Category Archives: Uncategorized

Road Trip in Greece.

Write it all down I was told; let’s give it a try. Here I am on a bus thundering north out of Athens to Delphi, scene of the Oracle, then to Meteora where the famous monasteries perch on top of their pinnacles, then to the memorial at Thermopylae. Already we have passed the site of the Battle of Marathon where the Athenians defeated the Persians, after which a soldier (Pheidippides) ran the 27 miles into the center of Athens to spread the word of the victory. Poor guy dropped dead from exhaustion but his name lives on, and every year the Athens Marathon follows his route from the site to the City center. It takes place in a couple of weeks.

I’m live blogging this and wondering when the last time I did that was. Could it have been the marshrutka ride between Khujand and Dushanbe in Tajikistan? That was certainly memorable. I digress! This is a good road, three lanes in each direction, up and down through low hills, passing a couple of reservoirs which look to be in good shape, unlike those in California where the reservoirs have all but dried up after the long drought. There are cotton fields; Greece is the major producer in Europe. Solar and wind farms. We pass Thebes and lurid tales of Oedipus (the King). We all know the story but not perhaps that it is the first part of a trilogy by Sophocles and that the premier was in 429BCE. That is BCE! Old!

Delphi, high, high up in the mountains with fabulous views over the surrounding hills, valleys and down to the sea beyond. Of course the ruins are perched precipitously with endless steps up and down, still not easy, but quite a delight to explore. In the height of summer it must be hellish but here in late October the temperature is cool and the crowds, reasonable. Two hours to look at the ruins and then another hour in the museum. I’m not a big museum person but this one was fascinating. Lots of gods, gold and statues, I absolutely loved it.

Off into the foggy mountains we go, in the dark, heading for Meteora. Hope we get to see something of it.

Monasteries we saw, and a convent. The day broke foggy but in the elevator in the early light I saw, for the first time the rocky crags above the town of Kalabaka. Quite majestic, impossibly high, but no sign of a monastery. A hasty breakfast with my tour mates, two Grandmothers from Melbourne (I really have an aversion to cold fried eggs) and off out to pile into the van, pick up the younger folk, one from Argentina (Diego) and the other from Kazakhstan. There was a bit of a kerfuffle finding the local guide that resolved itself and away we went, up. Up and up. Have I mentioned I suffer from vertigo? I was nervous. We stopped for a quick look and craned, craned until we nearly fell over backwards. Meteora translates to ‘Suspended in the air’ and so it appeared. We were looking up at the Great Meteora Monastery where building started in possibly the 13th Century, nobody really knows, and on that day it was closed to tourists. There are six occupied monasteries surviving out of the original twenty-four and they take it in turns to open their doors to us tourists. The monks built their monasteries in such a remote and challenging environment to both be as far away from the humdrum of life and also to be nearer to God.

The word piety sprang to mind as we made our way through cathedrals, churches and chapels. I know nothing about Orthodoxy, perhaps I should read up on it, these religious sites are all dedicated to Greek Orthodoxy and, it is claimed, maintained the Hellenistic way of life during the Ottoman occupation (mid 15th – early 19th). This of course was a very good thing and I don’t think you will go far wrong if you imagine the monks, crouched over desks, copying ancient books and manuscripts to preserve the culture for future generations. They are there, the copies made and more are being discovered, because in times of trouble the monks would hide their treasures within the walls or bury them in the grounds. Perhaps one day the lost plays and philosophical tracts from Ancient Greece will reappear. We can always dream. I could wax on about the ever present incense, the extremely graphic paintings and drawings, the tranquility of the monks themselves, the quiet, the views out over the precipitous drops. You get the picture.

And of course there was James Bond. Yep, For Your Eyes Only was partly filmed at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Meteora. The result was that the small town below, Kalabaka, doubled in size within five years, and, more than half the monks left. I’ll leave an opinion to you…

On the way back to Athens we stopped at the site of the battle of Thermopylae, with the accent on the second syllable in English but in Greek, Thermopiles with the accent on the third syllable. I got some very strange looks when I said I wanted to go there. Actually there is not a lot there, as I was constantly informed. There is a rather large memorial to King Leonides and a bit of a plaque where the battle took place. Behind the memorial there is a four lane highway and above it, electrical pylons. I was pleased to visit and see that the memory lives on (480BCE) but disheartened today to read that the site is now a beacon for far right wing lunatics from all over Europe and America. The article was in today’s (November 7) Washington Post if you care to Google it.

Massive wall at Delphi.

Massive wall at Delphi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the excavations proceeded they realized the wall was covered with inscriptions.

As the excavations proceeded they realized the wall was covered with inscriptions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Charioteer. He may be missing an arm but he has eyeballs and seems to follow you as you walk about the room. Spooky.

The Charioteer. He may be missing an arm but he has eyeballs and seems to follow you as you walk about the room. Spooky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apollo and Artemis. The adornments were found buried in a box. After 2,000 years!

Apollo and Artemis. The adornments were found buried in a box. After 2,000 years!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monastery of the Holy Trinity.

Monastery of the Holy Trinity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A monastery at Meteora.

A monastery at Meteora.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The only way in and out in earlier times. A traveller waiting to be hoisted up asked when they changed the rope. "When it breaks"

The only way in and out in earlier times.
A traveller waiting to be hoisted up asked when they changed the rope. “When it breaks”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Memorial for the Battle of Thermopylae.

The Memorial for the Battle of Thermopylae.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burial site of the 300.

Burial site of the 300.

Jamaica.

And so to Jamaica. I feel I must qualify my comments in the knowledge that out there are Jamaicaphiles and Jamaicaphobes so I will try to just keep to the facts and maybe not offer too many opinions. The usual excitement on arriving somewhere new was tempered by the two customs officials and the undercover policeman who took it upon themselves to completely unpack my bags and question me belligerently as to why I was visiting. I thought that odd given the Island’s reputation. Unnerved I proceeded and was met by the driver from my Airbnb, nice guy who guided me through the usual rigmarole of changing money and finding a SIM for my phone then we were off into Kingston. After working for a Jamaican company a long time ago I naively thought the streets would be bouncing with the reggae music, but no, just another big city with horrendous traffic. I did spot some large 4by4 type vehicles decked out with lights and booming speakers. I gesticulated to the driver as if to enquire: hearse, he said. Ok then. Weaving through the traffic we came upon a huge 4-lane highway running north across the island with no other cars on it. In between songs played on the massive sound system in the car I asked what led to the creation of this motorway/freeway. The Chinese made a deal with the authorities to set up an entrepôt just off the harbor in Kingston and in return they built this giant toll road. Note the word “toll”, you must pay to drive on it and of course the local people can’t afford it and continue to use the old road which takes three hours for the North to South coast run, we did it in forty minutes.

Then we were there, Bromley House, outside Ocho Rios. Built on the site of an old Spanish fort dating back to the Sixteenth Century the house was a cattle ranch from the Eighteenth Century onwards, in fact it still is. In the late Nineteenth Century it was bought by a Scottish doctor who built it out in the shape it is today with sundry porticoes and balconies. I was billeted in one of the cottages on the grounds with three rooms, a kitchen, bathroom and wrap around verandah. Breakfast was cooked every morning by the lovely Valerie, who also takes care of the paperwork and finances, and consisted of eggs, bacon and an array of local fruits, star apples, mangoes, pineapple and was consistently delicious. Most days my host, Johnathan (Jonna), would drive us down Fern Gulley to Ocho for basic supplies, and rum. He was a rally driver, amongst other things, so the drive down and back up was quite the experience. Of course being born there he knew every twist and turn, he could probably drive it in his sleep, but for me, the newcomer, it was often a white-knuckle ride. There were two guard dogs, Elsa and Meatball, who sort of adopted me and would curl up outside my door and bark furiously if anyone dared come up the driveway. We went to a local beach for lunch and a swim on occasion and despite the mass tourism and cruise ships there was rarely anyone else on it (Sugar Pot). Other times we would go down to the village, Walkerswood, where there is a restaurant called Lyming where we would buy small flasks of the local rum and enjoy fabulous Jamaican food, jerk chicken, jerk pork with Festival, a type of local bread. I failed to sample Mannish Water, a local delicacy, which is a glorified Goat’s Head soup; I’m not going into details, too many vegetarians in my family! Another day we went to a Polo match, Jamaica vs Barbados, tea and triangular sandwiches with lots of gin afterwards.

The weeks flew by and I thought I should see some other parts of the Island. Up and up into the legendary Blue Mountains where I stayed at the Mount Edge (hotel, sort of). It seemed to take an age to climb up into the mountains but on arriving the views were stupendous. I visited the Bob Marley museum and felt a bit aged! Not much point in telling anyone of my nights touring with Marley as the label PR guy. A couple of nights in Kingston at the Liguanea club (pronounced Ligeny) which was just about the only accommodation available due to some International conference in town.

Interestingly the Liguanea was ‘featured in a James Bond film’, you might like to remember that as I will say it again, soon.

Bromley.

Bromley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breakfast table and the incredible view.

Breakfast table and the incredible view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Favorite dog. Meatball.

Favorite dog. Meatball.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elsa and Meatball on my verandah.

Elsa and Meatball on my verandah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had a neighbor. A bird who lived in a tree.

I had a neighbor. A bird, who lived in an adjacent tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It laid an egg.

It laid an egg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which hatched.

Which hatched.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The view from Mount Edge.  The Blue Mountains of Jamaica.

The view from Mount Edge.
The Blue Mountains of Jamaica.

Panamanian Islands

Back to the blog after a bit of an absence, sorry about that. Where did I leave off? Was it Cartagena? What an absolutely great city that is, I can recommend to one and all and now that the five decade civil war is over its probably safe even for alarmists. Thinking back, quite a few months, I had to leave Colombia before I really wanted to and ended up in Panama City which was not, shall we say, edifying. High rises, office blocks, poisoned beaches, a canal and hats. I did write a blog about it didn’t I. The buzz in Cartagena and in Panama was that the San Blas or Kuna Yala islands off the North Coast are definitely worth a visit because nobody knows about them, nobody goes there and there is nothing to do if you go, nowhere to stay, basic food, no potable water, no loos, so yes, pretty much nothing, just the local people, the Kuna Tribe.

Another of those half past dark starts at 4.30am, run around the smaller hotels and hostels picking people up until the van filled up and off to a giant supermarket to buy, erm, what? I wandered around, bought a bottle of water, some cookies and a sandwich and went back to the van. Where did everybody go? I waited and waited until my van mates returned with cartloads of stuff. Huge water containers, industrial size serials, bread, cheese, just the basics and I figured they were going to be on a deserted island for just a few days. As a ‘more mature’ backpacker (ha!) I had made other arrangements. I had found a boat chartering person, just him and his computer, and he found me a Polish guy, with a boat and no guests, who would knock 50% off his normal rate for a quick sail around the islands for a couple of nights.

I can’t say more than that the buzz was correct. There was nothing to do, but for just a couple of days I lived in a dream. Perfect coral islands, atolls, turquoise, warm sea, palm trees, women of the local tribe, few if any men, (the women do everything such as it is). Actually what the women do is make their very unique clothes with panels sown on called Molas and they sell the ones they don’t wear to tourists like me. This seems to be their sole source of income. Interestingly there was little or no food readily available. We were behind a giant reef and with two fishing rods dragging behind we never caught a thing. We did manage to buy a couple of somewhat meagre specimens but they didn’t really satisfy. The whole area is ‘fished out’. Depressing. One last thing, the larger Kuna villages are on the mainland and the women take it in turns to go live on the tiny islands, so the two women I met were on their tiny island for three months then they would return to the village and two more women would go stay. And I do mean tiny, I walked all the way around it in ten minutes.

From San Blas I made my way to Bocas del Torro, another group of islands at the other end of the Atlantic side of Panama right up near the border with Costa Rica. This archipelago couldn’t have been more different to San Blas. All the overlanders from the North making their way down through Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica to South America seem to land on Bocas, ditto the overlanders making their way North from the South, it was as a result, crowded. It had the feel of a Wild West movie, as in anything goes, and nobody seemed to care about themselves or anyone else. Certainly there are some quite beautiful parts but it all felt like a low end resort for travellers, cheap booze, cheap and quite nasty food and tacky accommodations.

Additionally the rainy season was just beginning so I began to panic that my medium term plan, to travel North, overland, through Costa Rica, Guatemala and Nicaragua would just be a soggy mess. I don’t mind a bit of rain but the rainy season down there is something to behold. It is really very, very wet.

I needed a miracle and naturally one occurred! Yes really. I was sitting in my hotel room watching the rain come down and thought “well it can’t be raining everywhere” and started looking at hotels etc on Caribbean Islands. Mostly far, far above my pay grade and honestly the thought of an all-inclusive resort where you are not encouraged to venture out of the compound rather destroys the whole point of travelling. Hmm, how about Airbnb? Search, search and suddenly there she was. Someone I knew with an Airbnb in Jamaica. Small world. Sent off the requisite email and 24 hours later I was driving up her driveway.

It all worked out very well.

Typical Island in San Blas

Typical Island in San Blas

 

 

 

 

 

A display of molas

A display of molas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kuna ladies cleaning their beach.

Kuna ladies cleaning their beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

More national dress. They were very camera shy.

More national dress. They were very camera shy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The airport terminal.

The airport terminal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunset in the San Blas Islands.

Sunset in the San Blas Islands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bocas del Torro waterfront.

Bocas del Torro waterfront.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Main street Bocas.

Main street Bocas.

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.

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Some of the buildings were interesting to look at.

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The Panama Canal.

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Ship in the Canal.

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Old City of Panama.

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At the museum.

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Also at the museum.

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Downtown Panama City.

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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.

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My little square. Look closely for the artworks.

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Art.

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My street.

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Typical Cartagena balcony.

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The Cathedral.

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A part of the fortress.

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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!

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The kids on their phones outside a nondescript building.

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Architecture of the Soviet Brutalist School I believe.

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

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More Brutalist architecture.

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John Lennon.

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

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Street art. Wow.

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Cannons at the old fort.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A failed trip to the Banda Islands. Then Raja Ampat.

Such a low tide today, the reef is exposed, the lagoon is nearly dry and the little boats are having trouble reaching the jetty. The high tide too was extreme, the sound of the waves at 4.30am woke me up and fearing that my cabin/hut/shack might be swamped I set off down the beach to watch the sunrise. All this because the moon is almost full and that means that it has been a month since I was on Maratua which in turn means I haven’t put pen to paper or even fingers to keyboard for far too long, sorry about that, lets see what’s been happening. There have been the usual ups and downs, a definite low was being presented with a stale sandwich for breakfast one morning that contained nothing but chocolate sprinkles, though a high was drinking tea on a cliff top one afternoon with half a dozen volcanoes to gaze upon. People too, I’ve met Slovakians, Italians, Chileans, the occasional (quiet) American, French, Dutch, Germans (of course) and a whole BnB full of English, really! Right now I am on the Raja Ampat Islands off the west coast of Papua, New Guinea is right next door so that is the second and third largest islands in the world on my list of places visited lately. I am quite geographically pleased. Greenland next?

My last jottings were sent from Balikpapan in East Kalimantan, Borneo where I was on a mission, an over night mission, from Manado, North Sulawesi, to stay one night and pick up a replacement credit card. Yes, I finally managed to loose mine. Stupid I know, but fortunately my bank had sent a new one to the house some time ago and Julia was kind enough to Fedex it over, sent on Friday I picked it up on Wednesday, not bad from Fairfax to Balikpapan, Borneo. But while waiting for the mailman what was I going to do, carry on with the plan seemed best so a very quick flight to Manado in Northern Sulawesi (was the Celebes) where I was picked up and taken to an English run BnB called Bahowo Lodge. Built from scratch by Phil Boast and Paula Larcher it is possibly a perfect example of the way such places should be run. They sponsor the local village school and all the village kids receive a free, primary education, there are six classrooms with a teacher for each one. They bought a bus so the older kids can get to town for secondary school and a number have moved on to university, again sponsored by Phil, Paula and guests of the BnB. Imagine then, the jungles of Sulawesi, in the middle of a village, pigs roaming the streets, happy children singing the alphabet song and eight Brits plus an American girl from Baton Rouge. It was worthy of a screen play, a tv series, a movie. There was Marmite on toast, gin and tonics, affordable wine, egg and bacon, I mean, really, you can’t make this stuff up! No names, but there was a Chief Inspector from the Terrorist Squad and MI6 there, with his wife, who could be persuaded to tell some tales including how he was flown, by the “cousins”, from Tallahassee, Florida to Medellin, Colombia in the back of a Phantom, for coffee. You might like to do a search for Phil as not only has he written a book about building the BnB but he has also written a series of books on life in an English village.

It was time to leave and another short flight across the Celebes Sea to Ternate. A tiny dot on the Planet but it looked interesting being volcanic and was on my planned route. It was billed in my book as being the perfect tropical paradise. Opinions differ! There were some interesting 17th Century Dutch Forts with old canons lying about and a most spectacular Mosque. But I think it is on the verge of converting to Sharia law and I really have no time for that.

On then to Ambon, the Capital of the Mulukas, and the heart of the Spice Islands of old. A certain sense of triumph because this was perhaps the end of my Silk Road quest, for it was here that the Chinese came to find cloves, nutmeg, mace. Returning with them to the mainland they were loaded on to camels with the silks and off to Rome, Egypt and other western destinations. I sat amongst the trees inhaling the fragrances and dreamt of Samarkand, Khiva, Turpan, Tash Rabat and other Silk Road stopovers. I likedAmbon. Definitely in ‘Hello Mister” country, this being the cry of the locals as I passed by, from both the kids and the adults. I don’t think I saw another westerner the entire time I was there so there was a sense of surprise as I came in sight. There is a mode of transport perhaps unique to the island, the becak. A small carriage for two, attached to the front of a bicycle and pushed along by pedal power. At first glance I dismissed this as perhaps a little Rajish, elitist, just a gimmick for tourists. But, as I said, there were no tourists, the locals, young and old used them. There were ranks of becaks everywhere and after careful observation I deemed them safe and took a ride. My plan was to head on to the Banda Islands, I had heard a rumor of a boat so becaked it to the port where I was deposited outside the office of the Port Authority. After much gesticulation, pointing at maps etc I determined that the boat had sailed at midnight the night before. Back to the becak and a ride to a travel agent where a delightful Indian lady did her due diligence and determined that the only airline that flies to Banda, Susie Air on a six seater, was sold out for a week. There was a possibility she said of getting a boat to the Kei Islands, about 500 hundred miles past Banda, then another boat back to my destination, though there was no guarantee that I could leave Banda in a timely fashion. If I had not lost my credit card this might have been just about possible but my mistake caught up with me, I couldn’t go to Banda and leave the country before my visa, expired. Therefore I lost the opportunity to expand on the tale of a battle between the Brits and the Dutch over a small and unproductive Banda island that the British were occupying. The story goes that they paused the battle to have tea together, had a bit of a negotiation and the Dutch decided to swap the unproductive rock for another desolate island they ‘owned’. And that is how the Brits gained Manhattan. Good story.

There I was then, in Ambon, without a plan. I took a tour to ponder, high up into the hills to see spice plantations. The spice trade is not what it was and though spices are grown all over there seemed to be no actual ‘farms”. Here was a nutmeg tree, there a clove, here a rambutan fruit tree and there a betel nut tree amongst the many durian trees. Although not exactly what my western organized eyes had expected it was gloriously haphazard, chaotic and I guess to some extent it worked. Cloves dried on cloths on the road surface, rambutan and durian stalls abounded and everyone seemed very happy and content. Me and my preconceptions, ha, wrong again Tim. Did you know btw that nutmeg and mace come from the same nut? Nutmeg on the outside, mace in the middle. I didn’t.

On a slightly negative note there has been trouble in Ambon recently between the Christians and the Muslims. I passed through areas that had been closed to traffic for months but saw little sign of destruction. The result of the disturbances is that the island is now heavily segregated with the Christians predominating in the city and the Muslims relegated to the area around the airport. Sad I find.

However, I couldn’t see out my visa on Ambon although the becaks were charming, the Ojeks (sitting on the back of a motor bike) slightly alarming and the Ojeks (mini buses playing very loud music) plentiful and cheap it wasn’t exactly a place to spend too much time. Research, research. I half wanted to go see the Dragons on Komodo, or hang out in the Gillis or go stay with a tribe in Papua. My eye landed on Raja Ampat off the west coast of Papua. A National Park dedicated to wildlife, fish and coral it sounded interesting. The Diving Tribe considers it some of the best diving in the world due to its location at the center of the coral triangle. I couldn’t find any suggestion of a hotel on the islands so called a homestay to check availability. Sure, said the guy, fly from Ambon to Sarong, pick up the once a day ferry to Waihai and we will pick you up at the jetty in the speedboat for the ride to Kri.

Its not easy these days escaping far the maddening crowd.

A classroom in Bahowo village. Sulawesi.

A classroom in Bahowo village. Sulawesi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catching the school bus.

Catching the school bus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Volcano.

Volcano and local outrigger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canons on Ternate.

Canons on Ternate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dutch fort on Ternate.

Dutch fort on Ternate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A big volcano and a small one.

A big volcano and a small one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Market place in Ambon.

Market place in Ambon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patriotic durian sellers!

Patriotic durian sellers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Allied World War 2 Cemetery.

Allied World War 2 Cemetery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The old Palace.

The old Palace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nutmeg.

Nutmeg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ambon taxi.

Ambon  becak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ambon taxi rank.

Ambon taxi rank.