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How my Wild Geese started flying.

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As a young man, I joined the Royal Navy. That was way back when… well, let’s just say it was back in the early 1970’s.

Even in those days I could hear those wild geese calling my name. I think I was born with wanderlust flowing through my veins.

I hail from an average working-class family, growing up on an unexciting estate of standard houses, arranged in rows along either side of unremarkable street.

‘Suburban’ is the term used, I believe.

My life was a happy one, but I always felt it somewhat underwhelming. I knew there was more, somewhere ‘out there‘.

But I was, at that age, uncertain of where ‘out there‘ was. I knew even less of how to get there.

In the late nineteen sixties and the early nineteen seventies the internet did not exist. Television in Britain was limited to three channels. Information was difficult to find. Public access meant the inevitable and often futile visit the public library, located in the city centre a long bicycle ride, or expensive bus trip away.

Therefore, to plan an escape from the humdrum existence of everyday life was not as simple as it might be today.

Then came my Eureka moment.

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I should say, then came a string of events, over a period of years, which led me to a conclusion. Which is far nearer the truth of the matter, as my moment of elucidation was actually a slow realisation rather than a naked dash from a bathtub.

Harking back once more, to my 1960’s schooldays. A time when boys were considered boys and girls deemed an inconvenience.

You see, boys were reckoned to be the future breadwinners, they learnt the ‘important crafts’ such as metalwork, carpentry and mechanics, along with English, maths and the sciences.

Whilst girls, the baby makers, housewives and cooks and were given scant attention outside of the basics. Girls education in the major disciplines was deemed secondary to learning basic wifey skills, such as needlework and cooking.

This however played right into my lazy arsed ways. You see, I was never a great fan of educational establishments. Teaching was way to slow, laboured and drawn out. I wanted to know, absorb and move on to the next thing.

Instead, I found myself spending endless hours going over and over the same old ground, the same subjects, time immemorial. So, I switched off and began to live inside my head. At least I could go anywhere I wanted, as fast as I wished in there.

I let knowledge come to me from other sources.

Television, as I have said, was quite primitive, but the British Broadcasting Corporation had recently launched a new channel called BBC2. This was wonderful. It showed programmes about Africa, India and wildlife.

My long cycle rides to the library paid dividends, as each week I returned home with saddlebags bursting with atlas, travel journals and historical tomes about some bloke called Marco Polo, or written by Ernest Hemmingway, Lawrence Durrell or Alexander William Kinglake.

I soaked it all in, like a dry sponge. I placed formal education onto the back-bioler, consigned it to my room 101.

One day, the head teacher arrived at our classroom. I was about nine or ten years old at this time. She invited, or rather told, all the girls they were having a guided tour of the school’s kitchens.

For those younger readers, schools cooked real food back then. They had their own kitchens and cooks. They made ‘proper‘ three course meals; hot soups and salads, meats and fish, vegetables, rice, potato, syrup sponge puddings, pineapple upside-down cake, chocolate crunch and pink sauce; all featured regularly on the daily menu and all were made on the premises from scratch, from the basic raw ingredients.

Pre-packed foods and canteens are a modern disaster of nutrition, diet and health, a ticking time-bomb which the country shall pay in healthcare and premature deaths in the coming years. But that is another discussion altogether.

I stood from my seat and asked the teacher if I could also visit the kitchens, because “I wanted to be a chef when I grew up”. As those words left my mouth, I heard them for the first time. I was making an immediate excuse to be out of the class-room, to skive off the lesson.

It worked.

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How the head cook looked to me!

The head cook, a massive (to little ol’ me) burly woman said, it was “nice and refreshing to see a boy interested in cooking and that the best cooks in the world were men”.

Fast forward a few years.

I was working, temporarily, as a warehouse boy. I was fetching and carrying for other members of staff to make-up orders of pet equipment ready for delivery to retailers.

I was biding my time until I joined the Royal Navy.

I had already passed my medical, the Maths, English and basic biometric testing, or whatever they called it. I was simply awaiting my called-up papers.

My decision to join the Royal Navy was my master escape plan.

I could not see myself as a warehouse boy forever, or working in the factories or local stores, as so many of my contemporaries seemed happy doing.

Neither was I academically inclined, not after the abysmal education I had received.

My decision to join the navy (as a cook), reflected those five or so years from that day when I toured the school’s kitchen.

I simply put this equation together, based on my wishes and what I was told I ‘needed’ to do to succeed in this world.

Leave home + see the world + learn a trade & other skills = good. + (Don’t go hungry, be a cook) = excellent.

I have, over the past…. (very many) years, travelled to many countries around the world, a large number was during my service with the Royal Navy, others have been in the ensuing years as an independent traveller.

I am still travelling to this day. In fact, as I write this I have only been home for five days; in another eight or nine, I shall be off on another adventure once more.

Fast forward to today. I am now a full-time author and publisher. Apart from my fictional books, I have published historical legacy books regarding the Royal Navy, children’s books and cookery books.

The only injustice I find, looking back on my life, is the pathetic excuse for what passed as an education. However, I now have the benefit of hindsight and wonder if I would have had the same hunger for knowledge, if I would be where, or whom, I am today if my schooling had been better?

Would a formal education have given me two doctorates? Somehow, I doubt it.

Possibly the best thing for me was leaving school at such a young age, for experiencing life early, for travelling the world, experiencing other cultures, for being educated by circumstance, taught and instructed by the raw essence of life itself.

It may not be the way for many.

Yet for me, it was the pathway to my destiny, to the release of those ‘Wild Geese‘.

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Paul White is a founding member of APC

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jamaica

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Jamaica.

The very name of this island conjures up images of golden sandy beaches, palm trees, sapphire seas, sunshine and cocktails.

Jamaica is all that.

It really is an island paradise for those looking to relax and recharge their weary bones and tired minds.

We flew in from London, arriving around nine o’clock in the evening, local time. The ‘we’ in this case were my wife and I, along with half a dozen friends who were all sun worshipers, except for a chap named Neil. (I’ll get to him a little later).

‘We’ were staying at the Half Moon, which is, funny enough, situated at Half Moon bay, Montego.

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But I am getting ahead of myself, so I’ll start with exiting the plane at Sangster International Airport, also known as Montego Bay airport, as denoted by its three-letter code, MBJ. (that’s is the ‘International Air Transport Association (IATA) Location Identifier’, for those who don’t know.)

Anyway, as this is a Wild Geese post I try not to get all specific and technical, or too detailed. Life is far too short for all that nonsense.

The moment I stepped out of the planes air-conditioned fuselage and onto the top of the steps, Jamaica hit me.

I mean it smacked me right in the face.

BANG.

The heat, the humidity and the scent assaulted me all at once. My skin became coated with a fine mist of condensation, as the comforting tropical warmth wrapped itself around me and that smell, a heady mix of tropical fauna, coconut palm oil, Caribbean Sea salt, and a thousand and one other micro scents which make up Jamaica’s distinct aroma hit my senses.

One thought ran through my mind as I stepped off the plane, one which was meant to be a silent and personal observation, but which I uncontrollably vocalised.

“We’re hear” I said, pathetically stating the obvious.

A short ride later and we arrived at the Half Moon. A rather resplendent holstery, set in a good few acres of well-tended, manicured gardens, with its own private beach, the bay from which the hotel takes its name.

First stop, the portico reception for a cool me down cocktail and a can or three of Red Strip. Chilled, laying back on the sofa with a cold beer and looking up at the…stars. The stars…this place had no roof.

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Porters whisked our luggage away, other staff sorted out the paperwork and room keys, all done quickly, quietly and efficiently, while the welcome was as warm as the night air.

Soon, too soon, because I was so relaxed I could have stayed there all night, we made our way through the gardens towards our rooms, which were villas on the edge of the beach.

We were offered transport from reception, in the way of those humming golf buggy thingy’s almost all hotels seem to utilise nowadays. But as the night was a hot tropical one and we were ‘newbies‘, my wife and I elected to take a slow wander through the gardens.

Three minutes later, without warning, the heavens opened and the rain came down. We stood under a canopy and watched the huge raindrops as they hammered into the ground, many seemingly bouncing back, bouncing right up to waist height.

I have not seen such large raindrops before, or since.

The entire downpour only lasted five minutes from start to finish. My wife was concerned that it would rain again, which could spoil the holiday. The next day, on commenting, we were assured that would be the last of this season rains.

It was.

I think it was around two o’clock, maybe half-past two in the morning, when we eventually made it into bed.

At five thirty a.m. our companions were knocking on the door and calling us.

“Come on” they said, “the suns out, last ones down buy the drinks”. Their voices fading along with a chorus of giggles.

It took me about three seconds flat to jump out of bed, stagger into a pair of swim shorts and run out onto the beach. It was stupid o’clock in the morning but the sun was already up, shining brightly and throwing out more heat than we get during the height of a British summer.

A little later, my wife and I strolled along the beach, headed towards the Seagrape terrace for breakfast, when we passed a member of the hotel staff. Being the polite people we are, we said “good morning”.

In reply, the man said, “Manning Mon” and continued “it’s a bit chilli this manning”. He said this while blowing into his cupped hands and rubbing them together. The sort of thing I may do if the temperature was, say sub-zero.

But here, in the bright morning sunshine of the Caribbean, where the mercury was already pushing 28 degrees and visibly climbing, the man was dressed in a beany hat, at least two jumpers, a scarf wound around his neck and a thick pair of trousers tucked into wellington boots.

I was wearing a pair of swimming shorts and sunglasses, while my wife’s entire ensemble consisted of nothing more than a small triangular ‘eye-patch’ of white lace she had fastened over her most intimate nether region. Both of us feeling the ‘burn’ on our lily-white skin, even at this early hour.

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Breakfast on the Seagrape terrace is wonderful. Everything from iced water and the freshest of fruit juice, to fine Jamaican coffee (of course). Cereals abound, as do fruits, breads, cold meats, smoked marlin and more, all home cooked. The choice continues with sausages, bacon, eggs, johnnie cakes, ackee-ackee, mushrooms, beans and on and on… In a word, world-class. (yes, I cheated, I used a hyphen).

As wonderful as the Half Moon maybe, no one, at least no one in their right mind, would choose to stay within the hotels grounds for the whole time they are in Jamaica. There is far too much to do beyond the confines of even the finest and most luxurious establishment.

Here are a few of the things we did during our stay. These are apart from the usual beach and water sports, all the regular, almost expected activities like jet skis, scuba diving, paragliding, deep sea fishing and such.

As some of my travelling companions were fans of the James Bond movies it was ludicrous not to visit the Falmouth Swamp crocodile farm, the one which was used in the Bond Movie, Live and let Die, where it was portrayed as Kananga’s crocodile farm.

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On the way to see the crocodiles, we stopped and looked down into Oracabessa Bay, at a point known as Golden Head.  Located below is a white painted house, a small estate which some chap called Ian Fleming named Goldeneye.

This was Ian Fleming’s bungalow, the place where he wrote every one of his James Bond novels. It is as sort of very large one-story villa, he designed himself in the 1960’s.

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By the by, did you know Fleming took the name for his character from that of the American ornithologist James Bond, an expert on Caribbean birds and author of the definitive field guide Birds of the West Indies?

I thought not.

For those who do know little about Ian Fleming, you may wish to add to that knowledge by learning he was the author of the children’s book, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a non-fictional book called ‘Thrilling Cities’, based on his own impressions of a number of world cities. He also provided several ideas, including the names of characters ‘Napoleon Solo‘ and ‘April Dancer‘, for the television series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

It is possible to stay on the estate, even in the ‘Fleming Villa itself; which sleeps up to ten people. Previous guests have included Kate Moss, Johnny Depp, Willie Nelson, Pierce Brosnan, Grace Jones, Harry Belafonte and the Clintons…yes ‘those’ Clintons.

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The estate has a little helpful advice too; “If you are flying private, Ian Fleming International airport, located, latitude: W76° 58′ 09″ Longitude: N18° 24′ 15″, less than a 10-minute drive from Fleming Villa, is your best travel choice. Of course, we are happy to arrange all the details surrounding your trip”.

This is why we stopped to look down upon Goldeneye from the roadside, rather than stay there. Although we all agreed it would be a wonderful experience to do so. Maybe, I shall get the opportunity in the future? Who knows?

While the crocodile farm is interesting, the heat of Jamaica lends itself to slightly more laid back and relaxing activities.

There are few of these which can be considered as relaxing as Rafting down the Martha Brae. All one has to do is sit back and relax, while a boatman gently punts you downstream.

That’s it… and it is absolutely fabulous.

Mountain-Valley-River-Rafting-on-the-Great-River-JamaicaFirst stroll through Martha’s herb garden, before sitting back on your bamboo raft floating on the jade-green waters of the Martha Brae River, located in the parish of Trelawny (birthplace of sprinter Usain Bolt).

Trail your hand in the shimmering waters, gaze into the trees filled with colourful birds and exotic flowers. Surrender to the romance of the moment as you float in the cool water glistening in the beautiful Caribbean sun. During the trip down-river, our boatman carved a ‘loving cup’, inscribed with our names, from the outer skin of a gourd. A wonderful extra touch.

If you want a slightly more active fun, try climbing up the Dunns River Falls.

Dunn’s River Falls has a fascinating history. It is the location of the legendary battle of “Las Chorreras”. This battle was fought in the year, 1657 between the English and the Spanish Expeditionary Force from Cuba. The battle was in fact for ownership of the island. The outcome of the battle was in favour of The English who won.

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The falls are about 600feet,(180 meters) in length during which they climb approximatley 180ft, (55meters). You do not have to climb this in one single go. There are a number of shallows and rock pools on the way up where you can rest and take pictures.

Your guides will carry any extra bags, phones, camaras you may have with you, they will also take the photos if you wish. (Tipping them for a good service is appriciated).

If you like good food Jamaica is a fantastic destination.

A favourite spot for me is sitting 500 feet above the city of Montego bay, on the Richmond Hill Inn’s famous ‘Terrace Restaurant’, looking at the lights of the city twinkling below, eating grilled lobster and fillet steak while sipping on a full bodied Châteauneuf de pap. Ahh, bliss.

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Much of our (my wife and I) visit to Jamaica involved doing many more ‘touristy’ things than we generally do while traveling. This is because we tend to travel alone, while this trip we were accompanied by three other couples. So, on occasion we would ‘slope-off’, leaving the others sunbathing and swimming, and take some time out.

This particular day we did just that. Our companions, besides Neil (I told you I would mention him again), were sunning themselves on the golden sands of the Half Moon bay, while Neil sat in the deepest shade dressed in shirt and trousers.

To give Neil his due, his shirt was unbuttoned to the waist and trousers rolled up, to just below his knees and he was bare footed. You may have guessed Neil was a sun-dodger, he did not care for the heat or the brightness. But coming from Hull in Yorkshire, I guess you can excuse him a little; but not for placing a knotted hankiechief over his balding head. (Yes, he did do that).

So, where was I?

Oh yes, taking a walk with my wife. We left the Half Moon hotel, walked passed the golf course and wandered up the hill. It was a very hot, even in Caribbean terms, day. But the road was lined with tall trees and grasses which provided patches of intermittent cooling shade. We sensibly carried water with us, a lesson learnt long ago, but decided we would find somewhere to sit and have a coffee or a cold beer. Where exactly we would find such a place along an empty rural road was not a question we considered.

Talking of roads… with the chance of making me sound a little ‘retentive’, we did notice, unlike many modern tarmac or ‘iron’ roads, the ones here used sea shells as the aggregate in there make up, rather than stone. I know that will be of little interest to many, but I found it quite fascinating at the time.

Shortly after noticing the above, the sounds of Tracy Chapman floated towards us on the slight breeze.

“Mmh, mmh, Mmh, mmh, all you folks think I got my price, at which I’ll sell all that is mine”

Looking up from the shells beneath our feet we saw a small ‘shanty’ shack across the road with a few people sitting outside drinking beer.

It looked perfect. So we went inside and were greeted by a huge smile from ‘George’ the barman. Looking about at the eclectic mix of people, Rasta (of course) and bald heads, some playing Ludo, backpackers and holidaymakers like ourselves, a lorry driver, two men in high vis vests and tatty denim shorts and one tall, elegant woman in a flowing evening gown.

“Mmh, mmh, Mmh, mmh, some say the devil be a mystical thing, I say the devil he a walking man”

How such a mix of so many folks found themselves brought together at this moment, in a remote(ish) shack, amidst the fauna of a tropical island astounds me. It is the basis for a story, a book I must write.

Several, or more, icy cold Red Stripe and some hilarious conversations later, my wife and I made our way back to the beach… just in time to watch the last rays of the sun dip below the horizon.

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Am I going back, yeah, sometime, maybe. You see I really do hear those Wild Geese calling, but they are always ‘somewhere else’, somewhere new, somewhere I have never been… yet.


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If you enjoy reading my travel posts, perhaps you would enjoy some of my stories. Take a peek on my WEBSITE, where you can see what books are available and what new works are under way.

Thank you, Paul.

 

 

 

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Lakes, Starlings, High tea and William Wordsworth

 

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As most of you will know by now, planning is nowhere near the top of my agenda when it comes to travel.

I prefer to simply take-off and see where the road leads me, altering and adjusting my direction as mood and circumstance dictate.

A few months ago, I did precisely that, I ‘took off’ on a (almost) whim, heading Nor-Nor-West towards the Islands & Highlands of Scotland. (I have written about some of that trip on Wild Geese already and shall be entertaining you with further tales, as soon as I get around to putting my pen to paper again).

I mentioned I am not great at planning; I find it too long winded, boringly tedious and, more often than not, incorrect once you physically arrive at a location, be that an airport, a remote woodland hideaway or a first-class hotel. Something you thought you had organised does not exist (any more), or there are alterations ‘beyond our control’ and a plethora of other excuses, including the ‘recent closure’ of whatever it may be.

Anywayhow… I am not here to bemoan about inconsistency and poor communication, but rather to share with you the connection I have with the famous poet, William Wordsworth, regarding my journey ‘up-north’.

The one bit of planning I did, or rather my wife did, for the trip was to book a stopover in the Lake district, a small ‘Bed & Breakfast’ guest house where we would spend the first night. As it happens, she selected one called School House Cottage.

Unbeknown to us at the time of booking, this small guest house holds a lot more than simply some bedrooms for tired travellers to sleep in.

It is a place with a significant history.

You see, this Bed & Breakfast holstery is in the cottage formerly known as Ann Tyson’s Cottage, it is now known simply as the School House Cottage, located, (strangely enough) in the grounds of the Grammar School in the small village of Hawkshead, Ambleside, Cumbria.

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Hawkshead was originally owned by the monks of Furness Abbey. Hawkshead grew to be an important wool market in medieval times and later, as a market town after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1532.

It was granted its first market charter by King James I in 1608. In 1585, Hawkshead Grammar School was established by Archbishop Edwin Sandys of York, after he successfully petitioned Queen Elizabeth I for a charter to establish a governing body.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Hawkshead became a village of important local stature. Poet William Wordsworth was educated at Hawkshead Grammar School, whilst Beatrix Potter lived nearby, marrying William Heelis, a local solicitor, in the early 20th century.

Hawkshead has a timeless atmosphere and consists of a characterful warren of alleys, overhanging gables and a series of mediaeval squares. It is eloquently described in William Wordsworth’s poem The Prelude.

So, with a little literary licence, I can say I have followed in the footsteps of a great poet, or at least slept in the cottage where the headmasters of the grammar school resided during their tenure.

The School House Cottage is now run by Stephen and his wife Sharon, or should that be Sharon and her husband Stephen? No matter, the pair of them do a grand job of providing excellent hospitality along with great accommodation and a hearty breakfast, fit for any hungry traveller.

Whether you plan to stay for just one night or a little longer, I suggest you book in advance of your journey, as this is a much sort after guest house.

Besides having rooms to let and serving an excellent breakfast, the School House Cottage offers wonderful afternoon tea in the well-manicured gardens. You can choose from a traditional English, treat yourself to an extravagant afternoon with champagne, or celebrate with friends. The choice is yours.

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To book rooms or organise tea in the gardens, contact Stephen and Sharon at the School House Cottage via their website,  http://www.schoolhousecottage.co.uk

The School House is ideally situated between Lake Windermere and Coniston Waters, both picturesque and worth visiting. Another lake not too far away and one where I brewed up a cuppa on the shore is Esthwaite Waters, a smaller lake just north of Hawkshead, between the two larger lakes.

By the way, you may just be lucky, as my wife and I were, to witness an evening murmuration of Starling from the Old School House gardens, which was a wonderful sight and capped the end of a perfect day.

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While you are here, feel free to browse my website, where you can see my books and other blogs and find out what I am working on just now. http://paulznewpostbox.wixsite.com/paul-white 

The New York Challenge

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New York must be one of the most popular cities in the world for tourists to visit.

Working on that basis, there cannot be much to write about the city which has not already been talked about by a thousand people before me… or maybe there is?


 I am not a lover of cities and sprawling urban spaces.

Given the choice I would choose the countryside, the wilderness, mountains, seas, great lakes and vast tracts of sparsely populated land , before any metropolitan conurbation would get anywhere near my list.

Saying all that, I have visited New York City on three occasions. To be absolutely correct, for those of you who may be a little ‘retentive‘, I have visited the borough of Manhattan, New York City, in the state of New York, on three occasions.

Two of my visits were in early January; my wife and I flying across the Atlantic Ocean in the early hours of New Year’s Day.

The third visit, the one I am writing about in this post, saw us travel to NYC in late December, so we could watch the ‘Ball Drop’ in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

As this was our third time in the city, the number of ‘touristy‘ things on our to-do list was greatly diminished.

On previous trips we had been to the 102nd floor of the Empire State building, marvelled at the Flat Iron Building and the Brooklyn bridge, drank coffee on pier 19, wandered about the Meat Packers area. We have Walked from Grand Army Plaza through Central Park to Malcom X Road and further into Harlem, to ‘do some shopping’ on a day when the glass read minus four, yep that’s right, I said -4 degrees. We also attended a Gospel church in Harlem on the Sunday, not as tourists, simply as part of the congregation.

We have taken a boat ride around the “Island of many hills”, seen the Statue of Liberty and Staten Island, walked along Maddison and 5th Avenue, (everybody walks in New York), been to Radio City and Maddison Square Gardens, shopped in Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Sak’s, Bergdorf Goodman’s and 21st Century Stores. Browsed the glass cases in Tiffany’s while thinking about ‘that‘ film and singing the Deep Blue Something song.

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We have stayed in the Waldorf Astoria Towers, eaten at Mr K’s (sadly no longer there), the Burger Joint, (thank you Heston Blumenthal), Carnegie’s and the Stage Deli (another great New York icon that has now been lost). We have also ice skated in Central Park and at the Rockefeller Centre, skimmed stones across the frozen boating lake, to hear the ice ‘hum’ as it vibrates and watched Monkey’s bathing in hot pools of steaming water in the zoo.

Lastly, but far from the least; Our first time in New York was a few months after 9/11. When we came to Ground Zero it was a deep hole in the earth, Police and Fire crews were still standing watch.

The strangest thing was the atmosphere, the quietness surrounding the area. New York is an amazingly and sometimes uncomfortably noisy place. Yet at Ground Zero there was an eerie hush. The few vehicles passing drove slowly and as quietly as they could; people kept their voices low when speaking. The whole area resonated a sadness.

The last time I was in the city I returned to Ground Zero. The new subway station was operational, the noise of the manic city had crept back. Building work was progressing. The city was recovering as much as it ever shall. The overall feeling from the first visit had dissipated, possibly as the shock diminished. I suppose life must go on, despite of what has gone before?

 I must admit, grudgingly, I like New York, even though it is a city.

So, what is one to do as that sightseeing list begins to fade?

Simple, start challenging yourselves.

Last time in New York we Pre- booked (from the UK), a Broadway play. Actually, it was an ‘off Broadway’ play, a little number called ‘Chicago’ , you may have heard of it!

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As a treat, we also organised one of those ostentatious stretched black limousines to take us to the theatre, eventually, after a ‘bit of a runabout’ around the city.

It was while we were booking these an idea occurred to us, the ‘challenge‘ I spoke of earlier, the one I have titled this blog after; which was to see how many modes of transport we could cram into one day while we were in the Big Apple.

This is what we achieved…

1, Virgin 747 – 400 into Newark, New York.

2, Ford SUV into NYC. (Dodgy unlicensed hustler, we negotiated a cheap price. NOT an act I would recommended for inexperienced travellers).

3, Yellow cab.  Waldorf Astoria to Grand Central Station. (Yes, the driver thought we were mad to take a cab such a short distance).

4, Subway. (Once you get to know the system, this is an excellent way to surf the city and beyond).

5, Downtown Heliport, (15 minutes of buzzing the buildings. Noisy, expensive, but fun).

6, Boat trip. A slow cruise around the island with a very funny ‘host’ commentating as we sailed.

7, Ferry, to the Statue of liberty, Ellis Island and back. (The heated seats are a must in the winter as it gets very chilly indeed).

8, This was our limo ride, a slow ‘tour‘ of the city. Stopping for a short while on FDR Drive overlooking the East River with a brightly lit bridge in the distance…I am uncertain now which bridge it was, possibly the Ed Koch? Then onwards to the theatre for the show.

9, As we left the theatre it was raining. Not a slight drizzle, but a full-on downpour. A shout attracted our attention, there was a bicycle rickshaw with a bright yellow plastic awning over the rear seats…perfect. With two rickshaws, on for us, (my wife and I) and one for my son and girlfriend, we were soon back at the Waldorf, but not in quite the same luxurious style as we left earlier that evening in the long, sleek black limo.

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We did not make a city bus, or a greyhound during the day, time seemed to slip by far to quickly, but I think we did pretty well using nine forms of transport in a single day. Ten if you count the all the walking we did inbetween. However, the challenge remains open and when we return, hopefully during a summertime, we shall see if we can increase the number of modes of transport.

If you know of any further options we may have missed, please let me know, you may even get a mention in a future post.

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Thanks for reading, Paul.

Please feel free to follow the Wild Geese. I would love to share more of my adventures with you.

AofRDV

 

By the way, have you read ‘The Abduction of Rupert DeVille‘, a great book for your holidays https://goo.gl/HqIIu9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No, you have NOT been there

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This post is a really a bit of a rant; not something I do often.

However This is an accumulation of my personal observations and conversations over many years, which has been brought to the forefront of my thoughts during a recent conversation with a ‘person’ who regularly sojourns to Portugal.

Quite simply it is about holidays or, for those of you living on the far side of the pond, vacations and my personal firmness of conviction relating to what ‘seeing a country’ means.

It is the term, ‘I have seen (Brazil)’ or ‘I have been to (Spain)’, which riles me when the person who has holidayed rarely, if ever, stepped outside their hotel complex, except to visit a local (tourist) bar, restaurant or water park.

This form of tourism insulates the holidaymaker from seeing the country and sampling the true cultural and ethnic diversity of the people.

During the conversation I referred to earlier, the person I was speaking with had flown to Portugal for seven consecutive years. On arrival, he and his family were transported to ‘the hotel’, (always the same one), where they remained for the entire two weeks on a ‘fully inclusive’ basis.

Not to say they never ventured out. The family regularly drank at three watering holes, ate in two restaurants and shopped for gifts in a nearby town.

But that was it.

They never ventured further.

Now, I am not getting on my high horse claiming what they were doing is wrong, far from it.

If this form of commercial tourisma is for you; if you want to lay by a pool soaking up the sun’s rays while staying in easy reach of the bar, that is fine and dandy. (For you).

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If you have no interest in experiencing all a foreign country and alternative cultures have to offer, because you prefer your ‘home comforts’ to be on hand wherever you go, that is fine too.

I do not have a problem with people’s preferences.

I shall not say I understand or agree, but I can accept their choice.

This is not my gripe.

This is what really gets my goat… (actually, I don’t own a goat, but if I did…)

It is when someone, a tourist as mentioned, claims to be an authority on the country, the culture, the food and the people. When these same people will not accept they have little knowledge of the country in which their hotel complex is situated. When they will not acknowledge all the assumed information they have acquired is limited to the commercial fake-ness, (is that a word? Well it is now), they have been subjected to during their stay(s).

This is something which drives me close to insanity.

Because, in all honesty, it is wrong to say, ‘I have been to (Peru)’ if you have been closeted in a phoney, commercialised fantasy world and not had the conviction to venture further than the local tourist market.

That is not ‘seeing’ a city or a country; that is ‘seeing’ a hotel which just happens to be in a particular place. A place which could be anywhere in the world, because until you venture outside, the hotels and resorts are all the same. OK, the décor might change and the staff’s accents may slightly differ, but that is about all.

I for one enjoy travelling. From the moment the plane takes off, or the ship departs from the dockside, I fully immerse myself in every aspect of the journey because, for me, the ‘getting there’ is all part of the experience.

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Once in my destination, often one of many, I submerse myself into the culture and the people. Over the years I have collected a slight knowledge of several languages and use what little I recall as much as possible. By the time I leave I have added a few more sentences to my tiny lexicon.

If you only have one or two words, the pure fact you are trying to speak their language is, in the majority of circumstances, most welcomed. Soon you will find you have made many friends who wish to teach you more.

A contrasting attitude to the man with whom I was holding the conversation about his regular visits to Portugal. After his several years of returning, he did not speak a single word of Portuguese. Never tried to learn a single phrase.

“Why should I” he said, because they all speak English anyway. As he was on holiday he did not want to waste his time trying to learn ‘their lingo’.

This is the same man who, at his place of work and in the local bar, professes to know everything about Portugal and is happy to force his advice on everybody and anybody who mentions they are going there.

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With that said, I conclude my ranting.

I must confess, I feel better for getting it off my chest.

Thank you for reading, Paul.

 

© Paul White 2014

Feel free to check out my website, http://paulznewpostbox.wix.com/paul-white-writer

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Mountain Musings

A Panaramic view of the gardens, with the Atlas mountains in the background, from the rooftop patio of my room http://wp.me/p8PY2Z-5A

As I write this I am sitting in the L’ourika valley, at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, in central Morocco.

I feel I should be writing something amazingly inspirational regarding my current situation and explaining the seclusion, the peace and quiet of the sanctuary which now surrounds me, since leaving the hustle and bustle of the city of Marrakech far behind. But as yet I have not formed, I have not assimilated or digested these recent experiences to justify writing anything that would prove to be worthwhile reading.

No doubt, given time, I shall write about the sights, sounds and interactions of the past few days, (although today will be long past when I do eventually put pen to paper). For now, my mind is focused on some passing yet re-occurring thought which often flits through my mind.

That thought is one of vistas, why they have such an effect on our emotions, our equilibrium of moment. Why can some views stir us in such a way as to make us draw breath or gasp out loudly, even bring forth tears from our eyes?

As I look up from my current perch, a comfortable chair shielded from the blazing sun by a tent like awning, I have before me a grand scenic panorama of rugged peaks and vales, mostly tinted that shade of purple talcum which is bestowed by distance. There are however, the occasional peaks which are high enough to poke through the low wispy white clouds allowing the sun to highlight the true form of these mountains, the jutting rocks and dark crevices, the crags and crannies; revealing the splintered mass of this towering range.

Yet I am not overly stirred by this view.

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I am in awe, even in wonderment, but not emotionally touched in such a way as many other landscapes have managed to evoke.

I wonder why.

The mountain range is vast, they are majestic in their very being. I have the time and the wish to sit and admire the scene. So why am I not moved more than I am?

Have I become blasé, cynical? Are these just ‘another lot of mountains’, I am passing by on my travels, the same old – same old?

I admit I have travelled widely and have seen a many amazing sights, yet I cannot dismiss this one as irrelevant because it is not, it equals many a tableau I have chanced upon. Why then, do I not feel that sense of………wonder……of spectacle?

It is the lack of effect this view has on me which raises the question, the one about why such scenery can stir one’s emotions, to the forefront of my mind once again.

Not to put a dampener on these mountains, or to dissuade those of you who may be planning to visit, I shall reveal yesterday morning I took a Land Rover up there, up into the passes and cascades.

 It was a spectacular journey.

 

 

Looking down from the high vantage points at the geography, the variants of terrain as the landscape changed was truly amazing and yes, I was stimulated and inspired by the sights.  

Which brings me, from a very obtuse angle, to this musing, that thought which frequently crosses my mind but, until I looked up at the Atlas Mountains today, I had not been able to formulate into a reasonable Rambling.

So here is that fleeting thought……..

I believe so often in life we look upon, we peer around, taking in that which is around, about us. That which is affecting us, our social and private interactions. Yet often we see too many things from the wrong perspective, or shrouded in a purple talcum haze.

Many things in our lives we know should stimulate us, excite us, yet we look on unmoved and relatively uninterested; just as I was when looking up from my chair those few moments ago.

This is when we must seek out the places the sun is highlighting, the high bright peeks above our wispy white clouds of disconnection. These are the times we need to buckle up and drive ourselves higher, look down from the dizzying ledges of life, to gaze on the panorama of opportunity and choice spread out before us.

This is when we need to climb our own Mountains of reservation and reluctance, to bathe in the icy waterfalls of clarity and hope.

This is when I realise not all vistas should make you cry out in astonishment, some should just be there, silently and quietly seeping into your soul. Like these amazing and wonderful Mountains which I am once again looking at, but now with new eyes and new pleasure.

Thank you for reading.

Feel free to take a peek at my website where you can see my books, my other blogs and take a look at what projects I am working on just now. 

http://paulznewpostbox.wixsite.com/paul-white

صـحـارى (sahraa)

(The Sahara desert.)

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There is some ethereal quality about the silence of the desert.

It is a silence that has an ascribed spiritual power within its nothingness; strange and compelling, it demands absolute attention from all those within its vast obliviousness.

So it was with our small group of miscellaneous travellers; a rather odd assortment of people. all who had chosen to spend a night under the stars, to have the opportunity of watching the sun rise over the dunes in the morning.

Our guides set a makeshift camp while we tourists frolicked like children on the sand dunes with snowboards and skies. Until, like errant children, we were summoned to dinner by a loud shout from one of our guides.

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In a somewhat random and ragtag manner we collected our toys and reluctantly, but dutifully made our way towards the fire and the smell of roasting meats and freshly baked flatbreads. Unlike children however, the prime choice of beverages were cold wine, chilled beer, gin and whiskey, all with clinking cubes of ice.

After the meal or fire-roasted meats, tabbouleh, freekeh salads, flatbread and tooma, we gathered around the fire to chat and watch the sun set, casting, as it did, an array of ever changing shadows over the orange sands as it sunk beyond the horizon, finally plunging the desert into a solid blackness. The only light was from our campfire and the few torches surrounding the site, flickering in the gentle night breeze.

This was the moment we all fell silent.

s3There was no logical reason. It was not planned, intended or organised; it was simply one of those shared, collective instances which happens on occasion.

I observed, as we sat there peering out of the camp into the deep darkness, staring totally mesmerised at the million, billion, trillion stars sparkling in the sky above, or just staring at the flickering flames of the camps fire, each and every one of us was, at that very moment, listening to the silence emanating from vast expanse surrounding us.

In an instance, we had all been touched by the essence of this great wilderness. I could see, in the eyes of my companions, the deep contemplation of their minds, their mental acceptance as the assimilation of earth and spirit was recognised.

I know the moment was so, as after we were disturbed from our collective meditations by a guide returning with further refreshments, the topic of conversation became that of the strangest recognition of our individual and personal awareness, to the mutual experience we had just shared.

s4I believe there are only a few places on earth which are wild enough to lend themselves naturally to such a spiritual encounter.

The desert is one of these few places.

If you ever have, even the slightest of opportunity to experience such vast blackness, to see so many stars in such silence, in such a vast and uninhabited place, do not hesitate.

Go.

You might even find yourself there.

 

You can read some of my short stories at

https://alittlemorefiction.wordpress.com

Salann na Mara

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Loch Snizort on the Isle of Skye

I have recently returned home from a trip to Scotland, during which I visited the Isle of Skye.

It is somewhere my wife wanted to visit for some time and it took very little persuasion to have me tag along.

Like many of our travels, we had only an outline plan, nothing was cast in stone.

This trip simply meant pointing the car in a North-West-ish direction and driving. Stopping where and when our little hearts desired, or something caught our eye.

Our visit to the Isle of Skye was part of a larger, longer trip which I shall write about in greater detail in the future. It will most likely be in several instalments because there is so much I need to tell you.

But for now, I must let you into a little secret. A little secret which should not really be a secret, because it is something you can share in and enjoy.


But first…

Where would any story about Scotland be without a little myth and legend.

In the Norse sagas Skye is called Skíð and skaldic in the Nordic poem Heimskringla (c. 1230):

“In Lewis Isle with fearful blaze

The house-destroying fire plays;

To hills and rocks the people fly,

Fearing all shelter but the sky.

In Uist the king deep crimson made

The lightning of his glancing blade;

The peasant lost his land and life

Who dared to bide the Norseman’s strife?

The hunger battle-birds were filled

In Skye with blood of foemen killed,

And wolves on Tyree’s lonely shore

Dyed red their hairy jaws in gore.

The men of Mull were tired of flight;

The Scottish foemen would not fight,

And many an island-girl’s wail

Was heard as through the isles we strife sail.”

Quiraing-Summer-Sunrise

The island was also referred to by the Norse as Skuy (Misty Isle), Skýey or Skuyö (Isle of Cloud). Eilean a’ Cheò, which means island of the mist, is a poetic Gaelic name for the island.

To be truthful it is a fitting name. The mists, either mountain fogs or rolling sea mists can appear at anytime, anywhere on the Island, as can the rains. In fact, you can experience all the seasons in one day, even one morning on this amazing island.

Skye is an Island full of history, not all of it pleasant. The Clans, MacLeod, Mackinnons, MacInnes, MacNeacail and MacDonalds all fought bloody battles on or over the island, such as the infamous Battle of ‘The Spoiling Dyke’ fought in 1578.

After the failure of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, Flora MacDonald became famous for rescuing Prince Charles Edward Stuart from the Hanoverian troops. Although she was born on South Uist her story is strongly associated with their escape via Skye. She is buried at Kilmuir in Trotternish.

The words, “A name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour” are written on her gravestone.

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Flora MacDonald

 

But that is enough of that, let’s get back to the present and that little secret…

A short drive from Portree town centre there is the Old Manse and beside that, a small, unimposing stone outbuilding. It is within this building which lays ‘The Isle of Skye Sea Salt company’, a very long name for a rather small, artisan business.

You see, The Isle Skye Sea Salt company is Chris Watts and Nanette Muir’s island cottage business. They take the clear waters of Loch Snizort and let the sun and wind naturally evaporate the sea water, leaving behind pure sea salt crystals which are high in essential minerals.

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Chris and Nanette are the first people to produce salt on the Isle of Skye since the early 1700’s and what a wonderful product they have. The salt tastes like no other, it has an initial sweetness, followed by a deep, flavoursome and intense saltiness (thankfully!).

Don’t just take my word about the quality the salt, it has an Excellence Award from Scotland Food & Drink, and a Great Taste award. Both accolades from internationally respected, industry leading organisations.

Whether you are a professional chef, restaurateur, or a proud home cook, you really do need a tub of the Isle of Skye Salt in your larder. It lends that special, je ne sais quoi when incorporated into creative dishes.

You can also use it simply; I love it sprinkled on tomatoes, or over a fillet of fish, even on home-fried chips with a little pickled onion vinegar…(but that one might just be me!)16-Chips-close-up-with-salt-1

By the way, neither Chris nor Nanette know I am writing this, this is not a sponsored post or paid-for-advertising. I am writing this because I think the Isle of Skye Salt is the finest, most natural and pure salt in the world and it would be wrong of me not to share this little secret with you.

So, until next time, eat, drink, be merry and sprinkle Sea Salt.

You know you are worth it.

 

The Isle of Skye Sea Salt company: http://www.isleofskyeseasalt.co.uk

Or as they say on the Island…

Salann na Mara

Se salann càileachd a th’air a dheànadh san Eilean Sgitheanach a th’ann an Salann na Mara (Salt of the Sea) agus tha e a’ cuir gu mòr ri blas bìdhe.

Tha Companaidh Shalann an Eilein Sgitheanaich air a’ chiad luchd-deànaidh shalann san Eilein ann an 300 bliadhna. Tha sinn ag gabhail sàil Loch Shnìosoirt, soilleir mar an criostal agus a tha beairteach ann am mèinnearaichean, agus lè a bhi a’ cleachdadh, anns nan taighean-salann speisealta againn fhèin, proces giollachd a tha sònraichte a-thaobh na h-àrainneachd, nach eil a’ cosg ach glè bheag neart agus nach eil caithteach, tha sinn ga thionndadh gu salann mara a tha fìor-ghlan agus nàdarra

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Happy travels, Paul.

I walked amongst the Kelpies and lived to tell the tale

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As you are reading this, I am guessing you have read my other posts regarding my travels to Scotland. (If you have not, I think you should!)

This is only a short post, concentrating on one place I visited, but I have posted it as a ‘stand alone article’ because I think it deserves such.

I think (hope) you will agree, so here goes…

Scotland is an ancient land hewn from rugged mountains of granite, a land where rivers of crystal waters course along twisted ravines, flowing into deep cold lochs where giant snakelike monsters are said to live.

It is in this wilderness, along the banks of the rivers, you may see wild horses grazing, amazingly tame, these beautiful horses excude an air of expectation, a want to be ridden. 

Yet, the moment you sit upon the horses back you become magically stuck, unable to dismount.

The horse will then charge headlong into the raging river. The sound of thunder will reverberate across the glens as the horse’s tail enters the water.

Diving deep beneath the surface, the horse will take you down into the dark, icy coldness of  a watery grave, where it will devour your body.

What you happen to gazed upon are not wild stallions, they are Kelpie, an ancient, mythical creature with an insatiable appetite for human flesh.

Often it is said, you can hear the Kelpie’s voice’s wailing and howling during the tempest of a thunder storm.

Yet, I have walked amongst these beasts, touched them and stroked them. I have photographed their heads rising from the waters by night and day and I have lived to tell this tale.

Well, ok… these were not real Kelpies!

They are the amazing sculptures of Andy Scott which can be seen on the banks of the Forth and Clyde Canal at Helix Park in Falkirk.

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The Kelpies, constructed from pure stainless steel, each weigh around three hundred tons. They stand thirty meters high, which makes them the largest equine sculptures in the world.

Here are a few ‘snapshots’ I took during that trip to Scotland.

Even though my photography is somewhat lacking in skill, I think you will agree the sculptures are quite amazing and almost as intriguing as the legend which inspired their creation.

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Pisa

Pisa….oh….that will just be a post about leaning towers and the Battistero and package touristy stuff.

NO, IT IS NOT, because this is me and…

I am writing about what occurred when I travelled on a short break to Pisa… You see I am not trying to sell you a cheap holiday and I am not sponsored by an airline…. (although I am open to offers!). This is just me recalling and passing on one of my own travel adventures.

Now, where to start…on the flight, a low cost brightly coloured airline. Not my general choice when traveling, but Pisa is only a few hours’ flight from an airport not too far from my home. So, this time it seemed stupid not to take advantage of the low prices on offer.

Because it was a budget airline, we were to fly into Florence, from where we would make our own way to Pisa, to the villa where we would be staying for the four or five days we would be in the city.

The flight landed, only slightly behind schedule… in Milan.

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Due to the ‘budget principle‘ (a pseudo-scientific term I have just made up), the space and time continuum was altered in a way which was ‘beyond the airlines control’ and changed reality to such an extent we arrived in Milan, over 175 miles to the north of our intended destination.

I shall not divulge the way many passengers displayed their ‘disappointment’ of being 282km away from where they wanted, even needed to be. All I will say is that the passengers faced a minimum of a three-and-a-half-hour drive along the Autostrada. (That’s motorway in English and highway to Americans).

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Soon, my wife and I were sitting in a taxi, along with a punk rocker-emo teenager; whom, I am certain was actually lost, mentally, physically, as well as geographically, and a very nice, Italian/American lady (who had arranged and negotiated this taxi ride) and was visiting family ‘back in the old country’. (A hint of Mafioso, I wondered. Maybe this helped in negotiating the ride in the taxi? I guess we shall never know, but it is wonderful food for an author like myself).

We did not need to share a cab all the way to Pisa, we could have stood around for hours, being herded like sheep from one location to another, while the airline and airport staff argued over where to keep so many disgruntled passengers, about 200 or so, until they could organise coaches or busses to transfer the entire flight to somewhere else. The airline said they would be transferring everybody to Florence, as that was the original destination airport, but most of passengers were demanding Pisa!

No, no, no. This was not for me, sorry. (It is one reason I travel independently in the majority of circumstances)

So, with the likeminded, mafioso lady and a lost soul we grabbed that cab!

I must say it was an extremely comfortable, which made for a pleasant drive. One stop for Coffee and soon(ish) we arrived at our destination. The ‘we’ at this point of the journey was simply my wife and I, as we were travelling furthest.

The Mafia women being collected by a large black limousine, at an unremarkable and unmemorable road junction. The emo-teenager I think faded away in his seat to nothing more than a grubby stain. Probably we stopped somewhere to let him out, but he was so entertaining I forget when that happened or when he left our company.

By the time we arrived at the villa in Pisa my priorities were:  Some hot food, a hotter bath and a long sleep.

This next bit may surprise you?

I was not disappointed or angry about the journey, or landing so far from where we were supposed to land. It had happened and there was nothing we could do to change that fact.

Do not get me wrong. I was prepared to fight for justifiable compensation from the airline; but that is another thing altogether.

That entails putting ones’ ‘practical’ head on, rather than shouting and ranting at some junior staff member without the wherewithal or authority to do anything constructive on your behalf. Complaining could wait until I returned home.

I was not going to allow anything so mundane as a travel disruption to interfere with our enjoyment of this short brake.

I have said in previous posts, I am a seasoned independent traveller, which means inconveniences, such as landing 175 miles from where you want to be, simply becomes a minor part of the overall journey, one which travellers should accept as probable, rather than vaguely possible.

 

The following morning, after a wonderful breakfast in our room, we ventured out. My wife had selected the location of our accommodation perfectly. It was a five-minute walk from our villa to the archway leading to the Piazza dei Miracoli, the square in which the Tower of Pisa, the Duomo and The Baptistery are located.

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We wandered around the outside of the buildings, marvelling at the architecture. Before wandering off into the narrow streets of Pisa.

One thing I like about this city, is the cosmopolitan atmosphere; primarily because of the large student population attending the universities here. The ‘knock-on’ effect of this is every available inch, or should I say centimetre, of space has been turned into an outlet serving coffee!

An empty garage today is a busy café tomorrow. If it is not a café it is a delicatessen; huge joints of Parma ham, prosciutto and Pancetta hang from ceilings, dangling above counters of fresh pasta and shelves of bread, still warm from the baker’s oven.

Pizzerias, trattorias, ice cream-ias, in fact anything you sell-‘ias’ abound on every street and down every tiny, narrow side alley. Wonderful!

One must do as the students of Pisa do, (I was going to write “when in Rome” but that is the wrong part of Italy), have a great wedge of pizza and a take away coffee constantly clasped in your hands. Now, where better to sit, relax and eat it than in the Universities botanical gardens? Which, by-the-by, were the first ever botanical gardens anywhere in the entire world. (Yet another reason to do so.)

The gardens are a short walk, no more than a five-minute stroll, from the leaning tower. It costs a small Ꞓ2.50 entrance fee, (at the time of writing) but it is well worth such a nominal charge.

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That night we ventured out for food and to explore a little more of the city. We did not wish to venture too far from our hotel/the tower area, (the longer than planned journey to get here was quiet tiring). We wandered through the ‘Square of Miracles’. The buildings look fantastic flood-lit at night.

There are plenty of eateries of one sort or another scattered on almost every street surrounding the square. I am not normally one to do the regular ‘tourist’ eateries. Generally, I find the food bland at best, inedible and life threatening at worst. But that night I found myself seated in one such place. On a corner, a few meters from the leaning tower itself. We sat outside, at a pavement table, so we could watch the world go past. I drank cold beer and hot coffee.

I must say I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the food, the bruschetta was one of the best I have eaten in Italy, with some succulent, fleshy and naturally sweet, tasty tomatoes. I also liked the fact I could see into the kitchen, through a small window facing the street and watch as the chef prepared my food. All without moving from my ‘al fresco’ seat.

 

The following day was spent exploring more of Pisa, crossing the river back and forth, visiting many of the small piazza’s, each with their own bustling markets, fresh vegetables and pungent porcine mushrooms in one, cheap clothing and shoes in another, electronics, radios, phones and such in another. Each square, semi-hidden away from the main streets. Streets lined with shops, divided with bars and cafes, although which was a designated a bar and which was a café is hard to distinguish if you have an uninitiated eye.

Pisa is a relaxed city, it exudes an amazing, happy, relaxed atmosphere. Go if you get a chance. It is great for a short break, a few days interchange or part of a multi-stop vacation. I would not stay for a length of time, unless I was using it as a base to explore further afield.

I shall share one last experience with you for now.

That evening we booked a table at a restaurant we chose from the many tourist guides. (I spent a good part of the late afternoon/early evening scouring the hotels leaflet and pamphlet collection), while my wife made use of the Jacuzzi!

The restaurant I selected was located in a very old area of the town.

We found the restaurant, eventually. After wandering down small, twisty, badly lit streets. (There were plenty of other people wandering around. At no time, did we feel uncomfortable, let alone threatened in any way).

The meal was excellent. The wine, which my wife chose from the locked selection of special reserves, you know the bottles, the ones the vineyards and vintners number by hand…yes. The wine (per bottle), cost more than the entire three course mean for two. BUT… I must say it was bloody lovely wine!

However, during the meal many of the other guests kept looking at us. One or two took a photograph openly and unabashedly. Other diners took snaps too, but a little more surreptitiously.

I was wondering if they mistook my wife or I for someone in the public eye. If I were mistaken, for instance, for some male sex symbol or the latest James Bond? I could, of course understand if that were the case!

My wife and I do not do hurried dining. When the night drew to a close and the time came to order a cab and settle the bill, we were the last, but one, table in the restaurant. We told the maître’d of our concern about people looking intently at us.

He laughed at us. “No, no” he said, pointing to the table where we sat.

“Look” he said, patting the thick stone column which our table was butted up against. “This is the oldest remaining Roman pillar in all of Pisa”. He said this with a large proud smile plastered across his face.

Now, we were embarrassed as it dawned upon us. No one had been looking at us. No one thought I was James Bond. (shame). They had simply been inspecting and taking photographs of an ancient Roman stone column. Capture

Oh, how we laughed… Mmmmm?!!

Enjoy your day, Paul.

 

Wild Geese, a small boy and strange things.

 

I am a fairly well travelled person. I have visited six of the earths seven continents.

I have not set foot upon Antarctica. But, I believe, I still have time and health enough to do so.

The wild geese found me as a small boy, the young and tender age of fifteen; my first trip away from home soil was the short trip from England to Portugal, the city of Lisbon.

My enduring memories of that place are, in no particular order; Swordfish, White Peacocks, Cold Rice and the Horseshoe. I shall say no more about any of those just now, because that is not what this post is about.

This post is about the little things, the small incidents and strange things which happen when you travel.

To me, these tiny, sometimes inconsequential moments, are the things which make travelling the wonderful experience it is.

It is from these experiences we find laughter. It is where our store of tales to regale over countless forthcoming dinners. It is the unplanned, unexpected instances which become our lasting memories, the ‘do you remember-s’ and the ‘I have just recalled-s’ of our futures.

These small, often fleeting happenings are the ones we carry into old age. They are the times we reflect on with our partners and share with our children, even our grandchildren, as we stumble towards our last days.

This story is from about four or five years back.

We, that is my wife and I, along with a friend, were visiting the UAE. On this occasion part of our plan was to drive from the Dubai City to a place called Hatta.

The purpose of our drive was to spend a week or so relaxing at the Hatta Fort hotel, which is used as a retreat by many for a change from city life, be it Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I am a seasoned traveller. I travel independently, not in association with a travel company or agency. It is over the years of traveling this way I have learned to rarely adhere, or take too much stock of ‘travel tips’ posted by any corporate body. They generally have some ulterior motive woven within their suggestions, even those presented as ‘advice’.

I am sure, if you search for directions, say with Google or TripAdvisor or such, the directions from Dubai City to Hatta will direct you along the E611, a journey which will take around 2 ½ hrs. A little longer allowing for rest brakes, lunch, stopping to admire the vista, take photographs, or a combination of all of the above.

However, following the E44 (D71) and a few other roads to the S116. This will take you on a rather circuitous route. (The same will happen if you take the E44 to S102 Sharjah road to the S116, or the Jebel Ali E77 Lehbab road, E44 to S102, S116). You will drive much further North than necessary, before driving southwards once more to arrive in Hatta.

These routes are about 154km/96miles.

Luckily, I am far more familiar with the Emirates, so the route I chose is far more direct, it is the E311 to E66 and the E44. The E44 runs straight (almost) from the outskirts of Dubai City to Hatta.

The trip (without stops) will take around 1 ¼ hours, about half the time of the longer route. The distance is reduced to 109km/82 miles.

Why, I hear you asking, is this not the ‘recommended’ route holiday companies advise? The answer is simple, but one must be familiar with the lay of the land in this area.

road map
The route I use, crossing Oman. (Note the Border crossings).

 

 

ALLOW ME TO EXPLAIN….

The Arab Emirates, known as the Trucial States were a set of seven Emirates on the Arabian Peninsula in the southeast of the Persian Gulf.

In 1971 six Emirates, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah joined together to form a federation, the seventh Emirate, Ras Al Khaimah joined the federation a year later.

Consider the borders of the emirates of the UAE. Abu Dhabi, the capital of the federation, is a gigantic block from the south stretching up towards the north. It holds more than 85% of the total land of the country. Dubai, the next Emirate to the north of Abu Dhabi, is the second largest and occupies 5% of the land of the UAE. Dubai’s territory is basically unified in a neat block, with the only exception being the Oman border town of Hatta.

The remaining five emirates occupy less than 10% of the land, their borders are a colossal mess, containing enclaves, narrow bands of territory, and disputed tracks of wasteland that look chaotic.

map

Not surprisingly, the blame/reason lies with the British. While the Sheikhdoms were protectorates, the British only visited the ports and had little interest in the desolate interior of the Arabian Peninsula.

But as the protectorate relationship was scheduled to end, Britain knew the risk of the Emirs fighting over land if the borders were left undefined — Abu Dhabi and Dubai fought a border war in the interior in the 1940s, which the British arbitrated and established a neutral zone, and Sharjah’s hegemony over the north had broken down as new emirates within Sharjah’s original territory rose and fell.

To avoid these types of problems, the British sent the Trucial Oman Scouts out in Land rovers and on camels to conduct a detailed map survey and tribal census, during which time they mapped the interior and asked the rulers of each settlement village to which Emir (or Sultan, in the case of Oman) they owed their allegiance.

Okay…enough of the history lesson!

You may have picked up the mention of Oman, the neighbouring Arabic country.

The first map shows the direct route I take, even though the travel companies may tell travelers to take an alternative route and ‘do not use the road going through Oman’.

This is precisely the road I use.

If the political status between the Emirates and Oman is good, which it has been for several years, there is no problem in crossing this short distance across Oman. There are border control points at each end, both West and East. The guards there take a perfunctory look at your passports and other documentation before waving you on.

On every trip I have made over these checkpoints, sometime two or three times a day, I have found the guard’s courteous and friendly. I have, on occasion shared a joke or two with genuine ’out loud’ laughter.

Do not however, film at the border crossings…that is a big no, no. Put your camera’s/phones out of sight. It is little different to any other military/Government establishment anywhere in the world. Just be sensible.

Border
A photograph of the Western checkpoint into Oman. (Photography at checkpoints is strictly prohibited)

So, where was I…oh yes. On my way to Hatta and approaching the western checkpoint.

Located a short distance from the border crossing is a neat little village called Al Madame. I needed a ‘natural’ brake and a coffee. I agree water is the best for quenching the thirst and I always travel with a plentiful supply, but it tends to be a little low in its caffeine content.

Madame has a row of small shops, nestled among them is a fried chicken eatery. It is not quite a Chicken George, a KFC or Popeye’s, but it is clean, friendly and just a little over half-way to my destination. The perfect stopping place.

Road_towards_Qantab_Muscat2

It was a hot day, the temperature hovering around 32c. So, as you have to do in hotter climates when the car has been parked in direct sunlight for any length of time, I started the car and ran the air-con on full to cool the interior, the girls taking the opportunity to browse the local store windows.

As soon as the inside of the car was cool enough to support human life, we set off again. Camera and phones put away in bags or the glove compartment as we would soon be at ‘check point Charlie’. Looking ahead at the large sand dunes I could not help but notice how the wind was whipping the sand from the tops, the sky becoming full of flying grit.

“Take a look at that” I pointed, excited I was to witness my first sand storm.

The next instant, droplets of water began to hit the windshield. The temperature plummeted as a torrential downpour began.

As disappointed as I was, not to have been engulfed in a raging sand storm, I was witnessing an event which was an even greater rarity.

Rain.

Intense rain at that.

When the downpour began, many of the shopkeepers grabbed a rag or some cloth and used the opportunity to wash the windows and exterior of their premises. One or two set to washing their cars, I kid you not.

It was extraordinary to see people welcoming rain in such a way, yet their actions were more than understandable.

However, the rain did not stop. It intensified. Huge raindrops pummelling the cars bodywork and windows. The cacophony made by the drumming water making it difficult to hear anyone speak. In fact, we all ducked our heads as the first of the larger rain drops pummeled the cars roof.

I pulled the car to a halt at the side of the road, Headl lights on, hazard waring lights flashing.

Soon, the lower areas off to each side of the road, were awash with rainwater. There was no drainage, something which was usually unnecessary.

Within a few moments, these areas at the side of the road were a river, two or three cars sailed by, carried by a now flowing river of water, as were shopkeeper’s stocks of tin baths, buckets, pots, pans toys and whatnots. Basically, all the goods that were displayed outside the stores in Al Madame now formed a flotilla of bric-a-brac, sailing down a newly formed river.

It truly was a strange site indeed.

As quickly as the wind and rain had come, it was over.

The sun reappeared. The temperature shot back to its previous heights.

This amazing episode lasted for all of ten or twelve minutes.

I started driving again, heading for the checkpoint. The road ahead now a shimmering ribbon of steaming tarmac.

Almost unbelievably, by the time we reached the checkpoint the roads were bone dry. There was no sign any rain had fallen.

entering Hata
Entering the small town of Hatta.

On our arrival at Hatta Fort Hotel, we told the staff of our experience, asking if the rains reached this far. They had not.

The staff question us again and again, excited to hear of the rain. It seems they had good reason, it was thirty years since any rain fell here, we were told.

I count myself lucky, not only being caught in those rains, but witnessing a once in thirty year phenomena.

I now hold that experience within me, it is one of those enduring moments I spoke of at the beginning of this article. It is one, just one, of all the wonderful instances I have had the good fortune of experiencing.

It is also one single reason of many, I shall keep travelling for as long as I am able.

You see, those Wild Geese keep pulling at me and, inside, I am still that young boy, full of wonderment and awe at all this world has to offer, especially those strangest of things.

Thank you for reading.

Paul.

 

Hatta 1
Hatta Fort Hotel. (My destination in this blog.)