Friday, 15 December 2017

CHREXIT - 2017

30th Nov 2017 - 4th Dec 2018


Ho Ho Ho and a bottle of.....!
Well, the 'Festive' season is upon us and I'm off to anywhere with limited renderings of 'Rudolph the Blasted Red Nosed Reindeer', 'Frarsty the Snowman' and all the irritating 'Ding Dong Merrily' stuff. It is impossible to avoid it altogether except perhaps at the North and South Poles and, I happen to know, North Korea (one of its major selling points). So, initially to Thailand then back to good old Vietnam.
Of course even in these, essentially non-Christian, places lip service is paid to Christmas; its good for business with western tourists after all. Big hotels and shops in places like Bangkok and Saigon display Christmas trees plus lots of polystyrene snow with reindeer towing sleighs, 'Santa Clauses' and a few Jingle Bells etc., but the locals don't take it seriously. Naturally, few of them have ever experienced snow, or the chaos which goes with it (as though it were unexpected) in countries like UK where, as per when the temperature rises above 30ºc, Nanny State issues dire warnings about not venturing outside unless absolutely necessary and none of trains seem able to cope. It's pathetic.

First, by GulfAir via Bahrain to Bangkok for a few days. I quite enjoy Bangkok in limited quantities. A vibrant city, still happily choking to death on fumes from the jam-packed traffic with plenty to see and do and a shopper's paradise. Apart from the 'restrained and tasteful' Patpong area of Silom where, amongst all the packed stalls selling 'genuine' Rolex watches and Gucci handbags, there are elegant bars and clubs in which charming and very friendly young ladies perform interesting and innovative dances, there are pleasant parks to wander, decent restaurants, glitzy hotels plus many interesting temples and palaces, if you are into that sort of thing. The universal Tuk-Tuks still patrol the streets, but they have been neutered. The engines have been changed from those smoky old things which made the characteristic 'tuk-tuk' noise and are now more 'eco-friendly' with cleaner engines and make hardly any noise at all. They should reinstate the noise please!
From the universal Cuban salutation of 'tacsee saynyor' I now had to get used to the traditional Thai greeting of 'yoowan massaah'.

I was last in this city a year ago. As I remarked then and confirm now, the shape and size of the average Thai is changing. They are getting fat; something that was unknown 20 years ago. Of course this is directly attributable to the inexorable spread of (mostly American) fast food outlets, and possibly not helped by the internet. Street-side stalls selling healthy local food still exist but there is an increasing number of Burger Kings, Kentucky Fried Chickens, Starbucks and, of course, the dreaded MacDonalds. I expect, because the Asian metabolism does not cope so well with sugar, fat and alcohol (two drinks and they are under the table), there is a corresponding increase in diabetes. I don't suppose MacDonalds would care to sponsor research in that direction!

I used to frequent an amusing Irish Bar, Murphy's, at the top end of Silom Road. They did a good breakfast apart from anything else. I went there on the first morning for a reviving plate of bacon and eggs. It was closed; in fact it was behind a corrugated iron fence and was being pulled down. What a blow! I expect it is being replaced by a Yankee junk-food outlet.

One of the places I enjoy visiting here, as I did last year (with photos on blog if you are interested), is the Chatuchak Weekend Market in the north of the city. To travel around the city is easy due to the excellent, cheap and very modern Metro system. There is an interconnecting Skytrain (BTS) and Underground (MRT) and one of the northern stations is Chatuchak.

Left: On the trains there is a useful illuminated route diagram which shows you exactly where you are and where you are going labelled in both Thai and English. No silly unnecessary announcements, as per the London Underground, just a lady's voice telling you what the next stop is in both Thai and good English. It is quiet and efficient. The only thing to be aware of are the entry/exit turnstiles  onto the platforms. You buy a token, or card, and insert it or scan it as per most turnstiles but you have to be quick. Any delay passing through and the waist-level barrier slams shut on you, sometimes with painful ball-crushing consequences. Don't even try to take a suitcase through. You are left one side and your case the other. There are, however, always polite and helpful staff on hand to help (you should use a gate at one end for baggage) and even offer sympathetic words, if not assistance, as you massage your injured parts.

Chatuchak Market is, I find, a most intriguing place and covers a big area. There are several ranks of covered lines of stalls over an area about 1km long and 500m wide. You need to by a map which shows what, in general, is on sale where, but you will still get disorientated and lost. There is everything from antiques to electronic gismos via tons of clothing and pots and pans; anything you can think of really, and more. It is popular and crowded so you move along the little alleyways in enforced slow time. There are regular massage boutiques and lots of food and drink outlets. One of the nice things here, unlike several outdoor markets, is that the stall-holders don't pester you to buy things. You can browse in peace and prepare for some serious haggling. Good bargains to be had. I bought a pair of shorts and a hat. More about them later.


One of the most popular food bars was this one (right) where a Spanish chef performed non-stop production of these vast colourful paellas. It was not just cooking, it was indeed a performance! He played to the crowd, throwing vegetables and things into the pans from over his shoulder, and over seated customers who happily caught the occasional raw prawn or clove of garlic. Salt and seasoning was thrown into the air and went everywhere, including onto the paellas. He posed for photos with giggling tourists and did impressive conjuring  tricks with disappearing handkerchiefs.

It was all most amusing. He is obviously a bit of a character and great showman and did it all with a most infectious smile. He had two boards which he occasionally held up. This one (left) and another with his caricature portrait on. Us tourists loved it. He was not averse to putting his arms around a pretty female spectator and having his photo taken by the willing victim's friends. He would probably be arrested for 'inappropriate  behaviour' if he did that in UK as well as breaking numerous 'elf 'n safety' food regulations.
I've never seen a happier looking chef. He may have an unhappy home life for all I know. As it happened I wasn't particularly hungry and didn't try the delicious looking paella. Just watched.

I spent four days in Bangkok staying at a very smart and comfortable hotel, the Narai, on Silom Road. I managed this due to a 'good deal' which offered a jolly nice room for £30 per night. Entertainment in the bar there consisted of a Thai guitarist who performed Country & Western songs. He was actually very good and seemed to have a remarkably extensive repertoire. Asking customers for requests, he was rarely caught out. He had, as he told me, been doing this for over 30 years!
Otherwise I just wandered around and seeing more sights and probably eating too much.

Off next to the southern resort island of Phuket. Never been there before, but had been given a recommendation for a place to stay, just north of the island on the west coast near the town of Kokkoy (not mentioned in my Lonely Planet). It is owned by an old lady Thai aquaintance of my friend and is, according to him, delightfully peaceful and charming. A place to relax away from the hurly-burly of  modern life and Christmas excess.

Bah Humbug!


Tuesday, 5 December 2017

HAVANA FINALE

11th - 13th Nov 2017


Dressed as a Taíno Indian. There are none left.
The original inhabitants of Cuba were the Taínos Indians. They were enslaved by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century and either killed off by them in battles or, the majority, died of imported European diseases, notably measles. They are extinct. Their houses were all made of mud and wattle and so nothing left of them either. The present Cuban population of just over 11 million is approximately (I read), 60% white (from the Spanish colonists), 15% black (from African slaves) and 25% mixed race. 

I was sitting in a pleasant bar, El Patio, in Catédral Plaza when I saw this old guy sporting an unfeasibly large cigar. Unfortunately he saw me taking this photo.......

















.......so he came over, plonked a Che style beret on my head, issued me with a large dud cigar and  insisted that I have my photo taken with him giving the traditional 'revolutionary' salute. Who was I to disoblige him.
I believe he is a well known 'character' in the area. 








As mentioned previously, there are noble ongoing efforts, supported by UNESCO funding, to restore many of the old buildings and streets to their former glory. It will be a very long process.
Left: Mercaderes Street in the east of the Old Town which now looks neat, tidy and prosperous. It has a couple of very smart cigar shops which sell very smart, and expensive, cigars.







...as opposed to the majority of streets which are more like this (right).

















While wandering around the Old Town I saw what I took to be an interesting statue (left). I am familiar with those often annoying 'human statues' which do something silly when you give them some money, but this one looked remarkably solid and did so for some considerable time......... 
















.........until, of course, a passer-by put a coin in the suitcase. He was just a very good human statue.
















Left: A couple of colourfully dressed ladies in Plaza Vieja.













Right: Every time I attempted to take a photo of this band at the Hotel Inglaterra (I had just given up on the erratic internet), the jolly maraca-shaking lady launched herself at me. It seemed to amuse the rest of the band.










On my last evening, a Sunday, I went by smart taxi (left) to the swanky Hotel Nacional in the Vedado district. It had to let me off at the bottom of the driveway so as not to embarrass the hotel staff. The clientele of this iconic building seemed to be predominantly wealthy North Americans. There is quite a pleasant outside bar area. I was amused by an unexpected and dramatic, albeit brief, storm which hit the area sending glasses and table-cloths flying and portly cigar-puffing guests scurrying for cover.

The reason for my visit was to go to a performance at the adjoining 'Cabaret Parisienne'. Not cheap at CUC 45 but, hey-ho, I'm  only here once. The auditorium is elegantly laid out with some tables at the front set for dinner, others dotted around the floor and a further upstairs gallery, all with good views of the stage. The entry fee included a Mojito cocktail (yuck) whether you wanted it or not. Smartly dressed waiters bustled around efficiently supplying food and drink. I got there at 9pm when the doors opened. The main show starts at 10pm, every night of the week. The place filled up quite rapidly, so obviously a popular event. After a warm-up performance by a small band the show started in earnest. Again I had stupidly chosen not to bring my camera. Most of the rest of the enthusiastic audience had brought theirs (or used smart-phones). It was an extraordinary and exuberant 2 hour performance by a 50 strong (difficult to count exactly) cast, sometimes mid-audience, featuring song and dance with immaculate and original choreography, a clever illusionist doing amazing things with walking canes, strong-men lifting each other into gravity defying positions and at the end a brilliant and hilarious bongo-drummer. The costumes, involving frequent rapid costume changes, were incredibly colourful and elaborate. They must have a large warehouse at the back to house them all. It was something I doubt can be done in any other country and another very skilfully performed life-enhancing experience. One left with a spring in one's step and a smile on one's face. I'm so glad I went.
Fortunately I found someone with whom to share a taxi for the return journey to Habana Vieja.

My flight home was not due to leave until the next evening (9.50pm) so I had another day to play. I decided on doing the Havana Bus Tour, another of the hop on-hop off services, with commentary in English (sort of). It took us through all the Havana districts. In retrospect I think I should have done this at the beginning of my stay.

Right: We passed this large cruise ship in the port (well, where else I suppose). It is the favoured way for tourists, including many Americans, to get a whistle-stop tour of Havana. Apparently the visa requirements are taken care of.









Most of the tour took us to places that I had already seen plus many hotels which were of no interest. One place I hadn't seen was the Plaza de la Revolución (left). This vast and rather drab square in Vedado is surrounded by austere Government ministry buildings. The monument at one end is, at 138.5 metres, the tallest structure in Havana (we were told). At the base of it is a 17m high marble statue of a seated, yes, you've guessed it, José Martí in a pensive 'Thinker' pose.
The square is used for large political rallies and in january 1998 one million people crammed in here to hear Pope John Paul 2 say Mass.

It was a long tour, 3½ hours, and to be frank I was a bit tired and nodded off for some of it. I therefore got a bit disorientated. I remember passing the vast Necropolis which covers several acres in Vedado. There must be hundreds of thousands buried there in often very elaborate tombs. Difficult to get a photo of that.
Right: We passed this impressive building at some point, and I can't remember where or what it is. One of the many museums I suspect. I think I had become a bit 'touristed out' by this stage.



Left: Somewhere else on route. Quite prosperous looking houses let down by the wreck of the family car parked outside. 












Right: The tour route diagram. I post this merely to remind myself.

I must make mention of the several Casas Particulares I stayed in. They were all, in one way or another, delightful, and cheap. Definitely the way to stay on a journey around Cuba. In particular I would commend the excellent Casa Niñita, on Cuba Calle in Old Havana. She, and her staff, were particuarly kind and helpful. Normally (in UK) I would avoid B&Bs like the plague and especially having to share a dining table at breakfast with other guests. On these occasions meeting other tourists, of several different nationalities and areas of interest, was most useful and frequently amusing. I remember fondly the American lady, Betty, and her son on my first morning in Havana. They provided me with much useful info and were good company, and spoke Spanish.



Left: At breakfast at Casa Niñita. She in the centre flanked by a very amusing couple; Francesco and his partner Lizet. Francesco, born in Spain now living in Germany, had been an engineer and a carpenter before setting up (by accident he told me) a very successful company making ice-cream, which he sold, and now has  enough money to travel the world. There's nothing he doesn't know about ice-cream.
Also here was Alain, a French scuba-diving instructor, who had to leave very early to get to the Mecca of Cuban diving off La Isla de la Juventud. Just a few examples of the sort of person I bumped into.

The journey home involved another CUC 25 taxi ride back to José Martí (yes, him again) International Airport. It boasts probably one of the worst departure lounges in the world. One scruffy 'fast food' stall selling sandwiches (ham and cheese of course) and tins of drink, but no cups or glasses. I had been advised to keep CUC 25 for a 'departure tax'. I ended up carrying about CUC 40. As it transpired, they had done away with the 'departure tax' in the past month, so I had to get rid of my CUCs somehow because I doubt they could be exchanged in UK. I bought a couple of Che Guevara T-shirts (I've lost one of them already) and then hit on the brilliant idea of spending CUC 20 for access to the 'VIP' lounge where I proceded to fill myself with all the food and drink freebies that I could manage. After consuming a vast quantity of wine I boarded the Iberia flight to Madrid and promptly fell asleep, and remained in that state for a large part of the 9 hour flight. Money well spent I feel.

Right: A poor photo (from my Lonely Planet guide book) which attempts to show, circled, the places I visited. Not sure if you can enlarge this by 'clicking on'.










My amateur impressions of Cuba:

1. Lovely weather. The sort of weather when it occurs in UK throws the news media into paroxysms of panic amid dire warnings of dehydration, melting roads and imminent death if you venture out of doors without suitable protection. The sort of weather during which the London Underground system, and granny State, feels it is necessary to tell you to drink lots of water, as if we are incapable of realising when we are thirsty! Its the sort of weather that people leave the UK to experience, for Heavens sake.

2. Lovely people. Despite their dependance on a 'benevolent' but restrictive socialist State, their relative inability to leave the country and lack of luxury goods we take for granted, they appear content with life (they don't have much option) and are most hospitable, especially to tourists.

3. Music and dance. Amazing, with countless talented musicians and dancers (apart from in Guanabo).

4. Cars. A living museum. 

5. Taxis. My 'bete noir'. Same the world over; they will try to rip you off. Use the ropey ones and haggle (before you get in). And don't forget; taxi drivers never have change.

6. Cigars. Famous for them and on sale everywhere, but I can't tell if they are any good because I don't smoke them.

7. Drink. Rum in abundance and of many different varieties and quality. A bit similar to Scotland's selection of whisky perhaps. I wasn't that keen on any of the 'trendy' rum cocktails. The local Cristal beer is perfectly acceptable and cheap. Wine, mainly from Chile and Argentina, fine.

8. Travel. Despite being told that the roads are a bit dodgy, I found that travelling by bus was comfortable, reliable and relatively cheap on decent roads with little traffic. The only hiccup was that some (not many) of the bus stations are inconveniently out of town, vis a vis Viazul, Havana. 
There is a comprehensive rail system, cheap but entirely unreliable. In fact I never saw a single train, either moving or static, anywhere.

9. Accommodation. I have waxed lyrical about the Casas Particulares. The big hotels are expensive and not good value for money. Their idea of 5* is not quite ours. Some are useful for WiFi hotspots.

10. Internet and Phones. At least they now have a very basic, if non-user friendly and expensive, internet service. Phone calls out of the country are hideously expensive.

11. Food. Unless you have a particular liking for basic pork, chicken, beans, rice and on the coast 'fish', oh, and sandwiches containing processed cheese, you would not go to Cuba for a culinary adventure.

I was going to mention, unfavourably, the sending of post-cards. I sent off 10, some from 27th October. None had arrived by 3rd December and I was beginning to think that they just peeled off the stamps and re-sold them. Bingo! I've just heard from 4 people to say that their's have arrived! OK, 6 weeks later, but the system seems to work. Maybe they use the Cuban trains to deliver them to the airport. 

So thats about it. There's lots I've probably missed out but this should provide me with enough memories to keep me entertained when I am senile and immobile in the Sunnylands Home for the  Elderly and Confused.

Travellin' Uncle Matt planning his next trip.


Next on the agenda is the Far East, again, for my annual 'Chrexit' escape.
Bah Humbug to you all.



Sunday, 3 December 2017

BACK TO HAVANA

11th -13th Nov 2017


The former Presidential Palace. It now houses the Museo de la Revolución.
Back in Havana for my final three days. I booked back into Casa Niñita in the old town. Actually her daughter met me and booked me in. It transpired that she (the daughter) had made a 'beega mistayka' because they were already fully booked. Now, I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but Niñita felt so guilty about this that she let me sleep in her bedroom. She moved out, understandably!


The first place I popped into was Sloppy Joe's bar. Infamous from pre-revolution days as the hang-out for all the mobsters and, mostly American, city luminaries. Lots of old photos of the likes of Frank Sinatra and other cronies decorated the walls. One thing notable about them is that they were all very snappily dressed which is more than can be said for the present day clientele, me included.







Right: Inside Sloppy Joe's. The name came from a form of 'sloppy' pork sandwich they served, and still do, apparently. Elegant surroundings. I ordered a snack of some sausagey type things. Not very nice.









They certainly weren't short of a bottle or two.
Just about every concoction you could think of was on offer.












Apologies; another pic of a car which took my fancy. I watched it with interest because it took a long time to get started; lots of slow, laborious starter motor noise then it burst into life belching black smoke and making a horrible noise before juddering off down the street. I got a 'video' of it which sadly won't transmit here. I record it purely for my own memory's sake.









That 'perro' again on Obispo Street. It had now taken to wearing dark glasses. I believe his name is Coco, or something similar.











More scenes from Obispo Street. Right: Some chaps with long wooden legs, followed by a band.













Left: In the restaurant where I had lunch. As well as the band there was this couple dancing a Tango. They also expected a tip.


...and a typical queue for Internet cards outside the ETECSA office. 

Whilst lingering in one of these I met a charming Cuban doctor who spoke good English. He was the medic to Cuban sports teams and was therefore widely travelled. A most civilised guy and it would have been interesting to learn more of his views.








Left: An unusual (3D) street corner decoration.

Right: More glamorous limousines to take tourists on rides around town.


I visited the Museo de la Revolución housed in the former Presidential Palace. Outside this, mounted on a plinth, was a self-propelled artillery piece (a SAU-100) which, according to the plaque below, was used by Fidel himself to shoot up an American ship.








......if you can read it, and believe it.




The display of the 'revolución' was not particularly inspiring consisting for the most part of rather sparsely populated rooms showing old uniforms and paraphernalia belonging to various revolutionary heroes with 'mucho propaganda'. There was a separate display devoted to Señor Guevara. I bought a cheap replica Che Guevara beret in the museum shop.

The interior must have looked very grand in its day. It was originally decorated by Tiffany of New York.


Most of the big rooms are now devoid of furniture and falling apart or undergoing restoration.
One room, and I was not sure which, was called the Room of Mirrors and designed to resemble the eponymous room at the Palace of Versailles. This one (left) had a few mirrors in it so maybe its the one. Who knows.

Right: The central courtyard.



















Some rooms were restored to resemble the original offices and conference rooms. Left: The Presidential Office last inhabited by Fulgencio Batista. I like the gold telephone set in glorious isolation.









Right: Outside the Palace is an extraordinary glass sided construction housing the 'Granma', the boat which brought Fidel Castro and 80 revolutionaries over from Mexico in 1956. The glass is fronted by a wire mesh which makes it difficult to see inside. It is also guarded by a couple of soldiers. You can't go in, so it seems a rather pointless 'non' display.







Surrounding this were several larger exhibits from the revolution and Bay of Pigs 'invasion'. One of which, a Russian T34 tank was, again, supposedly used personally by Fidel to shoot up something American.










Other exhibits included this missile, the like of which shot down an American U2 spy plane in the 1961 invasion. The turbine engine of which rests underneath it. The USA refused to acknowledge that they were involved and it was only 20 years later that they accepted the repatriation of the pilot's remains; hence tacitly admitting that the plane was indeed theirs.






A Landrover which was involved in the revolutionaries' entry into Havana. Lots of bullet holes in it. I'm so proud that they had chosen to buy British.










...and another van, requisitioned by the revolting heroes. According to the plaque alongside there were 40 people in it at the time. Even more bullets had riddled this. I'm surprised anyone managed to get out. I don't suppose the bullet holes could have been planted later?




...........?!













Left: An aircraft requisitioned by Fidel's forces. I think it is a Sea Fury. Not sure what they did with it, or when. No doubt Fidel personally flew it and shot up more American invading forces.











Right: Another (similar to the one at Santa Clara) eternal flame lit by Fidel in memory of fallen comrades etc.













Left: At the end of the square in front of the ex-Palace was another statue dedicated to that 'famous' revolutionary philosopher (see Cienfuegos) José Martí. I get the impression that he was not a very good horseman; his seat in the saddle looks rather insecure. I don't think he would win many prizes in the dressage arena.












......and , of course, he had the mandatory pigeon sitting on his head. What is it about pigeons and heads of statues?



Left: A view of the city taken from the top floor dining room of the Hotel Sevilla. It looks west over the Capitolo building towards the Malecón sea-front.


Right: Another view of the ex-Palace from the back. Quite an impressive building.



Left: 'Sharing a joke' with a local senior citizen sitting on his doorstep. Not that either of us spoke much of each other's language.


Despite the benevolent Socialist State, Havana has its fair share of beggars. This blind old chap was shaking a plastic cup and hoping for the best. I donated.

....and I saw this this old lady on several occasions sitting on Obispo Street or nearby. She looked in a pretty bad way. Another donation was forthcoming.

On that happy note I sign off for now.

Still more to report from Havana.