Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Off to the races

*

It poured through the night, was grey in the morning, and at eleven o’clock I’d given up on a day at the races. But by twelve the sun was out, and I headed for the bus station. There I met Brian and Linda from Yorkshire (via California) and together we found ourselves the right bus to take us to Les Landes, in the furtherest top left-hand corner of the island. A fifteen minute walk from the bus stop, and there we were, at one of the most picturesque race tracks I’ve ever visited.
It’s a decidedly old-fashioned track. Like, eighteenth century? A large paddock with a one-mile oval of extremely uneven lush green track laid out with bright white and mostly plastic railings and with the inevitable cows in the middle. There is no such thing as a grandstand, nor indeed anywhere to sit and watch the racing at all. Just a manufactured green mound reserved for members only, or 3 pounds extra on top of the mammoth ten you have already had to pay to get in if you want to stand there. But there is the splendid ground-level view out over the cliffs to Guernsey and Sark which is not for members only and which I guess is the ten pounds worth.
The other facilities are equally minimal. One large food and drink marquee (members only, the club is not hospitable to visitors), one small beer tent, an ice-cream van and a hot potato and burger vendor who sold me the best burger I’ve eaten in a decade with Fanta at a pound a can. Plus a brand new office and toilet block under the green mound. Maybe that was the ten pounds worth.
The racing itself was fun. It reminded me of the picnic race-meetings of half a century ago. More enthusiasm than class. Some of the horses, I fear, wouldn’t get near a race-course in New Zealand. And the obviously well-established local hierarchy was mostly respected. Three strong favourites duly obliged, but a 34-1 outsider added a little spice to events, and gave hope to all those kiddies who were wagering fivers and tenners on hopeless outsiders with one of the half-dozen busy bookies on the course.



The five races gave us a bit of everything. We had a hurdle race with a tearaway leader which folded utterly with a mile to go, leaving the favourite to stroll home by a good margin



We had a seven furlong sprint, an eight and a half furlong flat race, and a mile-and-a-quarter one which produced the best finish of the day.



The programme ended with a mile and three quarters race in which the hottest favourite of the day led throughout and left them to it on the hill up to the winning post.



And most of the time the sun shone. So a good day was had by all, even if, after four hours of standing (the grass being too wet from the nightly rain to sit down upon), we older folk were feeling mightily weary.
But Geoff and Carolyn from Bayview being, happily, on the course, I was brought home in automobile comfort to a very long shower, as much cold beer as a man can take and an earlyish bed.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Sunflower Gate

I thought this picture deserved a little section all to itself.

As I came down the hillside into Gorey, I stopped dead. Who … who, I wondered, would have the courage to perpetrate such a piece of wonderful eccentricity? Someone left over from the aesthetic movement, perhaps? I had to photograph it. And of course, as I did, a gentleman belonging to the property drew up in his car.

People love it or hate it, he said. I assured him that I was one of the lovers. I hoped I might get an invite to see what was inside the gates, but alas, no luck.

So it was just the gate. Which is pretty much, all on its own.

Jersey on foot

Well, I’ve been out and about in and around Jersey these last few days, and just as well, for it now looks as if the weather may turn nasty.

I’ve even been to the theatre. On Thursday night the local Gilbert and Sullivan Society was giving The Sorcerer at the Opera House and, since it must be 35 years since I saw that piece, I decided to give it a go. And I’m glad I did. I enjoyed the show (its always been one of my preferred G&Ses), and the performances were mostly very respectable. As so often in amateur productions there was one singer who easily outshone all the rest but, surprisingly, in this case it was the tenor. A splendid voice, with no break, ringing out and easily filling the auditorium. He also had the burlesque style of the piece down to a ‘T’, looked nicely almost stout and young in his red uniform, and in the days of the Carte company I suspect he would have been swiftly exported to London. Not all was up to his level. The direction was – as so very often chez les amateurs -- fairly awful, and for some reason some of the cast were dressed up semi-1920s style as if they had costumes left over from an old production of The Boyfriend. Also, the leading lady had voice production problems and was quite outshone by the excellent Constance of the evening. But all in all, an enjoyable night out, with the tenor being the cherry on the cake.

Friday, having inherited a Tourist Card with three ‘live’ days on it from my friend Kerstin who was returning to Geneva, I started touristing with a visit to the Jersey Museum. I see this museum has won lots of awards and I’m not surprised: it’s great. Its nicely housed in just one C19th ex-dwelling, and wonderfully laid out with everything explained in a clear and relevant way which I was soon to find is typical of the sites run by Jersey Heritage. There wasn’t a room which wasn’t interesting, and at the end of my visit I felt as if I’d read a 10-volume illustrated history of Jersey and its people.

Saturday the rain came. It was my day for a little sight-seeing with my local friend Ann-Marie and her car, but alas! there was little to see – although Saint-Ouen beach, with the tide out and glooming clouds roiling around was rather impressive. We toured to the Old Smuggler’s Inn at Noirmont – near to Portelet where I holidayed forgettably in 1969 -- for a splendid (but huge!) fish pie and Guinness which required a two-hour snooze to work it off.

Sunday, being the last day of my Card, and also a beautiful sunny one, I thought I had better get on my feet and be a real sight-seer. So I set out after breakfast and pounded out into the country. First stop, the Neolithic site of La Hougue Bie (no, I don’t know what it means), set on one of the island’s highest points and thus also used as a command bunker in the second war. I spent 45 minutes around the Christian chapel and the ancient burial mound, with swift visits to the little museum and the bunker, now set up as a memorial to the slaves used by the Germans to fortify the islands, and I particularly liked an exhibit devoted to the neo-Gothic tower and house which was built over the chapel in the C18th. Alas, some dumb local worthy who thought Gothicism out-of-fashion ripped it down in 1924.





From La Hougue Bie, I headed on through some really delightful countryside to Gorey. Last year when I visited Gorey, Mont Orgeuil castle was closed, today it was open, I had a ticket, and in I bowled. I am very glad I came back – Gorey is delightful, especially in the sun – and most of all I’m glad that I didn’t miss the castle. I wandered up and down battlements and stairs and ramps, through endless rooms filled with interesting little exhibitions and tales, the most striking of which was a colourfully gory wood sculpture (taken, I believe, from a mediaeval drawing) illustrating the how and where to wound a mediaeval fighting man.
The view from the castle, too, stretches out over the bay in a most picturesque way, and Mont Orgeuil really is a fascinating and beautiful place to spend an hour or two.









Ten-pounds’ worth of beer (not cold enough) and sandwich (Mother’s Pride and shop ham) on the waterfront (at the yellow hotel in the picture) and, rejecting the idea of the bus, I turned my feet back towards St Helier. Last year I walked the sea-coast, this year I took an inland road, and some small lanes. Much, much better.

I rolled in at 3pm, put my tired feet up, and debated whether to take the walk out into the harbour to Fort Elizabeth, the 17th century successor to the originally 13th century Mont Orgeuil, before my card ran out. Well, I did. I dragged myself down to the waterfront, finally found the little causeway that leads into the sea (everything here is labelled for the motorist but, alas, not the pedestrian!), and plodded across. Fort Elizabeth is wholly different to Mont Orgeuil. It has none of the older place’s magnificence, also – as an active fort until the 20th century -- it has suffered much more modern batterings and refortifications. The 17th century keep is crowned by a 1940s concrete emplacement. The thing that made the visit worthwhile for me was another outstanding historical exhibition, over which I (who am accustomed to zoom through such things with little care) lingered until, as the tide rose, it was time to walk back across the causeway and limp home.



I had just enough energy left to limp to the Roseville bistro for crab cakes and bubbly.

So, that’s my sightseeing done. Today I may go to the races – its Bank Holiday and race day – if the weather clears… and I think it may be doing so…
We shall see.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A mysterious prima donna

*
I’ve just walked in after a morning trek to Mont à l’Abbé Cemetery, St Helier. And I’m a happy man, for there – with a little bit of help from my friends -- I put the finishing touch to the solving of a ‘Victorian Vocalist’ mystery that no-one else has ever succeeded in unravelling.
I should save this story of ‘teckery’, I suppose, for the book. For my forthcoming encyclopaedia of 19th century singers. But it’s such good fun, that I’m going to spill it while it’s hot.
Once upon a time, 1853 to be exact, a new young singer burst upon the London concert scene. Her name, she said, was Giulia Amadei, she was ‘prima donna contralto of La Scala, Milan’ and she was such an impressive performer (and such a very large lady) that the press immediately offered comparisons with the great (and large) Marietta Alboni. Madame Amadei remained a much appreciated feature of the British musical scene for half a dozen seasons but, at the end of the 1850s, she vanished, without comment, never to be heard of again.
Where did she go? But that was only half the puzzle. The other half was ‘where did she come from?’ Who was this lady, whose name was not Giulia nor Amadei, who had never sung at La Scala and, for all that the press slyly confided that she was not Italian but English, actually wasn’t English either! I needed to know, but where do you start looking when simply everything that might be a clue is a fib?
My first-found fact came in the shape of a clipping from a Jersey paper of 1861. There was Madame, two years after her disappearance from London, singing in a concert in St Helier! 1861? I hastened to that year’s census, turned up ‘Jersey’ and there she was, living at 20 David Place, Isabella J Amadei, born Rome, with a 12 year-old son named Thomas Fry, born Sussex.
Well, some of that was true. The Mrs Isabella Fry bit was true. But how to know that? And to know the rest wasn’t?
I hastened to the Free BDM website, and dug around for any Isabella marrying any Mr Fry around the right date. There wasn’t one. Dead end. And so, for many months, my quest stalled, until this week, when I arrived in Jersey. I hastened to the library and scoured the Jersey directories of the 1860s. There she was: ‘Madame Amadei, teacher of singing’ in 1863, 1864 … and then no more. So had she died? Remarried? Left the island? On to the splendid Jersey Archive for an afternoon of digging. Starting with a quick check of the death registers for 1864. I had my answer in five minutes: died, St Helier, Giulia Isabella Smith Fry. And someone had inked in Amadei between the Smith and the Fry.



I was packing up triumphantly to leave when I noticed the cemetery records on a shelf, and – as one does – automatically and idly turned up F for Fry: and there was the record of the purchase by Mr George Fry of a numbered burial plot for his wife!
So that is how and why this morning, after breakfast, I hit the road towards the pretty hilltop cemetery on the other side of town. The Parks Department man who was mowing the grass joined me enthusiastically in my gravestone hunt and, when we got nowhere, picked up his mobile phone and telephoned cemetery HQ in town. Ten minutes later a man from HQ drove up with a map, and together the three of us tracked down plot 201. Alas, the stone thereupon was so weathered that, even using Braille, it was impossible to read more of the inscription than the ‘In’ of ‘In memoriam’. So no date of death for my encyclopaedia.
But I was on a roll. On the way back, I popped into the Jersey Registrar’s Office to see if could lay hands on a death certificate, and within two minutes I held in my hands not a certificate but the original register in which is inscribed the death at 26 Midvale Rd, St Helier, on 13 February 1864 of Mrs Giulia Isabella Smith Amadei Fry, nee Lamonte, wife of Dr George Fry MRCS, at the age of 34.
Well, some of that was true.
Isabella Hume Fry, born Lamont in Edinburgh, Scotland, and married there to her doctor (which was why I couldn’t find her in the English records!) was actually 37. But, hey, what’s one more fib amongst so many?
So, give or take the Smith bit, ‘Madame Giulia Amadei’ is no longer a mystery – thanks to one little concert review in an ancient paper, a bit of intuition, and the grand and friendly Jersey Archive. And whether that actually is her gravestone or not, I’m saying it is, and thus tying up a case history that had so long seemed to be impossible to decipher.
Very satisfying!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Guernsey Great and Guernsey Ghastly

*

I couldn't resist this. Just to prove my point. If it needs proving.
Standing up in one of the high places of the town, alongside some fine ancient buildings ..
You look one way and see how an architect has made a whole new suburb which fits seamlessly into the fabric of the old town



and then you look the other way, and see where some hack has thrown a tatty glass and (seemingly) 3-ply shack on to one of St Peter's Port's most visible hillsides. Why? Oh, why?

One Day in Guernsey (part 2)

*

The main roads done, the shopping streets, with their uncomfortable cobbles, zoomed through, I started taking some of the little stairways and tiny stone streets which run up the hill at every turn. Delicious stuff. Lovely little hidden-away houses and gardens, trees, rooftops – so many rooftops! I’m very fond of rooftops



Surprise buildings, too. Here’s the St James’s Hall, an impressive hulk which was clearly once a church, and which has been converted to an auditorium et al



I passed another church, also past its churching days, with smashed stained-glass and boardings, which looked as if it were ready for its remake. Here, it seems, nothing worthwhile goes to waste.
But I can see why some of the town’s churches are being reconverted. There seem to be almost as many of them here as in a French town. And, in a way, this town reminded me most happily of some of the southern French villages I once knew. More, strangely, than those of Southern England. But then, I guess les iles anglaises de Normandie were originally French.

The guide book had gone on and on about the town’s culinary delights, so, as I weakened, I thought a little hot lunch might be nice. But I couldn’t find anything I liked. I didn’t want burgers and pizzas, thank you, I didn’t want a large waterfront tourist caff disguised as a resto, I wanted a nice little family restaurant where I could have a bowl of soup and a piece of fresh fish … and the only likely ones I came upon didn’t do lunch. In the end, at 3pm, I decided on a prettily situated, quiet place in La Plaiderie which advertised home-made soup. It was called La Pâtisserie which should have warned me. While other folk had coffee and lavish cream cakes, I put away some fair cauliflower and bacon soup, a würsteln dish, because I thought it might be warming, and two glasses of wine and realised I’d spent the same amount as I’d paid for my sea bass the night before. Lesson learned.

Slightly warmed, I set out on my feet again, accomplished a few more ruelles and escaliers, and passed a shining Boer War memorial which completely outdoes any other monument on the island – the Alberts and Victorias are nowhere in comparison -- and also just about any other war memorial I’ve ever seen. Look at this. It’s surely a candidate for one of those competitions where you have to invent a caption. What do you think he’s saying …



At four o’clock I gave up. My feet were tired and, though the sun had peeped through, that sea breeze was still biting my waist. I thought I’d given St Peter Port a fair going over, and so I headed for the wharf.
I’d chosen to return by the ‘slow’ ferry and I suppose I’d thought it would be an older less speedy version of the morning one. But , no! The Commodore Clipper is a proper ship! Carrying containers … I felt quite at home. Its also very comfortably set up indeed, with a delightful windowed verandah bar from where you can watch the whole trip in a way quite impossible on the Vitesse vessel. And, perhaps because it takes twice the time to make the trip, there were only a small number of people travelling. Delightful!
I sat in the window, with a succession of pints of warming local beer before me, and looked back on St Peter Port glistening in the late afternoon sunshine and looking far prettier than it had before. Then I watched the islands – Herm, Sark, Alderney, I presume -- go by as we rolled along at a comfy 13 knots across the waters and round the scenic coast of Jersey to St Helier. On this trip, too, I chatted to my first Guernsey folk. So friendly. I wonder how I – usually hyper-gregarious – had got through my time on the island without exchanging a word with anyone but a waitress. I guess because – and you’ll have guessed it from the way I’ve hardly talked about anything but architecture – I never really got into the place.



So, in a way, nothing became Guernsey so much as my leaving it. The trip back was the highlight of the day. And I promptly went to the ticket office and booked myself back on the same ship for my exit from Jersey, to Portsmouth, over the night of 31 May.

I think I need to give Guernsey a second and wider go next year. Even if it’s just to have another ride on the Commodore Clipper.

One Day in Guernsey

*

I had determined that, this time during my stay in the Channel Islands (or les iles anglaises de Normandie as I now discover the French rather sadly call them) I would adventure a little further abroad than before. That I would explore more than just the roads of Jersey. So, this morning at 10.30, I boarded the Condor fast ferry at Elizabeth wharf and, whoof!, in fifty-five spume-filled minutes, there I was standing on the waterfront at St Peter’s Port, snuggled in my polar fleece (the first time its come out in 3 and a bit months since New Zealand) staring at a grey sky and thinking, OK, what now?
Now, I walk. I have five hours and a quarter before I need to be back here for the 5.30 return ferry. So, as usual, I walk. But where?
I had an open mind on Guernsey. I’d had opinions ranging from ‘just one big hill’ to ‘I like it better than Jersey’ to the local publicity that claimed it ‘the happiest place in the world’ and lauded its combination of natural beauty, well-preserved architecture and modern financial whizzery. Well, the natural beauty clearly must be in the countryside, for it isn’t in St Peter Port. It’s a perfectly nice portside town, glued attractively to its hillside with its buildings seemingly cuddled together as if to keep warm and to hold each other to the slopes. Nice buildings, too. That good solid C18th and C19th (and even early C20th) architecture that held sway before the age of the disposable building. As in Jersey, too, people mostly look after their houses. Street after street along which I strode was lined with immaculately preserved houses of earlier eras and, needless to say, the further one got away from the waterfront and its cobbled streets of shops, they better and better they got.



St Peter Port is fun to wander around. The old part anyway. The other part, which I presume is the part inhabited by the financial whizzards, is all down one end of the town, glittering in its rows of square grey boxes and smoked windows. This area is protected by a large road, with fences along it at any place where a pedestrian might like to cross, and no crossings anywhere. It says ‘keep out’ all too obviously, so I did.
Instead I wandered. Upwards. I passed the Candie Gardens, the little modern Museum and Art Gallery (and Café), and was tempted to try the History Library at Priaulx Library (a fine old building), but instead I pressed on. My first find was the Victoria Tower, a delicious piece of memorial nonsense put up to commemorate the young Queen’s ‘surprise’ visit in the early 1840s. Behind the tower is a pretty park, with nice benches, and two First World War German fieldguns. The Channel Islands are big on war memorabilia (funny, I’d prefer to forget), but this one was a bit much. In the second war, the islanders buried these ‘memorial’ guns so that the Germans wouldn’t destroy them, and in the 1970s dug them up and restored them to their place in the park!



I took a pause in the park to plan my routes, then, after a peep at what is surely the loveliest fire station in the world – a row of old stone arcades each holds a nice red engine! – I pressed on. I didn’t know then, but the fire station was typical. Guernsey has found a way, in some splendid cases, of re-using its old buildings, tactfully converted, for modern activities.
It has also committed just a handful of horrors. The 1789 Holy Trinity Church stands on attractive Trinity Square where there has already been, of necessity, some tactful rebuilding. But the Christian Powers That Be have attached to the C18th church a modern excrescence of such ugliness that I could only stand and gasp. In a town where so much seems to have been done to keep the character and style, if not necessarily uniform, at least ‘of a part’, such a crass bit of tastelessness! So sad.
Especially when, just a little way down the road, you come on the old markets with their 1822 arcades, restored by the local council with an expert hand. For behind the graceful arches, behind the grandiose façade is installed an HMV store with its pink fluo sign, inside another C19th portico is a supermarket, with an advertisement for a special on honeypuffs peeking out. Beauty and utility perfectly combined. How to take an old building, the use of which is past, and reuse it for something else.



Like any self-respecting channel port, St Peter Port inevitably has its guardian castle. Shivering somewhat, I headed out along the causeway into the ocean to give it the once over. Yes, it’s a castle. And it now holds a multitude of exhibits and events. There were 500 squealing schoolchildren milling around the shop (which is the first thing you see after entering the ancient portico) so I decided I would make do with the castle exterior. I took my photo and re-traced the causeway, and began to feel like something warm inside me.



But my hours being limited, I pressed on.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

From Bouley Bay to Sea Bass

*

Today dawned dampened and cool-breezy.
I flirted with the idea of staying indoors and writing, but the young German-Swiss lady who sat opposite me at breakfast was girding up for a walk, so I felt it would be culpable not to do the same. And when Geoff showed me the Day’s Events and I noticed that there was a collectors’ fair, about an hour and a half’s walk (he said) away, I decided on that.
So, around 10.30, I headed off towards what I was told was ‘the highest point on the island’. This island is, therefore, reasonably flat. I got there in an hour, via a road apparently named ‘La Grande Route de la Trinité’. Grande? Its about the size of a normal New Zealand country road, and it upholds Jersey’s record for lousy, or no, footpaths. I don’t have many complaints about Jersey but, honestly, do they think no-one walks? On second thoughts, I didn’t see anyone else today who was doing so, and on a number of occasions I held up the traffic by making myself a third lane on a decidedly 1 ½ lane highway, so maybe I’m being selfish.
The fair was the usual. Nice, but nothing for me. But I had a jolly chat with the car-park man, who pointed me onwards and downwards to the other side of the island. Well, if the rise to Trinité had been gentle, the descent to Bouley Bay was not.
I strode on past Trinité Church (out from which, oddly, echoed the strains of ‘God Save the Queen’), then on down to the coast. I cut corners by using one of the splendid walking trails constructed by a group named Men of the Trees, but unfortunately it ended in a building site at Bouley.
Here is a picture of Bouley.



Bouley exists, and has existed since the C18th because it is a deepwater port. Oyster boats moored here years, nay centuries, ago, also more belligerent vessels, for the place is a strategic point, looking out towards what I think is France. It has a stone jetty, a huge hotel of rather fun shape and proportions and now, alas, the building site which is apparently going to be an obviously tacky apartment block. They might have at least attempted to keep the character of the place, but no. Tacky.
The only way out of Bouley by land is back up that steep hill, so back up I duly went, and then headed on to find myself a different road back over the spine of the island to St Helier. And thus I came upon the zoo of Gerald Durrell.
I didn’t go in, as I don’t care for animals in cages, and I merely photographed the gatepost with its amusing dodo. I was wrong, it appears. The animals aren’t in cages and it’s worth seeing, so I may have to go back. Not like me not to do my homework, but I thought I knew.



The road back across the island was agreeable but perilously footpath-free, and I quickly became a traffic hazard. But, though agreeable, it wasn’t photogenic, and my camera only came out to snap some very sweet cows. Well, you can’t be in Jersey and not snap a cow, can you?



I made it home after 4 ¼ hours, slightly sore of foot because the home straight is all downhill. A Guinness, a shower, then a little snooze … because tonight I start the restaurant round.
OK. So I have my list of ‘must try and report on’ Jersey restaurants, but tonight I was going to try the tempting looking bistro (I like that word), run for 40 years by the same family (that appeals too), which is situated just 100 metres from Bayview. The Roseville Bistro.



I’m not going to go on about this. I’m simply going to say to the five ‘special’ restaurants that are on my list to be done: if any one of you can come up with better food than I ate tonight, I shall think I’ve died and gone to heaven.
I thought I could only eat one dish. That’s usually my limit. So I just ordered the local sea bass. I remember sea bass from our Christmas dinners at the Colombe d’or in St Paul de Vence days. Ian and I used to share one!
But here it came, a dear little sea bass, with a pottle of truly delicious lobster and sea food bisque to accompany, a few small new potatoes and a little veg … the perfect Kurt meal. And how much better with Guinness than with some ‘suitable’ white wine. Every mouthful was a treat, and when I’d finished, why, I felt as fresh as a frigate! So I asked for the menu.
I’m probably the only customer they have ever had who ate the menu backwards. For I ordered to follow – no, not prawns, not after the Philippines.. no, not mussels, after New Zealand -- but the home-made crab cakes from the ‘starters’ menu.
You’re going to think I’ve lost all critical sense but, I promise you, I haven’t. I will simply say that those were the Best Crab Cakes I Have Ever Eaten in my Life. All crab and no crap. Moist and light and ..
A tiny cognac ended this perfect meal perfectly, and now I’m back in my room wondering: am I obliged to do the ‘best-known restaurants of Jersey’, after all? I mean, the Roseville Bistro is so ‘me’. So handy too. And just so perfect that I can even bear the muzak.

I’ll think about this very important question tomorrow during my day-trip to Guernsey…

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Food, Fabulous Food!

*

My idea, when coming here, was that I would follow (as I have in so many things in my life) the way of my dear friend Gerry Bordman, and eat out and well. Since I am staying in a bed and breakfast accommodation, I would each night go out and visit one of the better restaurants of St Helier. It seemed like an attractive idea, and I suppose that I’d be doing it already, except that…
Well, yesterday, after all the fretting and all the travelling, eating out at an hour when most restaurants are working properly didn’t seem like an option. And fate gave me an answer to my mini-dilemma.
As I walked the streets of St Helier, I passed a dark little door which had a blackboard saying ‘Last Day..’ and ‘Market’. Everything must go? Oh, even though I don’t buy anything any more, I should, I thought, have a look. So in I dived. It was a delusion. It was only one shop in the market that was ‘last day’. And it was the fish market. Splendid booths filled with fresh-caught (I hope) Channel Islands fish and manned by vigorous men in Victorian aprons and armed with Victorian knives.
And then my eye was caught by something else. A little shop with proper Spanish sherry. Damn! And I’d already bought a bottle of something far less good. I was going to walk by, but something pulled me back. Thank goodness. I went in to ‘relish (sic) wine and foods’, and found myself in a deli heaven.



I bought fat green olives stuffed with almonds. I bought home-made chicken-liver pâté with brandy. I bought some sausage of which I have no idea of the name but which was sublime. I bought some cheese. I asked rather ‘knowledgeably’ for Époisse, sure that, of course, they couldn’t possibly have it, but would nevertheless understand my 'area' … but, heavens alive!, they did! Whole ones. But the idea of an entire Époisse, again, all to myself? Could I eat it before it walked out of my hotel room? So I settled, on the lady’s advice and after a small tasting, for - what! -- a British cheese, the ‘Stinking Bishop’ instead. You know, I believe it’s just as good as my idolised French favourite! I bought another bottle of proper sherry, and a bottle of Spanish cava bubbly (overall total cost food and drink: 25 pounds), and I came back to Bayview and devoured the whole damned lot.

Now it's tomorrow. I was going to go to a restaurant tonight but, since it’s more or less the weekend, I went back to ‘relish’ this afternoon and loaded up with supplies, just in case. Well, just in case happened. The restaurant I'd thought of was full (was that a coach party I saw !?! .. ah hrmm err) so I’m back at Bayview and, having ingested the odd Guinness with my hosts, am happily curled up in my room with Stinking Bishop, the sausage of which I forgot to ask the name, chicken-liver pâté, the Spanish bubbly, heaps of the olives plus – oh yes! – two suggestions of Eric (right, in the picture) the maker of all these adorable things, some wondrous game pâté and some .. well, its not exactly tête de veau, it’s far too good to be just that, it's … well, it's tastebud heaven.

I can't say 'marry me' twice in two days to two different men, can I?



I will, I will go to a restaurant tomorrow night (I’ve booked, purposely) but heck, how do you beat this????

Sigh. One more glass. Not a mouthful more of food, not even an olive, and then bed!

Sigh.

Jersey Revisited

*

I liked Jersey a lot when I visited last year. Which is, of course, why I came back again this year, and for longer. But what I didn’t realise was how amazingly much more I would like it, second time around.
Of course, there are differences. Last time, I stayed purposely with the lovely Lucille, out at Rocqueberg, thirty minutes from the heart of St Helier, and I spent much of my time walking country roads. Great! But this time I’ve elected to stay right on the waterfront in St Helier and, already, it’s a very different thing. I’ve been exploring, oh yes, already during my thirty hours in town, but I’ve been exploring the town of St Helier, its streets, its markets, its shops (not much), its eateries, its port. Walking, one way and another, just as much as I did in the country, but seeing different things. And, oh! How I like them.



Starting with the Bayview Guest House.
St Helier, and especially this part of St Helier, near the Havre des pas, seems to be made up of guest houses. Some of them call themselves ‘hotels’ but not many. One lovely old Victorian house after another, immaculately restored, offers rooms to let, apartments to let, or bed and breakfast. Just like the Blackpool I knew in the early seventies, except much, much prettier, much better kempt, and undeniably with more of an air of olden days class and charm. For, yes, parts of this place really do give you the feeling of stepping back in time. Which, of course, is certainly something to bewitch me.
I’m not the only one, evidently. For up the street next to here, endless Tantivy blue buses disgorge endless plane-loads of Northern British elderlies into the ‘hotels’. Yes, somehow the accents all seem to be northern (also the hairstyles and the dress sense). And the folk a good decade or two older than I. I think, like me, they are indulging their nostalgia for the British seaside holiday of their youth, just for a weekend or maybe a whole week. Today I passed a very elderly couple sitting quietly on a bench overlooking the beach, just looking. The sky was tepid, the water only blueish, there was a bit of a breeze and no-one on the sort-of-sands, but they didn’t seem to notice. An hour later when I re-passed the place, they were still there. Quite contented.

This morning, I heard, at breakfast, someone youngish mention ‘changeover day’. My goodness, does that expression still exist a hundred years on!

Bayview’s customers don’t seem to come in busloads and they seem to be much younger, like Geoff and Carolyn, the owners, who are just old enough to have a three-months old granddaughter, Jamie Lee, who was almost the first person I met when I arrived.
My room is just what I love: an old-fashioned boarding house room -- small (cabin-sized, because I am a single) but equipped with my preferred mod cons. I have a fridge, a splendid shower, a nice comfy little iron bedstead with a good mattress (also a TV and microwave neither of which I shall use) and, best of all, excellent wifi. So I can blog. So I’m super-contented all round.
The house is a stage’s width from the beach, with its comically un-Victorian pier, its gravelly sands, and its fine waterfronting rows of lovely period houses, ruined of course, by those four crass towers of council blocks I mentioned last year. Whoever put them there should be burned in effigy (or even not in effigy) by the Jersey Tourist Board every witches’ Sabbath.



In spite of that planning authority aberration, though, I love this place. Its look, its people. Jersey, I have already decided, is very, very me. And St Helier as well. So, up till now, out of my 30 hours since landing, I’ve spent nine asleep and twelve .. walking!
I’ve explored the port whence I shall ferry across to Guernsey and maybe Sark, I’ve explored the streets and the alleyways, I’ve visited the library and (when it opens) will visit the National Archive, I’ve explored the markets, which are the most delightful approximation of the Victorian market I have ever seen …




Also, I’ve peered in so many restaurant windows, peered at so many restaurant menus … but not with much confidence. Every menu I’ve seen so far has been far, far too comprehensive. Any restaurant that offers forty dishes isn’t making them fresh. So, they are not for me. I’m tempted though by the Bohemia, which I’m told is the island’s top spot. I trotted past today and, yes, a sensibly sized programme. A bit frilly and fancy in the vein of ravioli and coulis made from original (unoriginal?) substances. But OK, I’m willing to try. Eventually. Because right now I don’t need to try..
See my next!

Nightmares and nice men

More travel. Ah, well, it couldn’t go worse that the previous bits, could it? It was just plane from Amsterdam to East Midlands, a whole hour to get to the connecting flight, then on to Jersey. No problems, they told me. No problems?
Kevin drove me extra early to Schipol and dropped me off at BMI where I queued to check in. When I arrived at the desk, however, it was to be told that BMI was not the same airline as BMI Baby. I needed to be in an utterly different area. Just as well I’d left the time. But how stupid. I cannot be the first person to make that mistake. They could at least put up a sign. Not a good start. But it got worse. And stupider. When I checked in, Mr BMI Baby told me, no he couldn’t check me in for the second half of the flight, nor check my bag through to Jersey. At East Midlands I had to disembark, immigrate, collect my bag, go from Arrivals to Departures, re-check in …
Adjectives failed me. And so did my courage. When is an airline not an airline….?
My nervousness was patent as we queued for the plane, but two habitués of these flights – a very tall, quiet black man with a reassuring manner, and a fine, confident Welshman – assured me ‘I would be all right’. East Midlands airport is a small one, immigration is instant, baggage arrives in minutes, and so forth. To calm me, the charming BMI flight attendant even contacted land to tell them I was coming, but nothing, it appeared, could alter the 30-minute before take off deadline within which I and my bag must appear at the BMI desk.
I guess you could say I fell on my feet. The handsome Welshman turned out to be placed in the next seat to me, and in the face of my evident distress he offered to personally shepherd me through to check-in. Another Sir Galahad. No, more like a saint, this one: ‘Saint David’, I guess. There must be something about me redolent of Andromeda or St George’s Dragon’s Princess. Me? A damsel in distress? A plainish 62 year-old bloke?
We arrived on time, we zoomed from the plane pausing only to grab the immigration card which the plane had failed to carry aboard. No queue! Swiftly through to the baggage room. No baggage. Five minutes, ten, fifteen … it’s never this long .. what had seemed a shoo in was evaporating. Finally, Saint David pointed me in the direction of check in and himself stayed behind (he had no baggage!) to await my case. I got to check in with two minutes to spare, my saviour arrived with the delayed suitcase with 30 seconds to spare … I didn’t even have time to effuse my thanks, my boiling brain just followed the woman’s instructions: run, get to the desk… and I did it.
Now I could relax. I was on. But was I?
There are no security queues on Fridays, it’s a quiet day. Except this Friday. A line of hundreds and three unenthusiastic machines moving at limping pace (when moving at all). Dozens of kind Britons let me jump the queues. I had fifteen minutes to make the gate. Finally I’m on the machine: shoes and belt off, computer out.. and .. what is she doing with my bag? ‘I have fifteen minutes’ I gasp. ‘Can’t help that’ she says, ‘you’ve got scissors in there’. ‘Scissors?’ Oh, hell, my nail-scissors. I am going to weep. Saint David, where are you? But her words are harder than her acts. She slips from her seat, passes me my bag, I rip the scissors from their bag, say goodbye to them, and with shoes and belt in my hand, I run.
In theory, I should have missed the flight. I arrived thirty seconds after ‘take off time’. But BMI was running a little late, the wheelchairs were just preparing to board… my stomach settled ..
I was on. At last I was safe.
The flight was uneventful, the bus at Jersey airport was swift, the trip to town so much more pleasant than I remembered, and I was so happy to arrive at Bayview Guest House where I have the dearest little room with wildly efficient wifi, and the sun is coming out…
The nightmare is over. Until next time, I suppose.
But I don’t think I’ll ever again find a parfait gentle Knight as splendid as ‘Saint David’. Thank you, Paul. It’s great to know there are people in the world as kind, good and delightful as you. Will you marry me?

One Day in Amsterdam

*


It shouldn’t have even been a day. I should have been on the first plane out on the morning of the 15th, but it was so good to see Kevin and Bert-Jan, so good to be able to chatter away about real life over an Amsterdam rooftops barbecue and some really cold beer .. much as I love the ships, this is why one comes off them. And so, I decided ‘I am the master of my fate’ and decided to book my new flights to Nottingham and Jersey for Friday instead of Thursday. Of course, this being 2008, instead of costing 90 pounds as the early-booked ones had, it was now more like 300 pounds. Days were when it was the reverse. I’m told this nastiness was invented by the Americans at Easyjet, and BMI baby has copied it. I would think that the less like Easyjet any airline is the more likely I would be to travel with them, sotake it from there ..

My ‘treat’ day began gently and in a civilised fashion with lounging coffee and emails (so much catching up to do!) until, in the late morning, Kevin and I strolled down into the heart of Amsterdam, across all those delightful Grachts, through the pretty old buildings, and stopped off for a bite at the Eetsalon van Dobben, a treat-place of Kevin’s youthful days, where you sit at the bar and have delicious instantly prepared sandwiches of the softest white bread and lashings of interesting liver sausage, accompanied by a glass of cold milk. Ah, yes, civilised.



In the afternoon, Kevin had an interview, and the lady journalist arrived in the company of Mr Fred Bredschneyder. Fred, now aged eighty-one, has long, long been Holland’s most respected musical-theatre scholar, and he has published several books on our subject. He is also an extremely nice and interesting man and, while Kevin was being interviewed, we gossiped merrily ... for two and a half hours! Of course, once Kevin rejoined us, the whole room took on an air of being an Operetta Summit Conference .. all we needed was to fly Andrew Lamb from Croydon and Christophe Mirambeau from Paris and it would have been like the Operetta Congress of Amsterdam 2008. And, of course,as we know, Der Kongress tanzt.
Come evening time, Basia Jaworski, operatic critic, joined us, and over some yummy pasta and much champagne, we devoured a very curious film called Opera Fanatics in which an unattractive American ‘expert’ made a fool of himself ‘interviewing’ some now aged operatic singers of olden times. Simionato treated him with undeserved dignity. Gencer met his feeble flirtations with amused disdain, Marcella Pobbe, who wouldn’t play ball with his rude questions, was edited to look foolish. The only real joy for me was the discovery of the hitherto unknown to me Carla Gavazzi singing and acting Cavalleria Rusticana (my favourite opera) in a fashion I have never seen equalled. A true opera gem.
The operatics done, Kevin and I chatted on into the night about things other than music and theatre until, with the morrow’s early plane in our minds, we tiptoed off to sleep.
A lovely day in Amsterdam, a day in my ‘old’ world of music, which I suppose will, in a way, always be at least a part of my now world.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Farewell to Tiger

*


A typical seagoing snap ...

Kurt with food in one hand, a Tiger beer in the other ..

Until next time, o Bank Line!

May 14

Yes, it’s the fourteenth of May 2008, and where am I? Why, I’m on the ICE Express from Duisburg to Amsterdam, flinging from side to side on this unstabilised monster in a firstclass seat not nearly as comfortable as the one I’ve just done Hamburg-Duisburg in.

Of course, on the 14th of May I was supposed to be flying – something like four hours ago – from Amsterdam to Jersey. But I didn’t make it.

You know, last year my trip to Europe and on the seas went perfectly. Not even the shadow of a hitch anywhere. When I started to prepare this second edition, I had a foreboding. That this time everything would go wrong. So I carefully planned nothing preordained and/or prepaid until five weeks after the scheduled arrival of the Gazellebank in Europe. Guess when those five weeks ended?

It all started when we were several weeks late leaving New Zealand, and then we lost the power of one of the ship’s two engines. It was all right, it would be fixed after Singapore and I still had nearly a fortnight up my sleeve, even though my planned time with Kevin in Berlin had been halved. But, through the Suez, it became evident that we would lose more time. Winds and tides came into play as well, and for two weeks it was ‘will-we-won’t-we’ make it into the port of Hamburg on 13 May in time for me to catch that last train out to Amsterdam. Nerve-destroying. And, at the last minute, we didn’t make it. By a matter of minutes. The tide, a change of pilotage hour by the port people .. and we didn’t make it. So down the drain my trains, my pre-paid planes, my first nights in Jersey …

And it didn’t stop there. The taxi summoned to collect me from the ship at 7.30am was nearly half an hour late, the ticket computer on Hamburg station died at precisely the moment I presented myself, and then I ended up with a ticket that wasn’t at all what Kevin had told me it would be. Instead of changing at stop number three, Osnabruck, I was to go on to stop number umpteen, Duisburg. Disaster! How was I, with my known inability through deafness to use a telephone, to contact him and re-route him from meeting the Osnabrück train to meeting this thing?

Well, fate decided to be kind. A young fortyish German businessman sat down next to me at Münster and started work on his array of electronic whatsits. I tried not to look. He seemed to be everything I wouldn’t like. Sunglasses on top of head, jandals and frayed jeans teamed with immaculate, pressed white shirt, thick tinted and waved locks in an expensive cut, ‘ciao’ at the end of each brief phone call. But, dissolved in his calls, he missed the station names and asked me … and his nice crinkly face dissolved into the mostly stunning Stromboli smile. So I plcked up my courage and asked him if he could use one of his toys to call Kevin. And he did. (It seems I need a PDA -- manual not aural, you see). And he also turned out to be not only stunning but charming. Certainly made my day look up!

So, maybe from here on in, everything will look up.

Sudden though: Oh God I hope that text message went through and Kevin isn’t on the wrong station at the wrong time..

Footnote: My hopes were not, on this voyage of misfortune, realised. My second train encountered another accident, was 40 minutes late and Kevin and I missed each other by minutes. Instead, I touted my cases on foot through Amsterdam (my memory of the streets was better than I dared hope) to the Willemsparkweg, where I finally fell into a cold beer and a delicious barbecue with the friends I hadn’t seen for a whole year.

The Other Canal

*
I am writing in this in the Mediterranean. My dear, much-missed Mediterranean. I feel somehow stupidly that I am ‘home’, even though I am just on a ship in the middle of an empty blue sea. But this sea is different from the seas over which I’ve sailed these past months. The air is different too. I felt it last night, around 5pm, when we burst forth from the Suez Canal … ‘home’.

The 10-hour traverse of the Canal made an interesting day. It must be more than a decade since I made my last transit and, goodness me, how things have changed. My old memories of Suez are vague and general. Sand, broken armaments rusting in sand, an air of despond and dirt, and bareness, all covered in sand. Just the odd town, and distant palm, to break the monotony.

Not any more. Oh, there’s still plenty of sand. I don’t suppose anything will ever change that, but now there are cities and monuments (such costly monuments!), now the palms come, in places, right to the canal and the Egyptians have piped water across to the Sinai side, where once there was nothing but pale brown war, and a huge city is bursting forth over there. The engineering, the cash, the enterprise are impressive. I wish I could say the same for the aesthetic. Too many square boxes, too few curved lines. But I guess the new Egypt has been, for the most, built for usefulness rather than for beauty.




We sat overnight in the pool at the south end of the canal, and set forth in the penumbras of dawn .. number twelve ship of convoy two .. at 6.45am. The city of Suez says farewell with a pretty mosque set amongst some splendid topiary work (when the mosques are so lovely why cannot other buildings be?) as you head into the sandy wastes peppered every few hundred yards by what look like pink and beige concrete portaloos. What they are is guardboxes, for heavens sake, each manned by an Egyptian soldier with a rifle and sometimes a pup tent. What are they guarding or guarding against? The canal? With a rifle? They are all looking inwards, so it can’t be an Israeli invasion. (Also I wondered where do they eat, and where defecate, in their tiny open guardboxes?)
Intermittently there are slightly larger military gatherings – roadblocks, barracks – at one of which the (bored?) occupants had inscribed ‘Welcome to Egypt’ in English and Arabic in the sand. It was a nice thought and made me wonder whether all the vile anti-foreigner activities and attitudes you hear of are the feelings of the real Egyptians or just those who live to get their names in the paper and their faces on TV.
I wondered some more when we passed a pretty white canalside mosque, standing head to shoulder with an equally pretty little Christian church and college. It seems the once high civilisation of Egypt is, after all, still alive.



One of my enjoyable canal memories from the last trip was of the little ferry boats, nipping from one side of the canal to the other between the convoying liners. Well, the ferries are much bigger now (and the canal has been widened), and they carry wall-to-wall vehicles as well as people, to the burgeoning network of roads on the Sinai-side, but they still perform that same nifty manoeuvre, timed to a nicety, for believe me there is only 1500 metres (at 10 knots) between the steamships.
At one of the busiest points on the canal the Japanese (why?) have constructed a vast state of-the-art grey suspension bridge. It was being used sparingly, however, while the traffic queues for the old ferries stretched down the road. Expense, suspicion or habit?



Past the city of Ismailia – it was never that huge before, and it certainly didn’t sport these vast cui bono memorials at the side of the canal, nor that pseudo-Caribbean resort with its umbrellas and jetties, nor those splendid roads which put the Pacific islands to shame – past the canal-straddling city of El Qantara which – oh! -- surely wasn’t even there last time I was here. If it was, it was but a village .. now it is evidently booming as its Sinai-side stretches far into the sandy distance. Past (at last) some more agricultural areas, with shabby farmhouses and neatly harrowed and surprisingly dark-soiled fields and busy people, past the place where the canal now divides … the tailings from recent works piled neatly and high along the banks … and then with an almost audible ‘pop’ we are out.

Time to lower the Egyptian flag, stow the pilot flag, don one’s European mindset and head into my Mediterranean.

The Deep Blue

*

Its been a while between blogs, but since the Philippines I’ve been having a quiet time.
From Dumaguete, we sailed for Sarawak. Having read up on the history of Sarawak and its amazing white Sahib beginnings, I was hoping that there might have been something of that era left to see, but if there is it certainly wasn’t on view at the ports we visited. At Miri, we stopped but briefly, and there being no port sufficiently great to hold our ship, the cargo had to be floated out to us on barges. That in itself was an interesting operation to watch, but of Miri itself we saw nothing.
Bintulu, which was indeed founded by the white Sahibs, is a much bigger place. Very much bigger nowadays since the discovery of vast offshore fields of petroleum gas. The approach to the port was littered with drilling rigs, and the town, which I took a taxi to visit, is a two part affair. On the 28km drive from port to town you pass by immaculate double carriageway highways, past impressive new industrial buildings, and through area of spanking new and modern housing. The town itself, however, predates the boom era and is a rather ordinary though not unpleasant town whose streets of older buildings are perforated by large modern constructions, mostly public buildings. I zoomed around for an hour, had a good grin at the logo for the Sarawak Turf Club (I think ours at Rangiora is rather racier!), snapped a few rather desultory pictures and trundled back to the ship.
And there I have stayed.



After Bintulu we visited Singapore and then Port Kelang (an hour’s train journey from Kuala Lumpur). I have been to both places in the past, and taken in such ‘sights’ as they have to offer. Both are large, busy, overpopulated paradises for those with a shopping bent, or a yen for a variation on the ship’s menus. I don’t shop, and am very happy with the ship’s menus. I am also allergic to hot, busy, traffic-filled cities. So I simply stayed ‘home’ and, as at Honiara, contented myself with lazing in the sun with a book and a bottle, watching the busy shipping action in the harbours and some amazing bits of cargo loading, including some particularly heavy work from a huge floating crane.
The most enjoyable thing was, however, the actual voyage itself, down the Singapore Strait and then the pirate-infested Malacca Strait. We didn’t, thank goodness, encounter any of these very real pirate vessels, although Max, our third officer, who was doing night watch reckoned he saw a suspect. What we did encounter were some very beautiful sea, sky and sun views, including one sunrise which I managed to catch on camera, and of which I am very proud. At the moment when the sun breaks free from the horizon, the whole sky flashes orange for a split second. My finger pressed the shutter, it seems at just the right moment, and here is the result.



As I write, we are nearly a day out from Kelang, passing Sumatra – a grey silhouette on the port side – and heading (if my geography and terminology are correct) for the Indian Ocean.
The weather is glorious. Veiled (thankfully) sun and wonderful warm breezes … true lotus eating weather, than which (for me) there is no weather more wonderful. So, of course, it’s the book, the sunbed, the bottle of Hawaiian Tropic suncream, another of iced water (until 5pm), and all the lotuses I can gather. Boring? Lord, no! Bliss.
And now we head for the Red Sea and Suez and ultimately Hamburg … its our homeward leg, unsplit by any further cargo stops and promises four further weeks of sunny idling. Hopefully, it won’t go too quickly.

Ricky the welder

*

Day five. Our last day in Bacong/Dumaguete. Doesn’t bear thinking about.

Another big walk? Probably excessive. So what? Lyndall had given me all sorts of tips on what to do here, based on her experiences on the last trip, and I hadn’t been enormously successful with them. So, maybe today… today I would do the massage. After yesterday’s exertions a nice massage would be just the ticket. And anyway, I had a yen to try the oriental version of what Caryl practices on my imprecisely moving and more-or-less movable parts back in New Zealand.
I’d seen a couple of places in town (150 pesos an hour), but they didn’t look too salubrious (and you know how salubrity conscious I am), and I couldn’t really see the sense of making a fourth trip into Dumaguete proper, so I decided for adventure. I’d go back to Dauin and try Mr Ricky. The masseur who seemed also to be a welder.

An hour and a bit’s sticky striding down the National Road and I came to the village. Ricky operates from rooms above a gloomy, shabby shop and, when he isn’t there, the staircase is closed off by an iron-grilled trapdoor. The trapdoor was down, and the shop thought he might be in at midday. Midday!
I set pensively off to do the grand tour of Dauin (market, Spanishy church, shops, public buildings with some bannered ceremony going on and the Grand March from Aida echoing from hidden loudspeakers), followed by an exhaustive tour of the suburbs of Dauwin. And it was still only 9.40. I gave up and turned homewards and, as I passed, I glanced up the staircase. The trapdoor was open!



Ricky is definitely not, and never will be, a welder. Ricky is a small, sliver-slight, very pretty, fourteen year-old (twenty-four, actually) Hispano-Filipino. And, yes, a boy. Though I have to admit that I had to suspend judgement briefly. We sized each other up. I thought, oy oy, is this Massage Parlour or an ummmm massage parlour, and Ricky sadly told me that he actually couldn’t help me because he didn’t keep any massage girls at Dauin, there being no call for them. It took me an instant to click. Of course, any large, sweaty, be-turbanned, wealthy white man (all white men are wealthy) who turns up eagerly at a massage parlour at 10am on a weekday morning must surely be after a massage with ‘extras’. I pantomimed my bad back and game leg and his face lit up. I wanted a therapy massage! I was on.



We proceeded from the tiny reception room into another barely larger room dominated by a large iron bed with a solid base. Ricky prepared his lotions and potions, I buffed off and …
Two hours later…
If that is an oriental massage, I want one every week. Every day would be sybaritic, not to say time-consuming. But, why not? Every day.
I think every square millimetre of my body (well, one or two .. no, make that just one .. excepted) went under his expert, flying hands. I could feel my hands and my feet coming to life, the kinks in my back and shoulders and neck and leg un-kinking, my painful groin un-paining, and after an hour or so I just lay there, as he ploughed into my extremities, gazing through the openwork ceiling, feeling the warm breezes (I think it was a fan) dancing over my vivified body, filled with the most extraordinary feeling of well-being and, indeed, sensuality. Sensuality! Me!! I’m sure this is what the lotus eaters did when they weren’t eating. Somehow, even, the loud pop music was passing me by. In fact, I think I liked it.

Two hours! And Ricky, whose body is so slight you wouldn’t think there was a smidgin of sweat in it, was dripping. While I was luxuriating, purring, floating.
Two hours? I’d counted on 30 minutes or at most an hour! I would miss lunch back at the ship and be subjected to ribald comment…

But the after-sales service chez Ricky was equal to the task. A quick coke, a quick exchange of e-mail addresses (you bet I’m coming back!), the commercial bit done (he’d put himself through a non-stop 2-hour physical workout for $30US), and out came the smart, black motor bike. I was pillioned back to the ship through the moving forest of trucks and tuk-tuks … an experience, I can tell you! Well, you try clinging like a spoon to someone whose hands have been climbing round your excesses and recesses for the last two hours! Impossible to be insensible…

Ricky, my lad, I’m bloody glad you aren’t a welder. You’re one hell of a masseur. Not to mention, one hell of a nice guy. See you next time round. If not before.

Mr Walky-Walky

*

Day four in the Philippines dawned as fair as all the others, so I decided on a proper walk. Towards town this time. Oh, I’d seen it from John’s cab, but you see ten times more when you are on foot, and I’d liked so much what I’d seen from the cab.

I’ve given up on the mosquito-protection now, as I’ve barely seen a bug all trip. But, this being tropical summer, I have not given up on sun-protection, and boy, is it needed. So the white scarf, now my trademark, was still on duty, along with my thinnest silk shirt (daringly open in front), and long shorts almost joining hands with socks and, this time, sensible shoes.

I didn’t actually mean to walk right into Dumaguete, but in the end I did, enjoying watching the folk bringing the fresh catch of the morning (how shiningly delicious those recently deceased fish looked) to the hundred little stalls that decorated my route, enjoying the welders and the builders and the housewives and the children who cried out greetings as I passed, enjoying – in fact -- everything this place has to offer. Which, as you know, in my book is a heap.

I turned round before the town centre, in the suburbs, where things got a bit scrappy and the traffic fumes a bit overwhelming, and tramped back the way I had come, counting kilometre posts all the way. How eyes popped as I passed the welding, fish-selling and building folk whom I’d stomped by two hours earlier in the opposite direction. ‘Exercise-man’! yelled one handsome, dark man perched on the edge of a roof. ‘Mr Walky-Walky’ clucked an old lady behind a much-diminished pile of fish. And the children took up the cry. I, of course, loved it all and just yelled back ‘Still going!’ ‘Still alive’ or ’20 kilometres today’ to one stalk-eyed chap who’d seen me passing by on all my tramps.

But the sun was rising in the sky. I could feel my shirt sticking to my back, my bare chest burning, and even through the silk more heat than seemed sensible. So I put my best foot forward. Which just made me hotter. I stumbled down the dust road to the ship – shirt and scarf torn off and turned to brow-moppers -- with I think, a few metres under 20k to my credit as my watch showed 11.05. A good time to be off the mad dogs and Englishmen register.

A grand morning! And the casualty list wasn’t too bad. Slightly sore feet, an incipient corn on one foot, an incipient blood blister on another, a peelable nose (so much for sunblock) and worst of all, sweat inflammation under my arms (subsequently it turned to prickly heat) and in the other odd crevice. Nothing that a good shower and a bit of lotion – plus the prevailing exhilaration -- wouldn’t mend.



But Day Four wasn’t done. I’d offered to accompany Steve the Purser on his galley-stocking trip in the afternoon. Well, fresh fruit and veg are, on a ship, to be grabbed when possible: we have a full month at sea coming up. So at 2.30 we piled into a jeepney and headed right back into town.
We started with a visit to Dumaguete’s main department store, the Lee Super Plaza, where an extraordinary amount and variety of clothing is available at what to us seem ridiculous prices. I got three nice, super-light short-sleeved shirts to replace my too hefty Hanes singlets for the next few weeks, for the grand sum of $20US. Steve, alas, got rather stymied as the Filipinos, being a petit people, don’t run to XXOS garments and only the most expensive ($30US) belt in the store fitted him. It was also the best belt in the store and I’m glad he bought it. Also the size 10 sandals (they didn’t have 11s) which ditto.
From the clothing department we headed to the food and, over the next half hour and more, filled two large supermarket trolleys with 10 of this and 20 of that from the produce shelves, under the rather dismayed eyes of the girls who, I suspect, had just done the re-stocking. The result was four huge cardboard cartons of food, super-efficiently checked-out, which we had then to hulk to the sidewalk. There, to my amazement, a tuk-tuk driver took over, piled all four boxes and me into his ‘sidecar’, hoisted the whole of Steve onto the pillion, and zoomed us teeth-curlingly off to our truck.
And so, back ‘home’ (via a couple of beers at a rather grubby, street vendor-infected, but apparently well-frequented bar) after another jolly adventure, to a shower, dinner, some more lotion, and a decidedly early bed!

Dumagete: Just keeps on getting better!

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Years and years ago, when Ian and I sailed annually across the Pacific on the Blue Star line, I became friendly with one of the ship’s officer cadets, a serious young Filipino man by the name of Jay. He shared his family story and his ambitions with me, over a can or two of beer, and I remember his final line: ‘You should come to the Philippines, you would love them’. Why me, especially? I thought. And then I remembered ghastly tales of over-populations, fume-drowned photos of Manila and Imelda Marcos’s shoes and decided the young lad was being patriotic rather than personal.

Oh, Jay, why didn’t I listen to you! Not, I suppose, that in the decade between then and now I have had much of a chance to make it here, but, still, why didn’t I believe you? OK, I’m sure that the over-populated areas, the fumes of Manila and anything at all to do with politics and footwear would still turn me off, but as of 72 hours ago my experience of the Philippine Islands has been enriched by visits to the buzzing, colourful, million-populated town of Dumagete, to the villages of Bacong and Dauin, and to places around and beyond … and I am falling for this place like Isaac Newton’s apple.

We arrived in the pretty harbour at Bacong early on Easter Sunday, and I’d planned on staying on board for the day. Surely nothing would be happening. But purser Steve had organised John the cab-driver to take all those who wanted – for Easter mass or just plain sightseeing -- to make the 12km trip to Dumagete, so I went.

The good vibes started as soon as we hit the Main Highway. Warm, bright, colourful, busy. Fine houses, fabulous flowers and greenery, and Lord be praised: an immaculate tarmac road simply buzzing with mopeds, bikes both motorised and pedal, the ubiquitous tuktuks and a good ration of buses. Rather fewer private motor vehicles. And the vibes stayed good as we hit town.

I wont pretend that the centre of Dumagete proper is particularly aesthetic. A main square with a heavy ration of statues (Jose Rizal is evidently the local hero, I must find out why), some pretty flowers and .. a great hole in the middle where a sewage plant is being installed. And, alas, the odd baby beggar and moneychangers almost at the doors of the temple. The temple is the C18th-19th-20th cathedral.

I spotted the sea, and headed in that direction and found myself on a lovely half-mile boulevard stretching round the bay to the ferry port. I devoured it happily and encountered one of the most amazing statues I’ve ever met, commemorating seven nuns who arrived here in 1904 and made themselves beloved of all.



I circumvented the vast campus of the 1901 Silliman University (50,000 students!), dove through shopping streets and residential streets and mean streets and ended up at the Municipal Market, a vast affair of open food halls and gloomy stalled corridors which even on Easter Sunday were in semi-full swing. So many food stalls! I suppose a million people can eat all those gleaming fish and scrawny chickens (I’m now told they may have been fruit bats) and cleavered up chunks of meat in one day ..?

Finally, I arrived back at the Cathedral where Easter Mass was coming to its end and I joined the small crowd at the welcomingly wide-open doors for the sung Lord’s Prayer. Sadly, it wasn’t the version I used to sing on the radio in the 1960s so I couldn’t join in.



And then, back to the cool of the ship, glowing with the almost certitude that this place was for me.

Considering that I’d seen all the city I needed, I determined on day two to don my walking shoes and head away from town. So at 9am I set off towards the village of Dauwin 3 ½ km distant. Walking on the Main Highway is a wee bit hazardous. Few people walk, everyone takes a tuk-tuk or a jitney, also the traffic is pretty heavy and everyone hoots as they overtake. Which means the hooting is all but continuous. They also hooted when they saw this madman striding towards them down the edge of the tarmac and took wide or sometimes less wide evasive action. I now know why moped drivers wear yashmaks: many vehicles wouldn’t pass a noxious fumes test.

The walk was a joy. I seem to like everything I see in the Philippines. I noticed a lot of slightly incomplete but ‘wealthy’ houses up for rent (how much, I wondered), I noticed several beachside resorts, almost all ‘for sale’ (not going there!), but mostly it was the same combination of glorious greenery and happy houses, endless little shacky ‘shops’ (mosltly sporting, or half built of, Coca Cola ads), roaming or roped cows and careless chickens, and, of course, the cheerful and half-shy ‘hallo’-ing people.
Local preoccupations show though. I passed a sizeable medical centre which advertised its services: ‘family planning’, ‘HIV/AIDS’ and ... ‘gender sensibilities’. We are in the land of the ‘ladyboy’.
I also passed ‘Ricky’s Massage’ in the township of Dauwin, and longed to pop in for a bit of much-needed pummeling and osteopathy. I regretted that I’d cashed no pesos. But 100 metres further down the road I came to ‘Ricky’s welding services’ and thought that maybe Ricky wouldn’t be quite the man to take out my kinks.

I got a wee bit carried away, pounding through the mid-morning heat, and when I found that I’d gone 3km beyond Dauwin I judged it prudent to turn back. Just as well I did. You see, I’d forgotten to change into my walking shoes. Espadrilles on hot hard tarmac aren’t quite the same. My faltering must have shown around km10, when a kind young man offered me his pillion. I was too proud, and he zoomed on. And blow me down if some minutes later he didn’t appear from behind me, again…!

I reached the ship, footsore and broiled, and realised that I’d done my 12km plus in little worse than 6km per hour. That was my speed 35 years ago, when Alison and I used to tramp the hills of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic together. So maybe this old boy isn’t doing too badly after all. Still, maybe I should have tried Ricky.

Tired of ‘tours’ centred on shops and souvenirs and ‘resorts’, I – in allegiance with Jim (83) and Betty from Minnesota – arranged with John for a drive into the country for our day three activity.
This place just keeps on getting better!
We had a glorious day. A drive of little more than an hour inland and upwards, past scenery which looked sometimes New Zealandish, sometimes French, but – thanks to its tropical greenery and – once the mansions of the foreign rich (yes, I asked the price) passed -- its tropical houses, shacks and storelets, was clearly neither. Just lovely.
We slung our anchor at a spot in the hills, named Cocosava, beside a waterfall-ridden river, where a rocky pool, some tables and chairs and a barbecue grill had been installed. Entrance 10 pesos (25 cents US). Our braver members bathed in the icy river, underneath a heavy cataract. I broke my non-swimming habit and irrepressibly leapt, in my best shorts, into the rocky pool to gambol in its fast-flowing waterfall. Heaven!
Unlike in Santo, we didn’t have this place to ourselves. Two large groups, young men and children mostly, soon joined us and, as we disported ourselves in the pool and the torrent, the place rang with squeals and laughter.



It was also soon infused with the smells of delicious BBQ cooking. John’s 16 year-old daughter Megan flung the most enormous prawns I have ever seen on to the flames, along with rich slabs of lamb leg chop. John produced ice cold beer, rice and condiments and then filleted fresh pineapple …

One of my fondest meal memories of all time is of a beach feast of fresh fish and salad, taken on a beach in Rhodes, around 1973. I think this one must qualify for the same kind of memory. I can taste and feel the bloody juice from the rare lamb dribbling down my chin. And I shall dream of those cray-sized prawns.

What else, I wonder, can the Philippines come up with to enchant me? The next day or two will tell. But one thing I know already, I am definitely coming back here.



Wheels in Dumaguete: Pierre John R Buscato, Godspeed Cars, 0906-2710312