Welcome to my travel log! You will find here a lot more than in the travel reports, stripped from political correctness. Enjoy!
May 19, 2014 08:00 PM Travel books
I made a decision to start publishing my travel writing in iBook Store and iTunes. Some of them are already available in all of 51 iBooks Stores across the world, including: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, US, and Venezuela.
They all are in the same style of writing, with which you are now familiar. The books contain many photographs and chapters, which you will have not read before.
The books on Madagascar (Another Planet), Brazil (Sexy), China (Inconsiderate), Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, Zanzibar, Tanzania (Mist & Dust), and Namibia (Cheetahs' Teeth) are now available.
As I am using Apple's iBooks Author, the books are available on iPads and Mac computers, but not on iPhones.
More books will become available as I continue editing them. In time, I hope there will be books covering over a hundred countries. I am also planning to publish a couple of mega books with over 1,500 pages and over 1,000 photographs each.
Kind regards and best wishes,
Jan 03, 2014 10:00 PM Caribbean Extravaganza - en route to St John
LIAT stole four hours of my holiday. I was lucky that I could catch the 10pm ferry from Red Hook on St Thomas to Cruz Bay on St John ($7 one way for non-residents plus $4 per bag). My original plan had me browsing through tax-free shops in Charlotte Amalie and then catching the 8pm ferry. But that blew over. Given LIAT’s reputation, I should consider myself lucky that I actually got to St Thomas at all. LIAT, locally known as ‘Leave Island Any Time’ suffers from serious epidemic of inefficient procedures. I shared my views with one of their pilots seating next to me, who was transferring to another airport to pick up a flight. I told him that none of LIAT’s flights that I have ever been on - now and in the past - and there have been almost 30 of them, has ever left on time. I gave him a couple of live, on the spot examples. Still in St Kitts, as all 43 passengers already boarded the aircraft the purser took almost 15 minutes in the cockpit dispatching the passengers and cargo. I told the captain that I had been a witness of such procedure taking less than 20 seconds for aircraft with over 300 passengers on board and several tonnes of cargo.
The captain had an advise for me. He said: “If at all possible, get yourself on early morning flights with us. And on non-stop flights.” He explained that in the morning, flights tend to leave on time, before the domino effect takes place as the day progresses. Also, the non-stop flights (of which there are a few), although more expensive, tend to keep better punctuality record, opposed to the hopping flights.
So, my connecting fling to the US Virgin Islands, which was supposed to stop en-route in Anguilla, went directly to St Thomas, and the Anguilla leg was cancelled, leaving 5 passengers stranded in Antigua. This particular flight was already 3 hours late, and LIAT did not want to risk hefty penalties in St Thomas exposed by the Aviation Authorities for being late. Also, the US Customs have been known to refuse accepting flights from LIAT that were late over 2 hours. This has something to do with ’no overtime policy’ at the Charlotte Amalie airport. Therefore, LIAT decided to skip the Anguilla leg, saving almost an hour from the flight. It worked in my favour, but I really felt for those stranded passengers. Considering that the hop from Antigua to Anguilla take only about 30 minutes!
On St Thomas, van taxis waited outside the arrivals halls on the left hand side. They charged $15 for a ride to the Red Hook marina, from where ferries to St John and Tortola operated. The St Thomas to St John ferry had a decent schedule, leaving hourly until midnight at a cost of $7 for a non-resident plus $4 for each piece of luggage that could not be kept on one’s lap. The crossing took 20 minutes. The Red Hook ferry terminal was very civilised. It had an ATM, a bar and there were more bars in the immediate vicinity, if one had to wait for the boat. It was safe and clean.
At that particular night, this was a romantic trip across a rough channel and below incredibly starry sky. For some reason, there were a few rather good-looking couples crossing, and when the ferry switched off the deck lights and the stars twinkled above, they embraced one another and looked up.
Now, about the disembarkation. If one happens to be travelling with luggage (that cannot be ferried on one’s lap), it is better to board the ferry last, as upon disembarkation on the other end the wait for the luggage can be considerable. And if all taxi go before one collects their bag… well, there is more delay, isn’t there?
Cruz Bay of Saint John seemed like a party place, full of backpackers and nature lovers. As I arrived at 10:30pm, the bars were heaving and buzzing. It had a good holiday ambience and the amount of young people behaving reasonably, even in the Irish Pub, was sending good vibrations.
The taxi, which was a converted truck that could carry over 20 passengers at the back, charged $5 for the trip from the ferry landing to Chocolate Hole, where my hotel was. The Westin, although raved about, was a disappointment. It has not been renovated for the last 30 years and it showed. I was upgraded to a good size, decent view suite with a living room separate from the bedroom that had a jacuzzi. But the furniture were worn out, the walls and ceiling could do with a few layers of fresh paint. The upholstery was stained and ripped, the curtains had not been washed for at least a year, and there was a strange smell in the room. If one wants to stay in this five star property, I would suggest strongly demanding a renovated room. The overall renovation had just started when I visited and the front desk and guest relationship manager advised me that by 2015 the entire hotel would have been fully refreshed and modernised. After I complained about the room, he promised to refund me for my stay.
During the day, Cruz Bay was a boring town - just full of jewellery shops. That’s it. There were a couple of beach bars, but nothing spectacular. Although they did good American food and excellent - really very excellent - cocktails based on rum, coconut and cinnamon. I had an early lunch at The Beach Bar. They ostentatiously carried no coffee but they did a truly mean coconut mojito. It was so yummy that no human words can describe it. In contest to most of the venues in Cruz Bay, they had no wifi.
But The High Tide Bar had free wifi, although it had limited number of IP addresses, which means that if many people connected to it, they would take up all the available ports and any new customers would need to wait until someone disconnected before they could hook up their device. The High Tide Bar did an amazing and great bushwhacker cocktail, which contained coconut rum, Kahlua, Bailey’s and cinnamon. It was lush!
Now, let me say something a little more controversial, or rather disturbing. The Market Fruit Bar, which advertised itself as the best place on the island for a smoothie, did in fact do good smoothies and cocktails. But the owner, Thomas, was an awful person. He was rude, loud and had terrible attitude to women - a classic Chauvinistic pig. I really felt sorry for the lady that worked for him. He would command her as if she was a slave, interrupt her as she would converse with a customer, clarifying the order as if she did not understand, ignore her questions. I could see terrible sadness in her eyes, pain and resignation. It was so degrading and cruel. The horrible thing was that he was doing it in front of many customers. One of the customers, who came to order a smoothie for his young daughter asked: “Are their competition?”. And I said: “No. They are supposed to be a team”. The guy opened his eyes wide in astonishment. I stopped there for a bushwhacker that she made for me, but I could not stand watching Thomas mistreating her and had to leave.
In Cruz Bay, there was a separate ferry dock for departures to the British Virgin Islands. It was located a few hundred yards from the main ‘domestic’ ferry terminal, just opposite the US Virgin Islands National Park Visitors Centre. Tickets to the BVIs were sold about half an hour before departure. There were no advance bookings. A single trip from St John to Tortola was $30. On a weekday and Saturday, there were 3-4 crossings in a day and on a Sunday, just two. The 50 minute ride was pleasant and offered nice views of St John, Tortola and neighbouring islands.
Jan 02, 2014 10:00 PM Caribbean Extravaganza - in Nevis
I had an ambitious plan to get up by 6:30am and catch the 08:00am ferry to Nevis. That did not happen! I did set the alarm clock for 6:25am, but the Marriott sheets were simply too lush to give up after just 5 hours of sleep. I gave them 4 more hours. The plan was changed to take the noon ferry instead.
When I got to downtown of Basseterre, I was impressed. It might have just been one of the most picturesque capital cities of the leeward islands. It boasted a great mix of British and French colonial architecture and the buildings were kept in good condition! It was a good award for all the shambles the night before and nice surprise for this 170th country milestone. The capital looked very inviting as an excellent place to wander about the narrow streets and admire the unusual architecture. The traffic was a nightmare, but the grand mansions, pretty houses, solid terminals and government buildings made up for it somewhat.
Rather chaotic scenes at the bus and ferry terminal made the area nicely animated. Most of the crowd wanted to cross over to Nevis on the noon service, but there was a great uncertainty if the ferry was going to run at all. So, those who wanted to travel put down their names in a notebook at the ticket office and waited. I did the same. Then, a booking office of another ferry company opened and I happened to stand in front of it. Just in case, I bought a one way ticket with them for their next departure and waited what was going to happen. Actually, as no-one had to pay for the ferry of our first choice, all other travellers did the very same thing. The Carib Breeze eventually failed to operate at noon. So, we all took the Sea Hustler scheduled for 1pm that actually departed at 12:40pm. In the meantime, bus travellers, who shared the same terminal, and a few others non-travellers relaxed at about a dozen of simple bars and eaters lining the little piazza. It was a nice spot, actually.
For sunset, as I came back from Nevis, I went to the Carambola, a posh beach restaurant and club, and the Shipwreck, a very simple beach bar and grill, which attracted backpackers and local students, as well as those who preferred their company. The sunset was perfect. And the St Friar’s Bay, about midway down the South East Peninsula, offered a great glimpse of the confluence of the Atlantic and Caribbean waters.
Traffic much? For such a small island, there were too many cars everywhere. Their excessive numbers meant that they could only move at a very sluggish pace. That was perhaps one of the greatest disappointments with Nevis. Yet, the island was very nice indeed. The Victorian architecture of the capital, Charlestown would not fail to impress. The town was very small, yet it was packed with colonial buildings and churches. Most of them sported brightly painted facades, so typical for the Caribbean. It was pure pleasure to wander about and and linger on two of the squares along the main street, which ran parallel to the waterfront, but not immediately adjacent to it. The Nevis Tourist Office advertised over a dozen of good walking trails, including those that led all the way to the top of the mountain of this green island.
Strangely, Charlestown packed more Chinese restaurants into a square mile that any other place in the Caribbean that I had seen before. And they ranged from cheap and dirty (!) to almost sophisticated and reasonably priced. Decor also differed significantly, mainly indicating attention to detail and hygiene.
I took a stroll around the entire town and snapped photos. As much as I could, bearing the traffic and vehicles coming inside my frame! Then, I stopped for lunch at a restaurant with a balcony overlooking the main square of the capital. It was Gold Coast, a Chinese venue. I had free wifi, so it was great to sit at the balcony and check emails and news from friends as you wait for your food to arrive. I had chilli chicken with fried rice, which was excellent. It dented my budget by EC$49, including tip.
As I slept in, I did not have much time in Nevis, after the late lunch and had to go back to St. Kitts on the penultimate ferry - not having to risk that the last ferry would not operate for some reason.
Rather stupidly, one could not buy their ferry tickets in advance. It was possible only on the day of travel and only 45 minutes ahead of the scheduled departure! That was what the larger than life lady, who did not smile, told me when I arrived on Nevis. For my 4pm departure, she told me to come and see her in the ticket office again at 3:15pm. That was what I did. She was 15 minutes late. She did actually apologised to me for being late! She said: "I am very sorry sir for being late. I did not have lunch earlier today and this is why I am late now." I said that I was not complaining, but she stated: "That is very kind, sir. But I did tell you to come back at 3:15pm, and I wanted to be on time”.
Three companies ran passenger ferries between St Kitts and Nevis. One of them did not seem to run services at all that day. One, that runs the Carib Breeze ferries also to St Maarten, had problems with their vessels. So, only the Mark Twain ferry and its sister vessel called Sea Hustler took over the entire traffic. One way ride was EC$25 plus EC$1 harbour tax. The crossing took approximately 45 minutes depending on the waves. None of the vessels were particularly comfortable.
Yet there were three alternative ways to commute between the islands. The Sea Bridge connecting from Cades Bay in Nevis to South East Peninsula in St Kitts made six trips a day, every other hour, taking 15 minutes. It cost EC$80 for a vehicle and a driver; extra passenger cost the same as for the passenger ferry (EC$25). Privately owned water taxis also offered transfer services. I did not use them, but I heard that they were charging about USD40-USD50 for the privilege. As the shortest distance between the islands was just two miles, one could also swim the across the channel.
Jan 01, 2014 10:00 PM Caribbean Extravaganza - en route to St Kitts
A day of delays. My first LIAT flight from Santo Domingo to Antigua left 45 minutes late! And arrived into a complete chaos of VC Bird International Airport of Antigua, or whatever one would dare to call that old building. New terminal building was under construction and the island needed it very badly. Only four gates were in operation at the old airport. These had to accommodate three intercontinental flights and six international flights within a space of an hour. They could not cope with that. In addition, for some absurd reason - if there actually was one - air-side transit passengers had to undergo security and body checks as their disembarked the aircraft and entered the transit zone of the departure lounge!
LIAT has become famous for their tardiness and frequent cancellations. As they acquired all other airlines operating within the windward islands and most that operate between the leeward and windward islands, they became an arrogant monopolist. The rudeness of their staff has been beyond definition. And beyond my understanding is why it has come to this. As my connecting flight was being increasingly delayed, I was a witness how a LIAT representative brought a family to a nervous breakdown. A girl, aged 13-15 collapsed from stress and despair as her 4 year old brother cried his eyes out and her mother begged to let them travel to Tortola. I think the girl’s ticket conditions were slightly different than the rest of the family. It looked like they missed their flight and LIAT would not re-book that particular ticket. There were many delays - due to LIAT inability to operate efficiently - and the LIAT representative just did not want to help. It was clear she was unfit to deal with situations like this, did not know how to deal with passengers under stress and had absolutely no people skills. The mother was forced to ‘fix’ the ticket; did it in the last minute and then the LIAT woman changed her mind and still denied them travel. As the girl physically collapsed, the family was denied access to their luggage, which was in-transit on the tarmac. And by the way, there were seats available on the flight to Tortola that evening.
Now, my flight to St Kitts was originally on time. Then it was 15 minutes late. An hour later, the delay increased to 2 hours. Then 3 hours. From that point, LIAT was no longer certain if they could operate that flight. The flight LI510 was scheduled to make three hops. First one was to St Kitts (flight duration 20 minutes), then Tortola (1h15’) and finally to Sint Maarten (c.45’). Suddenly, the airline decided not to operate the St Kitts leg and let the aircraft go directly to Tortola and then Sit Maarten. And a separate aircraft was to make this super short flight for us to St Kitts. Within 15 minutes the situation changed and LIAT said that they would actually cancel the Tortola leg, and let the aircraft do only two short jumps to St Kitts and then Sint Maarten. Twenty minutes did not pass and they changed their mind again. During all those deliberations and change of flight plans, which lasted just over an hour, the aircraft stood on the tarmac with passengers trapped inside. Instead, it could have made those two 20 minutes hops to St Kitts and back! As the passengers bound for Tortola had already been allowed on the aircraft and then asked to disembark and no-one did, there must have been a mutiny on board. I guess I would not move if I was in that situation, either.
At about 20:00, the evil woman from LIAT announced that the St Kitts, and St Kitts only, flight was going to leave at 22:15. She was authorised to give us food, so we went to a restaurant across the border, i.e. had to clear security and immigration, both of which were actually waived. LIAT gave us EC$35 ($13) vouchers, which was enough for a burger, fries and a scoop of ice-cream. On the way back to the departure lounge, we were waived immigration checks, but had to clear security. From the moment of dispatching us to the restaurant, LIAT provided no further information or update. The flight eventually boarded at 22:20. I arrived at the St Kitts Marriott Resort at 23:30 instead of 17:30. This meant that I missed the Last Lap of the carnival that I specifically wanted to see. Well, pissed off and tired, I had a bottle of lager and went to bed.
Dec 31, 2013 10:00 PM Caribbean Extravaganza - in Bavaro
For the entire day, I chilled within the limits of the Westin Puntacana Fortress. I thought the pueblo was near Punta Cana, but it was not. There was a very small village called Los Manantiales, but it had not bars. The nearest town, where one could get some action was 18 kilometres away. It was Bavaro. I did not feel like walking there, so I waited until the nightfall. I had to convince two guys to take me out. We met outside the resort and checked one of the discos in Bavaro. The taxi ride set me back by USD40, which the lads thought was extortionate. I did protest at the front desk of the Westin, but they were reluctant to order me another cab. This definitely will have a dedicated paragraph in my feedback letter to them. The disco was dead and it seemed to attract gringos. I told that chaps that I did not want to see other tourists, just locals. They took me to a local joint called Shop-and-Drink. It was basically a liquor store, whose patio was turned into a dance bar. There was a DJ, massive speakers and a few tables. It was fantastic and definitely what I wanted. What I needed! After the lock-up at the Westin. The drinks were cheap. A large 0.6l bottle of Presidente lager was DOP150 ($3.50), compared to DOP400 for a small 0.3l bottle at the resort.
The party went on and on. The place was packed. And the ladies danced well. Very well. Actually, too well! I have never seen anyone dancing and shake their booty like that in real life. One of the ladies dressed in a zebra pants (tights, actually) would be dangerous to watch for someone with photosensitive epilepsy. We had three bottles each, and nature called for fluid adjustment. The venue had toilets at the back. The guys toilet was really special. It was only one chamber. It contained three urinals and one toilet bowl. There were no dividers. This meant that a lad, who needed to take ‘number two’, had to be prepared to prison-like treatment and take his dump as three other guys relieved themselves in the urinals. Plus the door to the men’s toilet was permanently open.
Likely for me, nature called for ‘number one’ only. As I tinkled, two guys with speedy pissing came and went and then one guy came and locked himself with me in a loo so he could snort cocaine. I did not make anything of it, as I was in a situation like that before. On European ground, of course. This particular situation in Bavaro created some unexpected commotion, however. And it almost gave on my lads a heart attack. He became so protecting of me that he rushed in and banged on the door screaming ‘abre la puerta, abre la puerta’. It was going on for a good minute, before I finished washing my hands and the guy snorting his substance. When I eventually unlocked the door, I found my ‘guide’ on the other side with thunders in his eyes. His asked me if I was alright and when I said yes, he exhaled. What he thought that they guy followed me to the loo and locked the door to rob me. Because he did look like a strange character. But he was about half of my size, so I could easily take him, unless he would be armed. Then probably not.
We partied until 3:30am. I had a car booked to take me back to Santo Domingo, and the lads had to go to work for 9am. It was a great night and it was a pity that I did not discover Shop-and-Drink the night before. At least I stroke an instant friendship with the lads. And next time I am in Dominican Republic, I will be up for more treats.
Dec 30, 2013 10:00 PM Caribbean Extravaganza - in Punta Cana
So, Dominican Shuttles airline suspended operations and they failed to inform me. I duly turned up at the airport only to find out that the office was locked. I called the person who took payment for my booking and was offered a ride instead. Actually, I always preferred a road trip, but could not find the right operator online. I had also thought that to travel the 200 or so kilometres a drive from Santo Domingo to Punta Cana would have been easily over 3 hours long. Yet, it turned out it was going to be just over 2 hours. This was because a new motorway had opened in October 2013, which bypassed La Romana and Higüey.
A surface transfer usually gives an opportunity to see more of the country and the country life. Well, between Santo Domingo and Punta Cana, the main observation was that the locals treated the motorway just as a regular country lane. They drove against the flow on the hard shoulder, reversed in the slow lane (perhaps back to the exit that they missed), and pedestrians crossed all four lanes just anywhere, jumping over the concrete barrier in the middle. I have seen this before. It was in Cuba. There, however, situation was slightly more dramatic. Cow-drawn carts used the fast lane… in the opposite direction!
The Dominican Republic had pockets of large scale tourist resorts, mainly in Punta Cana and La Romana, yet along the coast, there were towns and pueblos with nice little beaches and small, unsophisticated hotels. One of them was a place called Juan Dolio. It was actually a decent size town with a number of small resorts and small, pretty beaches. The locals mingled with the tourists much more easily there. They shared the queues in the corner shops and waited at the crossings for the traffic lights to change.
Another example was Bayahibe, a small town just beyond La Romana, with a nice beach that boasted a natural pool, right on the beach. Something that you do not see on a regular basis.
Punta Cana was a completely different type of sugar. It was a massive resort, or rather a collection of 50-something resorts. The first one was, apparently, started by Oscar de la Renta and Julio Iglesias. They came up with the name Punta Cana. The airport, which back in 1972 was just a sandy airfield, now receives more international and intercontinental flights that any other airport in the country. And yet, there is hardly a town nearby.
I checked in at The Westin Puntacana Resort & Club for the New Year’s Eve party. The hotel opened on 12 December 2013, and you could still smell fresh paint in the rooms. Everything was brand new and worked well, except the wifi. Someone, who set it up for them screwed the relays, repeaters and boosters. It only seemed to work at the pool bar and no-where else. The signal was available throughout the venue, yet the internet connectivity was absent in most places. Apparently they were aware of this, and the network was being fixed. I did not see anyone fixing it though.
There was plenty of personnel everywhere. Or perhaps it felt that way, as the resort was half empty, at best. In the restaurant, waiters looked after two tables each. The pool bar with four tables and no stools had three bar tenders and two waiters. Although, they were expected to look after the loungers and swimmers, too.
At the hotel, I discovered two great rums: the Brugal 1888 rum, and the Brugal Siglo D’oro. They were going down smoothly and gently like honey. Obviously that was bad news. How was I to decide what rum to bring from the islands? For the rum shopping list was full before I left London! There were not going to be many more bottles that could fit in my bag or that could smuggle through the border other than the Angostura 1824 (c.$40 per bottle) and El Dorado 21 (c.$100 per bottle). As the trip progressed, it seems I have acquired a taste for some extra old Appleton and Brugal. Now, would it be wise trying also the Barcelo Superior?
The New Year’s Party, for some very strange reason, ended at 3am. The DJ stopped playing at 2am, but already at around 1am people started to trickle out. Lightweights! Anyway, at midnight - as the fireworks started going - everyone from the personnel wanted to hug my bright red shirt. Since all of them were hugging, I did not protest and sucked it in and squeezed the juiced out of them! I knew that by doing so I was going to get proper treatment the next day ;)
The next day, I found out why the party ended so promptly. The locals wanted to join their all night party in the pueblo! And I did not blame them. I would do the exact same thing.
Dec 29, 2013 10:00 PM Caribbean Extravaganza - in Santo Domingo
I had the honour to land at the old Santo Domingo airport, La Isabela International Airport. It still serves some smaller air traffic, mainly from around the Hispaniola Island and nearby. It had three cash dispensers, a bureau de change and taxis waiting. A ride to town made a dent of DOP1500 (the drivers would quote this in USD - $35). The traffic was terrible. The driver explained that because of the end of the year, people are all up and about the city to deal with their ‘must-do-by-the-end-of-the-year’ business.
Hilton upgraded me to the executive floor with an easier access to the Executive Lounge, where I had breakfast. I took a second shower, changed and obtained a map from the concierge. I hiked along the Malecon waterfront all the way to the Colonial District. A few venues were closed on Monday, including the fort, but otherwise it was a nice place to see. It was not crowded. At least Plaza de Espana, where the Alcazar stood - complemented by a large artificial, orange Christmas tree. I circumnavigated the old town and sat down at the Plaza at one of the restaurants for late lunch. Out of the Pura Tasca, Harry’s, Rita’s Cafe, Pat’e Palo, Mamajuana and Angelo Ristorante, I picked the last one. It was specialising in Italian dishes and their pizza ranged from DOP350 for a Margarita to DOP1,250 for a lobster pizza. Plaza de Espana was probably my favourite spot in Santo Domingo, although Parque Colon with the adjacent Cathedral (the oldest, or even first cathedral in the Americas) was also nicely animated. Much more touristy than Plaza de Espana. Singers entertained ostentatiously all who sat at pavement tables of the only cafe at the piazza. I do not mind listening to the music and hear people sing, but those guys at Parque Colon could not, and should not, sing! It was painful.
I then walked the entire length of the pedestrianised Calle el Conde full of souvenir shops, boutiques, shops and eateries, as well as beauty saloons where one could get pampered up a little with a massage included. Special massage, that is. I was offered all sorts of services, although it was only along the waterfront where every single guy, aged from 16 to 76, seemed to be a pimp. One of them claimed to be from Haiti. He was better looking than most guys I spotted in Port-au-Prince and Petionville the day before. Tall, slim, with a complete set of pearl white teeth. I was impressed with his English, actually. He also offered me all sorts of services and then asked for some money so he could buy some food. I let him clean, or rather attempt to clean my white adidas trainers and paid him for that. Erm… overpaid him for that! I know that, because he gave me a hug grinning uncontrollably. He did not look poor or dirty. He was neatly dressed and had a very clean pair of sneakers on.
The waterfront, or Avenida George Washington - Paseo Presidente Billini, had a few places to go out for a meal or drink. It even had an open-air gym with a good selection of machines, like cross country skiing, stepping, pulling strings, bars etc. So, one could exercise there amongst gracious palm trees watching the sea smashing on the shore - sometimes providing a slight, refreshing spray.
I liked the D’Louis Parrillada, closer to the Zona Colonial. It had a good number of tables overlooking the sea and a relatively nice bar. The trick was that it was opposite a number of gentlemen’s clubs, so it attracted a clientele with mixed moral values, shall we say. Although I do believe that most diners were completely innocent.
The next door, split level open-air Parrillada Malecon 7, also had tables by the sea and served traditional and creole dishes at reasonable prices. Their large 0.6l bottle of Presidente lager was DOP175. It was less busy that D’Louis. Maybe due to a small swarm of pimps that sat almost right at the entrance.
Santo Domingo had a particular phenomenon. Haitian immigrants were pushing supermarket trolleys down the streets fully loaded with snacks, mainly crisps. As the locals were hanging around on the waterfront’s endless benches and parks, often sipping rum and beer, the snack trolleys did come handy. Occasionally, the trolley drivers would converge at a section of the avenue and exchange opinions on a number of things. They spoke French Creole and almost all matters that they discussed were dead serious.
On the waterfront near the Hilton, the city was putting up a large stage, blocking the pavement completely and one lane of the road. It was for the New Year’s Eve preparation. I am quite sure that the size of the speakers was selected deliberately to blow ladies’ garments off their bodies. They were testing the power of those speakers until midnight! I actually did not see any clothes being ripped off of anyone, but the window pane in my hotel room shook and shook. And I was on 20th floor!
So far, I found the Dominican People friendly and approachable. One has to be careful not to maintain the eye contact for too long. That meant that you wanted something. And by something, I mean sex. And it did not matter if it was a girl or a boy. They were prepared to oblige whatever your preference was. From the other hand, that was very convenient. More than in Paris or even Rome. Considering that the people rather good looking and well proportioned, Dominican Republic could actually be a dream destination. Just joking!
Dec 28, 2013 10:00 PM Caribbean Extravaganza - in Port-au-Prince
The Providenciales International Airport was undergoing much needed extension work. Yet, for such a tiny airport of a tiny nation it offered good facilities. There were cafés at both domestic and international sections, free wifi across the entire terminal and a Scotiabank cash dispenser, giving US dollars. The duty free liquor store had excellent selection of premium rum, premium tequila, fine whiskey (and whisky) and super fine cognac, including $3,500 bottle of 50 year old Appleton Jamaican rum, $100 bottle of 21 years El Dorado, and Louis XIII Cognac.
The Beechcraft B99 of Air Turks & Caicos InterCaribbean Airline could seat about 15 people. Flight JY1503 from Providenciales to Port-au-Prince carried just four passengers, including me. It was surprisingly smooth all they way. It became a bit bumpy on approach to the Port-au-Prince airport.
The rugged, mountainous landscape of Haiti looked spectacular from air. And Haiti was rising. The new lady minister of tourism had bold plans to turn the country into a second Dominican Republic in terms of the destination of choice for holiday makers. Daily flights between Haiti and the US were on the increase. Actually, one could feel the change. People's attitudes toward visitors were very friendly. They smiled and said hello, or rather “bon soir”. It was perfectly safe to walk around with a large camera swaying from one's shoulder. Surely, there were a few pockets of trouble in Port-au-Prince, but that is common in most large cities in the world.
Haitian voodoo is mixed West Africa voodoo and Indian magic. Whilst the original voodoo from Benin and Togo is a religion, one of key characteristics of which is sacrifice giving, voodoo that developed in Haiti was influenced by a number of different beliefs that the slaves brought from various parts of Africa. In addition, I was told, Native American Indian magic got in the play as well. Stories, which the Haitian can tell you about what the magic of voodoo can do are fascinating. And there is more…
Zombies! They work in fields to pay off debts. They are people sold to the witches by the creditors. They use voodoo and other magical tricks to turn the debtors into slave-like workers. The witches, apparently, can also operate, or rather hypnotise the zombies to kill people. The local guy to whom I was talking, had a sixth sense ability to recognise, who is a zombie. That is a very useful skill, because the look of Haitian zombies does not differ much from regular people. And there is more…
Body shifters! These are creatures that live among the Haitian population like normal people. Then, at night - around midnight - they shift their bodies and can become any type of animal. During the day they need to be back in human form. The trick is that they shed their human skin. They must not forget where they left their human skin. If they cannot find it, they perish. They die. That is the end of them.
I did some bar and club hopping in Petionville, just east of Port-au-Price, which has taken over as a capital following the devastating earthquake a few years back. Many venues were closed as the proprietors and staff took annual holiday around Christmas and the New Year. I started slow. I roamed a number of large squared filled with people, impromptu bars and food stalls offering Haitian grill. I tried their grilled chicken with extra hot sauce. It was better than kebab. I eventually, I ended up at El Paraíso Tropical - Dominican hangout and hook-up spot, where I could practice my Spanish ahead of the trip to the Dominican Republic the next day.
Port-au-Prince International Airport had a very basic terminal but there was free wifi. Well, not entirely free as the airport departure tax was $55! (It had to be paid by cash USD at the check-in.) There were no announcements and no gate information screens, just airline representatives in high visibility vests collecting their customers from around the building. That was probably why the tax was so high; to pay for all that manpower.
Tortug Air flight from Port-au-Price to Santo Domingo was full. All 19 seats on the small Jetstream 31 aircraft were taken. The short hop with this turboprop lasted 45 minutes. The airline gave out a small carton of juice and some crackers. This was much better than Air Turks & Caicos InterCaribbean Airline, who provided nothing.
Dec 27, 2013 10:00 PM Caribbean Extravaganza - in Providenciales
The taxi driver who was supposed to collect me from the airport did not show up. Taxis, passenger vans, that operated from the airport overcharged significantly and were reluctant to take solo travellers. They demanded at least $20 per passenger to the Grace Bay area. A regular passenger car taxi would charge $14 per ride, not per passenger. I called my hotel to arrange one for me. I waited an hour before a taxi came to collect me! I went straight down to the beach for a sundowner. It was sunset time.
In Provo, Jimmy's Dive Bar underneath UPStairs Bar & Restaurant (formerly Calico Jack's, an Englishman, who eventually left the islands following a divorce as his wife took it all and sold the place to an American, who - in turn - got in trouble with his local partner and now struggling to keep it running well), served excellent lobsters for $28, which came with a choice of two sides. I picked grilled vegetables and garlic mashed sweet potatoes. For the price of $16, I added an extra lobster tail and asked them to grill the crustaceans with garlic. They did an excellent job.
For a nightcap I went back to the Tiki Hut. They had a limited selection of premium booze so I had to settle for Graham's port wine that came in a rather good measure. About twice the size of those served in Europe!
In the morning, it was time to check the famous beachfront lounge and bar. It was open for breakfast, unlike many restaurants and bars on the island. It was called Somewhere... Cafe & Lounge. It had a few tables just off the beach, a couple of tables raised on a small platform right on the beach and a terrace overlooking the beach. Perfect spot really. I claimed one of the tables on the platform and a friendly waiter named Carel, who called me "my boy" set me up for a Texan omelette with cheeses and peppers (served with roasted potatoes), cappuccino and a couple of pineapple juices. Everything was super tasty!
There was that much to do on Providenciales. Apart from lounging on the beach, people did not go there for much anything else. And the island did not have prominent sights. For those, one had to go to the Grand Turk island.
For a second, I had an idea to go and see a couple of small islets (cays) to check on the iguanas, but I gave up. Somewhere... was such a great spot, I based myself there for half a day. Sipping frozen drinks, letting the sun go down on me and watching the clear waters of the Caribbean Sea was what I deserved, I thought.
Before leaving Turks & Caicos, I needed to find a local bar, preferably on the beach, so I could chat to the local folk a bit more. When I mentioned this to one of the taxi drivers, he examined me carefully and recited prices which Dominican hookers charged for their services. He said: "If you want a girl for the entire night, then that's 350 bucks. You can take her to your place. For $200, she will do everything you want and you don't need to take her anywhere. Smaller services are about a $100". Indeed a very useful and comprehensive information, yet not necessarily what I was looking for. Apparently, ugly, middle aged guys, who come to Providenciales alone would typically be looking for just that. Little did my taxi driver know that Dominican Republic was on my itinerary ;)
Anyway, I learnt about a local bar called Bugaloo's. It was supposed to be on a beach with plenty of breeze and frequented by the local folk. It was also supposed to be serving local dishes. It became my next target and food was not the reason. It was in fact located right on the beach next to the Fish Plant restaurant. It was a fabulous place on a fantastic beach! The beach had shallows and sands that got flooded with each high tide. If you based yourself at a table there and ate your dessert too slowly, then you had three choices: swim back to the main bar; call for a boat to collect you; or wait 12 hours for the sea to retract again. One of the great features of Bugaloo's was the breeze. Sometimes it actually got rather windy - really a tropical feel as if from a textbook. It had a wooden deck on the beach with wooden tables on it and palm trees inside them! Very funky decor! The venue was also famous for its conch. I did not try any, as I already had stuffed myself at Somewhere... at Grace Bay.
One somewhat funny fact about Turks & Caicos Islands was that despite it being a crown dependency of the United Kingdom, it used US dollars as its currency! And the islands really felt like an extension of the United States rather than the United Kingdom. More direct flights connected the islands with the States than the UK, more American tourists came and everyone, except the Haitian and Dominican immigrants, spoke with American accent! Still, they all have to drive on the left side of the road. Disturbing was the fact that majority of vehicles were imported from the States and their steering wheels were not changed over! It must have been uncomfortable to drive like that!
Dec 26, 2013 10:00 PM Caribbean Extravaganza - in Cockburn Town
For historic sights, one had to head to the capital of the islands, Cockburn Town, located 20 minutes flight away on the island of Grand Turk. I booked my flight on the tiny twin engine prop aeroplane the night before as I picked up free wifi on my iPhone while at Tiki Hut in Turtle Cove, Provo. It cost $129 for the round trip on Air Turks & Caicos InterCaribbean Airline.
It was an early departure at 07:30. Apart from me, there was only one other passengers, an owner of a construction company, a guy named Peter. We were ready to depart on time and already on the runway, the first officer broke a latch on front side window and we had to change the aircraft. Such a trivial thing, and yet it had never happened to me before! This meant that we departed 30 minutes late. The next flight to Cockburn Town was scheduled at 08:30. Caicos Express was the other domestic airline that made this trip.
The Grand Turk International Airport had no taxis. Although one could actually walk everywhere as the island was rather small, I was already half an hour behind schedule of this day trip. I asked Peter whether was anyone picking him up and whether he could drop me in the downtown area. His cousin John, another owner of a construction business came and gave me a tour of the entire island, with detailed narrative, before putting me down at the beginning of the historical Front Street (as I was already familiar with the area following the ride around). He gave me his phone number and said that when I was ready, he could pick me up from anywhere on the island and take me to the Cruise Dock Centre, before driving me back to the airport. A medium size cruise ship arrived at 11:00 am and several thousand people descended to the jewellery shops, liquor stores, swimming pools and bars. And only about a hundred (or even less!) decided to venture those few miles further to see the historic centre of the island. That was appalling actually, I thought. The authorities made a mistake building the centre immediately next to the dock. The rest of the island would have benefited more if the cruise marina was closer to the centre of the island, and the passengers were ferried nearer the sights, the museum and local bars and restaurants along the waterfront.
The capital boasted the Parliament Building, the Court House, the Turks & Caicos Museum, the original Post Office, a couple of old churches, the Northern Point Lighthouse, and a good number of old colonial houses. Another major attraction of the island were wild donkeys and horses roaming freely everywhere. They did not belong to anyone. Of someone wanted to grab one and break it for riding, no-one had problem with that. Yet, it was not an easy task. It would have taken days, John told me.
It took me about two hours at a very slow pace to cover the entire Cockburn Town. I stopped at a bank, the museum and a couple of local bars. One of them was just a spot adjacent to a booze store. The locals preferred it. Small bottle of Turks Head beer was $2.75 instead of $5 elsewhere. I joined a couple of guys sitting there sipping Heineken out of its famous green bottles. It was 11:30am and they had downed ten bottles each. It was just too easy to talk to them. They were open about everything and everyone, and had a great sense of humour.
A few yards north, just beyond the museum, was a makeshift beach bar operated by a very attractive young lady. She offered me one of her coconuts. And she said she could spice it up a little with a local rum. She wanted $10 for it, but I could eat the coconut afterwards - and wanted to support the local community - so I agreed. It was a lovely spot actually. The sea was just feet away and the views were superb. The rum was strong. I liked it.
A few yards farther north, there was a large tree - not very tall, as Grand Turk did not have large trees anywhere; just a few long needled pine trees - which was a domino spot. Five grown up men sat under the tree and slammed the domino pieces loudly on the table. They were in good spirit. Taking their time between the moves commented on current events and exchanged jokes.
At about 1pm, I called John and we drove to the Margaritaville at the cruise dock for a couple of drinks. John did not drink alcohol. He stopped a few years back. He explained that he had a feeling he had drunk enough in his life and wanted to take a better care of his body. He also gave up smoking. At the age of 44, he did look fit. He had two kids to take care of and a business to look after. It definitely made sense.
Back at the airport I had an opportunity to tell off two Dominican guys. At the check-in desk, one was supposed to state their weight. Two young girls were not sure how much their weighed (they really did not need to worry about their weight, actually) so they stepped on the scales. And the lads peeked! I shouted at them: "Boys! What are you doing?! You must never peek on the scales to check a lady's weight!" The girls laughed when I told them that they had my permission to slap the guys.
The short flight back to Providenciales, now with eight passengers, was smooth and on time. The light aircraft had large windows and the cruising altitude was just over 4,000 feet. This offered fantastic views of all Turks & Caicos Islands. If only for that purpose, one should take this flight.
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