A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Wheelspin

Drink Rum Punch Before Racing A Goat

We are contributing to global warming

overcast 32 °C

Cruising on a ship can be dangerous for your health. I appreciate that statement is a generalization and, if one were to stay locked in a cabin for the duration, apart from being offered psychiatric assessment, little can go wrong. Venture out and almost certainly your life will be shortened. The remaining duration could as short as minutes – for example, you may throw yourself overboard. It could be days as you fall into a stupor often accelerated by listening to conversations with fellow passengers. Some lead me to wonder how they found the ship or even how they escaped from the asylum. So great was this concern I asked a senior crewmember who had earned several shiny rings on his sleeve, if this was in fact a disguised mobile asylum. He assured me it was only the ships officers who were crazy, but like me, other ratings were slipping into a stupor. Even the staunchest will have their life affected from over-eating or involving ones’ self in every ship board activity.
Each evening, when the housekeeping staff sneak into the staterooms to turn down ones’ bed, arrange subtle lighting, close curtains and check under the bed for stowaways or food hoards, they leave behind a Newsletter describing the following days program. This is a document detailing every available option. Today as I write, (a ‘sea day’ with no onshore excursions) we have 19 options. Add meals to this (5 a day plus snacks), some sleep periods and adequate time to take medications, leaves zero time to contemplate other issues. Given the reality of inadequate time for mobility impairs passengers to navigate between venues, only a few actually take advantage of every option. This rankles and in some instances, infuriates some passengers enough to complain. Their reasoning is, “We’ve paid for these so why not add additional time each day to receive satisfaction”. (A 26 hour day sounds reasonable) I’m happy to give up some opportunities and will not be demanding a refund. For example, today I’ve decided to give up the ‘Artic Detox, the Martini Tasting and the Dancing Under the Stars. The detox was a reluctant decision as it involves being beaten with a damp Birch branch by a Scandinavian maiden all the way from the sauna to the ice plunge pool.
The food and beverage selection on board is magnificent. Unlimited quantities 24 hours each day. Sadly for some, given it’s a small ship, we have only 4 restaurants and 8 bars. However, standards are high. Unlimited food, wine, beer & coffee is included in the fare – exotic cocktails and spirits are additional (added to your room account so it seems free until time to check out). At the start of the voyage passengers were offered a ‘beverage option’. For $2,200 absolutely everything including premium wines is ‘free’. Given my ongoing need for a functioning liver and a reluctance to spend long periods in the restrooms (14 in public spaces), we did not take this option. Never-the-less, Flypaper has looked a bit seedy some mornings and its only the need to tidy our cabin ready for housekeeping (who tidies it again) that inspires her to rise each day. I regularly remind her she’s missing the thrashing with the Birch branch or may be late depositing towels and surplus clothing on the more desirable deck chairs to reserve them for later in the day. This tradition galls me. If it wasn’t for signage all around the ship saying, “Do not throw anything overboard”, I would consider doing a bit of tidying up myself. A common sight is passengers weaving around the decks and corridors declaring, “The sea must be rough today”. On many occasions I advise them we are still firmly tied to the dock and perhaps their equilibrium has been damaged by multiple crossings of the Equator. The ships doctor has asked me to stop giving medical advice of this nature as they are already overworked. As an aside, the ocean has been remarkably calm. Only once did a few carpeted areas require shampooing.
With unlimited food, wine and beer offered to a ‘mature’ and appreciative assemblage, there is one certain outcome … abundant flatulence. My own experience suggests exhaust emissions rise significantly as a result of the ‘onboard’ lifestyle. I suspect 14 people in a lift can result in higher levels of flammable emissions than recommended in the ‘Safe Ships Manual’. This leads me to speculate regarding the possibility of a terrorist attack that results in the sinking of a cruise liner from nothing more than striking a match in the theatre one evening after dinner. I see a need to screen for spark and flame generating devices at each boarding of the vessel.
It also adds another dimension to the question, “Does ‘cruising’ add significantly to global warming? Carbon dioxide and methane are credited as seriously damaging the natural ecosystems. Flatus production is mostly CO2 and methane. Some quick research indicates average human beings collectively release about 73 metric tons of methane and 1000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every day through flatulent emissions. Shipboard emissions are greater than average. I wouldn’t like this weight to fall on me so I conclude it’s a worrying matter. Maybe I’ll plant a couple of trees when I return home.
As a lad I read the book “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe. The setting for the classic written in 1719 was believed to be the Caribbean Island of Tobago. Little did I know that one day I would visit the very same. I don’t believe Daniel would recognize it today. For one thing, while he struggled to find a footprint, today it’s full of tourists. Another notable difference is the Carib Indians who inhabited the place back in those days have given up and moved on. It can’t the result of running out of people to eat as some very delicious looking main courses are roaming about – some even carrying their own herbs, spices and sauces. There’s even meals on wheels.
The biggest issue when arriving at Tobago is to be sure you are not wearing camouflage clothing or even some item that could be considered an attempt to merge with the background. This was even mentioned in documentation prior to leaving home so those with only a military style wardrobe could make arrangements to visit somewhere else. I became quite concerned when I walked ashore through immigration and realised I was wearing a beige shirt that matched exactly with the painted wall colour. It was obviously effective as I wasn’t questioned by the military guys wearing camouflage uniforms that were the most outstanding colours visible. Further confusion later when the ‘bird watchers’ were instructed to wear camouflage to enable closer contact with their feathered targets; only to be reminded they left their hats decorated with twigs and leaves at home. Tobago and St Lucia have the same law. I suspect the army commanders hate it when tourists arrive looking more military than their own troops.
Goat racing is one of Trinidad & Tobago’s most popular sports. Jockeys run alongside goats, guiding them with a nine-foot leash and whip. (I suspect the whip is for encouragement rather than guidance) The sport started in 1925, at Buccoo be where an enormous Goat Racing Stadium has been built. To defray costs and further entertain the huge crowds attending, Crab racing is also featured. While not so spectacular or indeed, as fast, the crabs generate their own fans and huge betting revenue. There is no doubt however, which of the losers is the tastier that night.Goat-Racing-Tobago.jpg
I was fascinated to read a sign in Brazil and the Caribbean Islands to the effect; “The XXX Electricity Commission wishes to remind the public that pursuant to (blah blah) … tampering with electricity installations or making illegal use of electricity connections are criminal offences”. This warning obviously falls on deaf ears and equally obvious is the fact nobody polices the blatant stealing of electricity. Throughout the towns hundreds of amateur connections sprout from poles in the most astonishing display of electricity theft. How they achieve it is beyond my understanding. I looked carefully at the base of many poles to see if fried remains of cheeky robbers were visible. Seems they are quickly cleaned up by those who receive the new energy supply. Perhaps it’s the first job for the new vacuum cleaner. 90_Electricity_theft.jpg Crab_racing.jpg
The island nation of Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean Lesser Antilles covers 442 sqkm (much of which is water) which is about the size of the Coromandel Peninsular. While Coromandel Peninsular has a population of around 26,000, A & B boasts 93,000. More impressive, A & B have more cars than people. With few roads, rush hours are bedlam. Perhaps this is why the prison population of A & B is 360 … of which 16 are women. My first thought was, “This is obviously unjust. The courts are prejudiced against males.” However, it turns out females commit just about as many crimes as men – but the naughty girls have figured out how to convince the police (and judges) they don’t deserve incarceration. At this point, my information source clammed up. (So I’m unable to confirm what you are thinking)
A number of islands in the Lesser Antilles have a tradition. When a baby is born, the parents plant a coconut tree together with the umbilical cord. If the tree grows straight the child will be a goody. If however, the tree grows on a lean then the offspring is likely to be wayward. Random observation suggests the leaners are far more prolific.
The US Virgin Islands Roads are mountainous, narrow and curvy, often unpaved and definitely challenging. Add the fact they are the only US governed territory where you drive on the left … but most vehicles are US sourced LHD. Many US visitors find this confusing. When hiring a rental vehicle (not always a car) they are given the tip … “Wind down the window and keep your elbow pointing at the trees” The locals drive weird open-air taxi’s converted from old US trucks. They disregard all road rules and seem to be trying to win a race. Herds of goats can be encountered around any corner – as can cherubic looking school children hitching a ride. (Don’t stop for a child. 5 or 6 will rush out of the bushes and pile into your car. Few are going to the same destination). Driving visitors are plied with lots of free Rum Punch. Beware – this is not the sort of Punch your grandmother would serve up at Christmas. The combination of these facts is sufficient to scare the crap out of all visitors whether drivers or passengers.
Its time we returned home to NZ.

Posted by Wheelspin 10:00 Archived in Antigua and Barbuda Tagged islands us warming trinidad st virgin global antigua equator antilles crab goat racing rum thomas tobago crusoe detox barbuda punch lesser flatulence asylum carib Comments (1)

Sleeping in the lower hammock is dangerous

Beware - Gold diggers around

semi-overcast 38 °C

The happiest person on our ship is the guy wearing ‘Crocs’. I first became aware of him towards the end of our initial shore excursion when I was thinking, “Its difficult to appreciate 3rd world despair when ones feet hurt”. I guess that idea extends to; the best place to raise funds for the needy would be at the exit from a chiropodist. I further surmised, “That guy packs his own luggage”. He has continued to wear them on every occasion – the restaurants, shows, lectures, excursions and in the gymnasium. He radiates confidence and security while I try to disguise my envy. The observation caused me to categorise my fellow passengers into: those who follow their wife’s instruction and those who don’t. It’s a fascinating study that doesn’t restrict to dress sense. Type and quantity of food on the plate, comments in the lift, choice of seating in the theatre and selection of new friends are all indicators. The majority of the passengers are easy to categorise. (1) The lady is obviously conscious of her appearance while the man is equally smart – and even puts on clean clothes for dinner. (2) The lady is appropriately dressed while her partner, although uncoordinated, appears ‘comfortably’ attired. In some instances, it seems he thought he may be asked to help in the engine room. There is a 3rd group - (3) Both partners appear they took a wrong turn on the way to a fancy-dress party. Unfortunately, exacerbating the understanding of this normally consistent group, is the fact we have experienced Christmas afloat. This gave opportunity for some to break out their red & white costumes. Funny hats, bizarre shirts, often emblazoned with advice for Santa or his reindeer) and ‘overgarments’ (I struggle for a better word, although I considered, regalia) that would, if still at home, result in their children consulting a mental health professional. I further suspect some believed their grandchildren would show up for the holiday as usual. I do hope the excellent medical facilities on board include counseling facilities,
It was one of these ‘cat 3’ people who joined us in the elevator up to our ‘stateroom’. We often have interesting 10 – 20 second conversations on the way ‘home’. The guy, who I was reluctant to engage, said, “Are you odd”? My quickly considered reply was, “We expect others to reach that conclusion as we seldom dwell on the subject”. While we completely understand those who consider us odd, especially as we have a very strange accent and Flypaper is often possessively holding my arm suggesting I need support and direction, I don’t believe we are asylum material yet. It wasn’t until we were safely locked in our room we realised he was enquiring which side of the ship we lodged. (We have an even number, but noticed he appropriately turned to the other side.)
At the Amazonian port of Parintins we enjoyed a festival called ‘Boi Bumba’. It is 2nd only to the Rio Carnival. Check it out at … http://boibumba.com/brief_en.htm The costumes are stunning and the rhythmic music is entrancing. There is little likelihood of going to sleep. At the restrooms latter I overheard a couple of guys commenting … “The girls really made the show – particularly the leading ladies who didn’t need costumes to gain attention”. The restrooms are the best place to hear true sentiment. The same guys would have told their wives and friends at dinner, “Wow, those costumes were stunning”. When Flypaper asked me how I liked the show, I said, “The music was a bit loud and repetitive”.
The ships 900 passengers use an astonishing amount of water. I suspect most is in the form of ice in the drinks. The ship has a massive desalination plant to convert salt water to fresh drinking water. However, the Amazon River is brown, silty, fresh water – the plant doesn’t work. As a result, the vessel purchased water at 3 of the major cities along the way. They also advised us not to drink the local water. There’s a conflict. We were additionally instructed to drink copious amounts of bottled water when ashore. Nothing unusual about this. Gullible people everywhere believe they need it. As a result, frail passengers who had spent a fortune purchasing flimsy clothing and lightweight shoes, staggered down the gangway laden with multiple bottles of water. These people had just risen from breakfast where they consumed juice, smoothies, water and gallons of coffee. Quite enough liquid to last 3 hours until lunch where the menu included water, juice, beer, wine and gallons of water. A significant amount of a 3- 4 hour excursion is typically spent at restrooms along the way. Such is the power of brainwashing. (Note to business people, not only involved in offering baubles to tourists but any business, offer free restrooms and you will prosper.)
I was privileged to spend some time over a coffee one morning with a gentleman who was a regular traveler on cruise ships. He was a widower of many years who figured out cruising was cheaper than owning a home and employing a house keeper – which he added, was still cheaper than taking on another wife. He proved to be very wise and shared his wisdom with younger guys like me. He said, “There’s lots of women aboard looking for a wealthy husband. If you want to meet them, and are a bit of a teaser, just fold up some toilet paper into your wallet and carry it in your trouser pocket. They will notice, and you’ll be very popular. When you’re tired of them, just say your previous wives bled you dry and you won your cruise in a raffle”. I could never learn valuable stuff like this by staying at home.
The Amazon basin is the worlds largest, virtually impenetrable rain forest. There are no highways or even local roads. All inhabitation is along the river and all transport is by water. There are water craft ranging from small canoe’s, to small Taxi’s, larger busses and huge trucks – all carrying every item normally transported by road. The boats all require fuel and every town has at least one barge on the river that is a petrol station. There is every other service imaginable for boats to be found along the shores. Travel between cities can take days and even weeks. The mainstay of longer journeys are multi-storied ‘bus boats’ which carry people, stock and freight. At night people sleep cheek by jowl in hammocks suspended above the deck. Children’s hammocks are often strung above adults. Frequent fights break out between parents when children annoy those below. Bed wetting is an example. The most important person on the bus boats is not the captain or the engineers – it’s the Satellite dish operator. Women will only take a boat that has a reputation for providing every available TV soap opera. As the boat snakes around following the river, the TV signal comes and goes. A skillful guy on the roof continually adjusting the direction of the dish to maintain a perfect signal is critical. If he fails, the women lose patience, the boat owner loses custom and he loses his job. They don’t care if the boat breaks down, just as long as the TV continues 24/7.
An curious feature of Brazilian travel is the ‘Tourist Police’. PC260011.jpg
They exist to keep an eye on the visitors and to maximise the tourism spend by extracting a little extra foreign currency if an offence is committed or even a transgression as trivial as failing to find a restroom resulting in an ‘exposure’ indiscretion down a secluded ally. The chances of falling foul of the law in this instance is heightened as Restrooms are not signposted. Actually, we have a similar situation in New Zealand. It’s called a ‘hotel toilet tax’). Our guides explained they were also there to rescue the disoriented and abandoned. Their demeanor and belt full of weapons suggest they deal with some very dangerous tourists. I wanted to tell a policeman that the feared lady on our ship who storms out of restaurants for inadequate service and berates the staff who stray within range, had just robbed a beggar whose empty cup could be used as evidence of her crime. I didn’t do it, because I feared she may escape. Call me a coward if you must.
I did display more courage when asked by another lady to confirm the river had risen overnight as a result of the rain. She based her concerns on the fact more floating rubbish was passing us and no ‘beaches’ could be seen at the rivers edge. I was able to reassure her she was safe and the river hadn’t risen. As proof I showed her a line marked on our ships hull and explained, “The water was up to this line when we entered the river and its still at that same line,” It was heartwarming to notice the calm that returned to her demeanor after this simple reassurance.
While onboard we have increased our knowledge and understanding about all sorts of things. Lectures given by credible Doctors of this and that, Professors, Geologists and retired Senior Diplomats. I was already aware that Brazil has an issue with corruption at the highest level. Indeed, the best president they ever had is currently in jail for getting caught at the game and his successor, the current president, is currently being impeached and will undoubtedly serve time soon. The drive to stamp out corruption is driven by the disadvantaged masses and corporates who collectively are able to fund the procedures. However, I don’t think this problem will be solved anytime soon. Today we learned that, here in Brazil, there is a waiting list to join the Civil Service which is regulated by the very costly bribe required to succeed. However, there are instances of clear thinking on the subject. It’s possible to receive a receipt from a ’guvmint’ servant to whom one made a bribe payment, and that receipt enables one to receive a tax credit in the following year. It’s a cost of doing business – seems sensible to me.
The Amazon River cities of Santarém, Manaus and Parintins are pleasant to visit. They have a shabby appearance as a result of equatorial climate, no understanding of the word ‘maintenance’ and low incomes, but display a sense of pride in being relatively clean and tidy. Most of the trash collection budget appears to be spent correctly. The regional capital, Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon River however, is in contrast. Its it could represent Brazil in the world championship for ‘garbage H/Q ‘. Initially I thought they may be hosting a ‘trash exposition’ … but soon realised this was more than just spreading around some rubbish. Belém has been prepared and matured over a long period. The smell is evidence of that and likely to clinch the gold medal. The meat market; an open-air collection of stalls hasn’t been even superficially cleaned for years. Even the flies could only stay for short periods. They attack in shifts. The fish market on the other hand (the largest in the region) and part of the huge ‘Ver O Peso’ Market offering everything imaginable, did get a hose out each afternoon, but smelt as though they recycled the same water every day. In a way, I suspect they do. If they pump it out of the adjacent river its right where they dump the fish bits they can’t sell. The smell causes visitors gut-turning dizzy spells. I suggested to the guide he should issue chemical warfare masks. Bizarrely, our guide took great pride in showing us their ‘piece-de-resistance’, a specially built sheltered inlet carved into the wharf, where the fishing boats come to clean and fillet their catch before hoisting the bins of fresh fish up to their sales agents in the adjacent market. When the tide goes out, as it does twice a day and occurred while we visited, the riverbed is exposed along with fish skeletons, fish heads and unidentifiable fish scraps. The smell is horrendous – but does serve to attract about 200 ugly black turkey vultures. If the judges are marking when the vultures are fighting over the scraps they will award gold, silver, and bronze.
A feature of the ‘Ver O Peso’ Market is the large section dedicated to natural herbal medicines. The Amazonians claim to have a prevention or cure for every ailment. Their health system is virtually non-existent so perhaps they have little option. I couldn’t help wondering why, having scoffed so much healthy herbal preventatives, anyone died in Brazil. I was also vexed (and possibly visibly indignant) when lady stallholders chased after me offering large bottles of their homemade Viagra. Given the large size of Brazilian families I have no doubt it works well but my vexation resulted from their immediate positive belief I needed the product. (They could at least suggest a test.) After leaving the market I wished I’d bought an assortment of various cures because I’m certain I don’t have immunity to many of the things I came in contact with there. I also fear my optical and olfactory system have been irreparably damaged.
The last Brazilian I met was an interesting fellow. He is a one-man mobile radio station. Quite a brilliant commercial venture in this era where business promotion is very difficult given the diversity of media option. He travels on his bicycle to anywhere there are large gatherings of people,(eg. The market) to anywhere his advertisers want to target a specific audience and to sporting events. On arrival he cranks up appropriate music to suit the audience and proceeds to entertain. Between songs and jokes he delivers his advertisers message(s). He’s loud, he makes his captive audience laugh and is in demand. I liked him a lot … even though I didn’t understand a word he said. PC300041.jpg

Posted by Wheelspin 08:47 Archived in Brazil Tagged police turkey hammock carnival tourist brazil amazon o dress peso basin vultures belem fancy corruption santarem crocs ver viagra flypaper chiropodist stateroom parintins boi bumba brainwashing watercraft Comments (0)

Lets invite a croc to lunch

Why is there piranha in the bathroom ?

overcast 35 °C

When I was a lad I read a book about a guy who traveled down the Amazon River. Along the way he wrestled a caiman (alligator), fought off Indians who were shooting poisonous darts at him, battled a giant anaconda, repulsed a leopard with a burning branch and lost a few chunks of flesh to piranha … but finally, while suffering malaria, succumbed to the charms of a lovely Brazilian maiden. I wanted to be like that guy despite the unfortunate ending. (I could never understand why Tarzan, the Phantom and Zorro all ended up in the clutches of women. I vowed never to let that happen to me.) At last, quite a bit later than initially expected, I now find myself travelling 1.600 km (1,000 ml) up the Amazon River. I still don’t understand why, but, like my heroes’, there is a woman involved in the story. So far, the 2nd most exciting action has been watching a sloth climb a tree for an hour … the most exciting was watching a bumptious woman storm out of the ships best restaurant because she considered the service was too slow. The Amazon was named after fierce women. I find myself exposed to dangers my childhood hero could never envisage
The Amazon has recently become the longest river in the world. That claim used to belong to the Nile but is seems they were cheating. However, that’s nothing: the total discharge by Amazon River alone is greater than the total discharge of 7 next largest rivers of world taken together! 20% of Earth’s fresh water that enters the oceans comes from Amazon. The interesting facts go on and on – and can be found elsewhere … with more credibility.
The ships decision makers felt compelled to deliver a special newsletter to the rooms of those who had booked the excursion to have an interesting morning Piranha fishing on Maica Lake. The letter reads, “Please be advised that the catch will not be allowed to be bought onboard the ship”. What an extraordinary dictate. Piranha are among the most prolific fish in the Amazon. They are also among the most regularly eaten. The concept of eating something that has the predisposition to eat me appeals. I’ve had the satisfaction of eating many carnivores that, under different circumstances, would not have hesitated to make me their ‘catch of the day’. I questioned the ships management about this rule which seemed directed by some unacceptable PC / sustainability principle and was assured this was not the case. On a previous voyage a passenger had bought a couple of Piranha on board and kept them alive in his bathroom hand basin. The next question, and the one you’re all asking, is, why? Can only I imagine he intended to remove the light bulbs and encourage his wife to use the bathroom first that night. Visualize his feigned surprise the next morning when the house-keeping staff asks him about the bones in the bathroom. I’m encouraged that innovative thinking regarding ‘spousal removal’ still exists.
I’m proud to report I was the champion Piranha fisherman aboard the local boat that ferried us up river to the lake via small tributaries in which we saw quite a lot of wildlife. I did see the monkeys, water buffalos, a snake, sloths, goannas and dozens of exotic birds. Some fellow passengers swear they also saw the chameleon the captain pointed out in a tree. He did so with a twinkle in his eye. Chameleon are the world camouflage champions. I couldn’t see it – and I now suspect I was afloat on a huge and sometimes dangerous river with 19 people susceptible to autosuggestion. They are either gullible or outright liars. Nether would be good if our boat begins to sink among the piranha. Our group caught 9 fish of which I caught the first, the smallest and the largest – a veritable monster about 40mm (16in) with teeth that generated a lot of respect. PC240028.jpg To my eternal shame I asked our guide, a vivacious chatterbox who seemed to be about 20 but boasted of 5 children and a husband who is seldom home (?), to remove the hook. She had 2 fingernails grown longer for this task and to pull back the lips of the fish so we could photograph the wicked choppers that even after death would remove a finger off the unwary. For my achievements I was awarded a crudely mounted dried piranha to take home. Given it was Christmas Eve it solved a problem – I was able to present it to Flypaper as her Christmas present. I know she loves it but she hasn’t been very demonstrative. She’s probably overawed by my fishing prowess – as were many of the other even older women aboard.
Generally, I like elderly people. I plan to be one - eventually. However, this journey has again made me acutely aware of both physical and mental limitations for those in their autumnal years. In Mexico we listened in dismay to a guide who recounted a recent experience with an elderly customer who obviously had some mobility issues. However, when he uncontrollably ‘soiled’ himself it was discovered he travelled in nappies. Investigation discovered his grown up children funded his continuous holiday, so they could occupy the family home in his absence and hoped his eventual termination would occur in a country with economical funeral costs. Aboard this ship are others I suspect are in similar circumstances. While I do feel for them, I confess, when they block my progress (think urgent bathroom inclinations), require assistance to rise and shuffle to their next destination, wear elasticated supports on all appendages (I’m assuming about this), distribute food around the table when attempting to eat and require constant crew attention or insist on telling me about their medical conditions, I believe it’s time to give up the urge to complete the bucket list. I do confess at these times to considering the euthanasia debate has some merit.
However, there is one guy I felt sorry for, and foolishly tried to assist. Possibly because I classify him among the bewildered and may find I’m in the same condition one day soon. At the buffet breakfast I found myself standing behind a man in a very inappropriate shirt – it was possibly his 1960 Hawaiian honeymoon shirt. He was staring fixedly at the various food options. After about 2 minutes without decision and given the queue was becoming quite long (although none looked starved), I asked if I could help. “Would you like a poached egg?” Yes. “How about a sausage?” Yes. “Some baked beans and a hash brown?” Yes. “The plates pretty full but I could drape some bacon over the egg and add some fried onion to the sausage?” Yes. At that very moment, an agitated woman appeared between us and said, “I only sent him back for his spectacles”. Well … what was I to do? Given the equally agitated queue, I ate his breakfast.
Our final destination before turning downstream again was the city of Manaus – 1,600 km (1,000 mi) from the ocean. Home to 2.5 million who spend half the year treading water during the rainy season when the river rises 10 – 15 meters … mostly due to snow melt on the Andes Mountains 2,000km to the west. Its where the only bridge spans the Amazon river. The bridge, by the way, is reputedly the most expensive per metre in the world and effectively goes nowhere. The official cost was US$570 but the locals say that is nonsense as leaks from city hall estimate over US$2.5 billion. That also goes some way to explaining why many influential people immediately retired from office and have never been seen since. Its well-known, corruption is the handbrake on Brazil.
As we were in port a couple of days we were keen to have ‘experiences’. Flypaper responded to an invitation from the ships Executive Chef to visit the fish and produce markets then transform their acquisitions into an evening meal. Surprised as I was, I can understand if the chef has become interested in ‘body sculpturing’. I didn’t become the shape I am without Flypapers expert assistance. As I had no invitations, I decided to take a river / jungle boat excursion. It started badly with a ride out to the ‘meeting of the waters’ – where the River Negro meets the Amazon. The flows don’t mingle for miles and are obvious by the clearly defined difference in colour. Some dolphins leaping from one river to the other saved the day. From there we headed to a weedy waterway accessing the assumed jungle experiences reminiscent of my childhood hero. Just as we arrived at the mouth a siren went off and the river police pulled us up. The 4 cops were typically arrogant and totally uncaring that their bullying may delay our lunch. I watched a couple of American guys who were clearly itching to become involved – then watched their wives who were not at all certain that was likely to be helpful. One guy commented that he had a much bigger pistol (at home) than the local police issue and wished he had bought it along. I kind of wished he had too. After 15 minutes of harassing the boat captain and engineer, the skinny cop started checking the lifejackets. He found 8 (from 60) that were missing the waist strap, then a fire extinguisher that was last certified in 1998 and a few paperwork issues. It took another 15 minutes to issue the infringement notice. On restart, our agitated captain spun the helm so hard it hit the stop – and broke the sheer pin. After a further 15 minutes the engineer concluded he had no spare, so they called 2 small speed boats and positioned them against each side of the front of our boat to provide steering into the still waterway.
At that stage we transferred to some long canoes with outboard motors. Only 1 passenger dropped his bag in the river and was reluctant to leap leap in to retrieve it – in spite his wife shrieking it contained irreplaceable cosmetic items. (Just quietly, between you and I, I consider it was time she tried some new brands.) After selflessly assisting many of the elderly and infirm together with those terrified of swimming with the piranha, I was embarrassingly requested to serve as ballast on one side to balance the narrow boat. If this had been the US I would have taken out a lawsuit against several parties. After disappointingly putting around looking at birds that looks monotonously similar, we stopped. Our guide told us the caiman here could grow up to 5 metres and weigh 400kg (800lb). He asked for silence so he could call one to visit us. To me, a 5m croc beside an unstable 9m canoe full of unstable passengers did not sound prudent. I noticed some of the passengers bow their heads – possibly in prayer. The guide did make a very amorous sound which I presume was the mating call of the Alligatoridea family. We waited in silence for a while. Serious silence – I think some were holding their breath – only to let out a huge sigh of relief when it became obvious the prayers had won.
We zoomed on across the lake to a rickety jetty leading to an even more rickety wooden walkway further leading up into jungle canopy. It was obvious none of our passengers were structural engineers – because they would have refused to set foot on this structure. Moments later all were having second thoughts, but such is the attraction of monkey viewing they continued. I lagged far behind until the most portly had travelled well ahead. I wouldn’t admit to being scared – I was terrified! Boards were rotten, missing or at least poorly fixed with 30-year-old rusty nails. The whole structure creaked and rocked. When a monkey peed on the shoulder of the lady just ahead I remained silent. We didn’t need a stampede to the washroom. Following the unexpected safe return of our party we boarded our rescue boat – a fast ferry normally used as a ‘bus’ on the river for locals. A satisfactory experience – but I’ll always wonder what would have happened if the caiman had arrived.
On another excursion our guide wanted to talk about the lack of mosquitos at this time of year and particularly around the highly alkaline (Ph4) Negro River. Struggling for the correct terminology he turned to me and asked, “What you call mosquitos in English?” To my eternal shame I responded, “In New Zealand we don’t call them – they come along all by themselves”. While this did result in a boisterous laughter, I did notice he received all the tips later.

Posted by Wheelspin 06:20 Archived in Brazil Tagged monkey lake river brazil amazon elderly caiman manaus sloth piranha negro maica bewildered infringement alligatiridea mosquetos Comments (1)

Pirates of the Caribbean

Experience a mobile retirement village

sunny 28 °C

Puerto Rico, is an unincorporated territory of the United States. Its difficult to understand – its not a ‘State’ and there have been many attempts to tidy up the relationship. These efforts have made the news enough times for most Americans to be aware Puerto Rico is somehow associated; they use US currency and no visa (or even passport) is required to visit – a drivers license or photo ID is sufficient. What obviously isn’t so well known is how to get there. Evidently, an astonishing number try to drive down for a vacation. Imagine their surprise when they reach the tip of Florida to discover it’s a bunch of islands 1228 miles south. Unlike Puerto Rican citizens, these lost travelers are allowed to vote for their president.
Puerto Rico used to be a very nice place … until a few months ago when hurricane Maria incurred US$95 billion damage. 3 months later there are still huge infrastructural problems. For example, while electricity is back on to most of the capital, San Juan, we had no hot showers and were unable to travel into rural areas, most of which have had little assistance at all. A couple of weeks after the hurricane, Donald Trump heard about it and visited. He magnanimously offered to loan PR about $5 billion, leaving their own territory not only bankrupt but with no chance of ever being able to recover. As a result, he became the most unpopular person ever to visit and would be wise not to show up there again. Damage is obvious, trees missing or heavily pruned, traffic lights all askew and debris piled up waiting to be removed. However, nature is amazing. Trees and shrubs are already back in full leaf and the rural scars are almost healed. I imagine future visitors will see a statue of Trump and be invited to throw stuff at it for a small donation. I also imagine this fund raising would hugely accelerate the recovery.
Puerto Rico covers 9,104 km2 (3,515 sq mi) with a population of 3.5m. New Zealand is about 95 times larger with a population of 4.5m. PR has the most densely crowded roads per Km/m in the world, but there are seldom traffic jams. Everyone is polite and patient. It’s the nature of the people and something that may preclude them ever becoming a US state.
The most convenient way to see most of the Caribbean islands is by boat. I hate cruising. It makes me fat. Cruise ships are full of mostly thin old people, but there are some who defy that category and will be having trouble picking up the soap in the shower. Unlike me these days, all have huge appetites and surely must be taking some medication to pass it on through into the ships digesters. They also have a lot of personal problems they readily share with crew, fellow passengers and those within earshot. Many of these problems are not solvable. The cruise director, who thrice daily introduces himself by name (Gene – obviously his parents were hoping for a girl) and retells all passengers what his role is. Perhaps he understands his guests have no short-term memory. At the welcoming ceremony, Gene made the comment that this cruise had the distinction of having the youngest average age to date. I figure its flypaper and I who are reducing the average significantly and should receive recognition. (I’m frightened to ask in case they offer us more food.) He also made the joke, “Let’s hear it for Arnold Pondwater who is 111 today”. Everyone cheered and was secretly thinking, “Good old Arnie. There’s hope for me”. Then the director said, “Opps I made a mistake. That should read, Arnold Pondwater is ill today”. Nobody thought that was funny - except me. My loud laughs drew many glares and Flypaper was very embarrassed. I had to point out to those around me that there is nobody called Arnold Pondwater. Then they laughed.
Gene also made another blunder. At each island there are shore excursions. Some included in the fare and others optional. Many are walking expeditions around the historic old cities that once hosted pirates and slave traders. What was he thinking? This age group is the largest collection of walking sticks holding up optimists you could imagine. Many totter off the gangway and immediately choose to return for a nap. In Barbados we were unfortunate to have a coach tour of a considerable part of this small country. It included free rum punch, so everyone turned out. The guide on our coach was Minnie Mouse. I kid you not – check out the photo. PC190015.jpg
Minnie has a gripping ‘spiel’ delivery. She says half a sentence and pauses for some time before completing the snippet of information judged to be a life-changing gem. Unfortunately, I found myself finishing her sentences before she did. eg. “On the left is ‘guvmint’ house where …. (me – Where Prince Harry slipped over for a naughty weekend a couple of months ago.) She – where the governor general lives”. How riveting. Or, “On your right is Rihanna’s ultra-luxurious $22m apartment where … (Me … where she and Harry posed during their HIV tests.) She - “which is near the beach where she grew up”. Come on … which tour would you rather be on? Flypaper and many of the infirm went to sleep – although that was soon after the litre of rum punch.
Minnie solemnly informed us we would experience fabulous 365 degree views from the lookout. Hmmmm, I thought, 365* That means I’ll have to spin around just a little further than usual. I actually turned 730 degrees (twice around + 2 x 5*) searching for the view. There was a ‘vista’ reveling the ocean during about 25 degrees while the remainder was filled with a bar dispensing the inevitable rum, some trees, a souvenir shop and a cage with a native ‘green monkey’ making rude gestures at his admirers. Back in the bus I asked Minnie Mouse, “How many days in a year here in Barbados? Seemed like a reasonable question given their degrees in a circle differ from the proposal put forward by Archimedes and his mates around 230 BC. Minnie thought for a moment, then reached for her phone while brightly telling me someone called ‘Mr Google’ would help me out. This is when I decided not to complain about the other misinformation – the ‘green’ monkey turned out to be grey, with, as a disgusted, matronly fellow traveler pointed out, a bluish scrotum.
Near the misnamed ‘lookout’ is a fabulous house belonging to the wealthiest man on the island, Sir Charles Williams. Knighted by Liz for his outstanding contribution to Barbados Civil Engineering and Road Construction from which he amassed a fortune. As we drove along an atrocious bumpy potholed road, Minnie pointed out the beautifully constructed sealed road running off to Sir Charles Polo Club. In contrast, the terrible road we bumped down the hill on, led to the house of his ex-wife. (Our Queen is obviously an understanding lady.)
In an effort to battle the ‘bulge’, I rise at dawn each day and stride around the deck the ship has thoughtfully allocated as the ‘1/4 mile circuit’, It’s calculated in miles in deference to their principal customer nationalities – which is silly given only people who walk kilometers actually use it. I’ve managed to convert it to metric and correctly renamed it the ‘402 meter’ circuit. Given I want to walk 3km, I walk 7.5 laps – then walk back to the starting point. It seems longer than when I walk at home. It’s a lonely time. Some days I must dodge the Filipino crew washing the decks. I can tell they consider I’m crazy and are probably thinking I should just get a job. One day, on my last lap, I met a fellow passenger circulating anticlockwise. This is illegal!!! The signage clearly says in the interest of safety and to avoid collision on the corners, all track users should circulate clockwise. I didn’t care that he was a technically a criminal and we greeted each other as long-lost buddy’s. We compared distance and lap times, then agreed to talk again the next day. I’ve never seen him since. As I’m sure I hadn’t yet offended him, I can only think of 2 reasons why he isn’t attending our planned rendezvous. (1) He felt the need to improve his lap times to match mine and the doctor didn’t get to him with the defibrillator in time. If this is the case, then I’m terribly sorry as I had lied – as you do. (2) He was caught circulating the wrong way and, as is normal punishment in the Caribbean, was made to walk the plank.
The first substantial voyage taken by Flypaper and I was way back in the late 1970’s. We had just driven from London to Capetown, sold our Landrover and were wondering how to make our way back to Europe. Somehow, we discovered a Greek Cargo ship called the Hellenic Hero took a few passengers at an attractive price - but was leaving from a port 800km away in 11 hours time. We almost missed the boat. While thrashing a rental car along the ‘Garden Route’ to Port Elizabeth, I was a little slow stopping for a policeman who stepped out from his hiding place behind a big sign reminding drivers of the speed limits. Thinking I had actually ignored his gesture, he discharged both barrels of his shotgun into the back of our Datsun 120Y. Given shotgun pellets travel at about 300 meters per second they soon caught up with us … and I discovered our brakes were better than I had previously imagined. After explaining Flypaper required urgent medical treatment he let us continue. (This explanation for our haste had previously worked when escaping from Idi Amin in Uganda and discovering Flypaper didn’t have a visa to enter Kenya. I told the boarder guard she remained in the Landrover because she had rabies which could only be treated at Nairobi Hospital He couldn’t stamp our passports fast enough.) At the Avis rental car depot we parked way in the back of their yard, slunk out the gate and ran for the gangway. We figured we would be on the high seas before the groomer discovered the dozens of spots on the back of the car wouldn’t polish out. The voyage, Port Elizabeth to Mombasa was supposed to take 12 days; collecting cargo at 5 ports in Mozambique and Tanzania enroute. It actually took 32 days because the cargo hadn’t arrived, the port workers along the way failed to show up for work or continued sleeping among the cargos waiting on the docks. To get around international maritime laws I was signed on to the ship as an officer. I guess they thought Flypaper was a ‘ship girl’. My crew papers enabled us to go ashore everywhere and many adventures ensued. However, and the relevance of this story, was that Captain Spiro finally gave up shouting or waving his arms in the well-known Greek way and decided to also enjoy the unplanned delays. Some days he and a couple of his crew launched a lifeboat and we went fishing. This was entered in the ships log as ‘lifeboat drill’. The fishing was superb and our plentiful catch kept the ships cook hard at work delivering an astonishing variety of seafood. There was also unlimited Greek wine, beer and Brandy to ensure the crew and 5 passengers didn’t dehydrate in the hot climate. The delays were tolerable. That brings me to the point. Our current ships crew also enjoyed unexpected fresh fish. One morning while out for my morning workout, I was astonished to discover the deck was littered with flying fish. Many were still flapping about. I’ll bet they were surprised after takeoff to discover their landing spot had been replaced by a large steel monster. The Filipino crew were scurrying around stuffing the fresh catch into bins and scuttling back into the bowels of the ship where I imagine they enjoyed Sarciadong Isda or similar.
An early event on a cruise is the mandatory ‘Safety Drill’ where, following 7 short and 1 long toot on the hooter, all on board scamper along to their assigned assembly station where they are reminded on these occasions there is no specific dress code except orange life jackets which are distributed just before abandoning ship. (Personally, I consider the lifejackets should be given to many before they enter the pool as I’ve witnessed a number being hoisted out again when they discover their motor neurons are no longer triggering the swim muscles.) Fast forward about 80 hours when we were just settling down to another evening meal. We’ve introduced ourselves around the table, observed the disappointed reactions of our new acquaintances, accepted a glass of wine and are comptemplating the menu options. Suddenly an alarm sounded and a looped recorded voice started ordering us to evacuate the room as a smoke detector has activated. The detector was the only thing activated. The diners all sat and looked a bit peeved that the announcement interrupted their conversation and meal. I stood and said to our table, “This is for real – lets stroll out even if it is going to ruin the evening”. Gradually and reluctantly diners started to rise. Astonishingly, those who had been served earlier were finishing their deserts as they hobbled along. Most had the foresight to take their wine glasses and some even asked a harried steward to top them up along the way. I do commend however, it was an orderly evacuation with no panic – but loads of indignation and comments that this may be another drill or worse, an emergency at an inconvenient time. Eventually we were told a toaster timer malfunctioned and burned the croutons. For some, this was a major event in their lives and some of those have been motivated to check their insurance policies. Death by toaster malfunction? Perhaps they should check if there’s an exclusion for ‘walking the plank’.

Posted by Wheelspin 09:53 Archived in Puerto Rico Tagged fish flying monkey the ship walk cruise blue san caribbean puerto rico pirates hurricane juan harry minnie cruising barbados trump safety drill prince plank mouse donald rihanna lifejacket Comments (0)

Viva La Revolution - Gracious Fidel

Home of the $3 note

semi-overcast 25 °C

Travelers on Central American airlines have two custom that create anxiety. Firstly, they arrive at the airport and block all the toilets – although, this may be a cunning control mechanism instigated by their rulers. One is less focused on highjacking an aircraft when concentrating on bowel control. The more concerning is their practice of clapping after a successful landing. It causes me to wonder what they do after an unsuccessful landing – and what the ratio of success to failure is. Our flight into Panama City added to my awareness. I suspect the new first officer was at the controls as he came in a bit fast and high, then made some late ‘S’ turns in an effort to slow. As the terminal midway along the runway flashed by the boss took over and made a full power go around – followed by an announcement there had been a ‘weather’ condition. Having suffered this ignominy myself as a trainee pilot many years ago, I believe the captains announcement was grammatically incorrect. He used the wrong ‘weather’. He should have been said, “I’m trying to decide ‘whether’ my assistant should be allowed to continue risking our lives in future”.
I was dismayed when Flypaper handed over my ‘emergency’ funds – sufficient notes to purchase a little sustenance and a taxi back to the hotel and sufficient coins to gain entry to a public toilet and perhaps even persuade the lady attendant to part with a few leaves of paper. My dismay triggered the question, “Where did you get this $3 note?” She in turn looked a bit bewildered. I suspect many gems of knowledge gleaned from these writings are valuable when playing trivia. Here’s another. What country provides a $3 note? The answer is Cuba. If the question is, ‘Why would a country provide a $3 note’ the answer is, “Its cheaper to print notes than mint coins”. This was the rare occasion Fidel Castro exercised fiscal frugality. Cubans however, would rather have the comforting weight of coin in their threadbare trousers as it provides useful ballast during a hurricane.
Cuba and particularly Havana is just as I imagined – third world tatty and depreciating steadily. There are glimpse of its heyday in the early 1900’s but these only add to the air of despair. I’m happy, as are most tourists. That’s why they come. However, the younger Cubans are fed up with being locked into the 1960’s and going backward. They have poor internet access and have figured out the tourists coming here are not all lucky lotto winners. They also understand communism has failed to develop any good examples of successful economies anywhere in the world.
Our guide, who, in defiance of the Cuban secret police, will remain nameless, told us he’s booked us into the best hotel in Cuba. He lied. But we soon forgave him as he’s a smart, ambitious, 25-year-old running his own business – and doing it well. He did attend university and trained as an electrical technician. He then did his 2 years working free for the state to repay his education. However, he clearly understands a 1960’s era electrical technician would not survive in the rest of the world that moves forward each year - and he knows Cuban tradesman don’t become wealthy. He also managed to develop a medical condition at the very time he was due to undertake his 2 year military service and was delighted it cleared up immediately after his callup period ended. I told you he was smart. We had assistance for a couple of days from a guy called Fidel. Any parent that names their son Fidel will not accept any reason to skip military service. While Fidel and his mates would not be willing to invade any other country, they accepted their training was important to defend their own country. Unfortunately, their tourist clients are all unanimous is saying, with the possible exception of North Korea, nobody else wants a 1960’s country even if lobster is cheaper than chicken.
Havana has many Russian designed high-rise buildings of which our hotel is an example. It has 1950s furniture and, in an effort to attract tourists, 2017 fixtures. eg. The latest shower plumbing and flat screen TV’s. Unfortunately the water pressure is inadequate to realise the potential of the hardware. When it gets stressed, the lift stops at random floors without reason and the architect forgot to include lights in the rooms. This omission is overcome by plugging 1960’s lamps into the few power-points. Management hasn’t quite understood that should a client wish to use the power-points for other reasons they do so in darkness. However, the breakfast makes up for all idiosyncrasies. Breakfast is right up there with the Mexican mega-resorts. The green bread does have me wondering and has not proved popular with guests. Tomorrow I intend to ask Flypaper to taste it.
We were clearly instructed not to try to change US currency or use US based credit cards in Cuba. This is the ‘Guvmints’ policy, however banks will accept Visa & Mastercard and everyone is delighted with the opportunity to gain US hard currency – at a 10% surcharge. We were unable to fly from the US to Cuba, but Americans do arrive here via Canada and Mexico. They can even show up on cruise ships. As a result, the major tourist population is American. Officially they are here for a conference (allowable). It seems these conferences are held on tour buses and in bars. Things are not as cheap here as expected unless shopping in markets and where the locals obtain their necessities. A Cuban Peso is worth US1.13. Unlike NZ where economic wisdom creates a low value dollar to assist exporters, the Cubans make selected imports cheaper and force the population to buy local.
One of the ironies of Cuban economics is Che Guevara souvenirs. It seems most tourist at least purchase a tee shirt or a picture. Che spent his life fighting capitalism … and is now the principle icon of emerging Cuban capitalism. In the city of Santa Clara, Che has a monstrous mausoleum where his remains are allegedly interred and virtually everything he touched throughout his life is on display. Given the few bones were found in a mass Bolivian grave and the clothing, guns, etc, all look just like everyone else’s, you’ll forgive me for being a little skeptical. It is however, an excellent earner for the city and the propaganda value among Cubans is important. The signage all over the country urges them to be grateful to the ‘heroes’ who gave their lives for socialist principals. The older people accept their lives have been no better than under Batista (the dictator before the revolution) but the younger ones would prefer an Apple iPhone and a regular bus service. However, the reason for the revolution has been distorted and much forgotten in favour of promoting heroism’s. The well known ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion failure was not a CIA fiasco – the invaders were wealthy Cubans trying to get their own country back.
Its been explained to me that the ‘guvmint’ owns or controls all serious commerce. The Cuban economy virtually collapsed following the Soviet Union demise in 1991. There’s lots of evidence of unfinished projects. Bridges across motorways that go nowhere, half completed buildings and deteriorating infrastructure. Evidently Russia had been hugely subsidising its little communist partner. In return Cuba sent them tobacco, rum, sugar, bongo drum players and invited the party nomenklatura to decadent frolics in the Caribbean resorts. Today tobacco and rum are the states biggest earners. Tourism is probably a bigger industry but private enterprise is finding ways of reducing the ‘guvmint’ rake-off. We visited a small private tobacco farm run the most congenial gentleman imaginable. He explained in Spanglish, “The ‘guvmint’ compulsory purchases 90% of our crop at a barely sustainable price. We sell the other 20% to tourists.”
After a superb breakfast we faced the first day – in the rain. Its not supposed to rain in November. The morning was a walking tour of old Havana. We were soaked but the temperature was warm. The Cubans were nonplussed so we sploshed along in their wake. Its clearly apparent Havana was a magnificent city before the revolution. Its very sad now. Once fabulous mansions are now decayed tenement buildings in appalling condition. There remains some grand hotels, churches and Commercial buildings but, in spite of tenant’s efforts, they are dilapidated. Side and back streets are slums. Roads are potholed and sinking. Traffic crawls. For all that, it’s worth seeing. This is not just an historic city in disarray, it’s a monument to Communism that can’t be replicated.
Over lunch on the roof of an old private apartment which required climbing 5 floors by rickety internal and external stairways, we heard first hand report of the recent hurricane. From our vantage point we could see waves crashing over the seawall onto the road and could easily envisage a situation 10 times worse just a few weeks previous. Surprisingly, our hosts said the media reports were greatly exaggerated. Sure, much of the city was flooded by surface water and many trees were blown down but there was little substantial structural damage. Our host told of something we never saw on TV. He advanced from his backstreet apartment by wading through the flooded streets to be with his friend about 3 blocks from the seawall. As the huge waves receded they were able to scurry out and pick up stranded fish in the streets. “Best days fishing in my life.” he said. “Bring on another hurricane”.
Our lunch was typically huge. We may have been the only diners and the guests of honour, but the stars of the banquet were the huge (200mm) lobster tails probably weighing well over half a kilo - on each plate. This was supplemented by the ubiquitous ‘rice & beans’, salad, sweet potato and a selection of sauces. Everything fresh and delicious. Accompanied by Mint tea laced with rum and followed by fresh local coffee. Cuban’s may not have unlimited trivial gadgetry, but they eat well. Every meal in Cuba is an opportunity to start the process and be part of natures cycle to return the digested nutrients back to the fields. I’m told there are no sewage plants – just sewage collection places.
We were stuffed. The afternoon required a sit-down activity so we toured greater Havana by car. Revolution Square, Hotel Nacional de Cuba, ‘guvmint’ H/Q and other renowned attractions but even better, we snuck around the various neighbourhoods other visitors seldom see. Suburban Havanans live in conditions just as poor as their city friends. Everywhere is strewn with smelly discarded rubbish. Most surprising of all was the ride through the ‘exclusive’ suburbs inhabited by the politicians and senior military personal. There, conditions are almost as bad. Their houses are detached 50’s style bungalows suffering obvious decay with overgrown gardens and shockingly potholed streets. Our guide saw nothing amiss and admitted that he would like an address in this neighbourhood. I suggested the poor street conditions were to ensure thieves couldn’t speed away. I have no idea of legal city speed limits. Practical limits are around 10kph.
The best district in Havana is securely walled, quiet, has good roads, no rubbish, over 1,000,000 well behaved residents and artworks everywhere – but a high price. It’s the area known as Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón. This is the largest cemetery in the America’s covering 56 hectares (140 acres). Founded in 1876 its become one of the principle tourist attractions. Unfortunately, its full. But Havanan’s wishing to be buried here can be – but only for 3 years after which they are moved somewhere else.
An hour was spent in ‘El Floridita’. This is the bar where Ernest Hemingway hung out with his rich and famous friends. During my teenage years an elderly mentor loaned me all Hemmingway’s books – For Whom The Bell Tolls, Old Man & the Sea, Death in the Afternoon, etc. I loved them. Hemmingway was an adventurous ‘Errol Flynn’ sort of guy who lived life to the full. I hoped I could follow in his footsteps, but Flypaper had other goals and asperations. At least I sat in his chair, experienced his Tequila recipe and listened to the best Cuban band – but it still leaves a few other experiences waiting.
The evening was at the world acclaimed cabaret show ‘Tropicana Club’ – running nightly since 1939. Capitalistic Decadence in the midst of socialist poverty. Shameless semi-clad Cuban maidens wriggling their assets in front of lecherous old men with complicit partners wearing their ‘jewel of the day’. I loved it. You can see it on the internet. I’ve bookmarked it for further study in my old age.
Our guide must have seen me slipping a few of my unused toilet facilitation coins to some beggars and probably thought my generosity knew no bounds. He arranged a 1988 Mercedes mafia car to be our transport for the following week around Cuba. Long wheelbase, black with tinted windows – and well past retirement age. The exterior looks great from about 100 meters. Up close its like the rest of Cuba, and indeed, myself, showing its age and blemishes. Stretched out in the back posing as a ‘mob’ boss I hear some worrying sounds. All suspension bushes are sloppy, the gearbox ‘wheezes’ between shifts and I fear is well overdue for both service and repair. The rear passenger door windows no longer operate and one door won’t open from the inside while the other defies entry from outside … and the driveshaft universal joints are worryingly sloppy. Some of the gauges work and there are warning lights on the dashboard. The air conditioning is, umm, manually modulated. The driver acts as a human thermostat and flicks the switch on or off every few minutes to regulate our comfort. I’ve found ways of mentioning some of these matters in conversation. The owner driver confidently explained his mechanic advised that if he didn’t accelerate too quickly, everything should hold together for so time yet. After all, its German – it has tenacity. Cuba has no AA recovery service – but our minders do appear resourceful. This was demonstrated when we swerved from the fast lane on a bumpy 4-lane highway, across the grass center strip, across the other two opposing lanes and into a rough dirt farm track. I wondered if the passing police in their Lada had shot at us. We bounced slowly up the dirt road for about 200 meters until well out of sight from the highway and stopped in a flat area near a decomposing farm house surrounded by a moat of cattle manure. A toot on the horn bought a boy on a bicycle carrying a large funnel. An elderly guy sidled around and disappeared into an overgrown field from where he emerged a few minutes later carrying 2 x 20 litre drums. These proved to be full of fuel which was emptied via the funnel, into our elderly limo. Money was exchanged. (I have a photo which does portray a surreptitious event.) When safely back on the highway it was explained that black-market trading saves over 40% in fuel costs. Well worth scaring the hell out of ones’ clients. It seems that farmers purchase fuel from the ‘guvmint’ for agricultural purposes at extremely low prices. In the communist inspired capitalistic practice we can easily understand, they share their advantage with grateful comrades.
We can now understand why Cuba does not feature among the Olympic medalists for cycle racing. On a journey to view some crumbling attractions and yet another huge meal, we encountered a 200km cycle race – part of the Tour de Cuba. It became apparent, Cuban cycling rules differ from the Olympic standard. We continually observed competitors holding onto their support vehicles (and, on 2 occasions, the ambulance), support personnel hanging out their car window with a hand on the competitors back pushing him along, and even being towed on a short rope by attending motorcyclists. There was some excitement in our car when we could hardly believe our eyes. We saw a cyclist towing the 125cc motorcycle (complete with rider and pillion) up a hill. We wondered what sort of contract he had signed with his sponsors. Another remarkable sight was a one-legged rider doing very well in the peloton without assistance. At a coffee stop (50c per cup) we spoke to a competitor who was topping up his ‘water bottle’ with coffee and rum. He explained he would say he had a flat tyre and his crew would whisk him back to the peloton. The cyclists and their attendants completely blocked the 3 lane highway so traffic had to follow at around 40 – 45kph until a motorist with either a high level of frustration or a low level of intelligence, bounced across the grass center divide and raced past on the other side of the road into the face of oncoming traffic. This immediately enthused others including our driver to follow knowing they stood a good chance of survival if they remained lower than 2nd in the line. It’s an anxious experience – especially when a large articulated Russian truck appears on the front horizon. You know it has imperfect brakes and steering – not to mention a driver giving most attention to his glass of rum so as not to spill a drop. On occasions this highway became 5 lanes. The centre grass strip was also tar sealed. Our guide was surprised by my question and countered with one of his own. “Don’t you have emergency military runways in your country?” I couldn’t resist responding, “The US doesn’t want to invade New Zealand when, closer to home, they can have Cuba.”
Another observation, probably as a result of being brainwashed into the ‘cotton-wool, safety always’ ethos prevalent in New Zealand, was the involuntary joy experienced when I saw many of the horse drawn carts on the motorways at night were displaying a battery powered tail-light. It’s obvious civilization is catching up fast in Cuba. I asked our guide about road rules. He confirmed that, like New Zealand and other advanced nations, there were a many rules designed to collect additional tax from the underprivileged. I especially asked why some drivers stopped at railway crossings while other sped through. He said there was no rule. This, like the ability to drive on the wrong side of the road, (whichever has fewer potholes) was a self-imposed discipline. Some drivers calculated the cost/benefit of saving time and pleasure gained overtaking slower vehicles while others, more pessimistic, calculated the unlikely event of a train stopping for them. He logically pointed out that the dead ones would probably change their attitude in future. (His words – not mine.)
No observations in Cuba are complete without comment about the old American cars. Until about 10 years ago when international steel prices were high, there were about 150,000 pre-1960’s US cars. (Mostly abandoned by fleeing westerners or taken from vehicle dealerships at the time of the revolution.) The Cuban ‘guvmint’ offered the owners a deal on a 5 year old Chinese car if they traded in the old clangers. This was a huge mistake by both parties. A clapped-out Chinese car will never be a tourist attraction. (Indeed, the owners of these substandard cars are already realizing there is a motorcycle or even a horse in their future.) The remaining 60,000 Chryslers, Buicks, Pontiacs, Chevs, etc, are all extensively modified. All have diesel tractor engines (because agricultural equipment spares are cheaper), Russian truck suspension components and countless home-made parts. They are eye-catching but shockingly polluting and disappointing in every respect. However, their values are astonishing. US$50,000 plus. Our ailing Mercedes is much more exclusive and is worth US$80,000 (NZ$100,000)!!! More than many houses. The ‘guvmint’ imports new Chinese cars for their own use (but drivers are compelled to pick up hitch-hikers) which after 5 years are sold as ‘guvmint’ controlled taxi’s which 5 years later are offered on the market to the peasants. Throughout, the value remains about $25,000. ,
The cars are mostly in the larger cities but they do share the roads with hundreds of peddle powered rickshaws, 3 wheeled Chinese small trucks together with horse and carts. In small towns and rural areas, the horse reigns supreme. They do most of the work as trade and delivery vehicles, family transport and taxi’s. Indeed, if I knew how to do the ‘tweeting’ thing I would let Don Trump know that his CIA could easily overthrow the Cuban ‘guvmint’ by simply releasing some ‘horse virus’. The country would grind to a halt in a few days. However, I do have one reservation. There may be a secret weapon lurking about. At a gas station I saw a horse being topped up with petrol. PC110002.jpg
Farmers still plough their fields with oxen. Oxen are very slow – but not as slow as old Russian and Chinese tractors that spend much of their time being repaired. This does tend to set the pace for production and, historians may conclude, was the reason for Communism to fail. The country is overrun with dogs. The breed is uniquely Cuban and they are all ardent communists. Like the human population there were originally may breeds and ethnicities. Over time this has intermingled into a mélange that is Cuba. I know the dogs are communist because they do absolutely nothing except lay around sleeping until kicked.
As is the way with cars, our Merc used all the black-market fuel and required more. Fortunately, our driver was in home territory and a solution was at hand. He pointed at a small square hovel and said, “My house”, them swerved down a dirt track beside a seedy looking ‘Cantina’ at the back of which was a blacksmith shop and an illegal liquor distillery. I believe they made a unique brew from sugar cane, coconut milk and fruit. It smelt shocking – but not as bad as the kitchen on the back of the truckers’ café. I begged Flypaper to refuse hospitality as I snuck off to take photographs. It became apparent this roadside collection of commercial enterprise was the family business. Also hidden beside us were 3 large blue ‘guvmint’ trucks - each feeding a syphon from their fuel tanks into the 20lt drums that eventually transferred to our car. The truck drivers were probably enjoying the ‘endless’ cup of coffee inside the café. As I watched I clearly understood modern Cuba. This transaction was an example of Social Security managed by Private Enterprise.
Our final couple of nights were spent at the best Cuba has to offer; an all-inclusive resort at Varadero … Cuba’s answer to the Mexican Riviera. The best in Cuba doesn’t shine. Our resort was one of the newest and finest – but makes a mockery of the ‘stars’ system. It shares the Caribbean beach with others but has only 2 pools, 3 restaurants and expensive slow internet service. The dominant guest faction is German – to be specific and accurate, East German. They are probably missing the whiff of Communist inefficiency and dilapidation. They will return home well refreshed. I knew the Germans were from the east as they were neither impressed or even pleased as when we wheezed up the driveway in our 80,000 Euro Mercedes. They are probably trying to get away from that sort of thing. No doubt they are well satisfied when other guests arrive in a Lada or better still, a broken down American Classic as that surely confirms the imperfection of the west. There are some British Socialists here too. You know them because they walk on the wrong side of the footpaths.
The final word is from Flypaper who applied her international standard. “Cuba will never emerge into the first world or even the 21st century until it acknowledges the needs of women. By this I mean, until it provides perforated absorbent paper in the bathrooms”.

Posted by Wheelspin 10:16 Archived in Cuba Tagged market of square che propaganda club cuba santa bay lobster black tour el fidel castro de guevara hurricane tequila revolution communism hemingway russian varadero rum ernest pigs mafia clara capitalism floridita tropicana brainwashed Comments (0)

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