Tag Archives: Travel

On The Move

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It was time to say goodbye to Apsley Marina and head north to our new home at Droitwich Spa. We had nearly 3 good years at Apsley with good nighbours and great facilities around us to make living on a boat a little easier. The train station was only minutes away with a short 30 minute trip to the centre of London. Everything we needed to get my best friend to work in the city and for me to write and play music.

My best friend’s art studio was now in Herefordshire. My friend had a music studio in his barn for recording my music and it cost much less to live further north than it did nearer London. Friends of ours lived up that way. They had their boat at Droitwich Spa marina, so we decided to head that way. It would be a long trip…122 miles and 178 locks, but we had help and could manage it. A trip like that usually takes 11 days. We had to do it in 5. Thatmeant long days at the helm.

We said our goodbyes with little fanfare. No fuss after all we had lived through since moving our boat to Apsley. So long to our garden and our good neighbours. We were heading for new adventures and a new home. Once we passed the turn off to Crick where we bought our boat, we would be in new territory. I looked forward to the challenge and seeing new sections of the Cut.

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The Tring Summit on the Grand Union Canal.

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My best friend happy in her work at the locks.

I took photos with my trusty LG Mobile (Cell) phone to give you an idea about everything along the route. I could have taken pics every couple of minutes, there was so much to see. But my poor old phone kept telling me I had no more space. And if you know me, 1 photo of an object is never enough. Because I helmed (drove the boat) the whole way….spelled off occasionally by a good friend who came with us to help with locks….it was difficult to snap and steer.

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The rolling countryside around the canal.

So difficult, in fact, my best friend laid down the 2 second rule. You see, I have a bit of a focus issue. I am like a goldfish. I can concentrate on one thing at a time for a very short moment. If I am helming, all my energy and attention has to be on the driving. If a duck with a new batch of cute, fluffy little ducklings goes by, I watch them until the boat is ready to smash into the canal side. Hence, the 2 second rule. Ducklings for 2 seconds, drive. Lovely house with gardens by the canal, 2 seconds, drive. Inviting pub, drive. Remembering the rule is another thing. Swan with cygnets….best friend, “2 second rule!!!”, drive.

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The 2 second rule in play here. Duck on the ledge of an aquaduct.

When we passed a particularly lovely spot, the friend helping us offered to take the helm while I took photos. She was a great help the whole trip. She is an experienced boater and talked me through numerous tricky situations. “The boat has 3 gears,” she says, “Forward, neutral and reverse. Use them all in a pickle, but use them slowly. You can’t rush your way out of a difficult situation.” “Yes ma’am.” I tend to ram the thing into reverse , then ram it into forward when I sense trouble or become stuck on the bottom. That can be a tad scary on a 20 ton, 60 foot boat on a narrow canal.

Which reminds me. A little info is called for here. The canals do not have an endless supply of water. Apparently, and don’t take my recollections as gospel….my best friend doesn’t….the ground in this country doesn’t drain very well. Though we get our fair share of rain, most of it evaporates before it seeps into the ground. If we have a dry spell of only a week or 2, water reserves dry up and hose pipe bans are put in place.

The CRT (Canal and River Trust) tells us that canal water levels have been going down over the last years due to all kinds of reasons. More boats on the Cut, boaters leaving gate paddles open thus draining water pounds, old locks leaking too much and a lack of rain. They say that within 5 short years unless there is a concerted effort to reverse the trend, there won’t be enough water for travel. That would be disastrous for us boaters to say the least. 15,000 marooned boats.

But now to the brighter side. You could not have picked better weather in May for this move. The 1st day was a little chilly and overcast but stayed dry. Then the sun came out and the rest of the trip was glorious. The best of England spread before us. Some of the most breathtaking scenery anywhere on earth and at only 4 mph, it goes by slowly enough to allow us to appreciate it.

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Das Boat heading toward a lock. is there enough water in the pound? This time there was.

And now for the trip itself….each day’s journey with commentary and photos. 5 days of the best this country can offer. Come on along. You won’t be disappointed and you may even find yourself booking a holiday on a canal boat to see it all. But hurry, you never know when the well will dry up.

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At the helm on the cold 1st day. My best friend and Deb the helper in the background.

 

 

Lock Lore

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A lock near us.

One thing I know for sure about living on a narrowboat in England. A lot of work is involved in maintaining it and cruising on it. If we could simply cruise along the canals, unimpeded by obstacles that get in the way, things would be jolly. Some of those obstacles are natural, while others come in the form of locks and swing bridges.

If all this sounds like boat-speak, you’re right. When I first got into this lifestyle, I knew nothing. And I’m still learning. What is a windlass, you ask? What are gate paddles? What is a pound (not money)? What is a cill? All questions I know you’ve been asking yourself. Expat Larry is here to answer all your queries about narrowboating. If only he had all the answers.

Be that as it may, he knows about locks. Last summer, a few of us spent our days moving other people’s boats from here to there to get work done. Every so many years, the bottoms of our boats need to be blacked. This is a process that uses some form of bitumen that is applied with brushes and rollers to the hull that first has to be blasted clean of the old black. The blacking protects the bottom of the narrowboat’s hull. Most people pay to have it done. Our boat is due this year and we’ve decided to do it ourselves.

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One of the boats we moved in a lock.

You can’t just do it any old place. Some marinas have facilities for maintenance. Ours doesn’t, so it’s off to places north or south to do the work. In our case, last summer, a few people needed work done and some of us provided the crew to get them there and back. We became the lock crew. And we were good. 2 of us got the lock ready for the boat to go in, then walked to the next lock to get it ready. The other 2 crew waited until the boat left the lock and closed it up for the next boat that would eventually come along. We had our system.

But, if you can share the lock with another boat, all the better. Locks on the Grand Union Canal (where we live) are double locks….2 narrowboats or 1 widebeam. If you can travel in 2s, you save water, a vanishing commodity in the canals these days. You’d never think that living in a country known for its abundance of rainy days. Apparently, it’s the wrong type of ground in this country to retain all that rain water. Don’t worry about it or try to figure it out. I never do.

Approaching the low side of a lock. Two of the intrepeid crew wait to open the gates to let us in.

Approaching the low end of a lock. Two of the intrepid crew ready to open the gates to let the boat in.

So, here we are, a couple of locks down the way on one of the trips, when we meet up with a couple on one of those what we call plastic boats, the kind you find on lakes. Anyway, the folks navigating this craft were, well, not quite entirely with us if you know what I mean. They were away with the fairies, on some kind of mind expanding substance, not a care in the world. “Where you heading to my friend?” I asked after about the 3rd lock. “Huh? Heading to? Uh….not sure. What direction is this?” “South” I said. “South? What direction to Birmingham?” he asked. “North” I said. “Oh yeah? I guess we’re going the wrong way. ” “I guess. What’re you going to do?”

He just shrugged his shoulders. He insisted on pulling his boat into the lock rather than cruising in. It took a lot longer. He said he was afraid the boat we were moving would crush his if he drove in. No logic there, especially since he had fenders the size of a pilates ball. But he kept up this odd behaviour, heading in the wrong direction with no plan. He decided to moor up after the next lock anyway. Thank da Lawd.

By the end of the summer, we became the best lock crew anyone could hope to acquire. We decided not to get back on the boat between locks as we can walk faster than the boats are allowed to go on the canals. In total, we walked about 50 miles that summer, rain or shine. Many locks and many good laughs. And quite a feat considering every one of the lock crew have bad knees and bad backs. Brave bunch….but no medals.

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Lock gates open, ready for the boat to enter.

We got to know each lock very well along this stretch of the canal. Some of the paddles are buggers to open and the gates are heavier than hell to open and close. Some leak badly while others are just plain old and falling apart. This is why we have the CRC, the Canal and River Trust. They are the organisation that looks after the canals, most of them anyway. And the locks.

The locks are getting older too. Some of the gates are from the later part of the 19th century and early 20th. They have been serviced here and there, but there are a lot of them and budgets don’t allow for a complete overhaul of the system. Well, budgets and money wasted on ridiculous salaries for the top dogs and some frivolous projects. It seems the only time locks get serviced is when they completely fail, through age, overuse and vandalism….mostly age.

It was a relief when news came that a lock near us, that has been leaking badly, was going to be fixed. The notices went up and then the materials needed began appearing. Barges with water pumps and cranes then appeared and finally the steel fencing to keep us out and the workers in went up. The work began. The top gates were replaced and the bottom gates repaired. What fascinated me was the junk on the bottom of the lock once the water had been drained away. Treasures galore, mostly of metal that had fallen off boats over the years and tossed in by locals….like car hub caps and road signs of one type or other.

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Stuff at the bottom of our local lock.

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Preparing the lock for work.

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The new gates at the top of the lock.

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Finishing things off in the repaired lock.

This work went on for a few days. On one of those days, I was walking along the towpath to shop at the local Sainsbury’s (Supermarket) and noticed a narrowboat inching up to the barrier put up to shut off the lock. An older gentleman, who had the demeanor of an original boater, complete with old, unattended boat, stood at the tiller, grumbling to himself.

I stopped and stated the bleeding obvious. “The lock is closed for repair” I said. “I can see that” said he of the Cut. “Did you check the online lock closure reports?” I asked. “Don’t have a computer” he said. “Did you see any of the signs as you were coming along?” I inquired. “There’s always signs for this and that” he said, “But I didn’t see any of them.” I asked the next obvious question, “Did anyone along the way warn you this lock was closed?” “Yeah” he said, “A few people did, but I didn’t believe them.”

He did now.

 

 

Caribbean Cruise: Part 5, The Finale

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Caribbean Cruise: Part 5, The Finale

And about time too. This Blog has been going on for months and needs to conclude. Problem? There are 3 more islands to visit. But as one island is much the same as the next (Aruba notwithstanding), the final 3 shall be handled here with much the sameness. The only difference is St. Vincent, though it is much like St. Lucia except that its claim to fame is providing the Jamaican scenery from Pirates of the Caribbean. So, I guess apart from that, St. Vincent is St. Lucia.

Some might disagree. It’s all a matter of perspective. It’s also a matter of all those hills, or mountains of a sort and bendy, twisty roads and palm trees and banana groves and volcanoes and hot weather. Oh, and very nice, but ubiquitous beaches. The other exception to this is St. Kitts which has mountains but we didn’t drive through them, just around them. St. Kitts also is where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean in this part of the world and you can see the two collide.

And since all of the Caribbean islands were formed from volcanoes spilling land from their tops and sides, it is no wonder that the islands in this part of the world have so many similarities. The third of the last 3 we visited, Antigua, was another beach day. We didn’t see much of the island. The sea was rough and someone said there was a shark sighting. More shell gathering. Not so memorable.

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Fryes beach, Antigua.

St. Kitts was another story. Our tour guide made the day. I called him Fancy Danman. He had a very dry sense of humour and loved to tell us at every turn that the British pretty well wiped out the indigenous people of St. Kitts. Never mind that everyone on the bus was British.  No one took the bait. We all acted like the polite British people we used to be. I say we because my family background goes back to William the Conqueror and Border Scots even though most of my life was lived in Canada. Mostly I am polite. I wanted to tell old Fancy Danman to blame the privileged classes of Britain for past misdemeanours, but my best friend gave me one of those looks and I kept quiet. That too is very British unless one is a Football/Soccer Hooligan.

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Fancy Danman (aka Rastaman) our guide on St. Kitts.

Most of St. Kitts seems to be for Medical and Veterinary students from everywhere. Then there is the old sugar plantation with a Batik shop that is the real reason we were here. Lovely stuff….not cheap. We didn’t feel guilty because St. Kitts had been spared the worst of Hurricane Irma. We stopped where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea complete with a lady in a shack painting pictures for tourists. I went in and bought one of an island couple in traditional dress.

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One of the medical colleges on St. Kitts.

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Woman working on Batik.

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Batik drying at old sugar plantation on St. Kitts.

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Where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea.

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The artist’s studio on St. Kitts.

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The artist in her ramshackle studio on St. Kitts.

Back on the bus and off to a cliff that overlooked a lava rock beach. Quite a sight. But the best feature of this tourist spot was at the back of our bus. Our driver, not Fancy Danman, had lowered a ledge behind the bus and was supplying us with another very potent rum punch. I kept going back for refills, and though we were supposed to have only one, the driver obliged with a knowing wink. Tourism is thirsty work.

I felt no pain for the rest of the trip. When we got back to Bassetierre, we walked into town to find a bank to replenish our dwindling funds. In the middle of one garden square is the statue of a half-naked island girl. It was commissioned by the British government to stand atop the tall plinth in Trafalgar Square. But it was deemed too risqué for the sensibilities of Victorian England and so Admiral Horatio Nelson won the honoured spot. That’s how Fancy Danman told it anyway. I have been unsuccessful in finding any corroborating evidence to Danman’s story, but he would be the first to say it is a conspiracy of silence.

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The clock tower in Bassetierre’s town centre.

So much for politics. On to St. Vincent. Our day began on a catamaran, the reverse of our day on St. Lucia. The sea was rough this day and we bobbed about like a cork. Some people were sick and the rest of us just hung on. We passed all the places used in the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean, including the bay that substituted for Nassau Town (Jamaica) where actor Johnny Depp was said to have been drunk for the entire 3 months of filming here. Apparently, it became impossible for Depp to stay at the resort nearby because of the damage he did to the place and so he was moved to a boat anchored in the bay with his own onboard chef and rowed to the day’s film shoot.

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Rainbow from the bow of the catamaran.

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Scene used in first Pirates of the Caribbean film.

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Lava Beach where I snorkeled.

We anchored at a beach consisting of black lava sand. One of the film’s scenes was filmed here (the one with the big wheel for all those who know the movies) and we were told we could swim or snorkel. Problem is, the trip planners had not said we had a swimming break. I went in any way with mask and snorkel….and not much else (island fever had taken over). Lots of colourful fishies. But the current was strong and at one point I had to crawl up on to the lava beach to catch my breath. Ended up cleaning lava sand from every part of me for the rest of the day.

When I got back on the catamaran, the crew was handing out ….you guessed it….more of that potent rum punch. But before that, those of us who had braved the waves were asked if we would like to sample a special rum. I am a gamer. What I didn’t know was that this rum was 90% proof and I swallowed it all at once. Like lighted gasoline in the throat and belly. Forgot my pain. And washed it out of my system with a few rum punches.

We headed shoreside to the place where lunch was arranged, along with one free drink. But to get there, we ploughed through some of the roughest water yet. By this time, I was feeling no fear or pain and ended up on the bow of the catamaran, holding on to a guy wire, woohooing all the way to shore. No wonder sailors drank rum. Gets you through anything.

Once safely ashore, we had lunch at a restaurant by the water. I ate my chicken something or other and drank my locally brewed Hairoun beer as I watched little sand crabs moving about, disappearing down holes at the slightest sign of danger. They move very quickly. After a stop at another Botanical garden and waterfall, we drove the long, twisting, up and down road to our ship in Kingstown. Then it was off to Barbados and the flight back to cold, wet England.

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Enjoying a Hairoun brewski on St. Vincent.

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Waterfall at the Botanical Garden on St.Vincent.

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Crossing the rickety bridge in the Botanical Garden on St. Vincent.

Ciao Caribbean Cruise. Like a distant memory as I write this. Will I ever go back? Most of me says ‘Been there, done that’ but you never know. If I ever do, it won’t be to Grenada. I’ll probably stick to Majorca….closer and cheaper….so far.

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And it’s goodbye from the Caribbean.

Caribbean Cruise: Part 4, Hurricane

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Caribbean Cruise: Part 4, Hurricane

The islands of the Caribbean may appear to be paradise, but even paradise on earth has its downside. Weather. The best and worst of weather is the story of many of the Caribbean islands. Mostly good, but there is one time of the year when fingers are crossed and prayers said. That would be during hurricane season. The one in September of 2017 was particularly nasty in the Caribbean.

And so when we had returned to Barbados from St Lucia to let off half the passengers and pick up some more for week 2, we headed for St. Maarten (Dutch side of St. Martin – the French side) and then Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. We couldn’t believe what awaited us. Everything looked pristine from the sea, but up close? Another story.

We docked at Philipsburg and took a shuttle boat to the long beach that fronts the city. We were only the second boat to visit the island since Hurricane Irma hit at the beginning of September 2017. As we approached the shore, we could see the damage done by this Force 5 Hurricane. Store fronts were gone. Roofs had been ripped off and palm trees broken. All was calm when we arrived except for the sound of hammers and drills along the beach front.

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The beach at St. Philipsburg.

We walked along looking for a place on the beach, feeling a little guilty that we had come to enjoy ourselves while so many on the island had very little since the storm hit. Then, out of the door of one of the restaurants came smiling, effusive Ahmed. He guided us to his booth on the beach, pointing to the water’s edge, assuring us that he would look after our every need for the day, including the supply of his ‘world famous’ beach umbrellas and chaise lounges.

Problem is, he pointed toward some beautiful umbrellas and chairs already set up that weren’t his to rent. Wait here, he said, and he’d be right back with our beach needs. He returned not long after with umbrellas that looked as if they had barely survived a hurricane, torn, twisted and rusty from years of abuse. The chaise lounges fared no better. We ended up replacing the umbrellas a few times due to collapses.

We stuck with Ahmed and his tattered gear, paying full price because we felt bad for all his troubles. And the endless stream of hawkers continued all day. Hats, bags, jewellery and island clothing, every kind of tat known to man was flogged at ridiculously high prices. We ended up buying the lot. They played on our sympathies and it worked.

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More destruction on St. Maarten

We all took a walk into the town. I have never seen so many jewellery and gold shops on one street. We talked to a guy who was fired from the police after the hurricane. Apparently, he was guarding one of the jewellery shops and at the height of the storm rushed home because his family were in danger. When he left, a gang of Jamaican looters robbed the shop and because this guy left his post, he was fired. We were told by more than a few islanders that this happens during hurricanes. Looting gangs from Jamaica come over and wait until the storm is at its worst before looting. Some of them die trying. Madness.

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Road Town, Tortola, from the bow of our cruise ship.

After a pleasant day at the beach, we headed back to the ship and left for Tortola. A depressing sight awaited us. We moored at Road Town and went ashore to the mini bus awaiting us. We were the first ship to visit Tortola since Hurricane Irma hit. Everyone was grateful to see our money. This was to be another beach day, but we had to drive across the island to Brewers Bay to get to it.

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Some roofs fixed but ships wrecked at Road Town, Tortola.

The drive there was not jolly. None of us in the bus could believe the scale of destruction wreaked all over the island. Some of it had been cleared away by the time we got there 2 months after the storm, but the level of ruination was still palpable. Everywhere we saw people sitting beside the road, dejected and lost. Homes were blown apart. Many had roofs missing. Roads were washed away. Vehicles were slammed against houses, up in trees, blown down valleys and abandoned altogether. Boats and ships were washed up on land and torn apart. Bits and pieces of buildings, ships, cars and all kinds of detritus were everywhere. This was 2 months after Irma hit.

We arrived at the beach in silence, having witnessed what we all hope we’ll never see happen where we live, feeling deeply for all those who had suffered such loss. The beach had been cleared of debris before we arrived. It was a depressing scene, all these mini bus folk shuffling onto a beautiful beach on a hot day having just weaved our way around the destruction. But we found a spot and sat in silence for a while. We knew the islanders needed the tourists but it seemed cruel to enjoy ourselves at others’ expense.

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The beach on Tortola just before the rain.

To bring home the message, it rained. We all huddled together until it passed then settled back to wait until the mini busses came back for all of us. Some of us decided to walk along the beach, gathering up shells and conches that had been washed up on the beach during Irma. I walked a little further than the rest, off the beaten track and out of sight of everyone. I found some lovely shells. But just around the bend from the beach, the hurricane debris remained. Pieces of roof, bits of boat, all kinds of rubbish. I stopped short to take in the scene before me.

Coming back from gathering shells was a single woman in her fifties. We both saw an intact conch just in front of us. I told her to go ahead and take it. She said she felt guilty, as if she were looting. I said these were articles of nature, not someone’s goods. She said, ‘Can you believe the level of destruction on the island?’ I just shook my head. ‘I hope it gets back to normal soon.’ A bit trite, but in such cases it’s difficult to know what to say.

I brought my shell haul back to the group. We brought some of them home. They remind us of our day on Tortola and we think of the people there, hoping they are all safe and sound, in homes that have been repaired and living as best they can after the hurricane.

Caribbean Cruise: Part 3A, Grenada

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Caribbean Cruise: Part 3A, Grenada

I’ve talked to a lot of people about the Caribbean Islands. Everyone has a favourite. And it follows there are islands they don’t particularly care for. We had a great time on St. Lucia, one of the next 2 islands we visited. Someone I met said they hated the place. Someone else loved Grenada. Not me. Here are my reasons for loving one and not so much the other. A tale of two islands. Grenada first.

Grenada, the Spice Island. Well, it’s supposed to be. But Hurricane Irma of  last September decimated the crop and because the storm hit the United States, everyone forgot about Grenada. Not a good year for the island. And not a great tour of the island for we tourists. Not because of the problems of the poor islanders, but because of our tour guide. The worst in history. My history at least. He was, without doubt, out of his depth and quite useless. I’ll tell you why, shall I?

The day was a very hot and humid one to begin with. This must be understood or nothing I am about to tell you is going to sound as harrowing as the day ended up being. And before I get too Dickensian about it all, let me say I could write a book about our day on Grenada. I still remember in 1983 when America, plus some others, invaded the island to rid it of a perceived communist threat. Anyway, without researching, that’s how I remember it. Weird politics and machete wielding islanders makes you wonder. Still, fascinating all the same.

So, our driver picks us up in the worst minibus of those waiting at the port at St. George’s to take others from our ship hither and yon over the island. We were supposed to be on a 3 hour trip. Turned out we were the last to get back to the ship. First, let me tell you about driving through St. George’s. The streets are narrow and clogged with traffic, both vehicular and human. People stare at us as we go by….slowly by….as if we have no business being there, but please leave us your money. I guess you can’t blame them in one sense. Most of us only barely tolerate tourists in our back yards.

Finally we leave the confines of the city and begin the endless ascent into the very high hills, along winding roads, hairpin bends, houses on stilts and amazing views of the bays below. Our driver hadn’t said a word to us yet, after 30 minutes on the tour. We had to wonder what we were looking at. And the young driver delighted in shifting gears so that the minibus lurched forward with each change of gear. Then we stalled, started up again, stalled again. This happened a few times before we finally came to a halt for good, on a hill between two sharp bends. It was hot, humid and we were nowhere.

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houses in the hills on stilts.

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Going nowhere in the heat.

The driver mumbled something and got off the minibus, looking the thing over as if it might tell him what was wrong. He managed to communicate with one of our passengers that he would call for help and we should stay on the bus. Forget that in this heat. All 18 of us filed off the bus, taking our chances in the hot, humid morning air. The driver protested our leaving….health and safety and all that….but we were having none of it, being stuck in a hot tin can.

Some of us questioned the driver as to the possible reasons for the breakdown. He just shrugged his shoulders and got on his mobile (cell) phone to call for help. The rest of us tried to find shade where we could find it. Fortunately, we had parked right in front of a house with a large veranda that seemed to be empty. The front of the house was on pretty solid ground. The back was on stilts. Most of the passengers sat on the steps of the veranda, battling the ants that kept trying to greet them. Some of us wandered about exploring the area. We became a great source of amusement to all who drove by, especially the locals.

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Keeping cool on the veranda in Grenada.

Good news, the driver announced to a couple of us who stood near him, waiting for information. Help was on its way and would be here in 15 minutes, a replacement vehicle he said. An hour and a half later, a taxi with a couple of tourists inside pulled up behind the bus. A man got out carrying a jerry can full of petrol. We hadn’t broken down after all. The twit had run out of gas. He claims his petrol gauge was broken. He also told one of our fellow travellers that the reason he could not give us any information about what we were looking at was his microphone was broken. Strike 2

The chap who had the jerry can forgot to bring a spout to get the petrol into the bus. He hunted around until he found an empty plastic water bottle and proceeded to ask us if any of us had a knife. Oh yes, of course we do. They issue them to us as we leave the ship to fend off marauding communists. No, we don’t. You’d never get them by the ship’s scanner anyway. Another search for something sharp. He finds a coconut shell, smashes it in two and uses a sharp edge to cut the plastic bottle into a makeshift funnel. Enterprising but an annoying waste of time.

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Pouring the petrol everywhere.

As the petrol spilled over on to the side of the road as much as was poured into the bus, we all began gathering back around our vehicle in anticipation of finally getting on our way. As the gas cap was closed, we noticed movement from our bus. The driver was not back inside and we were all standing outside. The bus was moving backwards on its own and about to ram the taxi behind. We all yelled and our driver was quick enough to get to the brake in time. Just. He said the parking brake failed. Actually, he hadn’t put it on. Strike 3 and we still had the whole day ahead.

So we got on our way, in silence, trying to guess what sites we were viewing as we twisted our way up one hill and down the same, then around a sharp bend and up again and down until we found ourselves in one of those villages that time has forgotten. Locals walked around as if in a trance. We were here in a village with no name….our driver didn’t tell us and when asked mumbled something incoherent….to visit a nutmeg factory. It was an open barn with lizardy things crawling around the floor. The place had not had a makeover since being constructed many years before. Nothing was going on and the guide from the factory was incomprehensible. So, we learned nothing.

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The Nutmeg Factory

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A shop in Nutmeg Town.

I left the group and wandered about looking at cobwebs and sacks of what I presumed contained nutmeg at some stage of  usefulness. Put me off the spice once and for all. Nothing worse than knowing where your food comes from. Everyone was herded through the strangest gift shop before getting back on the bus. A few items on rickety shelves and postcards that had been on display since who knows when, dog-eared and wrinkled. No one was in the mood to purchase anything. The shopkeeper, a sour-faced woman, didn’t seem to care. She sat reading a magazine, never looking up. Island malaise.

And back on the road, this time to a volcanic lake. That was it. A small lake surrounded by trees. Nothing to see here really and, of course, no info coming from our driver, with or without a microphone. We drove up to a place that overlooked the lake….ought to have come here in the first place….where souvenirs were sold and gardens could be viewed. But we were behind schedule and had no time for that. Three old toothless men played island tunes badly on instruments they really had no idea how to play. But you have to make money some way I guess.

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The Volcanic lake

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The Volcanic lake from the tourist spot.

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The Touirist Spot

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What we had no time to explore.

By now the sun was sinking but the driver was determined to get us to every scheduled site. The last stop was at a lovely waterfall with beautiful gardens and the chance to swim in the lagoon beneath. Trouble is, by now it was nearly dark. At first the chap looking after the entrance booth didn’t want to let us in because it was too late. But somehow our driver convinced the him to let us enter. By the time we reached the waterfall, it was dark and the pathway wet and slippery. No time for a swim. A quick photo, with flash, and off we went, back to the bus, slipping and sliding all the way, iPhones lighting the way.

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The Volcanic Waterfall in the dark.

Friday night in St. George’s. Traffic worse than when we left that morning. People everywhere. A ballet of chaos and colour. Our bus edged along. We could see our ship now, but couldn’t get to it. When we arrived at the port….finally…. everything was shut. No one was around to let us onto the quay. We yelled. We banged things and finally a man came and let us through. The ship couldn’t leave without us, but all they knew, once we arrived at the gangway, was that we were missing. No one had told them on board where we were. Lost on Grenada.

We went as a group to the desk on the 5th deck that handled trips and we complained through a group rep. They don’t like complainers, but a mob they cannot ignore. We got a refund for the trip. Don’t misunderstand me, please. The island is lush and verdant, teeming with life and lots of mountainous terrain. Invading it would not be easy. Exploring it is not easy. Never going back is a breeze.

 

Caribbean Cruise: Part 1

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Caribbean Cruise: Part 1

I think I’m the only Canadian (I am one when I need to be) of a certain age who up until the end of November hadn’t been to any part of the Caribbean. A pilgrimage had to be made sooner or later I guess. Add to that going on a cruise to visit the islands and you have the recipe for something I never thought would happen to me in my lifetime.

The occasion for this adventure was to celebrate the 60th wedding anniversary of my best friend’s parents. Her sister and brother-in-law came along too. Lots of fun. And other than my best friend, all the rest are seasoned cruisers. They have travelled all the best lines and are able to compare one cruising company to another. One thing’s for sure….they’re all very big ships.

We had booked the trip back in March. Seemed to be ages away at the time, but here I am, back to my own little boat, writing about a trip that has been. 2 weeks of sun, sand,  swelling seas and shopping. I could have added eating and drinking, but they don’t start with an ‘s’. Pity. And it was hot. We left Gatwick airport at 2 degrees celsius and arrived on Barbados at 32 degrees celsius. Hot, hot, hot.

Once the wings of our plane were de-iced, we were on our way. I hardly sleep when flying, so I watched some of the onboard movies. And suddenly, there it was below us….Barbados, a jewel in the ocean. We landed safely. So far, so good. And, it was one of those go-down-the-stairs de-planing. The heat hit me like a punch from Mike Tyson, except that it felt good rather than painful. The only problem was that I was dressed for English winter and not Barbados heat….32C upon landing.

The blast of hot air that hit me as I left the plane convinced me that we were truly here. An expat Canadian doing his pilgrimage to the Caribbean. It begins with queuing  for the mini buses that would take us all to the ship, the Marella Discovery, run by a company we knew as Thomson but has changed to TUI overnight. The road to the ship was full of palm trees, bread fruit trees, flowering bushes and roadside stands selling everything from beads to bananas. Colour everywhere and the occasional lizard scurrying along the roadside.

We made our way through  Bridgetown to the ship, got off the bus at the quay and queued again in a large barn to be registered before going on board. It was a very long queue on a hot day, pulling our carry-on luggage. I had my hoodie and coat draped over my arm by now. And I was sweating like 10 twats (doesn’t mean the same in England as it does in Canada). As we head to the ship, a photographer grabbed us for a portrait of our group. We all looked like we’d sagged under the weight of winter clothing and the heat of the day. Not a pretty sight.

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My Barbados persona.

Fortunately, the ship is air-conditioned. We find our way to the cabins and wait for our main suitcases to be delivered. For the entire 2 weeks, we had Milosh and Ganna looking after the cabins. Ganna didn’t understand a word I said and I had no clue what she was trying to tell me. But every day the cabin was clean and the beds were turned down at night with 2 stale chocolates on each bed. One night the towels formed a heart-shaped swan and another a monkey hanging in front of the cabin’s mirror.

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Towels made into a scary monkey.

It didn’t matter what instructions we gave to Ganna. They were always interpreted in a fashion unrelated to the request. But her beautiful smile spoke a thousand languages, brightening my days at sea. Milosh was another story. He told us he was Serbian and had worked on the ships for 8 years. He laughed at everything I said. I must be really funny or ridiculous. I’ll believe the former. The ship’s staff were generally great people, but it always felt as though we passengers were a necessary inconvenience. Cruisers tend to be very demanding. The crew lives for breaks and shore leave.

The ship is a refurb, an old Royal Caribbean cruise ship bought by Thomson. The cabin furniture is comfortable but a bit tired and worn. The refurb money must have been spent on the restaurants and entertainment areas. The spa area looks good, as does my favourite bar in the Atrium….very impressive.

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The ship’s Atrium decked out for Christmas.

The rest of the ship offered the usual pools, one out on the 9th deck and the other inside a big glass house. It is usually a very humid area. There are the usual shuffleboard and a mini-putt, table tennis, a climbing wall, shops that sell expensive stuff, bars everywhere with a variety of beverages (as many as you like with the all-inclusive package), piano bar, a running track around the top deck and the inevitable smokers corner. Guess where I spent most of my time. Rhymes with star.

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The sea from my cabin.

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The upper deck with ubiquitous sunbeds and outdoor pool below.

My very favourite spot is at the very back of the ship (the stern for all you nautical types), called the Veranda. Very peaceful, no kids allowed and lovely wicker pods with thick cushions to relax me. The only problem is that with 1800 people on board, many of them had the same idea as I did. By the time I get to the Veranda, the pods are full. I scowl at the folk occupying them, willing them to move on. No luck there. I’ll have to remember my one time in a pod. Most relaxing moment of the whole cruise.

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Yours truly in a pod.

Time to move on to the cruise itself and the 10 islands visited. Some fascinating stuff ahead. But in the meantime, have yourselves a merry little Christmas. I leave you with some of the ship’s crew wishing us all just that….

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MERMAID MIMZ

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MERMAID MIMZ

I have always loved being by water. That’s probably why I now, after many years of being a landlubber, live on a narrowboat on the canals of Britain. And I like to go swimming when I can. Not too much chlorine please. I have snorkled off the coast of Cyprus, southern France and Majorca. The fresh water lakes in Ontario, Canada are my favourites. Years ago I went swimming in the Atlantic Ocean in Nova Scotia. I have even gone swimming in the sea in England. Well, not swimming actually. I stood waist deep in the English Channel off the coast on the Isle of Wight. ‘Twas quite cold.

In my 2 years of living on a canal boat, I have never gone swimming in a canal or the marina. Not the kind of water you want to be in….on, yes. In, definitely not. You see, so many things end up in the canal that you’re never sure how toxic the water, if it is actually water, is. Some areas are worse than others. The Welsh claim that their canal, the Llangollen, is pure. You could drink out of it. But then the Welsh claim many things that just ain’t so. Unless you are Welsh, then, naturally, they are so. Still, one day when we cruise the Llangollen, I won’t be either in or drinking the water.

Then there’s always the accursed Weil’s disease, otherwise known as Leptospirosis. That’s the fancy name. Others call it mud or swamp fever. It only kills between 2-3 people a year in Britain. Rodent, cattle or pig urine in slow-moving water is the cause. If the water gets into cuts or scrapes, the lining of the nose or mouth etc., the disease may manifest anywhere from 3 days to 3 weeks. The most severe cases cause a shutting down of vital organs in the body. Canals are very susceptible to producing the illness.

That’s why we try our damnedest not to fall into the canals or go for a swim in the marinas. Just not conducive to our health and well-being even if the weather is hot and the water inviting. In 2 years on the boat, I have yet to fall in. My best friend has been spared that privilege too. I nearly went in once, but that was at the end of the jetty…..our old jetty. I was trying to reclaim some solar lights I had wrapped around the wi-fi pole at the end of the jetty (dock). I had borrowed another boater’s workmate bench to reach the top. It collapsed and I was left clinging to the pole in the hope that I would not go into the water. I wrote about this elsewhere. Anyway, my inevitable plunge was delayed and I am still a fall-in virgin.

My neighbour, Mimz, was not so lucky. Not during the same episode as the pole, I hope you comprehend. It was later. The circumstances are just now being revealed and the details are finally known. This was no ordinary dive. This was one for the ages and I missed it. I was too busy trying to get to sleep on a very hot and humid night.

We have had mishaps in the marina before. In fact, at least one person died after falling in, hitting his head and wasn’t discovered until the next day. He was dead. Poor chap. A few other neighbours have also gone into the drink but were rescued. Alcohol is usually involved. But other times it can be a simple case of one step too far or a slip. You have to be aware at all times.

Mimz had knocked back a few at a party over on the dark side of the marina. They were celebrating the wedding of a couple recently married who live in the marina…on a boat. Even my best friend attended. I was in the city that night with a friend, celebrating something else. According to all reports, the proceedings were delightful. My best friend left a little early and went to bed. I came back a little while later from the city. Upon my return, I heard the distinctive voices of Eddie and Mimz at the party, laughing and carrying on.

I fell into my bed as soon as I got into the boat. As I lay there, I heard the sounds of what I thought were Eddie and Mimz coming home from the party. It seemed to take them forever to get into the boat and no one was talking. Not long after, I heard Eddie’s voice and he was being a little loud for the time of night and not long after that, more voices. By this time, my best friend had leapt from her bed and, as she passed me, yelled, “I think someone’s gone in! Get dressed.”

I did and joined the gathering throng outside our boat. There stood Eddie, Nick, Ali, my best friend and a very soggy looking Mimz. Eddie had thought I was still out, so, apparently, he had run down to Nick’s boat to get help. Nick stood there, in his underpants, hands on hips. “Think I’ll get you a cape, Nick,” says I, “You’re a superhero.” Nick and Eddie had dragged poor Mimz from the canal.

Well now….turns out Mimz had returned just before Eddie, tried to get the key to unlock their boat, slipped and went head first into the canal. Fortunately, she’s a good swimmer and doesn’t panic. But, she had imbibed, it was dark and she was under water. She ended up under their boat, found her way out but was trapped in a small space between our jetty and the boat, so she swam back under and went under her other neighbour’s boat, ‘Last Chance’ but found no space to get out there either.

What to do? Well, she came back to her own boat, hung on to the side as best she could and treaded water until Eddie came back. That was only 5 minutes later, but a lifetime in the canal. Eddie couldn’t see Mimz anywhere and called out, “Moo (his name for her), where are you?” She replies, “Down here, in the water.” Eddie looks down, incredulously, and blurts out, “What you doing in there?” “Having a swim,”she says facetiously, “What do you think I’m doing in here? I fell in!” Eddie tries to pull her out, but with soggy clothing on, he can’t do it alone….hence Nick.

By this time, Eddie is more shaken than Mimz (my name for her. Real name, Miriam). We are all contemplating what might have been. Why didn’t you yell HELP!? we all ask. “I did call out Jenny’s name (my best friend),” she offered, “But I kept it down because I didn’t want to disturb anyone at this late hour.” Typical British reserve that. Anyway, Mimz went and had a shower and I made her and Eddie a cup of tea when they got back from the shower block. Super Nick and Ali had returned to their boat by now. We sat under the stars, contemplating the universe and life. We were so very glad our Mimz was still with us.

The next day, Mimz and Eddie were off to a wedding in Dorset. When they got back a couple of days later, Mimz was all aglow. “Look,” she says, “The cuts on my feet have healed.” They had not healed over in a while. We were all stunned. And what was our first thought? Let’s bottle this stuff and become snake oil salesmen. Move over Lourdes.