. The path bends immediately to the right, you’ll know it because you’ll ask yourself “How am I suppossed to get up there?”

After that the path will head up over the mountain, down the other side and to a beautiful, remote beach that was well worth the trip. The way there will be lined by dense undergrowth, beautiful tropical trees, the wonderful songs of dozens of tropical songbirds performing at an ear-splitting level (11 on your dial), very motivated crickets who refuse to be drowned out, if you’re lucky a few monkeys who won’t be impressed by much, and hopefully no poisonous snakes.

See, technically I didn’t take the path I should have tooken, er, taked, and wound up clambering rocks seaside until I realized I was getting nowhere and decided to head back. But I did find the correct path, and I know this is so because it was lined with beautifully crafted, handsomely adorned, environmentally friendly plastic bottles every 8 – 21 feet, hence the name: Bottle Beach. The path is also crossed in several places by clear mountain streams, the sound of each being so relaxing you won’t want to leave.

It is a truly majestic coastline with the Gulf of Thailand on one side and the mountains on the other, with everything in between draped in luxurious jungle green. Gonna try and make this trip once more and finally make it to that hidden beach. Wish me luck..

Khao Ra

This hiking trip was special. Or maybe I’m just saying that because I found my way there and back. From Chaloklum you head back down South on the main road, first you’ll see a sign for the Paradise Waterfall, then, after an incline, you’ll see a map on the right of the entire island. The road heads downhill to the South for a kilometer or two, then arrives at an intersection, where you’ll head to the left.

Before this intersection you might have noticed two dogs resting at the entrance to a road on your left, these are important later. After taking your left follow the road for I don’t think too much longer, where you’ll promptly see a sign for the Khao Ra Bungalows, and you’re practically there. Follow this dirt road all the way to the bungalows, but if you’ve come across those two dogs again you’ve gone about two or three hundred meters too far, so if you do see the dogs go down that street cuz it’s shorter. But only before.

Once you reach the bungalows, you’re not really at the bungalows, because you’ve got to follow this other dirt road up to the finally correct bungalows, where you park your camel or motorbike or whatever and pay your twenty Baht entrance fee, if someone happens to be there; there was no one there for us six, so we missed out our complimentary bottles of water.

Follow this “adventuresome” path up the hill to the water basin, where you’ll cross the bridge and head uphill on the main path. Shortly after you’ll see your first sign for “Khao Ra” that tells you you’re going the right way, and you can relax..

..your mind. Because around here that path gets challenging. The forest grows in on you and the roots and rocks provide for some uneven footing. After you get to the sign that says “1,5 Km”, things will get really inter-esting, the footing is treacherous and you’ll have to use the roots to help navigate your way up, and the trees to help pull you up, like some crazy Jedi Obstacle Course, so use the force. I find it helps if you keep your eyes closed. But only if you don’t move.

The joy you’ll feel at seeing the sign for one more Kilometer will only be topped by the joy you’ll feel when you get to the 500 meter sign. It is a true accomplishment to make it up to the top – it is a mountain after all. And once you’re there it will all be worth it, because the view is incredible, unless it’s cloudy, like when I was there. But I was there to train and run up and down the mountain, and not look at stuff, so..

Khao Ra is the largest mountain on the island, over six hundred meters high, and it commands a beautiful view to the North and to the West. There are also apes in the trees but you’ll be too tuckered out to raise your head to look at them so just listen to them screech. There is also a path somewhere that leads South to the very famous Phaeng Waterfall, which is definitely worth a trip, but if I’d have gone looking for it I’d still be looking and I might not be on the right island.

The way down is best taken very carefully, but if you’re feeling courageous you can try to bounce down like a mountain goat. I must warn you, however, I’m very super-fit and I stumbled two or three times. Maybe you’ll have better luck with your normal human-sized feet, my size twelve and halfs got stuck on all kinds of roots.

Once down I recommend you find somewhere to get some coconut water – in a real coconut!- and maybe some mangoes to replenish those electro-lytes. FAST! The climate tends to be really humid so you really need to think responsibly when it comes to exerting yourself, you just won’t be able to breathe as well as you’re used to, and it’s definitely advisable to always have enough to drink nearby. No, not that kind of drink, that comes later..

Wonderdogs, Part I: Spain

                                                                               Nov. 30th

Charlie and Peppa are the two superdogs we’re stuck taking care of here while the woman of the house is away on vacation.  Charlie is four, Peppa two, and both come from hunting stock (Peppa even more so – Charlie is more of a mongrel), and I would not give you this information if it did not play a role later in this story.

We’re supposed to take the dogs for a walk twice a day, as they are young and full of energy.  Once we’ll walk them on the leash just to stretch their legs and let them do their “duty“, and once we’ll let them run free, Charlie for the first half of the walk and Peppa for the latter, and hopefully they’ll be tuckered out enough then to lie around and leave us alone for a few hours.  I like cats.

Before I continue with the misadventures of “Chuck“ and “Peppermint“, let me draw a quick picture to show you what we’re up against:

The other day Charlie barked at the back door, wanting to be let in, but before I could reach the door, he heard something somewhere he needed to yowl at.  Moving out to the back porch, I watched Charlie and Peppa storm down the steps,  race across the back yard, bark at nothing I could see, and then begin to playfully maul each other.  I observed this nonsense for a little, then, as they tackled and bit each other, I whistled at them to come back.

They stormed back across the back yard, raced up the steps – each almost knocking the other back down in the process – and when when they got to me I yelled “Good dogs!!“ loudly and proudly, to which they jumped up and down excitedly.

On a whim, I yelled “Go get ‚em!!“ in my command voice, and wouldn’t you know it?  They stormed down the steps, raced across the back yard, barked at nothing, and then resumed gouging each other again.  There is no doubt in my mind I could have kept this up all day, but I had things to do.  I decided they were “mentally challenged“ and went back inside.

During our long walks, when we drive to the hills with them, the routine breaks down like this:  on the way there Peppa girlie-whines the entire time, we arrive and we let the dogs out, Charlie free from his leash at first and Peppa not.  If they’re both allowed to run free they won’t come back until 2035.  Charlie takes off – but only to pee his Three Drops – that’s his nickname:  every twelve meters three drops.  Charlie is a typical boy with no imagination of his own so he needs to play “fetch“ or he will short-circuit, maybe, and his peabrain will melt.  After anywhere from two to five kilometers, in which Charlie has fetched the stick at least one hundred and fifty seven times, and peed three drops another one hundred and six times, it’s time to switch.  The switch only goes smoothly if Charlie can be tempted to come back and enjoy a biscuit, while Peppa whines because she, too, wants to run free, because she wants a sixth biscuit, because she wants those scary afternoon clouds to go away, oh, she’s got millions of reasons to whine.  So they both get their biscuit, Charlie is leashed up, Peppa is released, and after one ear-piercing yelp, is gone.

One of the first times we took them for a walk we let Charlie “run free”, or: “run back and forth” free, and grew ourselves accustomed to Peppa’s whining. “When do I get to run free?” she seemed to whine. And, “what if he never comes back?” Or, “Why does Thursday end in a “Y”?” Maybe. At any rate, on this day Charlie was gone a little longer than usual, which meant that Peppa whined ever more fervently, until finally O my God can it be yes it is my friend has finally returned!!! And Peppa half-whined, half-cried, half-jumped up and down excitedly, which is a lot of halfs, and runned to greet her best friend heroically returning. Unfortunately, as I’ve implied, Charlie always has a fetched stick in his trap, and promptly drilled Peppa in the face with it. It could have been a real Kodak moment.

Peppa is a typical girl and has an imagination and knows what to do when she is not leashed up anddoesn’t have to chase a stick, and does.

Back at the car later we wait anywhere from ten minurtes to an hour until the little lady notices she’s completely alone in the woods and makes her way back.  Did I mention I prefer cats?  See, Peppa likes to hunt, and as soon as she sees a blade of grass bent suspiciously, she’ll start yelping and “chasing the scent“.  Which can continue for a while. Once she disappeared into the bushes “chasing the scent“ and came back an hour later without her collar, which actually had been tight enough around her neck.  Wish I had a video of how she got that off!

The short walks are kind of amusing because Charlie has to sniff everything Peppa does, pee where Peppa has peed (three drops), and, when Peppa puts her front paws up onto a wall that marks property lines, he does to.  He could miss something.  They have also obviously never seen “Ghostbusters“, and aren’t aware of the dangers of crossing the streams, because they crisscross paths every eight minutes and get their leashes tangled.

The other day we came back from our long walk and about two hundred meters from the car my wife and a friend of ours got the dogs leashed up unusally early.  Peppa had come back and it had just worked out that way.  I had been hanging back with my daughter, and my wife and our friend were waiting for us, primarily because I had the car key.  When I finally caught up to them some two-odd minutes later both dogs went nuts, jumping up and down, Charlie putting his front paws up on my abdomen, then both of them cuddling excitedly around my legs, because even though I had been with them every step of the way for the last five kilometers or so, they had blinked, maybe, and apparently were somehow convinced they would never ever see me again but O Joy!!  there I was.

I like cats!

The all time low was near the end of our stay when my daughter and I took Peppa and Charlie, respectively, for their short walk. We made it along the path across the street for almost three kilometers before turning around and heading back, and, almost immediately, my daughter noticed others walking towards us. Upon seeing that they also had a small dog, I tightened my grip on Charlie’s leash. I had just enough time in that half-second to fall completely in love with what must have been the most beautiful puppy in the history of the, like, Earth, before Charlie decided to go for the kill. He tried to run – no dice. My grip was too tight on his leash. He really tried to run – no go! I had pulled the leash back so his front paws were no longer on the ground. Then he went completely apeshoot and started twisting and writhing – I felt as though I was trying to reel in a swordfish – and it was then that I felt his collar slipping. Gulp.

I couldn’t see anymore what the peoplewere doing, or my daughter, and did the only thing I could think of, right as he tore himself away from his collar:

I sat on him.

Well, at least we had something to laugh about later. And the puppy was not harmed in any way Thank God!

The reason I’m going into such detail about the dogs is because I don’t really want to do my hill runs today and I want to procrastinate, and because even when their  A.Q. (Annoyance Quotient) is at its absolute zenith, I remember what it was like to be young.  Especially Charlie, who I’ve been given the job of managing when he’s on the leash – he’ll pull and tug and grind his way forward when he’s excited, no matter the odds, no matter how steep the hill is, with a power my wife and daughter have trouble handling, and this reminds me of the power I have inside me to push and grind my way up over the odds and obstacles I face no matter how difficult they appear to be.  I just have to remain true to my roots, the way Charlie (and Peppa) are true to their hunting roots and are always ready to “give chase“.

 But physically, as well, I’m tied to that youth, that power, and I’m forced to perform at the level of a .. what’s dogs?  times seven?  twenty-eight year old.   They’re both keeping me young and plucky despite how my wife’s training plan tries to age me.

So yeah, I’m grateful to these goofy Wonderdogs for helping me to achieve my goals and stay on course.

Did I mention that we caught Peppa the other day licking another dog’s feces?

I like cats.

Wonderdogs Part 2: Australian Remix

Teary-eyed, we left Charlie and Peppa behind us in Spain. Before we left, I sat them down and made a speech about how they will always stay in my heart, and how I would always honor their great unchained spirits, and how, when I dream of the things that fill every corner of my essence with joy, love, compassion, devotion, and tireless commitment – notice I’m leaving out “intelligence”? – that my mind would be painted with pictures of each of them, blah blah etc. Charlie was bored, and might have drooled. Peppa tried to slink away mid-speech; maybe she got into the peanut butter again. And felt guilty. Don’t ask.

We boarded a plane for Dubai. Just to say we were there. Then we boarded again for the long flight to Australia. Four weeks in Toowoomba! Who else can make that claim? Well, you know what they say: You leave two silly canines behind you in Spain, two more are waiting in Toowoomba. They all say that.

This was not to be a cakewalk. First, weighing in around forty kilos, looking like Charlie only with a little more pudge, a little less hunting pedigree, and an innocent “you can trust me” used-car salesman demeanor, there was Chopper. He was about nine and still active and alert, but not in a very good environment, emotionally speaking, because of his fellow canine-in-arms. Dog Number two, who happens to be very brown -just sayin’- was 1 and weighed, get this : sixty kilos. Max was a Rhodesian Ridgeback who was bred to, get this : hunt lions. At this point my wife decided “Get this : you’ll be walking Max”.

Poor Chopper! Anytime he wanted a pat or a cuddle or a treat there was Max, butting his big ol’ bull’s head in where it didn’t belong. Being a puppy, and having the power of an elephant and the violent athleticism of a charging rhino, and having beautiful dark-brown lachrymose eyes you can’t be mad at, Max garnered most of the attention, most of the tidbits, most of everything.

A great and typical Max story: one time I was in the bathroom shaving when Max came in wondering what I was doing in there. Unfortunately the first part of the bathroom is a little narrow for anyone not named Max. Or elephants. Max wandered in and noticed almost immediately that he would not be able to turn around, so he did what anyone would have done in a similar situation: he backed out.

Oh, Max, we miss you.

My favorite activity with Max would be eating on the porch, upon a table which is exactly the right size for every creature on Earth except Max. We would be eating, and Max would stroll over, looking for scraps, and Bonk! he’d ram his head on the table. Never fill the glasses too full when eating outside! Or else it’s Bonk! Splash! We always ate lunch outside- come dinnertime there were too many mosquitoes – and at every meal there Max would Bonk! his head at least twice. Since it was hot, he would sometimes seek the shade under the table, and oh! what fun that was when he discovered something interesting farther away there, and he would make the attempt to crawl under the crossbeams (?) of the table, or once, a chair! This would all end very badly, as if Max was trying on furniture as a kind of cape; I wonder if he even noticed the mayhem he was causing.

Sometimes we made the mistake of taking him for his walk too close to the midday heat, and he would come back to the house plum tuckered out, and when he plopped down his head would hit the floorboards so hard you could hear it anywhere, even down the street.

Max loved to play, and it was always a screaming laugh riot to play one of his two favorite games with him: 1), eating your hand. Most of the time none of us wanted to play “Hand-chomper Max”, so he would play anyway, and you’d have to wait until your hand was coated in enough of his stomach juices for him to get bored and quit. Game Nr. 2) was “Jump the human”, which has been played by dogs all over this planet for thousands of years but probably never with so much pain. Especially when Max jumps your back, and you feel layers of epidermises being exposed to our atmosphere like the innards of an onion while peeling. Fun!

Max also loved food, so when you weren’t looking you could bet he was pilfering goodies from the cat’s Automatic Cat Food Dispenser, from ACME, maybe, and more than once we found it empty. When he was bored he got his circus games mixed up and loped over to the cat to insert its’ head into his esophagus. He thought that was a swell game; the cat, not so much. But I don’t want to tell you about a cat-gargling dog. I wanted to talk about taking the dogs for a walk.

Taking Chopper for a walk was a chore in itself; he wasn’t afraid of anyone and had never been taught to heel or behave or not eat the chickens, etc., so if there was another dog or cat or bird somewhere he felt like he had to play the tough guy. My thirteen-year-old daughter was challenged more than once as Chopper got a head of steam real fast and went for something else in his line of sight; I was proud of her for handling him admirably. But Max was another story. You had to keep him on a very short leash, because if he were to get rolling then someone was going to get hurt. Usually me.

This lack of discipline was the reason you could never let either of them run around anywhere without a leash. I’m convinced there has been no drop-off in my ability to do pull-ups because of the effort and energy I was forced to expend trying to hold that Mack Truck of a dog back. I’m writing this about three weeks after we came out of a park and an aggressive dog behind a chicken-wire fence starting barking unexpectedly right up close, baring and gnashing his drool-coated teeth. Chopper and Max went right for him, and even though I was mostly ready for it Max yanked at his leash so hard I can still move my right middle finger only with pain.

Him being brown and clumsy, I liked to call him Marmadufus. Marmadufus and I went on a short (5K) run once that turned out to be my revenge tour with him. You wanna yank me around the neighborhood like King Kong dragging Fay Wray? Fine, let’s go Dawg!!! I kept it nice and slow; even though it was early it was already warm, and Max was not used to a steady pace over longer stretches. It was glorious! He stayed with me the whole time, hardly tugged at all, and the best part was that he LOVED IT! That’s the kind of exercise he signed up for.

Then we got back home.

I opened the gate. He dragged his heavy paws onto the property while I closed the gate. And that is where he collapsed, exhausted. I could barely get the leash off because he couldn’t raise his thick skull.

No más …

A touching moment with Max: We were relaxing in the living room, sipping on smoothies and watching our standard afternoon documentary when Max came in, ignored the room my wife had made for him at her end of the couch and plopped himself somewhat next to, but mostly on, because there was really no room, me. There he cuddled for the entire documentary, providing me with several numbed limbs and a deficit of oxygen that had me seeing stars.

A housewife’s nightmare: Much of the land is a rich, reddish kind of clay maybe that’s very dusty when it’s dry and very messy when it’s wet. Imagine what the living room looked like the day that began with a hard rainfall and continued with Max wandering through that wet clay before making his way inside to find a comfy place on the couch!

I like cats.

Our time with Max and Chopper was spent trying to get through these walks and dousing them with a Lavender Essential oil: for Max as a calming agent and for Chopper because of his B.O. Near the end of our time together, my daughter and I washed him on the patio, which he enjoyed so much he shook himself furiously when we were done, then went straight to the grass and clay to roll the stink back onto himself.

Yes, it was extremely challenging taking those two goons for their walks, especially cleaning up after one of Max’s “bombing missions”, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. Youth is also a force of nature that must be, first and foremost, enjoyed, then dealt with and protected when a lack of discipline could prove dangerous. They both kept us on our guard and it was great to know they were getting the exercise they not only wanted but needed.

The time had come, however, to say goodbye and to move on to what would be, in many ways, our greatest challenge : taking care of two poodles. Yes, we’re cat people but we’re open to dogs, too, mostly. The more they bark, or bite, or don’t listen, or fuc_everything up the less so, but I believe I can speak for all of the members of our family when I say that poodles are the absolute dregs, not only of the canine world but also the entire animal kingdom.

But more of that in Part 3…

First Impressions – Down under

After two full grueling days of travelling halfway around the world we were promptly surprised to find absolutely no one walking around on their heads.  Strange.  We’ve begun to settle into our next housesitting gig near Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, Earth, and are fighting conflicting urges to vomit and or sleep.  Jet lag is harsh!

Australia is the same as everywhere else I’ve ever been but unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  Which is intelligent kind of.  See, they have the same things here they have anywhere else like boring houses in perfectly rectangular neighborhoods, bad drivers and tons of fat people, but the bad drivers are all on the wrong side of the road.  For example.

Plus the Youckaliptus trees.    I’m looking into our yard now at Eupalicktus trees towering all throughout the property, looking  elegant and statuesque, reaching immense heights and providing homes and food not only for the obscenely strange but totally cuddly koala bears but also possums AND NO SQUIRRELS!  You know a country is special if the trees are filled with koalas and possums but no squirrels. 

Dusk around the world  is known as „Mosquito Partytime“, but last night at dusk I was as  brutally mishandled as I’ve ever been by any insect before,  except perhaps that one time as a kid when I stepped on a bee‘s nest behind our house.  In three minutes my left foot was pocked by 12 bites, each larger than a dime.  We decided to enjoy Australia outside duroing the day, and went in.

Yes there are palm trees everywhere.  Not just on the golf courses.  Or the grounds outside a hotel.  They are also gargantuan, and appear to be healthy!  Not such a safe bet anymore..  But there are other tress here, too, like the Euckaliptiss trees reaching up to three hundred feet, if’n you balance a 230 foot long blue whale on top vertically.  Between these are smaller bushes and cool-ass mini bansailike trees  with fragile purple flowers and probably a name that begins with a „J“.  I’m guessing.  OK I’ve just Goggled the tree and I must apologize:  the flowers are „pale indigo“ and not purple.  Maybe I should’ve written the name down, too ( Jacaranda).  Another tree you probably won’t see anywhere else is the Sydney Blue Gum tree (seriously!), which rivals a sequoia in terms of girth and soars up to dizzying heights of forty or fifty meters.  Red Cedars almost as tall as the Blue Gum trees rise stately between palm and gum (?).  Other trees have leaves. And wood!

But the most interestingly alien thing about the country for me – and I haven’t technically seen a koala, a wombat, or a tasmanian devil yet, not to mention the lord’s faux pas : the duckbill platypus – are the birds. There’s green ones with red breasts or wings – I don’t have my glasses on- a kind of parrot that chirps like a rusty swing and looks marvelous darting through the backyard trees.  There’s a grayish-brown one who sings beautifully and whose name, after I gave  it one, is a „three – footed terd“.  Then these other vulturous type birds seem to be on everyone’s front lawn, they’re tallish and somber, dressed in white jackets with black sleeves and a black mask over their heads;  maybe they’re the undertakers of the avian world.  They have long, thin black beaks with which they pluck intestinal bacteria from lucky animals and birds who happen to be in front of them.   Maybe.   

We were lucky enough to recently hear a concert from probably the most famous of all Australian birds – the Kookaburra – and not be in an emotionally unstable condition, because I wouldn’t want to hear something like that and be suffering from acute coffee deprivation, for example.  The Kookaburra shows us what would happen if an ordinary monkey would be pumped full of cocaine and then given major amounts of laughing gas.  It’s amazing!  And  a great example of „sounding your barbarous yawp over the rooftops of the world..“

But last night we experienced something that really knocked our sox off.  An insect? maybe? started singing, a soothing sound somewhere between power drill and mutant cricket.  Another couple eight or so joined him and, seemingly absent of the need to, like, do something else, they proceeded to give a concert for two hours rivalling only one thing in terms of „Melodic Simplicity“ and „Noise“.   Of course I’m talking about the now infamous Vuvuzuela.

(VUVUZUELA sound at Capetown Stadium – World Cup 2010

Respek!  They’re in hallowed company!

Fantastic is the word I’d use to sum up my First Impressions here.   „More things in heaven and  earth..“  We really can’t believe we’re here.  It’s all so amazing, and I’m going to try and drink me a trough of Australian these next four weeks, and I hope I never get my fill..

Marvao — MARV – WOW!

MARV – WOW!   Hidden Gem on the Spanish/Portuguese Border

The house we’re staying in is about three kilometers from the Portuguese border, and the first time we were on elevated ground, and we looked to  the west, the town of Marvao was impossible to oversee.  Approxiamately seven kilometers over the border, this town and castle sit atop a larger, very steep hill in a position so..remote it made the town all but unconquerable in the Middle Ages; it’s remoteness lending it a heavenly, hypnotic quality.  The moment we saw it perched high on its mountaintop my wife and I said, „We have to go there!“

To arrive there, one must find the pretty but miniscule Portuguese town of Portagem, where a narrow but well-paved road snakes its way up the hill.  It’s advisable to park outside the town, under its imposing walls, as driving through the crooked, uneven, super-narrow cobblestone streets is a job best left to the pros.  An even better solution is to take the bus up from Portagem – the roads are tricky and stressful so let the driving be done by someone else.  Ththe buses are comfy and only cost about one euro and fifty cents roundtrip.

On quiet days, which is like, always almost, it’s great to visit the town and just discover at your own pace.  The shops, offering a wide range of local goodies from handmade  cork accessories: purses, hats, shoes, and bottles of liquor wrapped in cork  (Yes, you read that right: cork is huge here.), to seemingly hundreds of  products made with chestnuts:  cookies, beer (yum yum!), chestnut preserves and spreads; even the aforementioned liquor was a kind of chestnut schnapps.  Everything we tried was worth trying. Especially the beer.

One thing you must do on a quiet day, however, is visit the castle, if only for its amazing views.  The hill is, as said, very steep on all four sides, affording a view for hundreds of kilometers on a clear day.  It’s easy to see why Marvao was not easy to conquer, standing atop the battlements.  Just getting an army up the side of the hill must have been a stupendous accomplishment.

We were there on a quiet day, and we spent it checking out every nook and cranny of  he place, from the „outhouse“ behind the reception center to the cistern, where  the castle’s water could be stored for up tosix months, and where we tested our gothic singing voices (what a sound!), to the grainary, to the battlements at the far western, highest end of the fort.  A truly beautiful castle, but maybe the weather influenced our judgement –  the sun always seems to shine on Marvao. 

We also had the good luck to be in the area for  the „Chestnut Festival“, an exciting ethnic fest revolving around chestnuts – they’re big here, by the way, and we made sure to be in Marvao for that.  

One has no choice but to take one of the aforementioned buses up to the town from Portagem – the roads are only open to buses.  Yay!  No parking or traffic worries!  Once „topside“, most of the action runs alongside the northern side oft he town’s Medieval wall, but all of  the shops and restaurants are open and offer their wonderful array of chestnut and cork goodies.

There is one „huge“ tent around which much of the festival revolves, and a commercial building across the cobblestone street where dozens of delicious chestnut cakes are sold, and above which good wine – chestnut or not – is served.  If you like chestnuts you’ve landed in seventh heaven, and, if not, shame!!

Under the tent ethnic music throbs at ear splitting levels, despite the abscence of loudspeakers and, like, electricity in general, and especially when it’s the drummers‘ turns to play :

Big Headed dancers twirl dervishlike up on the stage and, as the day progresses, the „vibe“ tends to „loosen“, especially once enough chestnut beer and schnapps has been drained.  Many people are in costumes that range from the wierd to the ethnically chill, and just about everyone is helpful and friendly, even to those of us who don’t speak Portuguese and have forgotten most of their Spanish.  Which hardly anyone speaks, anyway.

Also in the tent are dozens of stands which sell so many kinds of chestnut based goods it’s mind-blowing:  chestnut cheese, cookies and cakes, preserves, beer and schnapps of course; even noodles.  It’s all very impressive and delicious, and most of the vendors are simple farmers, so the prices are WAY down to earth.

For me the best part of the Festival, though, was right outside the tent in a smallish open area surrounded by stands preparing and selling roasted chestnuts – for a dollar a bag!  These Stone Age prices put me in a good mood, but the music soon got me really going.  Musicians and dancers „collect“ here, all dolled up in the latest traditional ethnic rage, and begin to perform like no one you’ll see on TV.

They’re not getting paid.

They all do it for the fun of it.

Now, do a lot of the outfits and dance steps look a little „tacky“ in our eyes?  Maybe so, but to just stand there and munch on toasty chestnuts, and to watch the joy of especially the dancers that they’re not really able to contain – it makes the whole trip worthwhile.

These festivals, and these dances, are their fitness program (and, as a fitness trainer, I can attest that they’ll give you quite a workout!), their disco, and  a relationship building experience for teenagers who have never been in love, husbands and wives who need the dance to escape the boredom and dreariness of everyday married life, and fathers/daughters mothers/sons who just want to enjoy each other’s company.  The youngest dancers were maybe ten, the oldest maybe sixty-five, and everyone was light and nimble on their feet, and everyone was deeply happy.  Most were probably poor, but none looked it when they danced. In the energy of their dancing one sees real wealth, and, in the joy on their faces:  gold.

At the end of the day we stopped in our now favorite Marvaoan watering hole – the one with the parrot next to the bar – and drank ourselves a VERY respectable IPA or three that were brewed right there in Marvao.  The lively richness of this fruity, wonderful beer serves to underline and italicize the extraordinary uniqueness of this special place.

I know it’s remote; not many travellers manage to get on out that way, but I know where I’m going the next time I’m on the Iberian peninsula:  MARV- WOW!