South Africa v UK . Where to live?

This article is being written at the time of the Corona virus lockdown; when we emerge on the other side we will arrive at a very different scenario for both countries.
I was born in Manchester UK and moved to South Africa in 1973. My son and family recently moved to London so I’ve absorbed some of their feelings about their move; I have family living in rural Wales and built up London and friends in Manchester. By the same token I have family and friends in South Africa and an established life style.
There’s no doubt that people in UK are better off financially than in South Africa. The advantage I have is that I receive pensions from Europe and benefit from continually receiving more Rands as they devalue on an on-going basis. It would be debateable whether I could survive in UK financially with its much higher cost of living. Before Corona Virus UK had 3% unemployment and SA 30%, so if you want to work in UK you have far more opportunities. There are 17 million people on social grants in South Africa, what sort of system is that? The Government budgeted R175bn in social grants and R553bn is received from individual tax payers. The Government annually tells everyone that they have a job creation plan but it’s all talk and no action, something SA is good at. Thanks to the corrupt, incompetent, irresponsible state captured Zuma regime with its bloated, grossly inefficient bureaucracy the Government Debt to GDP is now 66%. But hang on, the UK is 86.6%!! So who has the worst Government? There’s no accountability in South African society, no one has yet to go to jail for gross corruption , and the ANC has fostered a culture of entitlement which has now come back to bite them in the foot. In SA every state owned entity from Eskom to SAA is losing huge amounts of money and to date are given bail outs by the Government despite promises of reform The result after 26 years of ANC is a highly discontented population trapped in poverty which overflows into violence and demonstrations against service delivery as the infrastructure continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate. How can a country hand over its public transport to minibus taxis run by a bunch of criminals? In UK things work, the public transport is excellent but expensive, day to day things like renewing passports and car license are done on line and the Post Office is a national treasure . Cities in UK are smart whilst in SA they are just dumb. The result is that the city centres of Durban and Johannesburg are deteriorating, dirty and crime ridden and the centres of commerce are now in the newly built areas of Umhlanga Rocks and Sandton. If you want to do anything like renew your passport, driving licence or car license you’re in for a long day of queuing.
SA has a murder rate of 318 per million whilst UK has a rate of 11. Many people like me opt to live in gated communities with 24 hour guards in order to escape the on-going threat of robberies and worse. Once someone has experienced an armed robbery or hi jacking their first wish is to leave the country if they are able to.
For young people far more opportunities for higher education exist in UK and consequently jobs and careers. In 26 years the ANC have not narrowed the gap between township schooling and so called model C schools. Universities in SA continue to be trashed academically and structurally. There’s always private schooling and college at a price.
In South Africa there is a two tier health system, private and Government. If you are fortunate to have medical aid then you have excellent first class prompt health care. The Government system is a much more hit and miss affair. The plan is to convert to an NHI system in the forthcoming years but where the money is coming from remains to be seen. My perception of the UK NHI system is that it’s very much a postcode lottery, good in some areas and bad in others. If you want a non-life threatening procedure to be carried out then you must be prepared to wait for ages.
I believe that race relations in SA are not bad. However, there are always politicians and others who will play the race card whenever all else fails. But in day to day living you are not likely to come across antagonism if you are white; often the opposite, friendliness and a smile.
So why would anyone choose to stay in South Africa if there was a possibility to live in UK. The climate in SA is just about perfect to enable an outdoor way of life all year round. With the exception maybe of skiing it’s possible to do any sport and with a far lower population there are deserted beaches, mountains and wide open spaces. SA has it all and is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. There’s a free and easy culture with braais and informal entertainment and affordable restaurants, coffee shops and pubs. Then there’s Game Reserves whether the upmarket or more affordable Government Parks. South Africans are an adventurous bunch and enjoy the outdoor life. They are also innovative and don’t look to the Government, they do it themselves. ‘Boer maak n’ plan’ meaning ” farmer makes a plan” UK has cultured cities with wonderful galleries and museums and historic architecture and the countryside is wonderful in summer. But summer lasts for four months; the rest of the time the weather is miserable. On a sunny weekend it’s often impossible to get to a beach or the mountains as the roads are choca block. UK is very crowded and it’s difficult to find a quiet spot. The Aussies call the Brits whingeing Poms and there’s an element of truth in that. They are never satisfied; maybe it’s the Nanny State that has produced that. Life in UK is humdrum and can be uninspiring and drab.
My friend recently asked me when was I going to live in UK . My reply was “Let’s wait and see” and his response was “That’s what the Jews said in Nazi Germany in 1938”

China 2019

This visit was at the request of Emily who is opening a new English school for children from 3 -10 years old. It’s incredible that the Chinese can educate children at this age, it’s no wonder that they are ruling the World. After a long 12 hour flight to Hong Kong from London and a delay on the on-going flight to Fuchau I arrived to be met by Lily, Emily’s sister, who took me to a hotel. The next morning we did a 3 hour drive to Sonxi City; the first impressions are that this is only the second time Lily has ever driven a motor car and that the road network is amazing but few  cars on them. The area is mountainous and wooded and the climate is very hot at 38C.

The school is neat, clean and well laid out. They did a demo lesson on the first day, I was asked to make a short speech to the prospective parents. The lesson was to 6 children and consisted of songs and games around the colours yellow, green and blue. It was very jolly, lots of high fives and 5 out of the 6 parents signed up. In general the modus operendi of Glynn’s English is to have the kids in a state of excitement from the games. The teacher has to be something of a showman. But they say it works. The teacher has to follow the programme exactly to the letter as prescribed by the company. So you have to believe in their system.

The apartment is next door which I’m sharing with Max, one of the teachers. It’s basic but has air conditioning and you feel like part of the community. This morning I looked out of the window and watched people doing their slow motion exercising and nearby is a running track for use of the general public. It’s the usual mixture of small businesses haphazardly working side by side on the street. It seems to be normal to watch your neighbours brushing their teeth and listening to their conversations in the echoing building. The people next door leave their door open, they have a 90+ year old father who looks quite senile and they leave a bowl of wriggling eels outside to prop open the door. I’m woken up each morning by a truck spraying water on the street at 5.45 am together with a merry tinkling song which drives me mad.

The Chinese believe in fast food, but not of the McDonalds variety. We went to this restaurant, Emily ordered on her phone, the food started coming immediately and as with all Chinese restaurants people started tucking in straight away. The bill was paid from the phone and we were out of there in 45 minutes. I like Chinese food, not a lot of meat and plenty of vegetables cooked with lots of spices. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re eating and trust that it’s not toad or chicken feet.

I realise that I’m the token Englishman here; the Chinese believe that only the English can teach English correctly. Perhaps they would do better if they had a cardboard cut-out of James Bond to wheel out.

At night the town is humming, shops of all kinds open, men repairing motor bikes at 10.00 pm, women’s hairdressers, with lots of fruit and veg being sold, men welding intricate structures on the street, sawing wood and constructing tables. In one restaurant we visited the guys were feasting on a cows head, on the table. Chinese men tend to be loud and assertive; when they walk into a room they shout and act as if they own the place and smoke cigarettes. In general the women are small and plump and the men bigger and plumper, not surprising the amount of food they knock back. When she gets on her scooter Emily wears a full superwoman visor, a jacket and then a protective piece of fabric across the front over the bike to stop any sun from making her brown. China is basically a cashless society, everyone pays from their phones. The town itself is very functional, not very pretty, but you can find all you need. In the supermarket I found live terrapins, toads, shrimps together with chicken feet. Businesses spill out onto the street. One morning I woke up to a guy butchering and selling a pig outside.

We went for a drive to the country and picked grapes and passion fruit and had lunch at a restaurant with a garden;  the country is pretty, they grow various products as well, bamboo, rice and lots of specialities.

The next morning, before it got too hot, I went for an early morning walk up a nearby hill, this was peaceful and tranquil with bird song and views of the city and on the other side Chinese farms and land; nice to have this on my doorstep.

Everybody reads that China is a police state, I don’t see much evidence of that except that one cannot access Google, Facebook, Instagram and other news from overseas is censored and not reachable on line. This leaves one feeling isolated with little news from outside .When we were out in a tourist village one guy definitely took a photo of me although he was pretending to take photos of the building. Emily says there is an army base nearby. They have face recognition so I’m sure I was being checked on. But day to day living is like anywhere else, people get on with their lives and the great majority just want to achieve a good standard of living for themselves and their family. China has a communist political system and a capitalist economic system; it’s a pity that Cuba hasn’t adopted the same system. Everyone has an electric scooter, starting at R4000 a go for getting round town.  If I was to live here I would buy one, also a bicycle for long rides, join a gym and attempt to learn Mandarin.

We went away for a weekend to Wuyi , about an hour away. It reminds me of Yangshao , it’s much more up market than Sangxi and is very much a tourist town although it has a University and two English language schools. In the afternoon we slogged it up to the top of a mountain in the boiling heat but got a tremendous view of the hills with tea growing and it was nice to be away from the crowds. We had a couple of tea tastings , mainly red bush tea and then in the evening went to spectacular son et lumiere show set outdoors with the audience revolving around a 360 stage using the mountains and the river as part of the set and a cast of hundreds. It was stunning.

The next morning early we went for a bamboo rafting trip down the river along with hundreds of other rafts but it was really splendid, quietly being poled along through gorges and towering rock formations. A walk through the town and a drive to a traditional village and looked at water lilies being grown around there followed with a lunch consisting of eels and snails. I decided to forgo the pleasure. Although I was told that I would see foreigners there I still didn’t see any and only caught a glimpse of a foreigner jogging down the road with his Chinese girl friend.

We picked up Max from the high speed railway station, a huge edifice plonked in the middle of nowhere. It takes 8.5 hours to get to Beijijng.

I’m a bit of a celebrity being the only foreigner in the city. Customers look at me with open mouths and some talk with me in struggling English. Guys accost me in restaurants for photos and general chit chat. By the end of the trip many mothers were greeting me on the street, ‘Hello Roger “

According to Emily most people are not happy in China. They have to educate their children; this is very competitive and important for them and can lead to moving to cities that have good schools and teachers and even sending to International schools to improve their English. They pay above and beyond for extra schooling such as English. Schooling is free at Government schools but not at private schools. At the same time they have to support their elderly parents, which is expected of them. They won’t think about nursing homes. Medical care is not free and to have an operation it costs a lot of money. It seems you pay for what you get in China, rather like South Africa. So all in all they are under pressure from all sides.

Living here is not easy. After a while one misses one’s food , things like coffee are in short supply , the one coffee shop has no coffee or the machine is broken , its noisy, the beds are hard , language is a big problem , it’s hot and sleeping has been a problem for me. I wouldn’t by choice live here.

We hired one of the electric scooters which have sprung up over the town. Just pay for it from your phone with We Chat and away you go, you don’t need a licence. When you’ve finished just drop it off, cancel from your phone and it’s done.

One evening I was invited by Abby , one of the teachers , to dinner with her and her husband and parents. I was actually overwhelmed by the hospitality and kindness shown to me. It was the usual many course meal with plenty of mussels and other dishes and then after a walk lots of tea was drunk. Abby’s wedding photos were astonishing , a long train on her wedding dress and a long red dress, but it was the photos of her face which amazed me , completely different , almost impossible to recognise her , even the shape of her face was changed.

So eventually my time in China came to an end. A 3 hour drive to Fujau , an overnight stay in the airport hotel , a short flight to a riot torn Hong Kong and then a 12 hour flight to London.

Living in a small town in China without any contact with other Europeans and little news is quite isolating. I found the staff at the school were very friendly , Emily went out of her way to make my stay a pleasant one but after a while I found the food too strange and exotic and only ate at a noodle bar where things were quite bland. Chinese table manners are appalling as well as their hawking spitting and farting. So I was glad to leave and don’t have any plans to revisit although it was a memorable experience.

Rajasthan India March 2019

This was an organised tour with Art of Bicycle Tours , an Indian company and really came about after watching Joanna Lumley on T V dramatically flinging her arms wide and saying, “ Rajasthan, you must come here . “ I couldn’t resist such an offer. So I blame everything on her.

The tour started in Udaipur and I had to change flights in Delhi to get there. I met Hannah, a 38 year old flame haired Czech lady who said she wasn’t stalking me but every time I turned around in a queue at the check in desk or getting something to eat she was standing behind me. I should be so lucky. She lives in Delhi, works in intellectual property for an Indian company and has to renew her work permit each year. She says she’s not part of the expatriate community as they drink too much.

The first day’s ride was a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds, riding in Udaipur town was hectic, everybody hooting non-stop, crazy tuk tuks , scooters mixed up with buses, cows , dogs , children walking down the narrow alleys. The rule of the road is that there is no rule. Somehow we got out of town and rode around one of the three lakes with a palace built on an island in the centre of the lake and forts and palaces built on the tops of the hills. We came across a noisy wedding in the road with beautifully dressed people, an elephant and the groom mounted on a white charger.. Temperatures and landscape are similar to a  Natal winter , chilly in the evening and morning and mild sunshine during the day; excellent for riding.  We had a tour around the Town Palace, a large complex owned by the Maharajah. It has splendid balconies, towers and cupolas and has wonderful views over the lake.

Our second ride from Udaipur took us out into the countryside on a circular route through villages in dry barren countryside with more mountain top palaces and forts and had lunch in a lakeside restaurant overlooking the city palace and the palace in the centre of the lake From the bicycle shop to the hotel we took the first of a number of crazy tuk tuk rides jammed in the back, feeling every bump and speed hump and filming the traffic behind us including two girls on a scooter filming us whilst we filmed them. In the evening we watched the sunset and had a meal on a rooftop restaurant overlooking the lake.

My travelling companions were a likeminded collection of good riders and are all well-travelled consisting of a German retired doctor father and daughter, a Canadian retired couple, a French lady and her English husband living in Twickenham , three humorous  70 +single Yorkshire men and myself from South Africa. I became an honorary Yorkshire man, a great honour particularly as I come from over the Pennines.  We bunked up, taking it in turns, the only trouble being the snoring. To do this tour you don’t need to be a speedy or long distance rider as we did between 30-50 kilometres per day with one day of 70 kilometres and there were no fierce hills but you need to be reasonably fit and have competent cycle skills  to handle the terrain and the other local road users. The bikes were fine but I had 5 punctures so I think they need to pay some attention to the tyre quality.

We then rode to Kumbhalgarh . This was quite a tough ride with undulating hills. The sights you see are people in fields, women wearing brightly coloured saris, dry scrubby land; onward through villages, some very dilapidated, the poverty contrasting with the affluence that you see in towns. Cycling is the best way to see the country; people, particularly children, greet you with big smiles and hellos. In the afternoon we went to Kumblelgarh fort set on top of a hill with huge thick walls and temples inside.

I awoke with eyes like piss holes in the snow and swollen ankles but the swelling reduced during the day. I suffered from this throughout the tour, as I have done in the past and it’s clearly caused by water retention. We rode quietly before plunging down a long switchback hill through unspoilt country to the valley below. We visited Ranakpur Jain Temple, a marble building with wonderful carvings. They insist that everyone covers their bodies and we rented long trousers and there is a big inspection palaver before going inside. And then a shifty looking guy goes “pssst , nudge ,nudge , wink , wink , come and look at this,” and shows you a Kama Sutra carving on the outside wall. “There was a single lady there from California and the Yorkshire guys were like bees round a honey pot wanting to know if she was a rich widow. Jain is a major ancient religion alongside Hinduism and Buddhism and on a following day I saw a number of women dressed beautifully in white struggling along the major highway with a handcart and their belongings. They refuse to use modern transport and walk from place to place. We rode on to the Rawla Narial hotel , built from an old fort. It was splendid with a wonderful dinner.

Onwards to the Maharaj Singh’s hunting lodge for lunch, set next to a lake full of pelicans, flamingos , cranes and plenty of bird species with a very evocative atmosphere going back to black and white photos of the Raj era. Today’s ride was 70Kms plus along straight mixed roads through dusty, scrubby desert country with friendly locals on our village stops. The people are poor but the children are bright and sparky. Each day we stopped for chai, made on the side of the road and served either in small paper or clay cups. As the sun set we passed a colony of cranes at a small lake. Another converted fort in a small, dusty village served as our hotel.

We had a day off from cycling and drove to Jodhpur to visit the great Mehrangarth fort towering over the city. It’s overwhelming with its massive walls and beautiful rooms. The town and country around are forgettable but we walked down to the old blue painted town with its central market and delectable fabrics that some of us bought with the skilful persuasion of the world’s best and smoothest salesman. I love looking at fruit and vegetables in local markets, this one had the longest and reddest carrots I’ve ever seen. Back into the manic traffic, even on the highway there are no rules. They drive on the left here (sometimes) but at times our bus driver drove slowly on the outside lane whilst traffic overtook on the left and at other times he drove on the inside whilst traffic overtook on the right. Then suddenly you spot traffic, sometimes a truck, a motor bike a fully laden bus and even a camel pulling a cart coming towards you on the inside lane. And the Toll plazas are mayhem, leave about 6 inches between you and the car in front and someone will stick their nose in; no English queuing here. And there’s no road rage, everyone accepts the situation. In uptight South Africa there would be daily road rage gun battles.

There was some sort of religious festival on in the town and drumming and wailing went on all night. I had the first touch of Delhi belly so there wasn’t much sleep had that night. The road to Pushkar was dusty, bumpy and going through towns diabolical. You have to pick your way through the potholes, fight your way through the cows, motor bikes and people.  In fact Bob collided with a child that ran into the road. India is an environmental disaster; cows feeding on litter everywhere, everyone just drops  everything, filthy polluted rivers. In the cities the air pollution is overwhelming; no one clears up debris after road works, it’s just left on the side of the road. A lot of the rural people live in poverty without many of the basic services; women pump water and carry in jars home. But on the positive side one sees smartly dressed, bright faced children on their way to school and many newly built Universities; India is investing in education and this is the right way to go. Are you listening South Africa? Pushkar is a holy town, famous for its camel festival, built around a lake full of pelicans with the only Brahmin temple in India. The streets are narrow and colourful and clearly a hangout for the hippie community from around the world with, I guess, lots of pot smoking. It never ceases to amaze me to see that whatever town or city in the world one visits there are overseas tourists. There are very few secret places in the World anymore.

The next morning we rode on to Roopangarh Fort, another beautiful Maharaja owned property and had lunch there before going by bus to Jaipur. The hotel in Jaipur was once more a beautiful Maharaji’s palace and we ate outside and were entertained by traditional Indian female dancers. Jaipur has a splendid palace and fortress at Amber, probably one of the sights of India and we trekked our way up the hill along with labouring elephants carrying indulgent tourists to the top. My son Simon told me he visited this place 20 years ago in his back packing days and my mother and father also on a retirement trip now 50 years ago , so 3 generations of Naylor have visited this place. These monuments to a long lost rule are amazing.

We walked back through the gatehouse of the walled city which is traditionally painted pink and busy town to our hotel. Lots of small shops and business areas but we were never hassled and felt safe the whole time. The guys bought Mickey Mouse horns to fix to their bikes to hoot back at the motor cyclists. For me that’s another myth exposed but then I do know of friends who were robbed. In the evening we took another crazy tuk tuk ride to a nearby restaurant for dinner.

Our next ride was on a terrible road to Sariska but always the people are so friendly and crowd around us with lots of smiles and hellos. Sariska is more like a safari camp with a nice pool and appreciably warmer than before. One negative was the all night drumming again. The next morning we did a nice loop for 50K and then piled into the bus for lunch and a game viewing ride in a jeep to try to find a tiger in the Sariska Tiger Reserve. The area is mountainous and dry and unfortunately we were unsuccessful finding one despite a ranger with a tracking device; they were not far away but sleeping somewhere. But we did have excitement, there were plenty of alarm calls from the peacocks and antelopes in the region and after driving quietly around we spotted a leopard in a tree which then jumped down and dived into the bushes.

The next morning we did a nice ride which felt easier now that we are fit. I was talking about mountain biking to Simon and said the word, “Crash “ when there was one right in front of us when John touched wheels with Lena. We stopped at Chand Baori a large stepwell over a thousand years ago, something like I’ve never seen before.We then piled into the bus to the Bharitpur bird reserve , a haven of peace and quiet next to the roaring highway. There are 350 species of resident and migratory birds there and we photographed through our guide’s scope owls, herons, kingfishers, eagles, pelicans and lots of other species. It’s an extraordinary place. Our hotel had an over the top wedding with brilliant pink and purple lights illuminating the scene of live Bollywood entertainment. Indians spend fortunes on weddings, how this contrasts with the way the poor people live.

This finished our riding; the next day we drove to Agra and the Taj Mahal. I had to keep pinching myself that I was actually walking around this wonder of the world. It was built by Emperor Shah Mujn as a mausoleum for his wife and the scale, symmetry and setting of the building are truly unique. Close up the sight is just as amazing as semi-precious stones are inlaid into the marble.

We then drove to Delhi and the closer we got to the city the more hectic the traffic got, it’s everyman for himself. At the same time the pollution got worse and worse and the tighter my chest got. This has happened to me before in Kathmandu, China and it takes me two weeks to shake it off. There was just time for a farewell drink before I made off by taxi to the airport to catch the 04.00 plane home.

How to sum up this wonderful time spent in Rajasthan? It was exhilarating, colourful ,dusty , hectic, mad cap traffic ,friendly people , a great group of riders , well organized ,unique hotels to a good standard ,excellent food if you like curries , an environmental disaster with mountains of litter, air pollution in the cities , scrubby dry landscape , wonderful architecture ,forts , temples, palaces, transport of all types. It was a never to be forgotten experience.



Roger Naylor


World trip Conclusions

It’s difficult to find anywhere without tourism. You expect it t Machu Picchu but not in Vietnam or Cuba. Cheap airfares have allowed middle class people to travel and they do. The Chinese travel to Thailand and Vietnam and they are not the world’s most popular tourists.
Many cities are clones of each other with malls and the same international brands. The exception is Cuba which doesn’t have shops at all.
The food in the East is divine, in particular Japan , China and Malaysia. People don’t cook , you can eat in the street or restaurants cheaper.
We bought air tickets as we went along allowing us flexibility but sometimes travelling on not such great airlines such as Cabana air safety is a concern.
We used hotels , Air BnB ,Homestays, Guest Houses. Nearly all were good except for Hong Kong being minute, on the 3rd floor sandwiched between a church and a massage parlour. But it was centrally situated. Homestays were great to meet and talk to local people. San Jose , Costa Rica should be avoided , arrange your transport to meet you at the airport and drive away to the country, which is wonderful.
Highlights were Japan, the Amazon and Machu Picchu , California,and the beautiful beaches of Panama. Lowlights were Mandalay, Myanmar and the failed society of Cuba, but the people are great.
Patrick kept tabs on costs, Japan was the most expensive , Vietnam the cheapest. Take two credit cards, preferably one Visa and one MasterCard in case as happened to me there are problems with one of them.
Buy a SIM card for the country you are in. Google maps are a big help to get around and enable you to use Uber and in the east Grab which are much cheaper than using meter less taxis who try to rip you off.
Be prepared for shocks at the airports when checking in, make sure your visa are all in order, double check whether you need one or not.
We did a lot of walking , but not late at night. We had two bad incidents , the first in China where we were given counterfeit money and had a bad scene with a taxi driver who threw us out of his taxi and by walking down the wrong street in San Jose where we felt threatened by druggies.
What did I learn from this trip? Happiness is found by the way of life that one creates through relationships , home environment, family , satisfaction from career. I also learned mindfulness, living from day to day and not worrying about the past or the future.
There’s still plenty to see overseas and locally and I haven’t given up on travelling .

Peru Week 34

I had a quick stopover in Lima. The coast as seen from the plane is arid and I stayed in Miraflores, an upmarket area full of tourists, mainly American. The shops in the malls are the same as everywhere else, there’s blandness about the world now with the brands and fast foods, one could be in Gateway or Ho Chi Minh City. Lima is a city of 11 million people, the weather is comfortable but misty in the mornings; they say it never rains in Lima. Perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean I watched the surfers catching waves far below me.
The next morning we flew to Iquitos, firstly over the Andes and then over the forest with rivers looping backwards and forwards below. I was booked on a six day Amazon cruise by G Adventures with a mixed bag of fellow passengers from the English speaking countries, USA, Canada , Australia , UK , South Africa of course and one lone 18 year old girl from Norway. The 3 deck cruiser has two skiffs for excursions and cruising the Amazon is breath taking, although we were on the head waters the river was wide and fast flowing. The ship had eleven staff and two naturalists for twenty two guests , the food was excellent and accommodation was in en suite rooms with air conditioning. We certainly didn’t rough it. We took excursions along tributaries which sometimes got narrower and narrower until we had to hack our way through with a machete. We mainly saw beautiful birds and different monkey species and sloths. A negative was being bitten to death by mosquitos and other insects despite using lots of insect repellent. Also evident were pink fresh water dolphins nosing their way along the shore line. We took a couple of walks in the dense jungle where they found for us an anaconda, boa constrictor, an ant eater, a tarantula spider and different frogs. We also visited the local community who cooked for us and a shaman ceremony. This has caused widespread worldwide interest as they use hallucinogenic causing plants. They lived in basic wooden houses, probably communal but were well dressed and handsome people. One afternoon we went piranha fishing and then on a dugout canoe paddled by the locals but had to be rescued as the weather turned black and threatening. In the evenings the staff had an impromptu guitar band and were really rather good. On the way back to the airport we visited a manatee conservation centre , an animal I have never seen before.
Another flight back to Lima and then on to Cuzco which is 3450 meters high where we spent two days acclimatising to the altitude and exploring the city. It’s a grand city with Spanish style churches and squares made from the local stone. But once more it’s very tourist ridden as this is the gateway to Machu Picchu .We were on the Inca Trail organised by Alpaca Expeditions , a Peruvian owned company . We were picked up early at 4.10 a m on the first day, a group of 12 trekkers, from USA, Canada, New Zealand , South Africa and Holland looked after by 17 porters and cooks and two expedition leaders with the average age between 20 and 30 except for Patrick and myself and Lisa at 49.All we had to do was walk, the staff took care of the rest , meals, water, putting up and taking down tents ,and carrying our clothes.. Each porter carried about 25 kilos up and down the mountains including the toilet, a job I wouldn’t have liked.
On the first day we walked for about 6 hours to our camp. This is where I did my getting lost bit ; we stopped for a rest and I went to buy some water . In the meantime the group got up and turned left. I followed straight on and went down to an Inca site and there was still no sign of the group. Eventually I found one of our porters and he radioed the group and they arrived about 45 minutes later. This was put down to the Roger effect.
Day2 was the crunch day. A very stiff four hour climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass at 4215 meters high, there were a few dead men as well . The last few steep meters were literally breath taking, I felt like I was running out of air. We then descended and went up another pass for two hours and then down to our camp site. Day 3 was easier, firstly we walked through an enchanted forest and down a very steep decline called Gringo Killer nd stopped at Winay Wayne , a beautiful Inca site. The beauty of this site was that we had it all to ourselves.
Day 4 was the climax of the trail . Firstly we had to get up at 3.30 a m and wait two hours for the gate to open. It then turned into a bit of a race to reach the Sun gate first which was all pointless because everything was socked in with cloud. One last hand over hand ascent , another Gringo killer before we arrived at Machu Picchu.
What to say about Machu Picchu itself, well if anything it exceeded my expectations. Soaring mountains, shifting clouds; altars, houses, everything was amazing, What the Incas achieved was astonishing and the handmade trail with its rough big stones was also a feat of engineering..
We had a last lunch in a restaurant and then returned to Cuzco via a bus, train and another bus to end the tour.
All that remained for me was a four flights home, Cuzco – Lima- Sao Paulo – Johannesburg – Durban which all went like clockwork and the end of an eight month round the world trip. I’ll write about my reflections in another blog.

Panama Weeks 31-33

We had the usual one and a half hours wait for the bus but the journey itself was pretty seamless . Crossing the border to Panama was quite entertaining , first pay exit tax , get passport stamped , walk across the border to Panama , the usual rigmarole with photo, finger prints, then form fill for customs, bag inspection and back on the bus . we changed to bus at Boquete and arrived in the evening. The first of a number of signs that it is different to Costa Rica, cooler, different vegetation, less jungle and there are a lot of Indian looking people. . Two kind elderly Americans took us in their car to the estate where they live in  an upmarket gated  estate with a golf course ,restaurant and library , all surrounded by nature. We went to the local Farmers Market , it was more like a retired Americans meeting place.

We went on a guided walk to a waterfall through a delightful forest with good bird sightings including the beautiful Quetzal.. We watched howler monkeys making a huge noise and swinging acrobatically through the trees. The forest here is steep and high , a wonderful kaleidoscope of greens, ivy, creepers ,ferns , orchids; an abundance of living.

A lot of Americans move here because of the lower cost of living and maybe the better climate.. But they have the look of expatriates everywhere, not quite fitting in .

The world as I know it is fast disappearing . Since 1950 , just after I was born, the world’s population has tripled and continues to grow … We are faced with the extinction of species at an alarming rate, not just rhinos but the smaller less famous ones. I didn’t realise it at the time but the scarlet macaws I saw in Jiminez form part of only a thousand birds left in Costa Rica. Tons of plastic pollutes the oceans. Coral reefs are destroyed by global warming together with the melting of the polar ice caps ..Our ruination of the planet bodes ill for the future.

The bus journey to Panama City went well, firstly the local bus to Boquete to David and then a fast change to the big well appointed bus to Panama which took 6 hours. The bus station there was the biggest I’ve ever seen .

Panama City is a modern bustling city with lots of traffic problems. We went to the ship canal and viewed the locks and ships going through and the fascinating museum..

We spent time walking through the old town , quiet pedestrian streets with well renovated houses and buildings. Havana should look like this. .I met Sarah from Nice France who had travelled alone for three months and was very proud of herself.

I travelled by bus overnight to Boca Island. Firstly they didn’t want to let me on the bus because my name didn’t tally with the driver’s sheet and the lady insisted I buy a travel card even though I had a ticket. I waited until the bus was about to pull out and then jumped on board and insisted they find me a seat, which they duly did with much eyeball rolling. Sometimes you’ve got to pull weight.. It was a lousy journey , freezing cold, cramped, uncomfortable. We arrived at the ferry at 3.30 am after a 9hour journey and had to wait until 6.30 am for the first ferry to arrive.

The island is a delight, very laid back, wooden clapboard houses, some very dilapidated and many built on stilts over the water. It has a very Caribbean atmosphere , English with the regional patios, West Indian looking people with that lazy slow way of talking and attitude to go with it.

The casa I stayed at was one of the best , owned and run by Felicitas who is highly organised. I spent my time reading , writing and cycling around the island to a number of stunning beaches, white sand, calm turquoise waters., tracks alongside the sea through coconut plantations. I had some of the most memorable bicycle rides of my life and always there was a café at the water’s edge for breakfast.

I went on an all day boat ride to Zapatilla Island which had a dilapidated wooden walkway through a swamp which at times was positively dangerous. Did some rather mediocre snorkelling and then went full pelt across the ocean in an ever increasing rain storm and arrived totally soaked and shivering at the jetty.

I was told that the major families in Panama cream off much of the Panama riches. On the island there were many instances of poverty.  Many of the poor don’t want to work . There, s a big hash culture , I was offered Ganja a couple of times and many of the visitors looked like regular imbibers.. There’s an ex pat community here too but its not for me. Too hot and sultry and quite frankly boring unless you are strongly into water sports , fishing or running a tourist business.

This time I took the plane back to Panama City. The airport was a 10 minute walk from the casa , the Air Panama plane was like the Coconut airways song except I sang, ” Hey I,m going to Panama City, across the Caribbean Sea . ”

The 1 hour flight was a pleasure after the bus ride.

In Panama City I met a grizzled 83 year old Jamaican/ American who told me I looked like a Gringo. He then told me that a Gringo is a fucking American.


Costa Rica Weeks 28-30

Patrick and Carol took a bus ride down to San Jose airport to collect Carol’s lost bag whilst I took a minibus taxi down the steep hairpin road to Quepos where the other two joined me. The following day we had a walk around the pleasant town which has a modern marina with some expensive private yachts and a swim in the apartment’s pool and watched the sun go down over the ocean. The house has big iguanas , spider monkeys , toucans and really nice birds. Its much hotter on the Pacific coast and we were grateful for the pool. We took the bus to Manual Antonio Reserve , the reserve itself was a disappointment with large crowds but the white, sandy beaches with warm blue water were magnificent.
We took a short bus hop down the coast to Uvita and stayed in a friendly lodge a little way up the hill from the town and beach. There are some permanent residents here , Mark a builder, Geoff a coach , proving that you can make your way in life as a digital nomad or set yourself up in business. But it’s not for me. Costa Rica has grown on me after a bad start, I can understand it being one of the highest rated countries for people to retire to.
We took a taxi to Uvita beach , a long stretch fringed by coconut palms disappearing into the distance and walked the whale’s tail, a natural rocky outcrop shaped in that form. Walking back was a hot sweaty slog. This casa has a nice vibe , run by a friendly young couple David and Colleen with a good convivial atmosphere .
At this stage we split up, Patrick and Carol to do a Spanish course and myself to travel to Jiminez by bus.
Google maps tells me that it’s 2hours and 19 minutes from Uvita to Jiminez ; it took me 9 hours much of which was spent under a tree waiting for the connection at which was 1 hour 45 minutes late on top of the scheduled 3 hour wait.
Jiminez is a one horse dusty town but the casa I stayed in was set in a small nature reserve and I woke up to scarlet macaws shrieking and plenty of garden birds calling. I took an excursion to Corcavados National Park with a guide , we walked along the beach and jungle for 18 kms there and back and saw whales , sting rays jumping out of the water, a tapir, anteaters, a sloth, three types of monkey and lots of small things.
After a couple of days I moved to a beach lodge , so now I woke to the sound of the lapping sea , the lodge was right on the beach. I took a ride in the owner’s concrete boat built in UK in 1937 , we had dolphins swimming at the prow, went snorkelling on a reef and ate tuna dip and chips.
My return bus trip was again eventful , I caught the 7.30 am to Palma and after 30 minutes the driver told me this was Palma. Trouble was it was the wrong Palma , a small village in the middle of the road. I was stranded. Eventually a taxi drive gave me a lift to Palma Norte where I had another wait for my connection . But this trip was 1 hour shorter than the last one.

I spent more time at Uvita , chilling out, and then moved to Dominical , a dusty one street town next to the ocean with good surf. So lots of dreadlocks, tattoos and surfer dudes, mainly American. Lots of sunsets over the ocean and found Tortilla Flats, a good eating spot with a nice vibe.

So after spending one night in Uvita I met up with Carol and Patrick and we took the bus over the border to Panama. It was sad leaving Nativas , a nice place , good young hosts and a friendly atmosphere.

Weeks 26-27 Costa Rica Part 1

 Our visit to Costa Rica didn’t get off to a good start, Carol’s bag didn’t arrive at San Jose airport. We subsequently found out that it had gone to Caracas Venezuela. We caught an Uber to our Air BnB at $20 , the taxis quoted $90. The city was nothing to write home about although it was nice to have WiFi and shops to buy things. We had our first occasion when we felt threatened , we walked to the bus station to book our ticket and suddenly we found ourselves in a street where two guys were comatose on the pavement.. We were vulnerable and these guys fixed us with a stare like  a predator eyeing up prey. On the way back we came across a crippled man being severely beaten with shrieking girls around.

We took the bus to La Fortuna , a 5 hour journey with the road winding its way up narrow roads and stopping to pick up and let down locals until it was  standing room only . They were paying with cash and I’m sure this was going straight into the conductor’s pocket. The scenery was lush and green with cattle grazing , rather like Nottingham Road.. From our Air BnB we walked to a waterfall, we had to drop down 500 meters and then back up again to view it. Unfortunately the weather socked in with rain and we were unable to view the Arenal  volcano, which is active. We saw a sloth up a tree but the weather continued bad. La Fortuna is a town serving tourists and their needs, travel agents, restaurants, hotels and not much else.

We took a bus then a small ferry across a lake and the another bus ride along beautiful winding dirt roads to Monteverde. Now I felt that the Costa Rica visit had at last begun. we met two German girls and a Greek Cypriot family based in UK , grandfather, grandmother , daughter and daughter travelling through the country. I find many travellers inspirational , old people , lone females , people coming on short trips , people coming on long trips. On the bus were 14 women and 4 men , another sign that women are more adventurous than men. Monteverde is another town taken up solely with tourism., hiking , birding and activities connected with action.

I took a walk in the cloud forest with a guide , a very knowledgeable guy and saw birds, frogs and the environment. Afterwards I hiked around the reserve in increasing wind. This is an interesting town weather wise, windy , cold , misty, rain and sunshine in equal portions.

One evening we went on a night walk with a guide and he found for us tarantulas, snakes, frogs, a sloth and sleeping toucan. We also took the opportunity to do a couple of strenuous hikes to view points and see a hollow tree which had literally had its life strangled out of it. Guys climbed up through the centre of the tree to the top. So our next trip would be down to the coast.

Cuba weeks 23-25


We went by bus to Vinales. The system was queue and buy a ticket , wait in a scruffy waiting room , then 30 minutes before the bus leaves queue again and get a seat number , which bears no resemblance to the seat numbers on the bus and is free seating anyway. The buses were dusty and dirty and the seat in front reclined so far back that I had a French girl’s head in my lap. And these are the good buses for foreigners. During the trip I started to feel ill and by the time we reached Vinales I had a temperature. For the next 24 hours I was never off the toilet. By the time I recovered Patrick went down with the same thing. The area has carst limestone cliffs like in Vietnam , Thailand, China and tobacco is grown. The town has brightly coloured wooden houses and seems to be very geared to tourism, every other house is a homestay. The one we stayed at was run by a big homely smiling lady with a fat , lazy husband and son. It’s clear the women do the work in this place.

To get to our next destination , Cienfuegos we had to first catch the bus back to Havana and change there. On the road we stopped off at a roadside café, there was almost nothing to buy there. In Havana bus station they charge you 50 cents to use the disgusting toilet; Patrick took a photo and afterwards a burly man told him to delete it. Instead of sitting around why can’t the employees clean and repair the toilets and wash and vacuum the buses? Because it’s a state run service, there’s no competition and the employees are poorly paid. We travelled along the Bay of Pigs to Cienfuegos.

It’s a pleasant town with muted , pastel coloured buildings built around a classic Spanish square .In the homestay we watched the Gisella’s little brother catch doves on the deck with an improvised string trap . We only found out later that the men around , who were keeping doves , do so as a business to supply them to a religious sect Santeria.

We enjoyed staying in the Homestays and got on well with our hosts. Giselle , our host told us that she had a diploma in Tourism and then was put to work cleaning floors with one day off per week earning $10 /month. There are many men sitting around all day looking sad and disillusioned , we were told later that there are plenty of jobs available but nobody wants to work for the poor wages .

Books like Lonely Planet don’t paint a true picture of a country. Behind a crumbling beautiful façade can live a life of poverty and misery and they don’t portray that.

We moved to Trinidad, a cobbled, attractive town full of tourists. It’s hard to find anywhere today in the world without tourists. We spent the day at Playa Ancon beach, the typical Caribbean blue sea, white sand, Europeans sizzling on the beach. There are many girls travelling from different countries, some in pairs and some singly. They seem to be more adventurous than guys.

We took a walk to the top of a hill and visited another mundane museum celebrating the 60 year old revolution.

The scene at the bus station in the early morning was almost cliché South America. People milling about waiting for buses and then chaos erupting when an official opened a window, everyone clamouring for a tickets. We drove along the mainly empty road, passing gauchos on horseback, bullocks or horses pulling carts full of people, guys on bikes or the odd lone vintage American car.

There just don’t seem to be any stores or shops as we know them in Cuba and everything is in short supply except for beer, rum and spirits , which are plentiful. Our homestay in Santa Clara was very beautiful, like an oasis in the desert , with a peaceful garden where we could eat our meals. This town is the site of Che Guevara’s mausoleum which we walked to on the top of a commanding hill and with a fine statue of the hero. Once again the mausoleum was closed (remember Ho Chi Minh ) and we wondered if he would have been proud of today’s Cuba. Is this what he envisaged? There was a parade for school children to celebrate a luminary’s birthday with lots of propaganda songs; Patrick even saw a truck with “Propaganda “ written on the side

We returned to Cienfuegos and Giselle’s homestay. Her little brother and mother were away in Colombia obtaining a USA visa, it’s sad that young people have to leave their homes, breaking up a family, to make their way in the world.

We took a tour to Nase , a reserve in the forest with a waterfall and had a swim followed by lunch.

We met some intriguing travellers, a French Canadian lady about our age who was spending three months in Cuba to avoid the harsh winter back home and we kept bumping into a Swiss family with three small children travelling for four months.

Our last two transfers were by Taxi Collectivo and were good experiences; the first was with a vintage American car booming along the empty highway.

Our last day was spent walking along the broad two lane highway looking at the mansions, some derelict and others pristine such as the UK and North Korean embassies which were next door to each other. We also said goodbye to Flavia who had gone out of her way to help us in our travels around Cuba.

So farewell to Cuba, we met some great people who deserve a better standard of living and some hope for the future. They must embrace capitalism within the system like China, allow private enterprise , go full steam ahead with introducing an internet network, encourage entrepreneurship and drag the country into the twenty first century.


Week 22 Havana Cuba

So our journey kicked off badly again, we found that Carol needed a visa so we took a decision that I would travel on and Patrick and Carol would go to Cancun to get one from the Cuban embassy and catch a later flight. After arriving at the homestay, sometime later I realised that I had given them the wrong address. I had no way of contacting them and their flight had arrived, so together with Flavia , the homestay manager we waited with baited breath at the wrong address. All was well, they had arrived at the correct address. The Roger effect had kicked in again.
There’s no WiFi or internet in Cuba, one stands in a queue and purchases a card with a password to be used at hot spots usually in front of hotels where you find clusters of people .We can only conclude that the Government finds it convenient not to develop a network because it’ not in their interest to.
We stayed in homestays, we made friends with the owners and we often woke up to the sounds of children at school and street hawkers calling out their wares either walking, on a bicycle or on a horse and cart.
What to say about Havana and Cuba? Wonderful Spanish architecture, narrow streets, old classic American cars by the hundreds , ruined derelict buildings next to smart classic restored ones , little squares and great vistas. The Malecon sea front is a long stretch of ruined buildings, anywhere else it would be classic expensive houses and apartments. People of all colours, long legged girls, school girls in impossibly short skirts, some huge men but overall an impression of poverty. We stayed the majority of the time in a suburb next to the Revolution Square but spent one night in the old quarter in a house renovated by the Spanish, Cuban owner. This was nicely done but was just the ground floor and the upper floors belonged to other tenants and the roof was completely open to the elements in one area. You could look up and see the man upstairs brushing his teeth. During the night it rained hard and the water just poured in to the stone passage below. The owner pumped it out and then got a squeegee and finished the job. There are very few shops, we witnessed people queuing for bread, jam packed into old decrepit buses . The roads are potholed and the few old cars on the road pick their way around them. We went to the Museum of the Revolution and looked at the political dogma and propaganda that’s on display there. Notwithstanding the will and determination needed to overcome Batista and co you can’t help wondering if this is the best that the revolution can achieve after 60 years. Yes American sanctions haven’t helped but China, Vietnam and others have successfully negotiated a change to a capitalistic market system within a Communist country quite successfully. We discovered there is no real incentive to progress in fields, wages are hopeless, for example a doctor or a teacher earn about $25/month. We saw many young and older men just sitting around staring into space. Old people have a small pension and if their children can’t look after them then they resort to begging. Although medical care is free medicines have to be paid for and they are expensive. Education is free. Tourist books like Lonely Planet don’t paint a true picture of a country. Behind a crumbling, beautiful facade can live a life of poverty and desperation. So with the help of Flavia we made our reservations to travel around the island.

Week 21 Tulum Mexico

The Roger effect continued to click in , Patrick’s Uber wouldn’t work and mine was not connected to my credit card , so we did some frantic in putting of data before getting a taxi. On checking my passport details and ticket names didn’t correspond and I had an anxious one hour whilst I was shuttled back and forth from one airline to the next before receiving my boarding pass. We’ve found it important to check in 3 hours before a flight in case of hiccups.
When we arrived in Cancun there was no arranged driver to meet us so we caught a taxi to our homestay. This was in pitch darkness and nobody around seemed to know anything about the owners. The taxi driver took us to a hotel in town and we enjoyed grabbing something to eat at a local café next door.
The next morning it was pouring down with rain and we caught a bus to Tulum , a holiday town down the coast with very little charm. At the apartment where we stayed we were met by an Argentinian girl called Macarena , would you believe , from Argentina , another economic refugee from that country. We walked around the town with its tourist shops and cafes and broken pavements . We talked in the evening to an American retiree who came to Tulum twice a year to escape the harsh American winters. Its cheaper than USA and much warmer. Tulum has a bit of a reputation for being a hippy community and I liked the fact that everyone was walking about and using bicycles.
The following day we did the same and hired bikes and discovered why people come here. The Caribbean is gloriously turquoise and the sand white and fine. But the weather wasn’t really for the beach, so we rode on to the Maya ruins nearby, but beat a hasty retreat as it was horribly crowded. We decided to go back the next morning when it opened and we had the place more or less to ourselves. The Mayan ruins are beautiful , set on a cliff above the ocean and surrounded by bush and nice birds. As we were leaving the crowds started to pour in.
The next day we rode to a cenote , and swam in a natural pool formed by limestone , collapsing and forming natural underground clear tranquil water. The bicycle hire guy showed us a drawer full of unclaimed driving licences and passports of people who had lost bicycles. over the December and January period he collected 70 of them. The mind boggles.
So we took the bus back to Cancun , stayed in a nice homestay almost next door to the original one we wanted to stay at and went to the airport the next morning early. What fate would greet us this time?

Week 19, 20 Monterey and Los Angeles California

We caught the Amtrak overnight train from Portland to Salinas which was a good experience. Like everything in USA it’s big , it’s a double decker with an observation car, dining car , sleepers but we chose coach and it was perfectly adequate with reclining seats and we slept quite well. But the railways appear out dated to us, manual systems , old stations , late trains which travel at a leisurely pace, which is great for sight seeing and have long stops at stations. We nearly didn’t get out at Salinas because we thought that the train had stopped at a signal and had a mad scramble out of the train before it restarted. But it was nice to feel the warm sunshine after the cold of Portland.
Our journey was not without drama as somehow Patrick managed to drop Carol’s passport on the floor and only discovered this when we were checking in to the hotel. After a number of phone calls and some tense hours we learned that the passport was found and returned to Salinas station the next day where they picked it up.
Monterey is a small fishing village with a lot of charm and one of the nicest places we have visited .We spent time strolling around the beach front and harbour and enjoying the ambience. A perfect place to retire except for the high cost of living. There are numerous medical facilities to cater for the retirees but Carol had a difficult time trying to renew her script for her medication and suffice to say expensive. USA has the highest medical costs in the world, another reason to think carefully about living there.

We took a bus to Carmel , a very exclusive town with a beautiful beach next to Pebble Beach golf course. Cannery Row , where John Steinbeck wrote the book is another attraction but not much remains of those days and now it’s full of tourist shops, restaurants and up market hotels.
We had two days of rain which cramped our style somewhat but we were able to sort ourselves out and generally observe life. Its noticeable that everywhere in USA that white , well kept men and women take what we would consider to be mundane jobs , supermarket check out clerks , cleaners, bus drivers etc.. and do it cheerfully and give good service. Drivers are careful, courteous particularly in relation to pedestrians. Around the bus station are all types of eccentric people , unfortunately mainly the dropouts of society . There is a noticeable gap between the haves and the not haves.
I also took a trip whale watching and saw grey whales , sea lions, sea otters , pelicans and lots of sea birds. The harbour area is infested with jelly fish.

We travelled by bus to Santa Barbara and then were delayed for over an hour there waiting for the train which was delayed due to the previous week’s mud slide which had killed twenty people in the area.. The train eventually took us to Union Station Los Angeles and then we caught a bus to the airport through ten lane highways at walking pace due to the worst traffic I’ve ever seen. I cant help wondering why USA has such a love affair with the motor car and has allowed its public transport system to deteriorate to such an extent.

We had a homestay in a family home in Playa del Rey , near to the beach and unfortunately a bit too near to the airport. By now the weather was warm and sunny and we took a  ride on rickety bikes to Venice Beach which  appears to cater to two types, the well heeled with beautiful condominiums and the less fortunate with tacky shops. Hundreds of people were exercising in the sunny weather, running, walking and cycling and everything in between. USA is energetic, exuberant, easy to engage and fun loving. The next day we took a ride in the opposite direction, South , and had a coffee at  the big .surfing area Manhattan Beach .

So our USA visit was at an end. Thank you to Carol and Patrick’s relatives and friends for a wonderful stay. A trip across USA would be a great adventure one day.

Week 18 Portland Oregan

We flew Air Alaska to Portland and were impressed with the automated check in; simple , quick ,efficient and the result was that two girls checked in the whole flight with no fuss whilst American Airlines had long queues . Compare SAA, masses of people doing nothing. It was cold with snow on the ground and icy roads. The weather here reminds me so much of UK, cold ,grey, rainy and people hunkering down in their houses. We stayed with Davey, Patrick’s son and his wife Robin and they tell you nothing ever happens here. There was a lock down in the area whilst heavily armed police searched for an armed fugitive. You weren’t allowed to leave your houses. He was found two blocks away in a house after a gun was fired. Anyway we had ten guns in the house for protection. Then when we drove out of the house there was a body in the road and crashed cars from an accident and police , fire brigade and ambulances were chasing about with sirens blaring. Nearby is Mount St Helens which blew up spectacularly about ten years . Its OK we are told , it only erupts every 100 years but there was some activity whilst we were there. We took a drive in Dawie’s huge truck along the Colombia River in cold , icy conditions and had lunch at a complex converted from a poor house with bars, a spa, vineyard, theatre , all set in a pretty garden.
We took the train into Portland, a nice city with few high rises and many older preserved buildings. Lots of pubs and restaurants and we ate cheaply at a series of stalls in a square. We also visited a huge thriving book store. There were  a lot of down and outs and some punk kids on the train. The racial profile is very diverse , Chinese, Mexican and whites proliferate and not many black people. Many cute wooden houses , conspicuously without fences and mixed areas but distressingly a lot of homeless people are evident., some very down and out.

A visit to Walmart is a good way to pass the time. as we were checking out an announcement was made, ” Would the jewel thief please return the jewels ” . Some of the      characters you see there are off the wall. The lady in front of us was buying next Christmas’s presents at a knock down rate. One evening we went to the local pub and gaming house, won $40 and paid for our dinner. Americans are friendly and gregarious and a lot of fun..


Week 17 San Francisco

With all the restrictions, checking in at airports nowadays is a nerve wracking affair. Our flight to San Francisco from Kuala Lumpur was via Shanghai with another airline which was not affiliated and to change planes we had to collect our bags and pass through immigration to change terminals. In order to do that we had to have a transit visa for China. We had 5 hours to do this, ample time you would think. On arrival we were shepherded to a queue for transit visas with one officer going through the laborious procedure of finger prints , photos etc. and invariably there were problem travellers. An hour and a half later we got our visas. From there we picked up our bags and checked in for the San Francisco flight. The clerk took ages correlating our passport and visas and waivers and announced one digit was wrong on Patrick’s visa waiver . Patrick went to the Business Centre and after having to pay with cash and sorting out the Chinese computer reapplied for his waiver. normally its a 72 hour wait and we decided that Carol and I would travel and Patrick would join us later. With heavy hearts we just made the check in, were the last in the queue and the flight was closing when Patrick appeared with a big smile on his face as his waiver miraculously came through. We made the plane by the skin of our teeth.
What to say about USA. Well driving around San Francisco is like being part of a movie set , it all looks so familiar. It’s cold but we wrapped up well. The family we stayed with are warm, friendly, loud and generous. Chrissie’s parents moved out of their home to accommodate us ; how many people would do that for a bunch of strangers? The extended family also entertained us for a wonderful Italian meal, Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas day lunch. How’s that for hospitality!
They are also pretty well off, live in well appointed houses and drive nice cars. But it’s not all like that , nearby there’s trailer homes and quite a lot of homeless people living in tents or doorways. We went to Napa Valley for wine tasting and bought some wine at $45 a bottle, toured San Francisco ; walked to Union Square, went down Lombard Street , the steepest hill in the city, Saw the Museum of Fine Arts, and had a drink in Sausalito by the sea. We ran around a lake on one beautiful clear sunny day. USA is the ultimate consumer society , the choice of goods is enormous. Its amazing how one passes from one area to another , we walked through Chinatown and passed into the Italian quarter from one street to the next.


Some thoughts on South East Asia


So our four months in South East Asia are up. At the end here is a very brief summary of the countries that I’ve visited.
Japan is by far the most impressive country because of its diligence, organization, technology, discipline, tradition and helpfulness towards visitors. Everything works. Malaysia has a higher standard of living than expected but Kuala Lumpur is rather a soulless metropolis and has adopted wholesale the western way of life. Outside KL it’s a different story and there are plenty of cultural activities to see as well as good beaches. The giant China has ugly cities except for Shanghai , high air pollution , clearly an experiment moving people from the country to cities leaving empty tower blocks and farming communities. How long will they be able to sustain their GDP growth with such high borrowing? Hong Kong is exciting , expensive and unique. Macau was interesting to visit with some nice architecture. Myanmar was the least developed country and had much decay of buildings, roads and pavements. Yangon was exciting, Began was a tourist hub with wonderful temples and Mandalay was depressing. Vietnam was a great country to visit but we were surprised at the mass tourism. Home stay was a good experience in Hou An.
The food everywhere was great and cheap with the exception of Japan and Hong Kong. Street food was wonderful and gave us an opportunity to meet people, both locals and travellers. With the exception of Hong Kong we had good clean accommodation normally in the centre of town where everything happened. We never felt threatened safety wise except for Beijing.
The following costs are for two people per day sharing a room with food and internal transport etc; It excludes air fares.
Langkawi Malaysia $70
China $115
Japan $140
Myanmar $56
Vietnam (excludes Halon Bay cruise ) $65

So its next stop San Francisco.