Croatia – 2018

The trip started out pretty well, with a complimentary limo transfer service provided by Qantas – it’s only available on their flights up to London and back.  A black Audi A6 picked us up from home and we were also met at London Heathrow and transferred to our hotel. We could easily get used to this.  Around 24 hours after leaving Sydney, with a stop at Singapore, the Red Roo’s Dunlops kissed the tarmac at London Heathrow.

We left Sydney the day before our travelling companions, so we overnighted in London.  Since we arrived around 6am, we had a full day.  It was essentially a lazy day, so we took advantage of the hop on hop off buses and took in some of the tourist destinations.  It was nice to wander without being overly touristy.

We met up with our other travelling companions the next morning at London Heathrow, then flew together to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital.  We arrived a couple of days prior to our tour in order to acclimatise.  Our Insight Vacations “Country Roads of Croatia” coach trip commenced in Zagreb, then we wended our way through some stunning countryside to the spectacular coast, and concluding in Dubrovnik.

Zagreb’s architecture is a bit of a mix of what we’ve previously seen in other European & Scandinavian cities, fine old buildings along with the new.  There was a remarkable absence of litter; however, the large amounts of graffiti more than made up for it.

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While staying in Zagreb, we travelled to the small town of Kumrovec, famous for being the birthplace of Yugoslavia’s former dictator, Marshall Tito.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t too hokey.  We had a late lunch at a delightful place at Gresna Gorica, set amongst rolling vine-clad hills, where we were served some great local produce, washed down with some great local wines.

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We crossed into Slovenia for the day in order to visit the Postojna Caves.  The Caves are absolutely huge, measuring some 24km in length. Around 5km is accessible to the public. The cave system is around 2 million years old.  It contains all the usual suspects, such as stalactites, stalagmites, pillars, columns and translucent curtains, but on a large scale – both numerically and physically.  The largest cavern is called the Concert Hall which, unsurprisingly, has great acoustics and can accommodate around 10,000 people.  I always thought that Jenolan Caves in NSW were reasonably big; unfortunately, Postojna leaves them for dead.

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We spent the following two nights in the seaside town of Opatija and explored the Istria Peninsula, which juts out into the Adriatic.  Opatija’s waterfront was reminiscent of the French Riviera.

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The town of Pula boasts Roman ruins, including an amphitheatre that dates from 68AD, similar in age to the great colosseum in Rome.  There were many verdant valleys and hills on the way.

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We had lunch at the delightful old fishing port of Rovinj, on the peninsula’s western coast.  It’s got a great waterfront area with many cafes and restaurants to laze away a couple of hours, and charming narrow cobblestoned streets in which to explore.

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One of the highlights of the trip was visiting the pristine Plitvice National Park.  Comprising 16 lakes of varying sizes, it’s truly a stunning place.  It was also one of many UNESCO world heritage listed sites that we saw in this wonderful country.  We spent the night at a hotel in the park, with the muted roar from the various waterfalls providing a degree of ambiance.

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Leaving the magnificent park we headed for the Dalmatian coast, stopping at the medieval town of Trogir, which was founded by the Greeks around 400BC and the centre of which is UNESCO listed, then onto Split.  The coastline en route is reminiscent of the Amalfi coast and parts of Cinque Terre.

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Split was originally founded in the 4th century AD, essentially as the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian.  The city has grown from this, with much of the walls and buildings intact.  Once again, it’s UNESCO listed.  There were many little hole in the wall cafes and restaurants that just oozed character and charm.

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We caught a local ferry to our first island stop on Hvar for a couple of nights.  It’s alleged to be Croatia’s sunniest island.  The ancient Greeks (who I’ve come to realise must have been extremely busy!!) founded a colony at the port town of Stari Grad in 384BC.  The island is consistently rated in the world’s top 10.  It’s not hard to wonder why!!

While on the island we visited a couple of the picturesque towns and had a great lunch of local produce and wines.  As we further explored the islands we were stunned by the blue colours and absolute clarity of the sea waters.

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A room with a view (not too shabby!!)

Our next stop was the island of Korcula.  To reach this island we needed to catch a ferry to the mainland, south of Split, cross into Bosnia and then back into Croatia, for a smaller car/truck ferry to Korcula.

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The island’s major town is, unsurprisingly, called Korcula.  It’s an old fortified town which extends into the bay.  It has one main street, with all side streets in a herringbone shape which aids in air flow but also assists with moderating strong local cross winds.  The locals maintain that Marco Polo was born there, while the Italians dispute this.  At the time of his birth, the city was controlled as part of the Venetian empire.

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We had an evening cruise around the old town and some adjacent bays before being taken to a traditional restaurant for another example of delightful local fare along with wines produced by the owners.  They also made some of their own “grappa” which succeeded in clearing (burning??) the sinus’.  Mine host had emigrated to Canada for a number of years prior to returning home.  There is quite a diaspora of Korculans who emigrated to Australia, Canada and the US.

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Our final stop was to be in Dubrovnik.  Returning to the mainland, we stopped at the town of Ston, which has a well preserved old wall (nicknamed the “great wall of Ston”).  We had the opportunity to hop onto a boat and were taken out to some oyster and mussel farms to see how they are grown.  Once on the boat we were given some shots of local spirits to sample (seems to be a common theme developing here!!) – it was a bit of an ask at 10am.

The oyster growing process is quite fascinating, in that the farmers suspend bunches of fine mesh that collect the spawned cells, from which the shells grow.  They have quite a high mortality rate of around 40%, both from natural causes and a species of fish that have suitably adapted teeth that crack them.  It was a pleasant experience sampling a selection that had been pulled straight from the water and washed down with a nice local white.

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The old town of Dubrovnik was an absolute gem, constructed from a local limestone and kept spotlessly clean – the streets are washed nightly.  We didn’t find any graffiti, which was very refreshing.  It sustained much damage during the war with the knuckle-headed Bosnian Serbs in the ’90’s; however, most of it has been repaired and rebuilt.  The amount of new roof tiles against the really old ones is testament to the barrage that the town received.  There is some shrapnel damage to some of the building walls.  Unsurprisingly, it’s another UNESCO site.  We were able to walk around the town walls which provided great views of the town, as well as the surrounding sea.

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The stairs where GoT’s Cersei commenced her walk of shame

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We had sundown drinks at Buza Bar, which is essentially located at a hole in the city walls and provides great panorama of the setting sun.  Drinks are very pricey; however, the location really compensates.

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We had the opportunity to travel down to Montenegro for the day.  This country, like the others on this trip, was once part of the former Yugoslavia.  We travelled around a picturesque bay that is very reminiscent of a glacial fjord, on the way to the pretty city of Kotor.

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We had a dinner cruise around the bays on our last night, which was a wonderful way to farewell this truly wonderful town and truly great country.

Croatia is a seriously great place to visit.  To paraphrase Molly Meldrum “do yourself a favour” and visit.  Common feedback from our fellow travellers was that they thought Croatia would be a great place to visit; however, didn’t expect it to be as great as it was.  There were so many gems sprinkled around the 14 days of our trip.

In all, we travelled through 4 countries and covered almost 2180km.

We then moved on to Budapest for our next adventure, a river cruise up to Amsterdam.

Fun facts:

  • Croatians invented the fountain pen and parachute;
  • They have “smart benches” in public places that can be used to charge iPhones and other devices by day and provide lighting by night;
  • Croatians “invented” ties.  The story goes that when their soldiers went off to fight in the 30 year war in France during the 1600’s they wore scarves around their necks, some say to remind them of wives and lovers back home.  The French King liked it so much that the item was adopted as “a la Croate”, then bastardised to “la cravate” and ultimately adopted around the world.

 

Colorado – 2018

For Aussie skiers and boarders, North America is a Nirvana; there are so many ski fields from which to choose.  Many are relatively easy to reach, a flight up to LA, San Francisco, Dallas or Vancouver, then onward flight into the interior.

This year we travelled to Colorado to spend a week each at both Vail and Breckenridge ski towns.  “Epic” season passes are available, which are cheaper than purchasing a two week pass; and have the added benefits of being used at around 5 ski fields in the vicinity, as well as in Canada and Perisher Valley back home.

The trip got off to a great start when we were notified by Qantas 24hrs prior to our flight that our Business Class upgrade requests were approved.  The lay flat beds, good alcohol and a couple of sleeping tablets all contributed to us getting a good seven hours sleep, so we arrived into LA reasonably fresh.  50,000 points each well spent.

We arrived into LAX at around 6.00am, just as most of the customs and border staff commence.  We really kicked a goal with a fairly quick and straight forward entry process (less than an hour).  LAX arrivals (at the Tom Bradley terminal) can be a horror if there aren’t enough staff on and a bunch of airlines have arrived at the same time. We had a three hour layover waiting for our onward flight to Denver.  Our QF frequent flyer status gives us complimentary lounge access with partner airlines, so we took the opportunity to shower and have a drink in the American Airlines lounge.  Normally, most US lounges are pretty basic; however, we were given passes to a new “Flagship” lounge that they recently opened.  Major point of difference is that they serve real food, have a great bar and have complimentary Bollinger champagne – naturally we had to have a couple to wash the trail dust down.

We met up with our travelling companions, who flew up from San Francisco, in Denver.

Denver airport is seemily located in the middle of vacant fields, away from any commercial or residential areas.  It comprises a main terminal for check in & baggage claim, and three separate terminals for the actual airline gates.  They really have the system sorted with rapid, regular underground driverless shuttle trains to move passengers about.  It makes a lot of sense given the cold, snowy winters.  Interestingly, the toilets also serve as tornado shelter areas!!

We had arranged to pick up an SUV from Avis.  On arrival, the car was ready to go; however, they forgot about the ski racks.  Rather than trying to fit some, they upgraded us to the next model, a Ford Expedition.  These are equivalent in size to the Chevy Suburbans, those vehicles so beloved of by the US Secret Service (you generally see numbers of them in Presidential motorcades – presumably carrying additional agents, exocet missiles and lesser important officials).  The trouble was, one almost needed a step ladder to access the racks.  Luckily, once the third row of seats were lowered, they could be laid in the boot.  It displayed all the aerodynamics of a small truck when driving it.

The Vail ski area only kicked off around 1962, with the town developing around 1966. It’s very much designed around a European ski village and, surprisingly, is done well.  There are lots of shops and restaurants.  Many of the streets are heated, so that snow doesn’t freeze and become a hazard.  Complimentary shuttle buses run frequently between the main town areas.

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e many FIGJAM’s in town.  FIGJAM 2

Interestingly, we didn’t observe many FIGJAM’s in town compared to, say, Aspen.  To the uninitiated, they are pretentious twits “Fuck I’m Good, Just Ask Me”.  blank blanc blank blanc blank blanc blank blanc blank blanc blank blanc blank blanc blank blanc blank blanc blank blanc blank blanc 

Vail village sits at around 2,475m above sea level (Mt Kosciusko is 2,228m, to give some perspective).  The highest lifted point is 3,527m.  It’s the third largest single mountain resort in the USA; boasting over 190 ski runs, over 80% of which are rated intermediate / advanced, so there’s plenty for everyone!!

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The base depth was around 1.3m, compared to a maximum of 1.65m last season, which is relatively poor for them due to a patchy season.  Around 33cm fell during the week we were there, so we had opportunities to get out early and carve through fresh powder; especially up in the bowls and through the many tree runs, which were a joy.  The quality of the snow had held up really well, so the extra falls were icing on the cake.

Like the vast majority of North American ski fields, the runs are long and there is generally an absence of crowds, so its rare that there is much of a wait to get onto the chairlifts.  Vail’s only downside is that it’s around a two hour drive from Denver, so weekends tend to get very busy. Our last days coincided with the annual President’s Day long weekend, with the crowds building up noticeably on the Friday when Denverites and others sneak off early (an outrage really, why aren’t they staying at work helping to make America great again??)

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We took a  drive out of town on one of our lay days and came across a local Walmart a few km’s away.  If was comforting to find that, as well as buying your meat and veg, large screen TV’s, clothing and the like, one is able to pick up one’s ammo, bowie knives, air rifles, and bb guns that resemble pistols – just the stuff that every discerning shopper would need.  Shotgun shells and air rifle pellets are available on open shelves, while the rifle and pistol bullets were, strangely, locked in cabinets.

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Breckenridge is a former gold mining town, dating back to the mid-1800’s.  Skiing started around 1961.  The town is 2926m above sea level (450m higher than Vail).

It was fortuitous starting at Vail as it gave us the opportunity to acclimatise to the altitude.

Breckenridge retains much of its charm in its old buildings, in Main St and the historical precinct.  There are many funky places to eat, as well as a couple of old saloons in which to sample some of Colorado’s local brews.

The town is well lit at night with trees and buildings festooned in coloured lights, it has a great feel with the snow on the ground.

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The highest lifted point is 3914m (possibly the 11th highest in the world); from this point intrepid skiers and boarders can walk/stumble up an extra 48 vertical metres to reach the top of Peak 8 and access to two double-black bowls (clearly not for the faint hearted!!).  In fact, around 34% of the 187 ski trails are double-black (classified as “most difficult” – expert only).  Around 55% of the trails are rated intermediate / advanced.

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The base depth was around 1.3m; with around 25cm of snow falling in the week we were here.  The skiing was initially a bit disappointing as the fresh snow seemed to be very hard groomed, leaving very few runs (apart from bumps) ungroomed.  There was also a lot of wind during the week, which tended to blow the fresh snow off the more exposed runs.  Later in the week temperatures on the mountain fell to around -200C, which made for some very challenging conditions.  We did find some great tree and bump runs.  Our warmest day was -50C.

We arranged condo’s (apartments) in both towns through VRBO.com; a great website with properties around the world.  Properties can be filtered by, for example, numbers of bedrooms and bathrooms, price, etc.  All available properties are displayed with corresponding locality maps, amenities, photos of the property and reviews, etc.  Generally, all communications are with the actual owners.  Prices can sometimes be negotiated.  The website has been around for a numbers of years.  I guess that Airbnb mirrors itself on this.  Both of our condo’s were only short walks to adjacent chairlifts.

There was a much broader variety of cuisines available at Breckenridge, compared to Vail town.  Both mountains offer a great variety of dining options; much more so than what we are offered on home ski fields.

We took the opportunity to give the local economy a good kick along.  Apart from shopping at the great outlet centres in Silverthorne, a town between Vail and Breckenridge, there were some great sales of quality ski wear in the towns.  Naturally, Ivana added to her collection of shoes and boots!!

With respect to spending, I’ve been using a separate debit card for travel expenses, only keeping around $2k at a time to reduce losses through skimming.  I’ve found that it’s been the best card to use internationally, as the conversion rates are really good and there’s no added “wheeling and dealing” charges that the big credit card providers apply with some glee.

Also, on a couple of occasions I was asked whether I’d like the charge in $A or $US.  It’s always best to have the charge in local currency, as some of the exchange rates at stores & restaurants can be quite unfavourable.

Cuban Adventure – 2017

QF 7 Sydney to Dallas, 15 hours across the Pacific.  Once on board the crew are quick to offer a pre-takeoff libation (champers, OJ or water).  Once more, the giant A380 used most of the runway; starting at the very north at Qantas Drive and with the Dunlop’s not leaving the ground until the runway extended into Botany Bay, and the absolute marvel of flight continues.

Passengers transiting the US are required to clear customs prior to their onward connections, even if onwards to another international destination.  This entails collecting luggage and completing customs & immigration formalities.  It was here that we found that our bags had been tagged through to Guangzhou in China (code CAN) instead of Cancun in Mexico (code CUN) as final destination!!  Lucky that American Airlines don’t fly there from Dallas, otherwise we’d still be waiting for them 😠😠😠.  The AA staff were great and sorted it all out.

We had chosen to travel via Mexico, as the US still has restrictions in place around entry into Cuba from its territory.  Anyone flying direct from the US (citizens and tourists alike) need to meet certain very narrow criteria, and can then still be at the mercy of officialdom when attempting to board.

We had a great stay in Cancun.  Anne, our traveling companion, found an awesome hotel, the Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Beach in the “hotel zone”.  It was waterfront with three pools.  Cancun is a bit like the Gold Coast on steroids.

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As well as taking advantage of the pool, we also took a day trip out to Mayan pyramid and ruins at Chichen Itza:

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There were quite a few restaurant options, the best was an Argentinian steakhouse that served the most sensational beef, washed down with a seriously good Chilean red.

Then it was onwards to Cuba.  At check in for our flight to Havana there were a number of people bringing back electrical goods, amongst other things, in large boxes; in fact there was a dedicated check in lane for such items – clearly well heeled Cubans returning from shopping trips are the norm.

Cuban Customs on arrival was pretty breezy, not a huge line up and once they’d checked our passports & ensured that we had tourist cards (visas) we were in.  We did note that the female officials were predominantly young, wore tight-fitting uniforms with short skirts (some so short that you could see their witches britches) paired with elaborate fishnet stockings (we thought it was clearly a socialist plot to lure impressionable, unsuspecting males – “welcome to our socialist island paradise, comrades!!” – not so, it’s just that fishnets are very trendy for those who can afford them).

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Cuba was an awesome experience, set in a time warp due to the long-term economic embargoes resulting in it being isolated from much of the world.  In many respects it’s like taking a step back in time.  We travelled in a small tour group totalling only 18, which is a really good size.  There were six Aussies, with the remainder being Brits.

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A portrait in our first hotel.    An atheist socialist with stigmata – WTF??

While there were numbers of modern vehicles (mostly taxi’s), the majority were very old – lots of 1950’s-vintage Dodges, Buicks, Chevy’s, Fords and the like.  Many were in excellent condition; however, most were clapped out bangers, barely being held together – on many, the panels seemed to be holding the rust together.  Their owners are very resourceful in keeping them on the road.

 

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Lots were used as private taxis – we experienced the joys of riding in one in Trinidad.  The best ones were in Havana and were used to take nostalgic tourists for drives around the city (we felt like celebrities in the open topped car).

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Given Cuba’s previous ties to the former Eastern Bloc, it wasn’t surprising to see lots of Lada’s on the streets, the former Soviet Union’s outstanding contribution to world automotive mediocrity.  Some were in pretty good nick, being used as taxi’s, while the rest weren’t.  The Moskvich models are referred to as “Moscow Bitches”.

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We travelled a bit over 3000km around the island, covering the majority of the island.  We visited Havana, Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba, Bayamo, Baracoa and Camaguey.  We swam in the Carribean and walked in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, Cuba’s highest mountain range.

The national sport is baseball, while dominoes is the national game.

Vehicle ownership seems quite low, so the majority of people need to rely on public transport; sometimes by buses in the bigger cities, mostly on trucks of varying sizes with the back sections fitted out with bench seats and the like, private taxi’s, and even prime movers towing large passenger trailers.  Away from Havana there were predominantly horse-drawn carts & carriages.  Hitchhiking is the norm, especially on main roads, with people waving money at the passing passenger trucks / buses; Government vehicles must stop to pick them up.  There are often people paid to organise the hitch hikers at certain spots on highways and busy towns.

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The island’s only motorway heads east from Havana – unfortunately it only goes halfway as Cuba lost much income and funding following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.  The remainder of the route and main highways are single lane, which mostly isn’t an issue due to the absence of much traffic – except when stuck behind a horse and cart.

IMG_6266The city and town centres generally have well preserved colonial areas with stunning architecture; however away from these, homes can be shabby and have a similar look, whether free standing or apartments – the architects must have all done the same “Socialist Design 101” course.  There was a remarkable absence of graffiti and litter.  Many industrial sites looked dilapidated.

 

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Every city and town has a revolution square, and references to the revolution that brought Castro to power are everywhere.  Advertising billboards are generally only for political, cultural or social statements (aka propaganda??).  We were taken to visit Fidel’s grave.  Surprisingly, it was very tasteful.  People doing compulsory national service take turns to stand guard.

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Salsa dance and music is in Cubans’ DNA.  As well as at clubs and halls, they also gather in piazza’s to play music and dance.  In that regard, Trinidad was the hippest place in terms of the numbers of clubs and bands playing.  We had some great nights around the country listening to some wonderful music and dancing (or trying to!!).  Basically Cubans are very social and hospitable.  They have a saying that a party without drinks is a meeting!!

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Just about everything is state run; however, the government has been allowing some private enterprise such as the private cabs (the old “yank tanks” and Lada’s), restaurants and Casa Particulares (essentially B&B’s).  One of the benefits of the state system is that most prices are fixed, so drinks and restaurant meals wouldn’t vary markedly.  We developed quite a taste for Cuban rum (mojito’s, pina colada’s and other cocktails were around $4).  Cigarettes are around $2 / packet of 20.

The average monthly wage is $35-$75 / month, so while we thought costs were reasonably cheap, this isn’t the case for the locals.  In fact we were taken to a ration store where locals can purchase set amounts of basic foodstuffs (eg sugar and rice) at a set low charge – they’re required to produce a ration book to record their purchases.  Naturally, everything is processed and recorded manually.  Neighbours and friends often get together to pool or share their monthly allowances.

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Ration book

Many shops appeared to only hold limited ranges of goods.  All the pharmacies that we saw had very limited stocks on display.  On the upside, apparently there is one General Practitioner for every 130 people.

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To encourage people to return to work and also have more children, the government has introduced grandparent leave entitlements.

WiFi has only been available in Cuba for around 2 years – generally just hot spots in town squares and some hotel lobbies.  It can be an absolute pain to log into, as it seems to be dependent upon the number of users at a given place; however, speeds aren’t too bad once connected.  One has to purchase a card for around $2 for an hour, and 5 hour cards are available.  We mostly gave up in frustration.

Unlike many other countries, Telstra doesn’t have a roaming agreement with Cuba, so our phones wouldn’t work.  SIM cards cost around $45 which includes $15 value in calls & text (this was good for an 8 minute call to a mobile in Oz).  They can then be topped up, although this can often involve locating and then queuing at a Telco store – packing your patience when travelling to Cuba certainly helps.  Naturally, the SIM’s don’t include data!!

Locals have access to five TV channels (state controlled & censored), while tourists have access to a lot more.  Cubans are called “the pirates of the Caribbean” as they are very adept at copying & distributing pirate copies of movies & TV series.

Food was fresh, fairly robust and quite tasty, but pretty much “same old, same old” as we travelled around.  Restaurant mains selections were generally lobster, prawns, chicken, pork, lamb and (occasionally) goat.  All serving were usually very generous.  Along with shredded cabbage and carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, rice and black beans, cucumber seemed to always be on the menu, just as it was when travelling through Russia 30 years ago – must be a socialist / communist dietary staple.  Fine dining doesn’t appear to be on the radar; however, the times they are a changin’ and we found a couple of funky places in Havana that were quite adventurous.

Our accommodation was predominantly in state-run hotels, which were generally ok (some really well appointed, others struggled to keep up the hot water) and three nights in the Casas which were wonderful (ya gotta love private enterprise!!).

All in all, we had an awesome time and would recommend Cuba to anyone.  We saw some great sights, the locals are warm, and the rum and music is great.

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Funky street light pole

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A tourist, we hoped

 

 

 

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Local wildlife

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Street sculpture – the gossips!!

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Doing the laundry

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Drying rice on road

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Drying rice on road

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cuban turkey vulture – seen all around the island

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We then moved on to New Orleans for 5 days.  Of course, getting there was an adventure in itself.  We flew from Havana back to Cancun for the onward connection to New Orleans via Charlotte.  Our AA flight out of Cancun was repeatedly delayed (allegedly due to a leak in a toilet).  This meant that we would miss our scheduled connection in Charlotte, requiring us to re-check there.  We struck gold there, having to deal with arguably AA’s most ignorant check-in agent.

Ivana & I were processed, however the agent then promptly refused to process Anne (even though she knew that we were travelling together), on the basis that it was just minutes past the time “the system” allows baggage to be checked in; all the while her colleague was sitting next to her with nothing to do.  This, of course, is a crock, since the system can be over-ridden, particularly if the issue is due to the airline.  Even though the delays were due to AA, it was impossible to talk sense to her.  The upshot was that Anne had to spend the night in Charlotte, at AA’s expense, and flew the next morning.

“Noo Orlins” (or “Nawlin’s”, depending upon who you spoke to) is another must visit place.  The music was great and diverse – jazz, bluegrass, blues, r&b, rock, country, Cajun, etc.  We could go out at any time of the day (or night) and there’d be music happening somewhere (either buskers, or in bars).  There are so many places to have a meal and hear some great music.  Frenchman St is a popular area where locals strut their music talent each night.

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We stayed in an apartment in the French Quarter, the original French-planned city centre, which is where most of the action is.  There are many fine examples of the city’s colonial past.  We stayed opposite the House of Blues, which hosts some great bands.

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Bourbon Street is an over-rated disappointment, basically pretty shitty; perhaps worth a visit once, just to say you’ve seen it.  There are plenty of better places in this ole town.

We took the opportunity to do a number of tours while we were there.  The first was a trip out to the Louisiana back bayous for a swamp tour where we spotted some decent sized ‘gators, wild boars and turtles, as well as some of the two legged critters who make their homes out there.

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We took a trip out to the Whitney Plantation and the Oak Alley Plantation, both former sugar plantation estates.  Whitney is set up as a museum, focusing on the lives of the slaves, from their perspective.  It’s an outstanding testament to man’s inhumanity to man.  The hundreds of first person narratives, together with well-informed guides, give great insight into their tragic lives.

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A typical slave cabin

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Typical slave pens that were used to hold slaves prior to being sold at auctions

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Memorial to the 2200 slave infants born in the area, who died before their first birthday

We were told that there are moves under way to erase reference to slavery from schools’ curricula within “the South” – apparently pushed by Texas.  In some new textbooks, slaves are referred to as “workers” on the old plantations and the like.

Oak Alley Plantation is called the Grand Dame of the Great River Road.  It’s most stunning feature, for which it is named, is the double row of 28 Virginia Live Oaks around 240m long, stretching from the plantation mansion down towards the mighty Mississippi River.  The trees, planted in the early 1700’s, are spaced 24m apart thus forming a canopy or “alley”.  The largest tree has a 9m girth, with a limb spread of 39m.

The actual mansion was built in the 1830’s, replacing a more modest building.  The mansion is a great example of the opulent lifestyle of the plantation owners.

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Both plantations are a must do.

New Orleans has a great exhibit dedicated to Hurricane Katrina “Living With Hurricanes:IMG_7074 Katrina & Beyond”, located at the Presbytere (former presbytery) at the side of the magnificent St Louis Cathedral.  It explains its impact with photographs, audio from survivors, interactive exhibits and recovered materials.  As you enter the space, you see B.B. King’s baby grand piano placed on its side, as it was found in his house.  He, along with many muso’s, lost a lifetime of memorabilia, instruments and awards due to the flooding.

We took the opportunity to do a city tour which included the 9th Ward, which suffered catastrophic flooding during Katrina, and the Garden District, home to some fine old grand mansions.

We tried many of the local food specialities: jambalaya, blackened redfish, Cajun fried chicken, alligator, catfish, gumbo and the like.

New Orleans seems to have a great vibe to it, so I’m sure that we’ll return.

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A typical wedding parade (from the ceremony to the reception)

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India – 2016 (17/10/16)

 

India is chaotic, shambolic, colourful, dusty, vibrant, loud.  A country of contrasting landscapes and with a serious divide between the “haves” and “have nots”.  The real disappointment was the sheer volumes of litter in the streets and vacant lots, more so in the north.  We found it much cleaner in Kerala and Goa.

IMG_2866 Agra - Cow on litter dump   IMG_3098 Jaipur - Roadside slum

IMG_3775   160929 031 Delhi - Back lanes loaded trolley

We travelled to India to undertake a culinary journey, predominantly in Rajasthan, hosted by Arun and Sumi from Kushi Restaurant at Annangrove (in Sydney’s north west).  We’ve had some wonderful experiences, sampling some seriously great food in a variety of restaurants, in peoples’ homes and from street vendors.  There were only 12 people on the tour; predominantly seasoned travellers who were so easy to get on with and enjoy the experiences.

160926 35 Varanasi - Lunch @ Gateway Hotel   160927 125 ## Village - Group

We’ve travelled by plane, train, small coach, auto-rickshaws, pedal powered rickshaws, jeeps and boat, on elephant and camel.

I’ve always been concerned about travelling to India, as I always worried that the poverty and the like would be really confronting.  Surprisingly, it has been far from that; however, it’s hard not to be moved by some of the crippled and disfigured beggars that we saw, as well as the numbers of people sleeping on the footpaths of some of the cities that we visited.  Previous travels through South East Asia has conditioned us somewhat to what we saw.  Perhaps it may have been worse in Mumbai and Kolkata.  Certainly, the sheer numbers of people can take a bit of getting used to.  India has a population of around 1.2 billion, in an area 42% the size of Australia (343 people per sq km compared to < 3 in Australia).

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Security was very noticeable wherever we travelled.  Our bags were scanned at each hotel; as were backpacks each time we entered and we were required to pass through scanners or be swiped with a wand.  Backpacks and bodies were also scanned at a lot of the tourist sites that we visited, although it seemed pretty cursory and we weren’t sure how much notice the security people really took.  Prior to entering every airport we were required to show our passports and printed e-tickets, then all checked baggage was scanned prior to check in.  It’s understandable, given the number and ferocity of terror attacks that India has suffered.

You read about cows on the loose in India; however, you need to experience the sights to understand.  Whether it be highways, reasonably busy roads, side streets or alleyways, you’ll find them generally sitting down or just standing there.  Trucks, buses and everything else just avoids them.  No one appears to wish to move them, since they are venerated by the Hindus.  They seem to have an air of nonchalant disdain, studiously ignoring those around them.  If they had three hooves, one could imagine them raising a leg and extending the middle hoof!!

IMG_3803 Jodhpur - Cow in road   IMG_2700 Agra cows on road

160926 27 Varanasi - Cows on road   IMG_0899

We saw the obligatory buses and trucks with people travelling on the roofs, as well as the ubiquitous TATA trucks which the owners / drivers colourfully paint and dress up with lights, banners and the like.  Some even have disco-like lights happening in the cabins.  They are pretty utilitarian vehicles, but clearly serve their purpose on the often dodgy road system.  Some have bodies that resemble shipping containers welded to the chassis, with a boxy driver’s cabin welded to the front.  Mr Tata is apparently one of the wealthiest people in the country, with a diversity of business interests, including munitions (it could be said that he builds both bombs and their targets).

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IMG_3788 Jodhpur - Decorated TATA trucks   IMG_2982 Loaded trucks en route to Jaipur

It was fascinating to see male urinals on some streets, surrounded by shoulder-height screens.  Don’t know why they bother as many men are happy to use whatever wall or tree is handy.

We flew up to Delhi from Sydney with Anne and Bruce, arriving a couple of days before everyone else.  Our hotel, Claridges, was located in the embassy area, with many tree lined streets.  The hotel seemed a relic from the days of the Raj.  The front lawn area boasted manicured grass with scattered tables and chairs.  One could imagine early British travellers munching on cucumber sandwiches and sipping Pimm’s as they played croquet.

160924 18 Delhi - Claridges exterior   160924 20 Delhi - Claridges front lawn 2 of 2

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It was here that we first experienced the joys of travelling in Indian auto rickshaws, essentially a canopied three wheel vehicle with motorcycle controls (and known as tuk-tuk’s in Thailand).  It was quite an experience as they darted through the traffic taking whatever gap they could see; we’d be mere inches from big buses and trucks, cars and motor bikes – all in all an exhilarating experience, which was repeated many times in other cities as our travels continued (sometimes quite hair raising!!!).

IMG_3381 Jaipur - John &amp; Ivana in tuk tuk   IMG_2861 Agra - Tuk tuk

Road rules appear to be non existent, as drivers of all sorts do as they please, although they do appear to obey traffic lights.  Everyone appears to cut in and merge whenever they have the opportunity, although it must be said that it all seems to work, with minimal apparent road rage.  In the bigger cities, any bingles would be of a minor nature given they would be low speed impacts.  They do rely on their horns to let other drivers and riders know they are there, although some seemed to continually use them.  It wasn’t uncommon in the rural areas to see tractors and carts come the wrong way down our side of the road to avoid travelling km’s to the next turn bay.

From Delhi we flew to Varanasi, which is on the Ganges and has areas that are sacred to both Hindu’s and Buddhists.  It’s said to be the world’s oldest living city.  Hindus believe that one who is graced to die on the land of Varanasi would attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and re-birth.  The Ganges in Varanasi is believed to have the power to wash away the sins of mortals.  As such, it’s the Hindu’s ultimate pilgrimage destination, averaging 20-30,000 pilgrims per day.

People gather on the water’s edge to pray and purify themselves by bathing in the waters.  Surprisingly, the river looked cleaner than what we expected; although we did see a couple of animal carcasses float past.  On our first night we were taken down to observe the evening prayer rituals.  Once we’d travelled as far as we could in the bus we transferred to pedal powered rickshaws, again another experience weaving between people, cars, carts, bikes, other rickshaws and cows.  The prayers involve a group of seven Hindu priests separately and together chanting as they waive around incense sticks, flowers, candles and the like.  People gather on the riverbank and on boats just offshore to observe and participate.

160926 50 Varanasi - Ganga Aarti   160926 63 Varanasi - Ganga Aarti

160926 72 Varanasi - Ganga Aarti - Holy men

This was our first experience with some of the sheer numbers of people, certainly more than what we’d seen to date in other parts of Asia.

The following morning we had an early start, travelling back to the Ganges at dawn to observe the bathing rituals and then take a boat ride along the river.  It was from the boat that we observed some seven bodies being cremated.  There are two official areas where the bodies are placed, stacked with timber and set alight.  The ashes are then collected and thrown into the river.  There are up to 300 cremations per day, the majority of which are burnt with timber, while some are carried out in a gas-fired unit.  The huge stacks of firewood are testament to the volumes.  Apparently there is some concern about ongoing timber supplies.

160927 003 Varanasi - Ganges ghats bathing   160927 005 Varanasi - Ganges ghats bathing

160927 023 Varanasi - Ganges ghats bathing   160927 008 Varanasi - Ganges ghats cremation

160927 025 Varanasi - Ganges ghats cremation   160927 027 Varanasi - Ganges ghats wood stack

Following the boat ride we were taken through some of the crowded, chaotic backstreets and alleyways and sampled some yummy street food.

That afternoon we visited the Buddhist town of Sarnath, where Buddha preached his first sermon after his enlightenment.  Later in the day we were taken to a small village outside Varanasi for a dinner at an Ashram that our chef helped prepare.  The idea was to sample some of the food that the locals would eat.  It was the first of a number of enjoyable regional meals that we partook with locals.

160927 090 ## Village - Funeral procession   160927 093 ## Village - Ivana with children

160927 120 ## Village - Preparing dinner   160927 122 ## Village - Ivana making roti

We flew back to Delhi for a few days sightseeing by coach, walking and on rickshaws through the old areas. The girls were stopped a few times so that people could take selfies with them.  We sampled modern Indian cuisine and dined at a local family’s house.

160929 059 Delhi - Raj Ghat Ghandi's Memorial

Ghandi’s Grave

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We also took in a Bollywood show.  It was quite spectacular in terms of visuals and colours, with loud and catchy music and very energetic and athletic performers.

We caught a train to Agra; an interesting experience meandering through the maze of people outside the station and the variety of goods and people on the platforms. The journey takes around 2 hours, with hot meals being served airline-like.  The toilets were stainless steel “starting blocks” – stand on the foot mounts and crouch over the hole, somewhat of a challenge in a fast-moving train.

Visited the massive Agra Fort which dates back to 1565. It was constructed in red sandstone and white marble.  The circumference of the walls is around 2.5km.

161001 020 Agra - Agra Fort - Amar Singh Gate 2 of 3   161001 024 Agra - Agra Fort - Akbari Darwaza (Akbar's Gate) 1 of 2

IMG_2612 Agra - Agra Fort - Diwan-E-Aam (Hall of Public Audience)   IMG_2614 Agra - Agra Fort - Diwan-E-Aam (Hall of Public Audience)

161001 039 Agra - Agra Fort - Diwan-E-Aam (Hall of Public Audience)

 

The highlight of the day (and one of the major highlights of the trip) was visiting the iconic white marble Taj Mahal.  Photos and video footage don’t do it justice.  It’s simply stunning.  It was built as a memorial to the third wife of the Shah of the time, who died giving birth to her 14th child.

The attention to detail in the engravings in the marble, along with the inlaid precious stones, is amazing.  There is a minaret in each of the four corners of the plinth on which it’s erected.  They were all designed with a slight outward lean, so that if they fell, they’d do so away from the Mausoleum.  Ivana insisted on having a photo on the “Lady Di” seat.  It’s said that when the Taj was completed, artisans on the project had a hand cut off so that they’d be unable to create anything better.  Both the Taj and the Fort are UNESCO heritage listed.

IMG_2754 Agra - Taj site - Taj Mahal

IMG_2740 Agra - Taj site - Taj Mahal &amp; reflecting pool    IMG_2762 Agra - Taj site - Taj central dome

IMG_2763 Agra - Taj site - Taj Pishtaq  IMG_2769 Agra - Taj site - Taj Pishtaq  IMG_2803 Agra - Taj site - Taj exterior plant motifs

IMG_2771 Agra - Taj site - Taj Pishtaq pietra dura (marble inlay work)   IMG_2798 Agra - Taj site - Taj exterior carving

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IMG_2788 Agra - Taj site - Taj Pishtaq's   IMG_2712 Agra - Taj site - Darwaza-i-ravza (The Great Gate)

Travelling to Jaipur we stopped at the Fatehpur Sikri, the stunning former capital of the Mughal Empire (another UNESCO heritage site).

IMG_2906 Fatehpur Sikri Fort - Diwan-i-Am 1 of 4   IMG_2907 Fatehpur Sikri Fort - Diwan-i-Am 2 of 4

IMG_2908 Fatehpur Sikri Fort - Diwan-i-Am 3 of 4   IMG_2909 Fatehpur Sikri Fort - Diwan-i-Am 4 of 4

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IMG_2946 Fatehpur Sikri Fort   IMG_2951 Jodhabai palace

IMG_2961   IMG_2970 Fatehpur Sikri Fort - Diwan-i-Khas

At our lunch stop we were picked up on camel-drawn carts and were accompanied by local tribesmen playing some instruments, including a titti which is essentially a goat skin fashioned into a “bagpipe” of sorts.

IMG_3010 Unmaid Lake Palace - Musicians on arrival       IMG_3012 Unmaid Lake Palace - Musicians on arrival

IMG_3018 Unmaid Lake Palace - John &amp; Ivana on camel cart

In the fields and along the roads we saw herds of camels and goats, with the herdsmen thinking nothing of using the middle of the roads to move them from place to place.

Jaipur, the Pink City, is the capital of Rajasthan.  The city walls are reminiscent of China’s Great Wall.  We toured the city and visited the City Palace and the impressive Amber Fort, which dates from 1592 and is constructed in pink and pale yellow sandstone and white marble.  Our hotel in Jaipur was fashioned like an old fort, with a marble foyer and staircase that wouldn’t have been out of place at the Taj.  We also went for an elephant ride.

IMG_3196 Jaipur - Amber Fort - Wall 4 of 6   IMG_3193 Jaipur - Amber Fort - Wall 6 of 6

IMG_3206 Jaipur - Amber Fort - Ganesh Pol (Elephant Gate)   IMG_3207 Jaipur - Amber Fort - Jaleb Chowk (1st Courtyard) 1 of 3

IMG_3220 Jaipur - Amber Fort - Interior of Diwan-i-Aam (Public Audience Hall)   IMG_3225 Jaipur - Amber Fort - Maota Lake 2 of 3

IMG_3295 Jaipur - Amber Fort - No vehicles sign   IMG_3302 Jaipur - Colourful spices

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We walked through the fascinating spice and produce markets and again dined in a local house, sampling regional cuisine.

IMG_3375 Jaipur - Night markets   IMG_3378 Jaipur - Night markets - Arun

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IMG_3674 Jodhpur - Working on power network

A potential Ausgrid Lineworker?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The next stop on the journey was Jodhpur, known as the Blue City.  We visited the impressive Mehrangarh Fort which sits on a hill around 120m above the city and is described as one of India’s most magnificent forts.

IMG_3513 Jodhpur - Mehrangarh Fort   IMG_3519 Jodhpur - Mehrangarh Fort facade

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IMG_3566 Jodhpur - Mehrangarh Fort jali work   IMG_3567 Jodhpur - Mehrangarh Fort

IMG_3585 Jodhpur - Mehrangarh Fort - no smoking sign   IMG_3591 Jodhpur - Mehrangarh Fort - turban winding demo

IMG_3537 Jodhpur - Mehrangarh Fort   IMG_3604 Jodhpur - Mehrangarh Fort - Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors)

IMG_3607 Jodhpur - Mehrangarh Fort - Jhanki Mahal (Peeping Palace)

We strolled through the old Bazaar market area, and again ate at a local family’s house.  After dinner we went out to observe a street party which was part of a nine day Hindu festival.  It wasn’t long before we were all roped into dancing Bollywood style with them, to the very infectious beat of the music.  We also dined at a roof top restaurant with the illuminated Mehrangarh Fort in the background, not unlike dining in Athens’ Plaka area.

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We took a jeep ride out into the countryside to Bishnoi Village, where the community still lives in traditional mud huts. A very basic existence, though we did note a couple of satellite dishes for TV.  The huts were not unlike what we saw in parts of Africa.  They also hand weave some really nice rugs and the like on very basic (read ancient) weaving apparatus.

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Our last stop on the tour was the Manvar Desert Camp where we essentially “glamped” it for the night in very upmarket tents.  On arrival we went for a ride into the scrub on some cantankerous camels.  It was an interesting experience, especially when they get up from a squat, their hindquarters go up first, then they lift their front giving the sensation of almost being thrown off.  Once on them, you get into the animal’s rhythm.  Prior to dinner a bunch of local tribes people put on a song and dance show.

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IMG_1121Jodpur airport services both commercial and military aircraft.  Given the current spat between India & Pakistan in Kashmir, where both sides have been throwing insults and bullets at each other, it wasn’t surprising to see a couple of jet fighters with cockpit hatches open and live missiles attached to the wings, as well as a SAM missile battery setup – always a comforting sight as one’s aircraft is about to hurtle down a runway!!

We then flew down to Kerala at the bottom of the continent with Anne and Bruce for a few days R&R.  The south is much greener and more laid back than the north and, on the whole, much cleaner.  Our hotel was on the shore of Lake Vembanad, India’s largest lake.  The weather was not as hot as Rajestan, as it was tempered by breezes off the lake.  While we were there we went for a cruise through the backwaters, essentially the canals that feed the lake and were once the main transport routes.  We spotted water buffaloes and villagers fishing and preparing their rice fields.

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We then flew to Goa for a couple of days in Panaji, the Goan capital. The buildings reflect the heritage of this former Portuguese colony.  Unfortunately, most of the buildings are in need of some TLC, all in all pretty rundown.  This was our first opportunity to sample some of Goa’s regional cuisine.  The Mall de Goa gave us the opportunity to really assist the local economy with some retail therapy.  We had a couple of nights in a funky hotel in the old Latin Quarter.  It was formerly the ancestral home of an old monied family and was rebuilt in the 1930’s.

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At Prashant’s suggestion we spent a night at Casa Susegad in the village of Lotium, south of Panaji, a wonderful 150 year old former Indo-Portuguese mansion house, now operating as a guesthouse/B&B.  It’s surrounded by vegetation which is frequently visited by troops of monkeys.  In fact the following morning we were woken by some monkeys that appeared to be performing a Bollywood routine on the roof.  The local village is very reminiscent of Fiji, with the tropical vegetation and the pigs roaming the paddocks and laneways.

IMG_4431 Casa Susegad   IMG_4471 Casa Susegad - John &amp; Ivana having breakfast

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Our final couple of days were spent at Zuri White Sands, a five star beach-side resort where we celebrated Ivana’s birthday.  The Indian Government was hosting a leaders’ conference with such luminaries as Vlad Putin and the Chinese President.  It was probably appropriate that he was there, as a local newspaper was complaining about the infiltration of the Russian mafia into the area and its ties to prostitution and drugs and purchasing tracts of land using sham local frontmen.  The main road had been re-tarred and light posts painted prior to the event, much to the amusement of the locals.  Just about every Police officer in Goa was on duty along the motorcade route and at the venues, supplemented by machine gun toting soldiers.

 

 

Thailand – 2016 (22/03/16)

We are approaching the end of our 2 week trip to Thailand, visiting our Expat friends David & Sue and their delightful daughters Joanne & Jade.

We started proceeding with almost a week on Koh Samui.

Flying into Samui was an experience.  Our Bangkok Airways Airbus from Bangkok certainly further lowered the very low bar set by low cost carriers in terms of squeezing punters into its planes.  My knees were constantly wedged into the seat in front of me, luckily it was only a short hop across to the island.

IMG_0250On arrival, Samui airport looked more like a tropical resort.  The grounds were well manicured, with lots of palm trees.  We deplaned via stairs onto the tarmac and then boarded open trolley trams for the trip to arrivals terminal.  We were half expecting to see Tattoo (the dwarf on Fantasy Island, for those old enough to remember) jump out from behind a tree shouting “da plane boss, da plane!!”

 

On friends’ suggestion, we stayed on the island’s north shore at Bophut, near the old fishing village.  It’s much more laid back and less touristy / trashy than the main area of Chaweng Bay (described by some as Kuta on steroids).  The main area of the hotel faced the water, with a great pool and pool bar, was dotted with Palm trees and had its own part of the beach.  The pool bar had three daily happy hours – buy a cocktail & get one free.

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There were lots of great places to eat in the vicinity, especially being able to dine on the beach as the sun set.  Every Friday night they have street markets along the main street in the fishing village.  Innumerable numbers of stalls selling clothing, nic nac’s, etc and many stalls selling great street food.  It’s worth going just for that.

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We then flew up to Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north for a few days.  Chiang Mai seems best described as having the most Buddhist temples per sq km, some quite large and elaborate.  We spent one leisurely morning taking a longboat up the river to see some of the surrounding countryside.  We stopped at a local farmer’s house, Ivana felt something move across her foot.  She swore that she saw a “huge” snake slither into the bush.  Independent witnesses said it a bit less than a metre long, so Ivana would have been safe as she’s too big to swallow.

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We took a day trip up to Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle area (border area of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos).  We saw some more temples on the way up (naturally!!), and visited a Karen longneck hill tribe village.   Our mini-coach driver was fairly keen to get us to our destination, at one point sailing past an ambulance that was racing along under lights and siren!!

Wat Rong Khun (“The White Temple”):

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Karen Longneck Tribe:

They are not indigenous to Thailand, rather they are refugees from Myanmar.  I understand that they are prohibited from working by Thai authorities, so their income is derived from selling what they weave.

In their cultural tradition, an elongated neck is considered a form of beauty.  The heavy rings don’t really stretch their necks, rather they compress the shoulder blades.  Unfortunately, the place had the feel of a tourist stop than an authentic village.

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At the Thai border, we took a clapped out ferry across to Laos where, surprise, surprise, some market stalls were set up.  We got to sample some of Laos’ “finest” – local rice wine “whiskey” (and I this the term very loosely) – a rather potent rot-gut that featured various preserved creatures and/or their appendages.  Apparently, the animal’s spirit infuses the drink.  We were told that the one with tiger penis (must have been a really big tiger!!) was the most potent “very strong for mister”.  I was happy to give it a miss as the poor tiger either give its life for the brew or died of natural causes – neither option was appealing.  I did try the one with a king cobra in it – supposed to be good for lumbago, rheumatism and the like; it made Johnny Walker Red look like a really, really good top shelf drink.  I’m still alive, so I guess it wasn’t too bad.

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Chiang Mai has Saturday and Sunday night “walking streets”, essentially similar to what Samui does; however on a much bigger scale but with much less food stalls.

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We then flew down to Bangkok for a few days sightseeing and “retail therapy” prior to catching up with David and Sue.  While Sydney’s peak hour traffic is a nightmare, it’s a picnic compared to Bangkok’s congested roads.  Interesting that road rage is extremely rare, as the Thai’s are a very polite race.  Thailand does, however, have one of the highest per capita road death rates in the world.  Apparently, drink driving and speed are major issues here.

I took a day trip out to the River Kwai and visited the former “death railway” and commonwealth war cemetery.  It’s said that on average one prisoner of war died for every sleeper laid – the vast majority of Japanese guards must have been an absolute bunch of lowlife compassion-less scumbag pricks.

The easiest way to get around Bangkok is via the elevated mass transit system – the Skytrain.  It certainly beats the congestion on the roads and is comparatively moderately priced; however, the concrete support stanchions look pretty ugly.

We spent our final weekend at the Royal Varuna Yacht Club, on the coast at Pattaya, where David and the girls sail.  It’s well located on its own beach, with views of the bay and neighbouring islands in the distance.  The members are predominantly Expats and some well-heeled Thai’s.  The place is well set up and has a very good sailing program.  We sailed a catamaran out to Koh Sak, a small island around 10km off the coast.  It was a great ride in a choppy swell kicked along by the “fresh” winds that were prevailing.

 

Planes, trains & automobiles (as well as ferries, trams, coaches and shank’s pony) – Scandinavia & the Baltics (23/08/15)

We’ve been away for four weeks, and in that time have visited 11 countries and seen some amazing sights.  The trip was planned to celebrate a milestone wedding anniversary; however, we came away earlier that initially planned to attend Paul’s 50th in Holland.   From there we’ve been travelling through Scandinavia, Northern Europe and the Baltics.

Paul’s party was held in Agnes’ home town, near Eindhoven, around 1.5 hours by inter-city train from Amsterdam.  Seven of us came over from Oz/NZ and there was a bunch of their Dutch friends as well.  The Dutch are a really social race of people.  A lot of them tend to smoke like chimneys (at €5 per packet – around $8 – you can understand why).

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We then moved on to Amsterdam for a few days.  We had a great apartment on one of the canals, about a 5 minute walk from both Anne Frank’s house and the Dam Square.   Most of the apartments in the older parts of the city were initially warehouse and commercial buildings from way back when Holland was a major world player.  Many had distinct leans, which added to their character.  Our building was constructed around 50 years before James Cook stepped ashore at Botany Bay.

 

 

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Visiting the Anne Frank museum is a must, you are able to walk through the areas in which they hid.  All very moving.  It commenced a common theme that we found through some of the cities that we visited, that of the evil perpetrated by the Nazi’s over the Jews.

 

 

We cruised the canals, visited museums, shopped and found lots of quirky cafés.  The locals go everywhere by bike – allegedly there are around 1.2m bicycles for a population of 800k.  They also leave Italian motorists for dead in relation to not giving way to pedestrians.

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The weather in Amsterdam was the worst for the trip to date, cool and wet every day. The rain was a bit like some people – arrives unexpectedly and stays just long enough to annoy you before buggering off.  The weather for the rest of the time has been sunny and between mid 20’s to mid 30’s.

We’ve since been to Copenhagen, Berlin, Poznan, Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, St Petersburg, Helsinki, Oslo and now Stockholm.  All have been different in their own ways, with architecture spanning medieval, baroque and renaissance.  Many have been substantially or totally rebuilt since WW2, mostly in keeping with their heritage.

Copenhagen:

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Nyhavn – 17th Century waterfront district

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The Royal Palace

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My last visit to Berlin was in 1985, during the Cold War, with the city divided between communist East and capitalist West.  The Berlin Wall was still up, to keep people in rather than to keep others out!!  The wall was actually two walls with a “no mans land” in between, which was planted with land mines and patrolled by guards and dogs.  I can still remember hearing distant explosions during the night, mostly due to rabbits setting them off.  The only evidence of the wall now is marking along paths and roadways to indicate where it stood, as well as a couple of small sections that have remained intact.   It was wonderful to see the unified city now, with wonderful building and boulevards.

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Brandenburg Gate

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WWII bullet holes still in the sandstone

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Site of former US Checkpoint “Charlie”

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DSCN1163A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A A During the Cold War, the communists built a communications / TV tower within the, then, East side.  Unfortunately for them, the sun reflected off it in the shape of a cross, clearly visible in the west, which the authorities tried without success to alleviate.  The West Berliners promptly nicknamed it the “Pope’s Revenge”.  It’s still there.  The poor shmuck who designed it probably ended up in a gulag in Siberia.

 

 

Poznan (Poland):

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Warsaw (Poland):

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Memorial to the Warsaw Uprising during WWII

The three Baltic capitals are gems, with Tallinn being the best of them all, given its proximity to the Baltic Sea.  All have wonderful “old towns” with cobblestones streets, narrow alleyways and quirky eateries.  At this time of year, it doesn’t get dark until around 10pm, so it’s been great to walk the streets and eat at sidewalk restaurants and all have felt really safe.

Vilnius (Lithuania):

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Trakai Castle on Lake Galve

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Palace of Rundale, Pilsrundale (Latvia):

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Riga (Latvia):

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Tallinn (Estonia):

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Entering “Mother Russia” was like taking a step back in time.  From a traveller’s perspective, one of the best things about the EU is the common borders whereby it’s invariably unnecessary to stop.  Russia is a different ball game; actually the border crossing was reminiscent of a couple of third world crossing that we made in Africa.  The process really hasn’t changed in 30 years.  Upon entering border control building, we were required to line up outside two dodgy timber cubicles and present passports and visas.  Last time around we were processed by a couple of box-headed goons in army uniforms who made the exercise particularly painful.  At least this time, the young women had the good grace to smile.

St Petersburg is a really grand city with many monuments and magnificent buildings; without a doubt, the Hermitage being the best.  Once the winter palace of the Tsar’s, it is now a fine museum in all its opulent, golden glory.  It contains many priceless works of art and artefacts.  Standing in the forecourt, it’s not hard to picture the aristocracy rocking up in all their finery.  Also not hard to imagine the Bolsheviks revolting and replacing one form of oppression with another – the Soviet’s “Socialist Workers’ Paradise”, where everyone was equal (although some were more equal than others).

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Back in the days of the USSR, the then Leningrad was very drab, as there was very little in the way of advertising (other than posters and billboards extolling the virtues of communism).  The vehicles were generally clapped out Lada’s (the USSR’s fine contribution to automotive mediocrity), with the exception of the elite who swanned along in shiny black Zil’s (their version of limo’s) and generally had the middle lanes for their exclusive use.  Also, the shops had little, if any, goods for sale.  Everyone would always carry a shopping bag on the off chance they might find something for sale.  These days the city looks like any European city, full of vehicles of all makes and advertising signs are everywhere.  They even have Macca’s (unsure if that’s real progress, though).

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Helsinki (Finland):

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We crossed the Baltic overnight from Helsinki to Stockholm on a “ferry”, which was actually a small cruise ship containing all the usual suspects: duty free, cabaret room, casino, buffet dining room, over-priced bars, etc.  We did notice Wolf Blass Grey Label wine on sale (WTF???).  We left the tour there that morning and flew to Oslo to meet up with friends Anne & Garry to continue our adventures.  We also met one of Garry’s nephews, who is happily ensconced with a blonde haired, blue-eyed Norwegian girl in a town near Lillehammer.

It’s been hard not to notice the numbers of wind turbines that have been installed throughout Northern Europe, as most countries embrace the technology.

Lonely Planet describes Norway as both the world’s most beautiful, and most expensive, country.  I’m happy to report that they are correct on both counts!!

The four of us travelled across to Bergen, a beautiful town on the west coast, by train and ferry.  The scenery from the intercity train was pretty good; however, it was surpassed by the trip down into the valleys aboard the old Flam railway.  The carriages are quite old, which adds to the journey’s mystique.  The line’s gradient is quite steep, necessitating a number of tight turns, offering great views of the fjord valleys and numerous, spectacular waterfalls; all the while hoping that the brakes hold.

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We also cruised two of the fjords, which was an amazing experience.  The mountain sides can be incredibly high in places, the waters tranquil and deep, lots of waterfalls, passed through narrow passages.  There were many isolated properties and some small towns nestled amongst the trees.  Get the idea that it’s not too shabby?

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Bergen itself is a beautiful town, nestled on some beautiful waterways.  Like a number of the places we’ve been to on this trip, the old town around the harbour is UNESCO world heritage listed – hardly surprising.  We flew back to Oslo so that we could maximise our time in Bergen.  It gave us the opportunity to overfly some fjords, and mountain peaks that still had snow this late into summer.

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Oslo:

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Boulevard leading to Royal Palace

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Nobel Peace Centre

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