Islands in the Sun

Moher
Cliff of Moher, West Ireland

I love islands and island life, possibly because I was born on the far flung western isle (Ireland) or maybe because my childhood was suffused with island adventure tales – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five’s escapades on Kirrin Island (and the slightly more mature Adventure series – The River of Adventure, the Mountain of Adventure and, inevitably, the Island of Adventure with Philip, Jack and his parrot Kiki, Dinah and little Lucy-Ann) – and followed up with R.L. Stephenson’s Treasure Island and R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (which was the first book to ever make me cry when Bloody Bill, the pirate, died!).

 

Then again, perhaps it was the magic of flying on a two engine Fokker Friendship prop plane from Dublin airport to The Isle of Man with my parents for another childhood holiday. One time we flew from Collinstown, later to become Dublin International, and once, more exciting, left at midnight from one of the city’s quays on a ship that seemed to loom immense in the glare of lights. Magical gardens and bridges where a fairy toll is ‘demanded’, cats with no tails and a unique ‘Q-Celtic’ Manx language – sadly now extinct, the last native speaker having died in the mid seventies – Manx was related to Scottish Gaelic and Irish as opposed to the ‘P-Celtic languages of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. I still remember the  buzz and roar of the annual TT motorbike races around the island and the excitement it generated.

On the other hand, it may have been the summer picnics to Dalkey Island2 (the closest

Coliemore
Coliemore Harbour

island to where I lived in Dublin as a child) which seemed to require such advance planning on the part of my parents. The No. 8 bus from the heart of the city would go past our house on the corner of the Monkstown Road and on through Dun Laoghaire, Sandy Cove and eventually the terminus at Dalkey and from there the walk, lumbered down with tartan rugs, picnic baskets, flasks of hot tea, buckets and spades, to the harbour at Coliemore from where my father would bargain with brawny men to row us across to the uninhabited island of Dalkey Island* crowned with a Napoleonic era Martello tower. Uninhabited except for a few goats, a Martello tower, a freshwater spring and a ruined church. Family picnics, diving off the small, whitewashed rocks where the rowing boat left us off and picking up fresh mackerel for dinner on the homeward trip.

 

Whatever it was, it seems that those most magical times have extended into my adult life and have all been centred on islands. Simple man, simple dreams3, I suppose. By horoscope, I fall under Cancer – a water sign – and in the Chinese zodiac I am a (water) snake and despite having enjoyed myself in mountainous regions worldwide – The Himalayays in Nepal, the Andes in Peru, the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, the Pyrenees on the Spanish-French border, I feel my strength and vitality are at their peak when I am close to water, especially salt water!

With so many thousands of islands in Indonesia I have explored so few, Bali ages ago and more recently, the Gilli Islands off Lombok – an easy four hour direct flight from Perth here in West Australia and then a 90 minutes taxi ride to the port at Bangsal from where the public boats set out for the islands. Bali is a subtle blend of festive Hinduism and local traditions, Denpasar and Kuta being over commercialised  but it is still easy to escape to central Ubud and the black sand beaches along the north shore at Singha Raja. Everybody seemed talented – whether it was in dance or performance, wood and stone carving, music or hospitality and fluent in so many ways. I had to buy extra bags in Bali to accomodate all the carvings and knick knacks I acquired the first few times there.  I recently came across a few thousand rupiah from that time and when I produced them in Lombok last week, people laughed in incredulity at my crumpled bills. They have been out of date for almost forty years! IMG_3295I headed off initially to Trawangan, the party island, with plenty of bars and loud music and the furthest out from Lombok but after two nights of drinking cheap cocktails – two for the price of one – made with local spirits – I had a vicious headache and decided to try the delights of Menos, the middle or the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ island, the smallest and the quietest the three. Beautiful, semi unspoilt islands – no cars or motorbikes only bicycles and little pony and trap carts and a sunrise on one side and a sunset on the other side of the island. Three days on Menos and, with my time running out, I spent the last three nights on Air, the island closest to Lombok itself. IMG_3310All three islands were unique in their own way and were small enough to stroll around in less than two hours and all offered scuba training and day and night dives and probably excellent value if that is the kind of thing you like. I’m a bit different – I just wanted clear, deep water and that’s where the islands fell down for me as, for a hundred metres or so around all three islands, the water was shallow and while appearing to be sandy, was, in fact, made up of dead and broken white coral shards which made getting into and out of the water difficult and painful. Coral cuts tend to fester easily and reef shoes – which, of course I didn’t have – would be an absolute necessity. As it was, the water was so shallow that trying to swim overarm out to deeper water my finger tips brushed the broken coral with each stroke. Not ideal unless you want to lounge by the swimming pools most of the resorts provided.

A relatively new ‘discovery’ for me, Lombok is the large island next to Bali and, in theory,IMG_3317 should be just as beautiful. Certainly a fantastic ride from the airport skirting the capital and rushing past small villages and up over a jungle clad mountain with monkeys on the roadside, attracted by heaps of durian on sale, glimpses of the coast as we head down to the port. I am sure there are gorgeous beaches there too but I was set on new island horizons, the three small islands off the north west of Lombok.

Samosir, on the other hand, was almost an island, in the middle of Lake Toba, near Medan in Sumatra, practically the far end of the Indonesian archipelago from Lombok. My son fell, fully clothed, off the dock once we arrived and I had to jump in after him. That’s all I can really remember except for some really ratty accomodation.

So, on to all my favourite islands and how to rank them – by cost? (Rottnest island off Perth in WA is hideously overpriced); by beauty? (most S. E. Asian islands); by ease / difficulty of access? (although that has changed with airports springing up everywhere); by people? (all of them!). A listing in no particular order and with distinct memories of times past and present.

Lamai Koh Samui
Lamai Beach, Koh Samui

Ahh, Asia, every other island paled into significance once I came across Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Samet.  Those tropical paradises, first visited in 1981, originally by slow, flat-bottomed overnight ferry from Dongson to Koh Samui before a pickup truck ride to Chaweng or Lamai or Bo Phut beaches still represent earthly paradise to me. Back in the early 80’s, I’d pay something like a nightly 30 Baht for a beach-side hut on stilts and have banana pancakes for breakfast, Tom Yam soup for lunch and barbecued fish 

Lamai
Lamai Beach, Koh Samui

for dinner, all washed down with icy Singha beer in cold frosted glasses and Mehkong whisky and soda water. Beautiful sandy beaches, relaxing beach massages and a gentle shelving beach so that you could run and dive straight into crystal clear waters. Now you can fly from most places into Ko Samui airport – one of the most appealing airports I have ever been in. Prices of course have gone up since my first visit and many beach side resorts also offer that abomination – a swimming pool! Koh Phangan was, I think, the ‘party’ island north of Koh Samui – the originator of the full moon parties? Koh Tao consisted of three tiny rocky islands connected by sand banks at low tide. I swam around the largest island once. There used to be just a handful of beach huts and a restaurant; now I believe it is packed but it must still be beautiful. All I remember of poor old Koh Samet are mosquitoes and ants!

 

I lived in Malaysia for three years and evocative names in Penang like Batu Fennenghi and Jalan Chulia where I bought my first ever SLR camera still stir me but it was off the east coast of northern Trengganu that the real tropical paradises of Perhentian and Redang lay. Deserted, at the time and  used only by local fishermen for its fresh water supply – hence the name ‘Perhenti’ / Stop, in Malay. I used to hire a local fishing boat from Kuala Besut, where I lived for three years and would make almost weekly trips (on a friday) to the island and come back to the kuala, sun-burnt, salt bleached and dehydrated to revive myself with large bottle of cold Anchor beer, served from metal tea pots into heavy ceramic cups in the only Chinese cafe in the kampong. I camped on the island for nearly  a week once while trying to study for my Graduate Record Examination into an American university, thinking I would have no distractions! Even further out than the Perhentian islands lay Redang. it was once used as a detention centre for Boat people in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. I much preferred the Perhentians where I swam with sting rays, turtles and small (leg-long) sharks in waters no deeper than three or four metres. Gorgeous!

A fast ‘coffin boat’ from Brunei Darussalam would bring me to Labuan, a duty free island off the coast of Malaysian Sabah in Borneo – an absolute haven away from alcohol-free, strictly Islamic, Brunei.  I used to treat myself and stay in the golf course hotel. Alternatively, I’d go over with some friends in their boat, depart Brunei legally, arrive in Labuan, stock up with up to 50 cases of beer (ballast, we used to call it) and return to Brunei illegally after dark when the customs had closed, off load the beer on a deserted beach where other friends were waiting and then report to Brunei customs the following morning, claiming the Evinrude engines had been giving us trouble and we had only just arrived! Another world, another time!

And then, of course, there is Hong Kong and with this view from my rooftop, what more could anyone ask?HK1

Lamma island, just off the bottom of HK’s 

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
Fish farms off Sok Kwu Wan, Lamma, HK

southern bottom, was such a laid-back spot off frenetic Hong Kong. ‘Draw-string pants, mismatched socks and guitar music’ I once heard someone describe the lifestyle there compared to HK’s bankers. One ferry from HK Central would arrive at Sok Kwu Wan on the north east side of the island with its fish-farms and quayside restaurants. I used to walk from there to the other side of the island with its ATM, bars and more seafood restaurants and a different ferry from Yung Shue Wan back to HK.

HK4
HK mini Buses

 

Lantau Island had the big Buddha (the biggest, seated, outdoor, bronze Buddha in the world,) as well as a great South African barbecue beachside restaurant with jugs of Margaritas. Cheung Chow, One of Hong Kong’s favourite suicide spots for some bizarre reason. Punters would rent a small chalet, close the doors and windows and light a charcoal barbecue and suffocate themselves.

 

Phu Quoc, off the most south westerly tip of Vietnam, looks closer to Cambodia and was fairly unspoilt and quiet when I was there about 20 years ago. So much so that the ‘resort’ I was staying in offered to sell itself to me after a night’s drinking with the owner! I choose what I would like to eat the following day from an ‘oral menu’ and he would make a trip to the local market just for me! The island boasted of its famed peppercorns and fish sauce which, locals zealously informed me, could not be brought on board an airplane lest the bottle break and its pungency imperil all on board!

Singapore was definitely my first ever S. E. Asian island! Gaping, like some yokel from the sticks, I went shopping along Orchard Road and bought my first – and only – portable typewriter – an Olivetti – there back in 1981.  Do those things still exist? The incredible humidity in the air – like walking into the bathroom after somehow had a long, very hot shower with the door and windows closed and the coolness of the Long Bar, in the Raffles Hotel, surrendering to Singapore slings, was a blessed relief after the turmoil of shopping!

I did an MA in the State University at Stony Brook, half-way out on the north shore of Long Island, a long spit of land reaching out into the Atlantic from New York City and did my drinking in places like Setauket and Port Jefferson and my swimming in the creek on the northside and in the Atlantic on the south side.

I worked one summer on the island of Sylt, the jewel of the ‘German Riviera’! I was ‘ein nacht portier’ at Hotel Ursula in the main town of Westerland. Long, windswept sandy beaches where elderly people played volley ball in the nude and where I was eventually fired when it was discovered that I didn’t really speak any German but it took nearly three weeks before that was discovered!

The Île de Noirmoutier is not really an island as it is connected to the French mainland by a causeway flooded daily by the incoming – and fast – tide. Famous for its new potatoes, I remember it for lazy afternoons drinking white wine with a touch of Cassis with old friends.

Slow, laid back, very patchy wi-fi, Cuba offered differently aged Habana rumsIMG_0631(apparently Bacardi sided with the Batista government forces against Castro and so signed their death warrant on the island) in generous mojito cocktails. Music in the bars at night – and everywhere – extravagantly old American cars lovingly tended (or rusted out heaps beyond repair), fat women squeezed into tight lycra and old men and women smoking cigars the size of a baby’s arm.

From Puno in Peru I went out to the amazing floating islands made of bundled reeds on Lake Titicaca, part of the border between Peru and Bolivia.

IMG_0089
Floating Reed Island, Titicaca

 

Trampoline-like under foot, the reeds were used for their shelters as well as their boats.

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Reed boat, Titicaca

 

 

Half an hour by fast ferry off Fremantle in West Australia,  Rottnest island is clearly visible from the mainland and like the Gilli Islands, there is no motorised transport – just bicycles and beautiful beaches, fresh octopus and, the island specific, quokkas (a type of small, short tailed wallaby). While beautiful and charming, the island is, in my opinion, mega expensive for what it offers..

Hainan
Hainan Island

Hainan island is China’s most southerly port and submarine base and I stayed in the same hotel where the Miss World beauty contest was once held in the southern city of Sanya. Parts of the beaches were cordoned off by the military, as I discovered when I ignored shouted warnings strolling along a sandy beach. Only the clunk-clunk of a pump-action shot-gun being cocked brought me to my senses.

 

Macau casinos held no 

Macau3
One of the fancy casinos

 

attraction for me but Portuguese food and wine certainly did in the area around the old harbour as well as crumbly old ‘Fawlty Towers’ type hotels. I’d return to HK laden with chorizo, olive oil, tinned anchovies and bottles of a slightly sparkling white wine.

 

Almost directly opposite the Chinese mainland city of Xiamen is Penghu County, a drab island claimed by Taiwan and reached by a three hour ferry trip from Xiamen itself. One of the most heavily shelled / bombed places after 1949 when the Nationalists retreated. The main culinary delight seemed to be  oyster omelettes!

Next up, after the Thai Islands mentioned above must be Puerta Galera in The Philippines. A half day bus trip out of Metro Manila down to Batangas and then a ferry over to Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro. Fantastic! I stayed at the end of a rocky promontory with a floating bar a 100 metres away. Cold San Miguel beer cheaper than a coffee or a coke, mellow Tanduay rum, tiny, bitter little calamansi limes, green skin, bright orange inside with slippery pips, friendly people and crystal clear, deep water – perfect.

In late December, the sun rose around twelve noon in Reykjavik, Iceland and set again at about four pm. Ideal in some ways – use your imagination – the hotel in the small town of Hverageròi where I ended up for some reason, was overheated and I pushed the window open to let some air in and the window froze open overnight, as did the lens of my camera later that day. Amazing to come across hot houses growing bananas and tropic plants benefitting from underground thermal power.

So, a retrospecive look at islands sparked by my recent trips to the Gilli Islands, Indonesia.

1 Islands in the Sun – Harry Belafonte

https://www.last.fm/music/Harry+Belafonte/_/Island+In+The+Sun

2 Dalkey Island Photos – Niki McGrath

EFFECTS

3 Simple man, simple dreams – Linda Ronstadt‘s Asylum album released in September, 1977.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLk90r2sJMc

South America Summary

A rather amazing trip, from Cuba in the far north, down to Ecuador and on to Peru, where I ate guinea pig, alpaca and llama, missing out on Machu Pichu but taking a 22 hour bus ride from Lima up to Cusco in the heart of the Andes. Over then to Lake Titicaca and a boat trip out to the weird, artificial islands of floating reeds and over the border into Bolivia where the bus seemed to climb endlessly and I lay sprawled in my seat, munching coca leaves and gasping for breath as we topped 4800 metres. A gradual descent then, of only 200 metres towards La Paz, only to find the city blocaded by local indigenous people who had thrown up ramparts of earth and rubble blocking the main highway into the city. Eventually we had to stop and take on an Incan guide who showed the bus driver how to thread his way rough narrow, grimy back streets until we eventually arrived, me exhausted and still panting, in La Paz. The next day, the whole city ground to a standstill as angry miners paraded through the city centre, while heavily armed police with pump-action grenade launchers stood on every street corner, heavy steel chains in their hands ready to seal off any street disturbance. The next day it was the turn of the students and again the city centre was paralysed. Enough was enough for me, and, still breathless, I managed to get a bus out and south, although that took unneccesary hours as again we had to thread our way past endless blockades. Finally, a train, one of the noisiest and decrepit trains I have ever been on, down as far as the Argentinian border. What a relief – an ordered, organised city with working traffic lights, freeways and highway diamonds and gorgeous wine. Even better was the black market In foreign currency – the official rate for US dollars being about 9 pesos to the dollar. Unofficially, the rate was about 16 to the dollar, and quite openly so – touts hanging around outside banks and exchanges. Made quite a difference to the budget and was able to afford some very decent wine. On from Salta, on the border into serious wine country, thought the most magnificent canyon and arid countryside to the little town of Cafayate where I spent more than a week eating huge steaks and plundering their bodegas. Down to Tucuman and Córdoba (cities I had never heard of, where accomodation was hard to come by as it was the middle of an exceptionally long holiday weekend. On again to Mendoza , the real heart of Argentinean wine and more steaks, huge 500 g slabs of bleeding cow on a plate washed down with more than a bottle of red wine. Bliss. I seem to have adopted a paleolithic style diet where all I ate was meat – no veg or fruit, just meat and gulped wine.

I made enquirers about a bus over the Andes to Santiago in Chile, only to be informed  that all bus services over the Andes between Mendoza and Santiago had been suspended due to bad weather and snow. So more steak and red wine and eventually I managed to get a ticket for Saturday but no guarantee that the bus would run the 8 hour trip.

What a ride! Probably the most exciting and certainly most scenic bus trip I have ever taken.

Finally the end of the trip approaching in the form of Santiago, Chile and I could breath again, altitude a mere 480 metres only. A few days there, more steaks, and yes, more red wine but now that I have arrived in Valpariaso, it is gorgeous seared tuna fish with a salad of avocado, asparagus and tomato and white wine.

I must admit, with tales of the Gringo Trail in mind, I was expecting to be offered tons of coke and weed, but it was a surprisingly sober trip. I bought a gram of coke in Ecuador for $15 and approached it with trepidation, rolling up $100 bills in expectation. I thought it might be best to do it straight and then go for a beer and that is what I did. A tiny bit of speed, maybe, and nothing else.

Bought another gram somewhere else and marginally better – I was only doing this, of course to help with the breathing. Somewhere else, in one of the hostels, got chatting with one of the guys working there, I think he was a Brit, and he invited me to share an actual lump of coke which was – I think – much better but as I stayed up until 5:00 am, I’m not too sure. I then had to face a 14 hour bus trip so I was a subdued little man for a while.

General Observations

Cuba – very fat ladies squeezed in to tight Lycra pants; very generous measures of rum; great music in the bars, mildewed buildings.

Ecuador – organised and efficient, gorgeous ceviche, panic buttons in this taxis, dry Sundays!

Peru – no pepper in restaurants, crap coffee, grey Pacific, rum served with whipped egg white, coca leaves for chewing with a lump of stevia (to help with altitude), super clean wet markets, amazing displays of fruit, veg never seen before, enormous servings of meat, inca women with very long plaited hair, shawls and bowler hats perched on their heads

Bolivia – a shambles, road blocks condoning off La Paz from the outskirts, erected by local indigenous in protest at …, huge street protests in La Paz, seriously armed police with pump action tear gas shotguns, trouble breathing most of the time.

Argentine – easy border crossing with no paperwork at all, bus searched by troops at a military checkpoint, huge highways and flyovers, a modern country (compared to Cuba and Bolivia), a black market in U.S. Dollars.

Chile – Lovely wines – Colchuagua Valley (despite the fact that I never made that pilgrimage) being one of my favourites.

Lounged my time away in Valparaiso and small coastal towns like Viña del Mar, bravong myself for the long flight actoss the pacific to Sydney na d onwards to perth.

 

Cuba and Beyond

Part One

Fidel in Cuba died recently and I felt smugly pleased that I had made it to that island before he had passed away. Well done, I have to say, for standing up – alone (except for massive Russian help, I suppose, in the earlier days) – to the regional superpower and for sticking to his guns over the last three plus decades.

I remember being exhausted when I thought about how I arrived – the flight from Sydney to Dallas was 15 hours! The amazing thing was that I left Sydney at 1PM on Wednesday 12 August and arrived here in Dallas 15 minutes later on Wednesday 12 August. Still haven’t worked that out. However, on again to Mexico City where I’ll stay the night before leaving for Havana the next morning!

Stayed in a lovely hostel in the Centro Historico in Mexico City and caught my early morning flight to “La Habana” the next day. Arrived safely but a bit tired after nearly 26 hours actual flying time. Stayed in a very nice “casa particulare” which is a private home providing bed and breakfast.  The Cuban government under Raoul, Fidel’s brother, recently decided to allow private individuals to rent a room in their homes to tourists. Fascinated by the disrepair everywhere, I went out for a walk the first evening and got lost immediately – took me 4 hours to find the pension again.

fullsizeoutput_fb7Havana is amazing – Like going back in time – a jumble of narrow streets, all dug up and rough, crumbling mildewed buildings propped up with wooden beams and here and there a splash of bright paint covering up the ruins! If I thought the streets in Hanoi were confusing and the rough paths in Saigon were not for pedestrians, here in Havana everything is worse – the streets are a jumble of broken pavements and street signs are few and not very clear.  So far I have got lost every single time within 5 minutes of leaving my “casa” and I end up walking around in a maze of narrow streets, stopping whenever I can to gulp bottled water and find a shady cafe where I can sit, relax, read, study Spanish and do people watching.  All the men are stick thin, mostly, while the women have the biggest bums and boobs I have ever seen.  I hadn’t realised how black the people are – all shades really from shiny black African types to milky coffee colours. The only peopfullsizeoutput_fb6le who speak English are the touts who offer cigars, taxis and tours – “hello, welcome to Cuba, enjoy your holiday – where are you from? No, no, wait, listen to me, I don’t want your money for myself but if you can buy some oil or milk for my baby ….“. And then there is the music – every bar seems to have a traveling band who play for 30 minutes or so before passing the hat around! Where I had dinner last night – a grilled fish with rice and black beans – the band had a resident couple in a flamboyant costume who danced salsa for tips.  Everything is cheap but not too cheap in Havana and nothing is free of course – even sitting in a park will attract touts and sometimes it is easier to give a few coins than to constantly refuse.

I ended up staying 6 nights and then got a 4 hour bus ride to Viñales a rural town to the west of Habana where the main occupation seems to be sitting on a verandah in a rocking chair, drinking Ron! Very quiet and calm compared to Havana which was a bit too money hungry for my liking.  Here in the village everything seems to be a lot slower as was img_0623the Internet which was intermittent and chaotic.  Queued for more than an hour to buy a internet card valid for one hour and which must be used on the pavement outside the telephone office in order to use the connection there.  Weird system, or maybe no system at all. I really need to book a flight out of Cuba before it is too late because the music, the salsa dancing, the food, cocktails are all so lovely and laid back. Probably going to leave the home stay in Viñales tomorrow but the food is incredible – both the quantity and the quality – I’ve eaten nothing but seafood and last night my lobster was too big for me to finish! – and head off to a beach nearby and stay there for a few days – long enough to get laundry done! All the bars everywhere have a roster of bands playing great salsa music for about 3 or 4 songs before they pass the hat around and try to sell their cd.    The last night in Viñales, there was a ten-man band belting out the music and eight extraordinary dancers at the cultural centre where – of course both the band and the dancers expected – and were well worth – the minimal tips involved.

Left Vinales and took a bus down to the south coast to a town called Cienfuegos where the casa particulare, while pleasant enough, was miles out of town.  I didn’t really like the town despite its fantastic lovely buildings as it was stinking hot and there were not enough bars.  Decided to leave the next day and go to Trinidad and took a taxi to the bus station where I queued for the bus ticket and then queued again to get a seat number on the bus but when the bus finally arrived there were no seat numbers so I just sat down.  Cubans have to queue for everything here – God help them! In direct contrast to Cienfuegos, img_0632Trinidad was lively and colourful – narrow, cobbled streets, loads of bars, great music and fantastic restaurants.  Sitting on a rooftop terrace enjoying the first mojito of the day, listening to another band with a fat lady belting out the songs and swaying to the rhythm when the singer asked me to dance and tried to show me the steps, faster and faster, swaying all the time.  Of course I had to give her a dollar then.  Great fun, though, but God, the sweat pours out of me.

Left Trinidad worn out and hired a taxi for the 12k run to the coast – Playa Ancon, which looked lovely but the hotel was $125 a night – a bit rich for my blood – so back in the taxi, another $7 and down the road to a local fishing village where I found a lovely clean room in a private home where the host also offers breakfast and dinner.  This morning, before leaving Trinidad, I had breakfast in the  casa – a pot of strong black coffee, a pot of hot milk, a basket of toast, four small pancakes, a plate of sliced cheese and ham,  a small omelette, a HUGE jug of fresh mango juice, a plate of papaya, mango and pineapple and a litre of fresh yogurt – absolutely amazing.  Enough to last me for days – or until dinner tonight and I’ve already ordered fish.

Back in Havana and sitting on the balcony of my casa particulare and enjoying the afternoon breeze and listening to the noise of the street below me – groups of young kids kicking a punctured ball around and singing “ole, ole, ole” (probably the worst “music” I have heard since I arrived). Planning to take a ferry ride across the harbour to a fantastic, img_0572fairytale fort on the other side the next day.  Time for my evening cocktail as I try to chat in Spanish to the old man, Gomez and his wife, Miranda who are renting me the room, a/c, private bathroom, big bed and balcony plus a huge breakfast Trying to keep the spending down but had to splash out at the loo today in a hotel! No free lunches here – everything has to be paid for. I’ve enjoyed Cuba but now, it’s getting on time for me to move on and I plan to fly to Quito, which is the second highest capital city in the world, in Ecuador by the end of the month.  Should be cool there, I’d imagine! I drip with sweat the whole time here and my sandals stink despite me washing and scrubbing them every night.

Cuba is really a step back in time. Queues are paramount, even to enter the bank, only one person allowed in at a time, or to buy a bus ticket, or the exchange booth but as yet I have not seen an ordinary shop as we know it. Plenty of souvenirs on sale as well as exquisite lace and embroidered everything but I haven’t bought anything yet, except for food and drinks.  Pathetic in loads of ways, queues in the morning for bread and oil, no internet to speak of, battered and broken down old Russian Ladas and ancient Chevies and Caddies, mildewed and crumbling buildings, incredibly fat ladies squeezed into tight Lycra, but God, the music, the rum, the ambience, the sheer decrepitness of it all somehow combines to provide an out of world feeling.  In the bars at night, there was music in the air and revolution in the air. A rum mojito – although I tended to prefer daiquiris – was an experience as no barman worth his salt would ever dream of using a measure. They just up-ended the bottle leaving barely a fraction for a splash of fizzy water. It became my undoing as they would offen enquire if the drink was “fuerte” enough and of course, being who I am, I would shake my head and pass the glass over where they would freshen it for me. Not much else to say about Cuba mainly because I don’t remember my alcoholic nights which often began shortly after noon for the above reasons but overall, I’d have to say a good time. Nevertheless, glad to leave after nearly 3 weeks there  and flying onto Quito, via Panama, in Ecuador. From there, I don’t know exactly what my plans are but I just find the heat and the humidity here in Cuba a bit draining.  Here’s hoping the cooler air further south will revive me as Quito is something like 2,500 metres above sea level. I doubt I will complain about the heat there. And, there should be regular internet access there. Had enough of poor old Cuba.