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Norway 2022

Living Daylight

all seasons in one day 10 °C
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This was a trip that we had waited three years for. Booked in 2019. We eventually packed our cases in June 2022 for the taxi ride to Gatwick and a short flight to Bergen in Norway.

The cute port of Bryggen in Bergen is a World Heritage site and having been there with work some years before I can confirm that it is certainly worth a day or two if you have the time. However, we were straight out of the airport on this occasion and onto the shuttle bus that would take us to the Hurtigruten Terminal where we would be organised for boarding our ship, the MS Nordkapp.

The MS Nordkapp is one of a fleet of ships operated by Hurtigruten and their trip described as “The world’s most beautiful voyage” was our choice of holiday. The ship would take us from Bergen all the way North, inside the Arctic Circle, to the port of Kirkenes, a border town with Russia. It stops at 34 ports on the Northbound journey and the same 34 on the Southbound journey. Invariably, those that you see during your waking hours while travelling North will be the places that the ship stops at while passengers sleep on the Southbound leg and vice versa,
This voyage is undertaken by the Hurtigruten fleet on almost every day of the year. Aside from being a ship used for the benefit of a few tourists, it is also the Post Boat i.e it delivers the post up and down the Norwegian Coast; additionally, it is effectively a Cargo Vessel (delivering whatever supplies need to be moved up and down the country) and also provides a bus/ferry service for both car and foot passengers.

The MS Nordkapp carries a maximum of 400 people and for hardened cruise lovers would probably be regarded as a bit basic whereas for others, like us, it was a luxury ferry without the entertainment and formality of the large cruise ships. Having said that, the excellent crew and staff on board busy themselves in such a well-rehearsed manner that there are often many things to do during any downtime that may occur – should you need much more than the amazing scenery that is (?).
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The time of year is significant with this trip. Visiting as we were in June we found ourselves (knowingly I may add) in the middle of their two-month period of total daylight (which runs from the end of May to the end of July). From the end of November until the end of January nature balances its books and you can enjoy 24 hours of total darkness. As grim as this may sound you would of course benefit from having the greatest chance to see the Northern Lights.

It doesn’t take long on board to forget what day it is – and this is almost encouraged by constant reference to it being Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 etc rather than Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or whatever.

Our cabin was more than adequate. We had an Arctic Superior cabin on Deck 6 and this gave us easy access to the Sun Deck, viewing lounge, Explorer Bar and also the ship’s cafe (all on Deck 7). Deck 5 is the only deck that we could walk all the way around the ship (useful for photographs) while Deck 4 had the restaurants, kitchen, shop and lecture rooms.

The food is prepared on board by a group of very capable chefs and the extremely fresh ingredients are all locally sourced, often from the ports of call during the voyage. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all excellent with salmon and other fish being a predictable feature on the menu along with Reindeer!

Right, on with the trip. We departed Bergen around 20:30 by which time dinner had been taken and we were settled into our cabin. Permanent daylight can of course be misleading but the wet weather as we departed Bergen detracted from the obvious scenery as we headed towards midnight.

By the time we woke from our first night the ship had visited and departed three of the thirty-four ports. The fourth, Alesund, was reached during breakfast but we stayed for a mere 15 minutes before sailing on towards Gerainger.

As a part of our booking, we had chosen several excursions from the boat. The first of these on Day 2 happened to be the longest. We would disembark the ship at Gerainger at 14:30 and meet up with it again in Molde, approximately seven hours later.

Trips off of the boat either involve walking or a coach ride (or very occasionally a small boat). Today for us would be a coach ride with several stops. Primarily, we wanted to see the Gerainger Fjord and the surrounding viewpoints plus the Trollstigen Pass. It was a terrific day with an unexpected highlight of several metres of snow still occupying the higher land of the Pass.
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As we were late back, dinner was supplied at a restaurant during the excursion. However, with it still as light as midday the Sun Deck and the Explorer Bar would soon become a regular place to relax until common sense determined that it really was time to get some sleep.
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On Day 3 we would reach Trondheim via, in the middle of the night, a stop at Kristiansund. The ship stops for three hours in Trondheim and, although we had no excursions booked, it was an opportunity to spend some time off the boat and walk into town independently. The ship can usually supply a tear-off map of the towns so, using that, we found our way to the centre for a stroll, a coffee and a visit to the Cathedral. The walk back took us a different route back over the river and views of the colourful warehouses on the waterfront.
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Four more ports came and went during the night and before we took breakfast on Day 4. We had another excursion booked when we docked at Bodo. Again, the weather wasn’t being at all generous and, maybe as a result, the sight-seeing tour of Bodo was a bit uninspiring. However, it was the visit to Saltstraumen that was the real motivation for this excursion. The strait of Saltstraumen is the site of a convergence of several different currents which has, on occasions, seen small boats consumed by its whirlpool effect.
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The ship left Bodo mid-afternoon and headed for Stamsund and Svolvaer (the Lofoten Islands). The Lofoten Islands were a ‘must see’ for me but we would wait for this treat until the Southbpund leg of the journey. Day 4 was also the day when we crossed into the Arctic Circle. The ship’s crew don’t let you forget it and hold am entirely voluntary ceremony on Deck & to mark the event,
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Five more ports later and we arrived at Tromso (on Day 5). With a population of 75,000 people Tromso is effectively the capital of the Arctic Circle. Sightseeing in the city took in the Cablecar, the Cathedral and the Polar Museum and Aquarium. Tromso is a place that I really enjoyed and felt it was somewhere that I could live.
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That evening we witnessed the “land of the Midnight Sun” for the first time. It was the best day we had had in terms of weather and the light at midnight and beyond was magical. It coincided with our short diversion into the Trollfjorden. It was here that the Captain of the ship ‘showed off’ a bit by turning the ship 360 degrees three times at the end of the fjord (which was little wider than the ship itself) to allow passengers to take the photos they wanted.
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Day 6: Skjervay, Oksfjord, Hammerfest and Havoysund preceded our arrival at the port of Honningsvag. Honningsvag also gave us our first close-up of Reindeer as a herd ran through the town as we were disembarking the ship. Regarded as a nuisance in town the Reindeer numbers have to be controlled but, of course, that is hardly an issue with them being such a key source of food in Norway.

We took the excursion and were on our way to the North Cape. Basically, the North Cape is the last accessible point in a Northerly direction before you reach the North Pole. It is marked by an iron globe monument and has a visitor centre with a café and one or two other attractions including a tiny chapel and museum.

Whale spotting isn’t unheard of in this part of the world and while the ports of Kjollefjord, Mehamn, Berlevag, Batsfjord, Vardo and Vadso were ticked off we had our first sight, albeit distant, of a pod of Orcas. However, a flashing dorsal fin gave us hope of further sightings during the rest of the voyage.

The sight of Fish Farming was now a regular feature, Visible on a regular basis, the circular and square containers were just visible on the surface of the water, marked usually by small floats . Predominantly Salmon but occasionally Haddock these farms helped ensure that the fish we were enjoying on-board was always super-fresh.

The final destination on the Northbound half of the voyage is the town of Kirkenes. We reached Kirkenes on Day 7. A border town with Russia, 10% of the population are indeed of Russian descent and our stop of three hours allowed us the time to find our own way around the town while others took the excursion to the Border or the alternative hike to the higher points locally. We headed once again for the centre of town and the nearest coffee shop and inevitable church. At times it’s just enjoyable to walk independently and relatively aimlessly for a while and see what we find, especially as the weather had been much kinder since the first two days of the trip.

After Kirkenes, the boat turns and begins to travel South and returns to Vardo in late afternoon, having only been there at 03:30 that morning. With no time to get off and see the small fishing villages we were quickly on our way to and from Batsfjord, Berlevag, Mehamn, Kjollefjord, Honningsvag and Havoysund en route to Hammerfest once again on what was now Day 8.

Hammerfest is defined as the Northern most town in the world. On approach to Hammerfest you will see the most expensive project in Northern Norway. The construction of the large liquefied natural gas site on Melkøya island has resulted in an economic boom and new optimism in Hammerfest in recent years, a stark contrast to the economic downhill and negative population growth most other municipalities in the area are experiencing.
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Rumours were flying around among passengers about a sighting of a couple of Hump-Back Whales but I have no firm evidence to confirm the claim. However, it wasn’t long before the Ship’s Expedition Team were announcing that Minke Whales could be seen on the Starboard Right-hand side of the ship. At last, a proper sighting as the Whale rose and fell in the water, arching its back around 300 metres away from the ship.

Our stop at Hammerfest was just under two hours and then we were sailing once more; this time towards Oksfjord, Skjervoy and Tromso where we would arrive around midnight on Day 8. Having seen Tromso on the Northbound voyage we were keen to see it at the time of the midnight sun. We wouldn’t disembark but the Arctic city is quite attractive with it’s Cathedral and bridge being the focal points against a background of steep snow-capped mountains. It was another lovely evening with a few more photos capturing more memories of a great trip.
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During the voyage we attended several of the lectures given by the on-board Expedition Team. These included sessions on Whales, Seabirds, the Fishing Industry and also the Politics related to the Norwegian Oil and Gas industries. The Expedition Team also gave daily updates on the weather and forthcoming points of interest and the excursions available.

I can’t speak highly enough of those working on the ship. They were all friendly, helpful and very good at what they do.

Finnsnes and Harstad were two small villages that passed us by in both directions on the voyage. Both were very quick stops and both were at inconvenient times but even dockings such as these can be fun to witness from the deck as various things are unloaded and loaded onto the ship. On one occasion, about a dozen high-performance cars were driven on-board. Of various makes and colours and all with equal shine the cars and their owners were annual regulars on the trip. They travel for around 24 hours and then disembark to undertake whatever tour they have decided upon ‘in convoy’. Ferraris, Porsches, and Lamborghinis all made their way as we pushed off towards our next port of call.
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Day 9 and we were heading back towards the Lofoten Islands calling first at Risoyhamn, Sortland and Stokmarknes before reaching Svolvaer at 18:30 in the evening. We had decided to take the tour and were really pleased we did as the Lofoten Islands were a highlight. On a global scale they represent a tiny dot on the map but they have an excess of outstanding scenery, assisted at last by the weather which also was lovely, The fish racks were becoming a fairly regular sight as we sailed North on the voyage. You do see them before you smell them – but only just. Our transport for the tour took us to Stamsund to meet up with the ship again some 4 hours later. The evening meal had been supplied as a part of the excursion at a restaurant and again the quality of both the food and the hospitality were high.
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We had only spent two full days on-board and Day 10 was also quite a quiet day for us. However, after brief stops at Bodo, Ornes, Nesna and Sandnessjoen we would return to Bronnoysund where the ship would dock for two and a half hours. So, with tear-off map in hand, we made our way into the small but very tidy town on a lovely bright Norwegian day, By now you can probably guess the routine: Stroll, Town Centre, Church, Coffee Shop. Having said that, Bronnoysund had the addition of a lovely decked promenade so we completed a circular walk by following the prom back to the ship with the busy harbour and numerous small but nearby islands adding to the scene.
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With just ten ports including Bergen to call at we were already reflecting on what we had done and seen and how this trip had been more than worthwhile. The tenth day ended with a 9 p.m. stop at Rorvik before a nine hour sail to Trondheim, a town that we enjoyed on the Northbound voyage. We stayed in Trondheim again for three hours but between 06:30 and 09:30 it was a bit early this time around and clashed with breakfast. Furthermore, we knew we were getting off at the next port of Kristiansund and it was from here that we took our Day 11 excursion to the Atlantic Road. We would meet up with the ship again in Molde some four hours later.
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The Atlantic Road has recently become better known for its part at the end of the latest James Bond movie “No time to die”. The road joins a number of small islands over a 9 km stretch and the scenery is breath-taking although nothing unusual for the outstandingly attractive Norwegian Coastline.

Again, we had our evening meal off the ship at a nice fish restaurant before heading for Molde and a quick tour of the city before getting back on the ship.

We stopped at Alesund late on Day 11 and left in the early hours of Day 12. Alesund looks a nice town but was one that got away in terms of only ever seeing it from Deck 7 on the ship. The villages of Torvik, Maloy and Flora would get us to breakfast on the final day – Day 12. Thereafter, it’s a straight run of 6 hours at sea to our destination of Bergen.
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We docked in Bergen at 14:45 with some initially disappointing news. Our flight back to the UK at 7 o’clock that evening had been cancelled due to a Technician’s strike at the airline. Hurtigruten are generally a very impressive company and they immediately stepped up to the plate and sorted out a hotel for the night in Bergen plus new flights the following day. The disappointment of not getting home when expected soon became an opportunity for us to spend some time in Bergen. Our hotel was walking distance from the airport and Hurtigruten organised the transfer there for us. For there we got ourselves to the Bryggen in Bergen and enjoyed a few hours there which we didn’t expect to have. A small bonus.
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We eventually arrived back in the UK at 3 pm the following day on a flight from Bergen that took us first to Stockholm to pick up the flight to London. A bit of an inconvenience? Maybe, but nothing could detract from the pleasure gained from the world’s most beautiful voyage. I can recommend it, so much so that we have already spoken about taking the same trip in a few years’ time in the Winter, probably November, to enjoy the different things that the opposite season can offer. We will see.

Posted by david.byne 11:00 Archived in Norway Tagged landscapes waterfalls mountains bridges churches buildings skylines animals birds sky snow boats architecture Comments (0)

Sri Lanka - 2017

It’s definitely not like India.

semi-overcast 32 °C
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Having spent an amazing holiday in Northern India back in 2014 thoughts for future trips had touched on Kerala in Southern India but we had a curiosity for the island of Sri Lanka and when it came to making a final decision we decided that Sri Lanka would probably offer us at least some of what we would experience in Kerala while at the same time tick another country off the bucket list.
So, with August being our only option for taking almost three weeks holiday, we climbed aboard the Sri Lankan Airlines plane at Heathrow bound for Colombo. Approximately 10 ½ hours later we were met and transferred on the very short journey to Negombo where we spent the rest of the day and our first night. Colombo and Negombo are both coastal and our hotel was right on the beach with the Indian Ocean crashing the life out of itself onto the rocks and sand. With time for a walk by the sea and another along the main road, stopping at a convenient bar along the way, it was a nice introduction to the island even though there really wasn’t sufficient time to unpack or even consider the hotel pool, despite the 30 degree heat.
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After being extremely well fed at both dinner and then the following morning at breakfast we checked out and were met in the hotel lobby by Charma who was to be our driver and guide for the next 12 days.

Charma drove us to Habarana which took us several hours from the coast towards the centre of the island. On route we passed through areas farming rice, tobacco, mangos, coconuts, bananas and papayas while the landscape changed noticeably; something that would become a feature whenever we drove for two hours or more on Sri Lanka.

At Habarana, Cinammon Lodge would be our base for the next four nights. Set alongside a lake the grounds were extensive with the rooms being in separate units among trees and away from the Reception, Dining and Pool areas of the hotel. There is a nice walk alongside the lake and a cartload of Grey Monkeys are never too far away, often passing through the grounds ‘en masse’.
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Charma did his best to point out anything of interest when we were driving between places and often stopped if he sensed our interest in anything particular. We stopped at both a Buddhist and Hindu temple but merely passed through the area at Kadjugama where the farmers were selling their Cashew Nuts at the roadside.

It was difficult not to start comparing our experience of India with what we were seeing in Sri Lanka but we soon decided that the two are very different and in no way did it ever feel like we were repeating something from three years before. It is true that there are as many Tuk-Tuk’s as there are in India but most look newer and in better condition. Also, the roads are better, life generally feels more orderly and organised, the towns and cities feel tidier and the climate slightly friendlier.

Charma was taking us to Polonnaruwa and as he drove pointed out two Jackals running across the road and he then pulled over to show us a couple of large Water Monitor’s, one of which emerged from a drain cover! Polonnaruwa is Sri Lanka’s answer to Angkor Wat in Cambodia; a huge site with numerous palaces, temples and other buildings and this was to be one of our first proper sightseeing stops of the holiday. It was hot but some of the buildings are well preserved and worth seeing despite the ongoing requirement to keep removing shoes before entering each temple.
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You generally see and hear three languages written and spoken in Sri Lanka; Sinhala, Tamil and English. 70% of the population are Buddhist, 12% Hindu. 12% Christian and 6% Muslim and this is reflected in what you see as you drive around this country of varying landscapes. Sri Lanka has been described as a ‘flat country with hills’ and I understand why but there is still so much variety in both the hills and the valleys if you travel just for a few hours by car.

A key attraction for us in Sri Lanka was the opportunity to see Elephants in their natural habitat so we planned to visit two wildlife parks while we were there and the first was at Kaudulla. The Jeep picked us up from Cinammon Lodge at 1 o’clock in the afternoon and after about 45 minutes’ drive we entered the park. It was another half an hour or more before we arrived at the water hole which we reached by crossing a riverbed. We had seen several birds plus a number of water buffalo, monkeys, a chameleon and a crocodile before we had sight of our first elephant but once across the riverbed we soon reached the main herd grazing in the open land near the water hole. There were probably twenty or thirty in the group and then several more appeared from out of the jungle, close to our jeep. A fight broke out between two of the elephants in the first group with one or two more supporting the aggressor in seeing-off the offending elephant, leaving it isolated from the herd. The elephants nearest our jeep were simply munching their way through the grass towards the others at the water hole but without really ever getting there. One or two jeeps got a little too close to one of the infant elephants and this brought a reaction with the adult elephants closing ranks around the infant and one or two of the remaining adults making their presence and anger known audibly as they walked toward the vehicles. The drivers reversed ……… quickly!
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It had been a great experience getting up close (but not too close) to these huge animals but we didn’t outstay our welcome and turned to make our way out of the park. But first we had to cross that riverbed. We were one of the first to leave to exit the park …… but not the first. And by the time we reached the point at which to cross the riverbed there were already two other jeeps well and truly STUCK! Continually trying to reverse and move forward made their plight obviously worse and before long more than half the wheels on their jeeps were invisible and buried in the soft mud. Our driver was confident however. After all, we had a 4-wheel drive jeep and those already stuck didn’t so we would just fly across and be back to the hotel before we knew it. Wrong! Despite the determination ours suffered the same fate and before long there were 5 or 6, maybe 7 jeeps dormant at different points, all seeking to conjure up a way of escaping before sunset. Fortune was eventually forthcoming when after a few failed attempts by others, another jeep arrived with a motorised cable winch onboard and gradually the vehicles were all recovered with the exception of the very first victim which stayed buried until the following morning.
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The food and service at Cinammon Lodge was excellent and breakfast the following day set us up for the challenge of Sigiriya, the Lion Rock - once made famous by Duran Duran (remember them?). It’s 1,200 steps to the top although there is a halfway point where you can have a second thought if you wish. Having said that, when you get halfway the remaining climb doesn’t look so bad and the curiosity of what the views are like at the top can prove too much – and it did. It was worth it. You can see for miles and miles, a flat country with hills!
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Adjacent to Cinammon Lodge is the entrance to trails that lead to villages and a large lake and what is being sold as a ‘village safari’ so we didn’t have far to travel from our hotel when Charma took us to spend around three hours sampling village and jungle life. We began with a tuk-tuk ride that went off-road and delivered us to a Bullock and Cart ride that carried us uncomfortably further into the jungle to a river. There we got into a canoe that merely took us to the other side of the river. From here we walked to the village and sampled freshly made Coconut Roti before moving on to another boat trip, this time onto a large lake full of water lilies and from where you could see Sigiriya in the distance. From the boat we walked further to another village and had lunch of Lentil Curry, Banana Flower Curry and Water before ending the visit back where we began, just around the corner from Cinammon Lodge.

It had been a busy few days so far in Habarana and we still had the Dambulla Cave and Golden Temple to see and this turned out to be another highlight of our holiday in Sri Lanka. Without knowing much about Dambulla before we left the UK we had been assured that it was well worth the steps that you have to climb to see it. The Golden Temple is at the bottom and you can see this from the roadside but the steps to the cave are accessed via a car park. We had seen some rain during the morning and it was threatening more as we started to climb. The weather was consistently warm but with the change in terrain there was often a hint of possible showers during the day and of course when it does decide to rain in these parts of the world, it really rains! Maybe not for long but it certainly lets you know it.
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Grey Monkeys lined the wall of the steps as we made our way up to the cave. At the top it was fairly busy with Sri Lankan people queuing to make offerings to the priest. Others lit the Coconut Oil candles while some made their way to each of the accessible cave areas. It was still raining which made the removal of shoes at the entrance to the area suddenly more uncomfortable than usual. Regardless, we made our way to the series of caves. Each one was created in a different age but all depicted Buddha in a number of poses. The first cave was by far the oldest and the best. It was also the one that Sri Lankan people focussed primarily on to worship and pray.

Dambulla was clearly an important religious site for Sri Lankan Buddhists and our visit signalled the end of our stay in Habarana apart from an evening meal, a good night sleep and a breakfast. The following morning we travelled to Kandy where the weather is slightly cooler.

Kandy is a nice city in a picturesque valley which has at its focal point a large lake around which everything revolves. Our hotel was the Earls Regency, just outside Kandy but still within view of the lake. The Sri Lankan Cricket Team were staying at the same hotel and training there ahead of two One Day Internationals against India. Our prime objective when visiting Kandy was to see a bit of the city and the lake but also to visit the Temple of the Tooth. However, before that we attended a cultural show in the early evening, close to the temple.

As with similar shows all around the world the core of the event is singing and dancing and local musical instruments. Here in Kandy we also had ‘fire walking’ added to the programme. We had front row seats and on a day that had been warmed enough already by the sun the addition of petrol to the burning embers on the path of fire almost took your breath away. From the theatre we took the short walk to the Temple of the Tooth. It looked especially dramatic at night, lit up by both spotlights and also rows of Coconut Oil candles.

Shoes off again we ventured inside to where the ceremony was just beginning. People kept arriving and soon we were in the midst of quite a crowd albeit well placed near the front. Much drumming ensued and the participants including orange-clad Buddhist monks made their approach up a few steps to the large solid silver doors that confined the ornate box containing Buddha’s tooth. There is quite a story surrounding the tooth and a nationally famous elephant called Rajah for those that want to research it.
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Once the various participants are inside and the doors are closed the focus switches to upstairs where all attendees file past a viewing point from where to view the tooth, making offerings as they so wish to the officials lined nearby to receive them. Filing past involved quite a bit of jostling for position and basically standing ones ground as everybody fought for a better view in the brief moment that you get as you are carried along on a constantly moving human tide.

Eventually we were out the other end to retrieve our shoes and take a slow walk through the exterior of the temple and back to the car. Our evenings in Sri Lanka were all ‘free time’ and the hotels were all very comfortable and relaxing environments to spend time in with a drink before resting for the following day. The Earls Regency Hotel was one of my favourites during the trip.

The next morning, after breakfast, we had a late start and then went back to the city to visit the Peredeniya Botanical Gardens. Not necessarily at the top of my own ‘must see’ lists I must say that these gardens were as good as I have ever seen anywhere. It will also be remembered for one of the most unexpected moments during the holiday. The weather was a bit unpredictable and it started to rain while we were in the Orchid House. After standing and trying to decide on the driest route through the gardens we agreed on a pathway and started walking. A few minutes later an English voice called out “Will you stop running away from us!”. We turned around and it was a couple (John and Megan) who we had spent time with on a holiday in China 12 months previously. It really can be a small world.
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After spending an hour catching up with past acquaintances we met up again with Charma who declared that the rest of the day was ours and we could enjoy the pool at the hotel or basically do whatever we wanted. So, back at the hotel the Sri Lankan Cricket Team were in mid-training session in the pool so a book and a beer became the order of the day for a couple of hours while the Parakeets flew shuttle runs between the palm trees around the grounds of the hotel.

Nuwara Eliya and the Tea Plantations were our next destination. The town is the highest on the island and again, probably more predictably this time, the landscape and climate changed as we drove the two or three hours from Kandy. Gradually you climb higher and higher until you can literally be in the clouds. The area is dominated by tea with numerous plantations including substantial ones owned by the likes of Rothschild although the majority are now Sri Lankan owned. On the way we passed through various Hill Villages, saw many waterfalls including Ramboda Falls and stopped at one of the Tea Factories. It’s an interesting process and reminded us of the low quality ‘dust’ that we rely on in tea bags at home. Back outside and on the hills the female tea pluckers are busy at work accumulating the 10kgs of leaves that they need in their sack each day to satisfy their employers. Often from the North of the country the women have accommodation as part of their remuneration which obviously lasts for as long as they stay in work.
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Our hotel in Nuwara Eliya was the Heritance Tea Factory; literally a converted Tea Factory which still had some of the original features and working machinery. Set high in the hills, the views from the hotel are impressive and acted as the backdrop to a spectacular electric storm on our second night there. It still operates a small tea processing factory in a separate building and produces the tea served in the hotel from the leaves plucked from its own fields. Occasionally during the day we would hear a tune moving through the area. It turned out to be a larger version of a tuc-tuc selling breads and rolls from the local bakery.

Being slightly isolated at the Tea Factory, you really have to drive into the town for any activity and this is what we did. Charma drove us and we spent an hour or so just looking around the shops and the market. In addition to tea a huge quantity of vegetables is grown in this area and that was evident. Some of the buildings have more than a hint of British Colonialism about them, especially the Post Office and two large hotels at the back of the town. And judging by the amount of construction work underway Nuwara Eliya gives the impression of being a currently prosperous and upwardly mobile part of Sri Lanka.

We also spent an hour at Gregory Lake, a popular spot with locals who queue up for rides on a jetski. There was also a fair in place when we were there so it was generally quite busy despite the low cloud that suddenly engulfed the area and marked the end of our walk and time there. So, back to the hotel we went.

Following the storm the previous night the sky was much clearer and brighter when we woke up next morning - a relief as we had a long drive to Yala with an important stop along the way. We aimed to be at the Elephant Transit Centre at Udawalawe by midday to see the elephants being fed. This meant that Charma had to put his foot down a little while also allowing for the occasional photo stop. Through changing terrain and scenery we descended from the mountains toward what are the dry plains of the south. In some areas the hills, mountains and forests were reminiscent of Germany before the landscape changed again to a dry, sandy colour that made you think more of parts of Africa.

The transit centre was supported by the Born Free Foundation which kind of validated it in our minds. We arrived with about ten minutes to spare; well done Charma!! A purpose made platform was already well-filled with spectators (almost all Sri Lankan people) but we found a position from where we could see the elephants and take our photos. The elephants were allowed in to the feeding area in threes or fours. The first to be fed was an adult elephant that had featured on a BBC documentary just months before our visit. He had injured his foot and eventually had to have it amputated but had been given an artificial one that enabled him to walk around. Because of his condition he would never, unlike the others at the transit home, be eventually released back to the wild and he would spend the majority of his time in relative isolation away from the group simply for his own protection.
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SriLanka20171447-2


More and more were slowly moved through the feeding area. One over-enthusiastic baby elephant threw himself over the feeding gate in his frenzy to get at the milk being issued through a hose into their mouths. Lying in a heap on the wrong side of the feeding shed the greedy little ‘elly’ picked himself up and was ushered towards the water hole where those that had been suitably topped-up went next to wallow in the water and mud. It was a highly entertaining hour and by the end there must have been around 40 elephants in the area.

Moving on, we still had a little way to go before arriving at Cinammon Wild, our next hotel inside the Yala Wildlife Park. The rooms are small chalets scattered around an area in the park a little way from the main reception, dining and pool areas. You really are in the animals’ backyard at Cinammon Wild and one of the first things you see is the warning about crocodiles living in the vicinity. When checking-in you are also told that after dark you must not walk between the main hotel building and your room without an escort from the hotel. All of this focuses the mind on the dangers from not just the crocodiles but also the wild boar, the elephants, the monkeys and the water buffalo.
SriLanka20171535

SriLanka20171535


We were at Yala for two nights and had booked a half-day safari during our stay. The pool area looked out onto a large water hole which contained a few dead-looking trees and some large boulders (a feature of Sri Lanka it seemed). The water levels weren’t especially high and this created a currently arid water-bed around what was the water hole, allowing the brave or foolhardy that chose to ignore the crocodile warning the opportunity to get a bit closer to whatever was residing in and around the water. We saw Grey Monkeys, Chipmunks, Water Buffalo, Wild Boar, Crocodiles, Pelicans, and more, all without leaving the hotel. On one occasion the monkeys temporarily took over the pool area, scavenging whatever they could from the visitors.

We survived the night without incident or intrusion from the wildlife and had the morning free again to explore the nearby water hole. Four crocodiles basking on an island in the water hole, several water buffalo nearby and numerous birds either flying around or lazing on the water. All of this plus a chapter or two of a book by the pool took us through to lunch, then, it was time for the safari.

We at least didn’t have to travel far. Our Jeep picked us up from the hotel and we drove for 40 minutes or so and turned onto a long straight road, across a bridge over water, past an elephant posing for visitors and into the rough, uneven roads that mark the start of the wildlife park. Again, we chose the later safari rather than the sunrise option. This was on the advice that the majority of the animals stay well-hidden until the day warms up. Certainly we couldn’t complain about the numbers we had so far seen.
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SriLanka20171559


We had around three hours in the park and left as the sun was setting and the shadows were long. More crocodiles, mongoose, monkeys, buffalo, deer, lots of elephants and many different birds including both Blue and Green Bee Eaters and the Asian Paradise Fly Catcher. Our driver received a message about a leopard at a water hole and sped along the dusty track to get there but alas we were five minutes too late. We stayed for around 20 minutes at the hole to see if the big cat would return but of course he didn’t. However, it had been a really good day.
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SriLanka20171652


We had one more area to visit on our trip around Sri Lanka; namely Galle. Different again, Galle is on the coast and a key area for fishing. It was hot, around 37 degrees with 70% humidity. Our hotel, The Fortress, was possibly my favourite during our trip to Sri Lanka. Located in Koggala, just outside Galle, we arrived early afternoon and checked in to one of just 53 rooms in what is a huge building in a lovely location. In some ways, the trip had gone full circle with the Indian Ocean once again, as it did in Negombo, crashing against the rocks and sand to the rear of the hotel. We had some free time and made the most of the facilities with the pool and sunbeds complemented by being able to watch the turtles swimming and feeding close to shore on the seaweed between the rocks. The weather was changeable but it made for nice sunsets against which the silhouette of a single stilt fisherman stood out in the near distance.
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SriLanka20171796


After breakfast the following day Charma drove us to Galle where we did some sightseeing around Galle Fort and the adjacent lanes. We visited the Dutch Church, walked the ramparts and stopped on a couple of occasions for a drink over the space of a couple of hours. Back at The Fortress Hotel we enjoyed yet another great meal and sat watching the Indian Ocean again while the largest Bat (a Fruit Bat) either of us had ever seen flew over our heads. It marked the beginning of the end to our Sri Lankan holiday.
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SriLanka20171866


Charma had been great for us during our stay and while in the area stopped at another temple, a Sri Lankan boatyard, Weligama Bay to see the stilt fisherman and an area that had suffered during the 2004 tsunami where we saw a memorial to those that had died as a result. He had also had a tough time personally during our 12 days together with his 3-year old son first breaking his arm falling from his bike and requiring an operation and then being diagnosed with Dengue Fever. He was worried for several days and took a couple of bus rides back to Colombo during the evenings from wherever we were to be with his family but he was always back promptly the following morning to help us enjoy our day. He also had to quickly break to avoid a pedestrian suddenly walking in front of the car as we headed south towards the end of our stay. Two policeman on motorbikes happened to be nearby and had they not seen that he was totally not to blame for the incident he could have suffered an automatic 14 days in prison, regardless of nobody being hurt in any way. He was quite shaken up and equally relieved at the outcome. Charma was a big part of what had been a really top holiday on the island of Sri Lanka.
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SriLanka20171758


Charma’s final task was to drive us the following morning along the new and very impressive Southern Expressway to Colombo Airport from where we were due to catch a flight to Male and The Maldives for a few days. The Expressway left a good impression of the country as had the previous 11 or 12 days. And it definitely isn’t India.

Posted by david.byne 12:23 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged landscapes waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes beaches churches buildings trees animals birds sky boats architecture city Comments (0)

Black Sand and Green Lights (Iceland)

7 days in Iceland

all seasons in one day 0 °C

Fly North for three hours from London and you arrive in Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland. In a country of just over 300,000 people, around 125,000 Icelanders live in the city.

We landed late afternoon at what felt like an empty Keflavik Airport. Quickly through Passport Control and then Baggage Reclaim we were soon on the bus that would transfer us to the Reykjavik Centrum Hotel in the middle of Reykjavik.
Snow had fallen during the previous week but the relative warmth of April had cleared the majority of it by the time we arrived. However, it was still cold, especially so as a result of the almost constant breeze that whipped around the country from various directions. It was Easter Saturday and for the rest of the day plus Easter Sunday the time was our own. Everything we planned to do during our stay had been arranged prior to arrival and this certainly took a lot of the hassle away and also saved us time.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (2)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (2)

A quick look around the centre, close to the hotel, plus something to eat and drink in the hotel bar effectively took care of what remained of Saturday although we were booked for the Northern Lights Tour that first night but due to weather conditions this had been cancelled so was re-booked for the following night. Then on Sunday there was plenty of time to explore further and find out what the city had to offer. A mental note was taken of any bars and restaurants that could be useful during the week.

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Iceland_0415_LowRes (30)

For a small city (medium sized town maybe) the locals do like a bit of public art;…..urban art;…. graffiti;…… call it what you like. There is a lot about and like anywhere else, some of it is good and some it is quite simply untidy and far removed from art. Personally, I quite like a lot of it.
The reviews that we had read beforehand stressed how well located the hotel was and this soon became apparent. It took very little effort or time to reach The Old Harbour, The Harpa Concert Hall, The Cathedral or the shops, bars and restaurants. We also quickly realised how expensive Iceland is. It wasn’t exactly a surprise but it’s only when you start paying the bills for teas, coffees, lunches, dinners and alcohol that it really hits home.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (6)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (6)

The weather in Iceland is definitely challenging, even in the relatively calm season that, for us in the UK, is Spring. The often strong winds around the North Atlantic mean that the weather can change quite frequently and quite dramatically. Without exaggeration we could be in bland dry greyness one minute and then twenty minutes later it could be clear blue skies and sunshine followed twenty minutes after that by a snow storm and then the same period later we would be battling with hail and/or rain. The locals claimed that it had been the toughest Winter in 20 years. It had started snowing on and off from the November and was still snowing on and off while we were there in April. And when it snows it really snows!

So, back to the hotel after a day strolling around Reykjavik and generally getting our bearings, it was time to take advantage of the happy hour (two hours actually) which on a 2 for 1 basis at least brought the price of drinks back to something like UK prices. And to be honest, the bar at the hotel was such a nice environment to spend time in that it was something that we made a point of doing on every day except one while we were there.
For dinner that night we ventured out (having eaten at the hotel on our first night) but we didn’t have to go far as Restaurant Uno looked good and was probably only 200 yards away from the hotel. The food was always good, wherever we ate, and fish (Including Whale!), lamb, chicken and even Puffin were easy to find on a menu. Back at the hotel we discovered that the Northern Lights Tour had again been cancelled so was re-booked (again) for the following night, the Monday.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (35)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (35)

Our first proper day out seeing what there was to see was on the Monday when we were touring the Golden Circle. It’s a 7 to 8 hour tour and takes in Pingvellir National Park, Gulfoss, Geyser and a Geo-Thermal Power Plant. The weather played its part, as expected. At Pingvellir, the site of the first ever Parliament – The Althing – you can also see the tectonic plates and the North Atlantic Ridge. It’s a great area for scenery with waterfalls and a river running through the valley, surrounded by snowy mountains.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (44)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (44)

The weather changed by the time we reached Gulfoss but cleared again before we left the area. Gulfoss is Iceland’s largest waterfall and has at its peak more water rushing over it than Niagara Falls. Much of it was frozen when we saw it which made the landscape and resulting photographs a little bit different to anything we had seen before. By the time we had had lunch at the site the weather had changed yet again and we had transitioned from driving hail to relatively clear and back to driving hail.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (52)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (52)

Onward to Geysir, the only Icelandic word that has made its name in an international sense. Geysir is the name of the town where there are a predominance of Hot Springs that have, in turn, become known and referred to as ‘Geysers’. There were outlets everywhere with funnels of steam plus the strong smell of sulphur drifting into the air all across the landscape. They spout quite irregularly although Geysir has its own fairly reliable Hot Spring that manages to satisfy the tourists at reasonably consistent intervals of 4 to 5 minutes. But remember, what goes up also comes down, and the water is hot! Photographically the eruption is fairly easy to capture as there is a noticeable build-up of pressure before the water rises slowly before being fired into the air and then ultimately soaking those below that haven’t bothered checking the wind direction before taking up their place around the edge of the Hot Spring.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (65)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (65)

From Geysir we continued around the circle to the Hellisheidi Geo-Thermal Power Plant where we stopped briefly for a video presentation and a quick look around the plant. 95% of the heating in Iceland is now provided free to the people and geo-thermal activity also contributes to subsidised electricity for the country.

It had been a long day by the time we were back in Reykjavik but a really good one and we were in the hotel to take advantage of Happy Hour! In a way it was also good news that after the day we had just had the Northern Lights Tour had again been cancelled. You know the routine by now; rebooked for Tuesday night!

Iceland_0415_LowRes (245)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (245)

The following day was a free day for us so we had a chance to plan what we wanted to do. This included visits to the Old Harbour, the Viking Museum (why you might ask!!), the Whales Iceland Exhibition, shopping and lunch in the centre of town plus a proper look at both the Cathedral and the Harpa Concert Hall. And it was cold with a mixture of that bland dry greyness, clear blue skies and sunshine and a snow storm that I referred to previously. The timing of the snow storm coincided with us being at the midpoint of walking from the hotel to our furthest destination, the Viking Museum, just past the Old Harbour. We got battered for a while and were grateful to be able to seek refuge at the first available opportunity which happened to be the Viking Museum. Around half an hour spent in the museum was followed by a short but cold walk (it was clear and sunny by now by the way!) to the Whales Iceland Exhibition which was worth a visit (although quite pricey!). From there we walked back through the Old Harbour past all the Whale Watching Boat companies and then back towards the centre for lunch. The afternoon was spent down by the Harpa Centre where we took advantage of the clearer skies for photos of the mountains across the bay and then back among the shops and cafes before heading back to the hotel. The Northern Lights Tour had already again been cancelled so maybe tomorrow (Wednesday) night??
Wednesday was a big, long day.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (85)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (85)

We had booked a day (approx. ten hours) in a Superjeep. This would take us further afield and to places not easily (if at all) accessible by ‘normal’ road transport. Sitting high off the ground with huge wheels and large clearances we were plunged down into and across rivers, over lava beds, up snowy hills, through breaking waves on the beaches and occasionally on normal roads. The seat belts would occasionally tighten fiercely as you were thrown left, right, backwards, forwards and upwards as your body reacted to the stresses being placed on the Jeep. Our first stop was the site of the lava flow from E15, the volcano that erupted violently in 2010 and disrupted so much air traffic (including almost diverting us to Paris as we returned from Cuba into London Heathrow). The lava flow melted a huge glacier and initially flooded the valley that we had just driven through before coming to rest as high up the freshly snowed mountain as we could reach. The mountain had also suffered fresh cracking in the 2010 eruption and these were clearly visible. And despite the stillness of the landscape, the constantly changing light and cloud cover altered the view sufficiently enough to overwork the camera before we made our way back through the snow in the jeep. Bouncing through the rivers provided a free car wash (including the roof!) on several occasions as we not so slowly worked our way back to genuine tarmac.

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Iceland_0415_LowRes (98)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (109)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (109)

It was a day of contrasts and from the stark whiteness of fresh snow we moved on to the somehow clean and pure blackness of the sand on Iceland’s beaches. The Superjeep was in its element, throwing itself into and over the dunes, flirting with the waves as they crashed onto the sand and creating patterns with its oversized but absolutely invaluable tyres. In slightly surreal fashion we drove past the unexpected sight of the wreck of an old United States aircraft that was slowly deteriorating on the highest part of the beach. But the real interest lay in the remains of a Whale, beached and at one time buried under the sands but since uncovered during the recent Winter by the storms that had hit the country.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (169)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (169)

Our next stop was at a series of waterfalls in the valley, the first of which was only properly visible through a small opening in the rock, creating an open-topped cavern that, with a bit of care, you could access via stepping stones in the stream leading from the fall. This took you right up to the waterfall where getting wet was an inevitability but it was still worth a look. From here you could walk alongside the side of the rock past several other falls to the next big one and there follow a path behind the fall and out the other side.

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Iceland_0415_LowRes (127)

Back on the road and the weather changed again. From blue skies at the falls we were suddenly back in the grips of another blizzard and by the time we stopped again there was a fresh dusting of snow covering the surrounding countryside. We pulled in alongside a shallow river that was being fed by another fall about 350 metres from where we had parked. There were routes to walk up to the top or alternatively you could get as close to the bottom of the fall as possible; and this was the option we took. Initially, with the snow falling and visibility being less than ideal, I settled for a few quick photographs before we ventured inside the café for a drink in the hope that the weather would again change as quickly as it just had. Fifteen minutes later and sure enough we had blue skies again. What a difference that made to what we were now able to see. The photos taken previously would have been good enough as memories but now, with the contrast of the blue skies, the fresh snow, the clear water from the fall, the sunshine and now also a rainbow the scenery was even more impressive. We took our time walking to the waterfall and then back again before climbing back into the jeep to begin our journey back to Reykjavik. It had been a really good day.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (192)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (192)

On the road back our driver was in contact with his boss who confirmed that he would be running the Northern Lights tour that evening and so, although we were booked with a different company, it appeared that we could be in for a very late night. On arrival back at the Centrum Hotel, confirmation that our Northern Lights tour was indeed ON could be found on the main desk in reception. So, for the one and only time we missed out on Happy Hour and headed out for something to eat. The closest restaurant was The Fish Market, literally a few yards walk, and it was somewhere we thought we might try one evening although looked like it would be slightly more expensive than the average, And it was!! Lovely place, nice menu and great food but we did pay for it.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (31)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (31)

The Northern Lights tours start with a pickup at the hotel at 9 o’clock and then the object is to head out of the city and ‘hunt’ for the lights. It has to be clear (no clouds) and very dark and there also has to be the required level of activity. It was certainly clear, albeit a little patchy, darkness (even at 9 pm) wasn’t quite what it needed to be yet and as for activity, that would also hopefully come later. We drove for over an hour towards The Althing (the site of the first Parliament and the North Atlantic Ridge) that we had visited two days previously. We were one of several coaches arriving at this particular venue but it had the real advantage of the café/restaurant staying open for the time we were there and this at least gave us somewhere to occasionally warm up in-between standing in almost pitch-black on the snow trying to spot the slightest movement or hint of Green, Red or Purple in the night sky. The clock ticked by as we all diligently stared skywards in complete silence (almost as if too much noise may frighten the lights away!). 11 o’clock arrived – nothing; Midnight arrived – still nothing. Time to get inside for a while and warm up a bit; it was around two degrees below freezing and just standing around doing nothing was taking its toll on everybody. We certainly weren’t in the minority when we got into the room and there was no sitting room and to be honest little standing room but at least it was warm. Then, a knock on the window resulted in everybody stirring into action with a rush for the doors similar to that when the New Year sales open on Oxford Street! So, out we went again and found somewhere reasonable to stand where a view in a northerly direction would be largely unobstructed by others. The faintest hint of Green light was visible over the top of the facing mountain and this moved and altered slightly before disappearing. And that was pretty much it. Half an hour later the coaches were starting their engines and on the snow covered road back towards Reykjavik. We had all received the “can’t control nature’ and ‘no guarantees’ speech on the way out from the city and the fact that this was at the back end of the season for seeing the Northern Lights meant that nobody was too surprised at the weak display of lights on this particular occasion. But we were soon to receive an unexpected bonus. No more than twenty minutes into our drive back to the city and the coach was pulling over alongside two or three others in a parking area on the top of a hill. The driver had noticed some activity and before allowing everybody off the coach had stopped to check if it was something worth stopping for. And it was. Suddenly, a rush of passengers squeezed towards the coach door and we made our way out into the cold air again and took up a position from where we could say a strong line of Green colouring the outline edge of the mountain in front of us. This was a much stronger light than the one previously and it then changed, displaying upward streams of light from the arc of green created by the shadow outline of the mountain. It fluttered and faded for a while before totally disappearing but generally we all felt a lot better about justifiably claiming to have now seen the Northern Lights. It certainly wasn’t the most spectacular display you would ever see but at least we saw something.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (218)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (218)

It was 2 o’clock by the time we reached our hotel but we had nothing planned for the following morning (Thursday) so we could at least get what had been a very long day out of our system before starting again tomorrow.

To hell with the expense, we had breakfast at the hotel next morning. It was a slow start to the day following the ‘big day’ yesterday. We had the morning free until 11 o’clock when we were heading off to the Blue Lagoon for a few hours so we spent a bit more time around the centre. It was snowing (again)!

Iceland_0415_LowRes (237)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (237)

Swimming gear organised, we made our way to the bus that would take us to the Blue Lagoon. The lagoon was a natural hot spa on a lava field and had become a very popular destination for both locals and tourists. It was close to the airport and Keflavik and took about an hour to reach it - you could see the steam from the facility in the distance as we approached. The smell of sulphur was again strong as we walked to the entrance and showed our tickets at the reception area. We hired robes and towels and found our way towards the changing areas where the benefits of a very clever and secure locker system made life easier when you want to take a few photos and then put your camera away for a while. It’s a natural lagoon so don’t anticipate it being kind to your feet. The bottom is invisible as the water is a milky blue colour and it’s also very uneven; smooth in some areas, sharp in others and consistently undulating. But it’s a lot warmer in the water than it is out and the water temperature varies as you move around as some areas are much hotter than others. As with most things in Iceland, it’s an expensive experience but fairly unique and not something you have the chance to do every day. We used the café while we were there (more money!!) and suddenly it started snowing again, this time heavily. Visibility diminished dramatically and all but a few remained in the water. Jan decided she wanted to be one of them, which was fine. Then, showered and changed we paid our bill (Ouch!) and walked through the snow back to the bus that would be leaving for Reykjavik at 3 o’clock.
Back in the city around 4 o’clock we wandered from the bus station to the hotel via the Café Paris which we had found and liked a few days before, getting back in time for Happy Hour. Later we decided to return to Restaurant Uno for our evening meal and made plans for the following morning which we again had free to do as we wanted.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (230)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (230)

Plans for our last full day, such as they were, included shopping and a visit to the Cathedral to go up the tower for views and photos over the city.
We woke to a lovely day; still some snow around but the sky was clear and the sun was shining; perfect for the tower so that would now have to be our priority – just in case the weather changed! Everything in Reykjavik was easily walkable and once you’d got your bearings it took very little time to get anywhere so we aimed for the Cathedral as soon as we were up and ready. We timed it well as a queue seemed to build just after we bought our tickets and waited to go up in the elevator. At the top you have to climb a few steps to get to the highest point but the views from there are great. Iceland, in general, is a fairly Black and White country with the dark lava fighting with the ice and snow for dominance. To add colour, the Icelanders make their homes and other buildings as colourful as possible and, from the top of the Cathedral Tower, the view looks like a model village made from Lego bricks with all the various coloured roofs taking centre stage. In the distance the bay and harbour and behind that the mountains looked in immaculate condition on what for us was the clearest day we had seen in the capital city.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (254)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (254)

Back down the hill from the Cathedral we shopped for one or two items and generally took our time before a coffee break at The Laundromat Café, close to the hotel. Time was pushing on and we had a pickup at 1 o’clock from the hotel to get us down to the Old Harbour to get the boat and go out Whale Watching. It was a three hour excursion around the bay and would be the last real event of our trip to Iceland. It was cold but still clear and after getting our tickets and boarding the boat we were all offered thick overalls as protection against the wind. We accepted!! We sat outside on the middle deck and one of the crew sat on the top deck looking for whatever he could see and then pointing it out to us. Unfortunately, on the day there was very little activity in the water around Reykjavik other than a small pod of Porpoises which from our side of the boat we didn’t really see in any case. Being April, we were at the very end of the Northern Lights season and the very beginning of the Whale Watching season so we came with low expectations of seeing either. I suppose one out of two isn’t bad. So, out of the overalls and back on Terra Firma we walked around the Old Harbour and headed back towards the centre where we had promised ourselves one of the local Hot Dogs available from the kiosk in the Main Square. It was just after 4:30 so was closing in on that time again ……….. Happy Hour! A couple of hours and drinks in the hotel bar and we got ready and ventured out to Bistro Geysir for our final meal in Iceland.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (277)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (277)

The morning call for transfer to the airport was an early one – 0300, so a late night was off the agenda. A bleary eyed ride to Keflavik Airport came around all too quickly but it had been a good week. It had snowed again through the night and Iceland was White once again. Our flight was the first one out that morning and we arrived back in the UK before 11 o’clock (Local Time) with lighter wallets but a few photos and memories to make up for it.

Iceland_0415_LowRes (250)

Iceland_0415_LowRes (250)

Posted by david.byne 09:51 Archived in Iceland Tagged landscapes waterfalls mountains lakes beaches churches art buildings sky snow night planes boats Comments (0)

Che, Cigars & Salsa

Caribbean Culture

all seasons in one day -28 °C
View Cuba 2010 on david.byne's travel map.

It’s a 9 hour flight from London to Havana and we landed at 4:30 in the afternoon at Jose Marti International Airport. Entry into Cuba was interesting and had similarities with Passport Control at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport many years ago. But after much examination of the passport, the door into Havana was opened and then quickly slammed shut as each individual passed through, leaving whomever you were travelling with to take their turn out of both sight and earshot. Eventually, the door opens again, thankfully to admit the face you were expecting rather than a stranger which, in such an unfortunate event, would beg the question, “Where the hell…..?”

Luggage Reclaim was more of a challenge than at many other places. Firstly, identifying the correct carousel for your flight was more intuitive. Secondly, a baggage handler was busily removing bags and creating a random pile alongside. And, if you took your eye away from the bags as they entered the scene on one of two separate carousels, yours could easily be ‘selected’ for removal onto the airport floor. Anyway, we got lucky and were soon off to find the Travel Rep and then the air conditioned coach as the temperature quickly felt Caribbean.

The journey from the airport to our hotel took 30 minutes. The Parque Central Hotel in the middle of Havana was to be our home for the first five nights before travelling four hours further down the island to the coastal city of Trinidad – a world heritage site - for the second half of the holiday.

There was little left of the day on the Sunday but we walked as far as the Capitolio and then back to stroll down the Boulevard Prado to El Malecon. And despite more ambitious ideas earlier, our evening meal turned out to be little more than a pizza on the roof of the hotel!

Most of what we wanted to do we knew in advance. Tuesday became fully booked with Vinales Valley taking up the day and the Buena Vista Social Club providing the entertainment in the evening. We decided that Tropicana would be a good place to eat and spend our last evening in Havana, on the Thursday.

With all of the planning and organising taken care of we headed off in a taxi to Revolution Square to see a huge memorial to that man Jose Marti as well as the distinct outlines of both Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on the buildings at the far side of the Plaza. Plaza de la Revolucion is basically a huge square where thousands of people can gather for whatever reason Cuba sees fit and it exposed us for the first time to the heat of the day. Having seen all there was to see in Revolution Square we slumped into one of Cuba’s novelty Coco-Taxi’s to get ourselves back to the Capitolio, the focal point building in central Havana. Looking very much like Cuba’s own version of the White House the Capitolio provided us with a backdrop to our first real sight of the classic old American cars whose lives have somehow been extended by a combination of the favourable climate and the resourcefulness of Cuban mechanics. A walk around the perimeter of the Capitolio uncovered what looked like an old train scrap yard. There was also one of Havana’s premier cigar factory’s (El Partegas), a fairly major bus stop, and the edge of downtown Havana and its Chinatown district.

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Cuba_SF__20100405_007

And it was here, close to the entrance to Chinatown, that we stopped for a drink ….. and also where we met Fernando. The bar was very ‘local’ and a drink was all we wanted but our waiter who spoke excellent English engaged us in conversation for the next half an hour and concluded with an offer of dinner with him (Fernando) and his wife that evening. Having researched Cuba I knew of the likelihood of this kind of offer as Cubans, some legally and some illegally (i.e. licensed and unlicensed), trade their hospitality for extra cash to try and bridge the economic gap between the real cost of an average living and the combination of state rations and a low personal income. So, we agreed that at 7 o’clock that evening we would get a taxi the short distance to Fernando’s home.

But before that, we headed for the streets and sights of Old Havana to see the old squares - Plazas Vieja, San Francisco and de las Armas. We set off on foot through the city in the direction of the port, passing La Floridita (one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bars). A glimpse inside the door showed it was far too busy – “we’ll come back” we thought.

The streets of Havana, with a few exceptions, are very rundown and in much need of repair and renovation. This process is happening but slowly. In its own modest way it’s a busy, bustling city but, with the equivalent of the population of London spread out over an island almost equal in size to the UK, the volumes of both people and traffic make life comfortable almost all of the time. Money is scarce and, with government controls being the way they are, Cuba has by default become a comparatively eco-friendly country with horses and bicycles used for private and public transport. Coco Taxis, powered by what is basically a small motor bike, exist mainly for the benefit of tourists whilst almost every car that you see can double as a taxi (official or unofficial) if required. Cuba is a third world country and with it comes a few idiosyncrasies that the eager tourist must make allowances for. It strikes me that it’s similar to Spain maybe forty years ago when you couldn’t guarantee running water every day and the shelves in the shops displayed little variety and were half-empty. So don’t be surprised if sometimes things fall short of your usual expectations.

Accepting the invitation to Fernando’s house for dinner was maybe a gamble but in hindsight it was nothing other than a safe decision. We spent around two hours talking about things Cuban over dinner and drinks. It was fun to talk football, basketball, education and life in general although Fernando’s wife spoke no English and so her contribution was mainly culinary but we left with a gift of three cigars plus a simple, unplanned and memorable experience in exchange for a financial donation that was gratefully received by our hosts. Fernando’s subtle reluctance to see us out as far as the street confirmed my suspicions that his was of the ‘unlicensed’ type of Casa Particular. Our relatively short walk back to Parque Central was easy and uneventful; in stark contrast to what had been a busy first full day in Havana.

It was an early start for us on the Tuesday. We needed to be ready for the journey to Vinales Valley by 7:30. With the Buena Vista Social Club already pencilled in for the evening it was going to be a long day. Vinales was a 2 ½ hour bus ride and on route we stopped to see a Cigar Factory, Tobacco Farm and the local caves as well as the Valley of Vinales. And contrary to what some of the guidebooks had said about the food in Cuba, we found the standards to be more than acceptable. The visit to Vinales included a lunch and being so early in the holiday we were slightly dubious about what would be set before us but there was no need to worry; and that proved to be the case for the rest of our stay in Cuba.

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Cuba_SF__20100406_073

Back in Havana we found ourselves on a strict deadline to get to the Havana Club Bar and Museum in Old Havana, close to the commercial port. The Buena Vista Social Club was founded in the thirties and has gained a worldwide reputation for its brand of Cuban music and song. The original members have almost all since passed away but the existing participants have managed to maintain the high standards set by their predecessors. A couple of Cuban dancers added a touch of Salsa to the ongoing efforts of the various singers and musicians until midnight when after several Mojito’s we exited the door of the Havana Club Bar straight into an always available and very reasonable taxi that took us back to Parque Central for one more drink before bed.

The following morning we wanted to take the small ferry across Havana Bay. Another taxi ride down to the port, we managed to find the ferry ‘terminal’, bought our tickets, had our bags searched and stepped onto the boat. The rusty, flat-bottomed boat eventually chugged into action for the short ten minute crossing. Two places separated by even the smallest stretch of water can have a totally different feel and atmosphere. We had left behind the busyness of the city and disembarked on the eastern side of the bay in an area of almost total peace and quiet. But the sun was relentless as we walked up the hill to the fortress area and to Che Guevara’s house, now a museum. Perched high, next to the large statue of Christ, Che's house overlooked the bay and old Havana. The chance to see the various Che artefacts, photographs and personal belongings were well worth the effort and Che Guevara, as you quickly discover, is a hugely significant figure in Cuba - for an Argentinian!

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Cuba_SF__20100407_118

Che’s house was a ten minute walk from the fortress which was then a further ten minutes to the lighthouse. We laboured in the heat around the old military fort which covered a large area on this eastern side of the bay and walking around the lanes within the grounds soon became quite draining so eventually we found the one and only place where we could buy a drink and, amazingly, we were the only customers. One Buccanero beer later and then another and we decided to get back over to the main part of the city. Could we find a taxi? It’s simple in Cuba, speak to anybody and they will get you a taxi. Whether it’s a proper taxi or more likely a friend with a car who will give you a lift for a fee often remains to be seen. This time, it was definitely a friend with a car; an old American car, a knackered old American car with a crack across half of its windscreen but then this is Cuba, the land of MoT’s and regular servicing, I think not!

The car took us back across and we had a short walk from where we got out to Plaza de San Francisco. From here, we ventured into Plaza Vieja, Plaza de las Armas and also the Cathedral. Lunch and Mojito’s were taken at La Bodeguita del Medio and we poked our noses into the Hotel Ambos Mundo (another Hemingway favourite).

The stroll back towards Parque Central somehow seemed longer due to the heat of the day. And by the time we La Floridita it was time for a drink and this time there was plenty of room at the bar. Two Daquiri’s each and an hour later we made our way back to the hotel, having decided by then that we would eat that evening in the Restaurante del Oriente down in Plaza de San Francisco. The remainder of the afternoon was spent on the roof of the hotel by the pool with a book and in the hot tub.

The Restaurante del Oriente was one of Havana’s more upmarket eateries. We knew in advance so were well prepared for the expense but it’s nice to do it at least once each holiday. And so we did. Afterwards we walked around some of Old Havana at night before finishing in the bar at the hotel with yet another different cocktail.

The following day, Thursday, was our last full day in Havana and there were still a few places to see. First was the the city’s cemetery. It is huge and worth stopping for half an hour or so. The Cementario Colon contained a mixture of the small and regular at one end of the scale and the huge and ornate at the other end. Tombs belonging to famous Spanish and Cuban families with their own security systems sit alongside, as an example, a pyramid (resembling a small model of those in Giza, Egypt). Much visited is La Milagrosa, the grave of Senora Amelia Goyra who died in childbirth at the beginning of 20th century. Mother and Child are said to have been buried side by side but when the coffin was subsequently opened the baby’s body was found in its mother’s arms. [In Havana, the bodies of the poor are allowed to be buried in the most prominent area of the cemetery for two years and they are then removed and reburied in smaller concrete ‘municipal’ caskets in a secluded and largely unvisited part of the grounds.]

From here, we hailed one of Havana’s smarter looking taxi’s which took us to the Callejon de Hammel - a tiny side street that has been given over by the Cuban government to artists and sculptors and the entire street is a work of art. It is very much ‘downtown’ Havana and far from a typical tourist destination. Because of that were a curiosity but never felt threatened in any way so we took our photographs and moved on. From here, we headed for the El Malecon promenade and on to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a huge edifice and one of Havana’s top hotels. It overlooks the sea from its raised position and whilst the location isn’t ideal for getting about easily and sightseeing, the facilities in the hotel are first class so a drink in the garden overlooking the Caribbean was well in order.

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Cuba_SF__20100408_216

The Cuban sun was on maximum again and Plaza de San Francisco was simply too far to contemplate walking. Therefore, our contribution to the Taxi Driver’s Fund continued to increase. Next on the list was the covered Craft Market down by the waterfront. This was further away than we thought and we needed the help of a member of staff at the nearby Hotel Santander to locate it.

I rarely expect much from local markets aside from the chance to exercise the camera but the Havana craft market solved a few 'Gift' problems and we spent some of our Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUC).

On our way back towards Old Havana we stopped at the Hotel Santander for a drink; our way of repaying the assistance given earlier which helped us find the craft market. From here it was an easy stroll back through Old Havana – in my opinion the most relaxing area in the city, full of colour and easy on both the eyes and the senses. Clearly, this is where most of the investment has been made to-date in the huge refurbishment project that exists.

We stopped for lunch at the Café El Escorial in Plaza Vieja and then set about finding one of the old casa’s that are open to the public in this part of the city, La Casa de Africa. Essentially, this is an example of a large traditional Cuban residence that has been transformed into a museum. The exhibits majored on Santeria, a religion estimated to still being practised by up to 65% of the population, and walking around the casa for a while certainly added another piece to the Cuban cultural jigsaw that we were slowly piecing together.

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Cuba_SF__20100408_248

This was to be our last experience of the sights and sounds of Old Havana and we made our way back up through the distressed backstreets including the now familiar “O’Reilly”, a street that we almost always found on our way back to without even trying. And we knew that if we kept walking we would eventually see the dome of El Capitolio before arriving at the junction close to La Floridita, a stones throw from our hotel.

The pool and the hot tub on the roof of the Hotel Parque Central now seemed a good fit for the rest of the afternoon.

We had booked an evening meal at Tropicana Club before the 2 hour show. Tropicana has been operating since 1939 and is located on the south western outskirts of the city so we allowed time for the 30-minute taxi ride. Our taxi driver, Javier, offered to be outside waiting for us after the show had ended and did so without payment in advance so we readily agreed. Isn't trust a great thing!!??

The show at Tropicana was something else that simply had to be done. And I’m pleased to say that it was more classy and traditional than typically tourist and splashing out on both the meal beforehand and front row seats proved to be money well spent.

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Cuba_SF__20100409_276

Afterwards, as promised, Javier was outside waiting for us and half an hour later we were back at the bar in the Parque Central with the free cigar and the remains of the bottle of Havana Club Rum that came as part of the ticket at Tropicana.

With each day full to bursting, getting a good night’s sleep was never a problem in Havana but there were still a few boxes to tick on Friday morning before we checked out and set off for Trinidad. So, with breakfast regretfully finished for the final time we targeted the Revolution Museum which was within easy walking distance of the hotel. We loitered around what we thought was marked as the entry gate until the published opening time of 10 a.m. before being chased away by a taxi driver for taking photographs of his shiny black Cadillac! We then walked around the opposite side of the building and found a small queue of people that looked promisingly like they were buying tickets – and they were. Inside the building there were various posters confirming the past relationship between Cuba and Russia; caricatures of George Bush I, Ronald Reagan and Batista in what translated to be ‘Cretins Corner’, and a mock-up of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos thrashing through the jungle on a mission. Outside, there was an area given over to former military aircraft (well, bits of it anyway), vessels and vehicles used in conflict plus the actual boat with the slightly strange name “Granma” which Fidel used to journey into Cuba and kick-start the revolution. Next to all of this was an eternal flame, now a fairly common worldwide symbol used in memory of those lost in major battles.

Aware of our 2 o’clock taxi ride, we still had time to call in at the Hotel Sevilla for a drink. The Sevilla has a bit of history including being a base location for the film ‘Our man in Havana’. But we had time only for a drink and a snack; we sat in the courtyard café area and listened to yet another Cuban band. Around us, the walls had framed photographs of their celebrity visitors including Al Capone who apparently occupied the entire 6th Floor during his stays.

The journey down to Trinidad was largely uneventful with much of the four hour journey being undertaken on a long, straight concrete road that I guess would be regarded as a motorway if you ignore the fact that people stand in the slow lane waving and hoping either to sell you something or alternatively to hitch a ride. The occasional bush growing through the concrete in the middle lane also presented an interesting challenge.

Cars, or rather powered transport generally, are owned usually by necessity or not at all in Cuba. Fuel is relatively expensive and the Cuban people rely heavily on each other for many things and this includes stopping to help those that need to get from A to B. Consequently, spare seats in any vehicle are regarded as a waste and it was difficult not to feel slightly guilty about the extra space that we enjoyed on our journey from Havana to Trinidad.

On route we travelled through the outskirts of Cienfuegos, a major city compared to the various towns that quickly came and went along the way as we exited the motorway and found rural Cuba. We switched from the foothills on one side of the Escambray mountains to the other and soon we could see the sea. And after precisely four hours travelling we arrived at Las Brisas del Mar.

Saturday was to be our first real day of relaxation. Nothing to do, precisely as planned! After tolerating breakfast we made our way to the beach to try and lay claim to a small square of sand to call our own for the day and, the best surprise ever, we had it just about all to ourselves. Did I pay extra for this? It was magic! Yard upon yard of Caribbean coastline with barely another soul in sight. And that was it until lunchtime when there was little fear about losing our place under the three palms that now felt almost legally ours!

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Cuba_SF__20100410_339

More beach time after lunch before dinner and then tomorrow we head for the mountains!

Just like the journey down from Havana to Trinidad, the two hour drive into the mountains provided an insight into Cuban life and how tough things are for the people. The roads in places were close to impassable but weren’t regarded as a problem by Eduardo, our driver, who incidentally had flown MIG 21’s during the Bay of Pigs conflict. Oscar did his best to point out certain things along the way including the comon Turkey Vulture. They quite simply dominate the skies in rural Cuba, their large wingspan enabling them to glide lazily to the extent that they can apparently go without food for up to three weeks.

The attractive skies over Cuba had been a feature since our arrival. Rarely cloudless, for all of its sunshine and warmth, the Cuban countryside remains Green and gets its fair share of rain at almost anytime of the year. We finally reached our destination high up in the Escambray Mountains where we had an hour walking with Oscar followed by lunch in a small restaurant. Along the way Oscar pointed out the various birds and trees that were around and explained some of the ways in which the Cuban people make use of the natural resources available. Cuban people are especially resourceful; they have to be.

At the highest point of the walk we reached a series of waterfalls and relaxed until the idea of lunch slowly became increasingly attractive and our small group - the two of us, Oscar and a family of three also from the UK – made their way back down the narrow, stepped pathway until we eventually returned to the restaurant area.

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Cuba_SF__20100411_356

Don’t kid yourself that the choice of food in these circumstances is endless. Far from it, but it is certainly acceptable and better than we were led to believe before we arrived in Cuba. Us five Brits sat together and compared notes on Cuba in general until it was time to move on again. But we didn’t have to go far before Oscar pointed us in the general direction of more waterfalls and said that we only had forty minutes because the weather was starting to close in and it would be dangerous to travel back along the mountain roads to Trinidad in bad weather. Forty minutes turned out to be just enough time to walk to the bottom, take photographs and then retreat before being totally eaten alive by over-attentive mosquitoes.

The clouds certainly looked as if they were warming up to deliver something big but we travelled back safely to Trinidad and only met with the rain as we were passing through the City on our way back to Las Brisas. We had organised with Oscar that he would take us on a walking tour of Trinidad the following morning and promised that we would give him some of the things that we had brought to Cuba for the children that we had seen during our trip into the mountains.

We met Oscar as planned in the lobby of the Las Brisas at 8:30. He had bad news. He was unable to do the walking tour of Trinidad because he was required for a trip back into the mountains again. It was a shame but he explained that we should meet Juan Carlos at a hotel in the centre of Trinidad and there we were introduced to Lazaro who was to be our guide for the morning tour. Lazaro was a totally different character to Oscar. More quietly spoken but like Oscar very good with English (and four other languages) and we stood in the square outside the hotel listening to him explain some of the early history of Trinidad before we set off on the walk.

It took about two hours as we strolled through the aged streets that still showed the scars of past hurricane damage. You could feel the stresses and strains of living in somewhere like Trinidad, even compared to Havana which, because of its city status, has benefits that the more rural parts of Cuba don’t.

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Cuba_SF__20100412_381

We stopped for a drink with Lazaro and watched a Cuban band and dancers for half an hour and then visited the History Museum. We also stopped at an Art Museum and met the Artist who happened to be at home. Some of her work was really different and I could have been tempted if the price and logistics of getting something like that home safely had been right, but they weren’t.

We ended the tour, tipped Lazaro and thanked him for his time and then it was back for lunch before heading to the beach and 'our' palm tree.

The following day, our last in Trinidad, was set aside to do absolutely nothing other than read and lie under our tree drinking. Only Santa Clara had so far eluded us. This would have been a bit of a shame really because it was the scene of a significant action led by Che Guevara that was key to victory and as a result the city of Santa Clara is dominated by Che’s influence. With the help of our local rep Juan Carlos we were luckily still able to get there.

Juan Carlos had been organising our transfer back to Havana Airport and suggested that if we still wanted to see Santa Clara then we could instead leave earlier and divert to Santa Clara on route to Havana – so this is what we agreed to do.

A part of me was hoping we might see a storm during our time in Cuba. It’s usually really good for photographs and midway through the afternoon, we noticed that the peaks of the not too distant Escambray Mountains had partially disappeared. Soon after, the skies over Trinidad city darkened significantly as a band of heavy cloud rolled over towards the coast – and towards us.

The cloud cover was slowly working its way towards us, creating this ‘half dark-half light’ effect over the area, but eventually we conceded defeat and left our tree for the final time. By the time we got back to the room it had started to rain and within five minutes our balcony was flooded. The “all-weather” Turkey Vultures continued to glide their way around the resort looking down on those who had less durability but the interruption provided us with a chance to think about packing.

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Cuba_SF__20100412_409

Organised for the journey home as much as we could be, it was time for either a cocktail or a beer before our evening meal. On our final night we decided to splash out on the lobster. There was a small price to pay for those who wanted it but it was the final proper meal of the holiday so we decided to have it.

The final day; we had breakfast early before checking out and meeting the taxi for the journey back to Havana airport via Santa Clara. Different roads and different scenery. Our driver for the day was the same one that had taken us into Trinidad for our walking tour and delivered us back to Las Brisas on Monday. His English was verging on non-existent so a little bit of Spanish helped break the silence along the way.

We then encountered one of those ‘National Geographic moments that you simply don’t see every day. Playa Ancon was fast disappearing behind us and following the coastline the road ahead gradually changed from sunlit Grey to a mottled Red colour. And for the next two or three kilometres the tarmac had literally become a pedestrian crossing for Red Crabs, crawling in both directions from and to the beach which was on our left hand side with trees and countryside on our right. There must have been hundreds of thousands of them braving the walk and some stopping defiantly (or maybe in surrender), raising their front claws as the car slowly approached.

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Cuba_SF__20100414_415

Despite our driver taking as much care with both speed and direction to avoid them, you couldn’t miss the sound of crunching shell under the wheels of our taxi. Not that the Turkey Vultures were complaining! He explained that this happens during one week in every year, usually in April. This crustacean massacre was soon behind us and we pushed on to Santa Clara.

As you get nearer and nearer to Santa Clara, images of Che become more prominent and more regular. On billboards, hand-drawn on walls, and also in more general references to the Argentinian revolutionary who died in Bolivia on a mission in 1967; Che Guevara was Santa Clara’s claim to fame.

The floodlights of what looked like a sports stadium turned out to be the lights around the Plaza de la Revolucion which was to be our first stop of the day. Che’s statue stood at the top of the square looking over the marble seating area used by Fidel, Raul and other dignitaries during national parade’s and similar such occasions.

The area directly behind the statue led to the museum and also the room where Che was buried. We were limited on time as we had another stop to make in Santa Clara before we aimed for the airport but we made the most of what there was to see in the museum. And the tomb with Che, his colleagues and the eternal flame was a fairly quick walkthrough; in one door and out of another.

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Cuba_SF__20100414_424

We finally persuaded our driver to take us to the site where Che derailed the enemy train and its carriages; something regarded as a significant action in the war effort and a major contributor to ultimate victory. It's in an open area on a main road and by a railway crossing of the still used railway track and it didn't take long to look around. And before leaving I went and bought two bottles of water; one for us and one for our driver who was visibly struggling with the heat. It was important to look after him – we still had a three hour journey to make.

We drove through the centre of Santa Clara on our way out of the city and, as far as seeing Cuba was concerned, we were effectively at the end of our holiday. We arrived at Jose Marti Airport in good time but only to find that our flight had already been delayed by a couple of hours. The delay soon became four hours and our plane took off at 11 o’clock that evening rather than 7.

We were woken at about 11 am UK time (we originally should have landed at 09:30) by the Captain’s announcement apologising for the extra time that the flight was taking. The reason – a volcanic ash cloud that was drifting over the UK from Iceland. It turned out to be genuine. Our pilot was still ‘hoping’ to be able to land in the UK and was going as quickly as he could but there was a chance that we could be diverted. As it happened, we got down just before the UK airports were closed.

Cuba was just about everything we expected and maybe even a little more. I don’t think that I fully appreciated the extent of disrepair and poverty that we would encounter on the trip. But like in many other countries around the world that have similar and sometimes worse living conditions and quality of life, the people in Cuba put on a brave face and rise above their ‘below average’ situation, making the most of what they have, accepting that they cannot as individuals change things, and instead simply try to enjoy life in the best way that they can. Their enthusiasm to help others has been fine tuned now that tourism, a feature of Cuban life only since 1992, has become a vital part of the island’s economy.

Posted by david.byne 11:31 Archived in Cuba Tagged waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises mountains beaches bridges buildings people trees birds sky planes boats Comments (0)

Hardships and Smiles

The Green Country

all seasons in one day -32 °C
View Vietnam & Cambodia 2011 on david.byne's travel map.

South East Asia was definitely new territory for us. We arrived in Hanoi (6 hours ahead of British time) at around 1 o’clock on the Saturday lunchtime to be greeted by the first of the excellent guides supplied by ‘Live Vietnam’. His name was Chung and he would look after us until we departed for Sapa.

Vietnam_1_Hanoi (3)

Vietnam_1_Hanoi (3)

Chung’s main task of this first day was to get us to our hotel, the Flower Garden in the old quarter of Hanoi. Dominated by scooters and mopeds, Hanoi is a busy, bustling city and the hotel bar offered our first street-side view of life in Vietnam as the camera clicked into action for the first time. We didn't venture far on our first day but in the time we had spare after arriving we took our lives in our own hands and walked to the end of the road and around the corner of what was an amazingly busy part of the city. But in that short walk you suddenly started to feel the culture and the way of life in this part of the world. Street traders - some on foot carrying baskets of fruit or vegetables hanging off either end of a length of bamboo slung over one shoulder and some perched on tiny plastic stools leaning over small cookers preparing various street foods for regular customers and passers-by. Almost all of these customers and passers-by appeared alongside on either a bike or a scooter and whose numbers overwhelmed the city, outnumbering cars by what appeared to be 40 or 50 to 1. With them came the obvious noise and feeling of a place that never rests. The sound and movement were constant features of our time in the cities as was the constant reminder of how Health & Safety conscious we have become in the UK - to an extreme. As an example, motor cyclists; either those wearing no crash helmet at all or the conformists who have been out and bought the flimsiest looking protective helmet that they then proceed to wear over the top of their baseball cap. Often two to a bike, or three, or even four! Young children at the front with hands firmly on the handlebars, Dad sitting right behind and in control (presumably!) and then, between him and Mum will be another child, to complete the family ride through the busy streets of Hanoi; and indeed the same would apply to Hue or Ho Chi Minh City as we would later discover. Some Vietnamese, both women and some men, cover their faces when out in the traffic to greater and lesser extents and we found out that this wasn't so much in fear of pollution but more to protect the skin or - "to protect the beauty" - as it was described to us. Looking up from the uneven pavement alongside the busy road you could also see clearly visible, draped along and across the street from building to building, a spaghetti-like mass of electricity and telephone cables. Welcome to Vietnam!!

Ho Chi Minh is the national hero in Vietnam and it was fitting that our first stop was to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum where he lies in Lenin-esque fashion inside a soviet looking building on one side of the city’s huge open square. The queues looked depressingly long but we moved swiftly to the entrance and passed quietly round the preserved figure of Ho before exiting the other side. Ho died in 1969 although his death was kept a secret from everybody until 1974!! Chung explained the relationship between the Vietnamese people and ‘Uncle Ho’ before walking us around to see the official residence of the late leader and also his ‘actual’ residence. But Ho Chi Minh preferred instead to live in a very modest house nearby from where he was able to properly connect with the people on many levels. We saw workers in Cooley hats busily labouring on the garden as we moved on to the Ho Chi Minh Museum and followed that with a visit to the One Pillar Pagoda and the impressive Temple of Literature. Later we experienced – and survived! – walking across the busy Hanoi main street thanks to Chung’s help and also that of an elderly Vietnamese lady who helped us across (!). The trick was to just walk slowly and the countless lanes of traffic would see you and go around you. Simple, but it was a leap of faith.

Vietnam_1_Hanoi (61)

Vietnam_1_Hanoi (61)

The heat had now kicked in and lunch offered some respite for a while. The afternoon was filled with more museums and another Pagoda and China’s cultural influence on Vietnam’s history was becoming clearer by the second. We also asked Chung if we could squeeze in a visit to Hanoi’s Prison (known as the Hanoi Hilton by the Americans during the war) so we made our way across the city but unfortunately found that it had just closed so our only view was of the outside and so made our way to Hanoi Railway Station to catch the night train to Lao Cai in the North of the country, close to the Chinese Border. From here we would transfer to Sapa for a night in the Chau Long Sapa Hotel and two days amongst the minority tribes of the area; notably the Black Hmong and Red Dzao. Chung had looked after us well during our time in Hanoi but we would be met by a new guide at the other end of the line.

The ‘sleeping compartment’ just about justified its name but at least we had a cabin to ourselves and the ‘Happy Room’ wasn’t far down the corridor. Drinks and snacks had also been provided so all in all it was a fun way to spend the second night of our Asian adventure. The train pulled in to Lao Cai at 5:15 on the Monday morning - slightly earlier than anticipated and caught a few people by surprise. However, it was the end of the line so little real cause for panic and after dragging our luggage across the tracks we were met by Thoun, our guide for the Sapa area. Breakfast was had in the ‘Bordeaux’ restaurant just across the square from the station and the occasionally hostile border that Vietnam share with China was literally just one mile further down the road. After breakfast, we made our way to Sapa, just 35 kms away but almost an hour on the roads of North Vietnam.

The journey to Sapa was a steady climb through proper countryside; the town sits about 3,500 feet above sea level. On route we stopped for our driver and guide to help an elderly member of the Black Hmong who, riding a scooter weighed down with ‘whatever’, had hit a pothole and parted company with her bike. She seemed ok – probably happens all the time!! – and she soon went on her way and so did we. Shortly afterwards, we came across a lorry that had somehow ended up in the mountainside ditch. It’s driver and passengers were busy trying to move it. It was clear that Sapa and the area had had some wet weather and this had caused small rockslides as well as the problems that we had seen first hand.

It was still early and Thoun had arranged for us to visit Tavan village (pop.2,500), where the Black Mhong and Red Dzao live. The minority tribes are well practised in dealing with the arrival of ‘fresh’ tourists and as the car approached we were met by around 12 or maybe more tribeswomen who surrounded the vehicle in a bid to have first bite as we got out. In truth they were harmless and simply wanted to be first to be heard with their bid. “You buy from me today” had obviously been the first line of English that had been taught to most of them!! And so on to my first mistake. “Maybe later” I replied. This gave them enough hope of a sale and justified them walking with us and talking to us for as long as we were still walking and talking. Their stamina had no bounds!!! “Lily” latched on to Jan as her new friend and helped her over the slippery parts of the track that we were walking on. And so, having shared our lives with these people over the course of around an hour and a half, it was time to be strong and resist buying too much of the items that the Black Hmong and Red Dzao had made to sell to earn a living. However, I weakened and bought from one but then the remaining members of the group also wanted a piece of the action. So, we asked our guide to explain that we simply couldn’t buy from every single one of them, even if we wanted to (which we didn’t). Disappointed faces all round and the group started to thin out a little and we were left with those who were determined to persevere with us. In the end, I made them an offer of a donation in return for a group photograph and they eventually agreed although in truth they wanted to sell us something that they had made. It was a great experience and good fun and, compared to the timeshare touts of the Canary Islands you could never consider the determination and persistence of the minority tribes of North Vietnam to be hassle. And when it was time to leave them, the few who had endured our visit to the very end for little or no reward were still good enough to wave us goodbye with a smile.

Vietnam_2_Sapa (8)

Vietnam_2_Sapa (8)

We arrived at the hotel and had some free time until dinner. Thoun arrived to walk us to the restaurant at the top of Sapa town. It was a damp, misty day and so we carefully took note of the route as we knew we would have to make our own way back to the hotel after the meal in the dark. We did.

The following day we woke up to the low cloud and damp atmosphere that I think we will remember Sapa by. Day two was to be equally as eventful as the first day with a visit to Cat Cat village - was located in a valley between Sapa and Mount Fansipan. It was different to Tavan and the steps down took us through village properties and down to a waterfall. We took photographs with Thoun before being tempted into a small theatre where we sat and watched a local dance show where Jan was persuaded to take part in the Bamboo Dance. It turned out to be a private show as we were the only ones there at the time (with five local children also watching) and, typical of our experience with people we were meeting on the trip, the performers all lined up at the door after the show to wave us goodbye. The friendliness of the Vietnamese people was definitely starting to leave its mark.

After lunch, we spent a little time in the town as we made our way back to the hotel. We wandered through the market and met more friendly faces and took photographs as we went. Thoun was picking us up at 3:30 to begin our journey back to Hanoi. But first we had another village to see. It was raining but that didn’t really matter as we walked through the lovely countryside that surrounded Ta Phin (pop. 300).

Vietnam is Green, very Green. If it isn’t the national colour of the country then it should be. The rice fields and the forest areas all boast the most vivid shades of Green that you can imagine and the rain on this particular day simply enhanced the colours. We were met at Ta Phin, as we were previously at Tavan, by a number of tribeswomen as we got out of the car but our experience with the people of both Tavan and Cat Cat had taken the fear factor away. We walked with Thoun along the roads – some of which were solid marble- and up through to the top of the village accompanied by several new friends. One pointed out her house and invited us in but we declined due to lack of time. This apart, it was the same routine as before. The usual questions and answers in the hope of being able to sell you something but without any real pressure and then a friendly goodbye. Basically, they are just nice people trying to survive.

We walked back through the village in the rain – the scenery in this valley was fantastic - and met up with the car again at the end of the road. From here, it was simply a case of heading back to the train station and back to Hanoi.

Back in Lao Cai, we had our evening meal at the now familiar Bordeaux Restaurant, the only restaurant we visited twice in the entire trip, and then said our goodbyes to Thoun. The train was due to leave at 7:30 and arrive in Hanoi at the unsociable time of 4:15 in the morning. Sleeping would be a real challenge. Having said that, the cabins were comfortable enough for two – we were grateful we didn’t have to share.

We were met in Hanoi by Windy, our new guide. We were driven straight to the Flower Market which trades from around 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. I would never have anticipated seeing so many people in a market at 4:30 in the morning. However, it was colourful and busy and passed some time prior to breakfast at the state run Trade Union Hotel. From here, we set off to Halong City where we would be boarding a Junk for the cruise around Halong Bay.

The Halong Bay cruise was earmarked as a highlight of our trip to South East Asia. We boarded at midday and received the keys to our cabin. After sorting luggage out we were met by the crew on deck who provided ‘welcome’ drinks as we set off towards the limestone rocks that dominate the Bay of Tonkin. It was a misty and hazy start to the trip but gradually the scenery unfolded and the mist and haze cleared. There were sunbeds on the top deck which were soon ‘owned’ by those on board and the friendly crew were working hard to prepare for dinner while the cameras of our small group of six sightseers went into overdrive. We cruised for about two hours which took us as far as Titov Island where we all got off via a small sampan and those that wanted the beach and to swim were able to. I decided to walk to the top of the island for the views over the small bay and to take more photographs.

Vietnam_5_HalongBay (54)

Vietnam_5_HalongBay (54)

It was a long climb and one that wasn’t helped by the constant stop-start of those directly in front in what was a conga-like procession going in both directions. I clambered to the top from where I could take more photographs before joining the trail of people on their way back down. At the bottom it was almost time to get back on board but I just found enough time to wander around the corner of the bay with the camera and take a few more from ground level. The two other couples; Stefan and Edith (German) and Ricardo (Italian) and Pauline (French) were good company and by the time we got back to the Junk from Titov Beach we had been joined by four others; a couple from Australia and another couple from Canada.

The scenery at Halong Bay was spectacular and during dinner we cruised further around the bay and then anchored for the night. The evening ended with drinks and a chat while fishing off of the end of the boat which we all tried and spectacularly failed at. The Captain soon explained that he would be turning the engines off soon after 10 p.m. and therefore we would lose the electricity and obviously the lighting in the cabins so thoughts turned to bed.

Breakfast was at 7 o’clock so another nice early start – not untypical in this part of the world. But to be honest, it really is the best part of the day and before long we were on another Sampan heading for Monkey Island and then Luon Cave. Then, it was back to the Junk for lunch which, scheduled for 10:30, we decided was much too early so politely declined. The Captain kindly brought us some fresh fruit which was more than enough to eat mid-morning. We were due back at the port at 11:45 so the rest of the time was spent leisurely chugging back through the rocks past Mans Head Island to Halong City. We eventually said our goodbyes to the others and waited for Windy and the driver to pick us up.

It was very hot and after tracking the driver down we found Windy who decided that we had time that we could use before driving back to Hanoi for the flight to Hue. A massage was suggested and we both agreed so within minutes were being treated to 90 minutes of occasional agony – all in the interests of relaxation!! To be fair, it was good fun and we had a laugh with the two tiny Vietnamese girls who were taking pleasure in inflicting the pain. Suitably refreshed we headed for the airport but not before an obligatory stop at a Craft Factory.

Dinner – a massive dinner – was had at Hanoi Airport where we said goodbye to Windy. Hanoi to Hue was the first of three ‘internal’ flights if you count Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap (Cambodia) as internal. The flight was just 45 minutes so barely time to do your seat belt up and listen to the Safety Briefing. At Hue, we were met by Dung (pronounced ‘dyoong’) who took us to the excellent Saigon Morin Hotel which would be our base for two nights.

In the morning (Friday), Dung took us to see the Imperial City which was very impressive despite there being areas in need of renovation. The Chinese influence was again clear to see in both the architecture and written language. From here, we went to the Thien Mu Pagoda which sits alongside the Perfume River and where 80 Buddhist Monks live. One of the monks was on walkabout, meeting and greeting visitors and having photos taken with them. He seemed very happy and friendly and we were secretly quite keen to have the experience of talking to him and taking a photo or two but our luck was out on this occasion as his route took him away from our direction. The Pagoda was well worth seeing even in the heat of the day which made the cooling boat trip back down the river even more welcome. The ‘dragon’ boats on the river are small and privately owned and are basically house boats. The couple that ran the one that Dung had hired for us lived on it with their young son and tried to make a living from the runs up and down the river together with money made from selling small items on the boat to tourists. We bought a drink and some bamboo book marks. It must be a hard life. After lunch, Dung took us to the Tu Duc Tomb. It was a hot day and very humid but the site was worth seeing with its small lake and moat.

Vietnam_6_Hue (33)

Vietnam_6_Hue (33)

Our evening meal was just a walk from the Saigon Morin. Dung met us to take us to the restaurant and he arrived on his motorbike, allowing him to go straight home after we were seated. I jokingly asked for a lift, he jokingly said ‘Why not!’. I carried on walking but Jan hopped on the back, much to Dung’s surprise. They briefly disappeared up the road in the direction of the restaurant, doing battle with the scores of other bikes and scooters. Eventually, I caught up just outside the restaurant and we thanked Dung for his time and bid farewell to him as we were moving on (again) the next day and he wasn’t able to be with us for our final morning in Hue which was a shame. We sat down in the restaurant, ordered drinks and then realised that my wallet was back in the hotel. I had no choice but to walk back and get it. The restaurant manager was concerned when he saw me stand up to leave but I explained the situation and Jan stayed while I went back. It took me about 25 minutes to walk to the Saigon Morin and back and during that time I had an opportunity to enjoy a ‘close and special friendship with a beautiful lady’ on four occasions. I declined (I didn’t have my wallet!) and eventually returned to the restaurant where we enjoyed our meal before walking back to the hotel for a drink.

After breakfast the following day, we had to sadly depart the Saigon Morin and were greeted at reception by Nie or was it Nai (which sounded like Nee but to which Nie or Nai said, “No, not Knee, it’s Nie (or Nai)”, which still sounded like Nee or even Knee!!).

Nie/Nai was going to escort us to Hoi An which was about a three hour journey from Hue but before reaching our destination we went to see the tomb of the 12th king, Khai Dinh and then drove on and took lunch at Lang Co Beach, still trying to solve the problem of how to pronounce Nie’s/Nai’s name.

We were hugging the coast now on our way to Hoi An and we drove via Danang (and China Beach) which was the base for the American’s during their involvement in Vietnam in the early 70’s. It also happened to be Nie’s/Nai’s home town. Danang was undergoing a serious transformation with both Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie putting their name to golf developments along the coast. There were also numerous classy residential developments in progress which gave the area an affluent feel. It would be interesting to see what the town looks like in ten to fifteen years time.

We arrived at Hoi An late afternoon and settled in for a well earned three night stay (3 whole nights in the same place!!!). We didn’t see the old town of Hoi An until the following morning, by which time we had endured a tremendous thunderstorm and tropical downpour which brought frogs of varying sizes leaping onto the pathways around the resort.

The old town of Hoi An was an unexpected highlight. Nie/Nai took us to an old Cantonese House and an Ancient Commercial House before showing us the Thien Hau Pagoda with its strong smell of incense. We also saw the small, covered Japanese Bridge but it was the lantern filled streets and riverside that made Hoi An so attractive and we made a promise to ourselves to return in the evening before we left in a couple of days time for Ho Chi Minh City.

Hoi An at night is a lovely place to be. A friendly atmosphere with lots of colour provided by the brightly coloured lanterns in the streets and also those being floated on the river. The riverside was very busy and it was as though it was a public holiday or a special occasion in Hoi An with small groups taking part in different events and with giant lanterns on small pontoons on the river on both sides of the main bridge. We had already eaten so it was nice to just walk aimlessly around the streets and watch everything going on. We paid 1,000 Dong (about 3p) for a paper lantern and Jan placed it among numerous others to float on the river. We retraced our steps and headed back up the street we had walked down earlier and then found our way to the Hoi An Hotel to catch the Shuttle Bus. Back at the resort, there was time to kill at the bar.

Vietnam_8_HoiAn (29)

Vietnam_8_HoiAn (29)

Originally, the plan had been to spend at least a little time on the beach. However, the storm of the previous day and the overcast skies that greeted us this morning really didn’t encourage any sort of beach activity. However, we also had to get back into town to the dressmaker’s so decided rather than wait for the Shuttle Bus to take a taxi before lunch so that we could try the clothes we were having made. The staff at the shop had made the entire shopping experience a fun one, even for me who had been largely a spectator during the measuring and trying-on process. As for the clothes, with one or two small adjustments which took about fifteen minutes, they were fine. All I had to do was pay for them and grab my half-price tie of course. This presented a minor problem for the cashier and, despite various explanations from her colleagues, the complexity of the transaction appeared to be a bridge too far for her mathematical ability. Eventually the penny dropped leaving an elderly member of staff (who had so far said nothing but had stood alongside listening intently) to look at me, raise her eyebrows, nod in the cashier’s direction and say, “Idiot” in perfect English before breaking into a laugh.

We left the shop poorer financially but with another great travelling experience behind us. Outside it was raining again but we still had a bit more shopping to do and, just around the corner from the dressmaker’s, was a series of small shops selling T-Shirts, Scarves, Table Runner’s etc., and we had promised one of the vendors that we would return. So, not wanting to break a promise, we went back to the shop that we had briefly stopped at the day before - and we were remembered. The previous day we had been her first customer of the day when we bought a T-Shirt for Matthew, and she gave us a gift claiming that we would bring her luck for the rest of the day. On our return this day she said that she had had a good day after our previous visit and, as she expected, we had brought her luck. We proceeded to buy two more T-Shirts and a Table Runner for a special price (although not THAT special!!). But whatever, she was good fun and we had returned as we promised. It was still raining so we threw ourselves and our bags somehow into a convenient bicycle rickshaw and asked him to get us to the Hoi An Hotel where we could have a drink and then catch the next Shuttle Bus back to the resort.

We had a lazy afternoon but it had been another good day and Hoi An had left a good impression on us and we still had some time the following morning for, weather permitting, an hour or so on the beach. But before that, we had booked a meal in the hotel restaurant that evening to watch the lanterns being floated on the river. It was a nice way to finish our stay in Hoi An and although we woke up next morning to heavy overcast skies we did venture over to the beach for a while before we left.

Nie/Nai arrived with our driver to take us back to Danang where we would catch a flight to Ho Chi Minh City (still known and referred to as Saigon by those born before the mid 1970’s). We were warned of possible delays out of Danang and, sure enough, for the first time in the entire trip, we had to hang around for an hour or so. Danang Airport isn’t the biggest and really isn’t the best equipped airport to be delayed for any period of time but we survived the boredom of the delay and eventually got airborne and landed at Ho Chi Minh City about an hour later than originally scheduled.

We were met by Lu who, like the other guides that had looked after us, was really friendly and good company. After getting through the rush hour traffic we reached and settled into the Palace Hotel, in the centre of the city. Lu collected us for our evening meal which would be taken cruising on the Saigon River. It was a nice way to see some of the city at night and the food was again different but as usual good. Lu had switched the itinerary around a little because he had an interview to attend on what was to be our second morning in HCMC. The interview would decide whether he would get an opportunity to go to the USA for four months in the Summer and where he would be able to visit his Mum who he hadn’t seen for three years.

So, for our first day in HCMC, Lu would take us to the town of My Tho on the Mekong Delta. He also employed some local help for when we got there and the three of us were joined by Mai, a lovely lady who knew the area well and who also spoke perfect English. Lu was happy because he could now sit back and enjoy the trip in the same way that we would. Mai took us on a boat on the Mekong and we visited an island where we had a lunch of Elephant’s Ear Fish, watched the local girls flee on sight of a large centipede (eventually caught in a bottle by one of the local lads), had the chance to have our photograph taken with as large a python as you would ever want to see, tasted various new sweets and fruits and then clambered aboard a Sampan for a ride down a palm-shaded tributary of the Mekong River. The Sampan was ‘powered’ by the efforts of two women, one at the front and one at the back, and whose role in life was to take tourists on the ride and then row themselves back up river before waiting their turn to start again. Lu had earlier given us some advice : Don’t tip the musicians that come and play for you while you are having lunch but think about tipping people like these women who have a tough, physical existence and put a lot of effort into ensuring that you have a good time. I took his advice and tipped our two Sampan ‘drivers’ and they responded with repeated smiles and waves of gratitude as they made their way back up the river. I got the impression that it was a good tip.

Vietnam_9_Saigon_Mekong (17)

Vietnam_9_Saigon_Mekong (17)

Mai had been good company on the trip and explained a lot about local life in this part of the world. It was a good move on Lu’s part to ask her along. We boarded the boat again and this took us back to port at My Tho, a neat and tidy town on the Mekong, where we thanked Mai and said goodbye before starting the journey back to Ho Chi Minh City.

Back in HCMC, we returned to the Palace Hotel prior to dinner. Lu again collected us and delivered us to another good restaurant and also explained that Sylvia, a friend of his, would meet us in the morning and take us to the Cu Chi Tunnels which were about an hour and a half outside the City. Lu had his interview to prepare for.

Sylvia arrived at The Palace Hotel just after 8 a.m., called for the driver and we set off for the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Vietnamese had dug over 200 kms of tunnels to help combat the American attacks in the mid 70’s. We were shown an assortment of traps, many made from bamboo, that the Vietnamese had made and used with great success. We also saw bomb craters and some of the U.S. equipment that was captured and some of the weaponry used by the U.S. during the war. And we also had an opportunity to go down into the tunnels which was quite a claustrophobic experience. I know that they are smaller people but these tunnels had been enlarged to allow tourists to be able to go into them!! It’s quite amazing that they used the tunnels in the way that they did and to such a great effect! Anyway, it was a good trip and worth seeing. We stopped for lunch on route back to the City before linking up again with Lu who was a very happy boy after successfully getting the Green light to go to the USA in August for four months. As if to celebrate, Lu bought ice creams for us all including Sylvia who soon afterwards said goodbye and went on her way as we then made our way to the Reunification Palace.

Vietnam_9_Saigon_Mekong (49)

Vietnam_9_Saigon_Mekong (49)

In many ways, the Reunification Palace was ‘something and nothing’ although the Control Room housed in the basement was interesting. Coinciding with our own arrival at the Reunification Palace was the arrival of several hundred school children on an outing. English is now being taught as a second language in Vietnam (until 1992 it was Russian) and one or two of the children, upon seeing some English people (namely us) wanted to say ‘Hello’ and get a reaction which they did. I said Hello back and the one or two voices soon became five or six which soon became fifteen or twenty and so on. And whenever they caught sight of us as we toured the Palace they would repeat the exercise all over again. But it was all good fun.

From the Reunification Palace we saw the Notre Dame Cathedral and then the impressive Post Office before finishing the day with a visit to the History Museum and Ben Thanh Indoor Market.

We weren’t really in the mood for (another) large meal so we asked Lu to cancel the main meal and replace it with just a drink and a snack which he did. The restaurant (occasionally revolving but not today!!) was in the middle of the City and had interesting views below of ‘the battle of the bikes’ at rush hour. With our drink and snack – cake in fact – out of the way, it was time to pick our way through the rush hour traffic to Ho Chi Minh City Airport where we would catch a flight out of Vietnam to Cambodia. Negotiating the predominantly two-wheeled traffic in a 7-seater people mover when you are outnumbered by thirty or forty to one was a real challenge for Ming, our driver in HCMC. Thankfully, his years of practice eventually paid off and we emerged from the whirlpool of metal onto some comparatively empty, open road which within minutes brought us to the airport. Lu had been good fun to be with and he was one of a few that it had been sad to say goodbye to. The people really had been a highlight of the entire trip.

Posted by david.byne 08:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes waterfalls mountains beaches bridges art buildings people children trees animals boats trains Comments (0)

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