Thursday, 31 March 2016

OZ BLOG 2016 Part 1

OZ Blog 2016 PART ONE: Getting Accustomed.

We are here again and by the time you read this it will be day 5 for us in this wonderful country and day seven in all taking into account the travel time. 'Us' this time comprises of Trish and myself  accompanied by Merlin. A veteran now of Windies tours, he is once again a virgin when it comes to OZ. Merlin has often asked over the last year, what exactly is OZ like? And for me it's easy to describe. Luckily for him, it's Sweden with better weather. Simple as that. For us Brits, it's paradise, which is totally ironic when you consider the reason most Brits were sent here originally.

I am writing this then, on day five in OZ aboard the train from Brisbane to Beerwah. We have spent the day in Queensland's capital, gawping at the beach within the city and the clean wide streets that you can cross, when the green man allows it, at any angle you wish, giving rise to the initially mind blowing diagonal crossing. In other words, instead of making a vertical and then horizontal crossing as is the norm, you cut out the middle man by going diagonally direct. And there are lots of other common sense ideas to be seen in this city and in the state Itself. Free parking is the norm as is free just about anything else that serves to enhance the OZ experience.

Take for example the beach in the middle of the city, otherwise known as Southbank. Man made, and a watery paradise for adult and more importantly child alike. Adults lounge on the beach, while their children play on a myriad of watery amusements, all supervised by lifeguards. As Merlin said, if he would have brought his three kids here when they were younger, they would have to be prised  away screaming at the end of the day. Cost? Nothing. Then, while the kids are safely playing there was a rainforest walk to experience, birds of various variety calling and soaring among the canopy above us, whilst lizards scuttled along in the undergrowth. Cost? Free. And just in case you had forgotten dear reader, this takes place slap bang in the middle of a bustling, cosmopolitan city, bathed in Autumn sunshine.

Merlin is still in discovery mode. All we experience is new to him, and by his demeanour, most gratifying. As the days have rattled by, our esteemed host Jim, resident of Mooloolaba, nestling favourably on the Sunshine Coast, has excelled himself taking us here and there to experience the essence of OZ. The first day in town is always a bit of a Russian Roulette. After a journey of some 24 hours from Blighty, one always arrives in OZ with head similar to that of the day after a heavy bong session of the seventies. Fuddled, muddled and fuzzy. A walk on the beach is the order of the day, something to eat, in our case Barramundi and chips, and bed when you really can't stay awake any more. That adds up to a pretty full day, after arriving at Brisbane at seven in the morning.

Of course no arrival in OZ  would be complete with the inevitable Border Security as seen on TV. Last time, last year we breezed through. This time our passage was threatened by the contraband we were being forced to carry. The illegal gear was Merlin's snus. This tobacco product is frowned upon in Ozzie. Merlin depends on it and had been sweating, Popeye Doyle stylie, for some weeks prior to our trip. You see he needs it as you might need a kip in the afternoon or a cup of tea in the early morning. These pouches of nicotinious mush are  essential to his avoiding fagging. They work for thousands of dependent Swedes. Not accepted in OZ. Efforts to send a package through the post to Jim had been foiled at Sydney customs house. Merlin resolved then that each one of us would smuggle in two puck like packages of the stuff each and claim it was for our own personal use. How any customs official was going to believe that of my dear innocent looking wife, was beyond my comprehension, although as was pointed out, in this case, her colour could work towards the cause.

We need not have worried, for as we stood, single file on the green line, being sniffed at by a local pooch called 'do not pet' and waiting our turn at the interrogation table, we were saved by a family of oblivious Orientals. Despite the clear list of banned foodstuffs for importation, five fellow travellers from the land of Ga Ga, were hauled up by an incredulous and opinionated official, who wanted to know why they trying to bring a bag of apples through. I have witnessed this scenario countless times on 'Border Security Australia' and there it was playing out in front of my unbelieving but grateful eyes. Otherwise engaged, the blue shirted officials waved us through, snus and all.

Monday, 31 August 2015

DAYS 30-31.....The Return Of Lock Yourself Out

At last, Antigua. We were up hideously early this very morning to begin the journey home. This involved the descent as previously detailed down to Kingstown and St.Vincent airport, Tropical Storm Erika was still in the area yesterday, giving Dominica a fearful pounding. Such a shame for that is a beautiful island with equally nice people. At about midday yesterday we were told that today's flight to Antigua was cancelled. Never has the Bush Telegraph been so wrong. Luckily Fred's Internet Cafe, two dwellings up in Rosehall had provided us, whilst sheltering in his porch, with the information that Friday's flight was NOT cancelled, although all flights North of ANTIGUA and in and out of Dominica were.

And so we were soon winging our way to Antigua via St. Lucia which looked really splendid as we landed there to take on passengers. We arrived at the spanking new Antigua terminal, opened two days ago, air conditioned and spacious. We were soon at our hotel, minutes from the airport with an excellent view of the end of the runway that any plane spotter would be in awe of. Little did we know that later on that evening we would have an extended opportunity to view to comings and goings at Antigua airport from the comfort of our balcony.

Wind Chimes Inn has runway facing rooms. And very comfortable they are too. All rooms have a balcony and no better fun can be had late at night after a few drinks, than sitting on the balcony watching the planes. Brilliant! And so we decided to do this very night except.........Trish, my wife who, if you remember, gave me 'the look' when I locked us out of our room on Bequia, locked all four of us out on the balcony. To this day, the day after, we can't figure out how it happened, but happen it did. Cue much deliberation. Merlin was sure that a descent via the structure of the first and second floor balconies could be achieved......if we were in our twenties. Thanks for that. I was in favour of waiting for the neighbours to come home and let us in, for our room door was open. A good idea, except that they eventually came home at 4 a.m.

Nothing else for it but to shout for help, which eventually worked. Like castaways on a remote atoll, we decided that anyone who came within earshot would be hailed and it eventually worked, a kind lady from the house behind the hotel came to our aid and called the night porter, who let us back in. I couldn't help thinking that the policy of hailing a passer by was full of danger. A passing Biily Burglar for example, enjoying a spot of r and r on his walk home would have been presented with quite an opportunity as we were the only items out on the balcony, no phones did we have, no laptops, no IPads, no wallets or credit cards. You get the idea. They were in the room. Still, we were back in, and to my credit, not once did I give my wife 'the look'.

Next stop was, at last Antigua airport, our flight home. We got here in plenty of time, the air conditioning in the new terminal almost too good. However if we thought as we sat in departures supping a few beers, that from now on the journey would be incident free, we were wrong although compared to the incidents of the last week, the latest and last was a breeze.......for one of us.

Now for those of you who are frequent fliers, especially on long haul or transatlantic flights, you will know that when you enter the aircraft you are always directed to the right. This means you have Economy seats or Fourth Class. For this flight we had been given an upgrade. To World Traveller Class, which is third class really. As we found out, you still turn right as you enter the plane but are given better seats and grub.

Imagine our surprise when only three of us were directed rightward with the rest of the scum and semi scum. The fourth, Merlin, was directed to the left. He had mysteriously been upgraded at the gate where I saw them rip up his boarding  card. For one minute I thought he was getting his wish to stay in The Windies and spend the rest of his days liming. But no. He turned left.....and kept walking to the front of the aircraft where he was greeted by The Captain himself. Merlin was in row zero. First Class. Champagne, flat bed, menu, free booze, thick blanket and waited on hand and foot class. He even came back to us in measly third class waving his menu around proclaiming his beloved cheesecake to be a dessert choice. His free booze, no damn good to him, even included Jim's beloved Bailey's, not available in Premium Economy. Surely he would bring some back for Jim. Not a bit of it. That was the last we saw of the git until Gatwick. When I tried to go up to see him, I was refused entry. "You are not allowed in there sir" the stewardess informed me. Meanwhile Merlin, doing his impersonation of Emperor Nero reclined on his seat while they tipped fruit punch down his gullet. Punch? Good idea. But at least we were all on our way home, apart from Jim, who had another day of travelling ahead of him to get back to OZ. But on our way home we all were, a week late, a week poorer but with memories that will be with us for a long time to come,

I hope you enjoyed the blog readers, especially those who stuck with it all the way through and didn't just read the Hotel Bastardos entry. That was the most read of them all. I also hope that you have been able to feel a little bit of the atmosphere of the truly weird and wonderful islands that make up The Windies. If you have, then the blog has done its job. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

DAYS 26-31.....Communication Windies Stylie

We have been hanging out in the village for a week now. Every day at some time we go for a stroll. It's usually when the sun is thinking about dusting itself down, patting itself on the back and going to torment others on the other side of the world. Dusk is short here but if you get off your liming arse and take to the narrow uneven road up into the centre, there is much to experience. Most of the folks who have spent their day hanging about are still there, mixing with others recently back from various locations and sometimes work. Consequently there is much to discuss. At volume. At distance. At anytime of day. Here a street conversation can take place at the drop of a multicoloured hat and the air is sometimes thick with all three types.

The one that is the most perplexing to us from the East is the conversation that starts face to face and ends up at a distance of anything up to 50 to 100 metres. This is a classic. As the two, three or sometimes more, participants move away from each other having had a normal but usually loud conversation, instead of wishing each other goodnight, good day or whatever, the conversation continues, getting louder with each step taken until, at maximum volume they are shouting at each other from a considerable distance. And remember the dialect is almost unfathomable. It's English Jim but not as we understand it, delivered like a round of machine gun fire.

Then there is the 100 metre shout. Today, Fred, cousin to Trish and well known to some readers of this blog engaged Trish's mum in this one. Fred lives about three 'doors' up. (Some doors are sturdier than others). Let's say best part of 100 metres. Matilda was on the balcony at the back of the house. Fred, standing on his porch. They needed to communicate and communicate they did. Fred could of easily secured a job as Town Crier anywhere in days gone by, "oh yay oh yay, the Internet is now on Tant". Matlida, 76 years old was also not to be outdone in the process and returned a gusty "Fred you......." .....there was more but that's all I understood! This 100 metre communication can of course be achieved over less distances and I have also seen it successful over greater, right outside our house here in fact, to the top of the hill.

Probably the most interesting of the conversations and the third I will mention, actually happened last night. The Argument. This indeed is really impressive and it too can be heard over a distance, and guaranteed to draw a crowd. Two protagonists are ideally required although Cousin Claude who lives in a board shack at the back of the house in our 'yard', can actually carry out one with himself at any time and in any place. And has done so on a number of occasions recently. But the two person salvo is more Impressive. I didn't understand a word of last night's conflagration and had to ask Cousin Elwyn, after it had all died down, what the hell it was about. I then learned that Elwyn had actually been involved. Whether this officially made it a three person argument or not I don't know.

Apparently this softly spoken man was mediating in the dispute between Clarrie, who lives in a small flat underneath 'The Disco' and some fellow in the street, her ex it turned out to be, who owes her money. This episode was pretty loud, drew a small crowd, could be heard from the back of the house and included 'cussing' which never impresses Matilda who luckily was round the corner 'going by Mosso'. In other words it had all the essential ingredients. When I arrived it was mostly blown out, similar to Hurricane Danny, now terrorising the Northward Caribbean. As usual the ex boyfriend left the scene still shouting the odds and kept at it as he departed up the street well past Fred's place. I then heard the West Indian 'supe' from Clarrie. This entails sucking air into the mouth through clenched teeth which produces a sound rather like a elongated tut but is always used when disdain is required. Clarrie produced a truly impressive one of these. I've tried it, but the folks round here just laugh at me, as they did when me, Merlin and Jim tried the long distance conversation mentioned above. We even started with the customary "hey (enter name) what's up." To no avail. We just sounded pathetic and Fred and the passers by were royally entertained.

A little later on I heard about Tropical Storm Erica approaching fast. Liat have already cancelled some flights on Friday and guess what day we are flying home! Supe that!

Monday, 24 August 2015

DAYS 22-26..... ROSEHALL......Like Nothing Else Danny Boy

It had to happen. Nowadays it seems no trip to the Caribbean is complete without a complete travel catastrophe. Richard Humphries will be in his element as Danny, relegated today to a tropical storm from hurricane status bears down upon the Windward Islands. Naturally it's due to make landfall on Monday the 25th which is the exact day we were flying out of Antigua, the town over which the eye of the storm will pass. Serves us right really. I decided to fly into Antigua this trip having twice been screwed over at Barbados by local carrier Liat Air. How ironic then that at this time Barbados will be unaffected by the weather front and Liat in panic at the first mention of Danny Boy, cancelled all flights to and out of Antigua, two whole days before the storm was due. This effectively marooned us in.......Barbados had we taken our flight out of St. Vincent today. If we had been flying out of there we would be on our way home as I write. Travel to and from there is fine. Bloody typical. So here we are with another five days with Mother In Law in Rosehall, so......                                                
let's have a walk round Rosehall folks.

To begin with, it's situated at the end of the road that twists and turns up through the verdant rainforest hills of St. Vincent. Hopefully the description of the journey up here in the previous post has covered all that. Once here, there is nowhere else to go. The village is fairly spread out and as usual there are grand residences and the usual corrugated metal and wood shacks standing side by side on Main Street. The whole village is overlooked by Mount Soufrié the giant dormant volcano which dominates the landscape in breathtaking magnificence. At the foot of the mountain, the Caribbean Sea sparkles in the sunlight with two villages nestling in the natural bays formed by its volcanic landscaping over the millennia. No golden tourist sand here, it's black and course. Sand castles for small children and their dads not possible I'm afraid.

It's fairly hilly and the roads consist of rough concrete and tarmac, in good condition compared to those leading up here. The people range, as do their dwellings but a high percentage are friendly and glad to see 'white men walking' as we are referred to sometimes when out on one of Jim's photographic expeditions. News travels quickly in these here parts and it's becoming well known that one of the white men is Mrs. O'Garro's Son In Law. The other two they are less sure of.

Some locals are keen to help, whether it's directions up to the burial ground (ultimate peace and great views up there) or advice not to sit in the sun, which Jim got this morning from a passing cutlass wielding citizen who informed him that to sit in the sun too long would 'make his piss boil'.

There are also those who partake to freely of the local hooch, St. Vincent rum. Both Tom Iddon and Dave Lloyd have fallen victim to this stuff back home, clear 84% rocket fuel which Cousin Claude, who lives in a shack round the back here, likes to drink, as you might drink an early morning cup of tea. Consequently we found him in the middle of the road this very morning, playing cricket.....with himself. It's interesting to note that even a totally pissed West Indian can make a forward defensive or an off drive look beautifully aggressive. Many of these such people crazily gate past the house at any time of the day or night exhorting salutations to anyone who will respond, usually us, liming on the veranda. But don't get the idea that they are all boozed up crazies, most are genuinely pleased to see us and spend the day in the sun, or their part of it, chatting about anything and everything with the three Strangers In Town.

One such is Mosso. He's in his eighties and amazingly, used to drink with my dad at The Hare And Hounds pub in St. Albans. When I first met him in 2009, he enquired as to my place of birth etc. I told him I was brought up in St. Albans. He had lived in that area then and told me where. I informed him that my dad had a milk round in that neighbourhood. He then told me he knew my dad....... 'Milkman Bill, dat was him, we had drinks in The Hare And Hounds...... dat pub near Cottonmill'. Unbelievable. Now it's my much anticipated and pleasant custom to visit Mosso on his veranda and have a few beers with him every time I visit. He's in the twilight of his years now, sunset approaches but his eyes still twinkle with mischief as he recalls his life in St. Albans.

The village by day is quiet, save for the occasional vehicle that arrives straining for mechanical breath after the torturous ascent, dogs barking, the distant thud of a mega speaker system and the salutation shouting that goes on nearly all the time in an incomprehensible dialect. Occasionally a breeze will blow, rustling the nearby palm, breadfruit and mango trees and giving welcome respite to the three white men, two of which are unused to the close humidity and lack of breath. There are shops but to us, more like huts selling just the basics but without cheese and milk which have to be purchased at least an hour away at the local supermarket. Fresh produce comes by way of the cars and trucks which come past selling fish, bread, meat, fruit or vegetables. Each vehicle will sell one of these. Today it was the fish man, who announced his arrival by the expert blowing of a conch shell, audible right across the village. In the boot of his ancient car he was selling small fish which were soon snapped up. Yesterday it was Amber Fish, bought, prepared and expertly cooked by cousin Elwyn. They were delicious.

So here life goes on, as it has done for centuries, with the occasional technological intrusion from the outside world. As we approach our last day, we feel like we are going back to civilisation which in a way is disrespectful to the quality of life we have experienced. For in Rosehall, the clock does not rule lives, it either morning, afternoon or 'goodnight'. The stress levels seem to be low and they are content with life as they have it. The young people have opportunities if they so desire, to move away and go to college or university and as Cousin Phil a sanguine and reflective Village Elder put it 'make something of themselves'. Soon the international airport will open on the Windward side of the island and perhaps this spell will be broken. But as we said the other night as we chewed the late night fat on the veranda, not up here.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

DAYS 15-17.....ST. VINCENT..........Roads In Paradise

At last we arrived by speedy ferry on St. Vincent from Union. An early start but an early arrival too. The quayside was busy and bustling on our arrival and I think the Bequia ferry had just arrived too. It was alive with carriers, trucks and barrows carrying goodness knows what from and to the islands of the Grenadines. The next stage in our journey was the one up to Rosehall where the family home is located. I remember the first time I landed here and met with cousin Fred who minded us during our dollar van nightmare up the mountain. This was in the days before Venold, Trish's brother, lived in the family home and was able to meet us in his people carrier, which is what he was doing today.

For new readers who were not avid readers then, the journey to Rosehall takes, with a normal, sane, Venold type driver, about 90 minutes. Roads are narrow, villages busy with dog and human traffic but Dollar Vans race against the clock and each other, in order to secure more and more customers over the course of a day. Dan, the village Dollar Van driver has done the trip in half that. And is proud of it too. They overtake in ridiculous places, on hairpin bends, blind corners and summits, blaring their horns at the unsuspecting in their way, which was us on our calm journey, but not on my first terror ride.......

We were IN the dollar van, hanging on for dear, dear, life, as sheer drops on one side and landslides on the other brought additional terror. Fellow passengers, crammed sweatily into the van, seemed oblivious to the nightmare as they read the evening paper, slept, listened to the reggae music emanating from the tinny speakers or chatted and cursed among themselves, while all as one, swaying in their cramped prison at each twist and turn of the upward, downward and upward again mountain trail.

Rosehall, is the last village on this journey. And when you arrive, the van pukes you out into the sunshine with your bags and your sweat. You are hot and exhausted, clothing sticking to your back, fingernails left in the seat back that had been in front of you. But as the van races off to deliver its other victims further up the hill, you notice the calm that has descended. A light breeze welcomes you as it races from the valleys of Mount Soufrié. The view is spectacular, and as Jim said today, a photo cannot do it justice. The sparkling Caribbean Sea dances way below in Richmond Bay. Soufrié  rises in its magnificence looking down on the fertile valleys on its sides and in its skirts. Clouds weave and warp around its summit with weather systems fighting for dominance. The iron gate of The O'Garro house swings squeakily open and Cousin Elwyn, thin and wiry, ex grave digger and house caretaker welcomes us with a tombstone toothed grin and indecipherable words that mean we are welcome and we are 'home'.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

DAYS 13-14........UNION ISLAND......Happy Islands

Every time I have been to The Windies, and this area, The Grenadines, I have made the trip to a place of stunning natural beauty, The Tobago Cays Marine Park. This is accessed only by boat, a day trip usually from Bequia, including snorkelling opportunities, photographic panoramas, good food and booze. This time the trip was shorter and we went by Catamaran not the Friendship Rose Schooner. Jim of course had never been so he especially was looking forward to it. Words cannot describe the natural wonders at The Park, the many shades of aquamarine, the sea life, turtles, stingrays, puffer fish and a myriad of other unknown species of marine life, apart from that little fishy chap from Finding Nemo. Brilliant . And this time the food was better, the Cat was great, the trip was shorter even under sail, Trish didn't feel like throwing up at any time and we called in at some other equally fab islands before arriving at The Cays. Stunning. And the best bit of all, thirty quid cheaper!
However, there is another island worth visiting in these here parts.

Let's get things in perspective. Out here in paradise life is tough for a great many of the inhabitants. True, they live in places where even the most ungreenfingered idiot could grow enough grub in this fertile volcanic soil to eke out a basic existence without the aid of charity from tourists. The weather, admittedly at times extreme, is generally pleasant with no need to huddle round a fire made out of anything that will burn whist watching the snow fall outside the circle of warmth. But still, there are a lot who live basically in makeshift shelters, shacks and tumbledown brickwork..

One such was a geezer called Shante, from Grenada who decided that action was the name of the game, to raise himself from nothing, to make something of himself. Instead of relying on others, he arrived on Union island, took one look at the natural reef that protects the harbour from the more serious battering force of the Caribbean waves, the resulting calm harbour of Union, and decided to build an island. An island he made from conch shells and concrete and then painted it bright red, green and yellow. Two Palm trees added to the overall decor, followed by a bar and outside bar b q area, then some speakers and a sound system and finally a name 'Happy Island'. And once built it quickly became established as the word spread that Rasta hatted Shante's bar was 'd place to be'. Water taxi drivers heartily agreed, charging tourists for the pleasure of being shuttled to and from Happy Island, five minutes easy motor from the mainland.

It was rude not to become one of the many hundreds who have paid his doubled up prices. And so we found ourselves aboard one of the local rickety wooden rowing boats, equipped with a powerful yet ageing, rusty outboard motor, making light of the one mile to Shante's mini paradise. The 'Captain' of our vessel was amply rewarded not only by us but also by Shante, who gave him, after we had disembarked, a cigarette the effect of which made our skipper drive his boat around the island in speedy widening circles until it was time to pick us up. Shante, meanwhile, a male lookalike of Whoopi Goldberg, plied us with rum punches (Jim's favourite drink out here) and free chicken, which Merlin attempted to pay for! The more we drank, the more we drank, words, which, as we were ferried back from Happy Island by our grinning fool of a pilot, I am sure I saw daubed on the roof of his bar, beneath his solar panels and satellite dish. It's a simple life.....but it don't have to be!