Friday, 10 February 2012


In Angola, they believe there are two sorts of Mermaids, one of the sea and one of the river.

Like neighbours who hate each other, and these two Mermaids detest one another according to local lore, they stick to their own territory and mind their own business. Usually. Every now and then, though, something stings their tails and they are at each other’s throats pulling each other’s hair out and scratching each other’s faces. The River mermaid out of sheer spite will try to pour as much fresh water into the sea as she can. The Sea Mermaid will retaliate by throwing up a tide so high it pours into the river. Or it could be vice versa, in a domestic it is always hard to tell who started it and generally no one cares so long as they stop.

In the case of the two Mermaids, they usually wear themselves out but occasionally, if the perceived slight was great, they will battle it out until finally the local Soba (village Elder) has to step in and conduct a ceremony on the water to calm the two down, making offerings of food and wine and intonations known only to him having been passed down verbally through a line of Sobas going back to the Beginning. I am told it never fails. Clearly, King Canute was not from the same esteemed lineage, merely an ignorant peasant who deserved to get wet.

Apart from a bout of Malaria that laid little Alex and I low for a couple of days, a bit of a downer (I have stopped sniffing about the stolen generator), the spirit of the post I was drafting a little bit at a time telling of our arrival at the Barra de Kwanza was so optimistic. I wanted to describe going to sleep with the roar of the surf, the brilliance of the stars revealed in a darkness unknown to city dwellers and to tell SBW and Raschman about all the feral pigs the dogs have flushed but it wasn’t to be.

Marcia has re opened her shop and I reckon the whole village passed through on the first day and emptied it. She is running the truck every day to keep up with demand. Dominic and his little brother chased happily between river and beach and back again oblivious to the crappy living conditions and having to wash in the river. They ate everything put in front of them and were asleep by nine in the evening. Marcia and I were asleep half an hour later. At six in the morning, everything kicked off again. My fingers are like sausages with all the dragging, sawing and hammering I am doing and I have sunburn for the first time in years. I have not drunk a drop of alcohol since I arrived. It is bloody great to be out doors again.

I managed to get through a lot on my list for yesterday. I collected and piled up tonnes of old scrap timber. We got the temporary wiring circuit in so that all living areas including the loo are covered (who likes to dangle their willie down a bog in the dark in the tropics?), a whole heap of stuff. As we are no where near putting in the concrete pathways that will connect each building enclosing what will be garden areas, I can understand Marcia’s frustration that a lot of sand was being traipsed into the restaurant kitchen which is our temporary home so I thought, ‘I know, I will knock her up a slatted wooden door step’.

I was busy sawing and nailing away at this 90x60 cm mini stoep when I looked up at the sea and thought, ‘Blimey!’ Then I saw a palm tree fall over and squeaked, ‘Fuck me!’ Wave after enormous wave pulverised the shore. Then a series of really big waves came in breaking over the sand dunes. Once over the other side the water had nowhere to run except onto my land. It started as a trickle but with each successive wave it turned into a torrent which quickly washed out the main entrance to my property. I grabbed Alex and threw him into the truck and fumbled for the keys in the ignition. They weren’t there. I rang Marcia, who was shopping in town, she did not know. I ran back into our room trying like hell to remember the name of the bloody Saint you pray to for lost things but couldn’t so I sent the most fervent prayer I have ever said with no address and it must have gone DHL because the keys were on the bed. I got the truck onto high ground and then waded back to the site. The skiffs were floating away.

The whole site was flooded. The only thing that saved our room and the shop wwere the slightly higher ground on which they were built and the large load of sand I had dumped for the builders which diverted the water.

The series of extraordinary waves leading to the breach of the dunes occurred exactly at the highest point of the tide. My neighbour suffered even more, fifteen of his chalets were washed away. The road leading to his property passes between mine and the sea, the very bit where the breach occurred. One of my lads ran to his place to tell him he would soon be cut off, an advisory that was quickly followed by a convoy of vehicles, some towing boats to high ground.

As the tide began to recede and I stood there numb with shock, an empty pit where my stomach had once been, I realised that whereas before I would have to stand up in what was soon to be my restaurant to see the sea, I could now sit on the floor. The sea was fifty metres closer and the dunes that protected my land were gone. Oh it looks very romantic, sloughs of white sand reaching across what once was spinney grass like fingers about to caress my bit of God’s earth but believe me, knowing that the next high tide was at five in the morning and knowing that now there was sod all between me and it, I began to think that maybe that Idiot Gardener was right. Or maybe he jinxed me. If he did, I hope his shed burns down and his smart sink falls of the wall taking all the tiles with it.

Marcia arrived back from shopping and noticed the truck on high ground. She splashed knee deep through the water and onto the higher bit of the restaurant.

‘Why is the truck up there?’

To be honest, I thought the reason it was 'up there' was bleeding obvious. I couldn’t think of anything coherent to say, in my mind I was ruined, intoxicated by misery only three days after IG penned those prescient words. I had sold all my possessions including my house and now I really was standing forlornly in a very muddy backwater.

I pointed to where the dunes once were, rolling whitecaps, although receding, clearly visible.

Marcia tutted, ‘Isso não e nada’, she said, irritated by my obvious bleatingly childish concern.

‘What do you mean? “This is nothing”, this is a DISASTER!’

‘No it isn’t’

I tried to break it to her gently. I’d heard about people, especially women, who go into denial when dealing with great shock.

‘Darling, we have to face it, we are ruined’

‘No we’re not’.

Best go and make her a cup of tea, I thought. Seeing her mentally unhinge so quickly made me forget my own sorrow and grief; in times of great crisis or danger, it is the man who must get a grip of himself and look after his family softening, as far as possible, the awful blow with a solid display of optimism. I went into the galley, put the kettle on and burst into tears.

Darkness blessed my tortured eyes by obscuring the two hectare lake I owned and as Marcia was tired as well as unbalanced, I made supper.

She was more seriously affected by all this than I thought for all through supper and on into the evening she prattled on about exactly where (in the lake) we would position the houses; when Julian would install the barbecue grills in the covered barbecue area (under water) and that she needed to go into town the next day to really stock up the shop as Saturday and Sunday were going to be crazy busy. It wasn’t the quantity of customers that was crazy, I thought. Finally I could not take this lunatic optimism in the face of abject failure anymore. I was thinking practically. I still had an all risks insurance policy from when I was in bomb disposal. If I shot myself, the family would get the payout and in my own way, I would have provided for their future.

‘Marcia, at five O’clock in the morning we get the next high tide, this time there is nothing to protect us, the sea will just come pouring in and there is nothing we can do, we can’t even run, so what is the point of thinking about stocking up an underwater shop, what are you going to sell, full aqualungs for passing spear fishermen?’

‘Honey’, she said with all the condescending patience she can turn on with the speed of a flicked light switch, ‘everywhere is flooded. You should have seen how deep the water was at Ramirez’ on the way home, the sea was over the road!’

It floods every year in Bangladesh as well, I thought, but why should that make me feel any better? I stepped out of the room and sloshed my way round to the heads (that’s what loos are called on ships). To me, the ship in which I had invested everything should have been called the Mary Rose, not Flordita. Except of course, mine never even made it out of the port, it sank at its moorings. Clearly that comment on one of my posts saying I wasn’t a nice person was true and I was now paying for it. I had always dreamt of a place either by the sea or on a river and was over the moon when I found a place that satisfied both criteria. I wasn’t expecting both of them coming to greet me so intimately. The next high tide would finish us. I sat there on the bog and groaned. We haven’t got the false ceilings in yet so the sound travelled to the room.

‘What’s the matter, Honey, are you sick?’ Marcia called.

I didn’t answer.

The night was terrible. There was no way I could sleep. Marcia, still clearly mad as a fucking hatter thought that this was because I was feeling a bit frisky and tried to administer appropriate attention so I said, ‘What was that?’ and got up and went outside. The full moon and (unlike me) stiff onshore wind, which I knew to be the real cause of all my grief rather than two catty mermaids, were up and by the light of the former, I could see the waves were no longer crashing over the remains of the dunes, they were rolling over them. My personal pain aside, it was an astonishing sight, a testament to the inexorable power of the sea, especially when viewed at night by the light of the moon. If I could have conjured up two thousand tonnes of hardcore and dropped it in the breach it would not have made a jot of difference. Official high tide was still a few hours away but I knew the onshore wind would add another half hour to the agony. The water just poured in and kept coming. The truck was up to its axles. All the saplings I had cultured at the old place and transplanted here, Lemon, Guava, Avocado, Mango, Cedar, Eucalyptus and another tree I only know by its local name ‘Monkey Banana Tree’, years of patience and tender care in anticipation of finally settling here had all been washed out. There was no way we were going to construct the cottages on the site, the cottages the wood for which had more or less been trimmed into prefabricated parts and were due to leave the mill down south next week. It was like watching my life, all my hopes and dreams being bleached to a meaningless blank. I went back to the room, found the keys to the shop, let myself in and helped myself to a bottle of whisky before sitting on the hammock in the jango, taking the occasional swig as I rocked to and fro. I was washed out.

As the sun came up, I could really appreciate the extent of the damage. Everything but the shop, the kitchen and toilet block and the restaurant jango was under water. But I no longer cared. Not in any despairing way, I no longer cared because with the aid of the Clan MacGregor family product, a few fluid ounces of which were now inside me, I had a plan. OK, I will admit I did have some extra help. During the night, a local walking by who must have had the combined eyesight of an owl and a shit house rat as well as the olfactory power of a dog had waded through the water to join me and make a better effort than I to empty the bottle. So we had chatted. His attitude was the same as Marcia’s.

‘Isso não e nada’ he spat contemptuously, ‘you should have seen the Great Storm of 1887’, and took a swig before passing the bottle back to me. Like all Africans steeped in tradition he didn’t merely listen to the stories handed down through generations, he lived them through his ancestors.

‘What happened in 1887?’ I asked, not really caring if his Great Grandfather's head had been severed by a hurricane borne coconut.

He turned and waved vaguely at some point a mile or so inland, ‘the Mar reached there and took everything, EVERYTHING!’ the last word delivered with a timbre redolent of the awful horror that must have transpired and definitely worth another swig of scotch, he felt. Like Marcia earlier on, he was doing a grand job at pissing me off. ‘But don’t worry’, he continued, ‘the sea will give it all back’.

This terrible storm of which he spoke was an aberration, he went on to explain. Nothing like that has been seen since, or at least in living memory. Every year, he said, just like the tide ebbs and flows, the sea at this time of the year nibbles away at the land and then every year puts it all back again. Some years are worse than others, obviously, but generally, there is nothing to worry about. The people who really get themselves into trouble are the rich people.

‘How so?’ I said, warming to my nocturnal companion.

Rich people he had concluded, come in from the outside. They pay neither attention to or respect local tradition. They want their houses on the beach even though it must be blindingly obvious that no local builds there.

I was never rich and right now I was trying to get my head around being poor but since I too had ‘come in from the outside’ I thought I had better ask his advice lest I became poorer still.

‘What about my place?’

He looked around. ‘Oh you’re OK, you might get flooded every couple of years or so but then we all do but everything is soon back to normal’, I was beginning to see a glimmer, ‘but’, he continued, ‘you really should think about building the land up a bit before you build like you've done this bit’.

I told him that was exactly what I had planned to do but had been beaten by the waves. He told me that I was like a lot of Branquinhos in that I expected everything to go according to a schedule that nature would never recognise. Besides, he pointed out, I was in Angola where nothing goes to plan. He told me that it would be at least a month or so before I could get a machine in there. In the meantime, I would see the sea gradually throw the sand back up onto the beach again. I told him about my saplings and he looked at me as if I had suddenly started drooling spittle. He asked me if I had seen any lemon trees or avocados growing here. I had to admit I hadn’t but had thought I should give it a go. He advised me against thinking and observing instead, do as the locals do was his advice.

There can be no question that once I got the land, Marcia has been a driving force for Flordita and, of course, I loved the idea but I like taking baby steps while Marcia’s enthusiasm would put an Olympic triple jumper to shame. I know less about running a hotel restaurant than I do about gardening so I was not only nervous about sinking everything into one pot, I was also nervous about simultaneously building a restaurant and the cottages and then having to manage the lot with all the untrained staff required. A couple of scrapping mermaids had trashed my building site but they had also given me a wonderful opportunity to acquire an insurance policy. Marcia’s apparent mental breakdown was no more than her fear that I might get cold feet and run. She did not realise that I was in so deep I had no choice but to keep playing. My new friend left to go home to his wife’s wrath but with the benefit of his advice, I now knew how to play my hand.

Up the road (on higher ground) we have another plot of land where, after the hotel restaurant opened, we were to build using profits, Marcia’s new shop. For accommodation, we would use one of the cottages. A real eggs in one basket scenario and we still would not have a house of our own. If the restaurant failed or, in a fit of malevolence the sea decided not to give back the land but to take more and I had invested everything, I might as well have packed all my money into a box and tossed it into the sea and be destitute as I had nothing to fall back on. On the other hand, if I scrapped the idea of the cottages, for the time being, and just got the restaurant up and running and used the money for the cottages to build Marcia’s smart new shop AND a house for us and then used the profits from both, or one or the other to build up the land and build cottages...

The sun was up and I knew Marcia would be awake soon.

As Marcia and I surveyed the damage I pointed out that we would never get a machine in to fill and level the ground for ages. She reluctantly agreed but before she could bang on again about my sudden lack of faith I dived in.

‘Marcia’, I said, ‘Rather than abandon the project, why don’t we finish the restaurant and instead of building the cottages, tell Julian to build your new shop and a house for us on the other land?’ I did not give her chance to reply and rushed on, albeit as calmly as I could, ‘That way in the same time it would take to build the restaurant and hotel leaving you without a shop until Flordita coughed up enough to pay for your new shop and the time it would take to build, you could have the profit from the restaurant AND your new shop and that could be used to fund the filling and levelling and the cottages and we would also have our own house again?’ I inhaled deeply.

‘You’ve been drinking’, she said.

‘Yes, Marcia, I have been drinking’. How was that for a slap down? I must have looked pathetic.

‘You were doing so well’

‘I know, I’m sorry it’s just that last night, the storm…’

‘You haven’t slept, have you?’


‘I’ll go and make you a cup of tea’ and she headed for the galley. I’d prefer a double hemlock, I thought.

‘I think it is a great idea’, she called over her shoulder.

YES! Out of disaster SUCCESS!

OK, I have lost a bit of hard earned cash but experience is never cheap.

Flordita Restaurant Opening Times and Menu:

Low Tide:

Full A La Carte

Any Other Time:

Please reserve snorkelling kit when making your booking. Please note: Restricted Menu - Sushi only.

Full Moon High Tide Special for Spear Fisherman:

Half price beer and spirits, Bring All You Can Eat!!


  1. Fuuuuuuuuuuck!!!!!!!!!!!

    If that had happened to me Tom my mouth would have been hanging open in drooling despair for weeks.

    My Dad has (what we all thought was an irrational) deep seated dread of houses next to rivers, lakes, ocean, large garden ponds etc. I shall now call him the village elder.

    I won't say anything glib like 'at least you have your own lake with fishing rights' as that would be totally wrong. ;-)

    All I will say is - both you and Marcia have real grit Tom. If anyone can make a go of this project it's you two.

    Good move on the higher land purchase. Almost as though you knew at some level?

  2. Not for Mermaids...

    I would have to confirm eligibility by checking your tail, though.

  3. Chris, Like all good soldiers it pays to have a back up plan. I just wish I had thought of it sooner. As I write, the sea is over the top again! But there is no wind at this time of the day so it isn't driving the surf so hard.

  4. bloody hell tom
    and I thought I had an exciting day fending off three old lady customers!!!
    THERE are river spirits in welsh folklore too!

    btw who will play YOU in the movie? I thought george clooney with Halle Berry as marcia

    look after yourself my friend

  5. If halle berry is playing Marcia, I will play myself...

  6. Suck it up, you big sissy! It's only a bit of sea water!

    I nearly bought a house in Hoi An. I went to see it and I mentioned it was odd having four floors. The guy selling it said you need the top two floors for somewhere to live during the flooding season. They have a spare house on top of their normal house. I asked why they didn't just use the top two floors all year round, and he looked at me like I was a retard.

    I'd have loved to have seen your face when the sea came crashing in. I bet Marcia is pissing herself when she tells the natives about you sobbing!

    Chin up; you haven't had the winds yet!!!

  7. Oh, so now I can expect winds can I. Give me a break, will you, just a little one...

    Sun is shining, clear blue sky, the sea is calm, the shop is doing a roaring trade and I have about a million tonnes of detritus to pick up from the drying site. Still, the beach is now nice and clean for all the nice to people to enjoy.

  8. Tom,

    John Clese (Fawlty Towers) can play you for the scene that starts when Marcia is asking why the truck is on higher land....

    As you probably know, we in QLD have had our fair share of floods recently but lucklily I personally have not been touched by it.

    It sounds like the shop will be a good cash flow so in all a much better way to go. Later on, you can blog to some Dutch friends on how to keep the sea at bay

  9. Wow. Just... wow.

    There are a ton of quotations I'd like to pull from this, not the least of which is the one about the pit toilets. That one is fun on two levels for Americans.

    When we lived in the mountains outside of Santa Cruz, and I was the park interpreter at a beach park on Monterey Bay, we watched our ocean blow in thirty-foot waves. One local told us, "if there is sand, the water has been there at one time or another, and it'll be back." We watched flotsam blow out the bathroom doors, and crash over the concrete ship (the centerpiece of the park).

    Driving home, typically a 20 minute drive through redwood forests, took three-and-one-half hours, due to 200-foot tall trees falling over roads.

    Keep your head above water, and if it is possible, put together a rainy-day fund, get some nice-looking but okay-if-they-wash away cabins with some amazing looks, and charge out the wazoo for them, with an explanation for the premium, if you must.

    One question: Are the skiffs gone forever? If so, I am very sorry; I know those can't be cheap.

  10. Hi Nige,

    John Cleese, you are absolutely correct and I so have my Manuel already, the doziest bastard you have ever seen. Our cpnversation is mainly one sided and consists of little more than, 'What are you doing?', 'Who told you to do that?', 'Will you stop doing that, please?', 'Will you just do as your fucking well told?' and, 'Please don't think. The only thing you are allowed to do without my permission is breathe but if you feel like stopping that too, be my guest'

  11. Josh, it looked bad at the time but nearly a week on everything looks much better as you can see in my latest post.

    The cottages will be on stilts but I won't start building them until I have built the land up some more, I reckon I need another fifty lorry loads.

    In the meantime, we will build the new shop and cottage for us to live in on the new land which is on higher ground. Hopefully the crew will start on those today.


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