Monday, 30 November 2009

Day 19 - Kaua'i, USA

My flight was at 9am this morning, from the Island of Oahu to the nearby Kaua'i.

Kaua'i is known as the "Garden Island" and as the 'plane landed, it was clear why. As you swoop towards the airport you get a great view of Wai'ale'ale, the mountain that is the wettest place on Earth. (Even wetter than Manchester).

By lunchtime I had arrived at the home of David and Barbara, who were my contacts on the Island - they were the most interesting people, the most knowledgable guides and the most congenial hosts that I could possibly hope for. They took me up to the top of Kaua'i's canyon region to take some incredible shots, told me the history of Koolau the Leper who ran away to a valley with his family and was shot-at with cannons by the authorities, and told me dozens of amazing QI facts about the Island - for instance, did you know Kaua'i mint doesn't taste of mint because it' never had to defend itself from bugs with its taste? for the same reason, Kaua'i raspberries do not have thorns. Fascinating.

As we drove back down the mountain, we all spotted a rainbow in the "Pacific Grand Canyon" (above). It was a wonderful sight to which the photo does no justice. David then took me to a great beach for a pacific sunset shot, and Barbara kindly made me some delicious mahi-mahi fish, and it was one of the best days of the trip so far.


Sunday, 29 November 2009

Day 18 - Oahu, USA

Iwas expecting to wake up at 4am this morning feeling wide awake due to the jetlag. As it turned out, I was awoken by my alarm at 9 and felt terrible. But there was no time for a snooze-button marathon, as I only have two full days on Oahu, and today was going to be a photo day.

I was straight out of the hotel and up to the nearby Diamond Head; it's a volcanic crater close to Waikiki called the "most photographed crater in the world" by the travel leaflets that I picked up from the airports. Its local name is Laeahi, meaning "brow of the tuna," but if this was down to its resemblence to the fish, as the leaflets claimed, then I couldn't see it. The walk is
only 0.7 miles but is straight up - a feat of American engineering at the time that includes switchbacks, tunnels and stairs to a perfect view of Honolulu. The only downside is the number of tourists; at times you're walking in single-file with no view but the behind of the person ahead of you. I created a game where the winner was the one who overtook most other tourists on the way to the top. I was the unmitigated winner (though no-one else knew that they were playing).

The sun was hot and the climb steep, so a quick change of clothing and a shower was required before I was in the car and off to my next lookout point on the Pali Highway. I detoured past the hospital where Barack Obama was born, and drove up to Pali meaning "the cliffs" in Hawaiian. The route used to be the only one from Honolulu to the North of the Island: before the highway was built it was a precarious pass over the mountains used by local tradesmen but feared by foreigners. Today, it's an easy-to-reach lookout point that is so windy that on one occasion, when a man attempted to commit suicide from the cliff he was blown back against the cliff again and again. He was alive (though pretty battered) by the time he reached the bottom.

If the first two treks were thanks to feats of engineering; my final trek (top) was through mud, rivers and generally rough terrain, past incredible rainforest views, to a picture-perfect waterfall. The walk was hard and time was getting on; after a good half-hour of walking I was passed by a group coming back - their guide warned me that it would soon be getting dark. I didn't exactly fancy being stuck in the rainforest after dark; but pushed on.

The trail was indistinct at times, but thankfully someone had kindly tied pink ribbons to the odd tree where the trail split. I assumed they were from a kind soul - I guess I could've been walking into an ambush from a gay Hawaiian guerilla group - but no, eventually I found the waterfall. I took the shot, and had a little dip in the pool below the falls (you couldn't call it a 'swim' - I was not dressed for it - and unlike Hungary there were no trunks for hire (!)) before setting off on my return trek. Again I was in a competition: three lads were running back down to the bottom of the trail, but after overtaking me, they rested at a river crossing and I took back the lead. They overtook me twice more, before, at one of the final mud patches, they again were catching their breath. My steady striding had beaten their stop-start running, and though the sprinters had no idea they were in a race, this tortoise was still the victor for the second time in the day.

Such is the way one's mind wanders in the heat of the rainforest. :)

Off to the neighbouring island of Kaua'i in the morning...


Saturday, 28 November 2009

Day 18 - Oahu, USA

When you're sleeping in a dorm of six beds, your roomies come and go, and last night it turned out I was sharing with four girls from Sao Paolo. Not as glamorous as it sounds, when they arrive back from the party at 2am chattering like a flock of macaws. Still, I was never really going to get much sleep with a Thanksgiving party going in the same building and with a five am start.

I woke on time though and crept out of the room to finally check out of my Miami party hostel – it's been fun, but three days was probably about enough – and onto the flight I went.

It was five PM by the time we touched down in Hawaii. It's a truly beautiful place. As we circled the south of the island of Oah'u we flew over a couple of perfectly green golf courses with their yellow bunkers and blue water hazards that could've been coloured by felt-tip pen; I wondered if it would be bad form to leave the research for a week and just work on my swing! But no, I had to get to the Hotel and get a good night's sleep in order to make the most of my time on the Islands.

On the advice of Barbara, my Hawai'ian correspondent. I had rented a car while on the islands; apparently many of the best places are in difficult to reach, and the buses are rather temperamental. But I was in no mood to drive. With little sleep for three days, culminating in less than four hours last night, and coming off the back of a 12 hour flight (I can't sleep on 'planes) I was exhausted. Add to that the fact that a brief storm had just blown in, I didn't know where I was going *and* they'd given me an automatic car (I HATE driving automatics) it's a miracle that I got to the hotel at all. However, get there I did, and once I'd dumped my bag there was just enough time to get to Waikiki Beach, just around the corner from my hotel, to see the sun go down; if you look carefully, the black spot in the middle of the ocean is a Stand-up Paddle Surfer a newish version of the sport that is becoming more and more popular.

Such a nice way to end an exhausting day's travelling.

Day 17 - Miami, USA

Last night I shied away from clubbing; two nights in a row is a bit much (especially as this is supposed to be a work trip!) but in the end, the alternative: playing pool til 2am with some Aussies meant that most of the morning was spent with a bit of a fuzzy head.

It was a beautiful sunny day in Miami for thanksgiving; perfect weather to head out to the “Seaquarium” - a rather grand aquarium to the south of the city. With confidence from yesterday's bus ride, I decided to take public transport and, surprisingly, it all went off without so much of a hitch. The first bus: I took my seat on the one dedicated to Rosa Parks (all buses in Miami have such a seat), the second bus I bypassed in favour of a walk through downtown Miami, and on the third I met an English couple who had won their trip to Florida through an internet competition. Lucky them!

So I arrived at the Seaquarium at around midday. I imagine it's a good day out, especially with kids, but it was a little disappointing for my needs; though having said that it was fairly quiet due to the holidays and I picked up a few possible general ignorance facts about manatees and killer whales that may be useful one way or another.

I set off back to South Beach, stopped at the Wolfsonian Museum which was so inconsiderately closed yesterday – it's mostly turn of the century items, furniture, ceramics, etc and then returned to the hostel. There's a huge Thanksgiving party in the hostel tonight, and I have an 8am flight to catch. Oh dear oh dear. :)


Thursday, 26 November 2009

Day 16 - Miami, USA

I've generally been staying in hostels on this trip – it's a good way to meet people and stay in touch with the area – but I usually book a private room as I need some space to work, this is the first time I'm in a communal room, and it's not conducive to a good night's sleep.

Not that I was guaranteed a decent kip after last night anyway. The entire hostel walked up the road for a private party at a Miami Beach club, and, of course, it was only polite to join in. As it was, it was a great opportunity to meet fellow travellers: I made lots of Aussie, Swiss, French, American and Cayman friends as well as a large group of Germans who were convinced that they were going to win the world cup next year! Fools!

So it was with heavy eyelids that I awoke this morning, with the aim to visit some of Miami's museums, but as I walked towards the entrance of the hostel a huge clap of thunder stopped me in my tracks; the heavens had opened and there was no way – even with my rainforest waterproofs – that I was going to face this deluge!

By late morning the rain finally looked like stopping so I decided to set out - my goal was the Haitian Heritage Museum in downtown Miami, which was the main reason I came to the city (as well as that it was a convenient stop-off between Hispaniola and Hawaii). It was a 10 minute walk to the bus stop from the hostel, and it was after only 6 minutes that the skies began to dump their load again. Running to the uncovered bus-stop, I looked at the timetable – it made the London underground map look like mere childsplay – and I was getting wetter. A taxi drove past and I took the simple option. It turned out to cost me twenty dollars, compared to a two dollar bus ride home, but at the time I thought it was worth every penny.

The taxi took me to where I asked - to where my iphone told me the museum was – but it turned out this was nowhere near the museum itself, and worse still, when I finally found the building, it was “under renovation” - argh – the only real reason I was in Miami and I couldn't get there. Still, the lady curator allowed me a little peek of the exhibits and gave me a whole bunch of literature on Haitian culture.

The return bus took me back to Miami Beach, on the corner of Washington and 41st; the next museum was on Washington and 14th, so I presumed we were close. Wrong! Turns out 27 blocks is quite a long way in the US, still, I took most of the walk along the beach and, although it still threatened massive storms, it was a fabulous walk with little company. (pic).

I visited the Bass Museum of Art and then attempted to see the Wolfsonian – which, it turns out, is closed on Wednesdays – so overall, with only one out of three museums visited, it was a bit of a disappointing day, but it gave me a great look at Miami in general, and I'm hopeful for a more successful day tomorrow – it's thanksgiving, and I'm off to the horrendously named “Seaquarium”.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Day 15 - Miami, USA

Santo Domingo's museums are clustered around what is now known as the "cultural plaza." It was built as a palace for the dictator Rafael Trujillo and was "donated" to the state after he left office (or rather was forced from office thanks to the unfortunate incident of his assassination) and is a leafy piece of tranquility in the middle of the tumult of Santo Domingo.

I was there a little early for the museums to open, and so had a little walk around the park, finding the obligatory statue of Don Quixote (pictured) - I really should collect these from every Spanish-speaking city that I visit - and grabbing an ice-lolly for breakfast (apparantly my entire RDA of vitimin C).

The museums were great; I visited the modern art gallery, the museum of the Dominican man (which looks at the history of the first peoples on the island) and the Natural History museum (which looks at all the endemic species in the Caribbean) but again, sadly, all exhibits were in Spanish only. Still, if nothing else, this trip is improving my language skills!

And so it was on to the plane for my mid-afternoon flight to Miami. Under a two hour flight, but I wasn't in the hostel until after seven, thanks in no small part to US customs which ended up taking almost as much time out of my day as the flight itself. I'm sure most people reading this had travelled to the US before so don't need telling; but it is an absolute nightmare.

Anyway, so there's a party on in the hostel now, which I'm about to join, and then tomorrow I'm going to try to sniff out some of the city's best musueums. It's a pretty enormous place compared to the rest of my trip so far!! Wish me luck.


Day 14 - Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

The carnival was fun. It was basically a great big street party with live Merengue music (the national music of Hispainola – it appears to be named after the dessert but nobody knows why) and lots of enthusiastic dancing. Not quite having the Caribbean rhythm myself I was more of an enthusiastic bystander; but it's hard not to get into the spirit of things... One thing that seemed more noticeable last night was the number of oldish white men with young Dominican girls; prostitution is legal on this island, and it is clearly rife in the northern resorts; this area is very seedy in places.

I woke up a little late this morning (thanks in no small part to the carnival) and got my kit together for the five hour journey back to Santo Domingo. With rucksack and my trusty knapsack (in which I keep anything I can't afford to lose) packed I set off for the bus station. Actually, perhaps I should be careful carrying the old knapsack around Hispaniola: “uncle knapsack” is a traditional Haitian character used to scare children – he comes in the night and takes away naughty girls and boys in his eponymous bag. You may recognise his creole name - “Tonton Macoute” - it was appropriated by the militia of Papa Doc Duvalier during his dictatorship a group that were much feared by young and old alike across the country.

Anyway, to the unmistakeable strains of Charles & Eddie, the bus set on its way across country, and by the time I arrived at Santo Domingo it was already 4pm – only a couple of hours before sundown. There was a little cloud cover, so I decided to walk to the hotel – I'm more or less used to the heat now, especially when the sun is not glaring. I dumped my bags and headed for the town, but it was to no avail. The cloud cover had transformed into an unheavenly downpour – there was no way I was going to do much sightseeing this afternoon. And, with the exception of a half-hour gap before darkness in which I could take a couple of snaps of the unusually choppy Caribbean Sea, the day was done: somewhat lost. I don't think the above picture shows what the weather was like; you can just about make out the lighthouse straining through the gloom in the background, but believe me – it was grim.

Tomorrow I fly to Miami, but not until mid-afternoon, so fingers crossed I can get to some of Santo Domingo's museums – they're all fairly close to my hotel – it's my last chance to learn about the Island until I head to pastures new.


Sunday, 22 November 2009

Day 13 - Sosua, Dominican Republic

When I was booking this trip, I looked at Haiti, read all the horror stories, and decided that my best bet would be to head up to the North of Hispaniola and look for a tourist trip over the border. As it is, now I'm here, I feel that if I had a couple more days then I'd just get a bus over there tomorrow. Such is the difference in mentality once you're actually on the road – I'm actually really annoyed with myself.

Anyway, waking up this morning I still had the chance to get to a Haitian village on the tour that I booked yesterday, so I packed my cameras and set off out of the hotel. But. At the last second, I decided to leave the QI video camera in the room; I supposed that my small camera would be enough if I wanted any video, the video camera is heavy and in all honesty I had no idea what I had signed up for. It turned out to be a stroke of good fortune.

I was picked up by a four-by-four and we headed off in a Westerly direction – which looked good – but after a fair old ride we turned off the road and to a bar-like area alongside a river; all I could see was my transport for the rest of the morning – a dozen or so quad-bikes. How exactly I'd signed up for a quad-bike adventure, I don't know, but sure enough once another half dozen tourists had turned up, the quads were started and I found myself in a convoy through the sugar cane fields. The bikes went through mud puddles, small ponds and rivers (it almost felt that they were *deliberately* sending us through the water! :) ); and within half an hour I was completely covered head-to-toe in mud; this was when I realised that not taking the (rather expensive) camera was a godsend.

We continued for what seemed like miles, but was actually only an hour before we arrived at our “Haitian village” - in this case “Haitian” appears to have been a synonym for “poor” and essentially although we got a little Haitian history, it was an excuse to attempt to sell some Haitian art. Just as I had feared. Still, from there we quad-biked another hour to get to a deserted beach, and then home, and in the process I got some great shots on my little camera and managed to quiz my guide about his views on Haitians: did they dislike their fellow islanders as much I'd read? Well, yes. Nick Griffin has nothing on these guys; the two countries are most certainly *not* harmonious neighbours! I also spoke Dominican politics; there are posters everywhere at the moment and it turns out that they are for the Dominican version of the local elections – the candidates are also crawling through the streets in trucks with huge microphones, adding to the general raucous. It seemed to me that a healthy moustache is a pre-requisite for election; my guide, well he was fairly sick of politics as a whole – some things are universal.

So I'll head down to the beach again at sunset shortly to take some shots, and there appears to be some kind of carnival on the main road of Sosua. Hopefully it will make a fun and pleasant end to what has been a little bit of a disappointing corner of the world. Back to Santo Domingo tomorrow for my final day on Hispaniola before I fly to the States.


Saturday, 21 November 2009

Day 12 - Sosua, Dominican Republic

I woke up at 4am this morning. No surprise there, I'm still kinda trying to get used to the time difference, but this was different. I was awoken by an itchy ankle. It was only a couple of hours later that I realised the problem. I'd been ravaged by mosquitoes. During the 19th century Haitian rebellion, more French soldiers were killed by mosquitoes than by the rebels; I knew that, so in truth I should've expected it, but no - I never take action until it's waaay too late and I've been itching all day.

Anyway, now covered in repellent (which is the most painful thing ever when it gets on your face) I walked into town to see if I could get to Haiti, or if not, what I could do for the weekend. To be honest I wasn't hopeful - as I mentioned yesterday, this is a party resort - but while it turns out that there *is* a day trip to Haiti that goes on Fridays (damn!) there is also an excursion that includes a visit to a Haitian Village that leaves tomorrow. It sounds like a touristy nightmare, but still, may as well give it a go.

So today I had little to do. In this tourist hotspot I thought "when in Rome" and so got an english breakfast and watched the football, before sitting by the pool all afternoon. Still, did some nice Haiti research with a book borrowed from the Hostel - did you know, for instance, that Haiti's red and blue flag is the French Tricolour with the white bit ripped out - created as a piece of anti-white sentiment by revolutionary Jean Jacques Dessalines? Or that after baseball, cockfighting is the second most popular sport on Hispaniola? No, me neither.

Anyway, the day wasn't completely lost. I managed to get to the beach at sundown and take some nice shots that I hope will be useful for a future Holiday show. One of the cheesiest was of a QI sign drawn in the sand which is washed away by the tide. You never know, it might work!! Ha ha. Early morning start tomorrow; it's my final day in Sosua - fingers crossed it'll be a useful one.


Friday, 20 November 2009

Day 11 - Sosua, Dominican Republic

Yesterday I mentioned the noise in Santo Domingo. It is immense. Many of the capital's vehicles are extremely old and battered and so make the noise that old, battered cars do, but there is also the beeping. In the UK you might save a honk to avoid a serious accident, or (god forbid) to say hi to a friend that you pass, but in Dominican Republic they use the horn correctly – to let other people know they are there. It just seems that they feel the need to announce their existence rather frequently. One thing that I missed in my head-down-get-home, walk yesterday was that many of the parping horns were directly down to me. Looking like a tourist (as I do) taxis or buses would regularly slow down and beep in my direction, wondering if I wanted a lift; their slowing would cause the traffic to stop and so more and more beeping. No wonder it felt like the noise was following me around!

This epiphany came to me this morning as I walked to the bus stop to make my way to Sosua. Sosua is a resort on the north of the island of Hispaniola that I've read can be a good place from which to reach Haiti, and so at midday I hopped aboard the (thankfully air-conditioned) bus and began to cross the Island.

Hispaniola is a beautifully green island; once you leave the cities it is lush; there is nothing but trees in all directions for as far as the eye can see - though paradoxically when you see a river. they are clearly very low. I sat for the full four hours with my eyes glued to the window while my fellow passengers – to a man – closed the curtains and slept. I can't imagine they were all that happy with me allowing so much sunlight into the bus, but the views were stunning. Whatever happened to my claims to be a courteous traveller?

Anyway, the bus arrived in Sosua a good mile away from where I had expected it to, which meant a walk to the hotel. Of course I could've got a taxi, but i) I like to walk, and ii) I'm tight. Unfortunately Sosua is home to hundreds of scooter “taxis” who clearly saw me in need of a lift – the beeping was following me all over again! I was accosted over a dozen times in the 20 minute walk to the hotel, every time asking if I needed a lift. In fact, I regretted the multiple “no, gracias” when my legs got tangled in some wire in the long grass and, being unbalanced thanks to my huge rucksack, I went flying onto my face. Argh. Still, just a couple of grazes on my legs, and I was soon at my hotel room.

Sosua is a resort, and not much more. Don't get me wrong, it has some truly beautiful beaches [above] (beautiful, but it's no Silverdale!). But it's a clubbing town - bar after bar after bar, which is great for some holidaymakers, but it's not what I'm after on this trip. I have found the three tour agencies in town (all were closed by the time I arrived today) and will check them out in the morning, but I fear Haiti may not happen. No worry, I will make the most of the time here – even if I *have to* spend one day this weekend lying by the pool reading. :)


Thursday, 19 November 2009

Day 10 - Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Sometimes jet-lag can work to your advantage. It's not a massive difference between Madrid and Dominican Republic but just enough to ensure that I was up well before 7am, and out to catch the coolest part of the day. A good chance to take a couple of videos of the sea with only joggers for company.

The Dominican Republic consists of around 2/3 of the Island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean (hence the H-link, hopefully I will make it to the other third of the island - H-for-Haiti - before I leave). It was the home of the first permanent European settlement in the Americas and was explored by Columbus in his famous trip of 1492. Santo Domingo itself was founded by Christopher's younger Brother, Bartholemew, a few years later, and so is home to a number of firsts - the first cathedral in the Americas, the first University and the oldest stone building, all of which I visited this morning before 9am.

By this time it was getting hot. Very hot. And so, after visiting the amber museum (an excellent exhibition that contains many animals fossilized in the resin of prehistoric trees) I had no choice but to head for the hotel and hide away from the midday sun; maybe I'm getting old, but siestas are becoming more and more enticing.

So it was mid-afternoon when I ventured out again - this time to the main part of the city. Here is Tripipedia's seven-point guide to walking around an unknown part of the world:
i) always have a specific goal in mind or you'll end up walking around aimlessly
ii) try not to look too much like a tourist
iii) never walk too far, you'll have to go the same distance back at some stage
iv) if in unfamiliar areas, make sure you are back before dark
v) if you have to walk in the dark, watch where you're going; many cities have uneven pavements or uncovered manholes
vi) if walking in unfamiliar areas in the dark, stay away from very crowded areas such as markets where you may get jostled around
vii) even if you're completely lost and ovewhelmed, make sure you look confident and walk with authority.

So it was, ignoring every part except for number seven, that I somehow ended up back in my hostel. Santo Domingo is incredible. It's impossible to impart what caribbean cities are like through photos alone; they're dusty, colourful and loud. Very Loud! If it's not the constant parping of horns, it's a bus whose music system probably packs more horse-power than the vehicle. I can't say I ever felt in any kind of danger while walking around; despite sticking out like a sore thumb as pretty much the only white guy in the city; but it can be difficult walking through the maze of unsignposted streets, in the boiling sun, with your senses being battered from every angle. Or maybe I'm just being soft. But it's an experience I wouldn't miss for the world; I had a smile on my face almost the whole way.

Anyway, I'm back with another medicinary "Presidente" beer and tomorrow I need to somehow find a bus to the holiday resort of Sosua on the North of the Island; apparantly buses in Dominican Republic are either guaguas frias (cold buses) or guaguas calientes (hot buses) - here's hoping I get a cold one.


Day 9 - Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

I'm such a moan-y flyer. Not actual moaning, you understand, just silent tutting and rolling of eyes. Surely I can't be the only one who doesn't lean his chair fully back, unless entirely necessary, in consideration for the guy behind me? Well I was at least glad that he appreciated it, it meant he could practise playing the drums on my head-rest for most of the journey. The snoring guy to my left and the sweaty bloke to my right must've also appreciated the fact that I allowed them to use the armrests (and much of my seat-area) as well. I exaggerate of course, can't really complain when you're travelling from Madrid to Dominican Republic on a round-the-world trip; but still....

Today wasn't all travelling; I had the morning in Madrid, which I spent walking the streets, taking in the sights of the Spanish capital for the last time, also managed to nip into the Prado for an hour or so for a little culture though I fear that my constant clock watching may have lessened my enjoyment of the Goyae and Velazquezezez on show.

The flight was 8 hours, and at around 7pm local time I arrived in Santo Domingo airport. Wow. Baggage collection and passport control were as you'd expect (got a new stamp on my passport! Yay!) but as soon as I got through customs, it was like the arrivals lounge was expecting some kind of pop star - hundreds and hundreds of people lining the passage to the exit, many of them kids. I was once lucky enough to go to an awards ceremony thanks to QI and on my way out it was *flash flash flash* a load of photographers took my picture, obviously hoping I was some Z-list celebrity. I don't know who the people in the airport were waiting for, but when I walked out, I can only imagine that they were just as disappointed as those paparazzi were when they checked their films the next morning. I hope the airport kids got their pop star - maybe it was the drummer sat behind me.

Anyway, most airports have some kind of bus or train to the city centre. Not Santo Domingo. Not as far as I could see, anyway. So I walked to the taxi rank and was accosted by a number of drivers. One driver outmuscled the others, he was clearly next in line, and he told me "forty US dollars" - hmm, a bit steep I thought, but looking around I surveyed my options. There was no plan B. Ah well - I was not really in much of a position to haggle - only time will tell if I've been ripped off, I thought.

Driving to Santo Domingo was something else. Imagine the speeds of the M6 Toll Road alongside the courtesy of central Rome; we fairly flew the considerable distance to the hostel, only stopping once, when a guy with a machine gun made it clear that we should. Turns out we were passing a military base, and they wanted to stop the traffic to allow a couple of vehicles out. Nice.

So I got to the hostel. Wish so much that I'd taken some shots of the welcome party at the airport, or of the guy with the gun, but I was a bit overwhelmed to be honest. You'll have to make do with what I ended up with. A nice 'Presidente' Cerveza, Domincan Republic's finest.


Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Day 8 - Madrid, Spain

Ernest Hemingway once said of Madrid that "I do not believe anyone likes it much when he first goes there." He clearly thought it an acquired taste; but with me leaving for Santo Domingo in the morning, I fear that I haven't really had much time to acquire it.

Having heard of so many tales of pickpocketing, I spent more of the first day looking after my wallet than looking at the architecture; and besides, it seems like the government has decided to rip up all of the streets and start again, so common are roadworks at the moment, but I left the hostel today determined to see as much as possible that the area has to offer.

So it was to the Museum of the Americas, finally, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting the Spanish capital. Especially if you speak the lingo. There are thousands of artifacts on display from Chile right the way up to Alaska, and all cases are accompanied by full descriptions. In Spanish. With no English translation. I guess it's fairly anglo-centric to expect them to cater for my ignorance, but it certainly made the trip around the museum difficult. But sketchy as my Spanish might be, it is easier to read a language (especially a latin-based one) than to understand it spoken, so I think I did OK with the importance of the numerous guinea-pig shaped vases and odd-shaped sombreros. I made lots of notes for future research anyway.

From there it was lunch, and then on a train to the town of Alcalá de Henares, the home of the greatest Spanish writer: Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes, for those who don't know, was the author of Don Quixote, often claimed to be the first modern novel and the second most translated book of all time (after the Bible). He was a fascinating character: he lost one of his hands at the Battle of Lepanto and spent 5 years as a slave in North Africa before becoming a spy: the book itself was voted the greatest novel of all time by the Nobel Institute. But although the town of Alcalá has embraced its most famous son - there are predictably plazas, hotels, restaurants, a watchmakers and a pyjama shop(!) named after him - the museum was a bit of a let down. Again almost exclusively in Spanish, but this time with no real exhibits to endear it to an ignorant Englishman, it is effectively just an example of how people lived in the 16th century. It could have been so much more.

Much better in the town was the Archaeology museum. It rather inexeplicably had a huge interactive exhibition about Otzi the Iceman who was found on the Austro-Italian border. Never has dear Otzi been anywhere near Spain as far as I know, but it was a great exhibit and welcome after the earlier disappointment. The town itself is has a beautiful centre, with a fantastic couple of plazas and some genuinely great architecture, but sadly only a few hundred meters from the centre, comes the scruffiness - high rise flats and grafitti everywhere. I returned to the train after a couple of hours feeling that I'd probably "done" Alcalá.

So it's off to Hispaniola tomorrow. Long flight, so all being well I wont have much to tell in the next post.

Adios amigos,


Monday, 16 November 2009

Day 7 - Madrid, Spain

I fear this will have to be a rather short post. It has been a fairly uneventful day, and I don't think you really want to read about me laundering my smalls.

Finally left Hungary very early this morning and made the short trip to Ferihegy airport (pronounced ferry-hedge) for the 3 hour flight to Madrid. On landing, the temperature was noticably warmer - like a pleasant spring day in England, and so, glad to be away from the Hungarian autumn, I headed off to my hostel.

Spain was something of a late starter to the tourism industry (though you wouldn't know it now) - the first truly international hotel didn't open until 1864, nearly a hundred years after such establishments began in Paris, London and New York, and even then, the Fonda de Paris was owned by a French family. Before that, European travellers would usually stay at the infamous "Gran Cruz de Malta" typically described by German writer Daniel Moldenhawer as a "filthy and vile inn." Thankfully things have changed; and while my lodgings are small and in something of a dark townhouse, I have wifi - and that's the most important thing!

I walked into town; as usual bypassing the public transport in order to gain my bearings and aimed for the Museum of the Americas - thinking it may give me some ideas about Haiti and Honduras. Before I could get far though, I saw a "Museo de Jamon" - A ham museum!!!! I was only partially disappointed when I found out that it was a Spanish fast-food chain that specialised in cured meat. A plate of ham, some olives and some crusty bread later and I was on my way.

But I had forgotten one thing - in Europe, most museums are closed on Monday. Witness the picture of the American Museum looking particularly shut! So it was back to my hostel, cleaning my clothes and sorting out some admin - hopefully now organised a trip to Bhutan in a couple of weeks - hurrah!

So all in all, a fairly uneventful day - the second in a row. I will ensure some kind of quixotic adventure tomorrow if I have to saddle old Rocinante myself.


Sunday, 15 November 2009

Day 6 - Budapest, Hungary

So I've just got back to my hotel room after dinner. I'm staying in a Chinese-owned hotel so had chicken and noodles. In six days, I've had McDonalds, Subway, Chinese, Pizza and any number of american-style coffee lunches. Oh dear. Still, the odd hungarian meal that I've had has been an absolute treat - despite the Hungarian peasant phrase for adding spices "fertlilize with manure" I'm a paprika convert.

Not much to report today (as you can probably tell by the food-related beginning) most of the day was taken up with a rather long journey back from Eger to Budapest, of which the highlight was the guy on the train attempting to sell me a chainsaw. A swift "nem" sent him on his way, although it was a rather nice chainsaw.

On arriving in Budapest, I had just enough time to visit the Hungarian National Museum - if you're ever in town, you should check it out. One of my favourite parts was the Milliard Pengő note (above). The amusingly named Pengő was the currency just after world war two when the country was in financial ruin. The 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 banknote was a result of the worst ever inflation in history, things were so bad prices doubled every 13.5 hrs for over a month.

In fact, thanks to their alliance with Germany in the two world wars, the country that gave us the Biro, the Rubiks Cube, the hydrogen bomb, Franz Liszt and Harry Houdini has had something of a rough ride of things over the last century - after WWI it lost two-thirds of its territory and three-fifths of its population due to the Treaty of Trianon - in 1920 much of Slovakia, Ukraine, Serbia and Croatia, not to mention enormous swathes of Romania belonged to Hungary. No longer - to the eternal chagrin to the nationalistic Hungarians.

So now, like Transylvania before me, I must be dragged kicking and screaming from
Magyarország - I couldn't possibly recommend the country highly enough. Over to Spain tomorrow - not H-related, but a convenient stop-off on the way to Hispaniola. I think that the Museum of the Americas could be a go-er, seeing as political events mean that I can't make Honduras for the time being. It's a 9am flight; so from my Chinese hotel, I bid you goodnight.


Saturday, 14 November 2009

Day 5 - Hortobágy, Hungary

Up nice and early this morning; it was bright and crisp and I managed to get out of the hostel with less than five minutes of key twiddling. The day would be spent in Hortobágy, Hungary's first and largest national park and the largest grasslands in Europe, a destination chosen by my lovely Twitter followers - reasons included "it begins with H" and "it sounds a bit like 'bogey'." In actual fact, it doesn't sound like bogey; in Hungarian "gy" is pronounced a bit like the "Du" in "during" so it's more like Hort-o-badge.

Either way, I walked down to McDonalds (I know, I know, but they have wifi!!) and got a coffee and it was then that I started with the stomach cramps - ugh - Budapest Belly. Maybe it was the water I drank last night, or perhaps the "Hungarian Hamburger" that I was fed the day before, but with a 2 hour bus journey each-way, the positive start to the day appeared to be on the wane.

Still, I had the morning to get better, as the bus wasn't until lunchtime. After a bit of shopping I made it to my ride which was delayed only slightly thanks to the fact that it reversed into another bus just before we were about to board. I could see it coming for miles, but no amount of gesturing could get the bus-driver's attention; even if I'd known "you're about to reverse into another bus" in Hungarian, then I doubt he would've heard me.

Hortobágy is in a part of Hungary known as the Puszta (pronounced something like "puss-ta") meaning "abandoned." It is huge, flat and gets its name thanks to centuries of marauding over the area by rampaging Turks. Today it is mile after mile of pasture and travelling on the bus, you could almost be in Suffolk if it wasn't for the shadoofs (pictured) and the young lady walking her pet ferret on a leash (sadly, not pictured).

95 kilometers (I know because the price of the bus tickets depends on how far you travel) and a couple of hours later I arrived at Hortobágy. To call it a "one-horse town" would be quite disingenuous, considering how many horses there were grazing on the grasslands - perhaps a one-person-town would be a better phrase. And I was that one person. No matter, I had the QI camera and so, after a wander around the area, the sun was beginning to get low in the sky and without a cloud in sight it was perfect conditions to take a sundown shot of some of the horses. I took a couple of still shots with my camera, then put it down and grabbed the video camera only to find that as soon as I pressed 'record' the horses decided to show me their "best side." Result: 10 minutes of footage of horse-backsides against a beautiful sunset.

The sun had set and it was time to go. But where was my camera? Argh, I'd put it down and moved position to get a better shot of the horse bums. Of course the sun was all but down now, and so it was with relief that I almost stood on the camera when retracing my steps. Seeing the bus on the horizon (a good couple of miles away) I ran to the bus stop with not a moment to spare. Back to Budapest tomorrow for my final day in Hungary. :(

A légpérnás hajóm tele van angolákkal


Friday, 13 November 2009

Day 4 - Eger, Hungary

Sure enough, last night we celebrated Alex the Hungarian Hostelier's birthday, and in many ways it was similar to my first night in Budapest: a number of underground-style bars, followed by a 3am tour of the city. The main differences this time were the lack of driving freezing rain, and an increased number - joining the ragtag group of revellers were a Brazilian girl who had been living for 4 years in Dublin and so occasionally (especially more as the palinka took effect) lapsed into an Irish Accent, Atilla (the Hungarian) who had an unparalled knowledge of the history of Europe and budding travel writer Hero, from Japan, who along with his girlfriend (who I think was called "cuni" - but I've never been good with names) have spent the last 18 months travelling around the world - they have another 6 months left. A great time was had by all, but the whole hostel was bleary-eyed this morning as I readied to make my way to Eger.

Eger is around 75 miles North East of Budapest; it's a town that all Hungarian schoolchildren know about, thanks to the 1552 seige where 80,000 Turkish invaders were blocked from entering Eger Castle, from entering Hungary, and indeed from reaching Western Europe by a group of fewer than 2,000. No matter that the Ottomans returned less than 50 years later, took the castle and massacred all the locals for their part in the seige - this is a story of battling against the odds, women fighting with men, boiling oil thrown over ramparts, and bull's blood.

Eger is in the centre of Hungary's famous wine region; its most famous product being Egri Bikavér or "Bull's Blood." The story goes that when the attacking Turks of Suleiman the Magnificent saw the local women drinking the deep, ruby-coloured tipple, they took it as blood, a fact that added hugely to the soldiers' terror of the steadfast locals. Although the wine lost its reputation in communist times, today it is one of the most loved brands in the country.

I missed the train and the next one arrived late into Eger; it was very slow and had sat at a nearby station for over 30 minutes, which all meant that despite my best efforts, there was no chance of photos before sundown, but I felt that I may as well visit the castle to see what I could learn. Sadly November is low-season and so, with dusk upon us, a man with a torch, shouting "halloo" managed to repel me (and a dozen or so Germans who had followed me) from the castle, just a his forefathers had done to the Turks 450 years or so earlier.

If I couldn't visit the castle, then surely I could try some "bulls blood:" the best area for the wine is Szépasszony-völgy or the Valley of the Beautiful Women. Nobody knows for sure where the name comes from - my guide book claims that the wine makes all women appear beautiful - but either way, I had a quick glass in one of the many (sadly empty - due to the time of year) bars and headed back to my hotel.

The hotel is nothing compared to my amazing hostel in Budapest; very homogenous and with no common-areas in which to socialise with fellow guests. The key to the front door only works if you jiggle it the right way (35 minutes of jiggling just to get in this evening!!) and the only place I can get wireless is sitting in the shower - which is where I am now. But no matter, tomorrow I have an early morning bus to Hortobágy - as chosen by my Twitter followers. Should be good - can't wait to see all those species of grass!!!!

Jó éjszakát


PS, the picture above is of the Minorite Church in Eger; not much to say about it, but just thought you'd like to see a bit of the town...

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Day 3 - Danube Bend, Hungary

Part of my QI remit for this trip was to take some footage for the backgrounds on a possible H series of the show, and so, with today being my only forecasted sunny day in Hungary I headed out with the QI camera.

It was a chicken liver and pea pizza (my Hungarian landlord tells me it's traditional Hungarian pizza topping, but I think he may be pushing my "If it's Hungarian then I'll try it" ethos a little bit) and an early night yesterday - I have been told that early mornings are the best for videos - and so I was up for first light, taking videos of Hungarian flags blowing in the breeze and the sun rising above the Parliament Building. After a quick coffee I visited St Stephen's Basilica to climb the 146 steps and to shoot apparently the best view of the Buda side of the river. St Stephen was the first King of Hungary, crowned in 1000 AD. He ruled with an iron fist - on one occasion quartering the body of his elder cousin Koppány and leaving the remains around the city - but it is Stephen (István in Hungarian) whose mummified fist can now be seen at the back of the Cathedral, the most precious relic in the country.

The main shot would be in the afternoon - bus up The Danube to the small town of Viségrad which is supposed to have the best views of the famous river (the second longest in Europe and the world's most international - i.e. it goes through more countries than any other).

After a 30 minute tube ride, I arrived at the bus station: not the smallest one I've ever seen (that award goes to Ploce in Croatia a town that the locals call Antichrist due to its lack of a church and the fact that Bosnians often enter the country there) but tiny nonetheless. I asked at the first bus that arrived and was waved over to the other side of the road, a second bus driver gestured me back across the road, looking at me as if I was miles away. Hmmm. One shopkeeper and another busdriver looking at me blankly later and I was beginning to think I wouldn't make it. It was only when I saw a Jewish gentleman getting the same "over there" gesture, that I decided to follow him, and my skull-capped white rabbit took me through a tunnel to a much more bus-station-like bus station.

The Danube was worth the 2 hour trek. After half an hour or so looking for the perfect spot, the sun broke through enough to send a few rays over the river's bend and I got the shot; all being well you should see it some time during a future H-series episode of QI. An idea of the area can be seen in the photo above.

Tonight it's my Hungarian host's birthday, so some more local beverages seem to be in order. I left tomorrow's plans in the hands of Twitter and they voted that I go to Hortobágy national park - home to over 50 types of grass, no less - in the North of the country. It is close to the city of Eger, which is a famous wine region, so I think that could be the first stop.

Egészégére (cheers),


Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Day 2 - Budapest, Hungary

I posted my first blog early last evening and things went a little bit strange from then on. The guy who owns my hostel, Alex, decided to take me under his wing and show me the sights and sounds of Budapest at night...

The old town is full of run down residential buildings with which the government can't quite decide what to do, and so locals turn them into underground bars. They're all over the city, but it seems that their location changes from time to time when renovation finally takes place. They generally consist of a makeshift bar, a DJ and a number of tables and chairs, none of which match each other. It was in such establishments that I spent the evening; drinking the local fruit brandy "Palinka" and talking to a mad Hungarian and a Finnish bodybuilder about how similar their two languages are, and that they are descended from the same Finno-Ugric roots. My newFinnish friends and Alex (who once worked in Ireland) eventually fell out quite spectacularly over the former's insistance on using the word "craic" and the latter's hatred of drugs.

The night ended in the driving wind and rain with my new Hungarian friend showing me around the city's sights at 2 in the morning; the locals call Palinka "liquid jacket" because after a few shots you don't need a coat - all I can imagine is that it doesn't really work on tourists.

And so I overslept this morning and didn't get nearly as much as I'd like done. Saw the Ignác Semmelweis museum, which goes through the history of medicine including Mr Semmelweis's discovery that it is necessary for Doctors to wash their hands in order to stop disease from spreading. It seems obvious now, but at the time it was revolutionary, especially as to admit that washing hands could save lives tacitly admitted that for many years doctors had been inadvertantly killing their patients.

From there, and with only a coffee inside me, I braved the driving rain again, determined to stop at the first possibility for food. It turned out to be a Subway - not a complete cultural disaster as I found that the Hungarian word for meatballs was husgomboc, and as any good QI fan knows, a Gomboc is also the name of the first mono-monostatic object, invented in Hungary. What that has to do with meatballs, I am yet to find out.

Anyway, it was getting colder, wetter and darker, so I decided to head over to the mineral baths. Apparantly Budapest is only bettered by Reykjavik as a capital city of thermal spas. Unfortunately I'd left my swimming costume in the hostel, so decided to try to buy one there and was horrified to find out that all I could do was rent some. YUK! Ah well, thermal baths are supposed to be good for skin diseases, so perhaps the two cancel each other out, I thought, and got involved with the Széchenyi Baths which is one of the largest bathing complexes in Europe, and the home of those pictures of old men playing chess while sitting in a swimming pool. The skin was very wrinkled by the time I got out, but anything that smelled that much like rotten eggs (all the sulphur) must've been good for me - despite the pair of second-hand trunks.

I include a picture of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge over the Danube. The story goes that János Marchalkó who made the sculptures was extremely proud and thought them perfect in every way. When he overheard people mocking them because he had forgotten to include their tongues, he was so embarrassed that he jumped into the river. The Danube is supposed to look blue and inviting in the summer, but no amount of embarrassment would have gotten me in there today.


Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Day 1 - Budapest, Hungary

Will try to keep this blog up, but it all depends on how often I can get to a wifi hotspot.

So I've arrived in Hungary. It's very damp and dark, but I guess that's what you get for arriving in November at nighttime. Alex is the owner of the hostel that I've arrived in, and he seems incredulous that anyone should come to his country at this time of year. Let alone that I should expect to be able to take any photos later in the week. No sign yet of the "old woman's summer," the Hungarian version of our Indian Summer.

Decided to get the bus & metro to the city centre, if only because the Budapest underground is the oldest in the world (outside the UK); built in 1896 - it is a world heritage site, though everything seems to be so these days! Little more to say as I have literally just arrived, but I have many museums to see in the morning, and am being taken out on the town by my new Hungarian friends tonight. So may have much more to add tomorrow....

Up there is a picture of the first impressive-looking building that I saw as I walked in - no idea what it is, maybe someone could tell me?