The Shepherd’s Hut on the Hill

After four hours of driving, the hills begin to rise on the horizon, each growing larger and craggier than the one preceding it. Sheep and young lambs with a spring in their step climb the uneven ground with mouthfuls of lush green grass. 

The ewes look shaggy with their fleece hanging away from their necks, it is matted and has picked up layer upon layer of dirt the closer it hangs to the ground. The lambs, in comparison with short fleeces and brightly coloured numbers sprayed freshly onto their coats, look positively white and gleaming, yet to be tarnished by their environment. I always find it hard to associate these cute fluffy animals with cuts of meat, bloody and laced with fat displayed at the butchers counter. Little do these creatures know their fate, they are too busy living their placid lives, one minute at a time. 



I steer off the main road and begin following a slow moving tractor that is pulling a large metal trailer, a double decker bus for sheep. The road is winding and the surrounding green rolling hills lead up to thick forests and glades. The trees have a soft misty appearance, as if swirled on a canvas in diluted watercolours by a paintbrush dipped in vivid greens, pale oranges, dusky purples and earthy browns. At one point, tall thick trees enclose us on either side, the light fading, the road narrowing to a single twisting track. At the end of the tunnel of trees is an opening through which light shines brightly.

After following the track and passing through a metal gate, our accommodation for the night comes into view. On first glance it is a funny looking building, more of a hut. It is taller than it is wide, at a guess six foot wide by thirteen foot tall, with a curving metal roof made of corrugated iron. It is not often I hope for rain but I can predict it would be a beautiful sound echoing on this rustic roof. Heavy rain on a metal roof is one of my favourite sounds. A large circular window is postitioned above the door, fitting in just below the highest angle of the roof.


Our hut is called Cabin Copa, Copa meaning apex in Welsh. Aptly named as we balance on the slopes of this picturesque valley. Designed and constructed by the owner Dafydd Thomas, an architect, our cabin has everything we need. Dafydd’s family still live on the land on which Cabin Copa is located, his mother further up the track. Dyffid, his wife Ceri (responsible for the stunning  interior design of the cabins) and five children live near the entrance in a beautiful blue and grey farmhouse reflecting the tones of the plethora of slate found in the locality. 

The main area of the cabin has been utilised as a kitchen and living space. Although the cabin looks small on the outside the interior is deceptively spacious. White wooden walls, the high roof, the large rectangular windows all combine to give the illusion of space. There is a retro, upcycled tone to the cabin with seventies stone wear plates, ceramic swans in repose and bright white vases with splashes of lime green, azure and sunshine yellow. It is clear a lot of thought and effort has gone into the interior design. The large comfortable patchwork cushions are handmade and little touches such as a Polaroid camera toilet roll dispenser, and local antique cottons reels for light pulls make the cabin unique, and were some of the features I immediately fell in love with. 



The main feature of the lower area is a gorgeous locally sourced wood burning stove, in a shade of stormy blue. It provides waves of heat which hit the ceiling and roll back down warming the cabin on chilly nights. Manufactured by Chilli Penguin, the little stove is described as “The little stove with a big heart, stof fach gyda chalon fawr”, small but mighty, a flaming wood rocket, a tree fuelled engine” 

There is a distinctively Welsh theme throughout the cabin. A large ordnance survey map depicting the Dyfi Valley hangs on one wall, a hand sewn welcome sign, in Welsh, is displayed on the bathroom door and a frame containing the Welsh alphabet is cheerfully resting on a shelf running the length of the cabin. 

Sitting looking out of the long rectangular window is like being in front of a stunning landscape scene in an art gallery. The gentle swaying of the trees and a sheep, a pheasant or even a rabbit intruding into the frame is the only clue that you are not, in fact, in front of a painting. A mezzanine level bed, with views across the valley to the front and into the forest behind, is reached by climbing a small ladder which also doubles as a seat for the dining table. As a child I loved reading the novel Heidi by Swiss author Johanna Spyri, I used to dream about having a room in the roof with a little ladder to climb and a round window looking out to the mountains. For me bedtime at Cabin Copa was the actualisation of that dream. Needless to say that drifting to sleep on the comfortable mattress, to the sound of the crackling fire and the babbling brook outside the window, resulted in one of the best nights sleep I’ve ever had.

Outside the cabin is a dusty firepit comprised of large slabs of local slate arranged into a circle. Large sections of twisted tree trunks are placed around the pit to use as seats. Behind the cabin is a woodland glade that leads down to a gentle bubbling stream. With instructions to collect wood for the firepit from the glade I set off down the steep earth bank gathering handfuls of sticks and fallen branches.


The stream flows over fallen trees, rotten branches, leaf mould and mossy declines. A mottled moss green and khaki toned frog pokes his head out from under a piece of bright blue tarpaulin that has set sail further up the hill and has become entangled and trapped amongst the debris lining the stream bed. 

Ferns,  just starting to stretch their curling limbs, are just visible above the ground, shaped like hairy hearts they are everywhere.Wild yellow primroses peek through winding roots of trees which cling onto the banks, trying not to slip and fall into the stream. The ground seems to be covered in sticks and wood which have been broken off in the recent stormy weather. 

Arms heavily laden with sticks I take a different route back to the cabin, and come across a rope swing, dangling temptingly over the water. It is too tempting to resist and I drop the firewood and sit astride the wooden ‘seat’ and swing back and forth over the stream, my hair spilling backwards over my shoulders and the cool breeze blowing against my cheeks. Closing my eyes I can hear the birdsong, the distant calling of sheep and the hypnotic sound of the stream, it is a moment of pure tranquility and peace. 

Only a ten minute drive from Machynlleth, Cabin Copa and the other cabins located at Beudy Banc are the perfect destination for those looking for a rural escape, without being lost in the middle of nowhere. There are beautiful beaches, walks, towns and everything you need within driving distance. But when you are sat, in the cabin, overlooking the valley you feel like you are miles away from the hustle and bustle of modern society and it is hard not to let the peace infiltrate your body and mind. 

Book your stay at Cabin Copa through Canopy and Stars by clicking here

Words and pictures copyright of Andrea Macmillan @dreamacmillan

BELIZE Menstruation; Religion, Myths and Taboos

Belizean customs very often focus on blood. You will hear people talking about ‘strong blood’, ‘bad blood’ and ‘weak blood’. This life giving liquid, gives life to many customs. It is only logical therefore that a topic such as menstruation, involving the monthly passing of blood, will be surrounded with customs and taboos. Coming from a Western culture I grew up thinking that menstruation was a normal bodily process, it didn’t really limit what I could do or whom I could do it with. It was a strange experience for me to discover that some Belizean men and women I met have a very different view on it.  It is not really the kind of topic you bring up with strangers so I carried on my usual practises without realising I should be acting any differently. The first time I encountered a new opinion on the cleanliness of my ‘normal’ bodily functions was a day when a friend came to visit me for dinner. I explained to him that I had been sleeping in the afternoon as I had been suffering from stomach cramps, ‘the joys of being a woman’. He asked if I had cooked already, I said no and he looked very relieved and said he would cook as he would not eat food cooked by a woman on their period. I must have looked slightly offended as he started explaining that it was unclean for a woman to cook on their period.  This occurred again another time when I was making a dish called sere; the person I was cooking for said that he would have to add the coconut milk as it would ‘split the dish’ (curdle) if I were cooking whilst on my period. The two reasons offered for the reactions were very different. One viewed the blood as “dirty” whilst the other viewed the blood as “too strong”. After speaking to various women about the topic, there seemed to be three distinct cultural views about women around the time of their menstruation. The first views the menstrual blood as unclean and therefore a pollutant, the second idea sees the menstrual blood as having magical properties and finally the blood is seen as being too “strong”.
The idea that blood is unclean has origins in many religions. In the biblical book Leviticus a woman’s body is seen as unclean for seven days from the start of the bleeding. 

“If a woman has a discharge, and the discharge from her body is blood, she shall be set apart seven days; and whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening. Everything that she lies on during her impurity shall be unclean; also everything that she sits on shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. And whoever touches anything that she sat on shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. If anything is on her bed or on anything on which she sits, when he touches it, he shall be unclean until evening. And if any man lies with her at all, so that her impurity is on him, he shall be unclean seven days; and every bed on which he lies” (Leviticus 15 v19-24)

 If the text is followed literally then it would follow that such blood is dirty. Many Belizeans I have spoken to about this subject regard the menstrual blood as particularly unclean, one source stating that  “the blood comes down to clean out any dirt in the woman, that is why the blood is so dark to start”. This is a very common perception throughout many cultures worldwide. This dirty blood is seen to pollute the woman and all she may touch while she is on her period. I was told “you cannot go to church during your period, it is disrespectful”. Proper bathing and hygiene are of utmost importance during the menstrual cycle.  Some men will even refuse to sleep in the same bed as a woman on her period.  This might also reflect many of the taboos around oral sex in Belize, many men believe  that it is wrong to practice such activities, at any time, as it involves the ‘area’ where the polluted menstrual blood leaves the body, the mouth may become contaminated resulting in sickness.  The idea that the blood is a dirty pollutant also has an affect on modern practices for women. Many women find the idea of using tampons also contradictory with the polluting nature of the menstrual blood, “the blood should be free to flow out of the body… it is dirty it should not stay there for any amount of time”.   Menstruation is seen as a natural cleansing process and the process should be allowed as nature intended. This can also influence women’s views on contraception. The contraceptive pill for example is often viewed as a poison that is against the cycle of nature. 

 A popular religion in Belize, Rastafarianism, often promotes that idea that “women are expected to follow a modest dress code, and to avoid certain responsibilities, such as preparing food when menstruating” (Reprecht, A. The reordering of Culture; Latin America, The Caribbean and Canada in the Hood). These guidelines tend to by followed by Orthodox Nyahbihgni Practitioners within the Rastafarian movement, Nyahbihngi embodies a life that is built around Old Testament Practices. Many traditional religions; including Judaism, Christianity and Catholicism follow the view that the menstrual blood is a negative consequence of sin, bought about by Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. In Belize menstruation I often heard menstruation being called the curse. There are other religions however that honour women and her role in fertility.

It could be said that women are elevated to a powerful position during their menstruation.  They can have power over men and magical spiritual qualities that are tied in with the mystery of childbirth and fertility. For thousands of years Goddesses of Fertility such as Ixchel Have been worshipped in the Mayan region of Central America.  Ixchel, as Moon Goddess is linked inadvertently to the Lunar cycle and the menstrual cycle, the moon having a powerful affect on menstruation and both cycles lasting similar amounts of time, the lunar cycle 28 days and the menstrual cycle lasting 29.5 days (although this can vary). It is even considered that the Mayan calendar, based strongly on the moon was influenced by menstrual cycles.

 Customs in Belize also have many African influences, due to the African slaves that were bought to Belize during the slave trade. Many of the cultural African practices were carried out behind the backs of the slave owners and to this day have been passed from generation to generation. The West African religion of Yoruba, which is commonly practiced throughout the Caribbean (also known as Santeria, although strictly speaking Santeria is often a syncretic religion merging Yoruba and Caribbean aspects and influenced by Catholicism) is a system with many female deities. Yemonja, known in the Central and South America and the Caribbean as La Virgin de Regla is believed to regulate menstrual cycles. Oya, another Yoruba goddess, is known for wearing a skirt dyed red and said to be the blood pumping through the body. Finally a proverb commonly used to refer to the goddess Oshun is “Success is in your blood”. When a girl has her first period, it is often celebrated with a Full Moon ceremony, a rite of passage through which a child becomes a woman. Religious beliefs obviously have a strong impact on whether menstruation is viewed positively or negatively. This in turn influences cultural behaviours and taboos.

There are many taboos associated with menstrual blood, particularly its magical properties. A rather curious idea that gives menstrual blood such a bad reputation is the idea of its ability to ‘tie’ two people together.  This idea gives the blood a sinister and mysterious quality and a rare opportunity for a woman to exert her power over a man. A very common superstition or belief is that a woman is able to use her menstrual blood to “tie” her to a man. This link obligates a man to the woman just as blood ties obligate kin to each other.  By putting her menstrual blood into food or using water which she has washed her genitals with to then cook with, women can enchant males. It is thought that once consumed the man will fall under the spell of the woman whose blood is used. In Belize rice and beans cooked this way is known as ‘sweat rice’. It is thought that if a woman is angry or wants to gain more control over her husband or partner, this is a good way to trick him. I was once told that another way to contaminate the food is by soaking a used sanitary pad and using the water in the cooking. This may seem a very off putting practice, hence why men find the time of a women’s period so uncomfortable and daunting. The idea that a woman may do such a thing is very repulsive to most men; hence another reason women are discouraged from cooking whilst on their periods.

Whilst talking to various men and women about menstruation another theme arose, that of “strong blood”. Often strong blood is rich healthy blood, strong blood also has a strong effect on the surrounding environment and people. Women on their period are said to alter cooking processes, a cake will not come out light, bread will not rise, and sauces will split, if a menstruating woman comes too close. If a boat has been painted and a menstruating woman passes it, the paint will start running and dripping and the paint job will be ruined. Strong blood also has an effect on new born babies, it is important that menstruating women do not come near a newborn baby as the strong blood is said to prevent the child’s navel from healing, the child could also catch sickness and diarrhoea and even die. Often parents place red bracelets around the wrists and ankles of young babies to protect them from such influences, also to protect them from the evil eye.


It is clear that religion, taboos and myths surrounding menstruation all have a serious influence on behaviour and customs within Belize. Issues such as these are important when conversing with people, sharing food and engaging in health promotion regarding contraception and hygiene. However one views menstruation in Belize, it is clear that blood has powerful connotations, whether positive and negative and remains an important factor in Belizean culture

St Ives at last light, low tide.

Low tide harbourside in St Ives. Boats are left stranded cast aside by the retreating waves. Pink and orange buoys float on the sand and ropes draped with lengths of frilly seaweed dissect the beach. Thick iron chains protrude through the sand like varicose veins. A thin layer of water remains atop most of the sand bearing the suns reflection and making the seabed a shimmering silver or gold depending on the position of the sun and the clouds. 

Surrounding the boats dead fish lay on the beach, cast overboard, no longer needed. These fish with little commercial value are a feast for the gulls. Seagulls and Turnstones hover around hopefully. Dressed in thick yellow oilskin overalls, a navy and orange oilskin coat and wearing a chequered scarf around his neck, the fisherman, he must have been in fifties, walks purposefully across the sand picking his way through half submerged chains, bucket in one hand and a large fish in the other. With one foot he begins to disturb the top of the sand until a little indentation is made, it quickly floods with water and he is left with a little pool. Every now and then he bends over and picks something up from these pools and places it in his bucket. Feet moving side to side, sweep, shuffle, bend, feet moving side to side, repeat. The fisherman’s dance.

 

The fish in his hand bears a strong resemblance to a shark, albeit a lot smaller and a lot less teeth. ‘That your dinner?’ I call across the sand. He looks up and starts trundling over to me. ‘Not dinner, me mate just gave it me. I’ll use it as pot bait’. I curiously enquire what type of fish he is holding. It turns out that the fish is indeed a member of the shark family ‘you can tell by its skin, feel it, its like leather no scales like the other fish’. My fingers reach out and touch the fish, it is cold, thick, and rough like sandpaper, like little teeth made of skin. But there is a hint of leather in its skin, you can feel the toughness of it. No scales.

The dogfish, so I later read, is a bottom feeder at home in rocky weedy or sandy terrain. It is its tough skin that makes it undesirable to the culinary market as it is so difficult to remove. The fishermen use a certain amount of dogfish for pot bait to lure crabs and lobsters with their delicious sweet meat and desirable price tag. 

For the surplus dogfish, it seems fate dictates a grisly dissection, their bodies pecked apart by the various gulls that frequent the tide line. Even the birds have a rough time feasting on these fish with their tough skin. The gulls have developed a crafty technique and insert their sharp beaks through the gills, eye sockets and into the mouths of the dogfish to retrieve their dinner. It is an entertaining spectacle to observe, birds dragging these large fish across the sand, fighting to get the best delicacies. The dogfish in front of me is a beautiful specimen. A creamy beige colour with patches of blushing rose and grey covering its body. This is overlaid with dark black spots similar to those you may see on a leopard. 

Curious about the contents of the bucket I ask what it contains. The fisherman had been disturbing the sand in order to find clams. These common shellfish are also used as pot bait, it seems very little on this beach goes to waste. Food for us, food for the birds, bait for the fish and bait for the pots. Patience is something these fishermen appear to have buckets full of, metaphorically of course. The fisherman says that if I want to see the valuable fish I need to go to ‘that boat’. He points to a small boat with the words ‘Last Light’ embellished on its side. Aboard is another fisherman dressed in his oilskins.

I walk over and as I get closer I see the fisherman is untangling lengths of fishing net. His fingers work deftly to untangle knots, remove slippery seaweed and clear whatever the sea has donated to his catch. It is cold and I don’t know how he has any feeling left in his fingers. He stops his work as I approach, retrieves a worn pouch of tobacco and rolls himself a cigarette as we start chatting. We talk of EU fishing quotas, bitter early mornings, rough seas and the mystery of hundreds of dead mackerel washing ashore recently. He offers up a large plastic crate of beautiful sea bass for me to examine. These fish, still wet and fresh eyed, are the treasure these fishermen seek, retailing for between £10-£15 per fish, they are ready to take to nearby Newlyn Harbour Fish Market where chances are they will be sold to some of the top restaurants in London. 

I ask if he lives nearby, he laughs and says that most of the locals live on the outskirts of St. Ives. Most of the harbourside properties would have, many years ago, belonged to fishermen such as himself. Now the majority remain empty, shells of homes, until they are filled with tourists fleeing the big cities to their Cornish slice of tranquillity in the summer. I recall a story I had heard about one lady, one of the last to sell her home to the holiday cottage tribe. After her neighbours had all relocated, she finally sold up due to a growing feeling of isolation during the early bleak nights of the low season. Hers was the only lamp on the street still glowing. Another street now dark during the low season. This is a problem faced by many popular tourist towns. Locals forced out of the housing market by part time holiday makers. I stand, contemplating what he is saying, not really knowing what to say. He is extremely amicable and by no means criticising the tourist industry, this town thrives on it, but it is an issue that deeply affects the local population. Seagulls squawk overhead and he finishes his cigarette with one last drag, smoking right down to his sea salted cold red fingers. As the sun drops beneath the horizon and the last light softens we say farewell and part ways. I, heading back to my hotel hot tub and he, nets ready, waiting to set adrift on the next high tide. 

Words and pictures Andrea Macmillan 

Bereafian

When times are tough and facing the real world seems like to much to bear, I have always taken comfort in the pages of a book.  This time two years ago I started down the road that would lead to what felt like the biggest loss of my life. On reflection I had been loosing parts of this person for years, but had hung on to the idea that one day, piece by piece I would be able to fix things, complete him.  Whilst reading ‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen MacDonald I came upon a paragraph that reflected how I still feel. 

“Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, to take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try”

The night and I

The night and I, we are not friends. We exist in the same room, I hide in the corner whilst the darkness creeps through my nostrils like whisps of smoke, it swirls through my mouth and cloys its way to my lungs tightening my chest. My heart speeds up beating faster and faster to send more oxygen round my body. And there I lie. In the dark. Awake. My heart noisily overworking, thud thud thud thud thud tick tick tick. We, the day sleepers, our beds are pits of choking thoughts, violent flashbacks, home to  beads of sweat pooling in our clavicles. Our hearts racing to keep up with our racing minds. I think of him, always him. His bed hard and uncomfortable. He hated small beds, didn’t want to touch me, or wanted to touch me too much, from one to the other in seconds. What does it smell like? Sour. Urine. Bleach? Clean, he was always so clean. Will he survive there. Why do I care? Why didn’t he care? Why why why why. I can’t breathe I can’t sleep. 

Journeys.

Not all journeys are expected. Some are. Some are planned with a set itinerary, a list of things to pack and a list of goals. Some journeys are thrust upon us without a moments notice and all we can do is hold on for dear life. There are short journeys, hours of joy, hours of despair, intense emotions, bitter or sweet. There are journeys that drag and that you wish were over, that are tiresome and hard work. This is a personal record of my journeys. From weak to strong, from illness to health, from trapped to free. Because sometimes it is only when we look back that we realise how far down the road we have travelled.
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