THE DANUBE – December 2014

Please Note – I am currently editing the travel journal I started writing in 2007 and posting as I go. I welcome feedback and encourage my readers to post comments.

Next Around the Bend – Bali

River Beatrice

We are no strangers to River Beatrice, although we are strangers to much of the Danube River.

Readers may recall that Huckleberry B and I attempted a Christmas River Cruise, two years ago, from Nuremberg to Budapest. The attempt failed for two reasons. Firstly, after just one day of scenic cruising, our vessel became stranded in a forgettable place called Regensburg because the river was too high and a bridge downstream was too low! Secondly, we were restricted to our small cabin, in any event, because we caught a severe cold when attending Mass on Christmas Eve.

The result was a rather miserable holiday. We were, however, given a discount on a future river cruise with Uniworld….a discount of which we are now taking advantage.

This cruise began in Budapest (Hungary) and travelled upstream, through Slovakia and Austria, before ending in Passau (Germany).

We enjoyed walking tours in Bratislava, Vienna, Krems, Salzburg and Passau. Highlights emerged over time, but for the most part the strolls were pleasant as we passed picturesque buildings and delightful squares. We allowed our minds to wander as we heard intriguing tales from our very well informed guides.

The Lindt Cafe

Truth be told, our time onboard River Beatrice was adversely affected by the events in our hometown shortly after we arrived in Europe. After a difficult night’s sleep – whilst still getting accustomed to the time zone – I turned on the TV to be assaulted by the headline ‘Siege in Sydney Cafe’. I yelled out to Huck B and we frantically searched the screen for an indication of the location.

As soon as the familiar streetscape came into view, we simultaneously yelped, “Oh my God! Lindt!

Martin Place, Sydney, is my stomping ground. With no hint of exaggeration, I must have walked past the Lindt Cafe – on the corner of Martin Place and Phillip Street – several thousand times over the last 15 years. Lying in the heart of Sydney’s legal community there are barristers’ chambers in the building which houses the Lindt Cafe and in several other buildings nearby. The Supreme Court lurks less then 100 metres away. One of our dearest friends – now a Judge – used to have his Chambers on 7th Floor when he was a ‘mere’ Barrister.  I still have friends and colleagues on the 7th, 8th and 11th Floors.

For over a decade I have walked up and down Martin Place to and from work.

My lifelong commitment to the consumption of chocolate notwithstanding, I confess that I have only been inside the Lindt Cafe (maybe) a dozen times. What struck me, however, as Huckleberry B and I watched the drama unfold on CNN, was that every time I did venture inside there would always be a handful of people sitting at the tables, drinking coffee or hot chocolate, whom I knew. Some well. Some only because I had seen them around various court rooms in Sydney.

I harboured a grave fear that I would know one of more of the hostages. I prayed that none of my friends were trapped inside. Some of the lawyers in my firm grab a beverage on the way back from Court or before a Conference with Counsel.

It was mid-afternoon in Budapest when the last group of escapees ran from the Lindt Cafe, down Martin Place, before darting left to the safety of Elizabeth Street. B and I were watching live when the ‘flash-bangs’ created an illuminated racket inside the Cafe and the police stormed the building. There were reports of gunfire. CNN started replaying vision of the hostages fleeing whilst the commentators explained that the live footage was too distressing to broadcast; CPR was being administered to hostages suffering cardiac arrest.

Huckleberry and I were, at this stage, in a high state of distress. This was happening in our beloved hometown; amongst the professional community we knew.

In the days which followed, the identity of the victims and the hostages were slowly released. We are grateful that none of our personal friends were involved, but mourn the fact that the event happened at all. Distress gave way to anger. We both felt terrible for days.

We quickly established that all our close friends and family were safe. In the days which followed I set about sending individual emails to each of the 35 professional and admin staff in my team at work.

Everybody was, as I expected, okay following their ordeal. Many described our building being in shutdown until mid- afternoon (whilst the siege continued) because the offender had told the Police that bombs were planted throughout the city. During that period, everybody was unsettled and some were quite distressed. The extent of the attack was not known. Inaccurate information was cascading via email, text message and social media. Loved ones were trapped in other buildings around the city.

At least two of my staff refused to go home by train, deeming it ‘too dangerous’.Two other staff had spouses who worked in the building across Martin Place and saw the drama unfold, including the hostages standing with their hands raised against the windows.

Another lawyer was returning to the office after a Directions Hearing in the Supreme Court (on my instructions) and was just leaving Martin Place, when an alarm sounded and Police started running past him up the hill. The siege must have already started when he strolled calmly by the Lindt Cafe just minutes earlier.

A friend, who is a Barrister in the building where the siege took place, was walking through the foyer but found that bedlam had erupted outside. He looked through the internal door to the Lindt Cafe and saw the gunman and his hostages. My friend ended up climbing through a window on the first floor. He sent me a photograph somebody took which depicts him sitting on an awning outside.

Try as we might, as our river cruise progressed, neither B nor I was totally successfully in shaking off the gloom which descended over us.

When we visited Gottweig Abby at Krems, Huckleberry B lit a candle for the two deceased victims; Katrina Dawson and Tori Anderson.

Bathing in Budapest

The events in Sydney, notwithstanding, we did our best to carry on with our plans in Europe.

Given that we have visited Budapest before, Huck B and I shunned the organized tour and decided, instead, to explore the Hungarian capital’s famed spa baths instead.

There were two bath houses in close proximity to where River Beatrice was docked, well within walking distance. Both bath houses boasted views of the Danube.

The Gellert Bathouse sits on the Buda side of the city, opposite the Liberty Bridge (Szabagsad Hid) and is located within a particularly grandiose building. The main hallway boasts a huge dome, which would not have been out of place in the Vatican. The main indoor pool is lined with impressive columns.

A second bath house awaited just a short stroll along the Danube, also in Buda. The Rudas Bath House sat directly across the river from our vessel and it was here that we chose to change into our swimmers and get wet.

Unfortunately, the thermal pool was open only to men on the day of our visit, so we chose instead to swim, together, in the lap pool. We experienced some difficulty, however, in negotiating the complex process required to enter the pool. First we needed to communicate exactly what we wanted to the Hungarian lass behind the counter. Then we had to master the locker system in the uni-sex change room which involved a coded wristband and much fiddling around with the locker. Next we had to find our way through a maze of stairs and hallways in order to find the pool. Finally, there was a return to the locker room to fetch a shower cap once it became apparent that head coverings were mandatory.

Further controversy was to follow.

The lap pool was divided into three lanes. I chose to swim in the lane on the left, for the one simple reason that it was the lane closest to where I stood. And so I set off on a leisurely freestyle journey to the other end of the pool.

I confess to being aware of some commotion as I swam, nose first, through the water, but decided to complete my lap before popping my head up – like an inquisitive Hungarian ‘Bighead Carp’ – to find out what was going on.

Once my ears were above the waterline, I found that I was being yelled at by both the lifeguard on my right and some swimmers on my left. The language barrier was not much of a hurdle to overcome. I quickly discerned that I was in trouble for swimming freestyle in the lane reserved for slower swimmers.

At the other end of the pool, I saw Huckleberry B sitting on step in the water, openly laughing at me. She told me later that she considered joining the chorus of people shouting at me, but (rightly) decided there was no point. She reckons she saw a sign designating the first lane for slow swimmers, but I still don’t know where it was.

With apologies, I ducked under the lane marker and joined the swimmers who were allegedly faster than those in the first lane. I still found myself weaving between the other swimmers as I completed my laps; and I’ve never been that good at swimming.

After an hour or so enjoying the water, we dried ourselves, found our way back through the catacombs to the unisex locker room, defused our lockers, changed back into our warm clothes and headed back, via the Elisabeth Bridge (Erzsebet Hig) to the River Beatrice.

The Real Highlight of Salzburg

One of the attractions we missed on our last – somewhat troubled – cruise along the Danube was a visit to beautiful Salzburg; birthplace of Mozart, backdrop to The Sound of Music and home of some truly exceptional sausages!

River Beatrice docked at the small town of Linz and we travelled to Salzburg by coach; a journey of some 80 to 90 minutes. We were entertained, the whole way, by a wonderful guide named Helmut. Dressed in an Austrian jacket and lederhosen – and sporting a comical upturned mustache – Helmut was a very funny man. He started his narrative by stressing something we had heard before; the good burghers of Salzburg have a disdain for The Sound of Music. Many have never heard of it and those who have heard of it have not deigned to watch it. Helmut warned us, therefore, not to expect smartly dressed Austrians singing Edelweiss on every corner of the old town.

In addition to systematically dissecting the Rogers & Hammerstein classic, Helmut proceeded to take a small Austrian forest axe to Amadeus; the mid-80’s movie allegedly about Mozart.  In summary, both the history depicted by the film and way Mozart was portrayed were utter fiction.

Our stroll around Salzburg was very pleasant. More ginger bread houses. More alleys, churches and squares which would have been at home in a fairy tale. We saw the house where Mozart was born. We recognized some of the scenery where Julie Andrews and the actors playing the Von Trapp munschkins sang and danced.

The real highlight of Salzburg came, however, in the form of fast food!

There is a running joke (we think) among the guides hired to explain the delights of the towns along the Danube. They often say, “When you get to [insert name of next destination], they will tell you they have the best sausages. Do not believe them! You will find the best sausages here!” Or “I suppose they told you in [insert name of last destination]. I suppose they told you their sausages are the best? They are wrong!”

In Salzburg, the joke proved to be true. The best are called ‘frisches’ because they are totally fresh and contain no preservatives. Made that day, any not consumed by sundown are thrown out because they will be spoiled by morning!

White in colour, made from veal and served with mustard, they are delicious. I couldn’t get enough of the little devils! After each round, Huckleberry B and I would go for a walk and upon return to the sausage stand I would sigh, “Oh well, we’re not coming back this way any time soon…” and order another round!

After our pleasant stroll around Salzburg – our stomachs well satisfied- we headed back to the coach and more entertainment from funny old Helmut.

Moonriver

SCOTLAND – October 2014

 

All of Life’s a Stage

After our visit to New York – and Broadway – last year, Huckleberry B and I have a new hobby. We simply join the half tickets queue, with little ( if any) expectations, and decide which live theatre productions we will see when we get to the ticket counter. If it’s a day when there are both matinee and evening performances, all the better!

On this occasion, we bought matinee tickets to The Book of Mormon in advance, having enjoyed its scandalous humour so much when we saw it in New York.

Using the method described above, we purchased tickets to The Play that Goes Wrong for the same evening. To say this play was ‘a laugh a minute’ is an injustice. I burst into hysterics much more frequently than that! Performed by professional actors, playing the part of amateur actors in a play in the “Mousetrap” genre, there were missing props, missed lines, defective sets,  severe concussion,  stand-in actors and general mayhem. It was raucously hilarious!

The following day we saw a Michael Jackson tribute called, unsurprisingly, Thriller, which certainly had our feet tapping and our hands clapping. That night we enjoyed The Commitments. Whilst the Irish accents were difficult, at times, we were tapping our feet and clapping our hands, again, with the soul music.

Because one viewing was insufficient, we reprised our attendance at The Book of Mormon on our last night in London. At different times in our relationship, Phantom, West Side Story and Chicago have resonated with the life stage we had reached when we immersed ourselves in their stories. The Book of Mormon is now!

By the way, should you find yourself in need of a good coffee whilst walking the streets of London’s famous West End, we recommend “Double Shot” which is on  Tavistock Street, in Covent Garden, around the corner from the Duchess Theatre on Catherine Street. And if you love a good Laksa, try the “C&R Cafe” in Rupert Court in Soho  (a narrow, easy to miss, lane way sort of opposite Gerrard Street and the main gates to Chinatown).  When you slurp your last chili-laden spoonful, you will be only minutes from the Prince of Wales Theatre on Coventry Street as well as both the Lyric and Apollo Theatres on Shaftesbury Road.

We loved our time in the West End and were very sad to leave.

You’ll Take the High Road and I’ll Take the Low Road

North of Glasgow, beyond the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, where the heather grows in summer, lies one of the most most starkly beautiful places on earth; Glencoe.

Huckleberry B and I had ventured this way before – just over ten years ago – when we stayed a night at the Kings House Hotel, which lies at the mouth of the majestic gorge. I never forget the stunning mountains rising sharply on each side from the narrow plain which meandered its way between them. We always wanted to return.

So rather than take the direct route from the Airport at Glasgow to the Port at Oban – where we would board Hebridean Princess in the late afternoon – we asked our driver to follow the more circuitous route to the north, which allowed us to re-visit Glencoe, before heading south along the coast to Oban. The entire journey occupied some three hours.

It was a lovely drive which will long live in the memory, rendered all the more entertaining by our chatty driver, a delightful Scot named Alistair Burns. Indeed, with that name, could Alistair be anything other than a Scot?

We were still in the carpark at Glasgow Airport when – in response to a direct question from my direct spouse – Alistair denied being any relation to Robbie Burns. The subject of Scottish independence was covered, in depth, as we left the streets of Paisley, traversed rolling green hills dotted with corpulent white sheep before hugging the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. Topics as varied as the mean streets of Glasgow, the  origins of ‘the Glasgow Kiss’, Rangers versus Celtic and the future of the British Monarchy were discussed as we entered the Highlands and admired the barren, undulating, desolate beauty of western Scotland.

Once at Glencoe, I asked Alistair to provide us with a recap of the Glencoe massacre. If you haven’t been to Glencoe, it’s difficult to describe the sense of foreboding which descends upon you as the mountains brood like silent witnesses to a bleak past. Alistair started by noting that the McDonalds were not a nice bunch of people. They stole cattle and were guilty of a variety of other misdemeanours. Their rivals, the Campbells, had reached their wit’s end and decided to take retribution. This, alone, was not unusual, because – in the Highlands of Scotland during that era – all was fair in love, war and Clan rivalry. It was the Campbells’ treachery which caused their infamous misdeeds to be remembered across the centuries. In breach of the unwritten law which regulated Highland affairs, the Campbells sought refuge from the McDonalds, accepted their hospitality and proceeded to murder them in their sleep.

After Alistair had recounted the tale, I lightened the mood with an anecdote from our previous visit. Whilst having dinner at the King’s House Hotel, Huckleberry B asked the waitress whether she was a McDonald or a Campbell. She responded with a hesitant “huh”, so Huck B repeated the question. When the waitress again respond with consternation, I gave her a quick summary of the massacre and she replied, “Oh, I don’t know anything about that; I’m from Prague.”

Meanwhile, our vehicle left Glencoe and followed the coast down to Oban. On the way, we stopped for a hot chocolate at a cafe with a wonderful panoramic view of Castle Stalker. Despite being constructed on a small island surrounded by water, the Castle is privately owned and remains occupied.

After our refreshments, we bundled ourselves back into Alistair’s vehicle and headed for Oban where we would meet our home of the next 7 days: MV Hebridean Princess.

Speed Bonnie Boat, Like a Bird on the Wing

(“Onward!” The Sailor’s Cry)

MV Hebridean Princess is a lovely little boat.

Constructed in 1964, Hebridean Princess was originally named Columba and her menial purpose was to ferry cars across Scotland’s waterways. She was rebuilt, however, in 1989, to serve a a luxury cruising vessel.

For those interested in numbers, Hebridean Princess has capacity for just 60 passengers and 40 crew. She is 72 metres long and just 14 metres wide. She weighs 2112 tonnes.

Should Hebridean Princess’ metrics be unimpressive, I hope the next statement is more noteworthy.

After the Queen sold Brittania, the Royal Family twice chartered Hebridean Princess for a family holiday, the first occasion to mark Her Majesty’s 80th birthday. The crew are – quite rightly – tight lipped about the weeks the Royals were onboard, other than to say that they behaved just like any other family having a holiday.

Each day onboard Hebridean Princess, we visited one destination in the morning and another in the afternoon, punctuated by sumptuous meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner. That, at least, was the plan.

Whilst the meals appeared without fail, our itinerary was varied, early in the voyage, to get ahead of gale force  winds ripped across the top of Northern Ireland and assaulting the west coast of Scotland. Our planned visit to the Isles of Jura and Gigha were abandoned in favour of rounding the Mull of Kintyre during the early afternoon on our second day of our journey, before the winds picked up.

As the Captain remarked, whilst our cruise was marketed as “The Call of the Clyde”, the Clyde was calling a little too loudly.

Otherwise, we ventured ashore twice a day. Whilst enjoyable visits, I am afraid that we do not have many engaging tales to relate. The visits were comfortable and content rather than thrilling and enthralling.

We will remember our week aboard Hebridean Princess, however, for our lovely walk along the tow-path which runs along the narrow canal at Crinan; for our tour of the Springbank Distillery at Campbeltown and the sip of peat smoked Scotch we sampled afterwards; for our stroll around Glenbarr Abbey and her collections of dolls, thimbles, Halloween and Christmas decorations (side by side) and other oddities; for our stroll along the foreshore at Brodick on the Isle of Arran; for our tour of the private apartments at beautiful Inverary Castle; for “roaming in the gloaming” in the fishing village at Tarbert; and for our tour of the exquisitely crafted Mount Stuart House near Rothesay on the Isle of Bute.

For a week, our vision was filled by steep wooded escarpments climbing from dark green waters rippled with “white horses”; by quaint little fishing villages with stone houses lining the shore; by fishing trawlers heading out to sea whilst being chased by dozens upon dozens of seagulls; and by majestic castles plonked upon green meadows surrounded by imposing mountains.

The view from our window was rarely dull.

Oh, Flower of Scotland!

(When Will We See Your Like Again?)

Our visit to Scotland occurred shortly after the Independence Referendum, when 55% of Scots voted to remain in the United Kingdom.

Most of the people we met during our week north of the border, expressed sincere contentment with the outcome. Most reported that they were convinced that Scottish interests were better served when their strengths were combined with those of England, Wales and Northern Island, albeit with greater powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament.  They added that, in any event, the Scottish Nationalists had failed to think through all the consequences of independence.

We did, however, meet one fervent member of the 45% who voted for independence. Alistair, our driver from Glasgow to Oban via Glencoe, made it clear where his vote was placed. He expressed a firm view that sufficient momentum had been created by the first Referendum to warrant further debate and another Referendum down the track. He felt sure that Scotland would, one day, leave the United Kingdom.

As an individual whose partially tartan blood stirs at the sound of bagpipes, I liked the idea of independence, particularly given that I didn’t have to live with any adverse consequences. On the other hand, I also have blood the colour of the English Rose, so I remain a living example of the Union of the Crowns!

I Love a Lassie, a Bonnie, Bonnie Lassie

(She’s as Pure as the Lily in the Dell)

One of the reasons for this holiday is to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the day Huckleberry B and I exchanged our vows.

We, therefore, celebrated the occasion at dinner onboard Hebridean Princess. Unfortunately, our anniversary didn’t fall on one of the formal nights (aka ‘a kilted occasion’) because I would have loved to wear my Murray of Atholl tartan.

Huck B did, however, stash a bottle of 1994 Penfolds Grange into our bags, so we were able to celebrate in style.

It was, it must be said, a lovely dinner to mark a great occasion. I extend my sincere gratitude to Huckleberry B for putting up with me for so long!

 

Moonriver

JAPAN – October 2014

 

Life in a Northern Town / Relax

Huckleberry B and I flew into Narita airport and scurried to the domestic terminal to fly to Chitose in Hokkaido. Shortly after arrival, we devoured a midnight bowl of Ramen at a small restaurant near our hotel.

The next morning a bus took us to Boro Noguchi in the hot spring town of Noboribetsu, which lies on the southern coast of Hokkaido just above the island’s tail which extends down to Honshu.

Huck B had planned things well. After last year’s experience in Boston – where we found we kept falling asleep during the IBA seminars – she thoughtfully arranged three days of relaxation before the Conference kicked off.

And the Ryokan she chose was fantastic.

My Huckleberry had cleverly selected a “hot rock” room, with several endearing features; the option of both western beds or futons on a tatami floor, our own personal hot spring bath and an extraordinary view of the nearby mountain replete with autumnal leaves.

We laughed ruefully when we brought to mind last year’s, so-called, ‘leaf peeping’ cruise to Canada and New England. Whilst I wouldn’t say either of us hold a deep passion in our hearts for colourful foliage – and would not describe ourselves as ‘leaf peepers’ – we were disappointed that last year’s cruise failed dismally to deliver the advertised autumn leaves.

Yet, here in Japan, the vista was glorious. Happy orange leaves competing for attention with bright yellows; whilst splashes of deep red played peek-a-boo behind their more extroverted cousins. We couldn’t stop gazing at the magnificent scene.

The other highlight of Boro Noguchi was the food.

Each evening we enjoyed an extended Japanese degustation menu, replete with pickled delicacies, sashimi, rice, wasabi, soy sauce, local seafood and a variety of tasty morsels which defied identification. We were in heaven.

After celebrating my birthday in Paris, Quito, Na Tran, Costa Rica, Wadi Rum, Cyprus and Boston, I was spoiled – once again – on my birthday at Boro Noguchi!

St Elmo’s Fire

It was almost 30 years ago – in early December 1984 – that I first arrived in Tokyo, with my parents and my brothers. The sprawling metropolis was to be the family’s home for the next three years. I, however, would return home after two years and two months in order to commence Law School.

I remember those years in Tokyo with great fondness, although the transition from a private school in Sydney to an international school in Tokyo was not always easy.

At St Mary’s International High School  – where the Americans dominated the culture – I was very much a fish out of water. I remember saying once, “a bloke gave me this jumper” and being surprised that nobody had any earthly idea what I was gibbering about. I thought I had cracked the code when I  amended my statement to, “a guy gave me this jumper“, until I discovered that it was actually “jumper” which was causing consternation. It was only after I used the word “sweater” that my meaning became clear.

Truth be told, the story was hardly worth telling in the first place! I mean, in the great tradition of story-telling, how many great tales start with the line, “a guy gave me this sweater“?

Mercifully, my running was better than my story-telling, and I excelled in the SMIS cross country and track teams, so the ‘sporting jocks’ of the school accepted me,  somewhat reluctantly (I think), into their group.

Life at our home at Komazawa, however, was always a blessing. We lived near a large park where some of the 1964 Olympic Events were held,  primarily the early rounds of the football tournament. I spent a lot of time cycling around the park and would often play tennis against the wall of the old stadium.

My favourite spot was in an alcove near the stadium entrance. The open space approximated half a tennis court and it had a nice outlook across the park.

I knew that tennis was forbidden in this area. Even though it was written in Japanese, I could read the sign which said “No Tennis” on the wall. The problem was, however, that the sign was erected just above the height of an imaginary net and made a perfect target for practicing my serve! Judging from the unsightly smudging on the wall, I was not the only one to have used the sign for that purpose.

Every few weeks, an old Policeman would trundle up on his Police bike, spot me playing tennis in the forbidden zone, interrupt his leisurely circuit around the park and divert his course in order to shoo me away. I would scratch my head and pretend I didn’t know what he was banging on about before shrugging my shoulders and riding my bike towards home. I found that ten minutes behind the hedge row was usually sufficient. Then I would saunter back to my court and resume my imaginary match against John McEnroe or Boris Becker (which, history will record, I always won…usually after a stirring comeback in the 5th set).

My two years in Tokyo were truly extraordinary.

It was a time of adventure and teenage angst and Japanese cultural learning and underage drinking (which I tried to hide from the authorities) and worldly enlightenment and teenage hangovers (which I would tried to hide from my parents) and yearning for home and inspiration and never wanting to leave my new home and Tokyo disco and fool-hardy escapades and self-created drama and family bonding and life-long friendships scattered with the four winds and a life-long love for Japanese food; all set to the beat of mid-80’s music. A time of both growth and contradiction. Listening to Bon Jovi whilst eating Katsudon and wondering how Alan Border was progressing at the SCG.

So, now, I return to Tokyo with my beloved Huckleberry B by my side.

I see some remarkable symmetry in this trip. As I said, it is almost exactly 30 years since those extraordinary years living in Japan began. And it was during my last months in Tokyo, in late 1986, that I learned that I had been accepted into the Law School where I would met my future wife. And, now, almost 30 years later, Huckleberry B and I will attend the Annual Conference of the International Bar Association in the Japanese Capital.

The Breakfast Club

A strange man was striding past our table.

Huckleberry B and I were enjoying our Japanese breakfast at the Westin Hotel – noodles, pickled vegetables and miso soup – when we simultaneously felt his presence.

The man was striding with too much purpose for the early hour. A curled wire ran from his ear, down his neck and disappeared under his jacket. For some reason he was speaking into his semi- clenched first. Yet his hand was empty…

We inspected the intruder. Tall, dark complexion, largely unshaven, nice suit. He reminded me of the guy from Miami Vice who isn’t Don Johnson.

Why was he here? To whom was he talking? Was he protecting somebody? Why did this buffoon suck at hiding in plain sight? Had he learned nothing from his training? Why was he making such an obvious spectacle of himself?

Suddenly an errant thought darted across my brain and embedded itself into my thought processes.

Maybe it is me they are after! Was my name on some kind of watch list? Could a member of the Komazawa Koen Bicycle Constabulary really hold a grudge for 30 years! Because I played tennis against the wall of the secondary Olympic Stadium! Really?

I watched in horror as my mind’s eye played out the scene.

Into the crowded restaurant peddled my nemesis – my own personal Japanese Javert – unsteady on his rickety bike as his feeble old legs struggled to turn the pedals over. Yet he finds the strength to dismount and hurl his bike dramatically to the ground before pointing at me and shouting so everybody in the restaurant can hear, “I’ve been chasing you across the years and now you are in my grasp!

As I stand up to protest my innocence, the persistent policeman crosses his arms to form an ‘X’ and screeches, “I told you….NO TENNIS!”

Soon, two younger police accomplices hand me a bucket of soapy water and a sponge and haul me away, my head hung in deep shame. As they do, the aged, bike-mounted policeman leans in and snarls triumphantly into my ear, “There is nothing on earth that we share; it is either Valjean or Javert!

Travelling back, now, from my outrageous imagination to reality…

The incompetent security agent continued stuffing up his detail. During my flight of whimsical fantasy he decided to take a seat in the restaurant.  He slouched conspicuously in a booth and continued chatting into his empty fist. What the hell was he jibber- jabbering about?

Just then, a young woman returned from the breakfast buffet and walked towards his table. Was she the protectee? Was she a foreign Princess dressed casually for the morning? Or a pop starlet?

Our illusions were shattered when the inept, so-not-undercover agent, looked up at her (as she stood patiently in front of the table) and said loudly with dismissive disdain, “what you want?

Well“, she huffed, “you’re sitting in my seat…”

Worst security agent in the world!

Suddenly two more agents appeared. They, too, had wires in their ears and spoke into their hands. Now we knew why the first agent was so talkative. He was probably urging his colleagues to relieve him so he could get some “relief”!

“C’mon guys! Where you been?  I’m busting!”

It turned out the protected persons were a group conducting a working breakfast in the booths behind us. We never did find out who they were. Huckleberry B observed a young lady, with a clip board, standing near the group who kept looking at her watch and was, perhaps, in charge of logistics. As bold as ever, B simply asked her the direct question, “who are your group and why are they here?

We have some business meetings“, the young lady lied with a smile.

Unlike the security detail, the young lady was very good at her job.

Top Gun

So, off we trotted to the IBA Conference.

It turned out to be a great Conference, which we enjoyed immensely.

The venue itself – the Tokyo International Forum – was very impressive. Constructed in the shape of an elongated eye, with glass paneling on one side and diagonal walkways crossing from one side to the other, high above the floor below,  it looked like something out of the Death Star in Star Wars. I half expected that should I look up  I would see Darth Vader standing staunchly on one of the walkways, lightsaber at the ready. May the Force be with any Delegate who missed a session!

One of the most fascinating – and harrowing – sessions we both attended dealt with Human Rights in North Korea. Australia’s former High Court Judge, Michael Kirby, was one of the speakers on the panel, having recently chaired a UN investigation into Kim Jong-Un’s regime.  Also on the panel were a South Korean diplomat who has led the charge against human rights abuses in North Korea and a man known by his alias – ‘Mr Lee’ – who had escaped from the DPRK.

Mr Kirby described how the UN’s investigation concluded that there were no human rights protections in North Korea and their systems were constructed with the sole purpose of protecting the  Kim dynasty. Conscious of the imperative to provide natural justice, Mr Kirby said he forwarded the report to Kim Jong-Un with a covering letter explaining that the report implicated individuals at the highest levels in the regime, including himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UN has received no formal response.

At the conclusion of the seminar, my beloved ventured forward to the front of the hall seeking a copy of the summary of the UN’s findings. Unfortunately, all available copies had already been snapped up. So, ever the pragmatist, mt beloved approached Mr Kirby and asked him whether he had any more copies in his bag.

Here“, Mr Kirby smiled, “you can have my copy.”

Oh, thank you” B bowed her head, “can you sign it for me?

Certainly

After shaking the great man’s hand – probably the greatest Australian we have met and certainly a national living treasure – my beloved read the dedication Mr Kirby had signed.

It was both simple and inspiring – particularly given the dismal discussion which had occupied the previous hours: “Remain Idealistic“.

Forever Young

Whilst in Tokyo, I managed to duck away to visit my old youthful stomping ground.

Off I scurried from the Conference Centre at Hibiya, first to Shibuya – where I said a quick hello to loyal little Hachiko – before travelling along the Den-en-Toshi Line to the green tiles of Komazawa Station.

The streetscape remained familiar. Indeed, I was to find that very little in Komazawa had changed. I looked for – and found – the barbers’ shop on Jiyu-Dori where I used to get my hair cut. I made a quick detour into the local shopping centre and descended the escalator to investigate whether they still sold my favourite brand of frozen pizza…and there it was!

The old alley way which runs parallel to Jiyu-Dori was easy to locate. I strolled along the narrow lane, listening to songs from my distance past, zigging left and zagging right and zig-zagging again, until I came to the cross-roads near our old house. Nothing had changed except that the corner store was now an Italian restaurant.

Our house was still as it was. Maybe a slightly darker shade of alabaster. Peaking over the chin high fence, I saw that the small lawn had been neglected.

I sauntered down our old lane, crossed Jiyu-Dori, up the stairs and into the Park. I quickly located my old tennis court (whilst keeping an eye-out for my nemesis) and literally burst out laughing when I saw that the “No Tennis” sign had been removed, the wall had been white-washed and the area was barricaded off. They must have known I was coming!

Heading back to the Station, I banished the old alleyway and walked up Jiyu-Dori. Again, it was much as I remembered, except the indoor swimming centre on the right had been demolished and replaced by a Seven Eleven.

Near the Station, I looked for the small store where I used to hire music albums for the night. This was one of my favourite haunts back in the day. I used to frequently walk briskly to the store and return home with an armful of albums and a handful of blank cassette tapes in order to create my own highlight tapes. In the iTunes era each collection would be known as a ‘playlist’. Back in the ’80s, we called them a ‘mix’.

I knew my record store was certainly long gone and, even if it survived my departure all those years ago, it would have become well and truly obsolete with the advent of iTunes.

I was, therefore, pleased to find that the old store was being put to good use as a dog grooming salon. From one of my passions to another. Bravo!

The next day, I ventured to Ichigaya in search of Sophia University where I attended for six months in between graduating from St Mary’s International School  in mid-1986 and commencing Law School in early 1987.

My father decided it was better that I do something with that six month period rather than laying around doing nothing. He was right. With no responsibility whatsoever and an intimate knowledge of where to find the cheapest beer in Tokyo, I was an asset to my new university friends and I had the time of my young life! It was awesome!

Strangely, however, upon emerging from the Tokyo metro at Ichigaya, I had no earthly idea which way to head. Nothing looked at all familiar. It is possible that the area had been developed since last I ventured this way. On the other hand, I couldn’t picture what it used to look like anyway.

Even with the aid of a map near the subway entrance, it took me half and hour to make the 5 minute walk from Ichigaya station to the Unversity gates. I took a rather circuitous route and had to retrace my steps on several occasions.

Once at Sophia – which consisted merely of one lecture block and a library – I found the place all but deserted. Yet both the gates and the front door to the main building were open. So I strolled in and looked around. Unlike the surrounding area, nothing at Sophia had changed in 30 years. I saw the stairs leading down to the basement, where I used to play ping pong with my friends. I poked my head into the cafeteria where we used to sit and chat, often with an Asahi beer bottle close to hand. Out in the courtyard, I saw the benches where we used to sit. The memories flashing through my head were so  prolific, I had to pause and try to place them in order so I could process them.

Among other escapades and adventures, I recalled the time we had a multiple choice test in economics and there was a pretty Japanese American girl who was worried about failing. Exhibiting chivalry in its finest traditions, I suggested she sit behind me whilst I rested my head in my left hand. From her vantage point she would be able to see whether I was scratching the back of my neck with one, two, three of four fingers, signifying whether the answer was A, B, C or D. Somehow we didn’t get caught and somehow the majority of my answers were right. All I received in return for my gallantry, however, was the briefest of hugs; but I have come to learn that life is full of injustices.

After my visit to Ichigaya, Huckleberry B and I visited Roppongi. I showed her the spot outside ‘Almonds’ where I used to meet my High School friends. Huck B asked me to point out the Discos we used to attend, but I couldn’t remember. None of the names on the neon signs looked familiar. Unlike the the barbers’ shop on Jiyu- Dori in Komazawa, I suspected that things changed frequently in Roppongi.

We settled for another bowl of Ramen, some Gyoza and a bottle of beer…

Whilst I truly savoured those few short hours walking the streets I used to ‘own’, I must confess to also mourning the passing of the years. How have 30 years rolled by so quickly?

Thirty years.

Don’t You Forget About Me

Huckleberry B and I left Tokyo with heavy hearts. We both enjoyed our week in Japan and were sorry to leave. Even the lure of London – one of our favourite towns – failed to ease the pain.

Whilst staying at the Westin, in Ebisu, I asked Concierge – on B’s urging  – whether there was any good Ramen nearby. The young Japanese lady behind the counter snatched a map with glee and circled a building a short walk away and said, “Here! This is where you will find the best Ramen in Tokyo! It’s very cool!

She was right. Other than the night we visited Roppongi, Huckleberry B and I concluded each day at the IBA Conference by visiting the crowded Ramen store for dinner. It was fantastic.

On our last night in Tokyo, we entered the restaurant to find that all the tables were occupied. A young Japanese man waved to us, however, and suggested with a welcoming hand that we share his table with him. We were hungry so we obliged.

It was only after we had struggled to communicate with the waitress in placing our orders that the young man said, in English, “So where are you guys from?

We chatted with the man as we munched our noodles and slurped our soup. He told us that he worked in a gaming business and and spent some time in the USA. He explained that he used to live nearby and had returned for the sake of “his memories”. Like the lady at Concierge, the young man proclaimed the Ramen place to be “cool”, although he added that they were unusual, for Tokyo, because they were of Taiwanese origin. The young gamer’s English was very good and we were grateful for his company.

As we opened the sliding door and ducked under the red bunting and left the Ramen store in Ebisu for the last time, we turned and waved to the cooks behind the counter. We really were sad to leave Tokyo.

Moonriver

 

CUBA – December 2013

Pioneers Onboard m/v Louis Cristal

We are privileged to undertake the voyage onboard m/v Louis  Cristal.

As we understand it, this is the first foreign cruise ship to circumnavigate the island of Cuba since the Revolution on 1 January 1959.

The embargo imposed by the USA remains in- force. It remains the case that no US citizens or companies may trade with Cuba. We were soon to learn that the Cubans use a different term for the embargo; they call it a blockade.

The majority of the great cruise lines are, of course, American owned. Unless or until the embargo is lifted, we will not be seeing Princess, Royal Caribbean or Holland America cruising around Cuba.

Louis Cristal, however, is owned by a Greek family and is registered in Valletta, Malta. The cruise, itself, was organised by a Canadian company. None of Greece, Malta or Canada is subject to the embargo. The vessel has, we understand, been diverted from its European cruise routes, to sail the waters around Cuba until late March.

Unfortunately, we were not the first to board the vessel. Somewhat unusually, Louis Cristal had two embarkation points. The first was in Havana and the second in Montego Bay, where we joined those who had already boarded.

Whilst joining the party late, we remained members of first circumnavigation of Cuba. The fact that we were pioneers certainly added to the sense of adventure we customarily feel when steeping onboard any cruise ship. Our names will even be coloured in gold typeface in the ship company’s register!

Stepping Back in Time

We have often heard that Cuba is caught in a time capsule from the 1950’s. Once we ventured ashore, we certainly found what we had heard to be true.

Remarkably, however, our journey back in time began when we stepped onboard Louis Cristal. We felt as though we had returned to the 70’s. Unshaded fluorescent lights, barren white washed walls and a cruise director who reminded me of ‘Horshack‘ from ‘Welcome Back Kotter‘.

We even had to drag our own bags from the cruise terminal to the gangway! Although the fault for that indignity lies at the feet of the Jamaican Government who banned Louis Cristal staff from the cruise terminal, in a misguided attempt to bolster the tipping of Jamaican porters, who I assume are a threatened species given their scarcity.

Other oddities were to follow.

For the first time ever, we had to pay for the use of the safe which was already situated in our room. Twenty Four Canadian Dollars, if you are interested. The safe itself was unusual. Locking and unlocking required the use of a magnetic device placed over a corresponding spot on the safe door. Okay, so now the safe was locked. But I was left with the magnetic device in my hand, complete with imprinted room number! So, to be truly secure, we had to hide the magnetic device somewhere in the room! Very strange.

Whilst not the fault of Louis Cruises, there was no WIFI onboard. Thanks to the embargo, there is little Internet access in Cuba. To some this may be cause for panic. For others, a blessed relief.

These frustrations, notwithstanding, there were areas where Louis Cristal excelled.

The food was almost universally excellent. Most impressively, an effort was actually made to match at least one dish on the evening menu to the region we were exploring. Other cruise lines we have experienced tend to rotate the same standard menu, without regard to the local cuisine. Whilst sailing from Montego Bay, I enjoyed Jamaican Jerk Chicken. In Havana, I devoured a bowl of Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya.

The evening entertainment, impressively, also reflected the local culture. Gone was the rotation of standard generic shows like ‘Piano Man’, a variation of which we have seen on most cruise lines we have experienced. In both Havana and Santiago de Cuba, local  artists were invited onboard to perform Cuban dance and song. With their Afro-Hispanic roots, the beat was intoxicating.

A special mention must also be made of the wait staff who were enthusiastic, attentive and friendly.

Cienfuegos

The first port on our Cuban circumnagivation was Cienfuegos, situated on the southern coast of the lazy crescent shaped island.

Cienfuegos‘, we learned, means ‘one hundred fires‘. Why those who settled Cienfuegos dedicated their city name to pyromania, however, remains unclear.

We contemplated taking a taxi to the UNESCO preserved village of Trinidad, but were unable to secure a driver willing to do the job.

So, we walked aimlessly through the gates of the port and observed a vista of residential buildings and light industry. We had no clue which way we should walk to the town centre.  We were fortuitous in choosing to head to the right.

Everybody talks about Cuba being caught in a 1950’s time warp. I won’t dwell on the subject other than to say that there is truth in this hackneyed observation. It is true that we saw many 1950’s vintage American cars parked at the kerb and clunking down the road. In fairness, however, we saw just as many Hyundias.

One of the great impacts of the embargo imposed by the Americans since the Revolution in 1959, however, is that rows of dwellings – which would have been condemned in most other cities – remain occupied.

The local citizenry largely ignored us as we strolled through their streets, stopping periodically to take photographs (particularly of their vehicles).

After walking for around 15 minutes, we arrived at the old Town Square. It reminded me of town squares we had seen, on previous visits to other Spanish Empire countries, like Ecuador, Peru and Nicaragua. A central park surrounded by impressive civic buildings; a church on one corner, an imposing town hall on another and a movie theatre on the corner opposite.

Whilst suffering from the embargo, it was not hard to imagine that Cienfuegos would have been quite something in its glory days.

On the way back to the ship we came across a building dominated by a large poster of Hugo Chavez, the former (recently deceased) Venezuelan President. The caption under the poster included the word `amigo’. Huckleberry B took a photo with the intention of emailing it to our Venezuelan neighbours. She knows they detest him! She’s such a stirrer!

The Isle of Youth

Lying south of the south-western coast of Cuba, the Isle of Youth is a picture postcard tropical oasis. It reminded me of Mystery Island in Melanesia, albeit much larger in size.

We caught a tender boat to the Island, where I frolicked in the warm water for close to an hour whilst Huckleberry B lay on a deckchair and enjoyed the sunshine. Meanwhile, wait staff from the ship took drink orders which the bathers paid for using their magnetic door keys.

Unfortunately, whilst I had brought my snorkeling gear with me, the water was too murky to put it to any useful purpose. It was, however, a lovely morning swim.

There was, sadly, a downside. A threatening note in our stateroom strongly discouraged taking towels from the boat ashore. A monetary penalty for lost towels was flagged. No towels, however, were provided at the beach. We didn’t think much of it given that the temperature was north of 30 degrees. When sitting on the tender boat, however, I was still wet. Worst still, I remained damp when we entered the air conditioned vessel and made our way to our stateroom. I was to pay the price for this folly in the days which followed.

Old Havana

Walking the streets of Old Havana, you feel as though you are constantly walking in the steps of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Ernest Hemingway. Indeed, more often than not an image of at least one of these fine gentlemen would be staring at you wherever you stood in the old town.

Whilst accompanied by our outstanding guide, Anita, we walked the streets of Old Havana for over three hours, listening to stories of the Revolution and daily life in the Cuban Capital. I noticed that Anita referred to the October 1962 event as ‘The Crisis of Missiles‘, rather than ‘The Cuban Missile Crisis‘.  I wondered whether this was in recognition of the historical fact that the missiles were, in fact, Russian and not Cuban.

Anita’s most interesting stories, however, were about life during the so-called ‘Special Period‘. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban economy had been propped up by the USSR. After the dissolution of the Union, however, Russia was no longer interested in Cuba, diverting its wealth, instead, to the benefit of Russians. With the American Blockade still in place, Cuba was in a hopeless position. According to Anita, there was insufficient electricity to power all of Cuba at once, so regions took turns to enjoy the simple benefit of power. She said that if viewed from Space, Cuba would have looked like a flickering Christmas Tree.

Even food was scarce. A dire picture was painted of local Cubans waiting in line of food, when there was insufficient volume to feed them all. Malnutrition was rampant.

Things improved, we were told, when Fidel became ill and handed over control to his brother Raul, who took some measures to open the economy. More recently, China has answered Cuba’s call for aide.

The Old Havana we saw appeared to be in good health, although further improvement is required.

During our tour, we visited each of Old Havana’s famous four squares. Whilst pleasing – and reminiscent of Spain – we had seen similar vistas before.

Later, we visited the Floridita Bar where Hemingway enjoyed drinking his Daiquiris. He spent so much time there that there is now a life size statue of Hemingway sitting at the bar. Hemingway is smiling and there is a twinkle in his eye and he sits at the bar and he carouses with his friends and he enjoys his drink whilst dreaming of marlin fishing in the blue ocean.

Anyway, we now have one photograph of me with my arm around Ernest and another of Ernest wearing my cap. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time!

Not far away is La Bodeguita where Hemingway enjoyed his Mojitos. It struck me that you would have to be a committed drinker to frequent two different bars – based upon their expertise in preparing certain cocktails – rather than attend the bar where your friends are and simply accept whatever drinks they had available.

We tried to visit Hemingway’s room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where his typewriter remains on display, but it was a Monday in Havana and the exhibit was closed.

Our tour of Old Havana was completed by lunch at a lovely restaurant called Ivan Chefs Justo. We loved the ambience. Ceiling of deep blue, walls of brilliant yellow, the palada featured iconic photographs from the 1950’s.

Ivan Chefs Justo is situated across the road from the Museum of the Revolution. The Museum featured tanks, aircraft and other vehicles used by the Cubans to repel the Americans at the Bay of Pigs. The restaurant, on the other hand, featured an amazing seafood stew – replete with lobster, prawns and mussels – which was simply delicious. Though my stomach was full, I wanted more.

Controversy at the Greek Orthodox Church

The day in Havana started with a visit to the Greek Orthodox Church situated opposite the cruise terminal. The church featured a beautiful statue of Mother Theresa praying whilst seated on a bench. All of which raised two questions in Huckleberry B’s mind; what did either the Greeks or Mother Theresa have to do with Cuba?

Fortunately, there was a Greek Orthodox Priest available to answer my wife’s questions.

When Huck B said that she could understand the presence of the Russian Orthodox Church, but not the Greek, the Priest responded with a significant level of apparent indignation: “If Russian, why not Greek?

Huck B observed that Russia and Cuba had enjoyed a well known joint history.

Having regained his composure, the Priest explained that Greeks had been involved with Russia long before the Russians, including as trading partners. There had been a Greek population in Cuba for much of the 20th Century.

B acknowledged that the explanation made sense and thanked the Priest.

And Mother Theresa?

She’s a great Saint, is she not?”

Fair enough.

A few minutes after leaving the Greeks – with their flower beds, trees, statues and attractive brick buildings – we passed by the Russian Orthodox Church. The contrast was stark; a plain, barren and entirely unappealing white building.

Riding in a Pink Chevrolet

Our day in Havana ended with a journey around the parts of New Havana in a hot pink and white 1951 Chevrolet convertible.

The vehicle was lovingly retained in mint condition by its owner, Jorge, who drove us and Anita to some of Havana’s sites.

After driving down the Avenue of the Presidents – featuring monuments to a number of foreign Presidents, including Lincoln and Allende – we proceeded to a less expected attraction known as Lennon Park.

Before you scream at the page and denounce me for spelling ‘Lenin‘ wrongly, allow me to assure you that the Park is named after John, not Vladimir!

Anita explained that the Beatles came to prominence at around the same time as the Cuban Revolution and, as symbols of capitalist greed, their music was banned. After a time, however, Cuba recognized that people were listening to Beatles songs anyway and saw that Lennon’s ideals of love, peace and equality were much in keeping with their own, so they dedicated a park to him.

Unfortunately, we saw an example of capitalist greed, ourselves, at Lennon Park. As we approached Lennon’s statue – sitting happily on a park bench – a man emerged and placed some round spectacles on John’s head. He demanded money to sit with the former Beatle and have our photo taken.

We declined his impertinent offer and returned to the bright Pink Chevrolet.

On the way back to Louis Cristal, after visiting a monument to the Revolution, we drove through a run-down part of Havana. Anita explained that whilst Old Havana was protected and funds had been dedicated to its restoration, this part of Havana was left to decay. On average, she said 2.6 buildings collapsed – simply collapsed from old age – each day. It was unfortunate, but there were insufficient funds to either restore or demolish these buildings.

Once back at the Port, we waved goodbye to Anita, Jorge and the beautiful pink Chevrolet. Huckleberry B had, however, taken some lovely photographs of the car and was looking forward to emailing them to our American friends. She’s a cheeky one that wife of mine. She knows, full well, that half of our American friends disapprove of our visit to Cuba and the other half resent us for being able to go somewhere they cannot!

The Cuban Missile Crisis

Onboard Louis Cristal, it was soon apparent that the staff were facing their own Cuban Missile Crisis. Remember that the missiles, which caused so much trauma in October 1962, were, in fact, Russian. They were merely deployed in Cuba.

Like an echo from the Cold War, a Russian woman boarded the ship with us at Montego Bay. Picture an overweight Cybil Fawlty, with a permanent menacing pout, and you will have some idea how anybody who came within her withering gaze turned into a pillar of salt.

How do we know she was Russian? She announced it herself! When passing through immigration to enter Cuba at Cienfuegos, the frumpy Cuban Missile, with bleached blonde hair, announced her origin to all that were willing to listen to her shrill voice.

No Russian requires a visa to enter Cuba“, she proclaimed loudly with stern assuredness, before proceeding to say the same thing (we assume) in fluent Spanish.

This woman appeared to only have two moods; bad and worse.

She was unhappy from the moment she came onboard. Like other ships, Louis Cristal held a mandatory boat drill shortly after embarkation. We adhered to the written note in our state room – and the subsequent verbal announcement – and carried our life jackets with us to the drill. Not the Cuban Missile! All she carried with her was a resentment for anybody who crossed her path. When challenged for not having her life vest, she proceeded to berate the cruise director for failing to properly ‘instruct her‘. Funnily, everybody else appeared to have got the message.

The Cuban Missile saved her most savage wrath for the dining room staff. Nothing pleased her. She would often arrive several minutes after her husband; doubtless having been delayed by the need to complain about the chairs in the lounge not being arranged to her liking. Once seated, she would proceed to gesticulate at the wait staff, issuing demands and complaints in tandem.

“Soda water please.”

“Sorry, can you repeat that?”

“Water with bubbles!”

I suspect she may have got ahead of herself, on occasion, by complaining that something had not been done even before her demand was issued!

Jokes aside, we felt sorry for the dining room staff who had to deal with her behaviour, without the luxury of being permitted to return fire. They were the targets of her surgical air-strikes. It was gratifying, however, to see the waiters band together and support each other during each missile crisis.

The Day Santa Clause Came to Antilla

We arrived at the small fishing village of Antilla on Christmas Morning.

When Louis Cristal came this way the previous week – the first time cruise ship to visit Antilla for over 50 years – the Mayor declared a public holiday and many townsfolk came to the dock to welcome the foreign visitors.

Little did the children of Antilla know, but Santa Claus was onboard Louis Cristal this Christmas morn.

Huckleberry B always brings token gifts with her when she travels – ranging from little Koala Bears to pencils adorned with Aboriginal painting to miniature Australian road signs – to give to deserving people we met. Having heard what happened the previous week, Huckleberry B arranged for the tokens to be wrapped in Christmas paper.

Antilla is a small village with one main road lined with stores. A park runs down the middle, with trees and park benches. At the end of the central block, on the right, is a church which remains under construction.

We walked along the main road that Christmas morning with rain threatening, and, sometimes, interrupting proceedings. Two massive speakers had been placed in the door of the yet to be completed church, blasting out Christmas carols. Meanwhile a fashion show – of all things – commenced across the road. Soon the raucous music accompanying the models strutting the makeshift catwalk constructed over the main road – including ‘Gangnam Style‘ – drowned out the Christmas carols from the church.

Whilst outside the church, the rain became quite heavy and, at the insistence of a local gentleman with dark skin and not many teeth, we took shelter inside. He was a very charismatic man. He took Huckleberry B by the hands and spoke to her earnestly in Spanish. The only word I understood was ‘familia‘. He completed his message by kissing my wife’s hand. Huckleberry B responded by giving him a gift from Santa’s bag. We later saw it being delivered home, in a multi-storey building across the road, by means of a cloth bag attached to the end of a long rope.

When the rain ceased, we ventured outside again and started a slow walk back to the ship. Along the way we came across a family enjoying the Christmas festivities. They greeted us with some tentative words in English. When the daughter turned and said a shy ‘hello‘, we saw that she was disfigured by a birthmark which extended from her left eyebrow to her hairline; almost as wide as it was high. Yet she had a pretty smile and a happy disposition.

Santa B reached into her bag of goodies and handed both the beautiful girl – with the ugly birthmark – and her young brother each a gift. Whilst still bashful, they beamed with joy as their parents opened the gifts for them.

Feliz Navidad!

Santiago de Cuba

The last port on our Cuban odyssey was Santiago de Cuba, on the south- eastern coast.

Santiago de Cuba is the second largest in Cuba and an important a seaport.

By this stage, the folly of swimming on the Isle of Youth without a towel had caught up with me and I was feeling utterly miserable with a runny nose and a graveyard cough. How do you catch a cold in 30 degree heat?

Anyway, Huckleberry B and I mutually agreed that I should remain onboard and get better, rather than trudge the streets of Santiago de Cuba. The cold of a New York City winter awaited us several days hence.

So B ventured out alone. Or so I thought!

Cleverly, Huckleberry B identified a Taiwanese couple we had met the previous day and tagged along with them and some other new friends they had made. They had such a good time that they ventured out again in the afternoon and visited San Pedro de la Roca Castle, which I heard was quite spectacular.

Moonriver

JAMAICA – December 2013

 

Please Note – I am currently editing the travel journal I started writing in 2007 and posting as I go. I welcome feedback and encourage my readers to post comments.

Next Around the Bend – Cuba

Welcome to Montego Bay

We once heard that the only group of people more excitable than a group of women, dressed in their white uniforms, driving to play bowls is the same group of women driving home again. We can top that. You should try a group of Jamaicans flying from New York to Montego Bay!

By the time we were making our final approach to Jamaica, the whole plane was buzzing. The excited chatter, which had been increasing steadily since take-off, was now at a fever pitch. The women next to Huckleberry B were dancing in their seats and talking over both each other and their three friends in the row behind.

“I see water!”

“I see land!”

“I see the beach!”

“Yeah mon!”

When the plane landed, the Jamaicans burst into applause. One of the women even shook her booty in her friend’s face as she climbed past her to collect her hand luggage! Their joy was infectious and we all laughed.

The scene was set. Huckleberry B and I had a good time in Montego Bay. Let’s face it, it’s hard not to.

Somebody Forgot the Spice

On the recommendation of our friends, Cathy and Rich of New York, we stayed at Sandals Mobay.  The resort was so close to the airport that planes took off over our head when we were swimming in the sea. Strangely, this phenomenon caused staff and holiday-makers alike to wave their hands over their heads rather than place them over their ears.  At Montego Bay, everything is a source of fun.

On the first night of our stay, we took a shuttle bus to nearby Sandals Royale before climbing into a wooden ‘dragon boat’ in order to be transported to a small island upon which allegedly sat a Thai Restaurant. Whilst the dishes shared the names of some Thai cuisine – and boasted some resemblance in appearance – somebody had forgotten to add any taste whatsoever. Whilst tolerating our main courses, we developed the theory that there must be no chilli plants in Jamaica. That was the most logical explanation for the total absence of spice.

There was something else the locals had forgotten…

Nobody felt it necessary to inform us that there was a shuttle bus going back to Sandals Mobay, without fail, every hour, on the hour, except if that hour was the eighth hour after midday.

So we casually completed our spice-less Thai meal just before 7pm and sat for a while, enjoying the view, and took some photos of the full moon rising over the sea and boarded the dragon boat back to the mainland before strolling casually across to the reception area and inquiring when the next shuttle bus would arrive.

Nine PM!?!?

Still jet lagged and tired, the prospect of waiting 90 minutes was alarming. We noticed, however, that there was a pool table available, so we decided that I would occupy my time playing pool and Huckleberry B would occupy her time learning how to play pool. In Montego Bay everything is a source of fun. Situated outside, under a grass roof, the local rules included having to deal with natural hazards including dead and/ or dying bugs on the green velvet table. They just added to the challenge.

By the time we finally boarded the shuttle bus and returned to Sandals Mobay, we were wide awake so, rather than go straight to bed, we played some more pool on their pool tables before a midnight swim in their swimming pool. Floating in the warm water, on a balmy Caribbean night, looking up to a full moon hovering above, accompanied by a multitude of glimmering stars, was just simply heavenly. We slept well that night.

Water Sports

Over the next two days water sports abounded.

We enjoyed several swims in the ocean, although there was not much by way of surf. We both enjoyed a short trip over the nearby reef in a glass bottomed boat.

Later in the day, I went snorkeling. Whilst not the underwater paradise I experienced at Lifou, in Melanesia, the coral was still stunning. Reindeer antlers (in keeping with the Season), underwater craniums and an unusual coral structure which looked as though somebody had finished polishing the boat and placed his chamois over an underwater rock under the misconception that the chamois may dry.

There were some beautiful fish too. My favourite was a little triangular shaped fish with blue flesh adorned with bright yellow and green poker-dots. They were like little blue Christmas Trees swimming in the water.

Our next day in paradise featured a tube ride! We sat on fat tyre tubes, attached by rope to a speed boat, whilst we were hauled across the surf at high speed, bouncing over each wave.

Before the ride, we were told that thumbs up meant to increase speed, thumbs down meant to reduce speed and a hand drawn sharply across the throat told the driver to stop immediately before we drowned. In truth, however, we were too busy holding onto the handles – our heels frequently closer to the Jamaican sun than our heads – to contemplate removing one hand to deliver any instructions.

It was a lot of fun, but I haven’t had so much seawater up my nose since being dumped, whilst still a teenager, by a spiteful wave at Avoca Beach.

By the way, we found Jamaicans to live up to their stereotype of being laid back and cool; until you asked them to do something.

The driver of our tubing speedboat, for example, was a very reluctant participant in our adventure. Many of the dining room wait staff – particularly, strangely, the females – served us surliness along with our tea and coffee.

But it didn’t really matter. Sandals Mobay was fun!

Moonriver

 

ICELAND – October 2013

 

Arriving in Iceland

Leaving JFK at 8.25pm – after an intriguing shuttle bus ride which took a northern route on Manhattan Island, across once-feared Harlem, and through the Bronx – we touched down in Iceland before 6 am local time. We had hardly slept and our room at the Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel was, of course, not available until somebody checked out.  We slumped into some chairs in the lounge area and alternatively checked our emails and nodded off.

Despite being so tired, I was pleasantly surprised by our hotel. Huckleberry B had been warning me for days that the waters of the Blue Lagoon possessed medicinal properties and many came to the ‘Clinic Hotel‘ for treatment. I thought she was trying to prepare me for Spartan conditions more in keeping with a hospital than a hotel, with food to match. She later explained  that she was, in fact, warning me that I might see some guests with nasty skin conditions!

The hotel was, actually, very comfortable and the food at the public restaurant was outstanding. Moreover – in case you were wondering – no obvious eczema or dermatitis in sight.

Once the sun rose, the unique vista revealed itself. The Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel is set within a field of lava. The dark, jagged moonscape extends to the horizon in each direction, covered in thick green moss. Not far away, steam can be seen billowing from the surface of the famed Blue Lagoon.

The Blue Lagoon

Several years ago, whilst cruising the Panama Canal, an English couple named Roy and Barbara, happened to mention the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. Roy described how easy it was for his countryman to hop on a plane to Reykjavik, drive twenty minutes, swim in the Blue Lagoon for several hours, before flying back to England and being home in time for the late news, if not dinner.

Huckleberry B has wanted to visit the Blue Lagoon ever since.

It was certainly an enthralling  experience.

From a distance, the Blue Lagoon looks like rippled ice. When you draw closer, however, you observe a blue milky water. Admittedly, describing the water as ‘milky’ is insufficient. If you have ever used a steaming wand to create warm, textured milk, then imagine that smooth, velvety liquid and add a pale blue complexion.

Getting into the water was, it must be said, a daunting process. There is a six hundred metre walk from the Clinic Hotel to the Visitor’s Centre at the public lagoon. Walking the path is pleasant, provided you wear thick clothes and an overcoat. We understand that it was one or two degrees Celsius in the morning and a ‘high’ of just five degrees might be achieved. We can attest that it was decidedly chilly. When out in the open, with the wind blowing, the tips of my ears hurt and my fingers tingled.

Why, for the love of God, were we going swimming?

Once at the Visitor’s Centre, we were each given a wrist band, with an embedded micro-chip, which allowed us entry into the public area of the lagoon and could be used for other useful purposes like securing our lockers and recording purchases from the bar for later payment.

Standing inside, on a glorious Icelandic morning, looking across the lake, whilst encased in a warm bathrobe, was lovely. Yet, I was consumed by fear at the prospect of walking outside, removing the protection of my bathrobe and walking through the freezing air to a body of water of, as yet, unconfirmed temperature. We had been told that the lagoon enjoyed a constant thirty- five to forty degree warmth, but I was yet to be convinced.

All I could do was grin and bare it…

After three days at the Blue Lagoon, I learned that it was easy to tell the newcomers from the veterans.

The experienced bathers knew that a short exposure to the arctic air was not going to cause any harm. Whether they reached the cosy warmth of the blue water in 10 seconds – or rushed and made it in 7.5 – didn’t really matter much. These individuals could be seen removing their bathrobes and serenely  walking to the water before submerging themselves with a satisfied smile.

The greenhorns, however, typically reacted to the frosty air nipping at their bare flesh by squealing like giddy schoolgirls at a Justine Beiber concert. You should see them running across the decking whilst flapping their hands like demented chickens. The fact that some of the morons behaving this way were, in fact, schoolgirls, does not make it okay. That some were middle aged businessmen, with thinning hair and bulbous bellies, is just disturbing.

Wallowing in the sublime water was divine. There is something quite invigorating about being snug and warm, despite having your head and shoulders exposed to a spitefully brisk breeze and, on occasion, stinging rain drops. We must have looked like those cute Japanese snow monkeys, sitting in a hot spring with red faces and snow in their hair.

When the clouds hung low, however, and visibility was obscured by thick steam rising from the water – ghostly faces appearing from the midst whilst other human forms drifted by just out of vision – the scene was quite eerie. Minutes later, the clouds would clear, the steam would thin and a blue sky would enhance the splendor of the blue water. Then suddenly it would be raining.

Over a three day period, Huckleberry B and I spent over 12 hours in the waters of the Blue Lagoon. It was a wonderful, relaxing way to bring our holiday to a close.

Moonriver

NEW YORK – October 2013

 

Times Square

After leaving Caribbean Princess, Huckleberry B and I spent two more delightful days in NYC.

We have already decided that New York rates very high in our list of favourite world cities. I spent half a day in the city in the mid-1980’s when still a teenager. I recall taking the ferry to Staten Island – past the Statue of Liberty – but very little else. Huck B remembers visiting New York in 1981 and staying one night.

Despite taking so long to return, the street scape seems very familiar to us. After enjoying so many television shows and movies set in New York, we half expected George Costanza to walk around the corner with his arm around Charlotte York. Perhaps Rudi Huxtable would be running in the park. Was that Michael Corleone lurking in the shadows? Perhaps it was just Mickey Blue Eyes. Don’t worry Andy Sipowicz is on the case.

There is an energy in New York, unlike any city we have previously visited. You can do anything you want and anything is possible. We both felt inspired by our short visit and are keen to return.

After unpacking at our hotel at Columbus Circle, we had the rest of a lazy Friday afternoon to ourselves. After strolling in beautiful Central Park, we headed down to Times Square and – again on a whim – purchased tickets to the 2pm matinee of Jersey Boys. We had seen the production of this musical in Sydney and enjoyed it. We would have to admit, however, that the NY production was superior. The fact that members of the audience had made the journey from New Jersey – and cheered whenever place names were mentioned in the script and laughed whenever inside ‘Jersey‘ jokes were uttered – added tremendously to the experience.

After Jersey Boys, we headed back to TKTS and purchased tickets for the evening production of Chicago. Another great performance! We have seen this musical three times in Sydney and would have to say that the actress playing Roxie Hart, Bianca Marroquin, was the most engaging and alluring we have seen. We loved her!  I did some Internet research and have discovered that Bianca was the first Mexican actress to score a lead role on Broadway. The actress playing Thelma Kelly was, however, a serious disappointment. Whenever she sang, I felt my time was better served focusing on the back-up dancers. Allow me to be parochial for just a moment, and suggest that Australia’s Carolyn O’Conner was born for Thelma’s role and nobody (not even Catherine Zeta-Jones) compares.

A Tour of New York

On Saturday afternoon, we enjoyed the afternoon and evening with our friends, Cathy and Rich. You may recall that they collected us from the airport when we first landed at JFK several weeks ago. It was Cathy who gave me the FDNY cap which caused me to inadvertently accept the thanks of a grateful nation on profoundly false pretenses.

Cath is a happy to tell you (and tell you again) that she’s a proud ‘nu yawker‘. Rich, however, is from Long Island. I infer from Cath’s derision that this is completely different to being a ‘nu yawker‘. I thought Long Island was part of New York, but what do I know!

After a tour of the lower east side in Rich’s car, we parked in the financial district and made a tour of Ground Zero. Needless to say, this was a solemn experience. Cathy grew up in this area and used to walk through the World Trade Centre on her way to work. Today was, however, her first visit to Ground Zero since the Memorial was opened. She said that despite walking that ground thousands of times in her life, it was now unrecognisable to her.

I think the concept of the memorial is very good. Rather than rebuild on the same ground, the footprint of each tower has been converted into a square water fall. Gallons of water – the nemesis of fire and the source of life – cascade down the four walls, gather at the bottom and then descend into a well at the centre. The names of each of the 9/11 victims have been etched into the side of the memorials, including the names of several of Cathy’s friends. A short distance to the north the Freedom Tower soars into the sky.

Cathy was worked in a building in the financial district on that horrible day. We listened silently as she told us of her experience. It was harrowing.

Our mood lifted after leaving Ground Zero. We chatted happily as Rich drove along the west side of Manhattan before parking near Times Square. A quick look at Fifth Avenue and the Rockefeller Centre was followed by a brief introduction to Cath’s son, who has followed Rich’s example by joining the NYPD. Cath is very thankful that he has been posted to Times Square and not the Projects. He certainly looked the part in his NYPD uniform, although we must say he is rather ‘fresh faced’ to say the least.

Then it was dinner at Virgil’s BBQ! More mountains of food, this time various selections of ribs and/or roast chicken with two choices of sides from a list including french fries, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, baked potato etc. They don’t waste time with paper serviettes at Virgil’s. No way! Every diner is given a hand towel with which to wipe their hands, face and any other area which may become immersed in sauce and animal fats.

Doubtless our friends from Texas will be homicidal when they hear we ate Southern BBQ in New York City!

Texans:                ‘C’mom y’all. If ya want real Southern BBQ, mosey on down our way.’

Nu Yawkers:       ‘Come join us in the City or GET OUT OF THE WAY!’

We had a great time in NYC with Cathy and Rich! We will long remember our time together, provided, of course, we survive the homicidal urges of our Texan friends.

Imagining a Concert in the Park

The next morning, I went for a final stroll in Central Park. Starting at the south end, I wandered over the expanse of the sheep meadow, paused at the Bethesda Fountain, gazed over the  Lake, negotiated my way through ‘the Ramble‘ – where squirrels searched for food amongst the overgrown forest – passed the Belvedere Castle and found myself on ‘the Great Lawn’.

This is what I was looking for.

Some research on Wikipedia told me that it was on the Great Lawn that Simon & Garfunkel performed their concert on 19 September 1981, producing my favourite album of all time. I had my iPod with me, so I sat on a park bench and listened to the renditions of ‘Mrs Robinson‘, ‘America‘ and the ‘the Boxer‘ performed on that famous day, over 30 years ago. For me, it was a bit of a homecoming and a perfect way to end my time in New York.

I did, however, stop on my way back to the hotel to visit Strawberry Fields, a section on the western side of Central Park, adjacent to West 72nd Street, dedicated to the memory of John Lennon, who was murdered, in December 1980, only metres away in front of the Dakota Building where he lived with Yoko Ono. A throng of people had gathered around the ‘Imagine‘ mosaic in Strawberry Fields that Sunday morning, many crouching down to have their photo taken as they pointed at the single word, so full of meaning. A busker belted out the wistful tune and the people applauded him when he finished.

Satisfied with my morning walk, I hurried back to out hotel at Columbus Circle, where Huckleberry B was preparing for our journey to Iceland, and a very different view of the world.

Moonriver