69. Xmas/New Year: Scotland, France, Spain and Portugal

europe-map

In an effort to save the planet (and finding flying ever more wearisome), I decided to do as much non-flying as possible to cover all this ground.

Brother Phil, and Maita flew in from Cayman and I collected them from Heathrow. After a couple of days in Leeds, we drove up to Scotland to spend a few days with a friend of theirs and family in Edinburgh and Glasgow. A splendid Xmas was had in Glasgow with the most generous and loudest people one could ever meet. Naturally, we understood very little of what they were saying.

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Edinburgh Christmas market, with obligatory Glüwein

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Glasgow: the Duke with the, now permanent, traffic cone headgear.

Drove to Luton (via my son’s in St Albans) to dump the car. The next day we headed down to London St Pancras to board the Eurostar train to Paris. All went well but then the fun began. You may be aware that many workers in France are currently striking; it is affecting the transport system mainly. The Eurostar train arrives in the northern Parisian station (Gare du Nord) and we have to connect to a TGV in the southern Parisian station of Gare du Lyon – normally a 30-minute job (we had 50 minutes to do this). Of course, it was chaos: we bought the tickets for the Metro connection but the entrance was blocked for some reason. After a while we realised that we weren’t going to get anywhere so we decamped and got a cab. Cab drivers during this dispute are making a killing – it cost us 50 Euros to go across the city (with another couple in the cab!) only to miss our connection due to the awful traffic in Paris centre. We finally managed to get on the next available train an hour later after clattering through the mayhem of the station, scattering the wandering hoards with our suitcases, haste and recklessness. (Odd names for suitcases, I hear you ask.)

We arrived in Avignon to pick up a car – a guaranteed 4X4. The lady at the Avis car hire centre happily informed us that, because Phil and I are such huge gits, we had been upgraded to a Renault Scenic. She clearly thought we knew nothing about cars. Anyway, with typical British spirit we didn’t complain and simply accepted our misfortune with stoicism and cheer. It took a while to get used to the idiosyncrasies of the car, especially at the toll booths, but we got to our first ‘hotel’ not far away in a place called Caissargues, gagging for a beer. Of course, this place was in the middle of nowhere with no bar.

After 3 more hotel stops in San Sebastian, Salamanca (delightful place, well recommended) and Merida we arrived in Lagos, Algarve at our brother Steve’s place – a journey of over a thousand miles. One interesting moment on this trip was the hotel parking arrangement in Salamanca. It was my first experience of a car lift: we had to drive up to a gate (after receiving a ticking off from the receptionist that we had jumped the gun), then the gate opened up to a lift cabin, virtually the same size as our Renault Scenic. All the car’s parking sensors were screaming at us as we had about a 1 inch clearance all round. A massive disincentive to a return visit.

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Evening in central Salamanca

 

A splendid New Year’s Eve was had with friends, a traditional Indian meal and the rarity of the 3 diaspora Parkin brothers being together.

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New Year’s day – the three Parkin brothers with honorary Parkin brother, Brian

Friday 3rd of January and it’s time to head off again. Phil and Maita’s flight from Malaga was at 2pm. It’s a 5-hour drive from Lagos to Malaga so we set off at 7am. As we had failed to take account of the fact that we lose an hour crossing the ‘border’ into Spain, this meant that we had to put the Scenic through its paces. This is particularly scary on the Sevilla ring road – a road system so precarious I had previously vowed never to drive round it again. Anyway, we got to Malaga a little late but P&M still got their flight and are now happily back in Cayman.

I now had to get the car back to Avignon and decided to go the southern route, staying first in Jaén (north of Malaga) then near Barcelona and finally in Avignon itself, another trip of 1000+ miles, where I was glad to ditch the motor, unscathed!

Being somewhat knackered, I decided to compromise on my new Greta Thunberg principles and booked a flight from Paris to Manchester the following afternoon. I already had a TGV booked back to Paris, Gare du Lyon, and I had a good 2 hours to get to CDG airport north east of Paris. Foiled once again by the strike – I bought my RER metro ticket and only managed to get as far as Gare du Nord on the most packed trains ever: it was like being in Mumbai rush hour. There was no sign of any further trains going to the airport so, once again, I left the GdN station, in a bizarre déjà vu moment, to get a cab. Luckily, the French authorities have softened their approach to Uber over the last couple of years so I managed to get to the airport for the bargain price of 76 Euros. I got my flight to Manchester, then train to Leeds and treated myself to a cab home.

My one-day journey from Avignon consisted of 3 cabs, 4 trains and a flight and the whole Europe trip, trying to be environmentally friendly, was extraordinarily expensive.

All 3 of us were suffering for most of the time with blocked noses, sore throats and spluttering. I bought some decongestion tablets from the pharmacy counter in Paris CdG airport for the bargain price of 17 Euros. This morning, I looked at the ingredients: oil of oregano, oil of thyme, tea tree, citron – all just herbs. I may as well just have had a spoonful of mixed herbs! I quickly went out to the local supermarket here in Leeds and got some proper stuff, £2.50.

I’m going to stay at home for a while now to replenish my batteries and my seriously-mauled bank account!

 

Andy,

Leeds 7/1/20

68. Costa Rica

Hummer

Rufous Tailed Hummingbird

Photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/4PWqcPhCZXKaTh4o6

I decided to do this trip in 2 legs: Manchester to New York, New York to San Jose – 7 hours and 5 hours respectively. At my advancing age, these are about as long as I can withstand!

The first mistake was getting the half-four Saturday morning train from Leeds to Manchester Airport; it was, of course, full of plastered merrymakers from a long night in Leeds’ nightclubs – a thoroughly welcome scene of jollity for us early risers with long journeys ahead.

There was an amusing announcement at Manchester Airport: “Will passengers O’Reilly, Finnegan, and O’Shaunessy please make their way immediately to gate 208…” Talk about the bleeding obvious – they were in the bar!

The turnaround in New York (actually, Newark, New Jersey) was as painful as ever: even though your bags are checked all the way through, you still have to retrieve them and go through the whole security process again. Always allow a couple of hours for this torture. Newark airport is, however, quite agreeable. In the departure lounges there are so many places to sit and order food and drinks at your table through one of the thousands of IPads attached.

Brother Phil, and Maita were in Costa Rica for the week and it’s a country I’d long wanted to see so it was a bit of a no-brainer. It’s also teeming with bird life and, probably, the safest Central American country to visit.

I arrived in San Jose early evening, expecting Phil and Maita to be there as their flight should have arrived an hour or so before mine (they were flying in from Miami). The weather conditions were really bad and my flight, after a couple of attempts, finally managed to land. It was one of the lucky ones – Phil’s flight was diverted to Panama. I couldn’t get in touch with him so was completely in the dark. We had a hire car booked and the hotel had been insistent that we check in before 10pm. So, I taxied to the hotel and Phil finally made it at about 1am. We still managed to evacuate the contents of our minibars and eventually hit the sack at 4ish.
I somehow got up from our central San Jose hotel in the morning and stumbled upon a parade in honour of the country’s Independence Day. It started throwing it down but the parade went on, undaunted.DSC_0008

Our hire car was a 4X4 beast and took us around the country with ease.

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The Toyota Fortuna Beast

Although the country is not particularly big, it still takes a long time to drive around, largely because the roads are not fast and you are forever finding yourself behind slow-moving trucks going up interminable hills. Our first trip out was to the Pacific coast – we had a drink in the café, got well-bitten, hot and sticky and headed back for another three-hour haul.

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The cold Quetzal Park

A visit to the Quetzal Park was called for – I’d never seen a quetzal before and, being one of my favourite Scrabble words, was an eagerly-anticipated bag. It was surprisingly cold in the park and all the exotic birds had left – clearly having been notified of my visit. We were, however, rewarded at a nearby village with some splendidly-coloured tanagers and finches visible from a lovely little restaurant in the rain.

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Flame-Coloured Tanager

An amusing moment: at breakfast on Wednesday I enquired of Phil and Maita whether they were awake at 5.23 that morning and did they notice anything. Maita said yes and she was puzzled and annoyed as to why Phil was shaking in the bed. I informed them that there had been a 4.7 earthquake that woke me up and I noted the exact time. Aaah, all was resolved!

DSC00587On Thursday we had a trip out to the Arenal Volcano and had an interesting diversion en-route when we spotted Dave and Dave’s Colibri (Hummingbird) and Toucan Experience. It was a detour well-spent. These ex-Californians have created an oasis in the jungle with more hummingbirds than you can shake a stick at including the gorgeous Violet Crowned Woodnymph.

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Violet-Crowned Woodnymph

A wander through the woods down to the river rewarded us with sights of a Poison Dart Frog. FrogThese innocuous-looking guys are responsible for the curare poison used on darts by native hunters. I felt a rebate on our 30 dollar entrance fee was in order: we didn’t see any toucans. They had all left with the quetzals on a package tour to the UK.

Friday and it was time for another trip to the Pacific coast, this time to Jaco (pronounced hhaKOH) for an overnight, final blowout stay. DSC00600This is a popular tourist place with the usual assortment of bars and fast food joints. We had a splendid pub crawl evening and in the morning saw a number of Scarlet Macaws flying over and a flange of Brown Pelicans.

Things Costa Rican:

  • Very green. People generally pleasant. Clear Spanish.
  • Costa Rican Colones usually preferred to the US Dollar (about 600:1)
  • Most places safe although we were warned not to go wandering around at night in San Jose.
  • Driving was not too dangerous but we had the occasional surprise when fast lanes disappear without notice. Toll roads are easily managed. Slow going uphill. Add at least 1 hour to the estimated Google map time.
  • Splendid birds and huge lizards.
  • It rained most days.
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This beast was in the garden of our hotel in Jaco – at least 3 feet long.

The flights back were pretty uneventful (and long!). I was looking forward to an easy train ride from Manchester airport back to Leeds at about 7.30 on the Monday morning but, wouldn’t you just know it… A bomb alert immediately before my arrival had partially closed the airport and, more importantly, the attached rail station. Rats! So I, and many other wazzed-off punters, jostled to get a taxi out of the airport. I went to the next station which was Piccadilly, in the worst time possible, Manchester morning rush hour. Anyway, I finally got home a few hours later than I should have.

BIRD LIST

1. Rufous Backed Wren
2. Grey Headed Chachalaca
3. Melodious Blackbird
4. Red Winged Blackbird
5. Golden Hooded Tanager
6. Blue Grey Tanager
7. Flame Coloured Tanager
8. Western Tanager
9. Orange Fronted Parakeet
10. Scarlet Macaw
11. Brown Pelican
12. Black Vulture
13. Turkey Vulture
14. Magnificent Frigatebird
15. Great Tailed Grackle
16. Great Kiskadee
17. White Throated Mountaingem
18. Rufous Tailed Hummingbird
19. Violet Crowned Woodnymph
20. Steely Vented Hummingbird
21. Ruddy Ground Dove
22. Clay Coloured Thrush

And probably many more unidentified.

Andy, Leeds

Sept. 2019

PS – Some photos courtesy of Phil and his posh camera!

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Banana flower

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Heliconia

67. Scotland: The Outer Hebrides

hebrides

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Ullapool harbour

My Leeds boozing mate, Mike, and I shared the driving for this long trip. First 8 hours to an overnight stop near Inverness then on to Ullapool for the two and a half hour, morning ferry bound for Stornoway on the islands of Lewis and Harris (which actually aren’t separate islands!)

 

On the mainland, we were able to use the marvellous old Scottish word ‘dreich’ which beautifully describes that weather which is rainy, cold and miserable. We were, however, fortunate that the best weather of the year so far was about to greet us. And, being the Summer Solstice, we had daylight almost until midnight.

 

Our hosts, Mike’s niece (Georgina) and her husband (Lee) and four kids were about an hour’s drive away on a separate island, Bernera. Previously they lived in a remote farmhouse about 10 miles from Lockerbie in South West Scotland but they found it too busy and moved up here. I’d long wanted to visit this area and now had the perfect opportunity. If you want to get away from it all, there are few better places: internet and phone coverage is pretty poor and, (sadly!) virtually no pubs.

 

Lee promised me plenty of eagles, both Golden and White-Tailed Sea but, naturally, all the eagles had decided to take the next few days off and migrated to Leeds for a holiday. All was not lost, though, as I managed one lifer – an Arctic Skua, on the trip over to the island.

 

I was surprised how big the islands were: we took a few trips out and often we’d be driving for over an hour. Many of the roads are single track with regular passing places and this is not a problem: there aren’t many cars! The journey to the ‘island’ of Harris, to the south, is breath-taking, with mountains and valleys. The small town of Tarbert lies between north and south Harris and has the island’s one Gin distillery and, of course, the Harris Tweed shops. Much of the land here is available for anyone to use. You can pitch a tent anywhere and you can dig for peat.P1130801

Drive north and the landscape is barren; there is another word for this: ‘Machair’ which describes the terrain, rather like the Maquis of the coastal European mainland.

 

The increasing popularity of the islands to tourists is causing a problem among the locals. The ferry crossings (there are two routes to the mainland with each offering two crossings per day) are often fully booked up months in advance which means the locals can’t simply get across at short notice.

 

There are plenty of primary schools on the island but only a couple of secondary schools which means that two of the children have an hour’s trip to school in Stornoway every morning. University education will have to be on the mainland.

 

The locals here are very religious; my Atheist Community of Austin T-shirt would not have been welcomed, conjuring up a ‘Wicker Man’ scenario.

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Calanais Stones

Things to see: the Calanais Stones, pre-dating Stonehenge and laid out in a Scottish cross pattern, and the amazing beaches all over the island where, if you were just dropped there, you might think you were in Bermuda. P1130814There is also an Eagle Observatory, near Tarbert, but don’t be fooled by the ‘2 Kilometer Walk’ sign at the car park – it’s nearer 2 miles, uphill and, of course, no eagles! Although, other trekkers maintained that they had seen some.

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The Eagle Observatory

 

After a too-short couple of days, we were off again. We spent the night in Stornoway and drove back the next day. Ullapool to Leeds takes about 10 hours but the drive is magnificent – through Glencoe and along the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond.

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The Bonny Banks…

Andy, Leeds

June 2019

66. India

DSC_0015 (3).JPGVictoria Railway Station

MUMBAI

Flight gripe #5623. Naturally, on the flight from Amsterdam to Mumbai, I had the misfortune to be sitting next to Fanny Fidget. Even though I’d paid for a premium, extra legroom seat, this fact was of little help when having to fend off the leg thrasher to my right. She must have been exhausted after 8.5 hours of this; I certainly was! Amputation may be the only answer for these people.

The hotel guy was there at the airport at 2 in the morning to take me to the hotel. His car appeared to have no clutch and barely made it over the many flyovers to central Mumbai.

The first thing you notice in Mumbai is the maniacal driving, with all the cars, scraped and indented, continually honking their horns. Small yellow and black taxis are ubiquitous.

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Family at The Gateway

A must see here is the Gateway to India. If you’ve seen Michael Palin’s ‘Around The World in 80 Days’, you’ll recognise this ostentatious and ornate archway. A boat trip around the bay for the bargain price of a pound was a no-brainer.

It’s also important to get my fill of temples over with as soon as possible. The tuktuk guy recommended a few places: a Jain temple (where I encountered a self-appointed guide whose technique to hurry me on was to slap me in the crotch). The Jains seem to be a very agreeable bunch of dudes: they take great pains to avoid harming any creature. I would have no problem with Jainist Extremists at all.

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Jain Temple

Then on to a Hindu temple. A whole parade of shoe defenders line the path to the temple where your footwear must be left prior to entry. All the attendees bring gifts of flowers and then seem to exchange for other flowers in the temple.

We passed the ‘Silent Tower’ where devotees of the Parsi religion leave their dead for vultures to eat the body. A win-win for us birders.

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Ghandi’s House

The tuktuk driver undertook probably the maddest driving manoeuvre I’d ever witnessed. Fed up with the progress on our side of the road, he swerved right and ploughed into all the traffic on the other side for a few hundred meters, narrowly avoiding all the shocked maniacs coming the other way. He suggested other temples and I suggested a return to the hotel to change my underwear.

I decided a less-suicidal, local driver would be a good idea the next day. Together we went to his ‘slum’ and met his family who all appeared to be occupying a single room about the size of a normal bathroom. DSC_0045 (2).JPGHowever, they all seemed to be very happy, busily celebrating a child’s birthday. They call these places slums but it struck me how happy-go-lucky all the people were with most seeming to own smartphones.

The next day the same guy took me on a long day trip out. It involved a train journey, boat trip, tuktuk and horse and cart. In this secluded area north of Mumbai, my guy informed me that many young couples come here for ‘hanky panky’.

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Rumpy Pumpy rooms with apostrophe overload

They travel on the guy’s motorbike and the girl often has her face covered. There are many ‘pay by the hour’ hotels dotted around. Hindu custom still sees sex before marriage as taboo but all turn a blind eye to this place. I suggested to my guy that a better expression would be ‘rumpy pumpy’. Four hours on the horse-drawn cart left me with the tenderest butt I’ve ever experienced. My guy also took this opportunity to interview a recruit, a 17 year-old girl, and requested that I fire English, touristy-type questions at her to gauge her proficiency. I felt that a rebate for this day was in order.

DSC_0054.JPGSpotted some lovely birds but the highlight was the train. All the doors remain open during the journey, even though the carriage is absolutely rammed. Due to the recent spate of attacks on women in India, all trains must now have at least one ‘women only’ carriage. I was the only westerner I saw the whole day.

It was recommended that a visit to a delightful restaurant a few miles away was a must. The tuktuk driver got lost so I proffered my Google Maps and the guy had no idea. I don’t think he’d ever seen a map. I remember this phenomenon in South America; I went looking for a map of Cali one day and eventually found a picture that looked like it had been painted by a 3-year-old. We really do take maps for granted in the West.

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The Laundry

One last must-see tourist experience is a trip to the largest outside laundry in Asia. There is actually a viewing platform overlooking this vast site where you can see rows of jeans and sheets and workers taking baths. Quite bizarre.

 

KERALA

Landed at Cochi – the world’s only fully solar-powered airport. Here is the gateway to Kerala at the extreme south west of India. Down here is very tropical but with the same mad driving. The area is replete with lakes and waterways and a splendid place to get away from the madness of Mumbai.

P1130675.JPGBooked in to a very smart hotel near Alleppey where you can canoe down to the deserted beach. As you can see from the picture, the hotel boss assumed I was a newly-married couple.

P1130755As in Mumbai, Black (‘Pariah’) Kites occupy 100+ feet airspace, house crows lower. But, when you get close to the many waterways, Brahminy Kites are everywhere.

Here in Kerala an alcohol reduction scheme was started a few years ago. This was reversed recently when a new governor took over but there is still a general frowning on the consumption of alcohol, rendering this place a non-starter for me.

The tuktuk driver to the backwaters had the hairiest ears you’ve ever seen. He continually pointed out the many churches en-route. As usual, his English was virtually unintelligible and I tried to engage him in conversation about the forthcoming general election:

ME: “You like Modi party?”

DRIVER: “Oh yes”

ME: “So, you vote for Modi party?”

DRIVER: “Yes, very good”

ME: “What about the Congress Party?”

DRIVER: “Yes, I vote for them”

ME: “Uh? Don’t you like the Modi party?”

DRIVER: “No, all corrupt”

Etc.

 

GENERAL – THINGS INDIA

  • Rose-Ringed Parakeets squawking everywhere.
  • Little girls wearing pretty dresses, with short back and sides haircuts
  • No outside boozers or cafes where one can sit and people watch.
  • Very Indian, no blacks, Chinese, Japanese…
  • Royal Enfield bikes

 

BIRD LIST

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Darter

1. House Crow (Abundant)
2. Black (Pariah) Kite (Abundant)
3. Brahminy Kite (Abundant)
4. Cattle Egret (Abundant)
5. Little Egret
6. Paddybird
7. Common Teal
8. Common Sandpiper
9. Black-Headed Gull
10. Brown-Headed Gull
11. Whiskered Tern
12. Collared Dove
13. Blue Rock Pigeon
14. Rose-Ringed Parakeet
15. Coucal
16. Palm Swift
17. White-Breasted Kingfisher
18. Red-Whiskered Bulbul
19. Magpie Robin
20. Purple Sunbird
21. Common Myna
22. Black Drongo
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Red Whiskered Bulbul

.

 

 

65. Europe: Behind the Rusting Iron Curtain, 2019

 

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It seemed like an opportune time to go around Eastern Europe before the Brexit debacle makes it all difficult. It’s something I’d wanted to do for a while and my brother, Phil, and sis-in-law, Maita, were up for it too, so, there was no reason not to. First we set off to see our older brother, Steve, in Portugal for a week’s alcohol infusion combined with talking utter cobblers to get us in the mood.

PORTUGAL

I was here only a month or so ago and my last Faro landing experience involved my first ever ‘touch and go’, where the plane makes a touchdown but the pilot deems it too dangerous and immediately takes off again for a second stab at it. This caused quite a stir in the cabin with passengers sending final texts to their loved ones. I’m happy to say that the incident was not repeated this time.
We did a little bit of travelling around and I was happy to see the burnt out areas of the country around Monchique were beginning to revive.

Except for the better weather, it never quite seems as though you are abroad in The Algarve but, that was soon to change.

AUSTRIA

VIENNA
We flew here from Faro as it is the furthest east you can get to directly. Also, it’s a rather splendid place to visit. Being only an hour or so from Bratislava, it was a place I’d visited many times before. P1130531The Christmas market in front of the Rathaus (Town Hall) is unremittingly beautiful. At this time, there was a huge ice-skating arena here set on different levels.
Our quirky hotel was called the Ruby Mary, although there didn’t seem to be a curry theme (humour for aficionados of Billy Connolly).

 

In the bedroom were provided a Marshall Amp for your MP3 player and a tablet and mobile phone! Guitars were available for use in the bar. Also, strange single duvets.on the double bed. The automatic check-in couldn’t handle two rooms both in the name of Parkin, so we had to summon help. Naturally, this took longer than a normal, manned check-in.

After 3 nights here we took a cab to the bizarre Terminatoresque industrial landscape in Schwechat –.just outside the city, to get our hire car.

Strangely, all the staff here appeared to be Croatian, as was the car, a slightly crappy Citroen. With Croatian plates I thought: ‘This is going to be fun driving around Bosnia and Serbia; we may as well paint a target on the boot!

 

SLOVENIA
BLEDP1130541
We had a 5-hour drive to the impossibly pretty town of Bled with its lake and its new casino – ‘Bled Dry’
We stayed here for one night. The following day we took a rowing boat out on the lake and soon discovered that the most likely outcome was capsizing so we brought it back, pronto.P1130565

LJUBLJANA
Slovenia was a new country for me and for many years I’d wanted to visit here. I was not disappointed – this was my favourite city of the whole trip. P1130586It’s beautiful, quaint and very safe. DSC_0022You can buy ‘Union Beer’ in a bag. We sat outside a pub on the river bank, drinking in the moment in what seemed like a fine summer evening.DSC_0024

There’s a street in the centre we named ‘White van street’. It’s pedestrianised except for the only vehicles that are allowed: White Vans!

Beware also: bicycles on paths – somewhat reminiscent of Amsterdam.

CROATIA
ZAGREB

Phil had chosen a hotel that was not only impossible to find but had one of the world’s most inaccessible car parking arrangements. Our SatNav repeatedly informed us, ‘You are here’ in the middle of a street tram track! We eventually sussed it out after passing this place a few times: ‘It must be down that alleyway’ we thought. Sure enough. We pointed this difficulty out to the receptionist who couldn’t understand our issue. I reckon there must be many guests still roaming around the streets, days after their original check-in date.

The old city here is rather sweet; it’s famous for the Stone Gate miracle. This structure suffered a devastating fire in 1731 where only a portrait of Virgin Mary survived and has now become a Christian shrine. The city has a Funicular Railway and a pub street; who could want for more. We sat for a beer or two and noticed that almost everyone passing was White Caucasian.

BOSNIA

SARAJEVO

In a stark contrast to the previous few days, it was cold and grim here – all around the drive in to Sarajevo, piles of stuff and vegetation were being burnt; smoke was everywhere. There were few animals in the countryside and dereliction featured all around on the road into Sarajevo. Piles of rubbish littered the streets.DSC_0033

We stayed at a hotel called Latinski Most (Latin Bridge) famed, as I’m sure you know, as the place where Archduke Ferdinand was shot on the 28th June, 1914 which triggered the First World War.
We went for pizzas in possibly the world’s worst restaurant: we thought things couldn’t get much worse when a gang of locals turned up and started smoking; yes, smoking in restaurants is still allowed here. There were some very dodgy people knocking about and it didn’t feel very safe walking around.

 

SERBIA

BELGRADE
The drive to Serbia took 6.5 hours over the mountains and through the snow. It was quite nerve-wracking driving through white-out conditions in our white 2X4 Citroen with defective screen wash.2302-2019-074412275451342632475
Still, the Serbian border police were very polite and, after several loops to find the hotel again, the staff there were very kind and accommodating. We took a cab into town where we found a Sports bar and had an evening with cocktails.
After getting seriously ripped off by the cab dude I decided it was time to swallow my objections and install Uber on my phone. This was a sound choice as subsequent cab journeys were much cheaper.

 

BULGARIA

SOFIA
A bit about driving. A funny thing in Eastern Europe: you can be sailing along on a great motorway, thinking: ‘It won’t take us long at this pace’ then suddenly you are directed into a side road.  Here madness begins. You frantically look for ‘Diversion’ signs (in the UK, these are yellow with black writing). We found one with the word ‘Prozac’ (or something like that). Assuming that Prozac was the local language for ‘Diversion’ we followed it and, as I have done on many occasions in E Europe before, found myself heading towards a field. Half an hour later we reappear at the same place.

Anyway, we finally got to Sofia with its Kamikazi drivers and potholes galore.
I’ve been here a few times before so gave my liver a rest. P1130591It was minus 11 degrees C in the morning so off we went.

6 hours to…

 

ROMANIA

BUCHAREST

As soon as you go through the border, to say that the road deteriorated would be the understatement of the year. We were suddenly pitched into terrain that would have tested the hardiest 4X4. It finally levelled out and I saw signs for Bucharest so it appeared as though we were on the right road!

As it was Phil’s birthday, naturally we went out to celebrate in the only way imaginable: a table football boozer. We found one on the internet and instructed our cab driver to take us there. We pulled up to some dodgy back street establishment and the driver was reluctant to drop us here. ‘No, we’ll be OK’ we confidently replied.DSC_0054

And sure enough, it was a splendid venue, a veritable dive beloved by us both with some total demon footie players who certainly brought us down a peg or two.

Our hotel had a Chinese restaurant attached. On the menu were various dishes with Wooden Ears. This, of course, prompted much merriment to us all. But in a bizarre coincidence moment, the next morning I was watching the news about the Trump/Kim summit and Kim was having breakfast including ‘woodear mushrooms’. Would you believe it?!
Romanian money is the Lei and the notes are plastic. Since leaving Slovenia we have had to keep changing money and this always means having some left over when we leave the country. How many millions must be kicking around like this? As soon as the world either ditches money entirely or adopts a single currency, the better. If only we could all use the Euro…
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I had a stroll around town by myself the next morning – Phil was a little worse for wear! Ceausescu’s Palace is very imposing; I can only imagine the awe and fear it must have instilled in the populace at the height of his power.

In the evening we found the world’s biggest pool hall. DSC_0055Our super cab guy was very educated and world wise. He simply couldn’t understand the stupidity of the Brits and the whole Brexit thing. I had to agree. Indeed, this feeling was expressed by locals more than once on our trip.

Aside: The Australian Cardinal Pell was arrested. The newsreader commented that he was ‘Noted for his intellect!’ I urge you to watch a Q&A TV chat show with Pell and Richard Dawkins on YouTube. It’s hilarious. Intellect, indeed!!

BRAȘOV
Maita’s friend, Ionna, lives here with her boyfriend Pupa. We had a splendid, boozy evening together. In this rather delightful town.
Some essential Romanian: ‘CHifatch’ meaning ‘Hi’
‘NorrOCK’ for ‘Cheers!’

DSC_0066Here is a great place to visit Dracula’s Castle – yes, the original domicile of Vlad the Impaler – a rather nasty piece of work. I always picture the scene on TV’s Mastermind:

“Your name please?”

Vlad

“Occupation?”

Impaler”.

Driving trivia: potholes everywhere, pedestrian crossings are respected like in the UK, many hitchhikers, and the Dacia Logan is ubiquitous. Brilliant new motorway and a 6-hour drive connects us to…

TIMIȘOARA
Spent another couple of days here in this less frantic city. Using Uber again ensured we had reasonably-priced cab fares. We found a great pool bar in the centre of town and noticed that some women were leaving their handbags alone for ages. How trusting, we remarked.

After spending nearly a week in Romania we all decided that we liked the place: people were friendly, we weren’t ripped off.

 

HUNGARY

BUDAPEST
The first thing you’ll notice is that here is much more upmarket and expensive.
Getting here entailed an hour wait at the border: a clear sign of Victor Orban’s clampdown on undesirable immigrants.
P1130613I’ve been here many times and it’s still very pretty. Uber is not allowed here so cab fares are outrageously expensive. Even though they have the price per kilometer on the side of the car: (300Huf, about 1 Euro), this is nothing like the price you pay.
We lunched at the Hard Rock Cafe where I foolishly ordered the ‘starter’ of nachos; there was enough to feed the entire restaurant!
To watch the Liverpool derby later we repaired to an Irish bar which was exclusively patronised by the British.

 

SLOVAKIA
BRATISLAVA
DSC_0083Having lived here for a year about 15 years ago, this was a bit of a busman’s holiday for me but an excellent opportunity to take some piccies for my good teacher friends around the world who belong to the Caledonian School Diaspora. The centre is now well geared up for the inevitable UK Stag and Hen parties – guaranteed to add cultural gravitas to the place.DSC_0088.JPG

We had two more days left so we treated ourselves to a swanky hotel with a ‘turn down’ service.

The next morning, I asked the maid: ‘Will you marry me?

No’. she replied.

Will you spend the day with me?

No’ again.

Yes, I was satisfied with the turn down service.

 

The next morning we drove back to Vienna for the flight back to Manchester, where – yes, you’ve guessed – it was raining!

 

GENERAL

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  • Euro and Schengen make for easy travelling but the subsequent currency changes were onerous. This is a great advert for the Euro.
  • I racked up a small fortune in roaming charges when entering Bosnia simply through forgetting to turn off Google maps. Another EU membership bonus.
  • Trams feature a lot in almost every country we visited.
  • Hot weather at first then very cold.
  • Dope smoking prevalent.
  • Cigarettes in pubs and restaurants.
  • Brexit knowledge everywhere and yes, all were amazed at the crazy Brits!

 

Andy,

Leeds, March 2019

 

 

CITY KILOMETERS
Vienna (Austria)
Bled (Slovenia) 403
Ljubljana (Slovenia) 54
Zagreb (Croatia) 143
Sarajevo (Bosnia) 376
Belgrade (Serbia) 292
Sofia (Bulgaria) 394
Bucharest (Romania) 384
Brasov (Romania) 184
Timisoara (Romania) 413
Budapest (Hungary) 316
Bratislava (Slovakia) 201
Vienna (Austria) 80
TOTAL 3240

 

64. Kenya: Bob, the Band and Building. Xmas, 2018

 

kenya

I decided to travel light: only cabin luggage. Well, I had about an hour’s changeover time in Schiphol, Amsterdam and I reckoned the chances of any hold luggage making it through were pretty slim. And anyway, Bob has a washing machine and plenty of water so the minimum amount of clothing was all I needed. Well…

I’ll get around to that. Bob’s my old school friend who has retired and is now working harder than ever running a brass band for local disadvantaged kids in the village of Dunga near Kisumu, Kenya’s 3rd largest city. I arrived on the day that the president was visiting Kisumu – I naturally thought that the huge security presence and cheering crowds were for me but it appears not. This did, however, have a negative knock-on effect in Dunga, where a road is being laid to replace the mud track that currently exists. You know that the Queen assumes the world smells of paint? Well, it seems that President Kenyatta assumes that everywhere in Kenya, teams of workers are busy painting road markings and tarting up the roads – consequently, all other road building projects are suspended, leaving the area outside Bob’s a chaotic, muddy nightmare.

Added to that, the building contractors, SBI, apparently paid the water company, KIWASCO, a tidy sum to relocate the water pipes some months ago in readiness for their construction work. Of course, Kiwasco only did half the job so SBI simply ploughed on and broke the water mains, leaving Bob’s place without water for most of the time I was there. Coupled with the daily power outages, it provided a challenging task to get any washing done. It was almost as though there was some visiting jinx putting the mockers on the whole place…

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Bob’s band helping with pipe laying

Anyway, I decided it was time to visit Bob as he’d been there for about 4 years and no-one had yet visited him. Hardly surprising as it’s a real bugger to get there from the UK! I also fancied skipping the usual Xmas frenzy in Blighty and was really fascinated by the prospect of a kids’ brass band in a remote Kenyan village; I was not disappointed.

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A rare picture of a Marabou stork reading a Kindle

 

The first morning we took a walk around the village and saw all the women washing clothes in the lake (we were only a couple of hundred meters from Lake Victoria).

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On the lake clogged with water hyacinth

 

 

As you’ll see from the pictures, the lake suffers at this time of year from being clogged with the voracious weed, Water Hyacinth. A couple of years ago, a special boat was commissioned to dredge the lake and collect this plant to use for biofuel. In classic Kenyan style, the boat developed a fault and no-one got around to fixing it quickly. The boat is now completely hemmed in by water hyacinth and is immovable. You just can’t make this stuff up. Bob also warned me to be careful around the lake as, not long ago, a woman’s head was washed up on the shore. The crocodile had taking a liking to the fleshy bits. Picky, I say. Nevertheless, I decided to go out on the lake early the next morning with the father of one of the band boys and it was, unsurprisingly, wonderful.

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Early morning on the lake

I met many of the locals; one thing I quickly realised is that the local greeting is what I would call the Rasta Handshake: palm, thumbs, palm. I was also the number one Mzungu (white man) in the village being significantly less-tanned than Bob. We took a tuk-tuk into town (Kisumu) about 20 minutes’ ride away. This is a real lunch-loser due to the rather uneven road surface (classic English understatement) and a head-crasher for us 6-footers.

In Kisumu, Bob was busy ordering school uniforms for his band kids who are staying on in Dunga for the next year. He also buys bicycles for those kids who have a few miles’ journey. In the supermarket I was getting concerned that we were buying too much to carry (plastic bags are outlawed in Kenya) but the plentiful staff there make sure all is boxed and tied up and they carry it all out to your waiting tuk-tuk for you. What service!

6.30 in the evening and it’s another hour of band practice; P1130373I was given the responsible job of ‘sleigh bells’ – I felt honoured to be part of the band. I noticed that the next house was home to thousands of bats that poured out of the eves at dusk. Surely, you’d notice something if you lived there?

The papers are full of the meeting between the two rival tribal leaders: pres. Kenyatta and the local guy here, Odinga. The ‘handshake’ between the two is signalling a new rapprochement but many are skeptical. I know from bitter experience in Libya that it takes more than a handshake to quell tribal rivalry.

Spotted a red-chested sunbird – what a beauty!

Wednesday – we took a trip to Kakamega, going north, just over the equator, to the delightful national park there. There’s a lovely walk through the rain forest here where we spotted bee-eaters and the noisy Hadada Ibis.

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Hadada Ibis

 

Thursday – still more water shenanigans. We thought we had it fixed but at midnight, just as we were retiring, we noticed a gushing sound. Yes, the pipe outside Bob’s house had burst. Bob managed to secure a temporary fix in a farce scenario that reminded me of the time I tried to fix a hotel’s gushing cistern system, in Colombia, at two in the morning, ending up thoroughly soaked and flooding the hotel. We located the roadside stop cock and turned the pressure right down to almost zero. This incident was the last straw for Bob who made his displeasure known to the hapless water dudes the next day, not sparing on the expletives!

Saturday. It was the band’s first paid gig of the Xmas season at the local Hill Club. Half way into the set and the heavens opened. P1130397Everything was soaked. People are saying it’s weird that the rains at this time of year are unusually heavy.

It’s almost as though there were some visiting jinx…

But, the kids got 210 shillings each (about $2US) and they were all made up. This was their start of a very lucrative week.

Sunday. 3 gigs in the town. Again, it absolutely poured it down but thankfully we were under cover at the time. P1130427Our driver said the intensity of these rains, at this time of the year, was really unusual. He hadn’t seen anything like it since the early 80s.

It’s almost as though…

The kids were cock-a-hoop, netting a cool grand each (about 8 quid, $10US). On Christmas Eve we played around the village and at one point, an old man prostrated himself in front of me and gave thanks. Bob reckoned he assumed I was a pastor so naturally I blessed him and I’m sure he’s now basking in glory.

A look at the obituary columns in the local papers are always interesting. Almost every entry begins with the words: ’With humble acceptance of God’s will we announce the promotion to glory of…’P1130280

On Christmas day we had a late session. We were invited out to a very posh resort (‘Ciala’) and the kids played until about 9.30. They had a great meal and got a grand each.

People say: ‘Father Christmas doesn’t come to Africa’.

It kinda did for these kids.

Andy, Leeds, 28/12/18

Read my gripe blog here.

FULL BIRD LIST

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Sacred Ibis and Hamerkop

 

 

1. Little grebe
2. Yellow-billed stork
3. White stork
4. Marabou stork
5. Sacred ibis
6. Hadada ibis
7. Squacco heron
8. Cattle egret
9. Little egret
10. Great white egret
11. Yellow-billed egret
12. Grey heron
13. Reed cormorant
14. Great cormorant
15. Hamerkop
16. African black-shouldered kite
17. Black kite

P1130365

Black Kite

18. Common moorhen
19. Spur-winged plover
20. African jacana
21. Common sandpiper
22. Grey-headed gull
23. Gull-billed tern
24. Speckled pigeon
25. African mourning dove
26. Ring-necked dove
27. African palm swift
28. Speckled mousebird
29. Woodland kingfisher
30. Malachite kingfisher
31. Pied kingfisher
32. Cinnamon-chested bee-eater

P1130321

33. White-fronted bee-eater
34. Pied crow
35. Barn swallow
36. Common bulbul
37. Rufous chatterer
38. Ruppell’s starling
39. White-browed robin chat
40. Red-chested sunbird
41. Grey-headed sparrow
42. Village weaver
43. Red-cheeked cordonbleu
44. African pied wagtail
45. African paradise flycatcher
46. Great blue turaco
47. Brown babbler
48. (Shrike – unidentified)P1130304.JPG

63. Scotland: B&Bs, Birds and Battlefields. Sept. 2018

scotlandbirding2.jpg

South East Scotland (6th/8th)

I decided to get away for a couple of weeks and thought Scotland would be a good idea before it gets too cold. There are many RSPB sites there and I wanted to cover as many as possible, similar to my jaunt around Wales a couple of years ago.
First stop, Annan in Dumfries & Galloway, through the most intense hailstorm I’ve ever driven just after crossing the border; most of the vehicles had stopped by the side of the road. I thought I was going to lose my £1000 excess on the hire car due to bodywork damage but, all was OK.

DSC00387.JPG

Redshanks a-plenty

Two very pleasant birding sites can be found here: Blackshaw and Mersehead on the Solway Firth where I found hundreds of Redshanks and Lapwings among others. I soon realised I was definitely in Scotland as I found the hotel guy completely unintelligible – I knew that I’d have to switch the Scottish listening software on asap.
On to Castle Douglas and the delightful Loch Ken where I spent a good hour alone in a hide watching tits.

P1130024.JPG

Nuthatch and Great Tit

A Coal Tit was a regular on the feeder together with Nuthatches.

Glasgow area (9th)

Just south west of Glasgow is the RSPB site of Lochwinnoch. There are some nice walks here and lakes and woods to enjoy. The weather was, however, getting worse so I knew I’d have to move westwards soon. On to Dumbarton for an overnight stay as it was my intention to go around Loch Lomond and The Trossachs the next day but, with a storm about to hit, I decided to go East.

Inverness area (10th/11th)

A long drive along the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness brought me over to Inverness. Oddly, almost all the B&Bs en-route were full. Only a dodgy hotel in Drumnadrochit had vacancies; the reviews made for grim reading so I continued on to a place west of Inverness called Kirkhill.
The next day I headed off to the bleak peninsular of the Black Isle and fortuitously overshot the RSPB site and stopped at the small town of Cromarty.

P1130041

Hoopoe: “What am I doing here?”

Here I could barely believe my eyes when I spotted a Hoopoe – a bird that really shouldn’t be here at all. It occasionally finds its way to southern England and is much more at home in Portugal. This confused individual would soon succumb to the weather!
On to the delightfully-named village of Jemimaville where I was rewarded with a layby overlooking a stretch of water seething with Redshank, Oystercatchers and the raptor of the day, an Osprey.
I decided to have a break from the birds and checked out the battlefield of Culloden, just south of Inverness. P1130048Getting bitten by midges is a well-known hazard in Scotland but many are unaware of the insect called a Jaco. The Jaco bite is very painful and this battle of 16th April 1746 was a rebellion against the Jaco bites – apparently, the Hanoverians were brought in to defeat this deadly foe and scored a memorable victory here.

Aberdeen/Dundee area (12th/13th)

DSC00416

More gannets than you can shake a stick at

Going eastwards along the coast through Forres, Elgin, Buckle, Banff and Macduff I made a brief stop at the new RSPB reserve of Troup Head. It’s really bleak here but if you want to get your fill of Gannets, there are few better places!

P1130058.JPG

Rosehearty

 

I spent the night in the town of Rosehearty (what lovely names they have up here) then headed off south in the morning through Fraserburgh, Loch of Strathbeg, Collieston, Fowlsheugh and Kirriemuir to complete a 5-fold birding site marathon in one day. I finished in Dundee for the night. Amusingly, there was a group of Germans at breakfast who had come to see the new V&A museum in the city and the breakfast serving geezer was clearly wazzed off with them. He was talking to them in the thickest Scottish accent I’d heard in ages. They were smiling and uttering nonsense in reply. Priceless!

 

Back to the South West (13th/15th)

On the way I called in at Loch Leven near Kinross then on to Bannockburn, near Stirling, another famous battle ground. Here’s where the mighty clans led by Robert the Bruce came together in 1314 to take on the English, led by Edward II. The Scots, heavily outnumbered and out-tooled, chalked up a famous victory, a fact occasionally mentioned by any fervent Scottish friends we English have.

P1130073

Remote, with peacocks

To Moffat to meet up with Mike, a Leeds drinking pal. We spent the next evening with his niece and delightful family (4 children, numerous dogs and cats, horses, chickens and peacocks) on a remote farm near Lockerbie. Several wee drams were imbibed and, once again, the world was put to rights at some unearthly hour of the morning.

Northumberland (16th/17th)

Over to Rothbury for a night then on to the Farne Islands then Morpeth on a nostalgia trip for me reminding me of my student days in the early 70s. I used to teach in a junior school in Morpeth and one day, with another student teacher, we took a group of kids to the Farne Islands where they were petrified of the Arctic Terns that breed there on the ground next to the path. These birds, as well as holding migration distance records, are ferocious at defending their nests and peck at your head with their stiletto beaks as you walk past.

P1130092

Nice shag

Thankfully, they had moved on but many Shags, Eiders and Rock Pipits were there so all was not lost! This area is great if you like seals.
Back home via Sunderland.

 

Andy 20.9.18

 

In memoriam: Rob Tovey.

I discovered, fittingly while birding in total solitude in Strathbeg, that a teaching colleague of mine had suddenly died. I used to teach with the fanatic birder, Rob, in Libya and remember spending an hour in Benghazi chasing a suspected Tristram’s Warbler (would have been a lifer for us both) which we later ID’d as a Dartford Warbler – a first for me! Rob’s last teaching post was in Mauritania where he taught with Jon who sent me the message. Coincidentally, Jon was a teaching colleague of mine in Warsaw – it’s a small world in the TEFL business. Rob – as close to a twitcher as possible.
FULL BIRD LIST
1. Mute swan
2. Greylag goose
3. Canada goose
4. Brent goose
5. Mallard
6. Gadwall
7. Pochard
8. Tufted duck
9. Eider
10. Goosander
11. Red grouse
12. Pheasant
13. Great crested grebe
14. Fulmar
15. Gannet
16. Cormorant
17. Shag
18. Grey heron
19. Osprey
20. Red kite
21. Marsh harrier
22. Common buzzard
23. Kestrel
24. Water rail
25. Moorhen
26. Coot
27. Oystercatcher
28. Lapwing
29. Turnstone
30. Common sandpiper
31. Redshank
32. Curlew
33. Black-tailed godwit
34. Black-headed gull
35. Common gull
36. Herring gull
37. Lesser black-backed gull
38. Great black-backed gull
39. Kittiwake
40. Razorbill
41. Stock dove
42. Wood pigeon
43. Collared dove
44. Hoopoe
45. Sand martin
46. House martin
47. Barn swallow
48. Rock pipit
49. Meadow pipit
50. Pied wagtail
51. Dunnock
52. Robin
53. Stonechat
54. Blackbird
55. Great tit
56. Coal tit
57. Blue tit
58. Long tailed tit
59. Nuthatch
60. Magpie
61. Jay
62. Jackdaw
63. Rook
64. Hooded crow
65. Carrion crow
66. Raven
67. Starling
68. House sparrow
69. Tree sparrow
70. Chaffinch
71. Linnet
72. Goldfinch
73. Reed bunting
74. Yellowhammer

62. Helsinki, August 2018

Finnair
I’d recommend this airline. After several trips on Ryanair and EasyJet, this is a breath of fresh air. No out-of-control, macho boozers and hardly any screaming kids.
Helsinki
Brother Phil and Maita were on holiday here and, as I’d never been to Finland before, I decided to join them for a long weekend. I had a feeling my finances wouldn’t stretch to anything more than 2 or 3 days and I was proved right. Of course, shortly after my arrival on Friday afternoon, I met P&M at a local boozer to discover beer at about 9 Euros a pint. As the Euro is, near as dammit, the same as the pound, this is a good 2.5 times UK prices. Still, had a fun evening in Tommyknocker’s Bar and some other place later!

P1120985
Knowing that we would be feeling somewhat retarded in the morning we had a late start. Language geeks among you will know that Finnish is a Uralic language similar to Estonian and Hungarian. It is full of double consonants and vowels which are pronounced separately giving the speech a lot of aahaahwoowoo sounds. Try this for size: ‘hyppytyynytyydytys’, a splendidly-useful word for the satisfaction got from a nice, soft, bouncy cushion. Thankfully, almost everyone speaks English so there is little incentive to learn these tongue twisters.

P1120991
One could be mistaken into thinking that you were in St Petersburg – the buildings are so similar. It’s naturally very civilized and classically eastern European with its trams and cobbled streets. After a splendid Thai evening meal (well, when in Rome…) we repaired to another boozer and discovered a pub tram. Yes, it does exactly what it says on the tin. A ride around the city in a tram with a bar selling overpriced, grim beer.

DSC_0022
On the Sunday we went on a tourist boat trip in the Baltic around the archipelago (total 300+ islands). One odd thing we all noticed was the extraordinarily-large number of Japanese here (when I arrived at the airport I thought I’d disembarked in Tokyo!) One rather quaint Sunday tradition is the dressing up in old folk costumes and parading/picnicking in the central Esplanade.

DSC_0026
Back home to Leeds on the Monday after a thoroughly-enjoyable weekend. And only a grand lighter. Bargain!

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Helsinki Airport – just how I like airports!

Andy, August 2018

61. Portugal and The World Cup, June 2018

Portugal

Faro to Lagos

After picking up the car (at the incredibly cheap rate of £7 per day) I headed to one of my favourite birding spots right next to the airport, the Ria Formosa National Park. I’m always guaranteed to bag some flamingos and this year there were thousands of Fiddler Crabs in the mudflats. There’s a splendid circular walk you can do here if you want to kill 3 or 4 hours.

The drive to Lagos from Faro is only an hour or so along the toll motorway. My brother, Steve, lives in Lagos and we naturally spent a few evenings setting the world to right on his balcony making short work of several bottles of Bacardi. I also took the opportunity to go to another of my favourite birding spots on the Alvor estuary, only 10 km or so East of Lagos. Here I was pleased to see that the annual influx of Bee Eaters had made their home and the argumentative Black Winged Stilts were in control together with a small flock of flamingos.

Another splendid place to visit along this coast line is the Boca do Rio, just west of Burgau but, sadly, I never bagged the Blue Rock Thrush that hangs about here. Going further, you’ll eventually come to the furthest point south west on the European mainland, the Cabo de Sao Vicente. It’s not the westernmost point, that’s further north near Lisbon, but it’s certainly remote. The small stalls there sell thick jumpers!

 

Lisbon

Many years ago, Helen and I drove up to Lisbon with our son Gary. We drove in via one of the world’s most spectacular bridges over the Tagus estuary, the Pont Vasco de Gama. This time, after a 4-hour drive from Lagos, I deliberately came in over the other bridge, the Pont 25 de Abril, which is just as amazing. The 25th of April 1974 saw the Carnation Revolution in Portugal when the old fascist regime was overthrown. The bridge was originally named the Salazar Bridge after the right wing PM and friend of Franco pre 1974.

 

DSC_0007

Bullring, designed as a mosque with beer stalls outside!

 

A good bargain here is to buy a ticket on one of the many tourist buses. The 2-day pass is very cheap and, given the number of steep hills in the city, is great for moving around on those hot days. Of course, everyone gets on the rickety old tram number 28 that winds its way through narrow, congested streets up to the castle.

 

DSC_0006

Jacaranda trees in Lisbon

 

 

Lisbon is a friendly city with lots of museums to explore. There are still some old areas to explore, particularly in the Bairro Alto, but almost all of Lisbon had to be rebuilt following the catastrophic earthquake of 1755.

 

Meixedo in the Montesinho National Park

A 6.5 hour drive from Lisbon and I arrive at the tiny village of Meixedo which has a population of 163. The B&B is extraordinary with stone walls and silence.

It’s really remote up here on the Spanish border. I had assumed the people here would speak Spanish but, not only is English very rarely heard or spoken, it seems Spanish is just as useless (although, this may be a reflection on my poor Spanish pronunciation!).

 

DSC_0025

One of my many ‘border crossings’

 

On the day of the Spain/Portugal world cup match, I had been travelling along and across the border so many times that I was not entirely sure whom to support in the match. Both sides had their negative factors (‘The Tool’ in Portugal and the ‘Liverpool Destroyer’ in Spain) but I decided that, as I was technically in Portugal, I should side with them. It made it easier when talking to the locals the next day.

 

DSC_0019

The Douro Valley at Miranda do Douro

 

 

The scenery up here is spectacular. The Douro Valley is certainly something that should be on everyone’s bucket list: there are many tourist trips you can do including a train journey one way and a boat back to Porto. For me, it was the deafening silence of the Montesinho National park that was the most stunning. Even the birds seem to respect this which makes them somewhat harder to spot!

 

Guarda

Nothing much to report here except for one of my weirdest hotel rooms!

 

I appeared to have my own waiting room and the most complicated shower ever.

Back to Lagos

 

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Manteigas in the Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela

 

More demolition work on Steve’s booze supply and, a bonus this year, I managed the whole 4 days without destroying his veranda furniture and special wine glasses!

I had another day exploring the Boca de Rio and saw 3 snakes – about the same number as I had seen in my whole life before now. Yes, for my antipodean friends, snakes and other venomous creatures, thankfully, don’t feature in the UK.

WORLD CUP UPDATE

The pundits and commentators in Russia are pleasantly surprised at how wonderful the local people are; how well they have been treated by shopkeepers, publicans, officials, etc. It has been suggested that perhaps they are experiencing an unreal ‘World Cup Bubble’. I agree. Have a look back at my blogs: Nizhny Novgorod (‘Lower New Town’), Kaliningrad and Moscow for a more accurate picture of day-to-day life outside the bubble.

Lionel Messi has attributed Argentina’s last minute winner against Nigeria to God being on their side. What has Nigeria done to upset God so much? Must be Boko Haram!

It seems the England team insisted on ITV2 being available in their hotels so that they can watch Love Island. Apparently, some 3.5 million Brits watch this garbage, leaving 14 million Brexit voters still unaccounted for.

 

FULL BIRD LIST (Common birds seen in all locations)

 

DSC00330

Stork

Ria de Formosa  

Little Tern, White Stork, Little Egret, Goldfinch, Flamingo, Crested Lark, Zitting Cisticola, Sardinian Warbler, House Sparrow, Yellow-Legged Gull

 

Alvor  

Black Winged Stilt, Collared Pratincole, House Martin, Barn Swallow, Dunlin, Bee Eater

 

Boca de Rio  

Stonechat, Blackbird, Corn Bunting, Cormorant, Cattle Egret, Azure Winged Magpie, Collared Dove

 

Montezinho  

Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Cuckoo, Whitethroat, Common Magpie, Wren, Serin, White Wagtail, Black Redstart, Swift, Hoopoe, Nuthatch, Spotless Starling, Nightingale, Wood Pigeon, Black Kite, Buzzard, Stock Dove, Jackdaw, Black Wheatear, Short-Toed Tree Creeper, Great Tit, (unknown) Warbler

 

Guarda  

Northern Wheatear, Kestrel

 

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!