#4: So, you think you’re badly paid!  Swimming with Dugongs: Adventures in Central America

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When we arrive in beautiful colonial UNESCO protected Trinidad, Cuba, a place that looks as though the clocks stopped in 1850 there is the usual scrum at a plaza (Carrillo) where the bus pulls in. We have a strategy that works for us, I leave the bags with The Wife in a bar/restaurant/shade etc and I go on the hunt for accommodation. My bicycle rickshaw driver is Daniel and I think I have negotiated a 2CUC ride to the casa that is top of our list. It is full and Daniel takes me to similar places, most are full, eventually we find a great casa run by a young lawyer. We return to The Wife in Plaza that also houses the hospital. Daniel now wants 15CUC. I lie and say we only have 7 until we can get to the bank, we have an emergency 10CUC note. He has told me he only picks tourists up, for obvious reasons. He reluctantly takes the 7CUC, you mean bastard I hear you say, or is that just paranoid tinnitus? Before you judge too harshly, let me explain the average monthly wage in Cuba: 20-25 CUC. Exchange rates can vary obviously, especially if you decide to leave your European brothers and sisters, for God knows what unbelievable reason! 20CUC is £25, or US$20 per month, just stop and think about that for a short moment (think… think… ok, carry on), this is for an entire month!! The world average is £928/ month – so the average Cuban is getting paid roughly 1/40th the average of the entire global monthly pay – no wonder young Cubans want change when they look out at the rest of the world through the internet! I have just paid a rickshaw driver, albeit a pleasant one, the equivalent of well over a week’s wage for less than an hour’s work! No wonder he only picks tourists up!

trinidad

We get to the casa particular and we get chatting to the owner, let’s call him Carlo, the reason I’m changing his name, he tells us a lot about the politics of Cuba which I may refer to later. Carlo is in his mid-thirties, he is an ex-lawyer, when he was qualified he was earning 25CUC/ month, his wife is a doctor in the hospital, she earns 25CUC per month. The average casa in Cuba costs 25CUC per night, or, a month’s wages for a local – this is why Carlo is no longer a lawyer. The government take a set amount of monthly tax, he pays 500CUC as he has two rooms in his house, anything after ten nights full occupation is pure profit.  They are wealthy, as are many other Cubans by local standards for basically doing bed and breakfast, breakfast by the way is usually 5CUC each, but they are massive, tasty and impossible to finish. Carlo is renovating a five-bed casa across the street to rent out, he is about to become even wealthier. Tourism is the game to get into, it is the difference between living on the bread line, like a lot of rural Cubans do, ‘They go to bed hungry many nights’ Carlo tells me, ‘And that’s not right.’ He adds. That is one thing ingrained socialism does, it breeds empathy, we meet it everywhere we go – apart from taxi drivers in Havana! Although Carlo tells me Cuba is not a socialist country, but the people in power want the outside would to perceive it that way! I ask him about corruption, he has had to pay the local administrator 50CUC for permission to renovate his new casa, he tells me it is not too bad. When I suggest that 50CUC is two months average wage he dismisses this as money he can make in a single night. His two bedrooms are full for four months solid and he is wealthy enough to have visited his friend in France. While we are on France, I spent many hours meeting French people last summer and trying to explain why the British decided to leave Europe and eventually when I could not help them any more with their total bafflement, I just shrugged my shoulders and apologised for the slightly higher majority (52% to 48%), most of which will be dead before any possibly ‘significant’ benefits are seen! Deep breath, move on. While still on France.

We meet a French couple who seek out the museum curator in Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos is twinned with the French woman’s home town, so she is interested to meet the curator, he gets paid 15CUC per month! He’s the boss, but she tells us he is not complaining as he has got to visit France twice because of his job! It is better in Cuba to do anything within tourism than any traditional indigenous occupation, this is the general consensus. Carlo said the game changer for him was not getting a degree in law, it was taking the optional module to learn English, by being able to speak English he rents his casa easier and can take pre-bookings, he also speaks French. I could tell you many other similar stories to emphasis the point, the graduate computer programmer that takes groups on wildlife walks as he gets paid fifty times more than programming – Cuba needs as many computer experts as it can recruit, believe me, or the teachers of English and History that no longer teach, but take guided tours exclusively for tourists.

The incredible monthly Cuban wage is the reason why government shops exist and the reason why a tourist is forbidden from buying a breezeblock of cheese for 15CUC! If there is actually any cheese available to buy  – when it’s gone, it’s gone, and it’s often gone!

My Wife is a lawyer, and Carlo literally gasps when she tells him how much the firms she has worked for charge per hour – five times average monthly Cuban wage! He informs us about his wife’s work in the hospital, the basic levels; lack of equipment and drugs. People even have to bring their own paracetamol with them when they come in. His wife loves working in the hospital and with the rent from his casa and him at home to look after their children; she can afford to carry on doing it.

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A two-tier system operates in Cuba, you pay the equivalent UK prices to travel on the buses, which if you have travelled quite extensively in the developing world, is quite surprising, but I suppose you have ticked the box on the visa application that states: ‘Supporting the Cuban People’, and you certainly have plenty of first-hand experience of that while you are there.  You can see why foreign multinationals would want to operate there, a work force with the highest literacy rate in the world and one of the lowest labour costs, and on the doorstep of the United States and Mexico, etc.

The clip-clop of hooves in the morning In Trinidad gently wakes you, it’s real cowboy country. There is a lovely beach close by, Playa Anson, we spend a day there and are picked up in a Lada taxi as a storm blows in and the skies look as though they are about to haemorrhage, the taxi has no glass in driver’s side window and the inadequate plastic sheet does not keep the lashing rain out. The drive back costs us 20CUC, and the fact we are getting wet does not appear to bother the driver, it is all part of the experience, there’s no customer service department, and there’s still a living to make!

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Look at the belligerence in the eyes of El-Loco Bastiddo at the back!

We decide, well, The Wife has decided we have to experience the horse trek, in horse country. I’m not a fan of horses. I had a girlfriend at teacher training college that had ridden all her life and when we went to stay with her parents and I informed her about my unease with a big beast between my legs, she dismissed me and told me to watch her as she took off across a large field for a stirrup to come lose and her to fall heavily to the ground; she has been in a bath-chair ever since and fed through a straw, ok, I made the last bit up, she can feed herself now, she’s fine, she got up dazed but unbelievably uninjured, but I remember thinking you know what you’re doing and you fell off, and quite quickly at the very start!  I don’t like being that high up, as if you fall off you hurt yourself and it feels like you are doing a public hokey-kokey whilst trying to stop smuggled drugs falling out of your back passage – I appreciate this is not everyone’s view on equine activities! We trek up to a waterfall at one point my horse, El-Loco Bastiddo, I forget its real name, bolts off I pull it back and it nearly dislocates my shoulder. I’m also in trouble as I have forgotten to transfer the wallet from one bag to another when I’ve been to the bus station earlier by myself, the bus was booked up for two solid days up to Santa Clara. The taxi driver, a friend of Carlo has reduced his price massively when he thinks we will get the bus! The waterfall is lovely and we bath and chat to several people. An Irish woman tells us the prices in Cuba have gone up five times in the last five years.

When we eventually get off the horses, starving due to lack of funds to buy lunch, my arse is so bruised and battered it looks like I’ve been abused by a drunk medieval knight. It takes nearly a week for the pain of the bruising to fully dissipate – this is another reason why I don’t like horses.

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Me doing my best Putin impression at a waterfall in Cuba. A bear is just about off shot deciding whether to wrestle me!

Trinidad as I have said earlier is a beautiful place to walk around and marvel at. There is a good choice of food (by Cuban standards), the main plaza and surrounding streets offers vibrancy, dancing, great company, and even though it is on the tourist triangle you would be foolish to miss it out. Definitely go, think twice about a horse ride!

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 Hasta la vista, Bucaneros.

 

Next time #5: The revolution starts here.

 

@thewritingIMP  www.ianmpindar.com

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Ian M Pindar writes books, and also about himself in the third person sometimes, so it looks as though he has a large team of dedicated professionals working around him. His latest book is in fact a novella and has the strange title of: ‘Foot-sex of the Mind’. It is not a Mills and Boon, but about finding out what is important in life far too late.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=ian+m+pindar

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#3: Getting Ripped off, or supporting the Cuban People?   Swimming with Dugongs: Adventures in Central America

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There is a famous Cuban film called: Strawberry and Chocolate, it won the Oscar for the best foreign film in 1994, as well as lots of other foreign awards, and it is partly set at Havana’s most famous outdoor ice-cream parlour, Coppelia. It is in the modern part of Havana. The guide book tells us that queuing is part of the Havanan experience, when we arrive we are informed we will wait at least one and a half hours to get served, Cubans seem happy to wait, I cannot even find the end of the queue! You can go to the VIP tourist section, pay more, well, get ripped off (supporting the Cuban people! (StCP!)).

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The ice cream can only be described as the quality you would get from a supermarket’s own brand when you are trying to save money and you have invited the whole class to your child’s birthday party, and that may be being generous on quality! The reason I highlight this is two-fold, firstly, I’m not sure Cubans actually know when they are queuing, it is so innate to them, and secondly, you don’t know what you’re missing until you’ve had it. Crap ice cream and excessive queuing would equate to elevated levels of moaning and complaining for many, dare I say, a first world problem!

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The precursor to this is a journey in a motorised taxi, Havanan taxi drivers will rip you off if you don’t keep your wits about you. We have jumped in this taxi at the start of the Melecón, because it is incredibly hot (35°C), when we stop the driver switches the meter off that he has had on all the way. He times the fare by four! I remonstrate and I refuse to pay the amount he is demanding and tell him I’ll wait for the police – I have no idea the level corruption/integrity of Havana’s finest, but I’m prepared to find out, so is he, and why wouldn’t he if he can make several times his usual fare, (I will take about average wages in Cuba in the next blog). He then negotiates, when he realises I’m being serious. I end up giving him twice the ‘actual’ fare and walk off, he does not follow us, we do not get challenged by the law, unsurprisingly. This is taking StCP! too far. On our return to Havana in three weeks’ time, the taxi we get from the bus station, after 18 hours on a coach, is shared with two local women. We drop them first and they give the driver no money, even though we have agreed to share the cost of the ride. The driver then stops at a garage to get some cigarettes and leaves the meter running! When we get to our accommodation we are paying for the time it took him to laconically purchase cigs, and the two women’s ride home, then he tries to add some more on as well. We refuse to pay the exorbitant amount and he refuses to get our luggage out of the boot. The owner of the AirBnB intervenes and basically says the easiest way to resolve the issue is to pay him the full amount he is demanding! It still annoys me now, we would have given him a tip anyway. Be careful with taxi fares in Havana, negotiate before you get in, and not in a laissez faire/fare? way. If they pretend not to understand English, write it down, or type it into your phone. Nearly ALL Cuban people are lovely, but be wary of the capital’s taxi drivers!

motor taxi

We have explored Havana enough, we have our bearings, it will be great to return more knowledgeable. We are going to Viñales (pronounced Bin-yarl-es), we have by chance managed to share a ride with an Australian couple that are over to get married in Mexico, as it is half the price of doing it in Perth, Australia. Not half the price for their friends and relatives though! They work underground in the mining industry as explosive experts and I have a vision of them emerging from their shifts like the ‘Unbreakable’ Kimmy Schmidt and the Indiana Moles. If you complete twelve hours underground, you must emerge every time and think, ‘This is fucking brilliant, absolutely fucking brilliant up here!’ Unless you are emerging into a barren desert, even then it’s probably pretty good. We have debated with an English couple we met on the plane the best way to get to Viñales. It is about three hours on the disserted roads, they have decided to get a collectivo – that is not only packed with other budget ‘cattle’ tourists, there is a good chance of carbon monoxide poisoning – think cloud on unsteady wheels, and just to add double insult to injury we pass them broken down on side of the motorway, when we chat to them later it has taken them 6 hours, compared to our two and a half and they have saved the equivalent of about five US dollars each.

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Transport in Cuba is interesting, you will see huge numbers of Cubans waiting patiently by the side of the road, waiting to be picked up by anyone, or anything, as public transport is chronic. There is, you guessed it, a queuing system, but priority is given to the old, infirmed and the pregnant, my advice is not to wait outside a maternity hospital.

Viñales is a big tourist trap, it is part of the Cuban Golden ‘package tour’ triangle, along with Trinidad. We have booked accommodation in advance, via our Airbnb, the owner of the accommodation has lied to us to get her to stay at one of her friends places, as when we arrive with our cases the one we think we are staying at is full, but she knows of another less desirable one that is vacant. The Wife has rumbled this quickly, and when the guesthouse owner says something to her about this other place and then shows us the sub-standard accommodation, The Wife is shouting at her, ‘You give Cubans a bad name!’ The female guesthouse owner is shouting back at her in Spanish, I’m walking backwards from this cultural exchange at this point. The Wife doesn’t need my help, she needs a cold drink. I leave her in a bar and go on the hunt for accommodation, which I love, the nosiness, the negotiating and the badinage. Viñales is a tiny farming village of about 300 people that now accommodates 1,500 guests, being a beautiful UNESCO area has helped massively, it is a beautiful place, and you have to go. I find a lovely place with a veranda on a side road, that we discover is a cut through for noisy lorries early in the mornings. I don’t mind as early the next morning a happy farmer in a cart being drawn by two oxen wishes me ‘beunos dias’ and I return the greeting with a big smile and take a picture with my mind’s eye for a future cold dark winter’s mornings in England.

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We do a few of the tourist activities, tobacco/cigar/coffee production, on a guided walk with a young local woman. I have a dodgy stomach and as we pass her home on the outskirts of the village she points me to her toilet, which is outdoors and involves balancing on a precarious bowing thin plank of wood over a pit. It smells like it has dead mammals that have shat themselves just before they died somewhere in the gloom below – the thought of falling in their appears to cure me instantly. It is the other side of basic, it reminds me of the Australian joke: A Pommy visits an outback pub and is directed to the outdoor toilet by the landlord. Out the back are two open piles of shit, he climbs on the smallest pile and begins his business. Another man appears on the larger mound next to him. “You’re not from around here are you, mate?” “How can you tell?” “You’re in the bloody ladies!”

Viñales is the only pace The Wife gets a dodgy stomach in the entire time we are away – she has the stomach of a peasant, whereas I have the stomach of high-royalty! It is on the only occasion she has the panic-face of impending disaster she shoots into the bar in the corner of the main plaza. She runs past the confused man collecting the 1CUC entrance money and disappears for me to sort. I get drinks in and wait for the dancing to start and on her return when I ask over the state of the toilets she replies, ‘Marginally better than shitting myself!’ Like I said in the first blog, if you are a public-toiletaphob, Cuba is not the place for you. When we return home, our washing has been taken from the line along with the two French women in the next Casa. When we awake early the next morning to get our bus our washing has been returned, it would make for a dull Agatha Christie, but at least no one got murdered and everyone had clean underwear!

Like I said earlier, Viñales is a tourist trap, but it’s a beautiful tourist trap in a tropical landscape with friendly people and the best food we had in the whole of Cuba. If you’re in Cuba you have to go. You might even see a happy farmer with a smile as wide as his face wishing you ‘good morning’ leaving you in no doubt that it is, and when you reflect back on it and some of your first world problems you might just smile outwardly like a happy looney-ballooney or Nut-Womble!

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Hasta la vista, habaneros.

Next time, #4: So, you think you’re badly paid!

 

@thewritingIMP  www.ianmpindar.com

I wouldn’t mess with this desperado!

Ian M Pindar writes books, and also about himself in the third person sometimes, so it looks as though he has a large team of dedicated professionals working around him. His latest book is in fact a novella and has the strange title of: ‘Foot-sex of the Mind’. It is not a Mills and Boon, but about finding out what is important in life far too late.

monochrome imp swirly letters

http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=ian+m+pindar

BookCoverImage

 

 

key words:

 

 

It would be rude not to talk politics and revolution in Cuba. #2: Swimming with Dugongs: Adventures in Central America

two manatees

The Museum de Revolución is the only attraction I want to go to immediately, the rest can wait until the end of the month when we meet friends back in Havana. I have also vowed to walk the entire length (5 miles) of The Melecón like a Habanero, after seeing a travel programme set there in my youth. We will do this twice, buy a bottle of rum and large bottle of coke, share and make friends. As you can imagine a Revolutionary ‘History is written by the victors’ Museum it is very partisan affair with blood splattered clothing of fallen ‘socialistas’ and ‘Cuban Freedom Fighters’ and the many souvenirs and trinkets aplenty. The US and the then US backed President Batista forces are referred to as ‘The tyranny’ like an unimaginative wrestler. A black and white photo of bloodshed of the rebel reads, ‘the Cuban Freedom Fighters being molested by the tyranny!’ ‘Molestation’ is a euphemism here! Massacres happened on both sides in equal measure. But by 1959 The Castro Brothers and poster boy, Che Guevara were rolling into Havana atop tanks smoking cigars. Whatever your views; and no system is perfect, but when they took over a small few and Americans (Gansters, Politians, etc) were doing very nicely. A million people did not go to school from a population of 7m (now it’s 11.5m), and Cuba has the highest literacy rate in the entire world, yes, the entire world! As well as some of the best doctors and hospitals, I googled about lifts in Cuba – it is more expensive to live on a bottom floor flat than the top, as nearly all apartments don’t have lifts. It is amazing how many Americans are either going or thinking of going to Havana for a ‘different’ kind of lift! People, pre-1959, were often starving in the countryside, this in a tropical country that was easily capable feed itself. So whatever turmoil the revolution brought for the few back then, you could see why it was not long before the revolution was snowballing to Castro and co.

So historically back in 1959 revolution was more beneficial for the many not the few, and so was born The Cuban Republic, and the great animosity between a superpower and little tiny Cuba. Cuba is the ONLY country to defeat America in a Latin or South American conflict, so you can imagine how well that goes down with dick-swinging men in power? The botched Bay of Pigs invasion is still a cause of embarrassment for some at the top of the US military.

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In 1963 the world was on the brink of nuclear disaster, like never before, (hopefully). A tour I successfully tried to get on while in Havana but failed, was a tour of the nuclear bunkers, a friend had been and said it had been fantastic and insightful, an elderly woman took them deep under Havana and summed the view of probably the entire world’s populous back then, as, “We were all absolutely terrified, we thought the missiles would fly and we would immerge into a nuclear wasteland.” Cuba would not have survived without the muscle of Russia, it’s bit like a the runty school bullies mate taunting you with the knowledge there is serious backup! But survived they have, in whatever form that is? Against the embargoes of many countries, the collapse of communism and Venezuela.

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Don’t forget to add to the animosity of the USA occupying a part of Cuba down in Guantanamo Bay; this is a legacy of the Spanish/American war over a century ago, and America says it is essential for guarding the Panama Canal, it obviously isn’t with their influence in Panama itself as well as neighbouring countries, such as Coast Rica. You would be rightly pissed off if a foreign country occupied your land. Imagine how Americans would feel if say Iran controlled Boston, or Mexico occupied Florida? It looked as though this might change under Obama, but is unlikely under Trump. US service personnel hate Guantanamo (GIT-MO also, ‘Old Droopy’), it is the only American base servicemen and women cannot step outside in the whole wide world! They are prisoners! I’m sure the irony does not escape them either, when the festival fireworks erupt and samba music fills the air.

We have the obligatory photo taken on the tank outside them Museum that Fidel Castro has ridden into Havana on in 1959. The Lonely Guide book makes me giggle as walk the short distant to have a look at ‘The Granma’ yacht that the revolutionaries crossed on from Mexico in 1956 to unsuccessfully have a go at a revolution, a botched ‘try before you buy’ attempt: “The Granma yacht is guided both night and day continually, I assume this is to stop someone stealing it and escaping in it!”

Granma yacht

It has not been easy over the years and decades, and people have suffered, as I will elaborate in later blogs, but young or old, Cubans are patriotic, even if the differing generations don’t agree on the best way forward. The outward internet-looking under thirties are not children of the revolution, they are the offspring of a global connected world, they see what it offers and of course they want a chunk of it. The old men that run the country know this; they don’t like it, but needs must when the devil drives. It will be interesting to stand behind unorganised rich Americans at money exchanges just to register the shock and expletives when the Cuban authorities tax them 10% to change over money – that’s the price of progress after so many decades of mistrust.

So Cuba is steeped in politics, it, among other things is what defines it. It is changing because it has to now, it has been abandoned by new oligarchs, dodgy presidents, and Venezuela is in turmoil, not helped by the crash of the oil price. It will survive because whatever the people are, they are incredibly resilient, it is their DNA, but change is blowing in with tourism, Americans that don’t already know the warmth and intelligence of the Cuban people soon will and by a process of osmosis they will meet and love Cubans, because we are not different, we all want the same things; to love and be loved, happy and healthy friends and family and enough to get by comfortably.

Hasta la vista, habaneros.

@thewritingIMP  www.ianmpindar.com

blocklinecol3 (4)

Ian M Pindar writes books, and also about himself in the third person sometimes, so it looks as though he has a large team of dedicated professionals working around him. His latest book is in fact a novella and has the strange title of: ‘Foot-sex of the Mind’. It is not a Mills and Boon, but about finding out what is important in life far too late.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=ian+m+pindar

BookCoverImage

 

Swimming with Dugongs: Adventures in Central America. #1: Cuba, da, da, da, da, da, Cuba.

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two manatees

So this is ten years on from our family gap year. The kids have grown up, the nest abandoned, for now; The Boy is working/getting drunk, etc in Australia, The Girl is waiting to start Uni. We have planned to go to Cuba for a long time, we nearly went fifteen years ago when we came into a few grand – where there’s a claim, there’s certainly a blame! But I put my foot down which is a rarity in hours for ‘Pushover Pindar’ as the family unit call me, then laugh like psychopaths! Instead we had a new kitchen fitted in the dilapidated basic house which we had just moved into. When I say basic, it had a gas fire and a shower in the kitchen! Yes a shower in the kitchen with no door on it – the house had been a multiple social security tenant’s house. I only tell you this as a few people say we are always travelling, sometimes it’s a fine line between being assertive and relaxed.

It is planned, The Wife has sacked her job off, I’m working at an academic school that is so desperate for Science Teachers, they are letting me go early and come back late – two and a half months we will be away in total, hurrah.

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The first and only major hurdle is getting visas for the Republic of Cuba. There is nothing on the online website’s dropdown menu that says we are going for a holiday, or we are tourists. The box you have to tick is ‘supporting the Cuban people!’ This will become our motto whenever we are being ripped off, which when you’re a tourist – ‘supporting the Cuban people’ is quite frequent.

You know you are in underdeveloped country when you have to line up patiently to have a headshot taken with a digital camera from an operative inside the customs both. People get annoyed, but we take it in our stride, it’s all part of the experience, I pass the time thinking of famous people in mug shots, I decide on Steve McQueen.

steve Mcqueen

Everyone’s bags are re-x-rayed, when it looks like we’re through! Money is a hassle in Cuba; there are two currencies that run side by side. The Cuban convertible (CUC) – tourist money and money the rich Cubans use (there are some, they all work in tourism!) and the peso, or local money, in theory only Cuban nationals can use this, but once you get acclimatised, you can buy some things with it, like food, especially in out the way places. We have to queue to get our CUCs as you cannot buy them beforehand; this takes nearly an hour at twelve o’clock at night. Cubans say their greatest exports are: cigars, rum, music and dancing. Whenever a Cuban tells me this I add, ‘queuing’ to the list! It always raises a smile.

The Airbnb we are staying in have ordered us a taxi, but it has not turned up. We have the hassle of negotiating a new one. There are two types of cars in Cuba; new ones, Japanese and Chinese produced, and old ones from before the revolution (1959!) classic American cars. We jump in one of the later and the pollution it’s producing is like something from Wacky Races. Heading into central Havana in an American Studebaker – if that doesn’t make you feel alive, stop the world and get off.

By now it’s 1.30am in the morning and the narrow and on first impression, shady looking and crumbling streets are empty. I pass the taxi driver the address along with my pigeon Spanish and he goes out of his was to make sure someone is home. From the outside, the apartment (112 Villages) looks rough, but inside it is immaculate, large ceilings, colonial elegance, fantastic.

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The government stipulates that all rented tourist’s rooms must have; AC, a fridge, shower/bathroom. We are too wired to sleep, so we head out and find a bar (Monserrate) still open and sip cuba libres. The toilets in Cuba are not for the feint-hearted! This is my first experience, a tiled bathroom, one lone urinal in the corner and one sit-downer, surrounded by an enclosure a pony could easily look over, it has a plantation shuttered saloon door on, with an ironic bolt lock. Anyone that enters the bathroom looks down on you both physically and socially. This is one of the posher bars that tourists frequent! I find it quite amusing, but if you’re a public-toiletaphob, Cuba is not the ‘sanitised’ place for you!

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We wake late to discover we are in the heart of the old town not far from Parque Central. It feels vibrant and safe, we eat brunch in Café Paris, queue for more currency for an hour and a half!, in a beautiful colonial bank. Use a service till if you can, there is no rhyme or reason which ones work, but some do. We go on an open top bus tour with Cuclo, the commentary is rubbish, a half interested young woman that looks as though she has been out clubbing all night tells us the name of every hotel, when it was built and how many people it can accommodate, and little else – I know more about Havana than her, except the history of the hotels! We get our bearings and sunburn.

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That’s me under the tv.

We head to PA’s bar on Agromante for great cold beers, I get chatting to the owner. He has football shirts adorning one wall of the top teams from around the world, with the omission of Man City! After much discussions he reluctantly agrees he should get a City shirt. The Wife asks me in all honesty if I know him! “I do now,’ I reply. The beer, heat and jetlag send us to sleep, we reluctantly pull ourselves out to get in sync with a walk and food in Plaza Vieja. Havana is crumbling, there is little money for renovation except in Vieja and the important public buildings, which have been restored meticulously back to their original architectural splendour. It has been going on since the 1970’s, Eusebio Leal Spengler is the mastermind, and the Habaguanex holding company (WWW.Habaguanex.ohc.cu) a charity that splits the money from tourism equally between restoration and social projects. I read recently there will be as many as 110 direct flights from the USA this year alone – that’s a lot of US dollar! The upside of this is a beautiful decaying city will be brought back to life and lots of people in Cuba will be better off. Havana reminds me of Beunos Aires, a city that is starting to decay around the edges – The Paris of the South, but forty years on from their financial disaster, again precipitated by America!

Cuba already feels good, we are relaxing into it, the people are friendly, and despite reports to the contrary, appear happy and helpful.

 

Here’s my initial/landing top 4 tips for Cuba;

  1. Pay an agency to sort your visa out, it’s not expensive and will save you mucho hassleo.
  2. When you land get enough money for at least three days, if in doubt go for a higher, rather than a lower amount.
  3. Buy an internet card (you put a code in to the only government provider available!) and head to a plaza with everyone else. Expect the connection to be poor to awful! Don’t use one of the big hotels.
  4. Americans only. If you get money out using an American account the Cuban bank/government will charge you 10%, yes 10%! Change all the money you need into Euros and exchange them. Western Union was good option for Americans I met.

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Hasta la vista, habaneros.

Next time, #2: It would be rude not to talk politics and revolution in Cuba –- Out 18/8/17

@thewritingIMP  www.ianmpindar.com

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Ian M Pindar writes books, and also about himself in the third person sometimes, so it looks as though he has a large team of dedicated professionals working around him. His latest book is in fact a novella and has the strange title of: ‘Foot-sex of the Mind’. It is not a Mills and Boon, but about finding out what is important in life far too late.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=ian+m+pindar

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#73: Journey’s end: life continues (back to life, back to reality.) The Curious Incident of the Gap in the Year. Travails through life; sometimes avoiding the pointing fingers and arrows of outrageous fortune.

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This is the last few days of what should have been a year away, but now has to be eleven months as we have to go back to get The Boy into his comprehensive school, so he’s not classed as a re-admission and on a waiting list. We go on our last excursion from Quito to the belt of the world at Cuidad Mitad del mundo (Middle of the World City).

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We jump back and forth from the northern to the southern hemispheres. The Boy is reluctant and remonstrating with us, “It’s such a sad touristy thing to do.”

“Yep, but when someone asks you how many times you have crossed the equator, you can say ‘dozens of times’. “ He is not convinced, he is practising to be a proper teenager in a few days’ time.

“In the merchant navy they shave your head the first time you cross the equator. We could shave your hair off in a symbolic gesture of solidarity to seamen.” He laughs, well, he’s nearly a teenager. “We could just shave it off anyway, so your new brutal hairstyle matches your personality!” A young non-nonsense Australian joins in, “Hey, you are a tourist, mate. Get jumping, you’ll feel better for it.” So reluctantly he joins his sister who is already bounding the line like she is in a Disney musical. He feels better for it and it lifts his, and everyone else’s mood. We take the obligatory photos of the brutal monument dedicated to 0º-0’-0”Latitude.

We visit The Magic Bean Café for the last time on the morning of our departure and evaluate our nearly-year away. It feels like we are in an ephemeral bohemian novel – Marquez springs to mind, surreal that it will soon end. We, the parents, could travel onwards forever now, more addicted than institutionalised, more enthused than jaded, with a topping of escapism thrown in. Should we have paid forty grand off the mortgage, rather than spent the equity on taking a gap year? I say ‘squandered on coming away’ to The Wife to evoke a reaction. The answer is obviously ‘no’. We discuss the best bits about the last year of our lives, and the good seem to outweigh the bad bits by about ten to one. But don’t kid yourself there won’t be travails, annoyances, and resilience needed during a full year away. Even the relative hardships untarnish to memories that make us laugh and smile.

We are in Quito airport, this is the last time we will need to check our bags in, the next time we will be reunited will be in Manchester, after they get delayed at Heathrow!, and we will be ‘home’. Customs have taken it upon themselves to go through all our bags quite methodically, (except The Girl’s, or ‘Pequena mula de drogas’ as we like to call her. The Boy is not only accosted by this perceived violation, but his hormones are nipping away at him as well, he is about to explode, we both try and calm him, but he can’t fight against it any longer, he bursts.

My life is over…”he tries to contain himself, but he has no chance, “I’ve been backstage at Glastonbury… and, I’ve been around the world. WHAT ELSE is there left for me to do?!”Both The Wife and I burst into laughter. “WHAT, WHAT? “ Exhorts the pre-teenager.

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So we are back in the routine, we have been for, total disclosure here, ten years! This all happened ten years ago, ten years have got behind us all. Writing now, only affirms how much it has enhanced all our lives. All those that appear scared by life, or cannot bare the stress of any change, the comfort of the everyday, some seem visibly shocked by what we have done, even now after both the children have made it to university. But how did you educate them? What did you do for money? What about your jobs? I know most of us are only a few months away from the streets, but you cannot let your fears paralyse you, or you become a ghost in the machine, living to work – stay optimistic and good things happen to you, it’s not purely by chance – you won’t win the lottery, if you don’t buy a ticket. The Wife gets the same job back she left. My job as a shortage secondary science teacher is not only left open, they have decided to give me a three-grand pay increase for some unknown reason. The Boy gets back into his old school, but tells all but his very closest friends he has been away in London for the year. The Girl starts a new junior school nearer to our home. I ask her how her first day of school went.

“We had Geography, and we are doing about the Amazon Rain Forest. “ I light up as she tells me.

“Did you tell them you’ve been, about piranha fishing, the caimans, the anacondas, collecting poison arrow frogs, swimming in a river?”

“I didn’t want to show off!”I am both sad, and immensely proud of her at the same time.

“Did you not say anything at all? Offer to bring some photos in? The trinkets you bought from a Shaman?”The look she gives me, reiterates what she has already told me. Then she adds, “The teacher had most of it right, but I didn’t want to correct her!”

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Two months after being back I’ve been sent on a middle-management course. We have to give a five-minute talk on any subject after a coffee break and a few of us are deciding what to talk about. I genuinely have no idea and express these feelings aloud. ‘You must have done something interesting across the summer holidays?’ ‘I did go around the world with my family all last year.’They look at me as if I’m taking the piss; I’ve not even considered it might sound a bit showy. So I talk about this, I set about my talk giving a very brief résumé of the places and the people and pre-empt the worried questions the professional middle-classes always ask, always the education issue comes up first – can you image the fine now? I tell them semi-flippantly, ‘schools don’t mind when middle-class people take their children out of school, it’s the working classes they object to, as they’re not taking them to museums and immersing them into the language and culture.’ My time is up and the ‘facilitator’ asks if anyone would object if I was given a little more time to answer some more questions that people may have. A resounding ‘yes’ ‘that’s fine’ ‘I want to know…’ I become defined as the teacher that took a family gap year for the rest of the course, but there are worse things to be defined by.

People ask what our family gap-year away was ‘really’ like? At least for the first few weeks anyway;

We have;

Basked in the glow of the Golden Temple with relatives and roots,

met and impersonated penguins,

observed tigers on the stalk,

walked in the footsteps of Ghandi,

counted and framed shooting stars in the Australian dessert,

traversed glaciers,

submerged ourselves on the Great Barrier Reef,

ridden through Pushka on a camel with the wind in our hair,

stepped through petrified forests,

experienced the havoc a few can inflict on the many,

surveyed the sunrise over Micha Picchu,

Traced the Nazca Lines,

upheld the natural jewellery of poisonous arrow frogs,

been awed as pink dolphins break the water’s surface,

Epicured on piranhas in the Amazon,

abandoned black-screens for analogue books,

lived with few material possessions,

set our watches in every time zone,

witnessed The Boy undergo the biological change; wrestle the hormonal beast,

laughed with friends of every nation,

grown much closer as a family,

and… seen the world is connected by love and friendship…

I think… but mostly I just reply, “Yeah, it was great.”

If you take your kids out of school and go around the world for a year, you have to expect them to be more; independent, confident, secure, better readers, empathetic, wiser. The flipside for some is the travel bug bites them, they are more, as the great philosopher Eric Cantona once said: secure, independent and loved. But now they also have wings and they may glide further from the nest and end up working in Australia, or travelling through South East Asia, where they are now, but would we have had it any other way?: No! Don’t forget as parents we are only the bows, our children are the arrows, we have done the best we could, and will endeavour to do so, when at times it’s bloody hard, but that’s what families are about, that’s the invisible glue that sets fast.

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Disclaimer

I may have a break from my blogginations for a while; there is tricky book to finish. Recently I spent two and half months in Central America and Cuba with The Wife, I may tell you about that at some point. The biggest complaint I’ve had while writing this irreverent flickering images nonsense  is calling The Wife,‘The Wife!’, feminists hate this, and they have every right to do so, I appreciate that – she doesn’t hate it, and she is a proper feminist. When I set off with the first blog she didn’t want her name mentioned, this was probably a wise thought, ‘I know what you can be like, people that know me might read it.’ She has mellowed, she is the reason we went away in the first place, she is the real risk taker in our relationship – I was only a risk-taker by association. She was the one that made a decision that has enhanced all our lives measurably, and the memories only get rosier with the passing of time, for this and many other reasons, is why I love her, so when I write: ‘The Wife’, what I mean is ‘my’ intelligent, beautiful,  Punjabi Princess.

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BIG LOVE to you all for reading these blogs in numbers that have astounded me, and as you travel and travail through life, catching and avoiding the pointing fingers and arrows of outrageous fortune, take my BIG LOVE with you, always… and make sure the glue is setting hard.

@thewritingIMP  www.ianmpindar.com

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I write books. You can buy any of them at very reasonable prices here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=ian+m+pindar

My latest book: Hull, Hell & Homecomings, is out later this year to coincide with Kingston upon Hull being the 2017 UK City of Culture.

 

Epilogue:  Through the Sun Gate: Machu Picchu.

This was the highlight of our family gap year: at least for The Wife it was. The sun creeping over the verdant Andes, the conical sides of Mount Huayna like benevolent reaching arms, to the blanket of the scattered ancient Inca ruins below. The Wife fighting for words to express its beauty; for her no anti-climax, for the rest of us the satisfaction that we have all made the three and a half day trek without oxygen and stretcher bearers. To stave off altitude sickness I have chewed the recommended cocoa leaves – all that occurred was an aching jaw like I had been hit a few days previous by Mike Tyson in a bad mood. The continued expectant eyes’ of the porters that I might have some ‘spare leaves’ – I felt like a drug dealer, I gave them all of them.

I have equal measures of wonderment and relief that we have made it, especially with a nine-year-old daughter, not so much in tow, more running ahead. The Wife has led us to the iconic photographic point – you know the one I mean. The children now more interested in the Mother and baby Llama just to our right, which are now bathed in the smiles of their own mother. The place is deserted; it is seven in the morning, ideal for photography in the still. She is punctuating the endless pictures with sighs of contentment and flowery adjectives – ‘this is why we are here’. The children are getting restless and not sharing her excitement now. Then it happens, whilst the baby llama is content to feed from its mother’s milk. The Madonna lets out the loudest expulsion of mammalian wind we have ever heard – ever! At the same time her short tail rises up and levitates in the air momentarily, before comedically falling back to its resting position. The children fall with it, into uncontrollable fits of laughter, I have no option but to follow suit. The laughter is not echoed by The Wife at the end of her (rudely) interrupted pilgrimage. Now would be a good time to break open the unused oxygen cylinder.

Several years pass and my wife is relaying the tales of our year out in the kitchen to a friend. She is waxing lyrical about the Incan ruins, her highlight, just as both the now teenage children enter the kitchen.

“What you talking about?” enquires the eldest.

The wife knows best not to mention Machu Picchu, it has been code named ‘Old Peak.’ – the rough Quechuan translation into English.

“She was telling me about Machu Picchu, it sounds soo wonderful. You are so lucky to have been.”

“Did she tell you about the Llamas?” The children look at each other trying to suppress something.

“No, what about the Llamas?” she lightly demands looking at The Wife, whom is shaking her head rhythmically from side to side.

Then they’re off again, transported back, memories underlined by laughter, and I have little choice again, but to join in.

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Madonna and child!

#72: Swimming with the Piranhas. The Curious Incident of the Gap in the Year. Travails through life; sometimes avoiding the pointing fingers and arrows of outrageous fortune.

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The family unit meets me at the airport in Quito, as I fly direct from the Galapagos Islands. We only have a week left of our trip and in my absence, they have been robbed on a bus in the mountains on their way into Quito. The classic bus scam, a man drops something on the floor, another grifter joins him, in this case it’s lost loose change around the feet of the kids and they come away with an iPod, a camera, and hopefully a guilty conscience somewhere down the line. It‘s upsetting, more so as I’m not with them when it happens. My son feels like he has let me down, he has stepped up to the plate in my absence and has been ordering and bartering over rooms in Spanish up in the mountains around Riobamba, then the robbery! This is a Spanish lesson you don’t get taught in school!

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The police are genuinely mortified when we tell them we have travelled the world and this is the only criminal mishap that has befallen us. They are only ‘things’, and we are insured, but it is the injustice, the violation, the lost photographs, that rankles at almost the very end of our travels.

Once we are settled in Quito old town in a hostel opposite the brilliant Magic Bean Café, the robbery is not so important.

We are booked on an eco-trip deep into the Amazon at Yasuni, described as arguably the most biodiverse spot on Earth. It’s relatively easy to get to this equatorial paradise, a 40-minute flight, a 3-hour minibus ride, and two hours in a motorised canoe – everything’s relative.

I’m expecting a tiny plane to take us into the Ecuadorian Amazon, something like you might see in an Indiana Jones film being buffeted in a thunderstorm, but there are over hundred people on this jet, there is a buzz, and the majority don’t appear to be dressed for an equatorial jungle environment. The plane lands at Lago Agrio (Bitter Lake) originally it was simply, and unimaginatively named Texaco, a town that has grown around the oil industry.

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Everyone and anyone stand expectantly by the runway; the Witch Doctor/Mayor/top army brass/tv reporters they are all there, excited eager faces. We alight the plane like tropical Beatles, but they have not come to see us, they have come to see their most famous footballer, and locally born – Antonio Valencia. Valencia appears to want none of the publicity; I’ve seen him hiding under a large baseball cap on the way off; hoping, unrealistically they might forget about him! He just wants to see his family, quietly. We watch intrigued as he presses the flesh and smarts from camera flashes.

The taxi driver makes me smile, he wants to know if we have come all the way here from England just to see Antonia Valencia! I inform him he plays for Manchester United, around the corner from where we live, if I wanted to see Tony V, I could walk down the road and tap him on the shoulder. He seems very impressed that we live in a city with football team.

Three hours in a Minibus vans, along a road designed to remove your fillings free of charge! We eventually meet the Cuyabeno river, then zip along deeper into Yasuni (Cuyabeno) National Park.

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We see a lot of wildlife, the flash of three species of kingfisher raise the spirit, sloths elevate it higher, but it hits a zenith when we reach the entrance to Laguna Grande – when we chance across pink river dolphins, fresh water dolphins in the Amazon! I knew there was some somewhere, maybe at the mouth of the mighty Amazon River, but this is breathtakingly magical, they break the surface near the canoe, they don’t jump out of the water, like some. We will see them every day and never tire of the sceptical, the lake is not far from our camp.

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We are in raised wooden huts arranged around a central plaza, with palm leaf roofs. It is the end of the heavy rainy season and most of the camp not elevated is flooded. There is no electricity in the huts, only the dining area. The kids are slightly horrified at the basic living units, they are actually better than I envisaged!:

“There’s a toilet, sink and mosquito nets, what more do you want?” I say to try and allay their fears.

“Electricity, light, windows–“ The Boy intercedes, but I cut in before the list gets any longer.

“It’s character building, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!”

“It‘s the animals that might kill me I’m worried about!” He replies, and so am I, but I hide my fear well. The Girl is oblivious to the poisonous, bitey, constricting, hidden things that surround us.

“We will be ok, won’t we?” The Wife asks when the kids are out of earshot. “I’ll do a body count in a few days.” I joke untactfully, and feel I need to add “Don’t worry, they wouldn’t let tourists come if it was dangerous.”She is not convinced.

Later as it’s getting dark, I spot a mother tarantula with three babies on the roof of a hut near the dining area. I point it out to Nesir our main guide, “It’s only a baby,” he dismisses. It’s not a baby, it is old enough to birth other tarantulas and it is a good 6-7 inches across. “No, not the babies, the mother.”I try and clarify further. “It is only a baby,” he repeats so I’m in no doubt it is ‘only’ a baby. I make a note not to point out the ‘baby’ tarantula and the baby-baby tarantulas to the family. If they do spot them, I will tell them it is fully grown and been on steroids down the gym for months, but not the steroids that make you aggressive, only make your willy shrink!

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Nesir also tells me it will be ok to swim in the river.

“What about Piranhas?” I ask trying to hide my horror.

“The bank is too steep for piranhas, it‘s safe to swim.” I’m reluctant to be the human guinea pig, but the children are desperate to get in the river as a rope swing hanging from a tree on the opposite bank is calling them. I ask Nesir again if it‘s ‘really’ ok, as I’m being volunteered further by The Wife and some of the others have come to see if I get eaten, and it’s all been a cruel Ecuadorian ‘survival of the fittest’– ‘who’s ‘actually’ gullible enough’, joke!

“Why am I getting in first? Why not you?” I ask The Wife.

“You’re a stronger swimmer than me. Don’t be a baby, just get in!”I have come to learn that I am better at everything compared to her if it involves possible injury, humiliation, or death.

“Not sure if being a good swimmer helps against piranha attacks?”I see Nesir nod his head in agreement – but I’m not sure with whom he is agreeing! As we will learn later when we go piranha fishing – the more you splash the more the carnivorous fish salivate, delight, and scoff.

“Shouldn’t we throw one of the children in first? I’m the second highest age-earner in this family.

“Get in you big baby.” There’s the baby taunt again “And anyway, you’re insured.” That would be an interesting insurance claim form and death certificate! I could make the Darwin Awards with a forward from The Wife! (and, the insurance company.) I’m nervous, and I get the feeling there is some disappointment from the watching Danish couple when I’m not thrashing around in a quickly spreading pool of my own blood. The Boy and The Girl are soon in and we are on the rope swing. This is one of the lies they tell you at school, if you fall the water in The Amazon you will be consumed by ravenous fish within seconds. It is not until I get out that I think to ask if they have those Canduri pencil fish that happily swim up your urethra, become lodged and have to be removed by surgery!! (definitely two exclamation marks!!)  If you want a memory to keep you warm when you are old and grey, swimming in The Amazon Rain Forest with your kids will just about do it for everyone. A lodged pencil fish in your penis will get you remembered via the gift of social media for many, many, generations to come.

We chat to the other tourists over and after lunch, and are careful to make sure our beds have no dangerous animals in before we get in. We are not been poisoned, bitten, or constricted in the night. We are up early every day and after a healthy and hearty breakfast we are into the motorised canoes and onto the water-roads of the Amazon to spot wildlife. When we eventually step out of the canoes for a dryish land stroll, I step on a twelve-inch centipede that makes a horrendous onomatopoeia sound to match. Nedir dismisses the squashed arthropod and says he has seen a pigmy marmoset camouflaged against the bark of a tree and none of us can see as he points it out. So he sets up a telescope and we are amazed that a primate only thirty feet in front of us is almost invisible, but to be fair, it is the world’s smallest primate, even fully grown it is only 15 inches tall. It is an honour to see such an exquisite creature, and without Nesir, we would have no chance.

On the second night we make the short journey back to Laguna Grande to watch the sun sink, the dolphins are there quietly breaking the surface, a multitude of birds flutter hither and tither to their roosts and the air is stilled in front of a burnt orange horizon.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” The Wife says allowed to our family and the boat in general.

“It’s not as good as Halo 3,” The Boy replies. We ignore him, but the Danish couple in the boat want to know what ‘Halo 3’ is. I explain it’s a game that involves you, the player, as part of a team of psychopathic mercenaries, killing as many of the opposing team of mercenaries as you can. Until there has been enough deaths and splatted viscera that you are deemed to have won. So this is what we end up talking about as we watch the sunset over The Amazon!

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It is easy to spot caimans as we motor back. On one occasion when we  stop at a very small village on the river bank, a couple of local children have a big lump of chicken on a fishing line and are mercilessly teasing a wild three-foot caiman below the jetty.

We go further downstream to the community of Siona, it has a two-classroom brick-constructed school, but it’s the holidays, to suggest it is basic, is an understatement, it has a chalkboard, tables, chairs and very little else. The local children are taught in Spanish, which few of the parents can speak, just their local language. Rifles have replaced bows, outboard motors have replaced oars. Change has arrived, but this is the easily accessible part of the jungle. We go collecting poison arrow frogs, there are plenty. Here another myth gets dispelled: If you touch them you will die! As long as your skin is not broken, they are safe to pick up and collect, we collect many of various bright shades and colours. To get the poison out for arrow tips, the locals gently heat them in a metal pot with a lid on, they sweat poison, and then they release them before they die (I think!).

On the walk from frog collecting, something mammalian is being barbequed on the first floor of a dwelling. When I enquire what they are cooking, Nesir says nonchalantly, “monkey.” It is largely responsible for persuading The Girl to become a vegetarian. They eat monkeys like we eat chickens and pigs, both Nesir and I explain to her, she’s not having it, “It’s just wrong.” She extolls, even though she thinks we are joking!

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In the afternoon we go and visit the Shaman, he is asleep his wife tells us, when we arrive. He’s not asleep, he’s putting his fancy-dress on for the tourists. So we look around his garden of medicinal herbs and edible produce. I’m told that most of the older locals trust ‘Charlatan the Shaman’ more than a medical doctor, they have access to both ‘medical’ systems in this area! Eventually he arrives and chants something that equates to: ‘I’ll soon be trying to sell you some trinkets, so get your money out.’ But not his supply of hallucinogenic herbs he seems quite keen on! He claims to have cured several people of cancer, unsurprisingly he cannot produce any empirical evidence, when challenged by a member of the group, he says we have to trust him! People try not to laugh openly as they move their heads from side to side. Then through the interpretation of Nesir, Shameful explains the treatment.

Shaking bamboo leaves over the patient, while he sings some folk song karaoke numbers. Usually this requires three hours work on very strong psychedelic drugs – for him, not the afflicted. This is the diagnosis stage! ‘This is’ private medicine in a rain forest! As we are leaving, a ‘patient’ is arriving by boat. “Tell her he’s not a real doctor, Nesir.” “He is to her!” He smiles as he says it, but I know he’s as baffled as I am. Don’t write to me, I know there has to be some meaning to the medicinal properties of plants, I’m just saying he would be my second choice, even in a rain forest! He has the last laugh, it’s been worth dressing up, chanting and dancing badly, The Wife and The Boy buy bracelets, and The Girl a wooden beetle. I buy snake oil, smoke and mirrors! – but it does not cure me of my healthy cynicism!

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Have you ever been Piranha fishing? This is what I say when ever asked a tedious fishing question in the UK. If fishing were this exciting I would go fishing. Fishing for piranhas is the opposite of ‘normal’ fishing, were you sit quiet and motionless, ‘Waiting for Godot.’ Put a lump of meat on the end of a thick nylon line, attached to a bamboo stick, and waggle the stick furiously in the water to simulate the thrashing struggling antics of an unfortunate drowning animal. Adrenaline levels are high: The Boy is the first to get a ‘bite’ and as he pulls the piranha from the water with a wide smile – both Boy and Fish, he is just about to drop it into the canoe and it drops off, both smiles disappear! Nesir hooks one and plonks it in the canoe next to my open sandaled foot, I jump up, and the vessel rocks wildly from side to side in the carnivorous infested waters, and we are all nearly in our own disaster movie! We take the biggest, and only catch back to camp to cook, we all want to know what piranha tastes like, like fresh water trout is the answer. Whilst on the disaster movie theme, we see many anacondas in the trees along the waterways, but these are not 4.6m long and capable of swallowing a small car, but about a metre, the ‘big fellas’ have gone further into the ‘drier’ jungle away from the water to forage for food Nesir tells us. I don’t fully believe him, but we are all prepared to believe him, so we can sleep better at night!

The day we leave the rain is torrential, and we re-zip along the waterways like we are in a Vietnam War movie. The rain stops before we reach the track to catch the minibus back to the airport. I buy some ground expresso coffee from a rangers hut to support local jungle projects. I don’t know what was in it, but I suspect, and I’m not joking, cocaine, as maybe a little ‘thank you’ for the charitable donation. We never finished it in the end, worried we might end up extras in a Danny Boyle film. It would have been great if you were on snipper duty of three consecutive days and nights, or a Russian Olympic athlete.

If I had to tell you my favourite place on the planet, it would probably come down to the toss of a coin between The Galapagos and The Amazon Rain Forest, the forest would probably win. I was with my family in the epicentre of magnificent pristine biodiversity. I would recommend it before it becomes a palm plantation or a cattle farm, but not if you are concerned about creepy-crawlies or things that slither. These are the memories that keep us warm when we are old, that binds families together, that make you smile inwardly on cold winter’s days. It’s an old cliché, ‘but , what doesn’t kill you, certainly, makes you stronger.’

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Caption competition: X-ray of a pencil fish in a male urethra! ?!?!?!?!?!?! I will send a signed copy of any of my books to the winner.

Next time: Journey’s end: life continues (back to life, back to reality.)

@thewritingIMP  www.ianmpindar.com

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My latest book: Hull, Hell & Homecomings, is out later this year to coincide with Kingston upon Hull being the 2017 UK City of Culture.

I write books. You can buy any of them at very reasonable prices here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=ian+m+pindar

#71: Evolving biodiversity. The Curious Incident of the Gap in the Year. Travails through life; sometimes avoiding the pointing fingers and arrows of outrageous fortune.

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Guayaquil in Ecuador is a pleasant enough place next to the Pacific; some have said it has an edge to it. You can’t take your gun into a restaurant (or roller skates – Have you ever been threatened with a roller skate?) – That may suggest a slight edginess, (or an American High School disco!), but it seems fine to us. It has a nice coastal frontage, and the large numbers of land iguanas in Bolivar Park are well worth a visit, nothing says South America like feeding an iguana fruit, snorting cocaine, reading a Marquez book, toting your gun on roller skates during your main course and shouting random lines from Speedy Gonzales – I may have made the last parts up, or read them in a Hunter S Thompson book!

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Before we have come away, we have all written down one ‘dream’ thing we want to do, think of an achievable bucket list with one item on – tick, where’s the number for Dignitas! Everyone’s done his or hers now apart from me. I remember like yesterday getting a new Parker pen for Christmas in the sixth form and then setting about my A level Biology evolution assignment. I fell into it like you might fall into a fiction book, lost. Only momentarily being distracted by the young neighbourhood kids singing up at me “Pindus, success on a plate for you” This was a slight derivation on an advert at the time for Findus fish fingers – funny, the storage unit of the mind! I remember thinking then of all the places in the world I’d like to go, this is A number one, top of the pile (kick your legs in the air)… The Galapagos Isles – So good they named it after the old Spanish word for saddle, due to the shape of the giant tortoises backs’. So I told The Boy he was in charge on the mainland and left them behind, ‘Hideous Kinky’ as that maybe.

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The Galapagos lie 1000km west of the Ecuadorian coast and is part of the nation of the earth’s belt. This is where I have to check myself a little, have some measure, and not write a novella on the home of evolution. On landing we get shown to the 20-birth cruiser that will be home for the week ahead. We are all introduced to one another and the crew, Diago, the guide for the week is very charming and knowledgeable. I’m sharing a birth with a bohemian Italian, Fernando, he can speak four languages fluently. He shares a story about Heathrow Airport when I tell him I’m English. He has passed through there a few weeks previous. “I went up to the international help desk and asked them, “Do you speak Italian?” “No” the young woman replied, “French?”. “No”. “German?”. “No”. Exasperated he asks, “What languages can you speak?” “Oh, I can speak English!”She says like it’s a major achievement for her. “But it says this is an international help desk, what happens if people can’t speak any English?” “I can’t  help them then!” “Ok, let’s talk in English.”This is only one reason why Brexit was such a bad idea.

We take small boats around from the main town port of Santa Cruz to a natural mangrove nursery. The amount of biodiversity is enormous, I will avoid mentioning all the animals, but just on that first brief trip we observed; blue-footed boobies, land and marine iguanas, fire lizards, sea lions, Sally-Lightfoot crabs, bottlenose dolphins, manta rays, frigate birds, baby sharks, Galapagos hawk, lava herons, oyster catchers, storm petrol, green and hawksbill turtles. It is, bloody amazing!

The next morning we are up early to go and see the giant land tortoises, this is a mini bus ride and I sit next to Diago and naively  and slightly pleadingly ask, “We will see them, won’t we.” “If we don’t, it will be the first time ever we haven’t.”As we pull away from the small town (village), he casually points without speaking, to three we pass by the side of the road. Then as we pull off the tarmacked road and bump down the track, we have a comedic moment were a giant tortoise, this is four foot high, refuses to leave the track when the driver bibs the horn, and four of us have to alight to lift a 200kg turtle out of the way! We are heading to a watering hole and there are another fifteen there, several even bigger than lazy one we have met.

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You can never tire of seeing a giant tortoise, it’s like a cross between ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and ‘Around the world in 80 Days’. Their tastiness was almost their downfall, somewhere near 200, 000 were eaten; even Darwin ate them! But how did such enormous tortoises get from the mainland? Have a think about that for a second (?), they can weigh up to 400 kg! [Have you finished thinking – you’re only cheating yourselves!] One possible explanation – a now defunct land bridge from the mainland, but that is incredibly unlikely. The accepted theory is they swam!! Hey up, I hear you say in a Yorkshire accent. You would, and I did, think they would do the opposite of swimming, sinking without grace, so in 1923 William Beebe, a naturalist, threw an enormous one in the sea and watched as it “floated buoyantly!” He was astonished apparently, and so am I. So the most popular theory goes like this; turtles can float, pregnant turtle falls into the sea on the mainland, floats/swims/gets carried by strong easterly ocean currents and when she climbs out she has an island archipelago named after a body.

There are many great aspects to the boat, but falling asleep after lovely food and beer/wine and waking up at another new island in the Galapagos is the best. It was on the first Island – Bartolome, this is where my stills camera plopped into the sea, just after we had been to spot white-tipped sharks over the headland, on the opposite bay. On the sandy beach that also had the largest male sea lions I have ever seen. I excitedly spotted Galapagos penguins in the surf, so in my excitement to film tropical penguins and get my video camera out, the other camera, plopped out of the camera bag, and failed to work ever again, even the memory card followed suit, this is why there are no photos of The Fat Peruvian of Peru! Then to top it all, by the time I get the video camera cranked up, the penguins have gone. Out of the bad comes the good (positive peace), this meant I could only record everything with the video camera, and consequently have lots of better footage.

Some on board are not bothered about snorkelling around the iconic Pinnacle Rock, but I’m not missing out. So I set off on my own, the penguins are shooting and speeding around me in the warm water. I have no one to share it with, and amazingly none of the others see them, it was after the triumph of this I spot a very large murky figure in the water ahead, it is enormous, and the shape shouts one thing: shark! Fucking BIG shark!! And it appears to be getting bigger as it leaves the murk twenty metres away. ‘Cling to other people’, ‘make yourself bigger’, there is no one, just me. A twelve stone bloke, how big can I make myself? – it is not a great white nasty, it’s a male sea lion, weighing in at about a ton, we have been told not to approach them as they can be very dangerous. It fixes me in its eye-line, transfixes me, and moves towards me, whilst never taking its eyes from mine, it nudges me deliberately on the left shoulder and carries on. I’d rather it be a sea lion than an enormous hungry shark, but not much can scare me, I’ve been to prehistoric island of Komodo!

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On our next excursion we come across a group of German photographers taking pictures, pretty much of everything, one appears to be snapping rocks. Diago tells me of one trip he ran for photographers, again German, they took 2,000 photos a day! 14,000 by the end, spent all nighty editing them down to just thousands, can you imagine, “Here’s a photo of an iguana, here’s another photo of an iguana, and another, just another 700 to go.”

Lonesome George, the last giant Galapagos turtle (died June 2012).

We visit the Darwin Research Conservation Centre on our last day, I’m keen to meet the legendary Gorgeous George, originally when he was discovered, the last of a sub-species from Pinta Island, each island has their own sub-species, not much swimming had appeared to be going on, why risk it? He’s gorgeous mainly because of alliteration only, originally he was Lonesome George. He’s a legend in his own lunchtime, he’s up there with Harriot, the female Giant Tortoise Darwin brought back on HMS Beagle in 1836 (died 2005) that ended up in Australia, and also metaphorically in an upward direction in heaven that are connected now. They have been throwing ‘sexy’females of other subspecies in with him since 1971, he died in 2012, but I can only conclude two possibilities; firstly, GG is xenophobic and will only make the beast with two-saddles with a Pinta female, or, he’s a homosexual. He took the genes with him, it was a lot of pressure to bear, he was well over a hundred years old. I hope the Anglo-Saxon race doesn’t depend on me to bring forth the fruit of my loins at that (un)ripe age with lots of tourists ‘doggedly’ exalting words of encouragement! Donald Trump appears to be in charge of that now! (I did read on the internet that he is thinking of banning anyone without a spray tan from all public places, as that’s where his random thought generator stopped whilst he lost interest on Twitter the night before! It must be true as its unreal news: unreal is the new real!)

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I buy a lovely photograph of three iguanas on the beach at Bartolome the night before I fly out, it is just three iguanas among the hundreds I saw, but every time I stop to look at it I can see beyond it to the white-tipped sharks, tropical penguins like arrows in the water, Pinnacle Rock and a massive belligerent sea lion giving me a territorial nudge.

 

All Galapagos iguanas eat vegetation, the marine iguana consumes only algae – this is very unusual in the animal world, a vegetarian lizard. They are amazing animals, to regulate their salt intake from the sea water they sneeze concentrated brine out of their nostrils, it is worth going there just to see this. And after the amazing ‘BBC Planet Earth’: iguanas vs snakes, that maybe another reason, the most amazing piece of documentary making ever (although some of it is staged!), watch it if you have never seen it, you will remember it for the rest of your lives. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3OjfK0t1XM

I see everything and more in the Galapagos, the only ones missing from my Eye-Spy book of Galapagos animals is the hammerhead shark and the flightless cormorant.

The Galapagos Islands are amazing. It is not only me with a degree in Ecology that feels this way, everyone agrees it’s been amazing. The only two other experiences people on board say gazump this is walking to Everest Base Camp and the Amazon Rain Forest in Brazil.

On my return to England I am in the NHS system to get my left dislocating shoulder sorted out, and on my first visit I tell the consultant about how I dislocated it in Australia and how an aggressive sea lion also had a go. The next time I visit him he has scheduled me to be his last appointment before lunch, and he explains, “Tell more about the Galapagos Islands, I want to go.” I explain and advise him further that if you’re going that far, you have to go to the Amazon Rain Forest as well, that will also blow you away. The next time I see him after my shoulder has been operated on (not by him), he tells me he has booked both… he will not have regretted it, I’m absolutely certain of that.

Next time: Swimming with the Piranhas.

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#63 Kangaroos on the Lawn, Satin Bowerbird in the garden. The Curious Incident of the Gap in the Year. Travails through life; sometimes avoiding the pointing fingers and arrows of outrageous fortune.

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Sydney seemed to sprawl indefinitely but eventually we are out and on the country roads again – it feels good, through Wollongong – which means ‘Whiteman piss off’ in the local Aboriginal language, or just ‘The Gong’ to local interlopers.

We are heading to Batemans Bay to see a friend of close friends, Peter (real name), just to say hello as we have strict orders from them that we must visit him. He lives in the same house they used to live in just outside Batemans Bay in a lovely spot called Malloneys Beach. A beautiful house virtually on the beach, only a large kangaroo occupied municipal fifty-metre verdant lawn separates the two. When we eventually arrive there is a Mob – this is the correct collective noun for kangeroos – and it sort of sums them up. kangeroos have a strange expression; half startled: half belligerent! I half expect them to say, ‘Listen carefully, this is how it works Pommy, you don’t hassle us, we don’t hassle you. Oh, and that counts for your excitable kids as well!’They remind me of the story of the Italian tourists travelling through the outback in a jeep that hits a large male, take your pick from buck, boomer, jack or old man. The kangaroo looks dead, so they start dressing it with designer goods; Armani jacket, Rolex watch, a gold necklace, etc… but this old man was not dead, only stunned and as they are doing their photoshoot Jack comes round and bounces off into the night wearing all their lavish trinkets… this buck was definitely a boomer!

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You know you will always love the friends of your own best friends, and Peter is no different. After all the introductions (Peter is an enthusiastic History Teacher in the local High school), he sorts beds out for us all, we protest and say we’ll find somewhere in town, he is genuinely offended. He leaves us the run of the house and goes out.

It is a great spot in The Marramarang National Park with its abundant Gum trees,  we try hard to spot Koalas, but fail. It affords the amenities of Batemans Bay alongside the beauty of the forest and the coast, Pebbly Beach is the next beach down, another beautiful spot, where mobbing Rosellas are plentiful. In the garden is a Satin Bowerbird, like most creatures in Australia it is unusual, this particular animal’s unusualness is not its appearance. What this miscreant does is collet blue things, (I’m not making this up!) to attract a mate, blue plastic, blue bottle lids, blue movies, Picasso paintings, ballpoint pens, blue clothes pegs and blue flowers – it is the last two that especially pisses the locals off, the guy next door is a high-ranking ex-government official; the sort if he were American or British would be surrounded by men wearing sunglasses, black suits and earpieces, carrying concealed weaponry and looking nervous. He has taken a particular dislike to the Bird of satinness. Like Peter, he appears to know very little about the avian annoyance. He tells me its mating call grates on him, which having heard it, must sound like the call of a gathering of small children that have assembled to mock his decades of power, my interpretation! I can tell you no more as I have signed a confidentiality contract, and they would make it look like an accident.

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I know about the Satin Bowerbird, as I have taught it, I’m much more excited to see it than the locals. I think my enthusiasm annoys him as much as the blue collector!

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Batemans Bay is the nearest coastline to Canberra. Canberra is a bizarre place, it is so spread out that you have to drive virtually everywhere within the city, and no one appears to live there, well, when the government aren’t sitting. It is equidistant between Melbourne and Sydney, and when two cities that both think they are the capital can’t agree where to position parliament, it only leaves one location. We stumble across an oil painting of our neighbour; it is just missing a faint bowerbird in a tree in the background. I think Canberra is based on every 1960’s Sci-fi utopia, it is soulless, it shouldn’t be, it is actually quite beautiful, but it has no soul, not even the main camp chamber of the parliament can lift it – it has to be a gay architect’s idea of revenge!

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We visit the Science Museum and The War Museum (on the orders of Peter), but someone has kidnapped the people, maybe this is why making utopias is a bad idea, no one wants to live in them, too prescriptive and dictatorial? Either that or a plutonium bomb has leaked out.

We have our first taste of what we think is the outback at Braidwood, it feels like the outback at this stage of our travels – a pretty Wild West town, again with very few people in it. I wonder if they think we are the aliens?

One night Peter takes the kids fishing from the beach and catches a decent sized mullet for our tea. The Girl thinks this is brilliant, the fruits of the sea onto the plate in an hour. It is good for the kids to see the real connection between food and the platter.

We say our goodbyes; we have stayed 6 nights, reluctant to move on as we are having such a great time. The Wife and I discuss the fact that someone as lovely as Peter should have a decent woman in his life, as he has made no secret he is looking, but the only free females of breeding age are Kangeroos, and you can only marry those in mining towns! Soon after we leave he meets a lovely woman, they come over to stay with us in England and they believe they have conceived in our house, the rest as they say, is history, a lot of time, money, effort and sleepless nights.

I always read at least one book about the country I am going to visit as well as the guidebooks. I have read Peter Carey’s True History of the Ned Kelly Gang and Bill Bryson’s Down Under and it is through reading the latter I know where we are bound next: Eden

Old Tom was a mercenary misanthropic Killer whale whose skeletal remains are the basis for the towns imaginatively named: Eden Killer Whale Museum. The onshore whaling station, the countries once longest running, was founded by a carpenter Alexander Davidson and his grandson ‘Fearless’ George Davidson – fearless is another way of saying certifiably cracked, his mates called him ‘Crazy Fish’ but not to his face. Old Tom (and his pod) would help herd passing Baleen Whales into the bay. Old Tom would thrash around in the bay as the migrating Baleens passed pretending to be in distress to attract them from their migratory course. The Davidsons would kill them, then leave the whales anchored in the bay so that scallywag Tom et al could eat the tongue and lips, that’s all they wanted! I know it sounds like I’m making this up (again), but it’s true – honest! Here check it out http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/running-ponies/the-legend-of-old-tom-and-the-gruesome-law-of-the-tongue/ I did my own research into ‘Crazy Fish’ Davidson, deceased. Old Tom was classed as the leader, and he kept his epicurean verve for lips and tongues for four decades.

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Old Tom still looking quite pleased with himself!

Although I was engrossed by the museum, the children have found an old record player with a stash of 70’s disco and pop, The Boy is holding up an ABBA LP like it is the voice box recorder from an unadvanced spacecraft. “How does it work?” It looks a hundred years old now; they are amazed, they are laughing at it like a couple of bullies from the future. But I remind the boy, feeling slightly affronted and the protector of times past that I once took him to the Science Museum in Manchester and pointing at a 1950s cylinder Hoover and asked him what it was for, for him to reply: ‘Is it the first mobile phone!’’How mobile would that be?’ ‘Two of you could carry it!’I have to be dragged away by The Wife feigning hunger, it could be a double bluff, but at times like this I recall the beautiful elephants of Kuala Lumpur Zoo ( https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/6946206-28-a-woman-in-bloom-travails-through-life-sometimes-avoiding-the-p ), and cannot risk it, the kids have become bored with the singing discs.

We set off later than planned for Melbourne, The Wife is impatient because of this we don’t have a proper breakfast – this is never a good idea. Everyone is ratty and I suggest we stop somewhere and get a bite to eat. There will be more choice in Melbourne, let’s keep going – The Wife is driving, The Wife is in charge (I may wear the trousers, but she picks them out and I iron them!) I have given the kids a large apple each in the back. The Boy has eaten his and then stolen his little sisters, he doesn’t want it, he just wants to torment her. She is maybe pinching him or using cruelty as a revenge weapon, I cannot detect from the front. She is very skilled at pushing his buttons, her favourite is to puff her cheeks out and rub an imaginary large belly – he’s not fat, but it annoys him, fuelled by his hormones, she will do this from behind the safety of her father! He threatens even greater levels of punishment in ever increasing threatening gangster tones. “I’m going to slap you up,” “just wait until this car stops; I’m going to kill you.” The Wife has already snapped, then he threatens her with siblicide again and I snap.  “Give me the bloody apple,” I demand as I shot my arm into the back at just the right angle for the side of the heavily cushioned seat to spring the ball form the socket of my shoulder. “SHIT!” “What, what is it?” Demands The Wife. “My arm’s dislocated.” She knows I’m being serious, I’ve done them so many times. The one that has decided to limp with gravity was due to be operated on before we came away after a dislocation during a football game, but I have put it off due to our travails.61596251d4dd7bed650fc35174cde4

I’m beside the busy road trying with all my might, fighting the pain to snap it back in against a tree like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. If I can get it back in before the muscles go into spasm, I have a chance, it is a stubborn bastard, it pops out easy, but is always reluctant to pop back in. A guy walking his dog is watching the pantomime from a bridge and ambles down to assist. He points us in the direction of the nearest hospital in very nearby Traralgon. The Latrobe Regional Hospital is deserted when we get there, they ask me for insurance, which I tell them I have, but then never again ask to see it. There appears to be a lot of bored medical staff glad to have something to do, I’m surrounded by so many looking at me like I’m a member of the royal family. They can’t get it back with Nitrous Oxide, so have to knock me out. When I awake it is at least back where it should be, and should hopefully endeavour to stay there.

I’m annoyed with myself both physically, psychologically and parentally. I hardly ever lose my temper; I’m like a laissez faire Dalai Lama on holiday. This injury messes things up and I know I have to be even more careful with it for the next three months. I was lucky we were literally ten minutes from a state of the art hospital; it will not be the same in South America. The family rally around, The Boy is feeling particularly guilty: someone has to have the blame, we live in a blame culture, but annoyingly the blame ultimately lies with me, and that never sits easy, even when all your sockets are in their correct positions and you are being fed chocolate and pizza!

 

Next time: Don’t scratch below the surface.

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62 The Sydney Ducks are after me! The Curious Incident of the Gap in the Year. Travails through life; sometimes avoiding the pointing fingers and arrows of outrageous fortune.

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We have done NZ, twice, that’s what it feels like, so the time is right to move on after three months. We get stopped at Sydney Airport – we are illegal food smugglers, unwitting pirates against the privateers – we have a few dried biscuits; and we only have them as they are, as the name suggests dried carbohydrate that no one wanted on the plane and we forgot to leave them behind. A man who has a double charisma bypass, one of only a small number on an island of ‘no worries’ – except when it comes to biscuits! He holds them between us like he’s the parent that has found our teenage stash. “Dried carbohydrate, commonly called biscuits, from the French bis meaning twice and cuit to bake til well done,” I think, but know it’s never best to aggravate a man in authority in an ill-fitting starched fancy dress. The wife is about to add something acerbic to his sarcastic inquisition, so I think it best to be jump in and be contrite, even though I’m thinking tourism is your biggest earning sector, so the customer is always right, but I bite my visiting lip, avoid any remarks about convicts and bread, and we are in Australia.

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Make sure you get the biscuits.

We have a middle-eastern taxi driver and judging by the way he is peering at the Sydney A-Z in his lap, and flitting occasionally at the busy roads, he has been in the country just marginally longer than we have. The wife is concerned, but we have travelled in India, where we had more accidents in three months than the combined forty-five years of driving between us. Eventually we arrive at the YHA at the end of Bondi Beach on Fletcher St. The Girl is a little stressed, leaving the bedroom she has shared with Don and Lauren’s two girls.

We are up very early as Australia is two hours behind NZ and we are down on Circular Quay with the commuters to buy a weekly family travel pass. The invigoration of a city we have only ever seen on the tele many times keeps us excited all day. We wander around The Opera House, watch the people climbing to the top of The Harbour Bridge, watch the ferries on their errands at Circular Quay, wander through The Botanic Gardens, marvel at the large fruit bats and over to Andrew Boy Charlton Pool and the views across the Harbour.

Tiredness catches up with us all. The kids are moaning, The Boy has damaged his foot a few days before, but it’s almost mended. The Girl is annoyed she has left her friends over two-thousand kilometres behind. The Wife hates it when the kids moan, but I tell her it could be worse, we could be home in England and they could be moaning! It culminates in a big barny between the mother and eldest offspring, they both ignore the blue hat I put on, so I pretend to be Dutch and withdraw to somewhere where I cannot see or hear the carnage.

I suggest we catch the Manly ferry and get something cool to becalm everyone. It works momentarily. We have bought cheap tickets for a classical concert at The Opera House for later that day – it seemed a good idea first thing in the morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed, Volker Hartung is conducting The Cologne Philharmonic Orchestra through Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and a bit of Mozart and Tchaikovsky. The young female sales assistant is so enthusiastic, she thinks I’m a connoisseur! I just nod and repeat, “Volker, hey, what an absolute bonus!’ I tell the family unit that: ‘We are in luck, Volker Hartung is playing this very night!’ ‘Who’s this Volker guy?’ The wife asks. ‘You’re an intellectual pigmy sometimes, Wife, you really are!’ But come the night and after a day of guerrilla sightseeing, we all just want some R&R.

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The concert has barely started and the children are fighting to stay awake and we are up in a box, overlooking the plebs, but not dressed right to pass any judgement. The Girl is asleep almost immediately before the end of the Ides of March in the spring movement. The Girl sleeps throughout the whole performance. The Boy manages a good fifteen minutes before he is lullabied to sleep by Volker, his Orchestra, and Vivaldi. The Boy wakes during a lull in the music: something has shaken him from his dream to shout out across the quiet auditorium:

The ducks are after me, help me, stop the ducks, stop them!”

Then as soon as he as awoken, he is off again to leave his embarrassed parents being starred at by hundreds of high-brow Australians! The Boy has no idea about the aggressive ducks, why he has dreamed it, and why he would embarrass his parents so publically. It becomes a family in-joke, and remains the event I return to whenever I see The Opera House on the tv. The moral of the story is: Don’t try and do too much in one day… or the ducks will come after you for no apparent reason in public.

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The next day we visit Taronga Zoo, the kids have looked forward to going for months, and it does not disappoint. It is a great zoo, the animals sing Disney tunes, I know the arguments for and against zoos (I have degree in Ecology), it is a great zoo. I sit and watch the Duck-billed Platypus’s, they are my most favourite animals in the world. The Girl has her picture taken with a Koala, which may look cute on the photo (when not sleeping!), but have very sharp claws. We have learnt our lesson about doing too much in one day: duck and cover is in order.

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On several occasions (we are in Bondi for a week) we walk down into central Bondi Beach to eat and body board. We also mosey in the opposite direction on a few occasions: through Mark’s Park-Mackenzies’ Beach-Tamamara Beach to Bronte Beach, where we eat several times at La Plage, on the recommendation of a friend. It serves as focal point to a lovely walk.

One night the wife and I leave the kids in the hostel to watch a film with their new backpacking friends and go for a meal at the iconic Iceberg salt-water lido. It feels like we are on an exotic date as we watch the swimmers ploughing up and down, the waves crash against the side of the pool, but they plough on like human ice-breakers.

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I tell a friend’s brother about eating there when we get back to England, he is model, and he tells us a story of when he did a photo shoot there for a hair gel advert. In the advert they are to swim against two ex-Olympic swimmers, both well into their sixties. The week before the two early twenty something young bucks that are living the surfer lifestyle down in Bondi muse whether they should have a few warm up swims.

“Naa,’ they conclude, ‘we’re only swimming against a couple of old-timers.’

On the day of the shoot they are supposed to be keeping alongside the two bald ‘old-timers’, finishing together and immerging from the pool hair meticulous due to said hair product. The two ‘old-timers’ are gliding effortlessly through the brine like greased dolphins and the two ‘young-uns’ are competitively trying very desperately to keep up, the old timers are waiting for them at the end of the pool, as they both emerge together exhausted and wheezing to hear the director shouting, ‘Bloody hell no, cut-cut-cut, bloody hell.’ The advert was edited so they were not being humiliated by pensioners; but looking composed and gorgeous with immaculate hair.

We buy a video camera, our phones are too crap to record decent images. The one we brought away has died and it was a mistake not to get one in New Zealand, memories have been lost to the mists of time. The DVDs are Magical to look back on, but check that you are recording right; we have one full hours tape with no sound on!

The Girl and I go into Kings Cross to pick up a hired saloon car we will eventually drop off in Adelaide. The Girl feels like she is a grown up on an adventurous road trip, (still at the age where she would go with her dad!) I tell her it’s up to her what vehicle we rent. She is mainly making her decision on colour and cup-holder numbers. “You haven’t got anything in shocking pink with sweet and crisp holders, have you?” The helpful assistant plays along. I am making informed decisions on comfort and luggage/body board roomage, air conditioning, quality of radio. She is the ying to my yang. The assistant and I engineer it that she has made all the decisions and she is now leaving her new best friends back in the hills outside Auckland.

“Where shall we go first?” I ask her as the smell of interior polish hits me.

“The Zoo.” She replies enthused.

“We went there two days ago.”

“So, let’s go again. The zoo”

“It’s difficult to get to the Zoo from here,” I lie convincingly.

“Ice-cream then.” She knows how this parent/child-spoiling-thing works as she reels me in.

I read the guidebook the night before we set off and decide we should nip over to Broken Hill to buy some art as a keepsake of the trip away, the light is supposed to be spectacular for painting. It is west of Sydney. The Wife asks how far out of our way it is, as we are heading southwards down the coast. I check the small print 1,200km! – which is a slight deviation! We never visit Broken Hill.

At one point we are down walking around the Circular Quay area and I say to The Wife. “I might just nip across the harbour and get my hair cut.” I look out across the shimmering water as I utter it.

She is puzzled, “Where?”

I think for a moment. I am confused, I think I’m looking out across Auckland Harbour, where one day The Boy and I nipped across and got our haircut – we both have hair.

“Oh, I got disorientated. I thought we were in Auckland for a minute. I find Australasia a little confusing at times.” Her look of bewilderment is joined by an admonishing shake of the head.

“I worry about you sometimes; this is what you’ll be like when you have Alzheimer’s.”

“Well… at least I’ll have nice hair.”

 

Next time: Kangaroos on the Lawn, Satin Bowerbird in the garden.

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@thewritingIMP  www.ianmpindar.com

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