Friday, December 25, 2009

Tyneham, Dorset; a village of the 1940s

This year I am in England for some difficult family reasons, but it is nonetheless delightful to be here over Christmas. Other than the wild snow and ice of a couple of days ago, the weather has been superb, and the countryside is gorgeous. Staying with friends in their Victorian cottage in Manston, a small village in central Dorset is quite delightful, and their traditional Christmas dinner of goose with all the accompaniments was simply irresistible.

And so today, a perfectly clear and gorgeous Christmas Day, we headed out to visit Tyneham, a very curious spot.

If you have ever wondered where the old days went, and idly suspected that there might be a flake of the nineteen forties left somewhere, you are not speculating idly. Only 90 mile to the southwest of London lies Tynham, an anachronistic village, left to remember 1943, and the day that the village was abandoned.

1943, you will recall, was a year in which Europe was plunged into the darkest days of the Second World War. London blitzed, Europe in retreat, bad news on every doorstep. In its pursuit of a perfect solution, or at least a piece of the puzzle, the Ministry of Defense determined that it would create a firing range in the Purbeck Hills. The sole drawback to the plan was the hamlet of Tynham, home to 100 villagers, pursuing a quiet country life.

Now the idea of an idyllic country village may be fiction or it may be fact, but nevertheless, the villagers of Tynham were “requested” to temporarily leave their village to allow the army to practice gunpower in the neighbouring valley. The promise was that they would be allowed to return as soon as the war ended, and armed with these assurances, they left.

The village is old; very old. Ruins and pickings from the site date back some 2000 years. Continuous habitation of a sort that we might recognise has been there since the early 12th century. History happens during this sort of period, and families grow, dominate and build. In Tynham, the Bond family came to own the village in the 1500s and has dominated village life ever since. Apparently benevolently, but we will never know.

And so came 1943. The army decided that it should stay on for a few years, and now, in 2010 they still fire their big guns over the valley, and it is only on weekends, for the military seems to respect bankers’ hours in these parts, that there is access to Tynham.

And what a worthwhile visit it is. The village lies only 10 miles or so from the centre of Poole, a major town on the south coast, and deep in the Purbeck hills. The region is quiet, beautiful, tranquil and quintessentially English; small villages, delightful pubs (and I have to admit to sampling a few in my travels), thatched cottages, and castle ruins. The England of post-cards and bunting, monarchists and hunt balls, fine buildings and sensible shoes; all in a very accessible area.

From London, one may travel to Poole simply by train, coach or car. The adventurous may choose to arrive by ferry from France. In any event, there are many suitable accommodations, and opportunities to rent a vehicle for the exploration of the region, and a stay here of three or four days would not be out of line.

Here, I feel I have to digress. I have stayed in this area a number of times over the years, and once lodged at the Quality Inn several times during the Fall of 2004. On one evening I happened to be in the small hotel bar; in addition to myself there was only a small party of six German tourists, a touch out of place, I thought, but nevertheless apparently convivial.

One approached the bar and asked haltingly (to the delightful barmaid recently arrive from Cabo Verde) for “Zwei Beer”. “Bitter?” she asked?. “Nein Bitter” was the reply. She proceeded to pour nine pints of bitter for the bewildered tourists. I could, of course, short-circuited this misunderstanding, but firstly I was rather amused, and wanted to see its conclusion, and secondly, I felt it fairly certain that I would become the beneficiary of the error. In this I was correct, and three unwanted pints of bitter later I went to sleep.

The drive to Tyneham is simple; heading toward the sea from Corfe Castle, past Steeple the knowledgeable will spot a discreet road sign pointing left (or right, if one approaches fro the opposite direction) toward Tyneham. Three or four miles down the road lies the village, as it was, but missing a few roofs, when the villagers left. The school is intact, the church open and wonderful, notices tacked on the walls announcing teas. The village is complete, although the buildings are a touch ruinous; wandering around, listening to the birds and noticing the paths, built for bicycles and not motor cars, seeing the house pads and gardens, stumbling through the green and looking at the village pond, the vision of the nineteen forties was powerful.

I have never been to such an evocative place. The village is deserted, and will remain so. The promise of return for the villagers some sixty years ago lies shattered among the lanes. But there is hope; and there are thanks to be offered to the military for breaking their promise. For Tyneham offers we “twenty-first centurions’ a rare glimpse to the past. While the village is uninhabitable, the ecological system, untouched by fertilizers, antibiotic by-products, discarded wrappings and old tires remains pristine; and rare.

A unique ecosystem in exchange for a broken promise? As a wandering observer, I am not qualified to make such judgments, but I am delighted that I could enjoy a glimpse into the past.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Duty Free Deception

I have always liked duty-free shops; one of the minor deceptions of travelling internationally is the idea that you can save $5 or $6 on a bottle of vodka and somehow stick-it to one tax collecting authority or another.

It is, like so many other rather petty transactions a touch deceptive; alcohol pricing is such a dog’s breakfast worldwide, that the concept of “Duty Free” representing any consistent saving is simply not on. The cost of booze is so low, relative to the price that with the elimination of one or more taxes, duties or levies the specialist retailers at airports worldwide can make a big deal over the savings.

I remember some years ago having a friend who worked in the promotions side of a famous Scottish distillery. Not only is she a fine person, but having a friend with the ability to offer whisky at cost price (in limited quantities) had its benefits. At the time, a bottle of their single malt was selling for about £30, but the distillery was allowed, for promotional purposes only, you understand, to write-off whisky used for this purpose at only about £2.25 per bottle; the balance, representing the take of Her Majesty’s Government.

Duty Free shops take advantage of this spread to offer travellers’ terrific “bargains”, and extraordinary profit margins for themselves. The world’s top brands too, use the system to their advantage. Brands like Louis Vitton, Tattinger Champagne, the top-end Swiss watch makers and so on do not want their products discounted in the normal sense of the word; you will not see them subjected to the usual department-store mark-down in an attempt to move volume. They do, however, use the airport shops heavily, and as a vehicle for discounting to shift their surpluses, and in the current economic turmoil, sales of these fashion icons are hurting.

Another sign of the growing power of duty-free retailing comes through the commercial arrogance that is developing among some producers, and should be firmly rejected by whisky lovers everywhere. The Macallan is a terrific whisky, and a friend of mine has, for many years enjoyed their 12 Year Old that was branded “Elegencia”. This is no longer available, and the reasoning, as described to him by a whisky seller is interesting.

The Elegencia has been replaced by a deceptively similarly-packaged product called “Select Oak”. “A good brand”, he mused, “for a paint or a wood-stain, but hardly suitable for the water of life”. This new brand shows no year on the label, a very odd omission for a true whisky drinker; apparently this allows the distiller to “maximise consumer benefit” by allowing them to mix the products of various years together in this delicate offering.

It does of course beg a couple of questions; firstly about why distillers have, for so long been espousing the virtues of single batches, and selling gallons of the stuff according to the year, and secondly concerning whether sales of The Macallan in duty-free stores to a frequently unsophisticated audience have outstripped sales to whisky lovers to a point that they are prepared to toss away hundred’s of years of goodwill to their previously superb brand.

We will never know.

I have to admit that I rarely buy at airports; many years ago I purchased a bottle of cheap Tia Maria in Mexico, but put it down rather heavily on the floor at the Minneapolis airport on the way home. Seeing an increasing brown circle appearing at my feet, I sidled away and watched the process of spread, for it must have been only a hairline fracture of the bottle, surprise at the appearance of the puddle and its eventual clean-up from a balcony.

To this day I feel embarrassed by my behaviour at the airport, and have rarely bought a bottle of duty-free since.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Crazy Airline Week

Well, it has been an interesting week; a collapse of a substantial UK-based charter carrier Globespan, the on/off drama of the British Airways cabin-staff strike, the looming possibility of baggage handlers on strike in the UK and the general malaise of the airline industry has made interesting reading and thinking.

The Globespan collapse was notable in a number of ways; timing, of course is important, and when a company is placed into receivership it is always when the party pushing the issue feels that the business has the most money in its coffers. For an airline with bank accounts full of Christmas passengers' money, yet before they had the expenses of flying them, the timing was predictable and understandable.

However, one of the primary reasons that the airline was short of money is very interesting indeed. Their credit-card processor E-Clear, was apparently withholding a substantial amount of money owed to Globespan; cash-flow that the airline needed to operate. During the past few weeks, there have been reports that a Jersey-based investment company Halcyon Investments were to be injecting new capital into Globespan. This hope fell yesterday, and now it appears that there is a close relationship between E-Clear and Halcyon Investments, a relationship that the administrators, PricewaterhouseCoopers will be keen to examine.,

As long as customers believe that credit-card companies will refund their money should a default occur, the credit-card processors will need and place ever more onerous conditions on the company; this may be in the form of a pledge against real assets, a large letter of credit or it may be that the card processor simply holds up the payment of cash to the business until they are comfortable. With no real assets, many businesses are being forced to accept payments at a pace that is simply too difficult to operate with, and force the company into receivership.

This was one of the contributory reasons to the Conquest Vacations bankruptcy, and I think that this trend will trigger increasingly frequent closures and mergers, if not actual bankruptcies.

And while British Airways, who are rarely out of the news today, may have their Christmas period free of a strike, it does not eliminate the dreadful labour relations that seem to characterise that airline. Their sales are 1.2 billion below the first six months of last year, their pension-fund shortfall is over $8 billion and the airline industry is more precarious than ever.

One would wonder if their union really thinks that this would be a good time to withdraw their labour, or if BA management will actually be able to come up with a plan that will set the carrier back on a profitable course. Personally, I doubt it.

All this should make consumers think twice about who they choose to fly with. It may, for a short time, but soon enough, seduced by improbably low fares, safe in the knowledge that someone else, the credit card companies, a government fund or and insurance company, will underwrite their decision; and if they don't, you can be sure that the screams of indignation will be heard from legislative building to legislative building across the land.

But the adage remains, and more critical each day; Buyer Beware.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Charter Flights vs Scheduled lights: Part II

The second part of the equation is, of course, money. Aircraft are extremely expensive to operate, airline seats are extraordinarily perishable, and the margins are extremely tight.

However, while margins are tight, they are potentially hugely profitable, and it is this risk/reward ration that attracts new entrants each year.

Simply put, a charter operators will work out the actual costs of flying, determine (an upmarket word for a guess) the potential market, divide the latter into the former and come up with a “price”; this fare will be compared to alternatives, the market forecast will be dropped a little, and a new “price” will be reached.

The operating vagaries of a weekly flight will be examined; how many seats will be sold from each end, for example, and will they have similar prices in each market? This is a difficult calculation as each seat from A to B will need a corresponding seat from B to A to come home again; if you sell too many passengers originating at either end, the balance can be badly skewed.

And finally, and this is the bit that the consumer needs to know but never will, what is the operator’s tolerance for loss? At what point will they pull the rug out and say that there is appearing to be insufficient revenue to continue the program?

This creates difficulties; in an ideal world, consumers will have their money returned by the operator and few will have badly affected trips; no tour programs forfeited due to the cancellation of the program and no money lost. However, should the operation of the charter be undertaken by a new company, established solely for this purpose, monies paid to the company may have already been spent on deposits, salaries and marketing with none left, and a bankruptcy will ensue.

The difficulty is always in knowing one’s suppliers. Is the charter carrier well respected with a strong track-record? Are they well known and bonded? The more partners that are involved in a program may appear to increase the chances of success, but this depends on allocations and sales; two strong partners may be brought to heel by a poorly performing third company.

Is the consumer world, now so used to outlandish prices on virtually every good and services inured from making a rational choice? The travel industry seems to reflect this observation with low price being the single driving force behind so many transactions.

Too frequently people buy products solely based on price with little thought given to whether or not the operating company, be it hotel, tour company or airline needs an improbable 90% load factor to break-even, and the effect that this threshold being failed will have on their own travel plans.

If a price is low there are shouts of joy; when a company goes badly there are please for government intervention. When did personal responsibility and logic disappear?

There are no simple answers; in Canada some provinces offer consumer protection and regulation, and some do not. In those provinces where there is no protection at all, there is one and only one simple solution.

Buyer Beware.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Charter Flights vs. Scheduled Flights (Part I)

There are enormous differences between charter flights and scheduled flights, and sometimes we all forget to take these into account when we book travel. Simply because a flight is regularly "scheduled" does not make is a "scheduled flight"; it is simply a charter flight that operates on with regularity. Similarly, a scheduled airline, operating a weekly service to a sunspot throughout the winter, carrying holidaymakers does not make it a charter airline. Unless, of course, it is an airline that has chartered its aircraft to an inclusive tour operator.

Get it?

It is, in fact, important to note the differences between each type of carrier before one purchases a ticket to ride; they each offer benefits and there are potential drawbacks that may not be obvious at first.

The most important difference is in the operating license. This is a code determining the standard of service that must be offered by an airline offering seats for individual sale. A charter operator is permitted a substantial freedom to alter their schedule by "up to 24 hours up to 24 hours prior to departure". This freedom is often used by vacation charters to offer departures on Fridays and Saturdays with their touching and everlasting optimism that this year will be the best. The flexibility in operating schedule means that they can "consolidate" the two flights a day or so prior to departure with no penalty.

Successive legal suits for damages resulting from this circumstance have found for the carriers with the overriding legal principle being the befit of the greater good; many more folks are able to take advantage of lower-priced vacations by allowing carriers this flexibility than those inconvenienced.

There is a message, however, and that is that travellers should make absolutely sure that they know the rules under which they have purchased an airline ticket.

Scheduled carriers, in complete contrast, must publish schedules and stick to them, even if only one passenger shows up to fly from Winnipeg to Timmins on a blustery Tuesday morning in February; consolidation is not an option. I must say though that there have been a number of suspicious "mechanical" cancellations that have stretched the credulity of a half-dozen or so inconvenienced passengers from time to time.

Carriers play this card with care; if a scheduled carrier arrives more than four hours late, they are required to file a "show cause" explaining why they are delayed. They run the risk of forfeiting their licenses should they develop a pattern of tardiness or cancellation, and do play this hand with great care.

We all use charter carriers from time to time; sun vacations, in particular, depend on a complex matrix of airline seats, hotel rooms, transfer vehicles and matching catering to maximise both the offering to the travelling public and the return to their own shareholders. Tour operating is extremely high-stakes poker, and I have boundless respect for those who play in this game; there are great risks and potentially great rewards.

The ability to vary their schedule to match their loads from time to time, however, is both a right and a privilege that they enjoy and use wisely, and a vital tool that allows them to offer a broad range of vacation products.

However, passengers booking flights with these carriers should be aware of the possible issues arising from this ability; do not book non-refundable tickets from far away to connect to a charter flight that might subsequently alter its schedule. You will be stuck with two exclusive contracts; one from the connecting carrier who has absolutely no obligation to make your trip work (after all, they only contracted to fly you to and from Toronto), and one from the charter operator who does not care how you "get to the airport"; their operating regulations permit schedule changes, and if they do so that have no obligation to passengers who suffer financial or geographic inconvenience.

So beware, buyer; know that rarely can one purchase the same product with wildly variant prices without a very good reason. Find out the reason, and then decide if you are willing to accept the potential risk.

Of course, one reason for chartering flights may well be to allow behaviour that may otherwise be though to push the envelope somewhat; a German carrier has recently advertised nudist charter flights. An expression of joie de vivre that might be frowned upon by a more staid carrier.

Next time, a financial snapshot of the differences between charters and scheduled flights!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Crossing the Black Sea: som ereflections

All travel must come to an end, and it is now over a week since I returned from my journey from Odessa to Tbilisi and Baku.

I have missed posting, and have not done so for a couple of reasons; firstly, of course, is the requirement to work when one returns after a two-week absence, and secondly posting shifts from a daily report to a more reflective commentary, and I have been reflecting.

I love to travel to unusual places, and like so many other wanderers pretend to substitute observation with understanding. Observation is simple; it is a matter of watching and reporting. Understanding takes time and needs context, a commodity in very short supply. For myself, it was the enforced stay on the ship that allowed me to meet people whose acquaintance I would never otherwise have made, other than fleetingly, without our unscheduled respite on the Black Sea.

The countries of the former Soviet Union are unique, and their development has taken many different forms; from the Eurocentric evolution of the Baltic States to the inward pose of Belarus; from the resource-driven economies of Central Asia to the rather individualistic and quirky countries of the Caucuses and Black Sea, they are all different. There are, however, similarities; all have some legacy of the Soviet central planning in which a single country became a centre of production of a few items required by the Soviet block as a whole. By extension, other than a country's assigned product, everything else was imported from another specialised region. While one may argue the logic of such a system, when the block breaks up it leaves a lot of independent countries with some degree of singular skill and no breadth of expertise.

Of course, many of these specialisations were illusory, with industrial plants that were outdated fifty years ago, and little strength in a modern economy; today, the mantra of all is the absolute need for jobs to bring each region or country out from their malaise. There are vast differences between the major cities and the balance of each country, and the gulf between those who have money and power in and within the emerging economies and those who do not is striking.

Which leads me to the conversation on the boat, and the difficulty that my travelling companions had in seeing a future. "Without jobs", they said, "there is no possibility of development; and as long as we allow the Chinese to make everything we will not have jobs." It was instructive to hear how often China came into the conversation. From comments about China's manufacturing juggernaut and its effect on local business to their on-going quest to control the resources of Africa, China was on everyone's mind.

How developing economies, fragile at best, will be able to forge a path between the corresponding desires of the Chinese manufacturers and the West's desire to control the global levers of economic power remains to be seen. The issue is, however, noted by all, and that is a good sign. A high level of public education is a very strong legacy of the Soviet system, and in many cases of a level that is considerably higher that one might expect; this legacy also bodes well as people struggle to find their country's place in the global firmament.

As a destination to travel to, I think that the Caucuses are tremendous; they offer visitors stunning scenery, fascinating rural life, interesting cities, wonderful food, pleasant wines and above all some of the most hospitable people in the world. And they are accessible; frequent flyer point redemption puts Tbilisi, Baku and Yerevan on the same level as Southern Europe; those travelling on mileage redemption to, say Rome, would use no more points to extend their trip to include one of the Caucasian capitals, and I would highly recommend doing so.

I loved both Baku and Tbilisi, Yerevan too from a previous trip, and am already booked to return in August for a longer look, and a journey that does not include a ferry.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Bye Bye Baku

What a remarkable trip. A journey like this, while simple today, would have been almost impossible only twenty years ago when this part of the world was an integral part of the Soviet Union.

To travel within the USSR required a degree of planning and cooperation that left most tourists visiting only the main, keynote cities and sites. I most certainly would not have been allowed to travel on a ship as I did, and would never have been able to spend time with, and get to know Andre, Archi, Ia, Tony and Aydin as I have been able to do.

My journey would have been grey; it would have been coloured only by sporadic flashes of life surfacing in unexpected places. As it was, I saw countries that are deeply troubled in many ways, but alive and with a sense of community that is often driven by a shared hardship.

I was left to wonder about many issues that we take for granted. Has the liberalisation of the economic environment really helped the majority of citizens? Has the disappearance of the “black market”, or perhaps more accurately the “parallel market” caused greater hardships for those unable to reach the comparative productivity of the west? How have so few been able to amass so much, so quickly, and will the spoils of the undeniable riches of the region ever get shared?

Business is difficult, with a bureaucracy that can defeat all but the most fervent; capital is hard to come by and credit expensive, and often denominated in foreign currencies and carrying a huge exchange risk. Think Iceland. Local money is short, think of the 10% reduction in ridership on the Baku metro in answer to a fare increase from $0.07 to $0.20; this is not indicative of well spread wealth.

An average monthly salary in Georgia may be about $200; insufficient cash to drive much expansion and these levels of income live side by side with those fortunate enough to be involved in the global economy, and making salaries comparable to their western counterparts.

My days in Baku left me with a bewildering sense of “user pay”; from petty traffic violations to, and I have to be honest here, the ability to bypass a queue of 1000 or more at airport security by slipping $10 to a willing policeman. Georgia, formerly regarded as the most corrupt country in the region has really cleaned up its act, although its relative poverty and the inability of most to be able to grease the outstretched hands may have had much to do with it. The Ukraine defies imagination in regards to the level of user-pay officialdom that permeates society, and forces a sclerosis as deep as the Soviets.

I love travelling in the region, and intend to continue to do so, and get to more of the more remote areas in the mountains bordering Russia. To visit even the capitals is a treat and a reminder of travel in the past, tinged with the very real global economy that has laid its mantle firmly over the economic future of the region. I have met so many warm, kind and truly hopeful people; I have seen sights, both geographic and natural that leave me speechless; I have eaten food, in rather generous portions it has to be added, that bring desensitised taste buds roaring back to life, and had the rare privilege of sharing a flake of a completely different life.

And so time to go home; I write this as I sit in the Istanbul waiting for my flight to Chicago and home to Winnipeg. It is a treat, today, I think as I am the only passenger booked in the First Class cabin, or so they tell me, and I am looking forward to a rather decadent day

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Baku, Azerbaijan: One day in Baku

Twenty-four hours in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku really isn't enough, but as the morning dawned grey and drizzly, and with the whole of the city to see and a day in which to do it, I ignored the elements and waited for Aydin.

Aydin co-owns, among other enterprises, a travel company in Baku and our mutual friend Ia in Tbilisi thought that we should get together while I was in town. Aidyn generously offered to come and show me a couple of things and would be at my hotel by 9.00.

By about 9.45 he arrived, having been gridlocked in Baku’s traffic; and what traffic it is! I have never, ever in my life seen such traffic; not in Mumbai, not Aleppo and not even Rome during a rainstorm in the rush hour. Baku’s traffic is awesome; traffic jams without apparent end, Ladas stuck alongside top-of-the-line Beamers, angry motorists neck and neck with those taking it calmly; I am so glad that I didn’t rent a car!

And off we went; to drive around the city and then to head out to the Abseron Peninsular to the north and east; we saw a temple on land sacred to Zoroastrians but built in the 18th century; the everlasting flame, so mystical to the Zoros, actually burned out some years ago, and today’s flame comes courtesy of the gas company, but the principle remains sound. We did, however see a real everlasting flame at Yanar Dag, as noted by Marco Polo himself. Ablaze for a thousand years is the story, although another has it that a local shepherd in the 1950s carelessly tossed away a cigarette and ignited a gas vent that has been blazing ever since.

In either case, it doesn’t matter; the principle of endless energy is synonymous with Baku’s astonishing growth, and it is a country that seems to be coming to grips with its new wealth in dramatic ways.

It is under construction; the city itself lies in complete contrast to the acres of oil derricks, some modern, some dating from the first oil-boom in the 1900s, that festoon the landscape as one drives out to the peninsular. In Baku however, all is new, becoming new, will be new and is absolutely Under Construction.

It is amazing; the turn of the century buildings sand-blasted to a uniform cleanliness offer a curiously movie-set veneer to the city; without the variable patina of age, it is not easy to detect the old from the faux-old; it is, however, really quite splendid.

A vast cornice runs for three kilometres along the Caspian shoreline, planned to expand to cover at least eight kilometres; substantial, gorgeous buildings inhabited by the worlds’ most expensive and recognisable brands lie adjacent to the old and rutted side streets that maze through Baku.

And in the centre, an Old Town that is breathtaking, and fortunately preserved. Town planners in the past fifty years have been less moved by historical culture that we would have hoped for, and much of Baku’s heritage has been usurped by modern Soviet Blocks; the Old Town, however is delightful and a most welcome diversion from The Traffic.

And so we continued our tour and walked through the new business district to a hotel whose 19th Floor Sky Bar offered a spectacular view of the city.

If I sound overly impressed, I am. All is not perfect, however, and one wonders about the division of wealth among the populous as whole, and the long-term consequences of the massive population shifts that they are undergoing. Such thoughts from a one-day visitor are churlish and require considerably more study. Which I will gladly undergo.

So why should one visit Baku? Well, firstly to see it, and realise that this great Middle Eastern city is no figment of a cartographer’s imagination, but a vibrant, exciting and important centre of commerce, culture and energy; it is an important and tolerant Islamic centre with none of the trappings of radicalism so devastating in other countries of the region. It is important to understand Azerbaijan; very important.

One can visit as side trip to a trip to Istanbul to admire and observe the differences and similarities of these two great Turkic cities; to complete an exploration of the Caucuses, one of the great cultural and crucial ethnic melting-pots in the world today or simply visit to have a look.

I am grateful to Aydin for his most generous hospitality on today’s frenetic tour; we saw a lot, talked about a thousand subjects and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company; well, I certainly enjoyed his. We agreed to look at a number of exciting business opportunities and looked forward to our next meeting.

Which will be a lot sooner than either of us thought when we realised that we will be together in Australia in June at a trade show in Adelaide.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Baku !

I actually made it, and I think I’m going to like Baku, once I get it figured out.

Arriving at the Heydar Aliev International airport in Baku is a really interesting experience. The terminal is wonderful, with no expense spared, the immigration lines efficient and quite friendly, baggage retrieval speedy and a couple of ATM machines to help one on one’s way.

Then the irritants start.

In a clearly well-off country, I am not sure why the police officers who hang around outside the arrivals really need to stoop to hustling taxis; fortunately having ascertained that the correct price is about 20 Manat (about $25) from a French, Old Baku Hand, their opening gambit was 50; I spurned their advances and offered 10, they countered with 40 and I wandered off to clear customs. Outside customs there was the usual murder of taxi-drivers, annoyed at the police spoiling their pitch, no doubt, so I settled on 30 and in to town we went. Why this absurd pantomime? I have no idea.

When I arrived in Warsaw last week, there were large signs in the arrivals area telling you how much to expect a cab ride to town should cost; sensible, easy and extremely helpful. It is an idea that should spread around the world and save travellers arriving in a city the angst of “The Arriving Traveller Taxi Rip Off Blues”.

But away I went, and what a drive! A ten-lane highway, whizzing past gated communities of upper middle-class housing on either side on the 35 kilometre highway; served, I have to add by tar-driven buses of a debatable vintage. One went the super highway only to collide with a ring of post-Soviet concrete buildings and thence into the city. Part Monaco, part Dubai, part provincial Russian town; part European, part Istanbul on steroids and all Baku.

I think I’m going to like this place.

It is, I have to say, a study in the difference between wealth and riches. The world’s finest brands are represented; lights, camera, action! Fabulous, and gloriously idiosyncratic. I love paradox; the clash of cultures; old and new, sweet and sour, your shout or mine, and Baku seems from first glance to epitomise these feelings. Extraordinary public buildings, lit with no expense spared adjacent to the medieval wall of the old town; fine shopping boulevards with ancient cross streets in a different socio-economic century; a stunning sea side corniche, fine cars, old Ladas and yet more ancient buses propelled by burning chicken-feathers.

They have a metro system here, and tomorrow I will take it to the end of the line and have a look; I like other peoples’ suburbs. Ridership apparently dropped by 10% when they increased the fares recently from $0.15 to 0.30, a major public policy issue. It does make you wonder how that get to work for less.

I am looking forward to tomorrow.

And, do you know, they have ferries that go from here to Turkembashi, across the Caspian Sea in Turkmenistan; very, very tempting.

UKR Ferries in Poti: Off and Away

In the end, it was a bit of an anticlimax, as we slid slowly and very neatly into the small port of Poti. Small the port maybe, but it is a hive of activity, with a miscellany of the world’s tramp steamers here loading and unloading a cornucopia of loads.

Ships from Antigua, Majuro in the Marshall Islands, Panama and more were being emptied by a forest of rusty cranes onto a crumbling dockside; were I not in a hurry to move on, I would have loved to explore this scene of intimate internationalism. Each of these ships spend weeks and even months at sea, seeking cargoes, shifting cargoes and then seeking new ones, and only rarely come together for few brief hours in port.

Poti Harbour

And to them Poti’s inefficiency must have been glorious; actually time to get off the ship, head to eh seaman’s mission and chat to a wider audience than their own crew of ten or so. I have heard it said that seamen grumble about the inefficiencies of modern ports where they can be in and out in a few hours, and the historic, and possibly romantic, vision of seeing the world is now limited to expanses of water, and no longer the delights of exotic ports

We, on the other hand, felt bewildered at this inefficiency, and while I should have been used to endless and apparently pointless waiting, I certainly wasn’t. We docked and waited; Waited some more, retired to our cabins and waited. After about three hours of intermittent waiting and shuffling we congregated by the reception area and waited a little more. Finally, a Georgian officer started calling names at random handing back passports; one after the other and the “Johnson” came the cry. As mine was one of only two non-regional documents it stood out and as he handed it to me he paused, smiled and said “Welcome to Georgia, Mr. Johnson”. A completely unnecessary but generous comment and it made me smile.

Off the ship; and now what?

So now we were free; we, the Tbilisians Archi and Tony, had arranged for a ride from friends that we had made, but after disembarking and waiting for a couple of hours, and there being no sign of any vehicles disembarking we decided to get a bus or a taxi.

From the ship to the harbour gate is about a kilometre across a rough, wet and grimy path, but fortunately there was a shuttle; at the dock gates Tony negotiated a taxi for the three of us, $120 for the five hour ride to the capital; a bus might have been $15 each, but it was late, we were hungry and anxious to move, so we climbed into a geriatric, red Opel and clunked off along the most appalling road that I have seen in my life.

First, however would be dinner, and we pulled up outside a non-descript that the driver knew and went into to a smoky, dark, cavern-like and utterly wonderful restaurant. This region of the country is not wealthy, and it shows, but at each table groups were eating, drinking and toasting with abandon, and so we followed suit.

Georgian cuisine is not exactly light-weight or possibly uber-nutritious, but is it delicious, and an hour later, after a splendid meal of kebabs, katchapouri (a sort of stuffed cheese pie) and khinkale (like perogies, but large filled with meat and a broth, to be eaten with care), a flagon of wine, and toasts to our families, countries (even Russia), peace, long-life, our new friendship and the wisdom of voters we headed out into the night, and headed East.

At about 2,00am, we slide into Tbilisi, still surprisingly awake, and drove through the old town, utterly gorgeous in pastel lights highlighting its absorbing architecture and to the Marriott where I now sit in a degree of comfort well removed from the Greifswald. An East German ship will remain an East German ship regardless of falling walls or reunified countries. Until she heads to the knackers’ yard, she will remain resolutely East German.

I Love Tbilisi !
And so Baku is back on the agenda. I shall fly there this afternoon, cheating, I know, and be at the Caspian shore for my dinner tonight. I can hardly wait.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Land Ahoy!

Well, this morning I received a note from my contact at the ferry company in Odessa:

From: VLADLEN []
Sent: Mon 11/23/2009 1:34 AM
To: Max Johnson
Subject: Re: Help!






All looks good, and if the Georgian immigration formalities can be completed in record time (less than about four hours) we will be off, and in Tbilisi tonight.

Pondering the Georgian immigration forms

So, perhaps I will fly to Baku tomorrow afternoon and spend a day there ... or maybe stay in Tbilisi and fly home from there on Friday .... we will see! In the meantime, spirits are lifted high, the mood on the ship is so buoyant we will need to be tethered to the sea.

It has been a very interesting few days, and as a part of life's rich tapestry, a valuable thread.

More tomorrow on the journey from Poti onwards!

The pilot arrives ...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Black Sea Ferry V: When we lose count of the days

Tension on board the MS Griefswald mounting, and I would not entirely rule out the possibility of mutiny.

The Georgian coastline
We are in a very strange position. Lying idle in the eastern end of the Black Sea, from the deck there is much to see. As I look to my left and sweep through 180⁰ I see three countries. Well, two countries and a heatedly disputed zone; Abkhazia, Georgia and Turkey. In Georgia, I can see both ports of Poti and Batumi and with a little imagination and a gust of wind can make out the clanging of the harbour cranes.

But we might as well be a thousand miles away.

We were late arriving here, and when we did arrive the port was closed due to the bad weather; this much I understand. We now hear that a Bulgarian ship that arrived after us is heading into port today, and we will get in tomorrow (100% maybe). This injustice is, I am advised, because the Bulgarian captain is willing to pay the port authorities while our skipper is not.

True or not, there are scenes of anguish as truckers lament their late arrival, parents worry about flu-threatening children, dowagers long to see their extended families and we all worry about the dwindling food supplies. And I am starting to worry seriously about my return flight to Canada.

Forget Baku! I am worried that I will not get to land ever again. We shall wander aimlessly from port to port seeking shelter for decades; a twenty-first century Marie Celeste.

Conversation, however, continues and is most interesting. Sitting with my Georgian and DDR friend discussing the Second World War was an interesting lesson in perceptions. Our memories of the war tend not to concentrate on the Eastern front, and theirs are equally peripherally concerned with the Battle of Britain. One fact that is inescapable, however, is the result of the carving up of Europe by the three allied powers, and the resulting social and economic disaster then the eastern bloc became.

Talking of development is interesting, and always seems to revolve around two themes; without jobs there will be no development and that whatever one wants to produce, with the level of production capability in the region it is impossible to undercut China.

And in a world of globalisation, domestic tariffs are out of the questions, and ridiculed by the Western-based economic hit-men that are pulling the strings of the global economy.

So what to do? There are domestic answers; Archi believes that by cutting red-tape and lowering business taxes from their current 60% level, small business would spring up, and I am inclined to agree. The countries of the Caucuses are blessed with fertile land, a good educational infrastructure and a relatively uncorrupted government, attributes that are rare in the developing world, and are surely preconditions to development.

But then again, he points out that the history of the region is conflict and one-upmanship, belligerence and posturing with strong clannish values. A wonderful home and culture, he thinks, but for the future? He shrugs.

And today the BBC headlines quote the president of Azerbaijan once more threatening military action to resolve a long-simmering dispute with Armenia regarding the enclave of Ngoro Karabakh.

Perhaps tomorrow will bring new insight, and with luck, landfall.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Black Sea Ferry IV: Floating with Oranges

Now don’t get me wrong; the hours pass on board The MS Griefswald at precisely the same rate as they do elsewhere, and I don’t begrudge the UKR Ferry Company the additional eighty or so hours of my life that I have given them, as the experience has been interesting; if a touch slow.

Being (at least) eighty hours late is an odd concept for those of us used to flying. Once you get on a plane and it has departed, it cannot stay aloft and circling indefinitely; it will land one way or another. Ships are not like that, although our idling in the Eastern Black Sea will be curtailed by a shortage.

Not of fuel, but food. Apparently, there is about another two-day supply on board.

This is mildly ironic given that our truck-cargo comprises about 50% perishable products destined to Caucasian markets. There are trucks filled to the gunwales with oranges, fish, chocolate and other one-way goods. Twice each day, the drivers are permitted to run their coolers for thirty minutes, and there is much relief that this is not the midsummer.

"Open the trucks and let’s eat the food", I say; I don’t really want to go back to Odessa.

I have given up hope of getting to Baku, the original intention of the trip, because the timing just won't work. I will get to Tbilisi tomorrow night (heard that before?) at the earliest, and while I could fly on Tuesday, it would only give me one day there. Not enough, and anyway, I like Tbilisi; I might still have to do if Turkish Airlines won’t change my return journey!

Ia, whose advice is always good
One advantage of being on board for so long is that I have had time to meet some interesting people. And, as my friend Ia said in an email from Tbilisi when I must have sounded a bit sorry for myself, “Try to look a all things from different view: 1. that was your choice, 2. Potentially you knew that this way of travel will not work properly, 3. Anyway you are on a good mood, 4. Hopefully not alone - this is very important, 5. not hungry, 6. not cold, 7. not under bombing risk” And she is quite correct, of course; particularly about the bombing.

It reminded me that last time I was in Georgia I left about a week before the Russian arrived with their characteristically aggressive entree. I had quite forgotten the terror that Georgians felt during the invasion, and her reference was quite appropriate.

And so, in a quest not to be alone, I have made two new friends from Tbilisi. At the minimum, they will assist in finding the right bus because they will be on it, but it has been most interesting to listen to their insights into this remarkable region.

Archie (my spelling) is a vet, made bankrupt by the Russian invasion and its consequential economic tsunami. On his way back up again, he has just been on a two-week trip to the Ukraine to look at urban policies concerning stray animals. It is really good to realise that even among the difficult and often inexplicable commercial life in the region that there are people who take these important yet ostensibly minor issues seriously.

It is an interesting feature of small and necessarily defensive and self-promoting countries that history takes on a completely different scale. Incidents spoken of as raw and personal grievances turn out to have happened hundreds of years ago. The Viking indignities, only recently forgiven by the North Atlantic Islanders; William of Orange’s insensitivities in Ireland; and here, the great deeds of King David the Builder shine contemporarily in people’s eyes.

This is a very good thing in many ways; we all know that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. Although history seems to continuously repeat itself in the fascinating cultural that is the North and South Caucuses, I don’t think it is. I just don’t think it has finished yet.

Which is why a trip to Baku that has turned into three days in Odessa and five days on an East German bathtub has been wonderful; being so close to a culture and economy that is so far from my normal life is endlessly fascinating. Although I don’t pretend to understand much of what is going on, other than a shrewd guess that so many truck drivers will be whining about the cost of fuel and taxes, I have been offered a flake of an environment so foreign to my own.

And it is a true privilege.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Black Sea: Landing at Poti "100% Maybe"

The problem seems to be that of small ports and big ships.

It is Friday afternoon, and we have been advised that we can’t land today because there is a large gas tanker blocking our path to the single dock that can accommodate our ship. So tomorrow morning it is, as long as the weather cooperates.

Gazing loningly at Poti 

Which is “100% maybe”, according to my German friend Not his phrase, of course, but what the scuttlebutt is around the ship. But tomorrow, of course, is the Bulgarian’s turn at the single railway dock, so we will have to see.

In the meantime, I seek new ways to amuse myself. Christopher Hitchen’s fine book God is not Great, while fascinating is hardly the sort of light reading that is called for; nor is Martin Walker’s tome The Cold War, although somehow the setting seemed appropriate. I have finished the only novel I bought, and there is a limited number of times that one can read the Kyiv Post, particularly an issue devoted to law firms.

So I ponder, write, wonder about the poor folks who have to make a living in these difficult countries.

And believe me, it is difficult. Simply put, there is no work to be had. I drank a coffee in Odessa, and lifted the cup to see “Made in China” (in English) on the bottom. There is simply nothing to be made even here in the world of low costs and expectations. And nor does there seem to be a potential of anything changing as the political leaders race headlong toward the holy grail of EU membership.

It is all about change, and expectation. Evolution or devolution; managed change or rapidly imposed change authored by distant consultants in Washington, Brussels and Moscow.

And it doesn’t take a genius to realise that those who do well do very, very well, and those who don’t are left further and further behind with no realistic possibility of any change. Their options are simply emigration at any cost or drugs; and the drug problem hereabouts appears to be rampant.

Which is not to say that they are inhospitable places or destinations to avoid; a simple glance at the economic-political structures of Mexico, the Dominican or Cuba reinforce this class difference and the futility of believing in state institutions. Hopefully it will change, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

In the meantime we should all keep exploring, thinking and above all, questioning authority!

I am not particularly maudlin because of the ship lying at anchor outside Poti Harbour, but it doesn’t help. I am also quite bewildered by what is going on in Kaliningrad.

Kaliningrad is a very odd place, and one that I should visit. It is a sliver of land wedged between Poland and the Baltic states, and although an integral part of Russia, it is disconnected, and toed to the mother country by a railway that runs straight across EU territory. Very peculiar.

It first came on my radar a couple of years ago while I was in Trans Dniester, a really odd “country”, a break-away part of Moldova running along the Ukrainian border. While I was there, I chatted to the hotel manager who, when I asked what sort of future she longed for, answered “to be like Kaliningrad”. This was a bit of a show stopper as I had never considered the enclave to be at the peak of anyone’s aspirations, but there is was. Pointing out that they didn’t have a Baltic seaport, or in fact any port at all, were not advantageously located adjacent to the lucrative markets of Western Europe and that Trans Dniester was driven by drug money, money laundering and the most venal of arms transactions budged her not an inch.

And so today, when I met a delightful Armenian who was en route home to Yerevan for a vacation from Kaliningrad where he now worked, I was only slightly surprised at his enthusiasm. “It is wonderful”, he said, “a real international city. Russians, Polish, Armenians, Turkmen; everyone is there”. His eyes went a little misty at the thought of this bohemian paradise, and I became completely convinced to visit.

That is, if I ever get off this ship.

Black Sea Ferry III: Meandering across the Black to Poti

At the rate that we are travelling, we may never arrive, although I am led to believe that we will be there within four or five hours. I am not sure that I will be too disappointed to see the back of the ship, but it could be my preoccupation with timing and the uncertainty of the next step of the voyage that is getting to me.

When I saw that the vessel had been built in Germany in 1988 it didn’t actually register with me that it would have been East Germany; not that the DDR's engineering is suspect, of course, but their sense of decor, and the generally authoritarian stamp that has been imbued in the ship’s soul, is unusual.

My cabin on board The Griefswald
Decoration is bland; think inexpensive rec room designs of the late seventies and wash away 80% of the colour. Inoffensive and cheap paneling prevails, and a sense of joy is almost completely lacking. Built for service, and presumably eavesdropping, the ship soldiers on in a new world order unaffected by change. This description, however, is perhaps unfair, because it is designed to be a ferry for trucks, and not a cruise liner; it is a working ship, a rare species these days, and I am glad to sail on her for this reason alone.

Most of my fellow-travellers are a breed unto themselves; primarily truckers working a very difficult route, plagued with paperwork and bureaucracy that defies imagination, they lead a difficult life. They all smoke incessantly, and as we edge closer to Georgia and freedom from the MS Greifswald, there is a sense of the open road.

The rather groovy bar
Depending on the time, I shall try and find a bus to Tbilisi or stay overnight in Poti and head into the capital in the morning. The current issue is the language, or more precisely the script. An ability to read is essential when trying to catch a bus.

Georgian script is unique, and impenetrable to outsiders. Now I know that Wikipedia should not generally be quoted, but I will, and this brief entry should offer a glimpse into the linguistic quicksand into which I am entering:

The Georgian word for "alphabet" is ანბანი [anbani], derived from the names of the first two letters of each of the three independent Georgian alphabets, which have the interesting characteristic of looking very dissimilar to one another yet which share the same alphabetic order and may be seen mixed to some extent, even though there is no official distinction between upper and lower case in writing the Georgian language”.

Get it?

A life on the ocean
The problem of finding the correct bus will be coming apparent. All I have to do is to find the bus station, which will be filled with minibuses and Georgian passengers in a wonderful mayhem, and find the one going to თბილისი. When I say "bus station", don't think of the shiny facilities of western cities, think muddy marketplaces full of noise, colour and idiosyncrasy.

Fortunately Georgia is not a very large country, and I can’t go terribly far wrong, although it might take an additional day or so to get there if I end up in a Russian-occupied border zone by mistake.

I have a Snickers Bar for company (don’t be fooled by the wrapping on a Ukrainian Snickers Bars; they are not the same, and taste rather different; not exactly fishy, but different, nonetheless). I didn't get breakfast this morning because my place at table 10 had been taken by a Georgian woman with her small grandson; their place had been usurped by someone else, and I couldn't see an empty seat other than one at a table full of swarthy men who appeared to be wrestling team from Turkmenistan.

Greifswald DIning
Food, other than at the proscribed time and in the proscribed portions is unavailable on the Greifswald.

So the plan is in place. We dock, wait for the Georgian border controls to do their thing, then I find the bus station, track down a bus, go to თბილისი and check into the hotel. Or not, depending on how the day unwinds.

Poti Harbour

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Black Sea Ferry II: All at Sea on The Black

Ah, the miracles of modern technology; the internet on the high seas.

Loading the Griefswald
We slipped almost silently away from the dock in Illychevsk at about midnight, some fifteen hours after I had been urged to be at the dock for “borrdink’. Why it took so long, I have no idea, although when I asked one driver, he shrugged and mimed the payment of a bribe.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised. From reading the newspapers’ accounts of the issues of the upcoming election, corruption seems to be endemic, and a very serious impediment to the Ukraine’s growth, and its ability to be taken seriously as a forward-thinking nation. There is an extraordinary gap between rich and poor, one that in previously uncompetitive economic times was filled by the Black Market.

Farewell to Ilyachevsk

In complete contrast to Ukraine, however, is the ethic in Georgia. While disembarkation may, I am told, take several hours, any attempt to financially induce an officer to speed up the process will result in jail time. Interesting, that a country that was renowned only a few years ago following Eduard Shevardnadze’s premiership as the most corrupt of the former Soviet countries, it is now, at least on the “retail” end squeaky clean.

It is hard for many; now that the currencies of each of the former Soviet Block are readily convertible, the Dollar and Euro are the de facto currencies. Unable to come close to the efficiencies of the western nations, the relative value of the local currencies sink, yet all goods are still nominally denominated in the global currencies. It was said, of life under the communist system that “We pretended to work, and they pretended to pay us”. However, as long as everyone believed these fantasies there was food; as we all know, that particular emperor had no clothes, but it seems that while well-clothed, the emperor of globalisation’s garments are simply too expensive.

And so to sea; we are progressing across a mill-pond still Black Sea at a very slow rate. I don't quite understand the scheduling of this route because we are now told that we will get to Georgia on Friday at about 1.00pm, only four hours late, yet starting off twenty-four hours late. Very peculiar, but Friday is their day to use to sole railway dock, so it has to be done; by tomorrow morning, it is the Bulgarian's turn. Their ship, crossing from Varna on a weekly schedule is another service on the apparantly vital seaway, Inteesting stuff.

I just know that the sea is passing outside my porthole very slowly.

Lunch was almost as awful as dinner. Meals are served at a proscribed time, and for a thirty-minute period. Plates are left out, and will start getting cold immediately. With the powerfully testeronic atmosphere of the ship, and the almost complete absence of women, “chow-time” reminds me of prison movies. The soup was good though, but I am not sure what sort of animal had been cooked for the main course. We will see about dinner.

One is never far from a cigarette in this part of the world, and this ship, actually pretty vast to accommodate 53 trucks, fourteen railway freight cars, two 4WD vehicles and 130 passengers, is awash with smokers. Almost all are Ukrainian, Georgian or Armenian, and the primary fashion statement appears to involve various shades of black and grey. With a blue shirt and brown jacket I stick out like Liberace. There is one other” westerner” on board, a pleasant German fellow (originally from the DDR) en route to vacation with a couple of Russian friends in the Caucuses. I thought that this sounded a touch dangerous for a Russian here, but no matter.

Otherwise we mosey slowly forward, having just passed a couple of miles off the Crimean coast, and with it a brief phone connection, we now head straight across to the Georgian coast.

It is time to go and wander around, and pass time until it is socially appropriate to sample the Moldovan Red.

The home of the Moldovian Red

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Odessa: Day 3

It is now officially time to roll. I have my ticket in hand, the weather forecast is good and today was a simply gorgeous fall day here on the Black Sea coast.

Which was a good thing, because I was running out of things to do, and wandering around on a gloomy day wears thin soon. Today, however, I took to the streets.

I picked up my ticket from UKR Ferry this morning after finally finding their office. “On the corner of Preobrazhenskiy and Schepinka Streets”, they said. I did feel pretty silly not realising that the Odessa city fathers had renamed Yelisavetynskaya Street, Schepinka Street, but after some confusion I made it.

The reason for the delay, I was pleased to hear, was a high wind preventing the ship from leaving the Georgian port of Poti, not bad weather on the high seas. I paid (US$375 for single occupancy of a “Semi-Luxe” cabin for the three-day voyage, including meals) and received my ticket. I bought the most expensive option available; passage in a four-berth cabin with three others costs about $165 for the voyage. I wanted a little privacy.

So off then to sightsee some more; to the Potemkin Steps, the incredible harbour, statues-a-plenty and the Mother-In-Law bridge. With a name like that, who could resist finding out more. It turns out that a high-ranking official ordered the bridge to be built in order to be closer to his mother-in-law’s dumplings. Perhaps, but many men would see right through this explanation, and regardless of how wonderful a cook she was would be unlikely to build a bridge to aid access.

Today, however, the bridge appears to bestow long-lasting marriages upon newlyweds who secure a padlock on the steel railings. There are hundreds of them, and a very good view.

Back through the centre of town, wondering why it would not look completely out of place in (say) Uruguay, a guide book told me that in the late 1700s, much of the city had been designed by Italian architects, in particular the wonderfully named Francesco Boffo and Franz Frapolli.

I visited the train station, obvious by the large sign reading “VOKSAL” above the building. Well, it was in Cyrillic obviously, but this is a literal translation. This curious word, meaning station in Russian, apparently originates with a visit by two Soviet railwaymen to the UK in the 1920s to see how railways were run (they wouldn’t go there now for such a consultancy, but that’s another story). Seeing a large sign outside a main London Terminus called Vauxhall, they thought that the sign meant “station”, and took the idea home.

The Odessa station is a beauty, and the end of the line. From here, trains go all over the Ukraine and on to Moscow, Prague, Berlin and one really bizarre weekly service through some of the more peculiar trans-Caucasian states to Baku on the Caspian Sea. Sadly, foreigners are prohibited from riding this particular rail, so I shall make do with the ship, a shared taxi and a shorter train ride to get me to the Azerbaijani capital.

And it all starts in the morning; I did, however, take the precaution of purchasing a couple of bottles of Moldovan Cabernet for the ride. Frankly I think that I have bought at the wweapons-grade and of the spectrum from the bottles enthused about in the link, but I shall report.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Black Sea Ferry II: Ship Delays and Moldovan Red Wine

Odessa is a great place; in small doses, or possibly large ones in the summer, I would imagine. It is vibrant, down at heel, slightly seedy with great architecture and a fantastic variety of restaurants. It has the curious feel of a Summer Resort Out Of Season in November, and seems to seek a purpose. It is a walking place; few indoor attractions to keep one amused, although I am tempted (possibly because it is going to be Day Three) to visit the Odessa Museum of Regional Studies tomorrow. It actually sounds interesting “depicting the originality of Odessa during different periods of history; “Old Odessa”, “Odessa in the Second World War”, “Odessa Cultures”, “Multinational Odessa” (and I think my favourite(to be)), “Brother Cities".

Who could resist.

That, and a visit to the railway station; always a source of amusement.

Bad news today or at least news that was slightly disarming. The ship to Georgia is late due to inclement (probably foul, given the size of the craft) on the Black Sea has delayed its arrival by two days. Our departure is now scheduled for Wednesday at 1800, some twenty-four hours late. This itself is not a great issue, although the Odessa Regional Museum had better be blockbuster, it is the thought of a Black Sea full of the storms so well described in the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It is, after all, November.

It is also odd that a journey previously supposed to take 60 hours is now scheduled for a mere 40; is this the marine equivalent of “tailwinds” or do they hold something in reserve? I will find out. At any rate, we are currently due into Poti at 1400 on Friday, and I would like to get to The Big City that night. I think the last bus may have gone, and I am relying on my personal charms over the forty hours of sailing to persuade an Iranian, Azerbaijani or Georgian trucker to take me to Tbilisi. We will see.

The red wine tonight, on the other hand was lovely. Still smarting from two glasses of truly toxic Bulgarian plonk last night, I headed to a different cafe for dinner tonight.

I have to add that last night’s expedition to the 4 Bulgarians was pretty good. In particular the soup which was a "Bulgarian soup from veal trip cooked with the addition of fresh milk and spicery. Served with garlic, vinegar and bitter red pepper. Recommended for extreme sensation lovers." Clearly, I could not resist, and it was fine; a touch disappointing, perhaps, given its wind-up, and the addition of the word “extreme” misplaced, but it was otherwise fine. Their house-red was awful; but I still managed two glasses.

Tonight, however, I ventured to a different and more local cafe, and had a great meal; soup, mutton and a coffee with three (3) glasses of a lovely house Moldovan Cabernet set me back $18, and I will probably go back tomorrow.

I like Odessa; it is probably a good thing as I have another thirty-six hours to enjoy myself, but it is interesting. It is a place to ponder; there are so many questions about the development of post-Soviet societies and fascinating to catch a glimpse of Warsaw and Odessa in consecutive days, and wonder how much the influence and support of Europe has assisted the Polish growth. It is also interesting to wonder about the death of the black market, and with it the ability of so many to survive in a non-Dollar/Euro economy.

More on these ideas later.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Black Sea Ferry I: The MS Griesfwald from the Ukraine to Georgia

I like travelling, and in particular enjoy journeys. I like to start a trip in one place, travel by public transportation and end up in another, and the fascinating ferry company, UKR Ferry came to my attention; in particular, their route from Odessa to Poti on board the MS Griefswald.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to enjoy many of these minor odysseys, from Odessa to Beirut, from Istanbul (eventually) to Paris, from London to Aqaba, Adelaide across the outback to Brisbane; all over the place. And once, many years ago from Montreal to Bogota.

Now, I wanted to cross the Black Sea, and then the whole width of the Caucuses ending up in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku on the Caspian Sea. Planned for some time, and assisted mightily by the interesting fact that Baku still counts as Europe (II) for frequent flyer redemption points, the trip was booked and plans set in stone.

As I write this, I am in a bar at the Black Sea Hotel in Odessa, a slightly odd place, but as I am a repeat visitor, it clearly offers certain charms that I find attractive. Star ratings do not do hotels justice in many cases, and in others they create unrealistic expectations. It is rated as a four-star hotel, and might be according to some standards, but really it is a three-star property with some nice touches.

The property is about thirty years old, located close to the train station and about a twenty-minute stroll into the “centre” of the city. There are plenty of restaurants around, including a Bulgarian number that I plan on trying later on tonight; Odessa is a pleasant enough city to wander in and the location, away from the rather curiously upmarket centre, suits me fine.

It also helps to get a suite (small) for only $85 per night, while a modest single will only set one back about $55 or so. I did ask to be moved as the first room on offer (802) was elderly; the window held in place by scotch-tape, the carpet matted in all the wrong places, a strong odour of soviet cigarettes and a generally dissolute air.

Room 1102, on the other hand, is lovely; clean, bright and extremely comfortable.

Sunday in Odessa is not, we have to be honest, a hornet's nest of activity. At least not in November. Young folks do still strut along Deribasivskaya, a major shopping and strolling street but with slightly less enthusiasm than during the summer months, and, it has to be said, with considerably more chaste clothing. The street, incidentally, is named after an improbably-monikered, Imperial Russian sailor named de Ribas, a chap of Spanish-Irish stock.

The markets, full of local artists of varying skills look a little forlorn, and the inevitable games of chess seem to have a sharper edge. The same Asiatic kitsch that one finds in street markets from Saigon to Yellowknife is all here, along with a surprising number of sub-Saharan Africans selling animal statuettes from street-corner blankets; one can’t help wondering how they ended up in Odessa (the wrong one, perhaps?, they were heading for Texas?), and just how brisk the model giraffe business might be. It is presumably reasonable judging by the twenty or so Africans sitting quietly in a remote corner of immigration at the airport.

But I digress; I am here to pick up my ticket for passage on the MS Greifswald tomorrow morning. This fascinating ship operated by the UKRFerry Company sails from Odessa to Poti on the Georgian coast weekly; Tuesday evenings at 2200, arriving in Georgia on Friday morning at 0900. Or so they say; I have a berth booked, and will pick up my ticket in the morning at which time they will confirm the exact schedule. The ship is designed primarily for freight, carrying whole railway trains and many trucks, but has 150 berths for the drivers and a few tourists.

The Griefswald

 I tried to do this a couple of years ago but was thwarted by bad storms. In the event, I flew to Yerevan and wandered around Armenia for a few days before heading to Tbilisi by train, and falling in love with the Caucuses.

So tomorrow I try again. The weather is lovely, the ship will likely sail, and I shall take my place among the heavy industry that is shipped between Europe and Central Asia on this most useful of ferry lines.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Welcome to our Blog

For many years now, I have been writing about the travel industry for a number of publications, and finally have got around to doing so for our own website.

The travel industry is a fascinating world; it is a complex place with a myriad of factors affecting our decisions, forecasts and business plans on a daily basis. From the extraordinary volatility of the currency markets to medical pandemics, the industry is hit by one new factor after another.

And yet it continues to grow, prosper and enchant.

Why this is so, what issues we are facing and how we will react to an ever-changing world will be the thrust of the blog; this in addition to articles about some of the world's odder destinations, train journeys and the wine-harvest in the South of France.

Through these pages as well, I will take the opportunity to introduce our staff and boast about their extraordinary and diverse skills; I am truly blessed to work with such a talented group of people, and we eagerly anticipate working closely with you all in developing some unique travel opportunities.

I look forward to comments, positive and negative; I encourage questions and ideas, and am excited to be able to communicate so directly.