Panama City.

Moving on from Cartagena was enforced by my 5.30am debacle at Havana airport where I was basically forced to purchase a ticket out of Colombia on a particular date and Copa Airlines wouldn’t change it. I tried to change it, wanting to go to Ecuador and perhaps the Galapagos, but the resulting fees would have added a further four figure sum to my already overpriced ticket. My lack of Spanish is really debilitating, I went out to Cartagena airport four or five times to try and work out a solution but to no avail, nobody at the airline desk spoke English. Fortunately the airport is close to the town but even so the taxi ride price varied wildly. They do not have meters in the taxis in Cartagena. You may have heard that Ecuador was hit with a tragic earthquake some days after I would have been there, so, swings and roundabouts and maybe it was fortunate that I chose not to go. Reluctantly then I went to Panama City by plane, but for the wretched Copa ticket I would have gone by boat, a preferred route because there are no roads between Colombia and Panama. Not even the famed Trans America Highway makes the link across what is known as the Darian Gap, an area famous for blood sucking bats, snakes, bandits and gun and immigrant smugglers. I had to fly.

Panama City prides itself on the remarkable number of skyscrapers it has, both existing and being built. I couldn’t find them particularly attractive, sure some had an element of interesting architecture but for the most part I was looking at a concrete jungle. Not my sort of place and I began to look at ways of moving on. First of course I had to see the Canal, I mean it is quite famous isn’t it. A long shot I wondered if they had Uber and yes they did and not only that but on signing in to the app they offered me a free ride. Ms Yira showed up and off we went to the Miraflores locks and the visitor center. I had hoped to see one of those vast cruise ships passing through but there was only a gigantic car transporter that dwarfed the surrounding area. I have to say that it was all very, very slow and although a feat of engineering on an epic scale I did come away feeling just a little underwhelmed. However the splendid Ms Yira volunteered to wait in the parking lot while I viewed the canal and on the way back agreed to take me on a tour of the old city the next day, her English was considerably better than my Spanish.

It seems the City fathers have caught on to the fact that visitors like the old stuff and there is an enormous amount of construction under way in the old part of the City. Whole city blocks are under construction, new restaurants, hotels, boutiques and tourist shops are springing up everywhere. I bought a hat, well it is Panama, it rolls up into a sausage shape so easy to pack but I am still attached to my hat from Cuba so not wearing the new one. We wandered around, admiring the architecture, the graffiti, the construction sites and our fellow tourists, had some tea over which Yira asked if I liked Salsa music. Sure, I said, why not and we jumped in a taxi riding into ‘a rather rundown area’ where there were crowds of people and the loudest Salsa I have ever heard. A thirty piece band, yes thirty, singers, dancers in National costume, crowds of amicable Panamanians who kept buying me beer and not another tourist in sight. I think it was a fundraiser for something but somebody seemed to have forgotten to raise the funds. Food was served, it seemed to be a type of stew, presented in a transparent plastic bag without utensils, but balancing my beer in one hand and the bag in the other I couldn’t figure out how to eat there being nowhere to sit. The music and dancing were stupendous, quite overwhelming, so many instruments I had never seen before. Darkness fell and it was time to leave as I couldn’t see my way around the mud puddles. It was a true taste of the real Panama.

IMG_8321

Some of the buildings were interesting to look at.

IMG_8338

The Panama Canal.

IMG_8347

Ship in the Canal.

IMG_8411

Old City of Panama.

IMG_8648

At the museum.

IMG_8653

Also at the museum.

IMG_8711

Downtown Panama City.

IMG_8721

The Bridge of the Americas. Between North and South.

I can’t find the Salsa photos. I will look and post when I find them.

Cartagena, Colombia.

At last I have caught up with my blogs and I’m sitting in my small Plazuela de Pozo in Cartagena, Colombia. It is sunset and the colors are amplified many times over, the yellows are like gold and the reds almost seem to move. The flowers are all having a last burst for the day and the birds are swooping around the sky. The church bells are ringing up the street at the Iglesia de la Trinidad and the small boats on the river are heading home for the night. The tourist buses have stopped running and the backpackers are enjoying their first beer of the evening. Restaurant owners are setting up tables on the sidewalk, others are sweeping up the remains of lunch or writing up the chalk boards for this evening’s fare. The carpentry shop next door to my hotel has switched off the electric saws, finally, and the coffee sellers are plying their trade with the artisans. Three streets away I can see the usual rush hour gridlock but my little Plazuela is like an oasis. People stop to photograph the murals while others sit among the street art sculptures enjoying the peace and quiet.

Everything about the city exuded its rich history, every turn was a new treat. The city was attacked and destroyed frequently by pirates, both Drake and Hawkins laid siege to the walls but failed to destroy it. There was a famous battle, the Battle of Cartagena, in 1741 during the War of Jenkin’s Ear (true) that ended because it was raining too much (also true) The treasure galleons loaded up their gold and silver here before setting sail for Spain. In the center of the walled city is a massive fortress, Castillo San Philipe de Barajas, built by the Spanish, it took them two hundred years to complete and was never penetrated. There is a fine Cathedral and a somewhat gloomy Palace of the Inquisition.

The Old City is quite the tourist attraction with original colonial architecture featuring overhanging balconies drenched in flowers. Endless tourist shops and lots of glitz but a good place for a wander. The hotels around the old part are mostly upscale and I found myself in the Getsemani area that turned out to be the oldest part of the City and not touristy at all. Kids playing football in the streets, bands playing on corners, inexpensive restaurants and cafes where I could linger for a while without being hassled to buy more.

I don’t know why I am having such a difficult time describing Cartagena. I have sat in front of this page for days, weeks even and I can’t do the place justice. Maybe the photos will help or maybe I should try and write about somewhere else. It’s a fact though, I was more sad (sadder?) to leave Cartagena than many other places I have visited lately, and there have been a few.

PS. The first line is clearly redundant but I thought I would leave it in.

IMG_1140

My little square. Look closely for the artworks.

IMG_8451

Art.

IMG_8250

My street.

IMG_8203

Typical Cartagena balcony.

IMG_1171

The Cathedral.

IMG_8134

A part of the fortress.

IMG_8186

The wall is very imposing.

Havana Days.

Long and hard I have thought about Havana, what was it like, did I have a good time, would I go back and I really don’t have an answer. Some things I learned were very upsetting others quite uplifting, perhaps. Therefore, what follows have to be just observations with no comments or opinions.

First, the Internet and access to same. Pretty much taken for granted these days everywhere you go. The deserts of Uzbekistan, remote islands off the coast of Western Papua, I could even use WhatsApp on various parts of the Great Wall of China but in Havana it was a struggle. Within the boundaries of the more expensive hotels a card was available with a user name and password for ten US Dollars, or CUCs for one hour’s connectivity. Clearly this was unavailable to the local people as a Doctor only earned $50 per month. At various booths and shops it was possible to buy a card for two Dollars for one hour but then the challenge was to find a place that provided an Internet connection. The trick was to look out for hoards of young people (kids) sitting randomly in the street, all on their phones. It could be a park, a street corner or a Government office. The nearest access point to my Casa Particular (BnB) was five blocks away at a very average looking hotel and there were the kids, sitting all around the perimeter, on their phones. BUT, the hotel did not sell the one hour cards and when mine ran out of time I was sent another five bocks down the street to a ‘blue and white house’, but they had sold out for the day. Manana! At this point I gave up my attempt to send a text back home to tell the family that I had survived the Stones concert.

The point here is that this is the situation for the vast majority of the population and it is not helping anyone. (Was that an opinion?) Imagine trying to do homework, and no, the local library is not just around the corner, or not being able to look something up on Google. People do not have access to the Internet in their homes or places of work. Would you walk five blocks to send a text message or an email and then walk the five blocks home again? No, I thought not.

Then there is the car situation. When the US created the embargo, imports of cars from the US stopped and those lucky enough to have a car just begged, borrowed or stole the parts required to keep them running, for over fifty years. There is a vintage car taxi route on which you stick out your arm, jump in, pay perhaps a nickel (5p) and ride to your destination. It’s a bit like, no, it’s exactly the same as Dushanbe in Tajikistan except that there you don’t get to ride in a ’56 Chevy! Contrary to myth the majority of the vintage cars are owned by the Government that in turn rents the cars out to the drivers. I did ride in one, a 1956 Pontiac, it reminded me of a tank but great fun and it put some dollars in the hands of a local.

I met a man who was arrested, back in the day, for carrying a Rolling Stones record in public.

I heard stories of a prison set up just for gay people, apparently it was something of a party scene!

My BnB host, his wife and children had no concept of being able to leave the island to go on vacation. It was just not on their radar.

There was a tv in the house but I never saw it turned on, though the wife had one in her bedroom and would disappear to watch telenovellas (soaps). Satellite dishes are illegal.

The rum and wine stall across the street had a crowd of people waiting to be served all day long. Rum at $2.50 per bottle.

I was taken to what appeared to be a private lunch club. Entering through a somewhat run down apartment block lobby we were whisked to the top floor where the view was heart stopping. The furnishings were all 50s colonial and the food was incredible. I felt very privileged.

Potatoes are a rarity and have not been seen for some months. I saw a line at a store and asked what it was for, potatoes I was told. Ah, so there are potatoes available? No, but they might have some later. Someone was recently murdered in a potato line, potato rage?

I was leaving, at the airport at some unearthly hour. Checking in for my flight I was asked where I was going next, after my initial destination and did I have a ticket and if not you must go to the office to buy one. This I duly did and was presented with a $400 invoice that could only be paid for with CUCs, not plastic or US Dollars. OK, seems a bit steep but I will go to the ‘change money’ and return. BUT, they were all closed, the two at Arrivals and the two at Departures. The security guard at each bank was unable to tell me when they would open, so there I was, and the clock was ticking. I felt as if I was trapped in 1984, a real rock and a hard place. I bumped into my Portuguese friend and using his fluent Spanish tried again. Nope, no one knows when they will reopen. A man appeared, saw my anxiety, determined my problem, used his ATM card to withdraw the required CUCs, took my dollars, I got my ticket and was last on the plane. Phew.

Cuba then, very interesting and yes I will go again but will take stuff, band aids, Aspirin, syringes, coffee, etc, things to give away. And no, I did not buy a Che Guevara shirt!

IMG_7564

The kids on their phones outside a nondescript building.

IMG_7811

Architecture of the Soviet Brutalist School I believe.

IMG_7839

A man on a horse because there is always a man on a horse wherever I go.

IMG_7919

More Brutalist architecture.

IMG_7952

John Lennon.

IMG_8006

The United States embassy somewhat hidden behind a Cuban art installation and the flag.

IMG_8037

Street art. Wow.

IMG_8050

Cannons at the old fort.

 

 

 

 

Havana and the Rolling Stones.

I thought I might take a nap before setting off for the Rolling Stones free concert here in Havana, quite reasonable after a long walk to the nearest Internet hotspot so I could text the folks back home. It seemed however that the upstairs neighbors had chosen today to nail down their new carpet. Then there was the energetic game of dominos, involving some twenty gamers at the end of the block which appeared to threaten violence judging by the shouting. Add to that the quartet on the top floor practicing an unknown, modern classical piece complete with organ accompaniment, plus the exchange outside my door between my Airbnb host, Perfecto (yes , really) and the tax collector. Yes well, no nap today. Instead I took a stroll across the street and purchased a bottle of Havana Club rum to replenish the family booze cabinet, two dollars and fifty cents, $2.50!

Havana, Cuba, where the old is struggling to catch up to the new. You have maybe seen photos of the cars. It is somewhat like stepping back in time carwise. There is a preponderance of ‘55 Chevys, the most popular here, because after the 1955 model Chevrolet stopped making reliable cars and engines. Earlier today I stopped to admire a brilliant example, beautifully maintained and shining when the owner came running out of his house, flung open the hood (bonnet) so that I could admire the original engine, all six cylinders. I took photos as he preened. Preened of course in Spanish which is hardly my strong point, nevertheless, there is no language barrier amongst automobile aficionados.

I arrived a couple of days ago after a very rapid planning stage and sorry to say I was not as well prepared as I should have been. The first manifestation of this was that I didn’t have any Euros. Euros? Yes, I should have brought Euros because that currency provides the best exchange rate. Not US Dollars, which are subject to a twenty percent penalty tax and all I could come up with were Mexican Pesos. Not as bad as Dollars and not as good as British Pounds. The challenge was to actually make the exchange there at the airport because you cannot purchase them from abroad. The line at the bank at arrivals, with two tellers, was vast, our plane load from Cancun and a jumbo from Paris all expecting to gain our CUC (Convertible Cuban Peso), pronounced kook, and race into town for our first rum. We became impatient and heeding the advice proffered went upstairs to Departures where there was a much shorter line. An hour later upon reaching the front we were informed that we could only change one hundred CUKs because this bank was for departing passengers changing money back from Cuban to whatever. ‘We can solve this, we will go to a big hotel”” said the friendly Emilito, sent to pick me up, and off we headed into town in a Lada.

Arriving at the extremely grand Hotel National we were greeted warmly but advised that the inhouse bank was closed, it was 9.30pm and we had landed at 4.30. Was it time for a sense of humor failure? No, no. Lets have a drink I offered and we passed through a magnificent door and found ourselves in what appeared to be a park, columns, fountains, a band playing, men smoking cigars and enjoying their brandies.

Ha ha, said I, this is Cuba, well a side of it anyway. The hotel had been taken over almost completely by the Stones and their crew and as well as the brandy drinking, besuited locals there were some very interesting looking characters who looked as if they had just stepped out from London’s fashionable scene. But of course they had. I had a little reminisce to myself!! A couple of drinks later it really didn’t seem to matter that we hardly had any money and that the problem would go away in the clear light of the following day.

I eventually reached my Airbnb at 11.00pm where everyone was up and about waiting for me. I was plied with various strong rum drinks, asked my opinion of Cuba which launched a two hour political discussion and I stumbled to bed eventually where I slept the sleep of the gods.

The concert was due to start at 8.30 and getting to the venue would be no problem, jump in a taxi, it was the getting home that concerned me. Walking is still not my strong point and the thought of walking three miles among half a million others filled me with some dismay. I had help. Nat’s (older son) law professor is Cuban and was staying on the island, he came and picked me up and we drove to the venue together. On the way he showed me where to go after the concert to grab a taxi home. The field was big, very big and from our initial vantage point the stage seemed quite small in the distance. Thinking we might find souvenir shirts, hats, pins etc we headed toward some tent like booths which, it turned out, only sold food and drink. Nope, there was no merch’, none at all, this is presumably because the cost of a $20.00, or (20 CUCs) Tshirt is far beyond the means of the average Cuban.

The Cuban people do not use CUCs, they use local Pesos, there are 23 local Pesos to the CUC and the average Doctor’s monthly salary is 50 CUCs or 1,150 local Pesos. A $20 Rolling Stones shirt would therefore be nearly half the monthly salary of a Doctor. No shirts!

We wandered about soaking up the atmosphere with four hours to go before the scheduled start, noting among other things that there were only four loos, bathrooms, toilets, whatever, and each at this early stage had massive lines. Flavio suggested that they were put up over the street drains, one over each drain on the adjacent street. They were really only three foot by three foot tin shacks. Its different in Havana. We met people, spontaneously, took endless photos of the stage that at close range was really very large, chatted, Flavio, as a law Professor is very well informed, didn’t drink beer, the cops were searching bags and basically did what everyone else was doing, waiting for the Rolling Stones to appear. As it got darker I began to feel a bit trapped, the crowd was growing and growing so I bailed out of the standing room only area to the less congested sitting area further back. Flavio had a friend with him so I didn’t feel like I was abandoning him. More waiting until dead on 8.30 out they came. One more Rolling Stones concert and you know, they haven’t changed over the years. They still put on an incredible show, the sound was exceptional, clear without being brutally loud, the screens were perfect, huge so everyone could see. There had been some discussion as to whether the youth of Cuba were actually familiar with the songs and it appeared that they were, joining in with the choruses, applauding the more well known hits and generally having the greatest time. Ten songs into the set with more and more people pouring in I decided that enough was enough and left. A long walk because all the surrounding streets were closed but eventually came to a busy street and was picked up by a Coco taxi, a conveyance that reminded me of a tuk tuk, it looks like three quarters of a hollowed out coconut connected to a motor bike. There may be a photo.

That was it, back to my Airbnb which actually in Cuba is known as a Casa Particular for more rum drinks with the family and then to sleep. I had done it, but I have to acknowledge the help I got (thanks Nat). All the way from my sleepy beach in Yelapa, two nights in Mexico City, two nights in Tulum and then Havana. As some have remarked it was a great start to my birthday weekend.

A street in Havana.

A street in Havana.

Local Color.

Local Color.

Just look at that!

Just look at that!

Coco Taxis.

Coco Taxis.

One of the four loos.

One of the four loos.

The big empty field.

The big empty field.

The stage is set.

The stage is set.

There were Brits.

There were Brits.

It became more and more crowded.

It became more and more crowded.

And more crowded.

And more crowded.

A seat on the roof of the houses in the background, $50.

A seat on the roof of the houses in the background, $50.

Almost time.

Almost time.

Finnaly, the Stones, me and half a million Cubans.

Finally, the Stones, me and half a million Cubans.

 

 

Some weeks on the beach at Yelapa, Mexico.

A short hop then to start again. The 6.00am Airporter to SFO and a 3 hour flight to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico which I cannot recommend to anyone. Huge luxury hotels, vast cruise liners, acres of condos, crowded streets and hot, very hot. My taxi driver, Hector, was kind enough to stop at an ATM so I could withdraw some Pesos, but it didn’t work. Nor did the next one. ‘Third time’s a charm’ says I, Hector looked baffled, but it was and replete with Pesos we went to find La Puerto de los Muertos, but he didn’t know where it was. Fortunately I had a vague idea after visiting a few years ago and after floundering about I persuaded Hector to drop me off a few blocks away. Dressed, as I was, for dawn in N. California the walk wasn’t the greatest, high humidity and 82 (28C) degrees but I found the jetty, now very modern, and headed off for the speedboat ride to Yelapa, about an hour South.

Not a lot has changed over the years. There are still no roads, no cars, perhaps more All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) and if anything the locals are more friendly, “Hola Amigo” from young and old at very turn. The food on offer is still the same, basic, rice, beans and tortillas with fresh caught fish, shrimp, mahi mahi, sometimes chicken or even an omelet. The Lagunita Hotel hasn’t changed at all, still the same palapas, basically a hut with a dried palm leaf thatched roof, no glass, a very basic door and the walls are bamboo blinds. The roof is raised up from the structure so bugs get in and get out again. There are scorpions, I found one in my bathroom, geckoes and other lizards are everywhere but appear to be harmless. Staying in Yelapa is very like camping, if you like camping you will love it if not, you may not like it. People came and went, many left because they didn’t like the rusticness, others came to enjoy the peace and quiet, do yoga and meditate. Every day boats would unload visitors from the resorts in Vallarta who would risk landing through the surf for a day of overpriced margaritas and Pacifico beers. They would pack the five or six bars further down the beach arriving between eleven and noon, but by about 4.30, they were all gone. It was the Spring Break for US College students but again, Yelapa was too rustic for them to stay though it was interesting to see them on their big motor yachts, dancing away to techno music on the top deck with a drone to take selfies. There was mumbling on the beach of torpedos.

Yelapa is the perfect place to do nothing and that is what I did. Of course I met lots of interesting people, read some books, walked into the Pueblo (village) after wading through the river, ate, drank a few beers and enjoyed the tranquility. A special hello to Barbara and Mark from Portland, Oregon. I read a lengthy tome called SPQR, a history of Rome by Mary Beard and as I had just left the shxtshow that is the American election process one piece stood out.

Cicero back in 63BCE had a bit of a disagreement with Catiline exclaiming in the Senate:

“Quo usque tandem abutere, Donald Trump, patientia nostra?”

“How long will you go on abusing our patience”

Well not exactly that from two thousand years ago but apt I thought.

Sorry, but I really wanted to share!

There was a storm, totally unexpected by local people and visitors. The first I knew of it was when I realized at about 4.00am that my mozzie net was flapping about horizontally to the bed. The walls weren’t proper walls as I have mentioned and with the sound of the waves crashing on the beach, the wind and groaning trees and could quite imagine myself in some kind of battle. Four fishing boats were lost, dashed to pieces on the beach after dragging their anchors, including a brand new one with twin outboards. Dawn came and we residents gathered in the sand looking like survivors of a shipwreck. Everyone had donned all the clothes they possessed, three tshirts, jackets, hats, scarves, everything. It had its lighter side though the power was out for most of the day and of course the poor fisher folk. Mark and Barbara were in a house reached by a narrow track along the cliff edge which filled up with water, they couldn’t use the path until the waves died down, they were, as it were, marooned.

There I was then in Yelapa for a few weeks, it was very relaxing and I think I may have ceased feeling sorry for myself after the recent health issues, I had two operations on my leg. I have not been practicing blogging skills, hopefully they will improve as time passes. We will find out.

Here is the beach at Yelapa.

Here is the beach at Yelapa.

The river challenge, the morning wade.

The river challenge, the morning wade.

 

 

 

A frigate bird.

A frigate bird.

Interesting breakfast guest.

Interesting breakfast guest.

The dining room.

The dining room.

The beach on storm morning. No visitors.

The beach on storm morning. No visitors.

Normal day at the beach.

Normal day at the beach.

Trying to recover a wrecked fishing boat.

Trying to recover a wrecked fishing boat.

 

 

 

 

Four Countries in Seven Days.

Its shoulder season here in Krabi, Thailand. I always wondered what that season was and know I know, it’s between the Peak seasons, and life is not nearly so frenetic. The people take their town back, go out in the evening, walk on the beach, picnic on the sea wall, watch the sunset and treat visitors rather less like walking ATMs. In fact the hustlers and trinket sellers are gone from the beach and the few water vendors who wander up and down join in with Frisbee games and are keen to point out the Monitor Lizards who come in to visit from the sea. The visitors seem to be primarily Thai, down from Bangkok perhaps, though of course there are the usual Europeans from all over, even a scattering of people from North America. It’s quite the Tower of Babel in the bars during the evening, so many different tongues and I’m quite ashamed that I really cannot identify most of them.

After Raja Ampat I had a couple of days on Papua proper in Sorong looking for a bird of paradise feather for my Mother. Seems she has always wanted one so who was I to refuse the challenge, dutiful son and all that. I spent most of a whole day looking round the knick-knack shops, antique dealers, tourist shops, such as they were, and all I could come up with were gaudy head dresses, hopelessly inappropriate. I was greatly helped by Alex’s wife, he from Yenkoranu, she lives and works in Sorong, a teacher and Youle drove me around on her scooter, all to no avail. But at about 8.00pm on the evening before I left she called me and said she was coming to pick me up, again. What we ended up with is so ridiculously ridiculous that we will have to wait until my Ma receives it, in Seattle in mid July, to see whether it suffices, or not. (don’t tell if you already know)

Krabi then, shoulder season, quite a shock after so many months feeling a bit of a castaway in Borneo and the like, but before Krabi there were greater shocks. Sorong to Makassar in Sulawesi and then Singapore in one day.. That was a shock. I think I keep a reasonably positive spin on life going along so maybe I should not linger on Singapore. No, I wont. But I will mention that the western immigrants all seemed inordinately proud of the fact that they lived in what is now the most expensive place on earth. They are also proud of the fact that there is a huge mall, open on Sundays, especially for all the domestic workers from the Philippines so they can enjoy their one-day off. Don’t get me going on the cars, million dollar Ferraris, Bentleys, Rollers etc.

A train, out of there, ASAP to Malaysia. A fourteen hour ride seemed a bit daunting but in fact it was most enjoyable. There were some interesting people to chat with. An author who writes books on SE Asia railway journeys, a family from Chicago who hadn’t slept for two nights and another from Calgary. Lots of seat swapping, chat and time to write the last blog. The terminus was the splendidly named Butterworth where we were expected to find our way to the ferry to Penang. The big problem was that between S’pore and the ferry ticket booth there was no opportunity to acquire local currency. There was a very pleasant Norwegian who was delighted to receive the best exchange rate he will ever get for my US Dollars! A midnight taxi ride to my hotel, still with no local currency, stopped at an ATM and my bank decided that now was the time to put a temporary hold on my account. Thanks very much Wells Fargo. The hotel night watchman loaned me the taxi fare, kindly made me sandwiches, supplied the remnants of a bottle of red and packed me off to bed.

Penang was interesting, a little bit of Britain on an island off the coast of Malaysia, it was one of the last little pink bits. I am not sure when Penang received independence but there is a definite British feel to the place. Some of the street names for instance, there is a King street, a Queen, Beach, Downing, Buckingham etc, even a Fettes Park. The old colonial buildings have been preserved, most of them anyway, and I could not resist tea in the grounds of the very civilized 1884 hotel, the Eastern and Orient, or affectionately the E. & O. It was quite the thrill to sit on their lawns looking out over the Malacca Straits with large thirty-two pounder cannons off an English ship of the line circa 1800 as accompaniment. There was no-one around to take my photo and as I have yet to buy a selfie stick (!) the event went unrecorded. Shame really, they were magnificent cannons.

But again, like Singapore, it was quite expensive in Penang so I moved on to Krabi, on the South West coast of Thailand where I have been roosting for a couple of weeks. I found a pleasant Inn about twenty feet from the beach which has reduced my need to walk considerably. This is a good thing because I can’t, walk that is. It started back in Saba the day I walked for ten hours and has been getting steadily worse until now I can barely walk for ten minutes without having to sit down. Mighty inconvenient. I consulted with ‘Nice Mike’ back in Papua, the splendid Dr Singh in Singapore and friend Luca in Germany and the consensus is that I have Plantar Fasciitis, or ‘joggers foot’, the left one. I have been prescribed steroids, but they don’t seem to be making much difference so I am bound for Bangkok where I shall be fitted with a cast for support. Apparently it will be only like a sock so I can wear it with my shoe. I just hope it works.

Apologies for the blog less period but not a lot to comment upon on the twenty feet between hotel and beach. Lets hope for more interesting observations from the Lower Mekong, by boat.

I will put this up tonight and upload photos tomorrow, if the wires, tubes, and Internets permit!

 

Raja Ampat.

Timing is everything and if the trip from Ambon on the plane to Sorong, a small port on the coast of Papua, and then to Waisai in the Raja Ampat Islands by ferry was to be achieved then I would have thirty minutes to collect my bag from the carousel and ride a taxi to the port. At Ambon airport I tried the old trick of asking for a Fragile sticker on my bag, well it would either be first, or last. As it turned out it was first even though the sticker had fallen off and then it was a dive into the first taxi and rush, rush, rush to the jetty. I need not have worried, it was inevitably delayed, my bags were portered aboard for about a dollar, I found a seat and exhaled. We sped across the Dampier Strait, a thrill in itself, and arrived successfully at Waisai where my carefully laid planning collapsed somewhat. I find it hard to remember where I am supposed to be going and I make a list, so this one was quite easy, Ambon to Sorong, except of course it wasn’t Sorong it was Pelabuhan, the name of Sorong’s port, and then Waisai. I called my homestay from the ferry to tell them I had made the scheduled departure successfully and expected the usual ‘Mr Tim’ sign on my arrival, but no sign and I hadn’t written down the name of the homestay. There was the usual posse of agents, touts and hustlers vying for my business all of whom I thank you’d away except for one guy who seemed particularly insistent. It turned out he was the Waisai agent for the homestay, Yankoranu, and had been dispatched to meet the ferry and point the only westerner aboard in the right direction. He lowered my bags into an open boat filled with large bottles of drinking water and we went off to purchase the required license for Raja Ampat National Park. Mission accomplished, at a not inconsiderable fee, we returned to the boat and due to the cargo perched on the edge, the gunwale, and with the twin outboards roaring raced away to Yankoranu on Pulau Kri.

The tide was in, disembarking was achieved with ease, I found my hut some ten feet from the high tide mark, dithered around in the usual arriving fashion and headed for the communal dining, rec’ area. Oh dear, six guys, each sitting at different tables all showing a distinct lack of camaraderie for each other and more especially for me, the newb’ on the block. I made a few attempts at conversation that fell on deaf ears so I had my solitary beer and went to bed wondering if I should move on the next day. Happily though as dawn broke the six solitary ones loaded themselves into a boat and thankfully went on their way. I had the place to myself. Bliss. I was ushered to the end of the jetty with the children from the local village and witnessed the morning shark feeding. Only reef sharks, harmless (perhaps!), but still quite large, maybe five feet or longer and all looking distinctly shark like, there were maybe thirty of them, maybe more, I took pictures from above which actually came out surprisingly well. People arrived on the jetty throughout the day and all seemed to want to chat before heading off down the beach to other homestays. I was intrigued, what were they doing here, how had they even heard of Raja Ampat. There was a couple from Chile who had come non stop, as it were, from Santiago it took them four days, a couple from Sao Paulo who were similarly well traveled. Why here I asked, I mean I had only first heard of the place two days ago and these guys had been planning their trip for months. It seems that the Raja Ampat Islands are at the center of the coral triangle, there are over one thousand eight hundred varieties of fish and over eighty percent of the world’s different corals are found here. Plus the microclimate makes for extremely clear water and so the divers come, from all over the World. The wealthier ones take to what are known as liveaboards, large yachts fitted out for diving, luxury accommodations, gourmet food, wine, gin, brandy, the usual stuff while the rest of us stay at homestays and experience the islands for a fraction of the price. These then were, I suppose, my kind of people, even though I don’t dive, heck, I can barely swim! The day meandered along and by day’s end my homestay was full. I could tell things were improving because everyone, upon arriving, rushed around introducing themselves. Ok, then, this is better. Beer time came and we all gathered, at the same table, and told stories, where we were from, what we did, had done, a joke or two, nice people, not at all pretentious. Eventually there were four Brits, one living in Ottawa, one Melbourne, one Frankfurt, by way of Edinburgh, and me, SF. Two French guys from Versailles, a great Indonesian guy who worked for Toyota who had the best gadgets I ever did see (!). A really good guy I christened ‘nice Mike’ to myself who turned out to be a Doctor from Colorado. Then there was the couple from Slovakia. “Where is that?” I said, my brain fixated on Slovenia, I just couldn’t place Slovakia. My brain had stopped but I eventually got it and publicly apologized for my temporary ignorance. One of the French guys piped up “that’s ok, now we know you are from America”, it was that sort of crowd, very good natured and humorous.

Janixko Hlixka, aka Jan, and Tatiana Hlxnkova from Bratislava were quite the stars of the show, Jan being the tall guy, totally fearless and Tatiana, his wife of twelve years, the not so expert in the water person, just like me. As always their English was superb but I have this minor ‘thing’, and at the risk of offending the entire planet I have to confess. Whenever I hear ladies with that particular Slavic accent I go into this “I want to be a classic Russian novelist” dream. Its not going to happen for many reasons, the prime one of course, I can’t speak Russian. (Away with the fairies, Tim.) It happened on a tour bus in Istanbul with Ms Vxka Zolxt, despite her being from New York, again in Uzbekistan with Katya Andrxshxna, although Katya did do four years at Stanford, and here was Tatiana sounding like someone out of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. There, I got that out of the way. We really did have some interesting conversations though and I don’t think she will mind if I mention that her Father fought with the Russian Partisans during WW2, that’s some gene pool. There was the infamous occasion when I misheard her pronunciation of ‘fruit’, hearing it as ‘Freud”, as in Sigmund, her face after a few sentences from me was, well, startling! Startled?

(An aside here, I am on a train heading north in Malaysia, it is sunset and the crew have just all come to the back of my carriage for evening prayers. How excellent)

I snorkeled, lots more than I have ever snorkeled before, I had too really with all the divers around. I have become quite familiar with dive speak, I even know what a nudibranch is! It’s a tiny multi colored snail that lives on the bottom, with horns. I jumped, well slid, off the side of the boat a couple of times and swam about seeing things I had never seen before but it was when Jan and Tatiana gently persuaded me to go with them out onto the reef that I really got enthused. It was as if I was observing another civilization, something from Science Fiction, so many fish, of every color, thousands and thousands of them, swimming about among the absolutely remarkable coral, each species having its own role. I just wish that I owned an underwater camera so I could share, but you will just have to believe me. It was absolutely stunning.

Yankoranu and its staff were above and beyond what one would expect from an isolated homestay. The food was basic, mostly fish and rice but plentiful, the huts were, again, basic, and interestingly perhaps, to some, featured proper loos, but they didn’t flush. I don’t think I have met that before. Every evening there was a communal pow pow when the staff laid out the options for the following day and after a debate some signed up to go off and, for instance, dive with the mantas or chain themselves to the reef at the turn of the tide to observe the big fish. I did join an early morning expedition (4.30am) to go observe the courting dance of the bird of paradise. Apart from becoming lost in the jungle for a while this was quite special except I had this concept that the dance took place on the ground rather like peacocks. Oh no, it takes place high up at the top of the canopy, maybe one hundred feet up. This of course makes for a difficult photo opportunity and I ended up with many photos of branches and leaves, and a stiff neck.

Raja Ampat then. Quite a special place.

 

Here is a fish photo with credit due to Tom in Melbourne.

Here is a fish photo with credit due to Tom in Melbourne.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This could be a Tiger fish. Again credit to Tom.

This could be a Tiger fish. Again credit to Tom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The dive shack and jetty at Yenkoranu.

The dive shack and jetty at Yenkoranu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A bird of paradise, with branches and leaves.

A bird of paradise, with branches and leaves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sharks.

Sharks.