Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan

Here I am racing along on the main road from Almaty to Bishkek (Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan) in a taxi believe it or not. My good wife, Julia, bless her, had a minor fit a couple of years ago when I walked across the border into Tajikistan, quite justified actually. She made me promise not to walk across any more borders so I haven’t, but did sneak one from Israel to Jordan. I could have taken a mini bus, or marshrutka, for this trip but it would involve walking about a mile across no mans land and I would break my promise. I found a company called Kiwitaxi who for a very reasonable rate will take you from A to B, door to door, actually less than a taxi from Marin to the airport, or Winchester to Heathrow, for this ride. So I’ll live blog as I go.

I’m on the steppe which is kind of romantic though a bit featureless and way in the distance on my left, to the south, are the Lli Alatau mountains (part of the northern Tian Shan range) and they have snow on them. I had always thought of the steppe as covered in swishing long green grass, almost right, grass yes, but it has been over a hundred (38C) degrees here every day for five months so its rather brown or “golden’ like California before the rains start. (Quick aside: Here I am miles out in the Kazakh steppe and my phone rings! It’s Julia from California! She must be psychic.) We just stopped so that Mucheed, driver, can imbibe a shot of the national drink, fermented mare’s milk (Kumis) with bits in, no thanks, I’ll stick with the pink stuff!

The steppe is actually rather fabulous, it’s so vast and I can see it stretching away into the haze in the distance with the occasional village far, far away. Farming seems to be what they do here; there are sheep, the occasional cow, goats, horses (sorry about that) and much hay baling of the swishing grass. If you have passed the time with the Great Russian authors and poets you must agree they did a much better job of waxing lyrical about the steppes than me. Perhaps we should just leave it to them.

Of course sometimes things don’t actually work out as planned and today the border was closed to vehicle traffic. Sergei met us on the Kazakh side and then helped with my bags across the very short border crossing. Emigration took about a minute, immigration a little less and he had parked his car very close to the barrier which meant leaving one country and arriving in another took about five minutes, there was no sign of Customs. It was an almost pleasant experience.

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Mountains.

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The rolling steppe.

 

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Outings in Georgia.

There’s lots of famous scenery to be seen around the world and up there with the best must be Scotland, the Rocky Mountains, Santorini etc, but why is the North Caucasus of Georgia never mentioned? I took an early morning tour out of Tbilisi and headed north through the usual car sales strips, the out of town Malls until the countryside began with a rather charming banner across the road announcing ‘Happy Journey.’ There were more churches on crags to be seen and after an hour or so we began to climb, climb I should add out of the 110 degree (43C) heat of the plains into the cooler mountain air. First stop was at Ananuri, a village beside a reservoir featuring a castle containing two churches dating back three or four hundred years. But what a lovely name, Ananuri, almost as charming as the name of the local currency, the Lari with a trill on the R. It was crowded in the parking lot and the power was out so no tea and off up the Georgian Military Highway we went, headed for Russia.

Up and up, above the clouds were the hang gliders soar; it was all very, um, photogenic. We passed through Alpine like villages set about with chalets and condos, the occasional ski lift, obviously winter sports are big business in the winter. To the top of the pass at 2,400 meters (8,000 ft) and down into the pretty town of Kazbegi strangely renamed Stepantsminda, but nobody calls it that. There was an odd hint of India as we drove into town, cows in the road, wandering cows, cows sleeping all over. I asked but all I got was shrug. It is clearly a centre for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts but what struck me most were the trucks pouring through to and from Russia. The wait to clear customs at the border was obviously lengthy and there were trucks parked beside the road for miles and miles, waiting. I saw British trucks, Spanish, French, Italian; it was quite extraordinary, think of the mileage. The most famous ‘church on a crag’ in Georgia is just outside Kazbegi and at 2200m or over 7,000 feet you have to wonder, how did they build it all up there.

The next tour that the amiable Sofia and Khatia arranged for me was to the old capital of Georgia, Mtskheta, it’s got a ch in it somewhere, not too far out of Tbilisi and features, yes, and you’ve guessed it, “a church on a crag.” Sorry about all the churches but as Georgia was the first country to adopt Christianity they do feature rather largely in any description. The cragged one, Jvari, is reputed to be the first Georgian church and stands high over the plain with fabulous views over the old city and the confluence of a couple of rivers. I managed to squeeze my visit in between the coach loads and my guide did what he did at all the churches we visited, went off and lit candles. Fine with me. Down the mountain to the old city where it was incredibly hot and there were many pauses for water. There is a cathedral in Mtskheta, a huge affair containing within its interior two more churches, I don’t think I have seen that before. Interesting though to think this has been a Christian center since 327.

I had an enquiry about the political situation in the Caucuses and replied that it is complicated. For a start when I was in Batumi I befriended a large holidaying family from Baku the grandmother of which was an English teacher. Lots of friendly chats with grandmother translating for all the different ages, wine flowed and food shared until she asked me where I was going next. Armenia I replied upon which she burst into tears “You must not go, they are killing our people.” No arguing with that so I didn’t go to Armenia. Its all about Nagorno-Karaback which is either Armenian or Azeri and there is an ongoing war to determine which. I didn’t judge it expedient to try and learn more from the grandmother. As far as I can determine it was Azeri and is now Armenian. One of the results of this is that there is a tiny area of old Azerbaijan isolated in Armenia and hard up against the Iranian border called Naxcivan with no way in or out except by plane. Images of the Berlin Airlift of the late 40s spring to mind and I simply cannot figure out how it manages to exist, but its there and it exists. The Azeri authorities are very sensitive about this and if you have an Armenian stamp in your passport they wont let you into Azerbaijan. At the border from Georgia the Azeri the guards went through my bag looking for Armenian products, I had none.

Then of course there are South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which were at one time part of Georgia but are now under the control of Russia. There are terrible stories about these two breakaway regions and the 1991 wars were particularly brutal. The UK Foreign Office and US State Department do not recommend travel to either and I wasn’t going to challenge their recommendations but I did glimpse South Ossetia from the train outside Gori, the birthplace of Stalin.

I’m a big fan of Georgia now and wholeheartedly endorse it as a worthwhile destination for its food, wine and fabulous scenery. Of course you could do worse than staying at the Penthouse Hotel on Metekhi street and do say hi to Sofia and Khatia from me.

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Tbilisi Old Town by day.

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They have the best balconies in Tbilisi.

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These are the famous sulfur baths.

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Spectacular Tbilisi.

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Ananuri.

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North Caucasus Mountains.

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More mountains.

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Trucks lining up to enter Russia.

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The Tsminda Sameba Church, Kazbegi.

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Cows!

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Jvari Church, Mtskheta.

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Here is Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta.

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I like the view from the river.

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Thank you.

 

A Trip to Tbilisi.

Georgia in the South Caucasus is a country I was only just aware of,, but after meeting someone, only one, who had been there it seemed a place I should visit. A young woman, Haibin Zhang from Beijing, travelled on her own through each of the Caucasus countries, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and had no qualms about safety; in fact she was very enthusiastic. From Turkey, where I left you last, there was a bus from Trabzon to Batumi and early one morning I boarded and set off for the border. Although the bus indicated that it was going to Batumi it in fact didn’t, it only went as far as the border where we were all removed into the noontime heat and joined the massive line (queue) to cross into Georgia. It was fairly gruesome, as the crowd had no idea of an orderly line and burly border guards with long sticks tried to keep everyone from spilling into the parking area. That took about four hours. It was horrible. Then the usual arrival in a new country routine of changing money and finding a way into the nearest town. Accomplished that and found a taxi to my hotel where my room was on the 8th floor and no elevator (lift). It wasn’t a very good day!

I was warned about Batumi and the warnings were correct. It is one of those Russian Black Sea resorts that one hears about and I resolved to leave as soon as I could find a way out. There is a very fine train from Batumi to Tbilisi, the capital city, and for just a few dollars I went on my way. Dropped off at my hotel in a sort of alley I looked around for reception but there was only an elevator with indications that I should go to the 4th floor. Up I went to be greeted by Khatia and Sofia who seemed to run the place in a very efficient and friendly fashion. My room had a balcony with views over the old city; floodlit churches perched on crags and an old castle. What more could I ask for, there was even a wine shop on the ground floor!

I really took to Tbilisi, its one of those cities where if you stop to look at the map people come up and offer to help, even if their English is not great. Did you know that Georgia was the first country in the world to convert to Christianity? Neither did I. The food is rather unique and with respect for vegetarians who might read this I won’t go into some of the more popular dishes but the National Dish is Khachapuri Adjaruli. A canoe shaped loaf of bread about a foot long and two inches thick arrives from what appears to be a tandoori oven or tone (with an accent on the E) filled with melted cheese, bubbling, then butter is added and an egg is broken into the middle of the sizzling mass. You eat it by dipping the crust into the goop and try not to think of your lactose intolerant friends. It was just delightful to see children racing home from the bakery with their big bag of canoes in time for dinner.

I’ll mention the wine but should write a whole chapter on it. There was wine making in Georgia in the Neolithic age 8,000 years ago and the quality has been improving ever since. I have read that before tourism the Georgian Immigration officer would stamp your passport and give you a bottle of wine; this is no longer the case, at the Turkish border anyway. Everywhere you go there is wine, you can even have it for breakfast. Sweet wine is popular as is orange wine but I stuck to a very robust dry red and enjoyed every evening.

My last blog was rather long so I will stop here and try to write again on my excursions in the country. There is a lot to see even if some of the sites are hard to pronounce. I’m thinking of Mtskheta for instance…

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Church on crag.

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Churches on crags.

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And yes, I rode the aerial tramway to the top.

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The famous clock outside the equally famous marionette theatre in Tbilisi.

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River, bridge, church on crag (and seagull) Tbilisi.

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And again.

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Tbilisi Old City at dusk.

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Freedom Bridge, Tbilisi.

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A sunset.

 

On the Road Again.

I’ve had a busy two weeks and now an opportunity to collect my thoughts as I take this bus ride from Cappadocia to Ankara and from there a flight to Trabzon on the Black Sea. Various family members have been pressuring me to visit Cappadocia and so as I was in the area, as it were, and on the way east I thought why not. I should have flown from Istanbul to one of the local airports, either Nevsehir or Keyseri, but being a train enthusiast I took the train. Bit of a mistake as Istanbul’s main train station is closed indefinitely which means a long Metro ride or traffic-ridden taxi to the station at Pendik though there is a ferry from Eminonu which might have been the best option. Excellent train to Ankara with speeds up to 250 kmh it only took four hours, there was a café car and the loos were clean. Arriving in Ankara there was a quick and cheap taxi ride to the bus station for the bus to Goreme in Cappadocia (tickets at desk#50). The buses are becoming more like airplanes with seat back screens for movies, a steward who serves tea and sandwiches plus reclining seat backs. Not too painful.

Arrived In Goreme (Guh Reh Meh) in darkness, found taxi, delivered to hotel for about $2.00 and the main man greets me with a ‘what would you like?’ Shortly afterwards a bottle of the local red appeared and after a couple of glasses I went to bed. Morning came at around 5.00am and there was an intermittent roaring noise above me and I immediately thought, dragons! Grabbed some clothes and went outside ready to do my St George act (kidding) and there was Goreme in daylight with all its fantastic Fairy Chimneys and above were hot air balloons, lots of them, forty or fifty, I didn’t count. What an amazing sight to start the day. The Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia are now world famous, I’m sure you have seen photos but just in case – they were formed over the ages from deposits from two local volcanoes being eroded away leaving the local sandstone, protected by a layer of basalt, which the local people have carved away to create storage areas, flocks and herd shelters and now, hotel rooms. I read somewhere that the landscape resembles a Salvador Dali fever dream. True.

It gets better! There are underground cities! Nine or ten stories deep! The guide warned that with high blood pressure, a weak heart, claustrophobia or a nervous disposition one shouldn’t descend. I did. It was truly evocative. Originally dug by the Hittites in the eleventh century who found raids from invaders tiresome (Persians, Alexander the Great etc), they would dive down under the ground at the first sign of attack and close the door with massive circular stones. Unbelievably these ’doors’ have spy holes to see who has come knocking, also suitable for shooting arrows through. It is estimated that 2,000 people could live in the city for up to six months, but imagine the smell! There was a winery and kitchen area, little caves for a family and on the bottom floor there was access to an underground river. We crouched and almost crawled down and down and it got colder and colder and we all got dirtier and dirtier. I banged my head a few times but all in all it was a high point of Cappadocia for me.

If all that isn’t enough there’s more! 12th Century churches. Lots of them. When Christianity was outlawed by the Roman Empire many Christians fled to this area which with its underground cities, remoteness and hidden valleys provided a reasonably safe haven. Hewing away the soft rock they created very tiny churches, some holding only ten people. The frescoes they daubed on the wall are still visible though not in a very good state of repair but they are there nonetheless. Some of the frescoes are being restored by, if I understood it correctly, an Italian University. I’m not sure if this is a great idea but what do I know.

Cappadocia then, what a great place and I’m so grateful to Nat and Erin for keeping up the pressure on me to visit. The local wine is drinkable, the food is abundant, accommodation is widely available from one to five stars, it is rumored that there are over 200 places to stay in the tiny town of Goreme. I wonder therefore why the place wasn’t packed with North Americans and Western Europeans. It wasn’t. I met Indians, locals, Chinese and Central Asians but no Westerners. Perhaps it has something to do with Iraq and Syria being just down the road?

Moving on, well backwards actually, before Cappadocia I spent a week in Istanbul which is as exotic as ever. I wised up a little and bought an ‘Istanbulkart’ which allows one to travel on buses, trams, Metro and ferries and with the aid of Google maps and its timetable widget I easily navigated the city and ended up in some rather “interesting’ parts! After a few days the shopkeepers in my neighborhood stopped trying to sell me carpets and many a happy tea break I took on a stool on the sidewalk. I went back to the old favorites, The Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmet (Blue) Mosques, Topkapi Palace. Took a ride up the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. Ate leisurely meals and went to bed early, got up early and walked the streets in the early morning before it got hot. Again I have to say I got lots of the look that said ‘Goodness a Westerner’, but I felt quite safe everywhere I went, there are soldiers with large guns patrolling and even the occasional tank! Maybe its Erdogan but lets not go there just now.

Before I go I have to tell what happened before that. I went to Prague. There was a Montessori Congress there and both Julia and Sophie (niece) were booked in, so I kind of tagged along. What a beautiful city and we all agreed that it really isn’t like anywhere else, though Vienna and Edinburgh were mentioned. We rode around on trams, frequented cafes, went for a cruise on the river, visited castles and cathedrals, just generally had a great tourist visit. Shame that the Most Beautiful Library in the World was closed but just another reason to visit again.

Thank you ladies.

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The famous Charles Bridge in Prague.

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The ‘Fred and Ginger’ Building, Prague.

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Ceiling of entrance to Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

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Look at that rug!

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Trying for the arty shot….

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Balloon rising.

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This one came straight at me.

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Deep underground at Kaymakli.

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Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia.

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Fascinating.

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The Man, Woman and Child.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sulawesi and Borneo.

Off to Makassar in Southern Sulawesi I went from the Banda Islands, not a little reluctantly, but needs must and I really needed to pick up my card which had winged its way across the world in only five days. Arriving at the hotel it was produced at check in time with sighs of relief despite noticing the DHL package had been opened. Profuse apologies were offered and I have to agree my name on the envelope was written in tiny, tiny letters. Time therefore to address the next challenge which was to extend the duration of my tourist visa which I thought might be as easy as last time. Not! The first roadblock I discovered was that the immigration office in Makassar was miles away from the hotel, over an hour ride away. Add this to the ever-present late monsoon leading to torrential rain every day plus thunder, lightning and general gloom and it was time for a rethink. What to do, what to do?

I find if you worry about a problem a solution presents itself in time and lo, the solution presented itself. Two years ago I extended my visa in Balikpapan, Kalimantan, Borneo and a quick check on my phone informed me that a flight would cost less than fifty dollars. Plus I wasn’t having such a great time in Makassar what with the rain and all. I had vague hopes that maybe the weather might be better further north and actually as near as you can get to the Equator. Harrumph, no! More rain in Balikpapan but at lest it was familiar territory, I knew where the restaurants were located and best of all I knew the staff at the Imigrazi office. But as always one step forward two steps backward, the rules have changed; this time I needed a sponsor. Fortunately one of the friendly ladies at the office provided the solution and phoned my hotel manager who had no problem sponsoring me so that was one less form to worry about. There was an interview of course, why did I want to spend more time In Indonesia? The fact that I wanted to see more of the country’s seventeen thousand islands seemed to do the trick. A photo session and then it was done, I had my extension.

I had hopes of another boat ride on the Mahakan River but alas this was not to be. Perhaps it was the wrong season (see previously mentioned rain), maybe I should have booked in advance but everywhere I enquired it was the same shrugged shoulders and no help offered. Maybe there really weren’t any boats going upriver from Samarinda but every day at least four boats with large signs on their hulls cruised past my hotel. I was however quite content to watch the ship traffic on the water, mainly enormous towed barges loaded with coal! The adjacent Mosque was a wonder to behold, the largest in South East Asia and second biggest in the Southern Hemisphere, I will try and attach a photo.

A return visit to the Bahowo Lodge in Manado, Northern Sulawesi, was next up. I had stayed there a while ago and it was as eccentric as ever. Still Marmite for breakfast, scrambled eggs and all the joys of England set amongst the jungle. Extraordinary. Here too there had been exceptional rainfall, the rainy season was supposed to end in early February but there had been so much rain that even the pigsty had flooded. The result of this was that all the pigs had been released into the garden; we had pigs at the back door, pigs snuffling around the dinner table outside in the gazebo, piglets running everywhere. Actually it was all rather charming in a sort of piggy way. As with the school, the health clinic and school bus this pig project was developed for the benefit of the village. Phil and Paula contacted the relevant EU department for the required funds and after a visit from the officials the money was made available and now the village is in pig heaven, as it were. Coincidently my friend Alison who was staying there at the same time two years ago was also visiting and we had lots of laughs.

Then it was time to move on again. Sorry this has been a bit and then and then and then but I wanted to catch up. I still haven’t because there is a whole week on Raja Ampat to tell you about, so next blog: Raja Ampat.

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Big Mosque.

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Another view.

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Logs on the river.

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It got kind of crazy sometimes. Not really!

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Coal barge.

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Manado Tua in Northern Sulawesi.

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At sunset.

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Lots of action at the village jetty in the evenings.

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Searching for scraps at the back door.

 

Experiences on the far side of the world.

I’m constantly reminded of the truly generous spirit of people here on the far side of the world. A sweeping statement if ever there was one but consider the following, which have occurred in just the last few days.

 

Samarinda, Borneo.

Imagine if you will walking into a shop/store that specializes in fridges, dishwashers and washing machines to look for a memory card for a camera. You wouldn’t even bother; you would go to a camera shop. I did ask at my hotel reception desk if there was a camera shop anywhere nearby and was confidently told to go to the Big Mall which sounded promising and off I went. Dropped at the main door I entered to discover three floors each as big as two football fields, maybe even three, with no signage not even in Behasa, the local language. Plus it was packed, packed with families, roaming bands of shoe kicking children, yes shoe kicking, balls were presumably banned, moms, dads, babies, the usual bands of happy shoppers. I did find a vast supermarket within that rivaled Costco or a large Tesco and discovered Twinings Earl Grey but that wasn’t the point of the expedition. I wandered about amongst the crowds looking for anything familiar, anything that resembled a camera shop but no, nothing. Endless bakeries and bread shops, bread I might add very strangely colored, bright red, lurid green, pink even. I left empty handed, except for the tea, and disconsolately returned to my hotel, which by chance was attached to the aforementioned fridge and dishwasher shop.

Entering I received some odd glances, I mean, here I was, obviously a tourist, why would I be looking at dishwashers! But I spied, in the corner a cell (mobile) phone shop and fearing ridicule took a chance. Lots of phones, Samsung to be exact, not many customers and a couple of staff attending to the cash register. Ok, here we go again, out with my best gesticulations and sign language but I had a prop, my camera and removing the chip I kind of waved it about and pointed to the cash register, hopefully. How pathetic can you get? But I nearly fell on the floor as the young woman piped up “ would you like to buy a memory chip for your camera? How many gigabytes do you want?” I gaped briefly and then described what I was looking for. “Oh no” she said, “ we don’t sell those here but if you want I can go to the computer shop in the town after my shift ends at nine o’clock, buy what you want and bring them to your hotel.” To cut a long story short, she, Linda, did, at ten o’clock at night, refused a tip, refused an offer of a meal or refreshment. Gave me my bits and jumped on her scooter and beaming pleasantly sped away.

 

Balikpapan, Borneo.

Again. As it happened I knew the lady, Anita, who now runs the Immigration office in Balikpapan, Borneo where once again I was extending my visa. When I was there two years ago to extend my visa she was running the visa extension department, she was promoted and now runs the whole ship. She recognized me and ushered me through the new rules and regulations including acquiring a sponsor, my hotel manager would suffice, and after the usual bureaucratic antics I got my extension. Then she asked if I would like to go for dinner with her family, well sure I said. The family appeared at my hotel to pick me up; husband Robbie and two children who spoke no English aged probably seven and eleven. We had a very pleasant meal in a Warung (local restaurant) where we ate crab and freshly caught fish with the inevitable rice and some sort of green veg’.

Nothing could persuade them that I wanted to pay my share and they took me back to the hotel. Very wonderful.

 

Banda Neira, Banda Islands.

I mentioned in an earlier post the generosity of the staff at the hotel Maulana in Banda Neira where they spontaneously not only baked me a cake for my birthday but also gathered round singing the birthday song and generally making me feel ‘in the spirit’. There were lots of other little things they did to make me feel welcome. One time, while I was packing I discovered that my shorts had not only split at the seams but the pockets had also come apart. I mentioned this to Galuh, the lady who was running the hotel, and asked if there was anyone in the small town who could mend them. “ Don’t worry,” says she “ I have a sewing machine at home and I will fix them, no problem.” Next morning, there they were, all mended and I’m wearing them now with renewed confidence!

 

There you are then, the generosity of mankind in a faraway land. I might add that one of the three woman wore an Abaya and Hijab to work, another, while professing to be Muslim had attended Catholic school while the third, who I met only briefly so we didn’t delve too deeply, lived a city that was just about 100% Muslim.

Just goes to show as they say.

The Banda Islands.

London to the Banda islands in one hop was really quite exhausting though I did have a couple of nights in Ambon waiting for the ferry across the Banda Sea which gave me a chance to catch up on my sleep a little. Ambon, is the major transportation hub for the Malukus which lie approximately between Sulawesi and Papua. Lots of boats and ferries stop here on their way to the outlying islands, planes call in here from all parts of Indonesia so it is relatively easy to get to, and leave. Banda on the other hand, is only serviced by the twice-weekly ferry, which leaves on Tuesdays and Saturdays, returning to Ambon on the subsequent days. There is a twice a month Pelni boat but the company, Pelni, don’t seem very forthcoming on the schedule. The story is that they say the ferry will leave at 9.00am but it actually leaves at 9.30am, this is so late comers can be accommodated. Be aware that both the port at Ambon and the one on Banda are hustler magnets, lots of people around to ‘help’, for a price, albeit a very low price. Helping me load and unload my bag cost about a dollar and this seemed to be generous.

Off we went, at 9.30 obviously, and I was able to make a video call, from the boat as we raced along, back home to California. I can’t remember what we talked about apart from marveling that we could actually do that, it really is miraculous. The signal faded and I glanced around to find two small hijabi clad children in the next seat. They played Angry Birds on my tablet and I thought back to the flight to Kochi where a similar thing happened. My economy class seat was just a little claustrophobic so I went up on the deck and enjoyed the open air for the rest of the six-hour crossing. Not much to see, just water, water everywhere but Banda soon heaved up on the horizon, dominated by its volcanic peak, Api, and we pulled into the harbor about two hours later. The lady who temporarily runs the hotel, Galuh, was there to meet me and off we set to the Maulana, a mere one hundred yards from the jetty.

Such a great hotel, built some years ago it still exudes Dutch colonialness though it has suffered a little over the years. The basics were all taken care of very efficiently, breakfast was always ready early, dinner was a veritable feast and the beer was cold. There is not a lot to do in the Banda islands, there are other little islands dotted around to visit including the famous Run, swapped with the Dutch for Manhattan, there is the volcano to climb, and there is an old Dutch fort to visit. The little town of Banda Neira is very relaxed and as always in that part of the world everyone says hello, as in ‘Hello Mister’. BUT, due to an altercation with the ATM machine at Ambon airport I didn’t have any cash, local cash that is. No trips for me! Accepting my cash deficiency I just stayed around the hotel, and let Banda come to me. I soon became a fixture in the garden and others would gather round and tell me of their diving expeditions, their hike up the volcano and their circumnavigation of the island in forty-five minutes.

How did you pay for the hotel you may ask? It took a while but the lady in charge and I signed up the hotel with a PayPal account and Julia, back in California, was kind enough to send photos of both sides of my reserve card before sending it by DHL to Makassar in Sulawesi. I did therefore have some form of ability to pay, just no cash!

There was a birthday, mine, and the hotel crew came through for me, cake, candles, Happy Birthday singing, it was all very delightful and reminiscent of two birthdays ago in Balikpapan on the island of Borneo. Very friendly and thoughtful people here.

The days came and went, ships came to the adjacent port to load and unload providing welcome diversions. Opulent liveaboard diving yachts passed through discharging their occupants under the water. One liveaboard captain proudly informed me that Tony Blair had been on his yacht, I can hear the Brits retching from here! Lady Diana Spencer once stayed at the hotel and drew a self-portrait which is kept in pride of place. Mr Jagger stayed there too as well as Jacques Cousteau. All in all Banda was everything I wanted it to be and the week or so relaxing there was the perfect antidote to the bad case of jet lag I suffered and I reveled in the remoteness.

Off I had to go, reluctantly to Makassar in Sulawesi to pick up my debit card. Without the ATM saga I could have stayed in the Banda islands indefinitely, but neither Fedex nor DHL service the smaller islands east of Sulawesi so that is where I had to go.

Banda Api, the volcano. I hear that it is about to erupt and people are being evacuated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ‘fast boat’ from Ambon to Banda.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cleaning up the trash.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Maulana Hotel. Banda Neira.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boats, boats and more boats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A big ship leaving through ‘The Gates of the Sun’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Birthday Party.

A Liveaboard. The si datu bua.