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Letters from the road
Wednesday, 15 April 2015
Viva La Revoloution
Until Victory Always photo 20150320_183339.jpg

 Cuba 2015

 

     When we first landed I thought they had made a mistake. I peered out the window through the mist at a dilapidated semi abandoned 1950's terminal in need of a good paint. Bugger I've got on the wrong plane and ended up at Heathrow. An old bus eventually arrived, and they herded us on to the terminal, 60's, minimalist style, I looked fluorescent lighting, and realised that I wasn't at Heathrow. Most of the lights worked. There is a bit of a line through customs, but none of this " how long are you staying here ? " crap. A quick stamp on the visa we are through,and free to stare at the baggage carousel.
     This is Cuba. Along with our baggage at the check in counter we where surrounded with the delights of the decadent west. Ac units, stoves, car tyres, boxes of who knows what. Every one is allowed 40KG of baggage allowance and the local take full advantage, they bring back every thing but the " Five Brothers", more of them later. Cuban customs search every bag thoroughly looking for, Sat phones, GPS's, undeclared capitalist goods and porn. Well mostly porn. My bag comes out with a broken zip, and the keys to the padlock which where on a clip on the outside missing. Good start Guy's. Where here to go bike riding but have opted to start our trip with two nights of luxury in the Hotel Sevilla in Old Havana. From the bar at the top you can look out over town. It was a favourite of  the Mob, and Al Capone, and has my hotel picking essential. A pool. First stop go to pool, first thing order a drink. Cuba Libre. First observation of the Cuban Economy, rum is 80% cheaper than coke by the proportions in my glass. Vitamin R as our guide calls it, it never seems to be in short supply. A staple at every meal along with the 5 brothers. Beans, Rice, Chicken, Pork, Fish. 
     Next day we wander around town, which is seeing the effects of 55 years of socialist revolution. At the Museum of the Revolution we learn what CIA has been up to . Any industry that has collapsed, disease, pandemic that has struck, or mysterious failure of the great socialist plan, can squarely be traced back to the agents of evil. The main industry here seems to be museums. Cars are museum pieces, most buildings that haven't fallen down also. Factory's are preserved in almost the exact state they where when they where nationalised in the 60's, a few zombie workers hang around,nothing much else seems to emerge from the halls or chimney's. The grand train station has more platforms than the country has working engines.
     The sole exception to this seems to be the oil refinery just across the river which belches out black smoke over town 24/7. Advertising is limited to bill boards of three dead dudes. ( or all most ) Chavas, Fidel, and Mandela, with some inspirational slogan underneath , like " The revolution is the only thing stopping people slipping back in to fudel serfdom." "Viva la Trabadors" or "Implement the  ideals of the 6th workers congress"
    The few local newspaper I looked at are full of outcomes of the local committee meetings. Uncle Chavas made a gift of supplying the Cuban people with access to the state run Venezuelan TV. The locals think its nice to have an alternative point of view, while in the hotels we can get Fox news, and Mexican soap operas.I reckon they should show Fox News to the Cuban people as that's enough to make any one hate Americans and capitalism. They probably don't think the locals would believe it was not propaganda invented by the state.
    Since the collapse of Russia, and more recently Venezuela, things have been pretty tough here. The Cuban average wage is about a dollar a day. The get free housing, health care, education , and subsidised food rations. Still Cubans end up spending about 80% of there wages on food. Fortunately the good old capitalist tourist has stepped in to help out our brothers. Tourists unlike locals demand things that work, so the government is busy rebuilding the centre of old Havana. New  restaurants and bars with apathetic government workers, that take only CUC's ( Tourist Money) are springing up around town. A fleet of modern Chinese buses whisk "las touristas" from one museum to another, or back to one of the nice tourist hotels where most things in the room will sort of work, probably not all at once. You may have hot water but it will only come out the bath spout, only cold will come out the shower head. Hotels generally have cards so you can log on to the internet, but no working computers, or computers but no cards. My favourite was the breakfast buffet that had cereal, bowls and milk that where only available one at a time so you could not have a bowl of inedible coco rocks even if you wanted one.
    All the same most Cubans seem reasonably happy with their lot. Large quantity of cheap vitamin R may go some way to explain this, but they take justified pride in their revolution, and their survival in the face of the imperialist Yanquis. There is music everywhere, you cannot sit quietly anywhere in old Havana without a three piece band appearing in search of a tip. Capitalism has again reared it's ugly head and it is now possible to own a small restaurant, or rent out a small room as a B and B. These are generally the clean places with good service and fully functioning bathrooms at a fraction of the cost of the  government hotels. Of course the government does it's best to discourage this with tax and hordes of paperwork but still some people seem to be on the up. Crime and corruption are pretty low. Cubans a free to complain about their government but not change it, and unlike most other central american country's they actually do receive some services.people sit out in the squares and chat, rather than watch TV.  All in All 4.5 out of 10, not a pass but better than a lot of other places I have been. 
    On the way out of the country I try to buy some cigars. I can buy 150 with my credit card, which is to many to bring back to Australia, or I can go to another shop and buy ten with cash which I don't have enough of. I give up and go to the bar where for my five CUC's I can get a Cuba Libre or two coffees for me and Mick. I explain to the barman in my best Spanish that I am a good brother because I am buying my brother a coffee with my last change even though I want a rum. He gets me the coffees. Then when I sit down comes over with a rum and a smile. Thanks Cuba.

Posted by bondrj at 3:20 AM NZT
Monday, 2 March 2015
Head West Young Man

Zipolite photo 20150224_134157.jpg

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      Mick had that bunny in the headlights look , as he stepped into the bright lights of the arrivals hall at Mexico city's main airport. It's not that the place is different. It has a Burger King, is clean, and looks like any other new airport in the world. It's just that you are in , “well” , Mexico. Drug cartels, be heading's, corruption, Julie Bishop telling you not to come here and, if you accidentally do, leave straight away for some where safer like Syria. Stuff plays on a travellers mind during a 3 hour flight inbound. All the other gringo's had the same wide eyed stare, like the Federales where going to come and steal their children the moment they walked through the gate. Thats not correct they generally wait till you get outside before they steal  your children. Fortunately not all was lost, “My names Russell and I'm here to help”. After the obligatory welcome, I grabbed a bag and headed past a bunch of well armed cops keeping a eye on things. I already had a spare smart card transport pass, which is the most difficult thing to obtain at the airport. On to the bus, another cop stands in the door way to look after you. Twenty minutes later we jump off on a quite dark street near the down town area of Zocalo. Not to worry its Monday night, not many people around but plenty of cops to keep us safe. It turns out that they have just broken up a long running union demonstration in the main square, most of the cops aren't here for us, there here to stop the teachers reoccupying the square. Has the same effect though. We arrive at our hostel which is in a stylish restaurant/hotel complex. I think the hostel is the old staff quarters, but whatever it is it's very smick. We head out to dinner past our police escort.

      Down town Zocalo, during the day time is much less daunting. The shutters come up and the place is full of people, restaurants squares,and, shopping. It's not Guatemala, there is no one with a 12 gauge pump action guarding the Nike's store. Like most big city's, the centre is full of shops selling the important things, Joyeria ( Jewellary), Zapata's(shoes) and Ropa (clothes). There is lots to see here, and the place is big. The city is home to some 21.2 million people, making it the largest city in the western hemisphere. We head off to the local park which houses a whole pile of museums. The anthropology museums houses a fantastic history of past and present cultures, a day in it's self. It's a great place for architecture lovers, My favourites are, Placio de Bella Artes, the old university full of mosaic murals, and the Reforma area full of new skyscrapers, and shopping plazas. The public transport is good, cheap, and quick. In five days we see about 100th of what's on offer.

      The local bus station TAPO, is a huge circular building, just out of the centre of town. From here hundreds of buses leave daily to all parts. Where off to Puebla an old town full of churches, about 4 hours away. The first class buses are quick and safe. You get searched more getting on than a Jahadi flying El Al. Twenty dollars gets you a comfy lay back seat, a snack, drink, set of headphones and a couple of latest edition pirated movie s, quite often in English with Spanish subtitles. Square tick, Church,s tick, then off to Oaxaca. more churches, and museums, good grub, and the odd ruina (pile of rocks). I am going to explode if I see another gold plated church full of bleeding Jesus's. We miss Hierve el Agua but you cant do everything.

      It's time for a change of transport style, for twenty bucks we catch a Colectivo seven hours to the beach at Puerto Escondido. Colectivos are small 12 to 15 seat vans prone to roll-overs, due to the large amount of luggage tied to the roof. It's a long day of twisty bumpy roads sitting on a hard seat. Finally we arrive to find ourselves in the Bali of Mexico. We check in to a nice resort and live it up “Map Boy” style. Cocktails around the pool $ 2.50, each and a bang up steak dinner. We head down the road for Crapes on the beach for desert.

      Next morning it's back to cheese n bickies. We catch the chicken bus 70km down the road to Zipolite. (Zee-po-lee-tae) The bus has no muffler, no ac, and no padding on the seats. Everyone else is sitting at the front so we take a couple of seats at the back. There doesn't seem to be a speed limit in Mexico, so every thing travels as fast as it will go. The way the locals solve this problem is by putting what feels like a curb and channel across the road at random locations. These are generally in front of restaurants, and other high value targets. You are free to go past schools, and kindergartens at full speed. We soon discover the suspension has been removed from the rear of the bus as an economy measure. Every time we go past a restaurant it feels like the back of the bus with the wheels removed, has been dropped off a four foot high wall on to a concrete slab. After an hour , my kidneys feel like they have been used to train a bunch of kick boxers. We jump a taxi for the last 10km with a couple of Canadians escaping the winter back home, and cruise in luxury down to the beach.

      I'm really glad Mick wanted to come here. I was here 30 years ago with a couple of friends when there was nothing on the beach but a couple of huts. Mark and Karin used to work in the fishing industry in Alaska during the summer and head down to Mexico with little more than a guitar, and a few clothes for the winter. We stayed in a grass roofed, 30 square foot, adobe hut that leaked like a sieve when it rained, and baked when it wasn't. The bed room was a couple of hammocks hung under the tin veranda. There was a tap out the back in the middle of the paddock with half a 44 gallon drum and a shower head hanging off it. You left the tap open, and when the water started it refilled the drum, if you happened to be there you could also catch a shower. Rent was $5.25 a week split 3 ways. I won't mention the toilet faculties. The beach was 30 meters away the next neighbour was 500. The beach was a mile of pristine sand with a couple of small islands at each end, and a couple of good surf breaks. There where a few other hippies camped out in the bush, Surfing, Hackey sack, The Grateful dead, Bob Marley, and smoking Gunga where the main pastimes. Food was a twenty minute taxi ride to the market at Puerto Angel once a week, or a bit of bartering with the locals. Clothes where optional, Karin is a pretty little blond, and all the local Mexican boy's used to come down the beach to watch us go for a swim.

      Things have changed a bit in the last thirty years, the beach is still here, clothes are still optional, and there are still a few of probably the same hippies hiding out in the bush. There are now palapas ( little huts ) all along the beach interspersed with restaurants, and small hotels. Some time in the 90's the Italians discovered the place, so you can get a good coffee, and great pasta here. Italian is spoken almost as much as English. There is a little road that runs behind the beach with shops and cafe's now. At night time it is filled with hippies selling jewellery on little tables between the cafes. The building code hasn't changed much which gives the place a nice ramshackle feel. There are no ATM's or credit cards taken, as a token to the 20 year olds the camp sites have wifi. We are staying in a nice bungalow that looks out on to the beach, the showers are still cold, and the attitude relaxed. I could stay here for a month.

     Unfortunately it's not gonna happen. Tomorrow back to Purto Esco, then off to the Yucatan. No 40 hour chicken bus rides for us. We catchen da plane. Hasta Luego Dude's.

 For more photo's Click the pic


Posted by bondrj at 10:28 AM EADT
Updated: Monday, 2 March 2015 11:55 AM EADT
Tuesday, 17 February 2015
Mexico DF

Museo Nacional de Antropología photo 20150213_160847.jpg

      This story is actually from my Bro. You can't say I'm not an equal oppourtunity employer. I even pay  him the same rates I get. Click the pic for more photos

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      The night I arrived in Mexico, Russ met me at the airport and after catching the airport special bus (30 pesos rather than the usual 6) and checking in we took a small walk down the equivalent of Bourke St. It was eerily quiet with all the shops steel shuttered with multiple padlocks and the odd group of hooded youth loitering. After we'd walked six blocks the people we saw mostly were the “Policia Federal” huddling in groups and armed to the teeth, sporting riot shields, ballistic vests and helmets. More police in cars with red and blue flashing lights operating, cruised past. Had I dropped into a war zone?

      To read “Lonely Planet” or what we read of Mexico in the papers there's a “bandito” behind every door and a drug cartel gangster ready to put a bullet in your head just for looking sideways at him. What I'd seen from the bus and the police presence hadn't quelled my fears.

      The next morning we ventured down the same street and it was transformed. I was expecting to be hassled from the moment I left the hotel but I felt a lot safer here than in the US. Yes there were beggars on the street but nowhere near the numbers we saw in San Francisco and the spruikers trying to sell you stuff are probably worse in Lygon St. Buskers did there thing juggling, dressed in costume or grinding their organs with their “monkey” (a man dressed in cream uniform) passing a cap for donations. People sported business suits and well dressed women wore long pants and t-shirts or jackets. The shutters had all come up and all the “friendly faces” of large Corporates such as McDonalds and Starbucks mixed it with the local businesses. The police were still there but the riot shields, etc seemed less ominous in daylight. Most of them just seemed bored. Traffic was in gridlock and all seemed “normal”.

       After San Francisco where you just need to look like you're about to cross the street and cars will stop, Mexico City is altogether different. Traffic lights are just a vague indication of whose turn it is and it's up to the pedestrian to assert their right to cross. Indeed the police will often continue to wave cars through the red and it's not until a sufficient bulk of humanity has amassed before pedestrians are motioned to – even then you have to keep your wits as bicycles (brave souls) and motorbikes weave around.

       The architecture is what stuns me most about the city. Amazing art deco and Victorian era edifices with interiors still intact – think the ANZ building in Collins St. There's a restaurant chain called Sanborns which is a bit like the old style Coles Cafeteria but with table service. Entering its original restaurant (since 1903) is akin to entering a grand ballroom with granite columns towering skyward toward a decorative glass canopy. Well attired waiting staff show you to your chair – you can dine like a king – all for the bargain basement price of about $20/head!

      The buildings of the State are even more impressive with the “Palacio de Correos” (Palace of the Post Office) literally being a palace complete with ornate elevator crafted by a fine Italian foundry at the turn of last century. In the Internet age it didn't seem to be doing much business but no-one seemed to care. Across the way is the even more impressive “Palicio de Belles Artes” with similar architecture but also sporting murals from famous Mexican artists. Included is the notorious mural re-painted by Diego Rivera after it had been rejected by J.D Rockefeller in New York. It contained an unfavourable image of him and an image of Lenin which Rivera had refused to paint over so Rockefeller had it destroyed.

      On the subject of art we were privileged to be taken to the university campus where Jane's 2nd cousin, Luis; works. It's a sprawling site of some 1500 acres and includes a nature reserve (we saw lizards and a black squirrel) and a cultural enclave which was hosting a symphonic orchestra recital when we were there. It's not on the normal tourist trail but Luis showed us the amazing facilities and explained the history of the campus including the many amazing mosaic murals which tower many stories high on most of the campus buildings. They display many historical and cultural aspects of Mexican society and are all made from mosaic tiles perhaps a couple of centimetres square. There was also many modern sculptures from the 1980s which neither Luis or we cared much for but some must like. Many of Mexico's most learned have graduated from this campus and is well worth a visit.

      Another “must see” is the “Museo de Anthropologica”. It houses much of Mexico's cultural heritage and is well laid out with many excellent dioramas and replicas of much of the Mayan and Aztec sites together with the original relics from them. We spent a whole day there and I probably could have stayed another few hours if my back and knees had held out better!

      My favourite was the replica of the tomb at Palenque which is no longer open to the public due to condensation caused by the breath of the millions of visitors so this is the next best thing. It's the tomb of the ruler who was buried with a jade face mask and made infamous in the 1970s by Erich Von Daniken's book “Chariots of the Gods” in which he purported the tomb lid showed an ancient space craft – it has since been de-bunked by many Mayan scholars as usual Mayan imagery. Ironically I almost missed it as it's downstairs from the main Mayan displays and there's no signage to it but Russ sniffed it out. This was quite surprising as the rest of the place is well signed including much English.

     Lack of signage is a common problem with the underground rail. Mexico City has a great Metro system but unlike London or Paris where the Metro has ornate entrances, often the entrances are just steps leading down. After a while you get the hang of looking for the crowds disappearing like rabbits down a barrow but for the first few days we could be standing just metres from an entrance, staring bewilderedly at our map. It's surprising as once you're downstairs there's a whole city of commerce and good signage for all the lines and connections. Maybe they ran out of money for the entrances!

      The signage aside, the Metro was designed and built by the Swiss in the 1970s and 80s so works well with a modern swipecard system (Myki take note). At about 50 cents a trip and with the roads choked by traffic it's what everyone uses to get around. Again, reading the travel books you'd be lead to believe the Metro was full of thieves and pickpockets but even in peak hour crammed in tight there seemed to be little problem – though I did keep my hand in my wallet pocket just in case! Where Metro doesn't cover, Mexico City has taken its grand boulevards and dedicated one of the lanes exclusively to the Metrobus system (Hoddle St, amongst others could do with this) and these interchange with the Metro proper, making getting around this megaopolis of 20 million a breeze.

      Here in the capital, food is a smorgasboard with everything available from expensive Western junk and delightful cafes as mentioned previously to street stalls selling standard Mexican fare such as tacos and enchiladas for about $1 a pop. Luis tells us that the basic wage in Mexico is about $A5/day so even at these prices food is too expensive for many so it's not surprising that the Mexicans are an enterprising lot with many taking on 2nd jobs selling all sorts of things to make ends meet. While riding the Metro it's pretty common for people to come through the carriage selling everything from Western CDs to long bits of elastic - for what purpose I'm not sure. If they're not selling product they'll be strumming a guitar or singing along with a “boom box” strapped to their chest in a cacophony of sound. Some deserve the few pesos they're given, others you'd pay to go away!

      So that's pretty much sums up my impressions of the first week in Mexico. Unfortunately I didn't get as much done as I'd hoped as I ate a part of one of the aforementioned tacos that Russ was having or perhaps ingested some local water which gave me the touristas for a day – his system had already acclimatised! It did allow me to become well acquainted with the Mexican plumbing though and aside from remembering to throw your used paper in the bin beside the facilities (common in much of Latin America), always remember to take spare paper with you- I learnt this the hard way and as Luis said, “this isn't Germany”.

      Adios for now, We're off to the Modern Art gallery.


 


Posted by bondrj at 4:22 PM EADT
Tuesday, 10 February 2015
The Spanish School

Learning Spanish in Antigua lake atitlan photo 20150201_090744.jpg

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    Thirty Years ago I passed through Antigua in Guatemala on my way north, and thought one day I might return. Antigua is the old Guatemalan capital, The capital was moved to Guad City in 1717AD after an earthquake destroyed the city. It is known for its old churches and plethora of Spanish schools. It is probably one of the best places to learn Spanish in the world.

       It took a bit longer than I envisaged, but here I am again, enrolled in a Spanish school, and living with a local family. I took me five days to get here on a bus via Oaxaca, and San Christobel in Mexico. Thirty years ago the civil war was winding down and the country side was devoid of people. Soldiers would stop the bus and drag people off. Every body else got searched. If you read the Australian Government travel advice you think things had gotten worse. Don't walk anywhere by yourself, never at night, never carry anything of value, except a couple of Quatzals, in an old wallet, be prepared to be robbed at any time. In reality the place has changed beyond recognition. The countryside is full of people, Antigua has McDonald's, Burger King, and Domino's pizza.

       I live in the Casa de Ava, a house on the north side of town with a great view of three Volcanoes that surround Antigua. Some days I can see puffs of smoke and fire, or feel rumbles coming out of the active one on my was to school. At night the town is well lit, and relativity safe apart from the odd explosion of what sounds like gunfire, but is actually firecrackers celebrating someone birthday.

       My school the Antiguena Spanish Academy charges around $180USD for 4 hours of one on one Spanish lessons 5 days a week, with full board with 3 meals six days a week. My Spanish host family have been boarding gringos for twenty six years. There are up to five of us here along with Ava, Ceaser, and there three adult children. We also have another relative, who studying in town and the and the odd friend staying over. The house is also a commercial laundry, $2 a kilo and your washing returns clean, ironed and tied up in neat little bundles.

      Ava is a magnificent host, she feeds us, and her family three times a day around a noisy big table covered in food. The menu constantly changes, eggs, pancakes, and toast in the morning. Soup and Salads, for lunch, Casseroles , Squash, silverbeat and more for dinner. Every meal comes with the obligatory. Guatemalan coffee, beans and rice. There is always lots of lively banter around the table in broken Spanish. In the house we are a UN of nationalities, Chinese, Australian , Canadian, Japanese, American, and English. My house mates are mainly in there twenty s, and studying at the same school. At night we often go to a bar for some music/trivia/banter, quite often in the afternoon we head for a coffee or to do a bit of haggling at the market. My friend Selena is keeping the Guatemalan market economy going just by herself. The city is fairly small, and after a while you seem to know most of the other students in town. My hose mate Jessie currently has a war running with Ava. The spend all day plotting surprise attacks, and covering each other with pica pica, which is a fine glitter used for celebrations. Check out the video here and you will get the idea.

       My day starts at seven when I get up for breakfast, we meet around the breakfast table and consume café trying to wake up. About twenty to eight I'm generally at the front door shouting “Rapido Rapido Chicka's” where late at the girls, while Jessie who studies in the afternoon returns to bed. Most people attend school in the morning for 4 hours, some do more but most find 4 enough. It takes about 15 minutes to walk to school and we chat with other random students we meet on the way. This is often in English but not everyone speaks English so it is quite often in Spanish, and more often Spanglish.

       I take my lessons at a table in a huge quite garden seated opposite my “maestro” Chenni. Some times it's conjugating the dreaded Spanish verbs, but more often than not we just talk about anything that comes to mind. 4 hours a day over a week covers a lot of topics. I am lucky as I already know some Spanish. My friend Emma rocked up straight from London in the middle of the night with absolutely no Spanish to be, greeted by a table full of people early the next morning babbling away. She looked a bit shocked, and had to spend the next couple of days learning words, a week later she has the basics and is doing well. It was hard work though, combined with much of the scourge of students “tareas” (homework). Most students get some tearea every day, be it, learning some new words/conjugations, reading a story, or translating a short passage into Spanish. My teacher is very good. She is a lady about my age and has been teaching for about thirty years. Most people change teachers every couple of weeks, but I haven't. At ten we take a break, and I generally wander out to one of the food stalls, with a coffee. Nachos, rolls, tortillas its all fresh and good. Lash out the most expensive thing is about a buck. I chat with the other students who rang in age's from 18 to 80, before heading back for another one and a half hours. Then the school stuff is finished for the day. We wander back for lunch at the “casa”, sometimes diverting for a coffee.

       At one Ava serves lunch which could be anything but to quote the Hilltop hoods “its all good”. The school does an excursion most days at two, these are a great way to meet some new people and check out the town. Some days it is a walk checking out hidden treasures in the old town, or simply a walk up to the big cross that looks out over town. Other times it's to the market, and on to the chicken buses, an adventure in it's self. We see nut farms, convents with great views, chocolate factory's (My Favourite), and locally artisan produced fruit wine. (Tasted like it was produced on death row). Afterwards we take in a coffee or wander around the market. This is generally followed by a beer at the Sunshine Grill and Pizza with Jesse who has just finished his afternoon lessons. Dinner at seven, followed by more tareas on a quite night, or in to town for a band or trivia at the Irish pub. The days are long but there is no shortage of things to keep yourself amused.

       Week ends are time off, people head to the lake, climb the volcanoes, have parties, or just chill out. The bagel barn shows a free English movie each night. People from the capital drive up to go clubbing at the one noisy local night spot. There is plenty of places to drink and dance. We often go to house next door is known as the “terrace”. It hosts a continuously revolving bunch of gringos. The locals at street level sell the cheapest beer in town, the next level is the front door/ living area, and on the roof is a large garden with a nice view of town and the volcanoes. Every one is welcome and they party just about every night, week ends are no exception. Funnily enough the locals call them “Los Terroristas”.

     Sadly it,s time to go, I have to go meet Mick in Mexico City, to continue our journey. As a parting gift the fire volcano has a major eruption on my last day, and for the first time in sixteen years showers the city with ash. It's like gritty snow falling from the sky covering everything. It gets up your nose, fills your lungs, hurts your eyes, and makes a clean shirt filthy in 30 seconds. I can take a hint. Thanks Antigua, I will miss you.

More Photos here


Posted by bondrj at 10:10 AM EADT
Updated: Tuesday, 10 February 2015 10:49 AM EADT
Tuesday, 3 February 2015
Ode to the electric shower
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        The picture above is of an electric shower these can be found in third world countries like Guatemala, Somalia, and England. The UN definition of poverty is entirely derive by the number of such devices in the country, hence the English score highly.

        The operation of the device is simple. You turn on the tap, there is only one, sometimes marked cold. Try to only hold onto the plastic thingy unless you like being thrown across the room, or want to wake up quickly first thing in the morning. The water pressure then starts the heater. At first the water will be cold, this is normal. Water will be falling from the bottom, sides,and top of the device, but mainly from the hole where the electrical wires enter the device, quite often a loud buzzing can be heard coming from the device. Continue to lower the water pressure until one stream of water feels slightly warmer than the others this stream is generally at the rear pointing towards the pipe, try not to touch the pipe. The heater is perfectly adjusted when the heater ceases to function if any other person in the block turns on a tap. Enter the shower stream quickly, if your head starts to tingle you are to close to the device. Try squatting. Remember to leave the stream before hypothermia sets in. Try not to touch anything metal within a couple of meters of the shower basin.

       The electric shower is sort of like Alchemy for hotel owners. In the original, the object was to turn Lead into Gold, these devices try to turn cold water in to hot with similar results. The actual

amount of heat provided can be calculated buy using the formula below.


E =MC²U


E = Energy in Kilowatts

M= Total electrical output of the country you are in.

C= Shower flow in litres per second

U is the universal electric shower constant for your device which is always “0”


       The great advantage for Hotel owner's is it allows them to say they have hot water without actually providing it. Hence something for nothing.


Posted by bondrj at 11:59 AM EADT
Monday, 19 January 2015
LA

Freeways photo 20150114_105502.jpg

 

LA,

swimming pools, movie stars

dirty streets and dirty cars.


    My first trip to La was a bit hectic. Within 24 hours, I'd bought a car , drunk a pile of beer, and ended up outside a bar at 2am talking to a Nam vet who was smoking some killer hooch and, talking about flying through the jungle at night while someone shot tracers the size of basket balls at him. Twenty Four hours after that, I had been to Disney land (closed for winter), the Pinto had blown up, spraying the windscreen with greasy anti freeze, whilst refusing to run when stopped at the lights, and I was, in a hot pool In the Sera Nevadas with a girl I had picked up at the airport.

     I've been here plenty of times since then but nothing has lived up to those first couple of crazy days here more than thirty years ago. I declare right here I like Los Angles, but it can be a bit daunting for the new comer. My very first impression of LA was this place is an absolute dump. Sure everything is covered with a fine dust, the houses all look the same, every where is a 3 hour bus ride away. Hay, there is still some great things to do here.

     I left Melbourne at 11.am on a Monday and arrived in LA about five hours before I left. This meant I had to stay awake after a sixteen hour flight for another nine hours at least, until my hostel opened at three. Fortunately there are plenty of low stress things to do here. I heeded to the Pantry café in downtown La for a classic breakfast. Five bucks gets you scrambled eggs, toast coffee and grits 24 hours a day the same as it has the last 90 years. A bit of a wander around downtown to pick up a few things I'd forgotten then off to the bright lights of Hollywood and Vine. Hollywood used to be a dump for the down and outs when I first came here, now its just a tourist trap. Still worth seeing, try your foot prints in Fred Astair's, Check out Marlin's star on the sidewalk, catch a latest release at the chinese cinema where they hold the Oscars.

      LA is the land of cars. It's criss-crossed by huge freeways that seem to crawl along 24 hours a day. Never driven in the US. LA is not the place to learn. Fortunately there is now an alternative, there is a great metro system here. Don't worry, LA is huge, but you can relax on the subway while you cruse around. Buy a TAP pass ( $1 take note Myki) stick in some extra cash and you can jump on and off the Metro all day long. There are now trains from the airport to downtown and plenty of other places you don't want to go, Buses take you everywhere else. Your never lonely as there are always plenty of people talking to themselves. The bloke behind me at breakfast was having a loud conversation on his phone for half an hour. It was only when I went to leave I realised he did not have a phone. Don't want to talk to your self, most people are quite happy to have a chat. Spanish seems to work most of the time, occasionally English too. WASP,s don't take the bus.

     From Hollywood it's the 704 bus to Santa Monica through Beverly Hills. This is where the mythical Californian's live. Unfortunately you, I, and most of the rest of LA can't afford it. Fortunately the express bus whisks you past Rodeo Drive in a flash so you don't realise what you are missing. Once your at the beach you can stare down at the stars houses beside the Santa Monica pier. Walk south to Venice beach. I don't recommend swimming as the water is about 10 deg all year long. Grab a cheese steak/ beer combo, then watch the roller blader's /gym junkies watch themselves.

By now it,s 6PM and being winter here dark. I've just missed the 33 bus so it's a twenty minuet wait, freezing my arse off out side a 7-11. My new home is in Crenshaw South Central. LA. Home of rappers and Drive by's. “What was I thinking when I booked this” . I get off the bus, grab a burrito, and walk down a relatively quite street to the hostel. No cruising dudes in lowered caddies, no tooled up 13 year old's in hoodies on street corners. The hostel looks like an old southern mansion, it has two huge Fan palm trees with there tops lit up in the front yard. It's fairly new and purposely built by the owner an older black gentleman who greets me with “James Bond we've been waiting for you”. Being two stories it's out of character with the surrounding neighbour hood of small low rise bungalows. It even has a swimming pool, and my favourite part a full breakfast. I find out the lit palms help you find the place at night, you can see them from a mile away. I crash and sleep soundly.

I'm actually on my way to Mexico, so LA is just a rest break in the flight. The next day I check out the La Brea Tar pits, and the farmers markets. The pits provide a lot of the fossils world wide to museums with the best on display there. You can watch while they dig them out “very slowly”. The Market is LA's top tourist destination apparently. I can tell you they have a happy hour and good food. Mean while gotta fly. Voy a Mexico. Click for more.


Posted by bondrj at 9:14 AM EADT
Updated: Saturday, 24 January 2015 12:08 PM EADT
Monday, 1 December 2014
The Heaphy Track and the Able Tasman Park

bay photo 27view.jpg

 

     I've got a Kiwi mate who lives in  Queenstown. He's a mad keen cross country skier, paddler and deer farmer. Well actually keener deer farmer. At the camp where we worked together every one else would be reading Playboy except for Flip who would be checking out the centrefold in deer farmer monthly. I was in-between swings and looking for something to do, so a quick jump across the Tasman for a bit of fun seemed in order. The great thing about NZ is you really don't really need to adapt too much on holidays. The drive on the same side of the road, almost speak the same language, and have a healthy disrespect for all Aussies. 

         Flip lives in one of the most scenic spots on the globe, snow covered mountains rise behind the beautiful lake Wakatipu. The golf course is next door, and his deer farm is on top of the hill. One hundred and eighty acres of prime velvet raising country. Fortunately I'm not here to go farming. Closest I get is a night out with the pump action fixing the local feral problem. The next day we hop into Flips 4 wheel drive van, and head to the top of the south Island, past miles of hydro schemes and endless ranges.

           We are planning to walk the Heaphy track which is an old cattle track that goes 80 KM from the east coast to the west coast across the southern Alps of NZ. Being a cattle track it doesn't really have a lot of scenic highlights as it sticks to the valleys and low passes. As a matter of fact it's actually a better mountain bike ride, unfortunately at the time they had just turned it into a National Park so such fun was now verboten. We had to walk. I say it hugs the Valleys but the first day is a 1000m climb to Perry saddle hut. Bad news. Good news, as they say in the classics it's all down hill from here. The walk takes about 6 days, we are staying in the mountain huts which have the usual selection of mostly foreign backpackers.The first night we meet Bob who is a 80 year old organic farmer taking a couple of 20 year old female Scandinavian woofers on a walking adventure. The hill nearly killed me, my feet are really sore and blistered, and my pack seems to weigh a ton. Bob is as fresh as a daisy, must be the organic food. We spend a pleasant night chewing the fat and talking deer farming with the visitors. 

    We take off early next morning but by lunch time my feet are killing me. I can't go any further. It seems like my feet have grown a size since I last wore my really comfortable Rossies, and now in the middle of the walk I have come to realize they do not fit any more. Fortunately Flip has a pair of sandals, looks like I'm going to do one of NZ's major walks in thongs. As it was a cattle/bike track the surface is pretty good and my feet get better out of my boots. Over the next couple of days we wind our way down towards the coast. When we get to half way we find a tree full of worn out boots. Seems like I'm not the first. I add to the pile. Finally we get to the coast and a place where we can catch the bus which we have booked back to the nearest town. There are a bunch of Japanese tourists and a few other hikers there. After a wait the bus turns up and the Japanese jump on. They haven't booked so the bloke has only bought out the small bus. We wait an hour till he returns. 

    A night at the local pub, with a real bed, parma, and a hot shower does us wonders. All we have to do is get back over the hill to the car. There are two choices, a $40 bus ride that takes four hours or a shuttle flight that takes 45 minutes. After six days it would be kind of nice to see all we had walked over in 15  minutes. We get to the airport and the Japanese are already there filling up the plane. There where a couple more than he thought there would be so he apologises and tells us he will be back in a couple of hours. So much for the short trip. The field is half an hour from town so we sit down to wait in the luxurious tin shed terminal. The plane returns, we get in and head up the track, but the cloud has closed the pass. "We don't fly through clouds as they tend to have hard centres" our pilot tells us. No worries we will just go around. Our 45 minuet flight turns in to a hour and a half tour around the top of the South Island. Priceless, we see seals, whales and a whole lot of beautiful coast line.

     That night we are back in Motuaka having dinner with one of Flips mates who builds boats. John builds custom made wooden canoes for hunting lodges and sea kayaks for adventures He has a model he sells to rental mobs, and his first prototype is sitting in the shed. Why don't we take it while where here and paddle round the Able Tasman national park. Why not.

    I walked the Able Tasman a couple of years before, it's spectacular. All great coastline with beautiful bays. You can go diving off the beach for scallops. Sea kayaking is much more civilized than Tramping. You get to take chairs, and fresh food, in an Esky, and beer. The weather is great. We spend about five hours a day paddling between camps, with Flip taking the odd fishing break. I don't remember him catching any thing. In the after noon we pull up on a deserted beach, light a fire, pull out a deck chair and watch the sun set. The only thing missing is a beer. Hold on we have a slab of cold VB, Carlton is dumping the stuff here and its cheaper than the local beer.  We paddle about 100 k's over 5 days then hitch back to get the car. Highly recommended.


PS you can now mountain bike the Heaphy track again, as they have changed the rules. You can hire sea kayaks at Motuaka.


Click the pic for more photos


Posted by bondrj at 1:00 AM EADT
Updated: Wednesday, 15 April 2015 12:06 PM NZT
Tuesday, 4 November 2014
Killing Time In The Freezer

A fantastic video from the current doctor at Casey station. The doc's generally don’t have a lot of medical stuff to do apart from the odd bit of amateur dentistry, this bloke has put his spare time to great use. Thanks Grant.

A collection of time lapse video's taken over the first half of the 2014 winter season at Casey Research Station, Antarctica.
vimeo.com|By GrantJasiunas

Posted by bondrj at 1:53 PM EADT
Updated: Tuesday, 4 November 2014 2:09 PM EADT
Wednesday, 15 October 2014
Island Life
Samantha photo Samantha.jpg
 
      Winter in Victoria, It's cold  wet, and ugly. The Dee's start tanking for draft pics, Richmond is looking like winning just enough games to get them to ninth on the ladder, don't even get me started about the Saints. You can either stay here and freeze and die or do what the sensible people do and  head to warmer climes. Mildura, is good, Queensland even better, The ultimate quick break is a pacific island. You know, sun, sand, warm water,  tropical fish for dinner every night, bungalow on the beach. A week of rapid defrost to get you through to the finials series and warmer weather.
                   There are plenty out there, Bali, Fiji, Vanautu, are the main ones. A package costs under a grand and you are generally plonked in a resort with your neighbours, 4 walls, and 10'000 children screaming 24/7. I shopped the location around with my friend and she chose the Cook Islands. Now I must confess I know nothing about the Cook islands, apart from, the're Islands, but I kind of like that about a new place to travel. And so it was after a delayed flight, we found ourselves landing at Rarotonga at 3AM in the morning. The duty free was open for a bottle of Jameson, and a very professional customs crew whisked us out into the warm tropical night.The Cook Islands are quasi New Zealanders so we are asked all the questions as if we are intending to immigrate permanently, to this 38 km round spot in the middle of the Pacific. Even this vast tract of land is to big for us were off to a small Island called Atatuki in about 7 hours time. We  jump the bus and get a couple of hours kip before heading back to the airport. 
           My friend hates planes, but her general theory is the bigger the better. She has been worrying  about the next leg on a thirty seater so is delighted to find out that due to Air New Zealand's non flight a couple of nights ago the 30 seater is booked out, and where getting on a 6 seater. Their still trying to get the crush marks out of the arm rests.
                  We land on an old WW2 airfield after flying over a picture perfect coral atoll. Our accommodation is a couple of huts on the beach, complete with palm trees, giant clams, tropical fish hammocks and canoes. Vogue is shooting a swimwear feature and the models are lazing around the pool in their spare time. 
            The resort only has about 30 people, the island about a thousand. I can ride around the island in about 30 minutes, including a stop at the takeaway's for a fish burger and a chat to the locals. Island life is pretty slow. Most people go fishing or work for one of the small resorts. Everyone owns there own plot of family land which they are forbidden to sell. A small shack with a few relatives buried in the front yard, a non working car, and a old fishing boat is standard.. There are no dogs allowed because one bit the local chief in the old days, cats rule. The weather is meant to be good this time of the year but an unseasonal storm is  playing havoc with my beach time. At least the rain is warm. I do hammock time and read 4 books. In between showers I go  swimming, riding and takeawaying. We could have happily stayed here for a month, but our return flight  back to Rarotonga is calling. This time it's the 30 seater with 4 passengers.
         Back in the big smoke we arrive to an empty airport. After a few phone calls one of the local New Zealand ex-pats takes pity on us, and drives us to or new home at the Edge Water resort. This place is huge with 500 pensioners and almost as many children running around. It's still raining and getting a bit more tropical  in strength. We check in to a perfectly functional room that looks a bit like a housing commission flat. It has with a luxury view over the car park. Breakfast is served with 300 of our closest friends. I hire a pushy to try and do some riding but between rain and flat tyres I only get about ten K in 24 Hours. On our last day a small break in the clouds appears.We get a scooter to go round the island and check out the scenery. I drive, I'm told it's nearly as much fun as riding on a small plane. Somehow we find a Vegan restaurant for lunch, but dinner is much better in a little local bar near the airport. You always find the good places on the last day.  We head to the airport and catch up with the models from the beach. Six hours later were a back in Sydney catching a taxi from the terminal 2km to the carpark because the buses have stopped running. Home sweet home.

Posted by bondrj at 12:27 AM NZT
Updated: Wednesday, 15 October 2014 10:09 PM NZT
Tuesday, 19 August 2014
Cancelled
Cancelled photo 2014-08-09182854.jpg

 

John Mellion had a famous dislike of Melbourne, this was his right as a Sydneyophile. I personally think Sydney is one of Australia's greatest dung heaps, and try to avoid it at all costs. Funnily enough though the  Airlines insist on sending me, and a lot of other's there at great expense both to myself and them. My friend and I where going to the Cook Islands which only has one direct flight a week, from you guessed it, "Sydney". That's why I found myself driving into the second worst airport in the world on a chilly Saturday night. I'd done the homework and decided to park at the Blue Emu carpark. Book online $99, expensive but cheaper than the other options. We park at the far end, and hop on the free shuttle bus to the domestic terminal. There we find the only way to get to the international terminal is a $5.50 five minute ride on another shuttle. After a ten minute wait,I fork out more of my hard earned and end up with a pocket full of shrapnel to take out of the country. Running Parking cost total $121.00. 

            Hey, in 6 hours we will be sitting on a beach, soaking up the sun rather than standing here in the rain. We are 2 hours early,  so we amble in and check the flights screen to find out what counter to go to. My eyes wander down the screen. 19.35, Check, Rarotonga, Check, Cancelled, Chec_ _ _ _  WTF.  FF to the counter where a frazzled Air New Zealand lady tells us it's cancelled due to bad weather and points us to a long line. We get to the counter, get told it's cancelled due to maintenance issues. Why didn't you ring us? We tried came the answer but somehow managed to miss the two hundred people at the counter. As for the poor suckers that came from Sydney they get to go home and wait, at least there going to put us up for the night, The bad news is the next fight is tomorrow arvo, and it goes via New Zealand. Be out front for the bus ride to the hotel in half an hour. We get 30 dollars in vouchers to spend on a meal while we wait. Two beers thanks, sorry you can only buy food and drink. But beer is both food and drink I plead. No good. I settle for a latte, and a muffin. 

         Out front, we wait with the mob in the cold for the bus. The mood is ugly, it's cold wet and where meant to be on our way to a tropical island. If the New Zealand rugby team walked past I think the pensioners would have ripped them to bits. The bus is meant to  be there at 9.20 to take us five minutes to the hotel. 9.30, 940. 9.50. The bus rocks up, we wait, 10.00. 10.10, the mob is about to head inside and rip the Kiwi's to bits. 10.20, I go inside, a bloke is pointing out to the frazzled lady the bus could have driven to the hotel 6 times by now. It's going shortly she says. 'Get your act together', he storms off. The bus driver sensibly has been hiding, finally he starts the bus. The idea of spending 20 hours at an airport hotel is not growing on us. Fortunately everything we have been told so far has been wrong, and so is the location of the hotel. We find ourselves at the Menzies a classic hotel in the heart of Sydney just around the corner from the Coat hanger. We check in and get a $100 room credit, which we head off to the piano bar to drink. Later on I wander out and take a few pics of the harbour. Big breakie, in the morning, and a bit more of a lie in until checkout. We wander down the rocks and check out the market. After lunch we jump a cab and head back to the airport. I check the screen, It's going and on time. I hand over my taxi receipt and get informed I need to ring customer service tomorrow then fill out a form which they don't have. Did you know I'm meant to be on a beach in a foreign country sipping Pina colada's by then, actually I'm meant to be there now. I get the costomer service number.

           A week  later. Sydney. It's still bloody raining. After a bit of searching we are at the eleven dollar shuttle stop. I check the schedule. It stops at 9.50. It's ten. We walk back to the other end of the terminal and catch a taxi. $17.10 plus a $4.00 fee for getting a taxi from the airport to the airport. If a virus started killing investment bankers I doubt anyone would bother to look for a cure.

The cab driver drops us off at the entrance to the car park  for the five minute walk in the rain to our car.  Total Parking cost total $142.10, not bad for 6 square meters for a week. 

Posted by bondrj at 10:41 PM NZT
Updated: Tuesday, 19 August 2014 11:16 PM NZT

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