60. USA eclipse, August 2017

1. Houston, Texas.

Problems with bar code readers and face recognition software at Manchester airport almost stopped me flying. My face has clearly changed significantly in the last 6 months.

Arriving at Houston, leaving the airport into 100 degrees and high humidity, we thought we’d gone back to south east Asia! We got the hire car after the usual onslaught of questions: “You want additional insurance, satnav, coffee machine… you really should heeave theeat“. (My attempt at the Texan drawl).

My driving around Massachusetts last November had prepared me for the US interstate driving fiasco. If you thought that direction signage where you live was bad, it has nothing on this place. We drove on the I45 for about 30 miles before we got to a sign indicating that we were, actually, on the I45! I hadn’t taken the satnav option at the car hire desk, adamantly pointing out that we oldies prefer to use good, old-fashioned maps.

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Helen, our car and Popeye’s

We eventually got to our motel, the Best Western at Lake Conroe. I had a vision of a quiet motel, by a beautiful lake, full of birds, with a boozer and Texmex restaurant. Well… the motel was on the wrong side of the road! Yes, all those things were here but, in order to get to them, you had to drive over the road. You know when you put the car away and say “that’s it for the day“?

How do we get over the road?” we naively asked the receptionist. “You can’t walk!” she replied, incredulously.

OK. So we had to make do with the Michelin-starred ‘Popeye’ ‘restaurant’ – the only thing on our side of the road. Yes, you guessed, the only vegetarian option was fries washed down with Sprite. Yummy! There wasn’t even any spinach!

 

2. Lake Conroe to Plano, Dallas.

Little of note here. We stopped at Woody’s Smokehouse, offering ‘ The best jerky in the world’.DSC_0010.jpg

Helen tried some and agreed. Also, the place had the best toilets in the world. Apparently, in the ladies’, there was a choice of 4 different toilet rolls!

3. Plano to South Haven, Kansas. Of course, we got lost leaving Plano. 9 hours later, through Oklahoma, we fetch up in an area called Kansas Badlands, Motel 6. For those unfamiliar, the Motel 6 chain offers cheap accommodation all over the States. One unfailing delight in all these cheap motels is the pillows. You get a huge bed but the pillows are like small bags of blancmange. American tourists in Britain must gape in awe at the real pillows offered in UK hotels.DSC_0014.jpg

Luckily, we came across a huge Wal-Mart on the way. Look at the pic, they get the apostrophes in the correct places! English supermarkets take note.

 

4. Saturday. The last major leg of the journey, South Haven to Holton, a small town north of the Kansas state capital, Topeka. We’re near the state line with Nebraska.

Found a Pizza Hut. The waitress was totally enamoured with our accents. At one point she effused: “You two are so cute!” It’s about time someone noticed, we thought.

5. Sunday. The weather’s looking pretty bad for tomorrow. Looks like the Parkin jinx factor is about to kick in once more. We may have to rethink our plans.

Just had breakfast. For UK readers, the buffet always offers: do-it-yourself waffles, biscuits and sausage gravy (yes, you heard that right; biscuits are, in fact, scones, and the gravy is some disgusting slop composed of grease, milk, bits of discarded meat, parrot droppings, etc.), orange juice and apple juice. It’s actually quite filling.

We checked out the nearest town that is on the central line of eclipse totality: Atchison. It being Sunday, liquor stores are closed in Kansas but, fortunately, Atchison is on the state line with Missouri which allows said purchase. So, over the border to a friendly store to get a bottle of tequila then back to find a good viewing spot. The place looks ideal but may well get crowded tomorrow.

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With Pat and Tim from Oklahoma

In an extraordinary moment of serendipity, we stumbled on a shop selling ‘eclipse t-shirts’ and wandered in. Helen immediately got chatting to the shop keeper and assorted shoppers who were intrigued to learn that we’d travelled all the way from the UK to see the eclipse in

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Katy, TV reporter.

this two-horse town. A TV reporter was also in the shop and, to cut a long story short, I ended up being interviewed on camera as the weirdo with the cute accent.

6. Monday. Eclipse day!

Well, it’s finally arrived. We set off early from our motel to the town of Atchison about 35 miles away. The weather forecast was not too good but there was no alternative available; all areas within a 100 mile radius had dodgy forecasts. It was sunny though and we got to our destination at about 9 am, plenty of time before the start of the event at about 11.40 – totality due at 1.05 pm. It wasn’t long before

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Magnificent clear sky

the Parkin jinx factor kicked in. A huge thunderstorm approached and, for the first time since we arrived in the US, there was total cloud cover, the kind of thing we expect in the UK. Still, we had a lovely spot, on the Missouri river, and it wasn’t long before Helen got chatting to all the other eclipse revellers. As usual, everyone was aghast at our journey here and our unbelievably cute accents! Sadly, I never got to see the solar corona because of the cloud cover but the total darkness for over two minutes was amazing. Of course, all the reports are saying that it’s really unusual that the coastal areas of the States had clear skies but the reliable mid western plains had total cloud cover. It was almost as though there was some visiting joker who had put the mockers on the whole shebang! Looks like I’ll be checking the internet for the next eclipse.

7. Tuesday/Wednesday.

We decided to try our luck at birding rather than eclipse watching. We found an excellent place called Quivira Reserve in south west Kansas so we checked in to a local motel in a town called South Hutchinson. The reserve has proved to be a super choice: we’ve recorded about a dozen lifers including some real crackers like Swainson’s Hawk and Red Tailed Hawk, American Avocets and Dicksissels. My birding friends will have to wait for a while as I produce my birding blog for the full list with pictures.

 

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Quivira Reserve

 

BIRDING BLOG HERE

8. Vernon, Texas.

After a 6-hour drive, we arrive at a little town called Vernon. One amusing road sign I noticed as we entered the town of Alva, en route to here, was: ‘Hitchhikers may be escaping inmates’. This is odd in itself but doubly so when you spot the other meaning.

We’re stopping here just for one night on our way back to Houston. We had hoped to venture down to the Caribbean coast to do some birding but the impending Cat. 3/4 hurricane approaching has put the kibosh on that. We’ll hunker down in Austin tomorrow for a few days and see how it develops. It’s looking bad.

I’ve been amused by the zany adverts on US TV, 2 in particular: one I heard this morning was an app for parents to keep track of their children. It’s called ‘Reply Asap’ and you load it on the kids’ smartphones and whenever they get a text from you enquiring of their whereabouts, it disables everything on their phone until they reply. My favourite, though, is an app called ‘PoopMobile’ (or something like that). It’s for those tricky times when you are out and about, you need a number 2 badly and there’s no bog near. You summon some poor sap who turns up with a mobile ‘trap in a box’ which you can sit in and offload yourself. He then returns to the ‘dump depot’ to discard. Surely, one of the crappest jobs imaginable.

9. Friday. Austin, Texas. Hurricane Harvey.

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Some good news: hurricane breaks McDonald’s sign

Another 6-hour drive and we are in Austin, the Texas capital. It was always our intention to be here this weekend so I could visit The Atheist Community of Austin, a group of brave individuals who do a weekly TV program on religion, beliefs, philosophy, etc. However, the Parkin jinx factor has once more kicked in and Sunday’s show has been cancelled because of the hurricane. They were also due to make an appearance at the Austin Pride event on Saturday – also cancelled.

Saturday. We’re holed up in a hotel for the next few days. Many families arrived last night, evacuated from their homes near the coast. I don’t think there is any need to panic just yet. We’re scheduled to fly back to the UK from Houston on Wednesday but this storm looks like it’ll be here until the middle of next week so, who knows.

In one bizarre announcement, the mayor of Rockport nearby asked all locals who refused to be evacuated, to write on their arms with a Sharpie pen, their name and social security number to assist emergency workers in identifying bodies. Grim!

10. Sunday 27 August.

Rain, rain, rain.
We’re in a hotel called La Quinta. Our TV is permanently tuned to The Weather Channel with its dire warnings: ‘Severe flooding, stay indoors’ and ‘Don’t drive, you will die’. This must leave the average Texan utterly perplexed as driving is their only means of moving about. Thousands must be glued to their TV sets, waiting for the all-clear to get in their cars to visit their next-door neighbours.
The only place we can walk to from the hotel is a rather splendid Texmex restaurant. All the staff there and in our hotel appear to be Mexican; this gives us an excellent opportunity to practise our Spanish.
We’re still not sure when we can make the final move to Houston – maybe tomorrow if we can find a route there which doesn’t entail us aquaplaning into the Gulf of Mexico!

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11. Monday.

We’ve extended our stay here in Austin which hasn’t been hit as badly as Houston where there are currently 30,000 people in shelters. They’re still talking about a foot or two more rain to be dumped there in the next few days. Naturally, the airport is closed and we’ve just heard that our Wednesday flight has been cancelled. We’ve rebooked for Saturday, arriving back in Blighty on Sunday afternoon and I’ve had to extend the car hire. Still, we’ll do some more birding while we’re here so it’s not all bad. The emergency services are calling on residents with boats to help in the rescue effort and, amusingly, “Bring out your jet skis…” I can’t imagine this request having a great response in my home town, Leeds!

12. Wednesday.

Yesterday, Trump and FLOTUS came to Texas to sort out the problems here. ‘What a relief‘ we all thought, ‘that should do it‘. Nope. It’s now all-time record levels of rainfall that have ever fallen anywhere on the US; 51 inches in one area east of Houston. So, we decided to go west for a few days. We’re now in the Texas Hill Country, in a town called Kerrville. En-route here we stopped at the ranch of Lyndon B Johnson; it’s a huge area, turned into an open air museum, celebrating the old president.

Like everywhere around here, the town is taking in evacuees and offering free meals but we’re well away from the danger zone now. Our flight is still scheduled for Saturday but the airport remains closed. Fingers crossed.

13. Thursday.

The beautiful Texas hill country is all around us, away from the misery. We found a great birding place, the Lost Maples, only an hour and a half’s drive away. Texas is enormous, about 3 times the size of the UK, or bigger than France and Switzerland together.

We’ve had some amusing conversations with the local store keepers. At our gas station we approached the cashier with some booze and nosh and I inserted my debit card in the reader, punched in the pin and nothing happened.

Cashier: “claand

Me: “huh?”

Cashier: “d’claaned

Me: “I’m sorry, I have no idea what you’re talking about

Cashier: “y’alls card dun bin declaaned

Me: “Aah, you’re telling me that my card has been declined“, I clearly enunciated in my best (if slightly patronising) English. “Well, stout, fair maiden, let’s try this credit card” (it worked).

Cashier: “‘s faan

Me: “Splendid! Then I’ll bid thee good day.”

I’m being somewhat facetious (which isn’t like me) and I must say that almost every shop assistant, waiter, hotelier, cashier, etc., that we’ve encountered has been fantastic: helpful, happy, chatty and generous. So many countries around the world could learn a thing our two from these people.

14. Friday.

Our flight is still on for tomorrow (we’ll, it hasn’t been cancelled yet!) But, in a new twist, everyone is panic-buying gas (petrol) and our local gas stations have run out. Let’s hope we can fill up today so we can get back to Houston. I’ll post later today.

Our woes really do pale into insignificance compared to the devastation of thousands of Texans in the Houston area so we don’t feel badly done to at all.

Had a delightful walk along the river in our town of Kerrville. Some more animals were spotted here include a group of deer.DSC00267

15. Saturday.

Flight cancelled again. We spent a painful 20 minutes on the phone last night to the laughably-titled ‘BA Customer Help Centre’, clearly situated somewhere in India. I’d already spoken to these clowns earlier in the week, following our first cancellation (“Has there been some trouble in Houston?“), and this encounter did nothing to heighten our regard for the place; we could barely understand what they were saying, their English pronunciation falling far short of that of our least-able students. Anyway, we are now scheduled to leave tomorrow on the 16:05 flight from Houston (or 14:05 according to the help desk joker!) so we’ve just driven back to Houston and checked in to a motel close to the airport – it’s chokker with evacuees still. The panic-buying for ‘gas’ meant we had to find any station that was still selling and fill up with the only fuel they had left – ‘premium’ stuff, significantly more expensive than the bog-standard gas but we’re relieved to have made it back.

This’ll probably be my last blog entry for the trip. So, one or two reflections:

The TV adverts still tickle me, e.g., “Unhappy with your catheter? … Have you thought of switching? … Try new EaziSlash and leave your catheter woes behind“. I may have got the name wrong… Also, white teeth are such a must-have that it’s no longer enough to simply have whitening toothpaste, you need ‘White teeth strips’ which you attach to your gnashers to get that Julia Roberts look. “You’re slippy, I’m grippy” was the slogan I heard this morning to get the best strips that stay in place to save your embarrassment. Imagine having a coincidental ‘catheter and tooth strip slip moment’ during your job interview; it doesn’t bear thinking about.

On the roads, pickup trucks abound. No one seems to adhere to the speed limits and lane discipline is non-existent: the most useless road sign seen is: ‘Use left lane only for passing’. Driving on the Interstate highways around the big cities is a shocker. We actually saw four pedestrians in the whole time we’ve been here; I imagine they have all been arrested by now.

Black and Turkey Vultures are everywhere in the skies.

And, despite the slight disappointment in not really seeing the two things that I originally came here to see, we’ve had a fun time, seeing loads of new birds and meeting some very nice people. I’ve driven over two and a half thousand miles and only sworn twice! Helen, who can knit for England, has used a similar length of wool!

Every motel has an ice-making machine and a waffle maker.

Unaccountably, parmesan is pronounced ‘parmezhaan’

I might just do a blog about England next…

Andy,

Houston, Sat. 2nd September.

 

Yes, I know I said it would be my last blog on the trip, but just when you thought it was safe…

We got back to Heathrow OK (at 6:30 this morning and had to wait until 2 pm for our connecting flight to Manchester), got on the Leeds train, got as far as Huddersfield and then our luck ran out; the Parkin jinx factor kicked in once more.

Announcement: “Sorry, this train’s going no further. There’s been a fatality on the line ahead. Everyone off.” And, with today’s train and railway system owned and operated by an assortment of clueless companies, no one official really had an idea about what to do next. After about half an hour, wandering along the platform, we heard a rumour that a relief bus was going to be put on to take everyone to Leeds. I asked for confirmation from the one guy who seemed to know what he was doing but he told us to stay on the station. So, we ignored his advice, went outside to see a number of miserable displaced passengers clamouring to get on a coach. ‘We won’t get on that’, we thought so we paid to get on a regular service bus (I’d left my bus pass at home: “I won’t be needing that“, I confidently told Helen as we were packing). It went through every little town en-route, finally dropping us in the centre of Leeds an hour and a half later (the train would have taken about another 15 minutes). After a long trip with no sleep, it was just what we needed.

You can’t make this stuff up!

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58. South East Asia, Feb/March 2016

 1.Bangkok

‘Boding badly’ time – our flight from Heathrow was delayed as the incoming flight had had a death on board. Apparently, there is a procedure which involves a lot of paperwork and simply lobbing the cadaver out of the plane into the ocean is not an option.

We came to Bangkok purely as we’d never been before. The first surprising thing about this place hits you on the way from the airport to the city centre: it’s almost entirely full of roads on stilts. It’s quite a rich place with the usual nightmarish traffic problems. Also interesting was the fact that driving is on the left as in Britain and the surprisingly low number of bikes/motorbikes (in contrast to its neighbour, Cambodia).

 

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“Scorpion on a stick, anyone?”

Many people said this city was a s**thole but I liked Bangkok, particularly the bustle around the backpacker boozing district of Khao San Road where it’s important to have street cred; we saw the four external tables of one bar occupied by archetypal hippies who were staring out with: ponytails, beards, joints and thousand-yard stares. The street sellers are also a hoot: I often had to choose between a selfie stick or a scorpion on a stick. The agony of choice…

What is it with selfie sticks? I know this is going to upset some people but, the Japanese and Koreans, particularly, seem to be utterly unaware of the ‘I-look-like-a-total-knobhead’ factor when, with all of the grandeur of Asia around them, they insist in putting themselves in the central 95% of the photograph, usually with a sickly grin and reverse Churchillian ‘V’ sign. Aaargh!!

 

Here it’s full of westerners, which, of course, would be a good reason to avoid it. Annoyances time again: who else can’t stand it when you overhear something like: ‘Oh yeah, we did Vietnam last week, we’re going to do Laos on Friday’? Usually, this is from other, so-called, travellers.

 

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Charlotte and Helen

We met our lovely friend and proper traveller, Charlotte, from Canada, who we taught with in Bratislava, and she reminded us of the quote: ‘A tourist is someone who doesn’t know where they were yesterday and a traveller is someone who doesn’t know where they’re going tomorrow’. Splendid.

A must-do here is to take the canal taxi along the Klong Saen Saeb from the old town to the smart new town. It breaks every rule of UK Health and Safety legislation: getting on and off is hit-and-miss, the fare collector hangs on to the side to collect the fixed fare of a few pence and the ‘craft’ hurtles along the stinking canal with breathless insouciance – you hold on for dear life keeping your mouth closed lest you inhale the toxic spray. We wondered how many tourists they lose yearly to the drink.

There is always that underlying, lingering smell of sewage and a sweet, donut-like aroma which is often overtaken by the gorgeous fragrance of jasmine.

Crossing the road is the usual dice with death. I found that the safest time to cross is either when the red man is displayed or you find a fat guy to cross with down-flow of him.

7/11 shops and massage parlours are everywhere. The people here were generally very friendly although we were amused when we reached the terminus of the river boat one day and, hoping we could stay on for the return journey, were told, in no uncertain terms by the fare collector, to ‘GET OFF!’ You don’t argue with that.

 

 2. Phnom Penh

 

First impressions – much poorer than Thailand; the roads are clogged with motorbikes. Oddly, although most of the cars are Toyotas, there seems to have been a job lot of Lexus RX300s delivered to Cambodia! What’s that all about?!

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We met up with another couple of friends: Nick and Maire who we taught with in Moscow, and they showed us around. We had an Indian curry one night and fish and chips another. Well, when in Rome…

The currency here is the Riel – about five and a half thousand to the pound. So, as is often the case with a weak currency, the US dollar is king.

The people here are lovely. One night after returning from the bar, we stopped to look at the stars and Jupiter (well, we’ve all done that!) and a lady running a street stall was fascinated and introduced us to her son and we spent the next 15 minutes chatting away about space – a subject that I‘m vaguely interested in! We ended up singing ‘Twinkle, twinkle…’ with them both. There was no hidden motive – so refreshing.

 

One place I’d always wanted to see was the Killing Fields. Well, I’d already ‘done’ Auschwitz…

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Killing Fields

This is a few miles out of PP but is remarkably, tastefully presented. You’re likely to lose your breakfast in the tuktuk getting there over the not-too-smooth roads but the trip is well worth it. Another example (if we needed it) of man’s inhumanity to his fellow primate. Follow this up with a visit to the Tuol Sleng museum, previously a school that was commandeered by the Khmer Rouge and converted into a prison camp where unimaginable atrocities were committed.

 

We looked for a pub where we could find Premier League football and we found a group of locals shouting and screaming at the box. “Hurrah! At last” we thought. But no, in a classic ‘aubergine moment’ we realised it was the national sport of Thai boxing.

 

Traffic nightmare again. The only rule we could ascertain was ‘biggest vehicle wins’.

 

We saw a lot of typical Vietnamese ‘squeezy bottle ladies’. See my blog of Da Lat where I describe these women who are the equivalent of the UK’s ‘Rag and Bone’ men and herald their arrival with a Fairy Liquid bottle adapted into a pseudo-kazoo.

 

I bought a newspaper: ‘The Phnom Penh Times’ and found that the pages were stapled together. Clearly, they didn’t want anyone reading the thing without paying.

 

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Unable to breathe

Our friendly hotel tuktuk man suggested one day that we visit the temple at Udong. ‘OK’ we said. Well, it should be renamed ‘You’ve been done’. Don’t take this trip. It takes forever to get there over awful, dusty roads and you finally reach a hill (rare in Cambodia!) where, in the baking heat, you climb innumerable steps to reach yet another temple, all the time being fleeced by doe-eyed pleading locals with missing limbs demanding your easy-gotten, western cash. When we got back to the hotel we were unrecognisable in our new, dust-covered personas.

 

3. Siem Reap

We took a coach to the second city in Cambodia which is somewhat more pleasant in most respects than the capital. It’s greener and less chaotic. There are also some interesting temples nearby.

Of course, this place is famous for the home of the world’s largest religious site: Angkor Wat, a must-see regardless of your religious convictions. We went on a dawn visit and were astounded to find thousands of other tourists doing the same thing. It was, however, quite magnificent.

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Angkor Wat at dawn

 

We had another couple of days visiting this site. We don’t normally ‘do’ temples but this area is quite spectacular. One place we did like was described by our tuktuk driver as: ‘Temple with a tree’. It did exactly what it said on the tin: a huge tree growing inside the temple!

 

I bought a T-shirt after being hounded by a lady calling herself ‘Angelina Jolie’.

OK, just to get you off my back, I’ll buy one of your damn T-shirts. What does it cost?

20dollars”, came the reply.

Stuff that” or something similar, I replied. Anyway, I got it for 5 dollars. Another one of my personal gripes is haggling, mainly because I’m so crap at it! Just give me the price – I’ll pay any reasonable price, just don’t let the best price go the meanest son-of-a-bitch who’s got all day to argue about it.

You get the stall holder who grabs you with, “ Do you want to buy a scarf?

“No, thank you”

It’s a good price

“No, thanks”

It’s very nice

“No, thanks”

It’s made in Cambodia

“What part of ‘No thanks’ do you have a problem with?”

Etc.

If you like temples, then this place is surely the place for you.

One good thing about Cambodia is the prevalence of laundry services everywhere – one kilogram, one dollar. Our good friends will know that we have the impossible choice to make in hotels around the world when faced with the laundry problem: the cost of doing the laundry is greater than the purchase price of our clothes – if only there was an Asda nearby (US readers, read ‘Walmart’).

Siem Reap itself is a good place to stay. There is the unambiguously-named ‘Pub Street’ which is where most tourists head for. I fancied a Guinness so we finally found ‘Molly Malone’s Bar’. In another ‘aubergine moment’, the place not only didn’t have air-con, but, unfathomably, didn’t have Guinness!! Is it possible to envisage a greater disappointment?!

Favourite slogan: ‘Have a break, have a Tuk Tuk’.

 Prek Toal Nature Reserve.

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We splashed out on a day to this difficult-to-get-to reserve. The tour starts at 5.30: a taxi ride to the river and then a boat through the river and across the Tonle Sap lake (the largest in S.E. Asia). Strangely unnerving on the lake is when you can’t see anything but water and then suddenly you go past what appears to be a guy’s head bobbing up and down in the middle of the lake. People wade out miles to fish in this deceptively shallow body of water. The boat takes us up another river and drops us at a riverside hut where we get into a smaller boat, little bigger than a canoe. This then takes us along a narrow river, seemingly unpassable with floating vegetation, to the reserve. Our guide spoke no English but kept enthusiastically grabbing his bird card and pointing out the interesting birds. At one point, we came to what we thought was the end of the river. The guide dumped us out onto a mud bank then he floated away! ‘Uh, what’s this?!’ we thought. What do we do now? We started to walk off into the woods when we noticed that the guy had repositioned the boat facing the dyke and then charged into the bank and rode over it! We couldn’t believe what we were seeing as he manoeuvred over the dyke and dropped into the river on the other side whereupon we re-entered the boat. Getting into and out of these boats requires considerable care and was undoubtedly the scariest part of our month away.

Anyway, we had a great day birding. See the full list at the end of the blog.

 4. Hong Kong

First impressions of this place is a place much larger than I expected. I had a vision of a tiny, packed island with skyscrapers and no room to move around. It is, however, rather large with great swathes of greenery, hills, ship yards, etc. Some great bridges and other structures.

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Whiskered Bulbul

We chose a hotel in the northern, New Territories suburb of Shatin (“Stop shaatin’!”) as it is close to a wildlife reserve. We spent a day at the Tai Po reserve and managed to see a number of Whiskered Bulbuls, which was nice.

A must-do is to take a trip across the bay from Kowloon to Hong Kong island on the Star Ferry. You’ll see Black Kites flying around the skyscrapers and over the bay.

 

As everywhere else, the place is full of ‘Smombies’. In case you haven’t been keeping up with the inexorable pace of English neologisms, a ‘smombie’ is a ‘smartphone zombie’ – you know the type: walking obliviously into oncoming traffic etc. while concentrating on some mind-numbing Facebook photo of a cat or meal. Thankfully, these people are steadily removing themselves from the gene pool.

 

I quite like the place; it’s easy to get around: the metro and buses are easy to understand. But, I couldn’t live there, it’s SO EXPENSIVE! Our first night we decided to stay in the hotel and have a pizza and a bottle of wine. Small pizzas, 12 quid each, house wine 33 quid a bottle. Yikes!!

P1100827.JPGWe roamed around and found ‘Madrid café’ in Kowloon. I ordered the only vegetarian option on the menu: ‘Baked potato and tomato sauce’. The baked potato was uncooked and the tomato sauce was full of mincemeat! Still, I only had to pay a tenner… In another example of this madness, I bought a cheesy-topped bread roll at a 7/11 then, in a Pavlovian lip-smacking moment back at the hotel, I unwrapped my evening delight to discover it was filled with… yes, you’ve guessed it… mincemeat!! WTF is wrong with these people?!?!

 

 

 

 

 

BIRDING LIST AT PREK TOAL .

1. Large-billed crow
2. Spot-billed pelican
3. Grey heron
4. Purple heron
5. Chinese pond heron
6. Oriental darter
7. Barn swallow
8. Great egret
9. Little egret
10. Martin
11. Blue tailed bee-eater
12. Common myna
13. Brahminy kite
14. White-headed eagle
15. Greater adjutant
16. Lesser adjutant
17. Whiskered tern
18. Tree sparrow
19. Stork-billed kingfisher
20. Common gallinule
21. Common coot
22. Little cormorant
23. Spotted dove
24. Zebra dove
25. House swift

 

 

 

56. Matalascañas, Doñana – Andalucia, Spain

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An old stone pine tree, Mazagon

We left Morocco as it was playing havoc with our attempts to learn Spanish!

We weren’t overly impressed with Tangiers – there are many people there simply sitting outside cafes, staring at the world going by. Don’t get me wrong, I like that sort of stuff normally but with two, important provisos: 1. The people walking by are really only interesting if they look different from each other, and, 2. There’s only so much coffee/mint tea you can drink. Somehow, beer or wine make the experience more fulfilling.

 

We left the unhelpful hotel and taxied down to the ferry port for our cross-straits trip back to Europe. The lack of signs at this place creates the ideal opportunity for the local chancers to insist they ‘help’ you. After ‘helping’ us to the right places for tickets/embarkation cards, etc., our ‘helper’ now needs some money – not just the generous amount I was offering, ‘No, I need more than that!’ Ungrateful git.

 

Driving from Algeciras the following day we were thrilled to see a huge colony of Griffon Vultures riding the thermals above the city.

 

I vowed a few years ago that I would never again try to negotiate the motorway system around Sevilla but couldn’t avoid it; every few hundred meters there are large imposing road signs saying: ‘Dangerous road, you have less than a 50% chance of getting through this’ (or something like that, my Spanish translation may be subject to some hyperbole). This is not surprising, given that, in places, you leave and join motorways in the fast lane!

 

P1090952Anyway, we found an apartment in the seaside resort of Matalascañas; it’s deserted at this time of year but we’ve been immersed in some amazing temperatures – reaching 30 degrees. The apartment has a typical Spanish bathroom bog/basin combo: the wash basin being directly in front of the bog, allowing the squatter to do their business and chunder into the sink at the same time. Surely, says something about the Spanish diet.

 

We moved to this area to do some birding in the beautiful Doñana national park. I have a separate birding blog here for those of you who are interested in that sort of thing. I promise I’ll only mention one or two interesting things here.

 

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The Azure-Winged Magpie

This large area is protected and well looked after by the government. And it’s free! There are many beautiful walks through woodland, scrubland and wetlands. It’s a haven for bird life and is deemed the most important area for migrating birds in Europe with over 350 species recorded. You may be unable to contain your excitement now so you can jump to our full birdlist in the birding blog, here. But, just a taster, the park is full of Azure-winged magpies – a welcome relief for those of you fed up with the bog-standard common magpie. We also bagged a great lifer: the Short-toed Treecreeper – instantly distinguished from its cousin, the Eurasian Treecreeper, on account of its having a hind claw a full millimetre shorter. I also like the name of this bird as it would be pronounced in my native dialect (Hull, in East Yorkshire): the Short Turd Treecreeper!

 

Thirty or so kilometres away is the delightfully named Marismas del Odiel (marshes of the Odiel river) near Huelva. Here there are hundreds of flamingos and spoonbills and, a special treat, they have introduced ospreys. We got another lifer (we think!): the Curlew Sandpiper.

 

P1090825

El Rocio

We’re staying very close to a weird old town called El Rocío; it’s like a Wild West town. Roads are all sand; some people are on horseback; bars like saloons – it’s quite magical.

 

Friday 13th – early morning start, before Venus and Jupiter had a chance to set. The mist came in from the sea but fortunately it burnt off while we were in Acebuche (‘old olive trees’) where we bagged our third lifer: the Firecrest, a rare relative of the Goldcrest, Britain’s smallest bird.

 

We’ve now moved on, once more having to negotiate the Sevilla ring road system. They really need to build a ring road around this ring road system! We’ll be staying for a month in Ciudad Real, south of Madrid, as, for no other reason, we’ve never been there before and I know some students who live there who, inexplicably, want us to be their English teachers again!

 

I think Helen wasn’t too displeased – she was bitten to buggery by mosquitos, a treat that is usually mine.

 

Andy, 21 November 2015

Ciudad Real

55. Malaga, Gibraltar and Tangiers

Having worked all summer, teaching mainly Spanish and Italian students in Leeds, we decided that we needed to spend some time in Spain to refresh our Spanish.

We went to Malaga once more. We were there about 5 years ago and really liked the place. Most UK travellers come here merely as a transit place before going on to the resorts of Torremolinas, etc., which is a shame because the place really does have a lot to offer. We installed ourselves in an apartment in the middle of what appeared to be a large housing estate; we soon found the local bar which was having a ‘churros fest’. For those unaware of this delicacy, churros are simply sticks of fried dough that you typically dip in a chocolate sauce. All washed down with lashings of beer they make the ideal slimmers’ meal.

The main pedestrian drag, Malaga

The main pedestrian drag, Malaga

Most mornings we walked down into town and had a traditional Andalucian breakfast called ‘Rustica’. This is simply toast with olive oil and tomatoes and milky coffee – all for €2 each.

One reason we like Malaga is that the locals seem to speak a form of Spanish that is intelligible to outsiders. This was useful as our apartment was well away from the tourist area and only Spanish would do.

Classic Gib shot

Classic Gib shot

A day trip to Gibraltar was called for. Of course, it’s exactly what you expect: a big rock, sunny, lots of tourists and marauding macaques. Oddly, a surfeit of Black Redstarts had made their home on the rock.

After a couple of weeks, having mastered Spanish, it was time to move on. We bought bus tickets to Tangiers in Morocco. The slight downside was that the bus left Malaga at 5 in the morning so we had to book a cab for about 4 from our apartment. Helen did this admirably over the phone – the cab actually turned up at the time requested! The bus station was rather quiet at that time of day and we got chatting to a Moroccan guy waiting there also. It seemed as though we were the only 3 people getting on the bus – great! we thought, we’ll be able to spread out and sleep. In one of life’s thoroughly disappointing moments, the bus arrived, already full to the rafters with sleeping travellers, strewn across all the seats. Christ knows where this bus had come from but as you can guess we were both subjected to sitting next to classic manspreaders! 62 years I’ve been on this planet and I’m still shocked at how rude and inconsiderate people can be, especially on public transport.

Anyway, we got to Algeciras, on the ferry, crossed the straits and arrived at some way-out port, 30 miles or so east of Tangiers where we had the usual shenanigans associated with cross-border travel: on and off the bus, showing passports, etc. The guy was announcing stuff on the bus but all in Arabic so our understanding was limited. A fight almost broke out when the driver wouldn’t let some guy back on the bus.

Market ladies. Tangiers Oct. 2015

Market ladies. Tangiers Oct. 2015

Tangiers is a dirty and busy city. It’s back to the old ‘If I honk my horn enough, this traffic jam’s bound to clear’ mentality. On the high street there are cafés everywhere almost entirely full of guys looking out onto the street, watching the world go by, drinking the standard local tipple: sweet mint tea. About the only places to get a proper drink are in the hotels and you can get fleeced there: we went into the posh Hotel Minzah, had a couple of glasses of wine and an orange juice for the grand sum of 200 dirhams (almost €20!). We did bag a few Spotless Starlings on the lawn so it wasn’t a complete disaster.

Of course, here I’m being besieged by every beggar in town (‘Oh look, there’s Andy Parkin, the guy from England who always gives away his entire savings to jokers like us, I read about him in Suckers International’).

Apart from Arabic, the local lingo here is French, and Helen and I are having to dig deep in our time-encrusted memories to retrieve what little we know. Even the locals get confused! More than once we’ve heard ourselves say something like: ‘Sen᷈or, l’addition… shukran, bye’.

Candle demo

Candle demo

There was an extraordinary demonstration on the Saturday night. It seems that the Moroccan electricity company has recently put up the price of its supply by a whopping amount, prompting much outrage. A large protest march through the city was held simultaneously with a ‘lights out’ policy – all the buildings in the city, including our hotel, were ‘candle-lit’ only. Quite romantic!

Over the weekend, through the night, cars speed through the main streets honking their horns continually – so much like Libya.

In the old Soccos, you can get lost in all the alleyways. Motorbikes and small trucks weave perilously through these backstreets and passages, barely missing the surprised tourists. Lots of fruit and veg stalls (pomegranates feature largely, as well as walnuts, figs and dates). The bread is really cheap and tasty. The cafes are plenty; it’s quite a shock to see people smoking indoors in cafes and restaurants nowadays. This is, however, probably the worst place in the world to have your atheist, vegetarian stag party!

We worked our way up to the Kasbah. All the helpful locals continually badger you with advice: ’You want Kasbah?’, ‘Kasbah this way’ etc. I call them the ‘Befriend/Pretend’ guys. The starting point is usually, ‘Hi. Welcome to Morocco. You from England… London?’ And it goes on from there – I’m sure you’ve encountered these pests before. We manage to brush most of them off but finally one attached and dragged us up there, pointing out the bleeding obvious: ‘Here is a shop… shop…yes?’, ‘Here, (pointing to a door under a sign saying ‘Museum’), here is the museum’, etc. However, the visit turned out to be a real plus, for, in the garden, we not only spotted two Common Bulbuls but bagged a lifer: a House Bunting. Yay! What a result! I still don’t know what a Kasbah is, though.

It’s now time to move on, back to Spain. The olives here are great but I’m getting a bit sick of Margarita pizzas!

photos: https://goo.gl/photos/9ZNhdoBp1GgV8u219

Andy, 2 November 2015

54. Northern Spain, Feb. 2015

Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum

Pictures: here

It’s been quite some time since I wrote my last blog and there’s a gap currently awaiting completion for our trips to Greece and Bulgaria last year.

However, we have recently come back from a 3 week reccie mission to northern Spain with the intention of finding an area we like to return to to teach there.

We spent about a week in each of the three major cities in north east Spain:

1. SANTANDER

It rains a lot!

It rains a lot!

This seemed a reasonable place to start: cheapish flights from Stansted, I already knew one or two Spanish students from the area (who, unsurprisingly, told me it was a wonderful city!) and no problem finding a bank! We were quite surprised, however, to find that when we landed the area was in the grip of one of the worst winters on record. We had horizontal, biting sleet and the news reports showed cars stranded in the snow in the hills nearby. ‘We could have got this by staying at home’ we thought! It soon became apparent that everyone in this area carries an umbrella and when I next hear a foreign student stereotype the UK with phrases such as: “Yeah… the UK… it’s always raining, isn’t it?” I’ll direct them here with the message: “Well, you should visit this place”.

Having said that, we really enjoyed the city. It’s not particularly touristy and we found a splendid and cheap place to stay, the Estudios Aránzazu just off the main drag. All the bars in this area were really friendly and gave free tapas (‘pinchos’) with every drink. On the cold days, the bars supplied punters with a free cup of some kind of meaty broth which Helen said was rather nice.

One interesting idiosyncrasy of the area is the penchant for Vermouth. Every bar has bottles of the stuff, the full range. You probably thought there was Martini and that’s it. How wrong you are! We tried several varieties if only to see the ritual with which this drink is poured. Pieces of orange peel are ritualistically dabbed over the rim of the glass in a flamboyant manner by the server that reminds one of a strutting flamenco dancer. Ice and vermouth are then added followed by an olive and a cherry. Bizarrely, for this rain-soaked region, there is no decorative umbrella to finish off the ensemble! And, as with all drinks that you buy in situ, it tastes so much better than it ever did in Blighty! You’re probably aware of the useful way in which the Spanish language attaches the suffix ‘eria’ to the end of many words to indicate that this place is a purveyor of said objects. Places that sell churros (sweet, fried dough sticks that you dunk in hot chocolate) are called ‘Churrerias’. Well, yes, you guessed it, places that specialise in this tipple are called ‘Vermooterias’!

Food wise, the ubiquitous tortilla is everywhere and slices are usually available on bars. There is also a local sweet cake called Quesada Paisaje which was like a large egg custard – yummy!

Travelators

Travelators on the steep paths

One other thing that struck me about Santander was its cleanliness. The place is immaculate: the pavements spotless, the beaches pristine – it could certainly give Austria a run for its money!

An interesting touch here (and in Bilbao) is the street travelator. The moving walkways that you sometimes see in airports are installed on some street pavements where there is a steep hill. What an excellent idea?!

A lovely walk around the periphery of the city rewarded us with a black redstart and a gorgeous little goldcrest. What could be better?

2. BILBAO

Two hours’ bus journey from Santander and we arrive in Bilbao. This city is somewhat dominated by the magnificent Guggenheim Museum. When you come in along the river, the first view of this imposing edifice takes your breath away – it’s unlike any building you’ve probably seen before.

Helen in the Guggenheim

Helen in the Guggenheim

Thousands of titanium panels adorn the exterior and merge with the limestone blocks and glass to create a shape that defies description. I don’t usually go all gooey about buildings but… The inside is a bit of a disappointment but then, we don’t get excited about museums. Still, it keeps you out of the rain!

Public transport is incredibly cheap and easy – we bought a single ‘Barik tarjeta’ card and put 50 Euros on it. It lasted us the week and we used it on trams, metro, buses and even had two days out on the local railway to the countryside to do some birding.

The Basque language (‘Euskara’) is more prominent here: although Castilian Spanish is the chief spoken language, most signs have Euskara first and the kids use it as the first language in the local schools. Sadly, this is likely to put us off returning to this area to teach: we’re desperately trying to improve our Spanish and the complication of an additional language just confuses us old farts!

Oscar and Maite, Bilbao, Feb. 2015

Oscar and Maite, in Bilbao, in a pub!

We met two of my old students from Leeds, Maite and Oscar, who were excellent tour guides for our first day in Bilbao. We were acquainted with many bars and witnessed yet another local ritual, the pouring of the region’s white wine, ‘Txakoli’ (pron.: ‘chakoli’) which is always done from the bottle into a glass but from a height – as far as the arms can stretch apart. Helen got excited when our hosts said we were going to try some txakoli as she thought she was going to get some hot chocolate!

Many years ago I read about the Spanish Civil War and the horrific bombing of the town of Guernica in 1937, and had always wanted to visit the place. At the behest of Franco and the Nationalist forces, the Nazi Luftwaffe was called in to carpet bomb the town during market day to bring it to its knees. It was seen as a gateway to Bilbao and the submission of the republican forces who had a stronghold in the area. The moment was commemorated by Picasso in a now famous painting in Madrid and a mural of the same is found in the town. It’s a stirring reminder of the stupidity of war. Our Barik tickets allowed us to get there and we could walk on to a rather delightful nature reserve with its resident celebrity stork.

  1. SAN SEBASTIAN

Another couple of hours away on the bus and we arrive in San Sebastian with its picture-postcard ‘La concha’ bay and quaint old town. It’s more touristy here and consequently the pintxos are no longer free! It’s a lovely place but rather more expensive than where we’ve been. With its sister town of Biarritz just over the French border, this has become something of a trendy area for the wealthier classes; I’m still smarting over the 5 quid I paid for a pint of lager in Biarritz 20 years ago.

Readers of my previous blogs may remember one day when we visited Siracusa in Sicily and got 3 enormous Glen Grant malts and a bottle of water for 5 Euros. Well, in San Seb, we bought two normal size Glen Grants and paid 14 Euros for the pleasure. Bargain!

We walked along the seafront to the place where the sea meets the river in a maelstrom of conflicting forces. In an unusual moment of Schadenfreude I decided I wanted to get a shot of that big wave that crashes against the promenade wall drenching all those poor saps who happen to be standing there at the time. I never stood a chance. The big wave came and targeted exactly where we were standing. We couldn’t have got any wetter if we’d jumped into the sea. We sloshed back through the town to our hotel pretending to be oblivious to the strange looks and remarks we were getting. Never have I been gladder of that spare pair of strides.

La Concha bay, San Sebastian

La Concha bay, San Sebastian

Despite these gripes, the place is very pleasant. Our second day there, the weather was glorious and we went up the overlooking mountain on the funicular railway and spent a few hours on a bench, shirt-sleeved, peering over the stunning, bejewelled bay sprawling below us.

A delightful tradition in this town can be found every Sunday morning when a group of singers gather in the old town and perform, a capella, a repertoire of Euskara folk songs. Moving from street to street they attract a retinue of like-minded individuals, singing their hearts out. It was extraordinarily moving.

So, it’s back to Santander for an evening for some free pinchos and vermouth before our flight back to Blighty.

Yes, it was peeing it down all day!

Andy

March 2015

51. Sicily Wrap

I, like the rest of the world, am on tenterhooks. What could be more exciting than waiting for the arrival of the Royal Baby. Here in Italy, people are ‘aghasto’, column inches set aside for pictures of il Royal Bambino, etc. It’s quite odd: we left Blighty on the morning of the Royal Vomit and we’ll be returning unnoticed as the UK’s attention is distracted by some similarly less-worthy event – the Royal Plop.

There is an upside: that world-famous sex-tourist, Herr Pope, will see his visit to the slums of Rio go largely unnoticed too.

Yes, we spent the last 7 months on the island of Sicily and it’s time to move off again. We’re in a town called Tivoli at the moment, on the outskirts of Rome, readying ourselves for a return to decent ale, Asda, fish ‘n’ chips, cheap analgesics and responsible driving. OK, I know, you’ve just driven half a mile and met every incompetent driver in the world who could all take advantage of learning a thing or two from your impeccable road skills but, trust me, it’s nothing compared to the utter stupidity, ignorance and arrogance of the drivers here. The driving test is quite tough, according to my students, but who bothers to take it when you can slip the examiner a few Euros…?

Amazing tree, Malfitano

Amazing tree, Malfitano

However, there are some plus points. Here’s our wrap up of the idiosyncrasies and pros and cons:

Memories:

  • Amazing trees
  • Fantastic scenery on the island as you travel across the mountains.
  • The most amazing road engineering, from Palermo to Messina, dozens of tunnels and heart-stopping viaducts. Beautiful hills and perilously-perched hilltop towns.
  • Almost continual sound of emergency vehicles in Palermo (and Naples)
  • Some delightful students – offset by the predictable teenager group, containing the least-interesting people in the world with unwarranted angst (a title previously held by my teenager group in Vietnam).
  • Guys driving with left arm dangling from the open window, I mean, how macho is that?!
  • Motorbikes
  • Passagiata – the curious habit of emerging from your afternoon stupor to parade down the high street in your finery, stopping to exchange perfunctory tittle-tattle with the dudes you saw yesterday.
  • Dog crap. On the way to the school, I used to sing that old Eddie Grant classic: ‘I’m gonna slide down through, Dogshit Avenue, and it can’t get much higher’. A real Palermo problem.P1040008
  • Dinky men, gathered around central town areas, always reminds me of Munchkin Conventions. Unsurprisingly, ‘Small Man Syndrome’ is the country’s biggest health-hazard.
  • Small supermarkets
  • Savoca – scene of the Godfather, Part 1

FOOD

  • Gelaterias. Pasticcerias. These places are so popular it is quite normal to find yourself unable to eat anything other than cakes and ice cream at tea time. Restaurants close when we Brits are the hungriest (6 – 7 pm), leaving one with no choice other than to get fatter.
  • The sfinciona man, shouting from his tuk-tuk every morning, selling this local foodstuff (a pizza-like bread cake).
  • Great pizzas (but also some of the worst in the world – tourist rip-off mode)
  • The students’ hilarious confusion with the words ’kitchen’ and ‘chicken’. ‘Yeah, we spend a lot of time in our large, modern chicken…’ etc.
  • Espresso coffees – what is the point of these?!
  • Delicious, filling cannoli. Gorgeous tomatoes. The ubiquitous aubergine – the ultimate definition of disappointment. Pistacchio (pronounced ‘pistakio’) and capers. 1 metre-long zucchinis.
  • POTATOES! Yes, we thought that Italy was all about spaghetti and tiramisu but, no… the preferred antipasto of our students was invariably the potato-based pot pourri of chips, croquets, panelli (small, fried potato cakes) and cheese balls – a thoroughly British booze-soaker.
  • Breakfast – no eggs! Lots of cakes and pastries – why aren’t the Italians huge gutbuckets? (Actually, looking at some of the kids, things are heading that way. ‘Blobbo Bambino’ is on the rise.
  • Nutella, in everything. Aisles full of the stuff in supermarkets.
  • Our curries at our parties – phenomenally successful with our students!
Sassi, Matera

Sassi, Matera

Since, we left Sicily we’ve visited a couple of really interesting places:

MATERA

Situated in the foot arch of the boot, this is an extraordinary place. Two valleys bisect the town full of old stone houses (‘sassi’) where the locals used to live. Nowadays, they are trendier places to live but the areas are home to the largest collection of kestrels you’re ever likely to see. We counted over a hundred.

Villa Adriana, Tivoli

Villa Adriana, Tivoli

TIVOLI

An amazing Greek ruin – home to the emporer Hadrian – the ‘Wall’ guy. He had a huge villa here. Apparently, he was quite depressed – what a wuss!

Andy

Tivoli, 22.7.13

Kestrel, Matera

Lesser Kestrel, Matera

50. More from Sicily

Palermo Update

Pictures

Thousands of swifts are screaming in the skies and it’s been shirt-sleeve weather for about a month now – this time of year is just about right for us. It’s still hot for us in the classrooms and, as in Turkey, Libya and Vietnam, we teachers from the UK and USA play the ‘Air-Con Shuffle’: we turn on the AirCon and hide the remote. The students come in, start shivering and insist on turning the thing off. After a while, we sneak it back on again. This toing and froing goes on for the whole 90 minutes. I know this experience resonates with many of our TEFLing friends around the globe – it’s so much fun!

Helen, our apartment stable doors and the 3 kilos of Trapani salt we bought for 1 Euro

Helen, our apartment stable doors and the 3 kilos of Trapani salt we bought for 1 Euro

Some more observations here in Palermo. As I’m approaching that age where pensions become important, I’ve recently had to communicate with financial institutions in the UK not yet geared to 21st century technology. One such company, Dickens and Dinosaur Insurance, insist on written communication. This requires a visit to the post office here in Palermo, something that Helen has always enjoyed, being a prolific letter-writer, but fills me with dread. Our local post office is always heaving; some people must spend their lives in there. Some people start queueing for their pensions well before they reach pensionable age! You first have to enter through a double-door screening capsule, reminiscent of MI5 buildings (did you see Spooks on UK TV?) and join the overbooked, Alzheimer’s Convention inside. Then you collect your ticket and calculate the approximate wait you’ll have. It’s customary at this point to leave and do your weekly shopping, visit a show, etc. I did this last week, returned to the post office only to find the number had not yet progressed half way so I took my shopping home. I returned to the post office to find that my number plus one was being served so I muttered an expletive and gave up. One of the pleasures of living in a foreign country is being able to shout ‘Oh For F***’s Sake’ at the top of your voice and people around you assume you’re sneezing.

We’ll be lucky to escape with our lives in tact in July: the driving seems to be getting worse. My students tell me that if you can drive in Palermo, you can drive anywhere. Actually, I remind them that these drivers would not be allowed to drive in the UK as I have yet to see anyone remotely capable of passing a UK driving test. The hot weather has also sparked a ‘who’s-got-the-loudest-car-stereo’ contest which can almost blow in the windows of our classrooms rendering pronunciation practice somewhat futile. Our friend Damian told me recently that he saw the ultimate: a guy on a pushbike with the biggest pair of speakers and battery he’d ever seen, strapped to the sides. What a clod!

Helen’s quite chuffed with herself. As usual, her application to learning the local lingo leaves me shamefully lagging behind and relying on the standard British approach to Johnny Foreigner: shouting louder and giving up if the stupid shop assistant, etc., is too dumb to understand simple English. She managed to direct someone from the city to the motorway, something she would have difficulty doing in Leeds! Anyway, she was rightly proud of herself.

We both have teaching assignments outside our school: Helen has just finished a session teaching kiddies once a week at a convent; getting up on Friday mornings for this hour-long, ‘Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ screaming session used to really cheer her up!
I have a 2.5-hour session with a group of teachers in a town called Partinico, about an hour’s drive out of Palermo. According to my boss, these country yokels should first be learning Italian, rather than English! The Italian government has recently passed a law, requiring all state school teachers to achieve at least CEF Level B1 in the next 2 years. For the uninitiated in language-learning jargon, this equates to a pretty good level of competence, rather more than ‘2 beers please’ – the level I usually aim for. In Poland, before I could say the word for ‘three’, I had to say: ‘Two beers please, and one more beer please.’ Yes, it’s cumbersome, but it works!

We’ve almost covered the whole island now and here are a few of the highlights:

The grandkids, Selinunte

The grandkids, Selinunte

Segesta and Selinunte

Pictures

These are two of the most well-known archaeological sites in Sicily – full of the relics of the halcyon days of Greek hegemony. We visited Selinunte with Alan, Emily and the grandkids – see the picture of James and the severe regulations imposed upon entering. It was strictly forbidden to make any noise at all. We found this injunction impossible to follow and were eventually evicted from the site after Helen sneezed.
We were fortunate to visit Segesta on our way back to Palermo and found the place in full bloom of spring wild flowers. It was extraordinarily spectacular and ranks as Helen’s number one place.

Savoca

Pictures

Breat- taking views, Savoca

Breath-taking views, Savoca

This is my favourite place, so far. We took off for a long weekend to the tourist trap of Taormina on the east coast and spent a day in the nearby town of Savoca. Godfather aficionados will recognise this place: the Sicily scenes from the first film were shot here. The rustic, simple life is enjoyed by Al Pacino as he falls in love and marries the lovely Apollonia. Although the viewer is lead to believe this is in the village of Corleone, it was actually filmed in Savoca. Some of that rustic simplicity has now disappeared but the town is a delight nonetheless. High up in the hills through winding hairpins it has the winning blend of narrow cobbled streets, breath-taking views and quaint bars. It even rewarded us with a pair of ravens and a blue rock thrush. Who could ask for more?!

Siracusa (Syracuse)

Pictures

Last weekend we visited here in the company of two of our colleagues, Charles and Damian. Here was where much of Sicilian history started and is famous for its Greek ruins and as the birthplace of Archimedes. We visited our local café when we arrived for the traditional slug of whisky. We repeated this before we left and were pleasantly surprised at the ‘we-don’t-rip-off-the-tourists-here’ attitude: 3 enormous malts (each about the measure of a large wine!) and a large bottle of water, less than €5. If we ever come back to Sicily, we’ll be living in the sticks; all the towns and cities we’ve visited have knocked Palermo into a cocked hat.

Anyway, we spent a day in Cava Grande, an Italian Grand Canyon. It was a long way down so we let the youngsters go down quickly, we didn’t want to upset them with our speed and dexterity. We almost made it to the bottom, we had timed it to get back in two hours (the guidebook – 1 hour, for some super-fit git). We passed some splendid conversations, one Helen overheard: “I’ll never walk up here again in a thousand years!”. It might give you some idea of the stupidity of the mission. Anyway, we had a bird-spotting dream, getting Zitt Cis, Black Redstart, Raven, Grey Wag., Icky and Sardi Warbler, Stonechat, Green and Goldfinches, Jays and Housemartins. We ended up with a 30+ bird list – splendid.

Today, in Palermo near the touristy market area, we stopped off for a beer and an ice cream. The bill? €13! (Yes, that’s one beer for me and an ice cream for Helen). It’s outrageous! So we left and proceeded to a back street Sri Lankan shop, bought a litre of vodka, large carton of orange juice, two bags of Bombay Mix and a can of super strength beer for €12. Job done!

Mind you, this is what the TEFL business is usually about; in Charles’s words, you have to teach in the butthole and get away to the sights at the weekends. Delicately and so accurately put.

Andy
Palermo, 19.5.13