Two drifters…

March 23, 2016

58. South East Asia, Feb/March 2016

Filed under: South East Asia — Andy @ 11:08 pm


‘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).



“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.



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?!


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…


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.



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.


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?”


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.


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.


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?!?!







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




November 21, 2015

56. Matalascañas, Doñana – Andalucia, Spain

Filed under: Europe — Andy @ 8:40 pm
Tags: ,

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.



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.



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

November 2, 2015

55. Malaga, Gibraltar and Tangiers

Filed under: Europe,North Africa — Andy @ 4:28 pm
Tags: , ,

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!


Andy, 2 November 2015

March 10, 2015

54. Northern Spain, Feb. 2015

Filed under: Europe — Andy @ 10:47 pm
Tags: , , , ,
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:


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 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?


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.


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!


March 2015

July 22, 2013

51. Sicily Wrap

Filed under: Italy — Andy @ 10:57 pm

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:


  • 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


  • 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:


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


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!


Tivoli, 22.7.13

Kestrel, Matera

Lesser Kestrel, Matera

May 19, 2013

50. More from Sicily

Filed under: Italy — Andy @ 8:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Palermo Update


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


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.



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)


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.

Palermo, 19.5.13

March 16, 2013

49. Sicilian Travels

Filed under: Italy — Andy @ 8:02 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,


Palermo and surrounds


Time for a quick update. It seems like ages since I last wrote; we’ve been quite busy working which still tends to get in the way of one’s lives. We have full timetables in a well-organised school (extraordinary, in our experience!) and the staff and teachers here are all decent and splendid individuals. I’m fortunate to have classes with mostly adults but Helen does seem to have a lot of baby-sitting duties to perform! We still plan to stay here until July when we’ll return to the UK for my 30th birthday bash in Leeds – currently scheduled for Saturday the 27th – we’d love to see you there.

We have found the time to get away from canis turdus ubiquitarius for a few weekends and explore this stunningly beautiful island. The train line from Palermo to the east runs continually along the breath-taking coastline and the line to the south goes through fantastic mountainous scenery. The island is not too big and you can get from one side to the other in about three hours, or so.

Passeggiatta on Ruggero Settimo, P

Passeggiatta on Ruggero Settimo, Palermo.

A peculiar practice among Sicilianos (and southern Italians) is the early evening Passeggiata. Thousands of locals dress up and simply wander up and down the main streets, stopping to talk to other groups on their way. In Palermo, the central Via Ruggero Settimo is made into a pedestrian area for a few hours every evening for this very purpose and is chocker with folk.

The young guys here mostly sport the trendy, designer-stubble look which I have also perfected but without the ‘trendy’ and ‘designer’ aspects. Many of the women seem to be having a ‘bad hair day’.

Of course, the Italians have been busy in the last few weeks choosing a new government and pope and managing only one. The political scene is mired in more than the normal imbroglio as even the usual coalition system seems to be unworkable. Another election is likely.

The traffic continues to annoy although we are getting more comfortable with crossing the road defying oncoming vehicles, partially controlled by the fag- and phone-toting ‘driver’. It is common for cars to be parked two abreast, on zebra crossings and in various states of disarray and, despite there being many tiers of police present, never seem to attract any attention from the aforementioned.


Inside the Vila Malfitano

Near where we live is the marvellous Villa Malfitano. This old mansion was built by Joseph Whitaker in 1886. Whitaker was a member of an entrepreneurial English family which had a big influence on Sicily in the late 19th and early 20th centuries after making a fortune exporting Marsala wine to all parts of the world. The son of one of our fellow teachers is doing research here and has already uncovered some fascinating archaeological findings which threaten to rewrite the history books.

Serins abound and last weekend we heard our first chiffchaff; we can’t wait for the spring migration season as we should get some belting passage sightings. (Sorry, that last sentence was probably quite meaningless to my normal readers!)



On the outskirts of Palermo’s north is the summer haven of Mondello – a kind of local Blackpool. It was crowded in February so god knows what this place will be like when the spring arrives. We probably won’t be going back!



Situated on the eastern coast, at the foot of Mount Etna, this town is full of character. It was totally wiped out in 1669 when Etna erupted and swamped the town in lava. Many Sicilianos don’t like Catania and think it is too dark and depressing. This is because the city was rebuilt using the volcanic rock which covered it. We liked it. We had the best value 5 Euro tourist bus trip ever and had an outside dinner late in the evening – there’s a real café society feeling about the place in complete contrast to the utilitarian capital.

A local speciality is the smoked artichoke: we came across a very popular street stall on the Sunday morning where half the population of Catania seem to have gathered to purchase this item.

We learnt the following day that there had indeed been rumblings from the famous mountain – clearly it hadn’t realised we were there and a full eruption was avoided.



The Straits of Messina separate Sicily from the mainland and, at its nearest, is only about 5 kilometres wide. Successive governments have toyed with the thought of building a bridge across but this has always been shelved. This is largely because the straits lies on top of one of the world’s liveliest tectonic cracks which caused Europe’s biggest ever earthquake in 1908. We decided, therefore, not to

Messina duomo at night

Messina duomo at night

visit this place on the weekend at the end of February – being the anniversary of both our Libyan evacuation and Chilean earthquake – too risky!

Messina is not the prettiest place on earth but it does have a beautiful cathedral with a bizarre tower and astronomical clock (reminiscent of Prague’s Staroměstské náměstí). Every midday, the clock tower comes to life and people gather round to see the spectacle of the roaring lion and strutting cockerel for a fifteen minute hoot! Also, the city has a tram!  Sadly, it is probably the worst tram in the world: most of the seats are so badly-designed it’s virtually impossible to sit on them with a normal-sized butt and the tracks appear to have been engineered to some white-knuckle, fairground-ride standard – throwing the passengers from side to side with neck-breaking alacrity.



Across the island on the south side lies this historic town, home to some of Europe’s best-kept Greek temple ruins. Having seen many ruins before in our lives we decided not to bother going round these and spent a day in the nearby coastal resort of San Leone which was virtually deserted at this time of year.


An hour’s train journey east from Palermo you arrive at the delightful tourist trap of Cefalù. Sadly, we had forgotten to bring the camera so there’s no piccies but the sea-front has a wonderful path hewn out of the rocks and you walk along under hotels and restaurants, dodging the waves and the rock pools. It’s really quite exciting!

Castellammare del Golfo

Dodgy dude in Castellammare

Dodgy dude in Castellammare


We had our first visitor at the beginning of February: Matthew (the son of our good friends Bob and Jan) came from frozen Blighty to soak up the Sicilian sun and ended up simply getting soaked. The weather was atrocious but this didn’t dampen our spirits. We got a car for the weekend and having miraculously got out of Palermo with our lives intact, we made our way over to Castellammare, a picturesque harbour town west of Palermo. I’ve just finished reading a book about the history of the Cosa Nostra and this place was the birthplace of one of the influential godfathers and many a plot was hatched from here. Helen wandered off alone for 10 minutes on the Sunday morning and she managed to get befriended by a shifty-looking, local raconteur who tried to interest us in his detached-horse-head business.

Just up the road from here is the Zingaro national park – famous (as I’m sure you’re aware) for Bonelli’s Eagle. We arrived at 3.45 to find that the place closed at 4, so we got in free provided we didn’t stray more than 7.5 minutes into the park. We plan to return here later when I’m sure we’ll miss the damn bird again – our track record on eagle spotting is not impressive!

OK, enough for now. It’s Saturday and it’s been wazzing it down all day – it’s not all it’s cracked up to be here, you know!


Palermo, 16.3.13

January 17, 2013

48. Palermo

Filed under: Italy — Andy @ 3:27 pm

P1020147Picture album:

Time for a quick update.

Our street, Via Whitaker

Our street, Via Whitaker

We’ve managed to get ourselves employed again in a school called British Institutes in Palermo on a 6-month contract: time enough to ensure we’re back in Blighty for my big birthday bash at the end of July; please start marking your calendars and diaries now. We’re into our second week and have a few classes already. We’ve moved into a flat in a typical Italian-sounding street called Via Whitaker: this guy was a British entrepreneur of the 19th century who made a fortune peddling the local tipple, Marsala wine, around the world.

It’s actually quite cold at the moment, we’re almost in single figures Celsius and it’s raining all day! Our flat has very little in the way of heating and we can’t have more than two electrical devices on at the same time as the fuse blows. Still, I’m sure we won’t be moaning about the cold when the summer comes.

Palermo itself is not the most beautiful city in the world. It suffers excessively from the usual piles of crud and excrement on the paths as many cities and there is an over-abundance of vehicles clogging the streets. Indeed, it is often difficult to walk either on the path or get off it to cross the road: cars are parked so tightly. In British English, the protrusions at the front and back of cars are called ‘bumpers’ (‘fenders’ in the US, which are the classic, Hendrix-type guitars to us Brits!) and are perfectly named here. In order to get in or out of a parking space, you must nudge the cars on either side of you. Consequently, all cars have knackered bumpers.

Driving here is, unsurprisingly, a nightmare. We hired a car for two weeks to go down south (see Pozzallo below) and were shocked when we had to drive back into Palermo. It’s almost as though you are invisible – cars simply come out of side streets directly in front of you, or AT you. I thought it was just me but I was relieved to see in my rear-view mirror a motorcyclist being smacked by a car and delivered fuming with his mangled bike into the crud and canine turdage strewn on the sidewalk.

The Teatro Massimo

The Teatro Massimo

There are some interesting sights here. You’ll remember the final scene in The Godfather Trilogy where Al Pacino attends the performance of Cavalleria Rusticana only to have his beloved daughter gunned down on the steps of the theatre. This was filmed at the Teatro Massimo in the centre of the city.

The city is surrounded by some impressive mountains so we hope to get up one of them this weekend. Birding in the city is limited to, yes you’ve guessed it, the feral pigeon!

Fantastic oranges and pizzas (who would’ve thought?). Cheap wine. Rose-ringed parakeets in the botanical gardens. Who could ask for more?


Over the Xmas and New Year period we took off to the south eastern part of the island and spent a couple of weeks in a small town called Pozzallo. We chose this area because the surrounding area looked promising for national parks, and it proved to be a very good spot. There’s a fantastic reserve called Vendicari nearby where we spent much of the time and largely had the place to ourselves.

Flamingos at Vendicari

Flamingos at Vendicari

It is chocker with flamingos, spoonbills and herons and a delightful place to walk around. You can even see Mount Etna, rising menacingly in the distance.

The roads around this part of the island have some stunning views with baroque towns perched on hillsides and breath-taking viaducts spanning valleys with villages dotted beneath you. The drive from Palermo across the island takes you for most part on stilts – really quite weird. We got lost as we drove into the clouds and visibility was reduced to a few yards; the road-signage here is not exactly up to UK standards!

Pozzallo and Vendicari pictures:

Vendicari and surrounds birding photos:



17.01.13, Palermo, Sicily.

December 11, 2012

47. Naples

Filed under: Italy — Andy @ 9:32 pm

Looking over Naples from Concezione Monte Calvario

Looking over Naples from Concezione Monte Calvario

Picture album:

After a pleasant stay in the UK for three weeks or so, we decided to head off once again for warmer climes. As we were driving to the airport last Tuesday morning it became apparent that we’d just made it in time – all the news concentrating on Kate and the Royal Vomit.

We didn’t get the Egypt jobs (gutted!) and we’d always fancied living and working in Italy so here we are.

Naples was our first stop en-route to Sicily – well, the Parkin curse factor should ensure that either the Mafia or a volcano gets us; more fodder for a good blog.

Ubiquitous brolly sellers

Ubiquitous brolly sellers

It rains a lot down here: everywhere you go there are either brolly sellers or discarded brollies in amongst all the other crap that is strewn over the streets and pavements. Dog-dump dodging is part of the everyday stroll technique – not that many people do stroll, there being the overabundance of cars and motorbikes. It’s not as scary as Vietnam in that respect, though Helen begs to differ!

Some things about the place: almost constant sound of emergency vehicle sirens in the streets (these were very unusual in Vietnam); cheap and easy transport; friendly hotel/shop/restaurant people; great pizzas (well, they would be, wouldn’t they?); Pinot Grigio in the shops for €3 (I didn’t know that the Italian ‘grigio’ means ‘grey’), and the local red wine for €1.50; mad traffic but, bizarrely, they obey zebra crossings!

General air of seediness: there are some very dodgy characters hanging around street corners, we saw soup kitchens and the streets never seem to get cleaned. There are lots of illegal street sellers (mostly Africans) with bags and other leather goods playing a ‘catch me’ game with the police: when the fuzz turns up, they bundle up their goods in a sheet and walk around like suspicious-looking, jolly swagmen.

Berlusconi has joined the figures of fun for the crib creators

Berlusconi has joined the figures of fun for the crib creators

At this time of year the local tradition of making cribs (‘Presepi’) is in full flow. The cribs and a huge variety of miscellaneous figures and objects are sold in the old town. The locals buy additional bits and pieces every year and build miniature towns and Christmas scenes in their homes, often forcing the occupants out onto the streets.


Pompei pictures:

A half-hour’s train journey from Naples takes you to Pompei under the shadow of the volcano Vesuvius. Those of us old enough will remember that fateful day in AD79 when it erupted and covered the whole town in a couple of feet of ash. The townsfolk dusted themselves off, coughed and breathed a sigh of relief only to be confronted 10 minutes later by the deadly pyroclastic flow travelling at 80 kph which killed every living thing except, of course, the feral pigeon.

Looks nice now

Looks nice now

What you may not know is that, although the old town has been preserved as it was after the catastrophe, a new town has sprung up alongside and you can get the train to the new place or directly to the ruins. We, naturally, alighted at the new place by mistake and had to walk across town to the famous place. As we were walking a helpful, old guy came up to us and asked: “Ruins?” to which I had to reply: “Well, we’re not as old you, cheeky bugger!

Surprisingly, there were a few visitors who didn’t have cameras – a Korean nightmare! Thankfully, later we saw many Korean visitors with camera apparatus overload.

Pompei is well worth a visit and, for my money, knocks the other old Roman sites into a cocked hat. We’ve just about got the full set of these places: Pompei, Troy, Carthage, Leptis Magna & Sabratha so we can stop there. One interesting point of note: in all these sites one finds Black Redstarts in abundance – what’s that all about?

Fondo and Sperlonga

An hour and a half on the Rome-bound train (bargain price of €6) and we’re in the Lazio region. We visited the brother of a good friend of ours and his Italian girlfriend – both English teachers. OK, so it was a bit of a busman’s holiday but we were treated to traditional local food of pasta, tomatoes, fruit, ratatouille and peppers, mozzarella and parmesan etc. Cliff reminded us of the big story back home in Blighty – apparently all the Italian media are talking about is ‘Il Royal Baby‘.

The posh coastal resort of Sperlonga was almost deserted at this time of year and all the better for it.

We booked ourselves on to the Saturday night ferry but it was cancelled at the last moment due to rough seas so we had to walk around the town looking for another hotel – most were fully-booked. It’s times like this, dragging cases, when the romantic notion of cobbled streets is somewhat less appreciated. We managed to sail on Sunday’s overnight crossing.

We’re in Sicily now and looking for jobs here, however, today I had a phone interview with the British Council for jobs back in Tripoli, Libya. Helen had her interview yesterday; we won’t know the result until next week so, who knows what next? According to our interviewer, Tripoli has fewer entertainment options these days than when we were last there. It sounds like a real riot!

Wait… what’s that rumbling sound?


11.12.12, Palermo, Sicily.

Pictures from UK in last two months:

November 10, 2012

46. Vietnam Wrap – we’re moving on

Filed under: Vietnam — Andy @ 6:27 pm

Picture album:

View from Lang Biang, Da Lat

After Da Lat we moved to Mui Ne on the coast (delightful road journey, over the hills) and now we’re back in the bustle and madness that’s HCMC. Last night we went back to the first boozer we came to 3 months ago on Bui Vien, the backpackers’ street to sink a few Saigon Reds and reminisce.

Quite nice sunset at our hotel

Mui Ne is a holiday resort that goes on for miles. It has a lovely sea front, famous sand dunes, lots of marijuana and loads of restaurants and hotels. A large section of the place has its signs in Cyrillic for the enormous influx of Russians who come here, many of whom are setting up businesses and upsetting the locals. On our last day there we took two ‘Xe oms’, motorbike taxis, 15 kilometres to the amazing market in the nearby city of Phan Thiet. On the way back to the hotel, they took a different route and I thought the Parkin curse factor had kicked in again and we were going to be turned over in some remote region and relieved of our final salaries. I was preparing myself: I was sure I could overpower my guy but Helen’s rider looked like a Mexican drug baron and would have taken all my cunning and martial art skills to get the better of him. It turned out they were only showing us a fantastic sight of the resort from high ground. How bizarre! We weren’t taken to the cleaners!

Before we left, we got chatting to two Vietnamese American tourists who were kind enough to fill us in on their recent, two-week trip to Europe (‘It’s Tuesday so it must be Rome’!) When we said we were from England, she responded: ‘Oh yeah, that place with the river and the bridge with towers, I remember’. She had London confused with England. So I said: ‘Oh, you’re from California, do you know Bud from Los Angeles?’

Our original plan of moving on to Cambodia has been superseded; we had gruelling, hour-long interviews with the British Council a couple of days ago and may get positions with them in Egypt – we won’t know for another week or so. Our return flights to UK are this Sunday so, instead of paying a fortune to change them, we decided to use them to return. If we don’t get the Egypt jobs (quite likely as we didn’t use enough vacuous buzz-phrases and meaningless jargon in the interviews) we’ll go somewhere else from Blighty.

Almost everyone we spoke to raved about Vietnam and we were hooked after seeing the Top Gear TV special. This is often a recipe for disappointment: it’ll never live up to the hype. The jury’s out on Vietnam for me but Helen enjoyed it so we’ll probably come back some day, maybe when we’re retired and can afford to do some voluntary work. So, we had a final meal at our boss’s restaurant (he kept that quiet!) and left.

Our last night at the boss’s restaurant (at least he paid!)

Here are my last impressions of this country:

The people: generally very pleasant, and happy, particularly those involved in the service industries (compare with my last blog from Russia).


For the first time in my teaching career I came across students who simply refused to do things. I was shocked when a student said: ‘No, I won’t’ when I asked him to read something. This happened more than once. After speaking to our colleague Jolanda, whose husband has a business here and employs locals, I discovered this is not an isolated trait. Occasionally, his employees say ‘No’ when he asks them to do something. Weird!

Something that I feel compelled to comment on (perhaps I’ll expand on my GOB blog) is the clear disparity in fairness in lives here, compared to the ‘Western World’. So many young people we’ve met in this country are highly educated, articulate and hard-working and yet, receive so little reward for their efforts. But, don’t get me started on that one.

The language: I simply could not bring myself to learning the language beyond the essentials. The women, boy, do they shriek! But phrases like ‘Rong dong’ are always guaranteed to make you laugh.  In our Lonely Planet phrasebook, a useful phrase for me was ‘I’m a vegetarian’, phonetically translated as ‘Doy un jay’. This never worked; it turns out that the correct pronunciation of the last word is ‘chai’ (rhyming with ‘lie’) and I was simply announcing to the waiter that I was a jerk, information seldom useful when ordering a meal.

General: we didn’t see any real poverty. The real smart places are the pagodas and churches: this is where the money is. If you see ‘Hot toc’ signs this means hairdresser. I had a haircut in Da lat and this is always fun in a foreign country. I was initially concerned, waiting for my turn, seeing the punters in front having extensive ear-penetration work. I don’t know about you, but I go to the hairdressers to get my hair cut. I politely declined this option, having learned from my experience in Istanbul when I got the ‘flaming cotton bud’ treatment; it scared the crap out of me.

Karaoke bars and massages are everywhere.

Tipping is not expected.

One last thing: if you like sitting at an outside table at a restaurant, make a huge sign (preferably in Vietnamese) with the words ‘I don’t want to buy anything’ emblazoned on it unless, of course, you often get the urge to buy that painting, postcard, pair of sunglasses, tat, etc. when you eat.


10.11.12, Saigon, Vietnam.

More pictures of Dalat, school, etc.:

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