Beyond Mañana

Real Expat Life in Spain

Following the Fish


Life is a series of journeys and decisions.  You are going to love reading about Joe Cawley’s path, from cold fish in Bolton to travel writing in the sizzling Canary Islands,  via Full English breakfasts for the United Nations… an interesting journey. And why not check out Joe’s books too when you have had a taste of his special blend of humour and reflections -Winner of ‘Best Travel Narrative’ by the British Guild of Travel Writers.  You’ll soon understand why – enjoy.

“It was while holding aloft a not altogether pleasant-smelling mackerel that the decision was made. Blood dripping from a rabbit dangling overhead tinted the cold water from the fish and rolled down a white sleeve. The March rain hammered on the rotting tin roof high above the stall, and where there was more rot than metal, columns of water plunged onto the shuffling shoppers below. Their faces were drawn and bleak like a funeral cortège following the last remains of hope.  From life they expected nothing – save a nice piece of cod at a knockdown price. Northern England in March.  Northern England for most of the year, in fact. I was 28. There had to be more. I lowered the fish to eye level, ‘Is this my life?’ The fish said nothing, but I already knew the answer.

“Twenty one years ago I was presented with the opportunity of a drastic change of career path: remain on Bolton fish market knocking out cut-price marine life as fingers turned blue in the cold, or head overseas for a life of sun, sand and sangria.  Hmmm… tricky one. Four months later my partner, Joy, and I were the proud owners of a dozen condiment sets, six bar stools, three stray cats, one urinal and the rest of the fixtures and fittings that made up the Smugglers Tavern, a family bar and restaurant in Tenerife. Now all we had to do was figure out how to run it…

“My drumming experience and Joy’s drama school training proved as useful as our intimate knowledge of the inside of a carp. I had only one entry on my CV under the heading of previous bar work – Enticed by the offer of free beer, I had once volunteered to man the pumps at a ‘Sounds of the 70’s Night’ at Tintwistle Working Men’s Club.  However, a lack of pint-pulling experience was only the start of a long list of obstacles we had to vault in order to pay back our massive bank loan and mortgage.  Language difficulties, zero business acumen, bureaucratic nightmares and a complete lack of cooking ability proved to be the more expected difficulties.  Exploding gas bottles, local gangsters, cockroach invasions, demented hippies and a cat called Buster, just a few of the surprises.

“Our patronage was, more or less, all British for the first four years.  Then came the French.  And the Germans.  And the Italians, Spanish, Russians, Hungarians and Czechoslovakians.  ‘Full English Breakfast’ was translated into seven other languages. However, explaining what it consisted of was something of a challenge in Magyar.  Joy’s drama skills finally proved their worth as many a morning involved swine impressions of bacon and sausages.  Baked beans proved more testing.  Mealtimes weren’t the only area in which changes had to be made.  The comedians, bingo, Play your Cards Right – in fact all of the entertainment that we had booked were totally inappropriate for a ‘British bar’ that had become like a Rovers Return for the United Nations.

“After seven years, the fatigue of smiling in seven languages began to take its toll, and we made the decision to sell up and move back to Blighty… But it was only when our household possessions were packed and shipped, that we began to question our actions.  Being released from the bar gave us the freedom to explore Tenerife. Having spent the last seven years with our heads inside a beer chiller, to be able to drive into the mountains, breathe in the crisp, pine-scented air and indulge in the wide open spaces was truly liberating.  It was on one of these excursions, when the setting sun had cast a glory of fiery red that we came to our senses.

“The next day, packing was halted and instructions to bring back our furniture were given to a perplexed freight company. Using some of the money we had made from the bar, I joined a group trek to Macchu Picchu and was completely blown away by Peru.  I had an overriding urge to share my incredible experiences and submitted a feature to a travel website.  Their letter of acceptance, but with no fee payable, was the first step towards my future career.

“I flew back to London for the weekend to attend a travel writing seminar. After it was over, the 50 or so fellow wannabees mingled with the lecturers in a pub. I found myself standing next to Max Anderson, then the deputy travel editor of The Sunday Times.  After plying him with pints of extra strong, I asked if I could send him a feature about Tenerife.  Softened by the alcohol, he agreed and gave me his card.  Back home in Tenerife I wrote about the allure of Tenerife’s ‘old lady’ of tourism, Puerto de La Cruz, and excitedly emailed it to him.

“The next day, Max replied.  His email was a thousand-word rant on how bad the feature was and how I’d ignored the advice he had given out in his lecture.  My feature was ‘full of clichés and reads like a f***ing holiday brochure.’  ‘Wrong, wrong, wrong’ he admonished, though in slightly stronger terms than that.  But, at the end, he had written seven words that proved to be my passport to success – ‘I will give you one more chance.’

“One week later I learnt that I had sold my first travel piece – to a national newspaper!  I became a full-time travel writer, working with many international publications including The Guardian, New York Post, Taipei Times and Conde Nast Traveller.

“However, the arrival of two children dampened the passion for travel for a while. It was also the catalyst for climbing the next rung on my career ladder. Going back over my diary from the Smugglers days, I wrote a humorous account of swapping a career in fish entrails for a life running a British bar overseas. More “Ketchup than Salsa”, my first book, was born, and recently hit the #1 spot on Kindle Travel in the UK.  Fourteen years ago I dreamed of better things while knee-deep in fish innards.  I didn’t think that would mean tapping on a laptop in my mountain shed with the ocean in view and a permanent blue sky for an office ceiling.  And all this during the hours that enable me to maximise my time with my young family.

“It’s funny where fish can take you”


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