Saturday, January 23, 2016

Travelling in Suriname and Guyana; the perfect Turf and Surf combination

It is hard to know where to start really, when describing the Guyanas. Most folks don’t know where they are, and those that do have only a fleeting memory of school geography, or perhaps collecting stamps.

The three “Guyanas” lie on the northeast coast of South America. They are politically different, two independent (Guyana of Great Britain and Suriname of Holland), and French Guyana remains an integral part of France.

A Saramaccan boy
They are a part of the giant Amazon basin, and are characterized by massive rivers flowing out to the ocean through vast jungles. They are home to a wide variety of people, a reflection of the countries’ harsh history and importation of slaves and indentured labour from Africa, India, China and Indonesia. Added to these poor folks, were the settlers from France, Holland and the Britain, and a few displaced Brazilian Jews, some Venezuelans and, of course, the completely bewildered Amerindians to whom these lands had been home and peaceful for centuries.

The cocktail was poisonous; the lands violent and difficult, and by the end of the nineteenth century most of the plantations had died out to be swallowed whole by the jungle, and the French left to develop their ghastly penal settlements in peace.


The Camp de Transportation in St. Laurent, French Guyana

For contemporary tourists, however, this toxic history, now settled, offers an extraordinary opportunity to see fascinating and friendly communities, deep jungle, rich savannas, quirky cities and beyond all, friendly and welcoming people.

The Rupununi Savannah
The Rupununi Savannah of southern Guyana, where I spent such a splendid time at the Manari Ranch, is the complete opposite of the jungles of central Suriname. So by the simple expedient of three plane rides (Lethem/Georgetown, Georgetown/Zoorg en Hoop, Zoorg en Hoop/Kajana), I leaped from turf to surf.

The Surinamese jungle is a wonderful place; in particular, I love the Upper Suriname river, and the rich African culture that it embraces. Twenty-three settlements, established by the Saramaccan tribe of “Maroons”,  escaped slaves of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, lie along this gorgeous river. They are miles beyond the road system, and for many years lived as a predominantly self-administering region. Their government had a single leader, with captains for clusters of five or so villages each of which had their own captain and vice-captain. This structure kept order, maintained their culture and language, and lived their lives.

The School Boat - The Upper Suriname River

Village Houses
Traditional to this day, African anthropologist come to study the language and culture of Benin and Dahomey, lost to contemporary Africa, but preserved here in the Surinamese jungle. The villages are neat, clearly structured and the people along the river busy and alive. Their societies have, for all intents and purposes been cashless for centuries, as they have grown and caught their food, and built houses, boats and furniture from the myriad of available resources; life is slow, and iguanas plod gently through the communities.



A local house
The need for cash, however, has gradually encroached; one cannot pay a cell-phone bill with coconuts, and Facebook is as prevalent here as it is in London. As is the way of the world, young men have gone away in search of money, there being little cash in the jungle, and quickly, centuries of carefully structured societies are being changed. One answer to this has been to develop some tourism, and to this end there are now over twenty “lodges”, of varying sophistication and comfort, spread along the river. This, of course, is too many, and soon enough some will fail, and slowly disintegrate into the water. 

Now, however, visitors are spoiled for choice, and they offer a truly authentic and unpasteurized experience of the deep jungle. The creatures, great and small, are there; the forests deep, riding into the river system between high canopies of massive trees one is simply in awe of the environment. Huge walls of vegetables; villages made of leaves; trees offering a myriad of wonderful medical benefits; food scuttling and swimming all around and not a snowflake to shovel.

The Upper Suriname River is astonishing; only from the air can one realize that it is significantly populated; the villages spread along the ribbon of water from the Brokopondo Lake to the junction with the Pikin and Gran Rios. Communities of fascinating, knowledgeable, friendly people trying their best to keep their culture and spirit alive.

As a visitor, one feels like a voyeur; we are there to learn and to appreciate, and to do so one must observe and inquire. It can be awkward; some want their photos to be taken, some believe that by listening to stories we are stealing their words. Women work at the river’s edge cleaning and scrubbing paying little heed to contemporary clothing conventions, but too many wanderers observing have made them self-conscious, and they are changing their ways.

Waiting to take supplies to the mourners
Traditional lives are lived; following the death of an elder, the men of the community will take the body to a sacred place in the forest for three weeks; women will bring some supplies, but other than this brief contact, they are alone with the spirits of the people and the environment; these traditions, such a vital part of the fabric of the Saramaccan society are slowly being nibbled away.

It is, perhaps inevitable, but it makes the privilege of being welcomed into these communities even more precious.


Boat Building
Now is the time to visit; combining the Savannah of southern Guyana with the Maroon villages of the Upper Suriname river is an extraordinary combination; the “turf and surf” of the Guyanas, the yin and yang of the northern Amazon. A prefect journey for those seeking an understanding of the environment, the people whose lives are so intimately woven with their lands and the cultures of this remote region before they are gone.

The Guyanas offer a fabulous experience for some travelers; those with an inquiring personality, a liking for a little discomfort, an appreciation of the delicious meat of the Tapir and a desire to escape the relentless homogenization of the world.


The Guyanas are no theme park; they are the real thing. 


Transportation on the Upper Suriname River

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Guyana's Rupununi Savannah; History Lives Here

It is reassuring to know Manari Ranch exists.


Manari Ranch
Our world seems to travel too fast, as we stumble from one crisis to another, each event often caused by the sheer speed to which we have accelerated our lives. We look to media all day, reflect upon it rarely and act upon its’ desires all of the time; we lose control and we head at an ever increasing pace toward something.

And then there is Manari.

A tiny ranch, now with plans to develop only ten square miles down from its former 95 square mile footprint, the property is history. It is not really historical, but it embodies the remarkable hard-scrabble history of this remote and quite fascinating part of the world.

So let me tell you a story.

Henry Prideaux Collie Melville, now there’s a name, was a man of vision, clearly itchy feet, an apparently authoritarian air and determination by the bucket load. Born a Sagittarius in Jamaica in 1864, he was indeed positive and straightforward; he headed to Guyana in the late 19th century and purchased the massive Dadanawa Ranch in 1880 while out prospecting for gold. The ranch grew from the 300 head that he bought to a massive 5,000 head station, and all the time, the family grew. His daughter Margaret, one of ten children, married a Basque, Theodore Orella, a chap whose life had obviously taken a significantly sharp turn as he found himself a cowboy in the South American Savannah. They built Manari in 1927, and had two children, Louis and Margaret who kept the place alive. Now Louis' daughter Lissa carries the family torch, and keeps Manari alive.

Today, the Southern Rupununi is a truly remarkable place, and the descendants of HPC have grown to form the most impenetrable and supportive fabric that can be woven by a family. From generation to generation new ranches evolved as families grew, and today, one of these offshoots is the remarkable delightful Manari Ranch.

Conveniently for visitors, the property lies only seven miles or so from Lethem, but the short distance belies the decades of time that get shorn from one’s being as you step through the door. This is no theme park; this is the real thing.

Managed today by HPC’s remarkable great-granddaughter, Lissa Orella, a bright and quietly competent woman, the ranch draws its future directly from its past.

Lissa is remarkable; attractive and unassuming, one would not suspect the drive that keeps her and
The Manari Swimming Hole
her “project” going. She left Guyana in 1994 to live in Canada, but following the death of her father, Louis, she returned to the family home in 2010. Guided mostly, it seems, by her DNA, and with the experience of eighteen years of working in Home Depot to call on, she sold her house in Toronto and set to work. Cleaning; working to bring order to chaos, and to get the ranch onto its feet.

And what a job she has done; assisted with the vast, skillful and willing extended family, Manari has reappeared as a family centerpiece, and one that they are willing to share with tourists seeking their rather special environment.

It is not a five-star resort; at night, it is a million-star resort, but the facilities are completely in line with what one would expect from this renaissance. It reflects the deep history and the style of the period it emerged, and as such is completely entrancing.

It is, first and foremost, once again a centre for family; I was fortunate to be there during a funeral, and family and friends from miles around came not only to pay their respects to the departed, but also to be with family; this sense of togetherness was palpable, and the effect that the ranch had on the generations that were at the event was immediate. Manari was more than a ranch; it is more than a home; Manari is a centre for the remarkable descendants of HPC and the families that have been woven into this wonderful fabric.

And so for visitors; not everyone will (fortunately) be there to participate in a major family event, but they will feel for themselves the fabric of the property’s past. They will realise that this is no theme park, and indeed it is the antithesis of these plastic atrocities; it is a place of history, of lives lived and a place of the future.

As Lissa develops the property there will be more activities added; horseback riding, mountain biking, perhaps, visiting the nearby Amerindian villages, swimming in the creek and quite simply, relaxing. Evelyn Waugh stayed here in 1933, and the atmosphere in which I found myself deposited had changed little. It is a place of character, and a place of growth.


 Day excursions from Manari

It is a simple property; showers are run from water taken heated by the sun, beds are comfortable but simple, air conditioning is simply not on the agenda; meals are good and often in the evenings taken with whomsoever is there of family, friends and workers. The air is clear, the swimming hole inviting and the whole experience of being at Manari is remarkable.

In the mad-paced world of 2016, it was reassuring and comforting to know that not all of the world has chosen to become dominated by speed.

The internet, however, is sporadically available.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Amerindian Community of St. Ignatius, Guyana: Introducing Peter Joseph

Let me introduce Peter Joseph.

The Benab, or Village Hall
Peter is an Amerindian, and lives in St. Ignatius, a settlement of 2,000 folks living adjacent to the Guyanese community of Lethem. The village, home to both the Makushi and the Wapishana people was officially settled in 1909 by a Jesuit priest, but as is the way of indigenous history, their culture and settlement predated this cartographic moment by thousands of years. Of course the village was not called St. Ignatius before the Jesuits arrived, but had been called Zewari by the local people for ever.

Traditional groups of people have called these lands home for millennia; recent archaeological work tentatively dates settlements in the Amazon as far back as 5,000 years, a formidable timeline. The contemporary Amerindians, as one might imagine, do not really accept the national border system that keeps the rest of us in administrative check, and are free to travel and settle throughout the region.

Peter had spent some time in Brazil, as so many others of this region have done, and upon his return, decided to build a tourism program. He took a tourism management program in Georgetown, and returned to the Rupununi to reclaim land formerly owned by his grandparents, but then left to lie in distress.

The Rupununi Savannah and Kunuku Mountains

By sheer dint of hard work over four years, he built his fledgling attraction at Kunu Falls. Rebuilding a three-mile road through the bush, carrying one or two bags of gravel using only a chainsaw, and using this same at a time by motorcycle; felling trees to make planks and hauling this raw lumber from the forest one at a time to build the structures at the heart of the project, and clearing garbage bag after bag after bag is a very good indicator of the man that Peter Joseph is.

Peter Joseph
And today, he has the start of a fine tourist attraction. His property lies twenty miles from Georgetown; driving there one passes through the gorgeous Savannah country and the village of Kunu before reaching the foot of the Kanuku Mountains where, centred around a waterfall, Peter’s resort is taking shape. Now it is a place to spend a day relaxing, hiking the river trails, swimming under the pristine waterfall and enjoying lunch. Some camp overnight, but for now it is more of a day-trip destination. 

His plans are endless; next are some overnight cabins to be built at a height of about seven metres in the trees’ canopy; perhaps a conference room, a new bus to ferry clients to/from the resort is on order, and will be ready in a week or so.


 The core of Kunu Falls
I have worked for years with tourism programs in small communities, and feel that the importance of tourism as a part of the economic and cultural mosaic that is each separate economy is vital. I believe that working with a group’s history, and by rediscovering traditional beliefs, music, art, history and connecting with the community’s past allows a clearer vision of the future. Tourism is but a by-product of this connection, and important one to be sure, but most importantly, it is an opportunity for the past to be integrated into the economic and social evolution of the village. Peter’s project of one of the best that I have ever seen.

I loved the day there; the immersion into the Amerindian culture in this pristine setting was a tonic. Meeting Peter and hearing his stories, both personal and cultural were fascinating, and the drive that this sort of development gives to the culture and economy of the indigenous culture of the region is immeasurable.

Thanks, Peter, for a most interesting and thought-provoking day. You have a fine facility.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Venezuela to Brazil; of roads, towns and shakedowns

By the time that I was finally faced with an armed man demanding money, I laughed; it had been that kind of day.

Up early to drive 650kms south from Puerto Ordaz to the border town of Santa Elena de Uairen, we set off in a reasonably jolly mood, tempered slightly by the effects a lovely bar in which beer costs 50c per bottle.

Las Cristas
The drive south was interesting, to a point, and from time to time. Latin America is not ridden with historical towns and monuments; rural Venezuela is a pretty hard scrabble place, with low-lying towns busy with nail shops, automotive repairs, tattoo parlours, coffee hang-outs and the other necessities of day-to-day life. The countryside is beautiful; the towns are functional.

We passed south through town after town, passing El Callão, a gold mining town famous only as the supposed residence of Henri Charrière, or Papillon, after his escape from the French penal system.

From there we headed into the Canaima National Park, although it has to be said that roads through jungles offer little idea of what they have to offer beyond the first ten feet of deep and myriad greens. We did see, however, dozens of muddy 4WD vehicles, a testament to the parks attractions, and an indication of much to be explored, but we drove on.

Stopping only to fill with gas, and this proved a little more difficult than one might have thought. Long lines at gas stations, and some with no fuel for sale was a little odd for this oil-rich country. However, when we found out that to fill our Hyundai Santa Fe with 60 litres of fuel cost 5 Bolivars, we realized why.  

The Gas Stop
Dick and Alfonso
Bear in mind that there are 600 Bolivars to the dollar; 5 of them represents less than one cent. To fill a tank; yes, this is not a misprint. A bottle of wine, however, costs about 13,000 bolivars, and even a litre of water set me back 250 of these peculiar Venezuelan Bolivars.


And so we continued; all the while cognizant of the dangers of travelling through the “Wild and Lawless Venezuelan Savannah”; well, it was a bit of a let down on that side, and perhaps the fifteen military checkpoints that we passed through had something to do with it. It seemed safe, and unless one ran out of gas, very interesting indeed. We were expecting to see clusters of young women walking delicately after surgery, a new specialisation apparently of the doctors of Puerto Ordaz is the reshaping of Brazilian bottoms, but to no avail, perhaps because it was Sunday

It was, in fact, the last of these military checks that proved difficult. We were singled out to empty our suitcases in the sun, and then replace our non-sinister clothes and “personal effects”.  Clearly not satisfied, our young soldier called another young soldier who led me quietly into a dark room. On the wooden table lay about seventy tubes of Colgate toothpaste and an equal number of bottles of powder; I could see what these chaps were up against.

The Savannah, with a Tepuy in the background
I emptied my pockets; he counted my money; he looked at my passports and credit cards and told me to put them all back in my pocket. And it was at this moment, that the young, gun-toting Private C. Jiminez indicated that my expedient departure would be eased with a payment of "say, one dollar".

Gun or no gun, I couldn’t help laughing, and gave the poor bugger five. I have been shaken down by professionals at borders, the TransDniestran / Ukrainian border still brings me to a shudder, but this poor lad was clearly in the preliminary learning stages. Still giggling, I told my compadre Dick about the soldiers’ form, and sent him in. In a fit if remorse, possibly prompted by my writing down his name and that of the battalion, the novice Jiminez came quickly out and pressed the fiver back in my hand, waving us away to the border, and our next adventure.

We bought our driver, a fine chap called Alfonso lunch before we parted, and paid our bill to him; fortunately the 90,000 Bolivars (remember, 5 for 60 litres of gas) could be paid in dollars at a rather advantageous rate; given that the largest denomination of Bolivars is 100, 90,000 would have required a brick of the things.

The choice is yours
The Venezuelan / Brazilian border is OK. I like land borders; I like the no-man’s land between the frontier posts and the sense of thrill as one passes through. It has to be said, though, that while the Venezuelans seem to have been building infrastructure at a whopping rate while they were flush with oil money and revolutionary fervor, this construction stopped at the immigration booth which is a trailer that allows three folks at a time to be processed.

Never mind, we were, and plodded up the hill to the Brazilians; by now, adept at jumping queues through wither linguistic challenge or otherwise, we found ourselves tumbling out of the Brazilian building and into Brazil. Obviously.

The soon-to-be-late taxi

Finding a cab to take us on the rest of the journey, the next 230 kms to Boa Vista proved to be a little harder than we thought, and eventually we settled on a rather old vehicle that in the end didn’t quite make it.

Forty minutes from Boa Vista the alternator died, and we were stopped at the side of a dark but moderately busy highway. Fortunately, he could find some patchy cell coverage some two hundred metres from the van, and within an hour, another car came and finished of the journey.

A long day, but really rather interesting.


Saturday, January 9, 2016

Of Panama, Bolivars and COPA: Days one and two of the Gondwanaland Redux expedition

Here’s the thing.

When one is a points junkie like me, travel routings become secondary to the availability of the elusive redemption seats. Coupled with my interests in travelling to some rather unusual places, this has put me on an odd route or two.

I wanted to go to the Rupununi savannah in southern Guyana. Doesn’t everybody? It is a pristine land, well off the beaten track, and awkward to reach. Deciding against the obvious, flying to Georgetown and then flying south, I opted to fly first to Caracas, then to Puerto Ordaz (where I sit at this very moment), and tomorrow continuing by road to the Brazilian border (nine bumpy hours), and into Boa Vista, the capital of Brazil’s remote province of Roraima. From there, it is only a few hours up the river to the Guyaneseborder at Lethem.

The first stage was to get to Caracas.

I chose to use COPA, the airline of Panama, who fly from Chicago (among several other north American gateways) to their hub at Panama and thence to Caracas. And what a pleasant surprise the flight was; a brand new Boeing 737-800, with ample legroom in both business and economy, terrific flight crew and good in-flight service. It is amazing how low our expectations of airline service have become, and how little it takes to have us marveling.

Their hub, Tocumen Airport in Panama City, was an eye-opener. COPA operates 105 aircraft to seventy-one destinations in thirty-one countries; who knew. Their hub is a terrific transit point, and their fleet and scheduling allows one-stop connectivity between North, South, Central Americas and the Caribbean.

Our layover, seven hours, a function of reward seat availability rather than choice, was too long. Not really long enough to go into the city, as we were warned that the traffic on the return journey could have us gridlocked for a couple of hours; so we hung around, tired of the shops and eventually headed to Caracas.

We had prepaid a room at the curiously named, but very good Eurobuilding Hotel through our travel agency; however, when we arrived at 0100, we were advised that the payment of $80 had not gone through and that we would have to pay $149. Clearly, this displeased me, and at my most truculent, said “No”; I tried to call the reservation company who handled the booking, but being the middle of the night, I was on hold for an hour. Eventually, the poor girl at the check-in gave us rooms and said we should figure out payment in the morning; this was good, because once one gives in and pays, the money is gone.

In the morning, a delightful manager said that if the prepayment had been made that was good, but she didn’t see any reason to charge us again. So, I shall scour my credit card bills and see what happened. If anything.

But the story doesn’t end there.

She asked where we were going, and once I had outlined the itinerary she seemed to be genuinely worried. Suggestions like keeping money in my shoe, and hiding my iPhone as I wandered through the local bus stations seemed both sensible and unnerving.

Within an hour or so, she called to say that she had arranged for a car and driver from their sister property in Puerto Ordaz to drive us to the border; the nine-hour run would cost us 90,000 Bolivars, a good introduction to the Black Market.

Officially this would have been US$750. Unofficially, buying Bolivars "On the Black", the cost was US$150. An introduction to currency madness unseen (by me) since the Fall of the Wall. Taking her advice to heart, we were met by the driver at the airport, and advised that it was too late to set off tonight, but that we could stay at the Eurobuilding Hotel. We were driven there; far from town the hotel rose like a phoenix from the scrub, and delightful it is; a five-star property, all marble and fountains, and priced accordingly.

Well, remembering the advice about changing money, the 25,000 Bolivar per night room dropped immediately from $150 to $40/night, with a rather pleasant chap who was also checking in providing the exchange.


Needless to say, the restaurant and bar prices look attractive. The fact that the largest Venezuelan banknote is for 100 Bolivars is inconvenient, and the wad we have to pay off the driver’s 90,000 tomorrow will be spectacular.


Hopefully, the drive will be as well.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Hertz: Too Big to Care

Here’s the story.

In October last year, I rented a car from Hertz in Toulouse for a couple of weeks. I have done this several times over the past seven years, and it has always been smooth.

When the vehicle was returned to the airport, completely unscathed, full of diesel and with only a further 900 or so kms on its clock, all seemed well. The return was registered at 5.02pm, and the automatic invoice generated at 5.04pm.

The invoice, however, contained a charge for €221 for “24/24 Assistance”; this is odd, as my profile (and I am a Gold Five-Star Member”) clearly indicates that I wish for no insurance or supplementary protections at all; none, whatsoever, and to date, these instructions have been followed.

Now, however, the game was on.

First, I assumed that a quick phone call to the Gold Line would suffice; silly me. After being transferred four times, with each concomitant wait, I was advised that it was a “French Matter”, and that my query would be forwarded to them. This was followed by a blizzard of helpful emails, many of which sought my impression of their service to be offered through the completion of an “on-line survey”.

To no avail.

I disputed the amount through American Express, and they took the offending payment off my bill. And we waited.

I was then advised by Amex that Hertz had advised that the charge was for “cleaning”, and apparently I had put the wrong sort of fuel in the car, and they were replacing the charge and would I now cough up.

Well, the problems with this scenario are three-fold:
  1. Had I put ordinary fuel into a diesel car, I would not have made it back to the airport
  2. They would have been hard pressed to make this determination within the two-minute window between returning the car and dispatching the bill, and
  3. I had a receipt proving that diesel had been poured (lavishly) into their vehicle.
Not even close.

I submitted another hold on the Amex account and set off to round two. This has culminated in a letter from the Hertz collections folks in the UK (“How did the UK get into it”, I hear you ask) who are actually, it turns out, in the Republic of Ireland.

This missive tells me in no uncertain terms that:
  1. This is all my fault
  2. I should pay immediately or face the wrath of collection agencies
  3. I will be prevented from renting from Hertz in the future
  4. My immediate attention to this matter is “required”

Well, faced with this wall, I again phoned. Not that the phone number they gave me was any good; they advised me to call a number in the UK using the international prefix “00”; this is, in fact, the prefix used by people in the UK (and presumably the Irish Republic) to call out. North Americans calling to the UK use a prefix “011”; a minor point, but if one writes snotty and heavy handed letters demanding “immediate attention”, the least they would do is get their own phone number right.

And so to chatting with the lovely Rachel. I don’t know about you, but those poor folks who work for collection agencies, airline lost-luggage departments or those whose job it is to rebook passengers stranded in the eye of a storm always seem to be medicated.

We have a conversation; I reiterate the issues and my most reasonable position; she sympathizes and says that I must have put the wrong sort of fuel in the car; I explain the different size nozzles that are attached to fuel pumps to prevent this sort of accident; she sympathizes and once again suggests that the wrong type of fuel has been used. I supply the image of the receipt for the correct type of fuel and she thinks that they may have to refer this matter to France.

I hang up, in a growly but jovial mood, and am immediately faced with cheery new emails from Hertz thanking me for contacting their customer service people and asking how I “felt about the experience”.

Hertz; please, just sort this out. I have been a loyal customer for years, but honestly, there is really little difference between your vehicles and those belonging to AVIS or Sixt.

Companies like Hertz have become too big. They are, as we all know, also Dollar and Thrifty, and big enough to feature such powerful role models as O. J. Simpson as their barkers. They have, however, lost touch with indivuduals during this growth. And they are not alone.

There are now only 3.5 airlines in the US (American (1,494 aircraft), Delta (1,280), United (1,264) and Southwest (683)), and as they have grown, so has their tolerance for irritated passengers. If one assumes that 1/2% of each airlines’ passengers are grumpy and “never want to travel with them again”, it is a large number, but these gruntleless passengers have only two alternatives. And each carrier will receive as many passengers who have lost their gruntle with a competitor as they lose.

So why bother to calm the waters? Much more economical to let them squeal and run to the competitors; a sound business decision, and an attitude that we see more and more often in the surviving corporate behemoths that dominate the serevice sector.


The triumph of capitalism in the service industry seems to be the attainment of the pinnacle from which one can simply be Too Big to Care.



Saturday, November 21, 2015

Overnight trains; Lisbon to Madrid on "The Lusitania"

It would help to be very small, which I most certainly am not, but I still like travelling overnight by train. 

Sleeping compartments are a little like dolls’ houses for grown-ups; they store a remarkable amount of stuff in a terribly compact space. They offer secret compartments, hidden staircases, cunningly designed bunks and an atmosphere of intrigue; although that might be a little too much Agatha Christie.  

They also offer insufficient pillows, no room to turn around; a night spent wondering which direction you are travelling in and a cacophony of rattles and squeals as the train hurtles towards its destination.

The compartment before I filled it up.

It is a toss-up. One that, I will admit, I usually come down on the side of travelling by train, but as my eyes shake about in their sockets at three o’clock in the morning, I wonder. Principally what on earth I am doing here when there are perfectly good aeroplanes that will cover this distance in an hour or so. And then, of course, I remember the hassles of getting to the airport, the loss of a reservation code and the concomitant shrug from an airline employee; I recall the joys of security as they ponderously determine if my shoe-horn violates some unspecified regulation, the delays of the flight, the endless elbow-jousting until we land. Then, of course, the joys of describing your suitcase to a luggage agent who promises that it will be returned soon ….. ah, the joys of flying.

I travelled last night from Lisbon to Madrid on the RENFE Trenhotel; for reference, a one way single-cabin in Gran Class costs €177, a double €240 and a simple reclining seat €35).

The RENFE TrenHotel

I should, of course, have taken the hint. When the conductor asked if I wanted the top or bottom bunk made up into my bed, I chose the top, a choice that seemed to fleetingly surprise him. It was, of course, as it always is, a flash back to boyhood, excitement and derring do. It was also a mistake; the sort of error that parents always allow their boys to make because as everyone who thinks knows, the top bunk will sway around far more. It is marginally better insulated from the shattering noise as the train careers through a set of points, but this is only marginally comforting as one hangs on for dear life as we take corners at suspiciously large speeds. Suspicious only because it is a Spanish train, and I have a good memory.

The Dining Car
“Never mind”, I tell myself, “This is a great way to travel”. I wonder again which way I am going, but can’t quite figure it out without reference to the window (actually, to add to my confusion, when I awoke, we were travelling in the opposite direction to the one that we were engaged in when I fell asleep).

I must have slept, thought, because before I knew it the conductor was banging on the door and advising that Madrid was only thirty minutes into our future; time to figure out the shower.

I was travelling is a very nice cabin - the top of RENFE’s line; it had seen better days, but then again, so has quite a bit of Spain, so I won’t be churlish. I will say, however, that a good scrubbing would do a power of good, as would new seat covers; or even, in this age of austerity, the application of a darning mushroom.

The shower, took some figuring out, and only by a process of elimination of what knobs and other protuberances could (or even might) do what, I found out the secret of the water supply.

And so, refreshed, still a little confused, I tumbled onto the platform at Madrid’s Charmatin station at 8.30 on a Saturday morning, never a time to visit a normally busy fifteen-platform station, wondering where on earth I might find my car. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Bucharest, Romania - Another post-Soviet destination!

Cable cars still in use: Chiatura, Georgia
I am not quite sure why I find the post-Soviet countries so fascinating, but I do. Over the past ten years, I have visited all of those in Europe, except Montenegro, and it is quite remarkable how each has evolved since the end of the Soviet era.


Of particular interest to me have been the nastiest. Four weeks ago I visited Albania, and today, I am in Romania. So, accompanied by the interesting and knowledgeable Cristina Iosif of Unknown Bucharest, I set off for a primer on the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, the dictator here from 1965 until the revolution of 1989.



 Soviet Street Artt from  Tirasapol,Trans Dneistra and Minsk, Belarus

I had read fairly widely about the country, although it must be said that there is less available in English than one might want, and I was aware of Romania’s reputation for utter brutality, and its decades-long attempt to deceive the west into believing somehow that Romania was a “reasonable” country. And whatever else Romania might have been, reasonable it was not.

A notice indicating that the building is
likely to collapse at any time! 
Memories of the period were obviously painful for Cristina, and more than once, her eyes shone red as she talked about one aspect of life or another; yet she, herself, led a “normal” life during Those Years. A serious chess player of international standard, the daughter of two working parents and self-described as “just an ordinary person”, Cristina’s insight was fascinating; not only in the detail, but more in the relaying and exposure of how people thought and survived under the megalomaniacal regime, and the reflections of ordinary life.


Surprising, in a way, but instantly understandable is that people simply lived their lives. To most, the working of their government was as distant as it is elsewhere, and because they knew no other way, their lives were normal. They went to school, played games, fell in love, built a life and went to work. That this was all some terrible façade was simply not thought about, and as such, life was tolerable.

There are actually remarkably few relics of the era, unless one includes the monstrous "Peoples' Palace" and some of the other grandiose developments that saw the city of Bucharest lose its soul and heritage to provide space for these hideous, but fascinating buildings.

The Parliamentary Palace in Bucharest
When asked about the lasting legacies, Cristine described the effect of the philosophy so intrinsic in the communist system of “Creating a New Man”, a phrase heard with minor variations throughout the socialist countries. In Romania, however, she explained how the legacy of this thinking was the creation of a society that is malleable and easily led to this day. As she described the transition of power 1989, it seemed more like an explanation of a coup, and the emerging leadership coming directly from the entrenched security services still retain power today; it was difficult not to feel a chill. 

Malta, Latvia - not much hard currency here.
A simple look at the city as one drives in from the airport or around the town shares a characteristic with so many developing countries, and belies any attempt to accurately seek statistical answers to economic questions. And it is simply this; for economic purposes the population is divided into two separate and parallel sets: those with access to hard currencies and those without. It is almost as simple as that. As goods flood into the now open markets from The West, they need to be purchased with hard currencies, or at least their nominal equivalent. Those fortunate enough, for example those in the tourist industry or involved with exports have Euros and Dollars and can play the global game. Those who don’t have access cannot do so.

Minsk - a local market
So superficially, the capitals look like thriving cities, but dig only a little deeper, travel only a little way from the hub of government and a completely different picture will emerge. It is one of poverty and pain, and it will take generations to erase.

It is quite fascinating to see the legacies of the soviet era; the construction, the utilitarian nature of life, the public art  (a disclaimer here; I am fascinated by Soviet bus-stops, and am planning a photo safari to capture some of the best in thie region at some point!) and the general ambience are so different from those of the west. Distinguished by the vast economic and social difference between the nomenclature, intellectuals and high government and the rest of the population, it is a sobering perspective of how imbalanced communities can become if the unequal access to resources and incomes is allowed to grown unchecked.

An old public phone
Romania is a captivating place, and a country that deserves extensive exploration. It is a country more than many that despite outward appearances is still locked in the past, and is finding it harder to shake off the discipline of the past than one might imagine, but as only a casual visitor I was fascinated and look forward to returning and exploring in depth. Explroing the deep countryside as well as the cities would make a most interesting expedition.



The extreme of thought-control: Pyonyang





Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The North Pole; A Traveller's Final Frontier

Quite why tourist would want to visit the North Pole is open to debate, but each year a few hundred hardy souls reach this point of some geographically importance, but little social value. They arrive by foot, well actually on skis, by dog team, on ice-breaking ships, by helicopter and aircraft and even drop out of the sky under parachutes.


The lure of landmark destinations is strong, witness the curious crocodile-lines of climbers conquering Mt Everest, and the North Pole is a marquee destination; a very significant tick on one’s bucket list.

The choices, however, are diminishing fast. One of the Canadian airlines that used to offer  complex and difficult flights to the Pole have announced that they will no longer fly tourists, blaming warming weather and increasingly slushy landing surfaces. This claim seems to be repudiated by the Russians who offer a spectacular operation from Camp Borneo, supporting a significant number of polar assaults.

The Russian ice-breakers that have carried tourists on two or three sailings each year are now being brought back to serve in their original capacity of breaking ice, and within two seasons, there is like to be only one option for the intrepid, and well-heeled who what to drop into 90°N.

Reaching the pole seems to be a goal for the obsessed; while obviously money is a very significant factor, those who reach the top of the world do come from all walks of life. The wealthy rub shoulders with the obsessed at Camp Barneo (so named, it was confusingly explained, to distinguish it somehow from Borneo), as several dedicated skiers launch out on their challenge to reach the pole by their own power.

The Mess Tent at Barneo
At the North Pole
The journey is amazingly variable; although the camp starts at roughly 89°N and 100°E, it is floating, and during the 24-day season, it can move from 60 miles from the pole to over 150 miles. The skiers and those attacking the route with dog-teams need to know that they don’t know just how far they will have to travel. The general idea is to travel the “last degree”, or sixty miles, under one’s own power, but one simply never knows.

The Pole brings out the truly eccentric in its visitors. Some choose to dive under the ice, some jump out of helicopters and gently float to the ground; the games and activities that visitors dream up and enact certainly cover the spectrum of imagination.

 Arrive at the Pole any way that you want!

Why on earth anyone would want to run such an operation is also a very good question, and when I met the director, Victor Boyarshy in St. Petersburg last week, he was equally perplexed. “We have run this camp since 1993”, he said, “and it seems to be interesting”. It is an extraordinary achievement; everything has to be flown in and flown out using the rather extraordinary Ukrainian aircraft, the AN-74 and flexing this versatile machine to its maximum. Starting with the initial survey-helicopters who each year seek out a suitable area for the camp, the initial runway-clearing equipment is brought in and the strip, 1000m x 60m established.

The amazing Antonov 74 - inside and out!

The landing strip is certified by the Russian aviation authorities as suitable for use by commercial passengers, and this certification allows insurance, the first of the many tumblers to fall into position, to be obtained. Then the camp is erected, the generators installed, jet fuel imported, food and bedding brought up and all of this for twenty-four days of frenetic activity, and to accommodate about one hundred hardy adventurers.
Capm Barneo; 89N 110E
The camp opens in early April, before that it is dark and too cold, and by the end of the month, the leads in the ice make any sort of structure unfeasible. It is a very short window, and one that seems to be increasing in interest every year. Travelers need to book well in advance, and with prices starting at around US$20,000 plus flights, it probably requires some pre-planning for most.

The camp is exciting; new connections are being discussed, more visitors are expected and as peculiar as it sounds, the North Pole is starting to make it off many folks bucket lists!


If you are interested in visiting this amazing outpost, feel free to contact me (max@ttjtourism.com) and I will be happy to put you in touch with the right people.

All photographs provided by Company VICAAR / Camp Barneo