Sunday, 7 May 2017

Belgrade Easter 2017

Easter 2017

In the literal sense, I love going the road less travelled. Two short flights with Lufthansa, via Frankfurt, got me to a European capital which is definitely off the beaten tourist track, but one which is undergoing a renaissance in having downbeat areas being restored and gentrified, and which has, as it stands, a wealth of fun, interest, and beauty to entertain the visitor.
Arriving at Nikola Tesla Airport, named for the great Serbian scientist, I was greeted by bonsai trees lining the passage to passport control, which was speedy, and onwards to baggage reclaim. The carousels are quirky in that the as yet unclaimed luggage appears to retreat into a car boot. My bag arrived quickly, and out I went to meet my hackney driver whom I had arranged through Viator. He provided me with an impeccably safe drive to my hotel.
I checked into the Radisson Blu Old Mill Hotel, which is a revamped industrial mill building, with the old chimney and yellow brick walls evident to the rear. The interior is totally avant-garde with clever use of lighting. I was warmly greeted at reception, and my luggage carried up to my room by a very helpful and informative bellhop. We encountered an English bulldog in the corridor outside his room, and I gave him a little scratch on his furrowed brow. The door to my room was designed to stay in whatever position was required; it did not slam closed on you. Every detail in the hotel was a little piece of engineering and design, and I was pleased to have made a good choice of a place to spend my three nights.

Breakfast was quite a feast featuring a great variety of traditional and local specialities, with explanations of what each item was. An orange juice squeezer was there to fill your own glass. I was to discover that identical citrus squeezers feature in all the city’s cafes. Home-baked breads were on offer, local cheeses, a Serbian type quiche, traditional red pepper condiment, cold fish, bacon, eggs, sausage, salads, yoghurts, fruit and pastries. I had a private tour booked for myself online through Viator.

My Big Belgrade Private Tour began with a visit across the beautiful modern cantilever bridge (similar to the ones over the Boyne and in Dundrum) across the River Sava to New Belgrade, an area of green spaces and buildings of various merit and which divide opinions. There are those dreary functional communist era blocks of flats devoid of aesthetic, and the ultra-smart new apartment buildings and housing. A lot of the hotels, conference, cultural and sporting facilities are located in this district, which locals consider to be the best location to live in Belgrade. Floating nightclubs on the Sava and Danube rivers, with DJs playing the ever popular Turbo-Folk mixes provide fun after dark.

Back across the river we hit what might have been real city traffic, only it was light because of the Orthodox Easter weekend. In 1935 building commenced at the first location where we stopped. Like the Familia Sagrada in Barcelona, Saint Sava’s Serbian Orthodox Church, the largest ecclesiastical building in the country, is still incomplete and awaits charitable donations to finish a large amount of interior work. The great white edifice stands on a plateau away from the city centre, and is only rarely used for worship as it awaits completion. Outside, sweet stalls displayed colourful arrays of the traditional confectionary of Serbia, the Serbian Love Heart.
The Parliament Building is perhaps the most iconic of Belgrade’s structures, and its picture features in news items and Eurovision jury votes. A very busy road passes between it and a park full of trees, so it is quite difficult to get a good picture of it. Also spoiling the picture was a giant protest banner across the foot of the building protesting about Albanians killing Serbs. Kosovo is still very much a hot issue and continuing legacy of the last Balkan war.  

We drove through the old Belgrade area of Dorcol, very much in need of face-lift, but considered as the near future hotspot in the gentrification of Belgrade. A very prosperous looking veterinary hospital is located here, reflecting the popularity of pet animals. The city’s main marina is located here and due for further development. In spite of current grittiness bohemian Dorcol is considered a desirable place to live on account of its position in the heart of city life and overlooking the Danube.
Kalemegdan Fort is the greatest focus of touristic interest in Belgrade, and almost as iconic as the Parliament building. Its fortified walls encompass a lovely and interesting park which is free to enter by all denizens. Just beside the fortressed park is the small and tidy city zoo mainly housing smaller creatures, a popular attraction for a city of animal-lovers. Within the fortress moat and buildings is the Military Museum with a fascinating display of tanks visible from the bridge over the moat. A park of moving roaring dinosaurs which can be “ridden” by children is a fantastic family attraction, and I know it would have impressed or terrified me endlessly as a child; these creatures were of serious dimensions, but would probably be forbidden in EU for health & safety reasons. Aptly named Jurassic Park!

Zemun is a very pretty old town surrounded by modern urban developments and is part of the city of Belgrade. We parked along the café-lined esplanade by the Danube and walked through the crumbling cobbled streets up the hill to Gardos Tower. From here I got the classic view over Zemun town with its many spires and red roofs, spilling sown to the broad Danube.
En route to Tito’s mausoleum we drove along the most upmarket road in leafy Belgrade suburbia, where stand some grand old embassy buildings and quite elaborate mansions, some of them in need of renovation for want of money by the people who inherited them. It wasn’t the kind of place you’d care to stop and take a picture on account of the gun wielding guards outside the embassies.

Tito’s Mausoleum is situated in a conservatory type building named the House of Flowers on account of the maintenance of floral planting alongside the burial tombs of Josip Broz Tito and his wife Jovanka Broz. Marshal Tito, the socialist dictator of Yugoslavia, died one year after I visited the Croatian sector on my first foreign overseas trip post Leaving Cert in 1978. On display is an elaborately carved writing desk which belonged to him. However, he always considered his items as possessions of the people which he made good use of, and left all his items to be put on display for future generations to see, rather than pass them down through his family and friends. My guide has mixed feelings about him, and considers that he is quite a cut above most of the rest of the Soviet era despots, and the ordinary people could afford a very nice annual family holiday in a decent hotel in any Eastern Bloc destination of their choice. On location I visited a museum which was filled with all the diplomatic gifts which had been given to Tito by dignitaries from the many countries which he had encountered during his leadership. It is a fascinating medley of items, some of them absolutely absurd or grotesque items of supposed national pride by the donating countries and it’s no wonder he put them aside for a museum rather than have them decorating his house.

For lunch, the driver brought me to at an atmospheric restaurant in the suburbs for and I had choice of whatever I wanted a la carte. Usually on these set itinerary tours you get a set menu, but I was given freedom to indulge. As it happened my stomach was still fairly full from the large breakfast, so I decided on the meat soup (more of a stew), bread, followed by  cevap, which are minced pork balls a bit like koftas and a bowl of Serbian salad, all washed down by a glass of beer. My driver too enjoyed a glass of beer as this amount is permitted in Serbia. A group of musicians moved through the various rooms of the restaurant playing folk music.

After lunch my driver announced that we were “going up the mountain”, the one and only mountain in the region of gently rolling lowlands. Entering through the forest park gate a narrow winding road brought us to the top of the modest peak where a car park and restaurant looked out to the nearby stern concrete Avala Tower. A short walk gave beautiful views of the surrounding country and brought us to the Monument to the unknown Hero, a little temple perched regally at the tip top of the hill, reached by a series of steps. It is dedicated to Yugoslav soldiers, from all regions of former Yugoslavia, who fought in all wars throughout the times.

Down the hill we parked by Avala Tower, a 670ft concrete tower originally built in 1965 for television transmission. It looked stark and sinister against the bright sunlight as we approached its entrance up a series of ramps. The original tower was destroyed during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999; no longer needed as a TV transmitter, the locals missed their landmark badly and money was raised to have it rebuilt purely as thing of beauty, if you could call it that. Like many Belgraders do on a weekend outing, we ascended to the viewing area by lift and got a bird’s eye glimpse of the distant city, Sava and Danube overs, of the mountain very close by, and of a delightful little wooded Orthodox church in the woods below.

My driver suggested we drive back to the city via a different route which took me past a series of very fine new mansions, about 6 or more bedrooms to each, with plenty of green space around them. I remarked on the size of these houses and he said that they go for a song, about €75K each, as nobody wants to live far outside the city and have to drive in and negotiate traffic every day. They have to build them big out this far to get any buyers at all. Reaching back to my hotel I said that the commute from those grand houses is no length, and he replied “But its Orthodox Easter Saturday”.

For the second day of my weekend in Serbia, I originally had the idea to explore some of the fascinating areas outside the capital, but this being Orthodox Easter Sunday, nobody in the country was working. It’s the equivalent to Christmas Day in Dublin. There are mountains, film sets, a historic train, monasteries, fortifications, vineyards, notable towns, caves, and craft centres to see and visit. But I resolved to see Belgrade more intimately, on foot, and I’m so glad I did. This is a place that deserves a longer weekend than I had planned.

It was a 25 minute, somewhat uphill walk into the city centre, the quickest route being via a narrow grey backstreet. I encountered plenty of folk walking their dogs along the way; everybody seems to love their pets here as in most European cities. Give me a map, I love navigating my way around on foot, and was enjoying my adventure in spite of some neurological difficulties with legs and balance; I was going at my own pace, nobody to follow, nobody to rush me. I didn’t encounter even one dodgy looking person or a homeless individual, a far different scenario from my native Dublin.
I passed by a fine old railway steam locomotive tucked in close to a grand building; it was the Railway Museum, of course closed today. Shortly I came upon the Hotel Moskva, the most iconic hotel in the city, a relic of the Russian Empire, built in 1903. A beautiful building, with the city’s first font of potable water placed right in front of it.

Soon I came upon Republic Square, the very centre of the city, where all the people gather for various reasons. However, being my equivalent of Christmas Day, few were here. A crane and building works were taking place in front of City Hall, somewhat spoiling the photographic opportunity. But I had it almost all to myself, probably a unique experience!
I stopped off at one of the cafes which was open on this day of great significance in the religious calendar, and enjoyed a long glass of freshly squeezed half orange and half grapefruit juice, which seemed to be a staple thirst quencher throughout the city.
By this time I was strolling down Mihailova Street, the main pedestrianised shopping street of the city, an impressive thoroughfare which started as a big city street and ended as a pretty small town style street at its far end at the main entrance of the Kalemegdan Fort.
Not much was open, and few enough people were in town. It made for relaxed viewing of some fine buildings, especially the intricate architectural detail which could be examined looking upward. In every old European city I visit I just love to stand and gaze at such features.

The pharmacy was open and I took the opportunity to look in and examine the lovely wooden counters and shelves, a throwback from history. But then I recall my visit to Yugoslavia in 1978 and the local chemist shop had the same style interior, harking back to the time when the first pharmacy in Europe opened down south in Dubrovnik. A small souvenir shop was open and I bought a couple of items to take back to my work colleagues. Also open was a bookshop which proved a magnet to the few folk wandering down the street.
One of the cafes had books old and new placed casually about, with the people inside relaxing over a cup of coffee and a good read. A tea shop had in its window-display an array of old teapots from far and wide, and another café featured old coffee cups in its windows. A Balkan restaurant had a large canopy of red umbrellas across a patio by its entrance. I was later to read that such a display of umbrellas is a traditional feature in Balkan establishments, especially in Bulgaria.

Throughout the city, fountains are a popular feature. They come in all forms and sizes, and have given safe drinking water for decades. Nobody bothers with buying bottled water here, they carry around an empty one and fill it at the next drinking font, which is invariably of decorative merit.
Rain had been promised by the national forecast and it delivered exactly as promised. Starting out grey, it turned drizzly, then wet, and finally constantly saturating. My waterproof camera was challenged only by blurring of the images, but survived electronically. I could hardly see anything through my misty wet glasses and beyond my hood. Yet I was having fun in my own kind of way! A city is the best place to be in rotten weather; the wet shows up detail in the glistening stone, and no sun casts buildings as mere silhouettes.

It was raining quite heavily by the time I reached the beautiful Pionirski Park in front of the Parliament building. Purple and white flowers graced the beds, with a couple of attractive fountains and inspiring statues to grace the picture. Several important buildings surround the park, and of course the copper-domed Parliament building is the main city icon in the manner than the Eiffel Tower is of Paris. The statue I loved best was that of the Serbian Fauvist artist Nadezda Petrovic, it is in my opinion a masterpiece of simplicity and grace and its image lingers strong in my head.
The rain was at its peak as I turned downhill along the long grand avenue leading to my hotel. I  had done nearly four hours walking, in not the best of shape, and crumpled down on my cosiest of beds until I enjoyed a nice evening meal and a nightcap.

My Lufthansa plane took off and followed the silvery Danube for some while. Coming towards Frankfurt the aircraft very suddenly started pitching, fortunately nobody was making their way to the toilet at the time or there could have been injuries. It only lasted a few moments, then the captain came on to apologise for this unexpected disturbance which happened during entry through a small cloud which happened to have strong updrafts. We continued to Frankfurt without further incident, and I caught my connection homeward bound to Dublin.


Saturday, 29 April 2017

My once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica, my 7th and final continent to conquer, began with a business class journey with Lufthansa to Buenos Aires. The entire vacation was courtesy of an inheritance from my cousin Celine who died of motor neurone disease.

Flight to Argentina
Being such an epic and special trip, I pushed the boat out and booked Business Class with Lufthansa from Dublin to Buenos Aires, where all the people for this voyage were required to meet up, no matter what part of the world they might come from. First I flew the short hop to Frankfurt, and was able to avail of the executive lounges to relax, sip coffee or wine, nibble on goodies, charge up my electronic devices and avail of the Wi-Fi. The second hop was a long 14 hour one on board a 747, and I was glad that nobody was occupying the seat next to me, affording me of even more privacy and space to put stuff. The flight was totally smooth, but oddly I remained awake throughout, even though I was lying fully flat and comfortably on the electronically controlled seat. Arriving after dawn, the aircraft began its descent over Uruguay, passing the city of Colonia and across the enormously wide Plata estuary before reaching Buenos Aires the other side.

Hotel Emperador
Along with all the people who were taking the Antarctica cruise, I spent one night in the very comfortable old style Emperador Hotel, which is located in a nice area of the city. But I was too tired to explore, having not slept at all during the long flight, and I devoted my limited energy to checking in with the Hurtigruten office which had set up in a conference room in the basement. They advised me of the very early start next morning and to have luggage out by 10pm that night, which I would not be seeing until I reached the cabin of my ship the following evening.

Flight to Ushuaia
A 3 ½ hour flight with Latam airlines brought us to the southernmost town in the world. Descending to Ushuaia over the Beagle Channel, a wall of mountains hugged the plane either side right down to the landing at the airport on a small flat island which is linked to the city by a causeway. Ushuaia has an idyllic setting and is an attractive and colourful city rising up the steep mountainside from the shore. The spectacular landscape reminded me of the wilder parts of Norway and the Isle of Skye in Scotland.

Tierra del Fuego tour
Being a small airport, it wasn’t long before I was on board my bus for a pre-cruise excursion, destined for a tour of Tierra del Fuego National Park. The first commercial premises we passed as we in the suburbs of Ushuaia was a huge pet grooming and supplies shop. It was indicative of the extent of dog ownership in Argentina, as again I encountered in Buenos Aires. It took little time to reach the entrance of the national park, and the beautiful green and blue wilderness which lay beyond. Fortunately the elements were kind today, with some sun and some light sprinkles of rain. Our young redhead local guide told us that today we were experiencing the fairest weather that this region of southern Patagonia can offer, being at such a southerly latitude, akin to Norway in the northern hemisphere.
We encountered people camping in the wilderness, which is permitted here once you clear up after yourself. Boardwalks provide wheelchair access to some beautiful viewing points, but of course the intrepid able-bodied navigate into the remote backwoods. A visitor centre provides eating and picnic facilities and an interpretive centre. Very close by is the border with Chile, the location of which was subject to disputes and negotiations and mutual enmity in times past.

MS Fram
Late in the afternoon we were driven to the quayside where our ship, the MS Fram awaited us. A medium sized vessel, it is part of the fleet of Norwegian shipping company Hurtigruten, with whom I had voyaged previously. I had a compact outside cabin on deck 3, just perfect for me and cleverly designed, but a bit of a squeeze for two people. The vessel has 7 decks utilised by passengers. The Panoramic Lounge is named well and has telescopes for closer viewing of the wildlife from the cosiness of indoors. Just outside of it is a spacious outdoor deck with two Jacuzzis. From here can climb up to the top outdoor viewing deck for a bird’s eye view of what lies in wait ahead. Deck 4 has the attractive dining room, the main reception area, shop, lecture rooms, charts and information boards.
We set sail just as I sat down for dinner. Tonight, as with most nights, it was a very tasty self-service buffet featuring soup, Norwegian cold cuts of venison, pork, salami etc, smoked salmon, lovely breads baked on board, a different feature roast every evening (beef/pork/gammon/venison/chicken/duck/lamb), pasta and casserole dishes, vegetarian options, and invariably those long carrot crisps which I grew so fond of, and Norwegian lingonberry sauce to serve with anything and everything. Little dessert cakes and mousses were on offer to have with the coffee.
Half an hour down the channel, the ship turned around, headed back to Ushuaia. It was announced that a couple had missed boarding Fram due to a flight delay, and that we were turning back in the hopes of picking them up and saving the day. In the event the port authorities refused an unscheduled non-emergency docking, which must have been most frustrating to the couple who were left to watch the ship go, come back and go again.
Safety drill was performed. We were introduced to the Captain and crew. Our Norwegian Captain looked and sounded the part with a deep, loud, slow and deliberate enunciation. We had a female Navigation Officer who was later to give us a lecture in the art of navigation and what she would have to do in the unlikely event of all systems failure.

Drake Passage
The expanse of sea between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula is known as the roughest area of water in the world. Part of the South Atlantic, the Southern Ocean, Drake Passage is notorious from the times of early exploration. Rounding Cape Horn was a feat of survival in those early ships. In high summer, such as this time in late January, it posed a more moderate threat to the wellbeing of my very delicate sea-going stomach. It was a bit rocky, but not dreadful. I enjoyed a Jacuzzi on deck in between watching giant albatrosses following us in our passage. Having the largest wing-span of flighted birds, it is considered very unlucky to have an albatross land on the ship as it cannot take off again due to insufficient take-off run. It’s stranded like a big 747 that has landed in a large farmer’s field under duress. It took two full days to cross the Drake Passage before reaching our first anchorage in Antarctica.

Yankee harbour
Our first landfall in Antarctica was at Yankee Harbour in the South Shetland Islands, under a very grey sky. Ms Fram anchored, and the tough little metal Polarcirkle boats took us speedily to shore in the very quiet waters on the lee side of a long narrow spit of grey pebbles.
Landing was on the steep long spit of shingle. We were assigned into small enough groups for landing purposes, each group being assigned the name of a creature which inhabits Antarctica. I was one of the “Snowy Sheathbills”, pronounced more rudely by the Norwegian exploration team as “Snowy Shitbills”, always making the English speaking among our group smile. All groups were named after Antarctica wildlife. The Snowy Sheathbill is an unpretty bird which serves as the vulture or undertaker of the continent, cleaning up the remains of death.
Before this and every landing I had to don waterproof trousers which I purchased on board, and boots, wind and waterproof hooded jacket and floatation vest supplied by Hurtigruten. Boots had to be disinfected before disembarkation, and cleaned upon return. Even camera and telescopic equipment had to be vacuum cleaned before all landings. All in the interests of preventing disease and organism transfer from place to place, which otherwise could impact greatly upon the local environment.
The expert Exploration team of scientists had already landed and assessed the area for wildlife, picking the most appropriate landfall spot, and setting cones to guide our walking route. This is what they team did at every anchorage, to ensure least impact on the environment and maximum safety for all. The most import thing was always not to upset the penguins, their eggs, and chicks, and to keep our distance from the aggressive fur seals, which could move with surprising haste with their four short limbs.
At Yankee Harbour I saw lines of Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelie penguins parading in lines down the grey spit, gathering in several areas where they made huge noise. The fur seals eyed me warily from a distance I was keen to maintain.

Brown Bluff
MS Fram approached first landfall on mainland Antarctica in full sunshine, at brown Bluff, a well described headland which is covered with brown lichen, the only flora which is found on the continent. It was a another fairly steep gravel beach landing, with the sun shining brightly this time, enhancing the stark and bright beauty of the place. Penguins abounded, and I was nervous of stepping on an egg and resting chick as I explored the great big lichen covered rocks. I watched an adult penguin feeding its great big fluffy baby, fractionally bigger than the parent in size. This was the first place I could smell the stench of death in addition to penguin faeces, as bird corpses rotted, their owners having succumbed to the forces of nature such as ice avalanches, storms and everything Antarctica could throw against the continuity of life.

Deception Island
The landing was very easy on Deception Island, a circular isle of volcanic origin with a narrow entrance for ships. The Polarcirkle boat took me to a lovely smooth black volcanic beach where I stepped on land and walked the length of the strand which was backed by dilapidated buildings from the old whaling station. Ironically, in this land of cold, the volcanic sands ere were marginally hot and steaming at the edge e of the water. Some people opted to take a dip in the sea, which was 2C below the warm first inch of water, and I was amongst those who received the certificate of the Polar Plunge. It was a very quick swim; I dunked down and swam 6 strokes, and jumped out again before my body went into cramps.
Deception Island is full of old storage tanks and works from the days of the whaling industry, where they siphoned off the fat and blubber as fuel. A part of the volcanic beach was used as a landing strip for aircraft, and some accommodation buildings are still in existence. It’s a fascinating place, a bit of Lanzarote in the Antarctic.
Wilhelmina Bay
Today the sun shone bright and we all had the joy of experiencing an extended sea excursion by Polarcirkle boat to witness close up the activity of the whales of Wilhelmina Bay. It was an extraordinary experience seeing the giant beasts plunge beneath our relatively fragile vessels, only to surface briefly for an expiration of a spout of sweater from their blowhole and a sweep of their tailfin before another plunge. These were Orca, Killer Whales, in pursuit of a Minky whale to drown by force and exhaustion and eat the carcass thereof. I had no stomach to witness the wise of blubber of the dead animal below waters, and retreated to cabin upon return of ship. However, I couldn’t escape the news broadcast through the public address system of the ongoing pursuit of the poor creature which took four hours to finally kill. Often I hate nature so much that I blindfold myself to it.

Lemaire Channel
Our Captain gave us no guarantee that we would get through the infamously ice-chocked and spectacular Lemaire Channel, but he said it was well worth the try if only to experience the immensely beautiful scenery. Tall ice clad mountains arise each side of the narrow passage, such that it takes your breath away. The sun shone bright, the skies and sea were bright blue and crystal clear. I was so excited that I almost danced from side to side of the vessel and up to deck 8 to get the best views. Just as we were near the end of the channel a great big iceberg sat right in the middle, blocking our passage. We turned around, delighting in the scenery once again, and made our way the long way around the island to get further south to Vernadsky.

Beneath a grey sprinkling of snowdrops Ms Fram moored within shouting distance of the tiny Ukraine scientific base, Vernadsky, which was gifted to Ukraine by the British as soon as it broke free of the USSR. The Ukrainians maintained the base exactly as it had been inherited from the British, zero changes in the name of legacy. Now, the base’s doctor was our tour guide, with a medical and dental responsibility of little more than 20 men, and who spoke just a little English. An enthusiastic and friendly guy, he showed us through the generator room with solid diesel engines of certain vintage, and on through his doctor’s room which was a museum piece where he had to treat his patients with the best patch-up he could offer in such a remote location. There must be a refrigeration point where the deceased can be preserved in a state of rest until transfer to the comforts of home cemetery. A large vodka still has been essential here to tide the men over harsh year round climate, especially in the absence of television and internet. The vodka is briny from been distilled from sea-water, but has a distinctive piquant kick. It is served in the historic English bar. A number of the men engage in crafts to sell the souvenirs, like ultra-remote men’s sheds- and I purchased from them a cross-stitch picture of their logo, a penguin performing a Ukrainian dance.
Detaille Island
A traditional Hurtigruten Polar Circle ceremony was held as we crossed the Antarctic Circle, in which I partook. Foolishly I kept my weatherproof Hutigruten jacket hood up. But King Triton took it upon himself to pull back my hood, made a big gap down my perished back and pouted iced water down there and down my front, thoroughly saturating me. As a reward I got a mini glass of warming Aquavit! Landing on Detaille Island was not really an option for me, as I was developing increased lack of balance and footing. This landing was challenging for everybody, but I stayed on the Polarcirkle boat and got a glimpse of the British Base building.

Horseshoe Island
Next stop was another British base at Horseshoe Island, where they sell stamps and can post cards bought on board ship, which will eventually reach their destination after some considerable delay. Once again the landing was not possible for me, but I enjoyed the speedy Polarcirkle boat ride all the same. For some of the past several stops, there were opportunities for passengers to arrange to camp on shore overnight, a novelty which did not appeal to me, especially as it cost so much extra for the pleasure of denying oneself the comforts of life on the ship. There were also possibilities of doing special kayak trips from some of the landing places. I attended some of the very interesting lectures on the subjects of wildlife, navigation, Antarctic exploration history, etc. The trouble was that in the darkened lecture room I almost invariably became seasick and ended up having to leave the lecture about a third of the way through. That was in spite of taking full doses of travel sickness and anti-nausea pills. I found that either eating, dosing horizontally or going up on Deck 7 were the things that saved me from the lurgy.

We landed at Stonington Island, where lies an abandoned British station, off the coast of Graham Land at Marguerite Bay. Again I abandoned the idea of clambering up rocks to get on shore and gain a peek inside the building. It was the most southerly point we were able to reach before returninh northward.

Crystal Sound
The air and sky around Crystal Sound was extraordinary. Blue, crystalline, in parts a bright misty white, it took my breath away. I saw a phenomenon which I had seen described in a book on Antarctica, and one which I called a “snow-bow”. It is like a white bow infused with subtle colours in reverse order of a standard rainbow. Here the sea is encrusted in ice, and sleeping down in the cabin I experienced quite some shuddering as the ship was constantly breaking ice, and with a fierce crunching noise all the time. It was quite a challenge to relax with the ship’s icebreaking equipment deployed to cut passage.

Port Lockroy
It was quite overcast when Fram arrived off Port Lockroy, but it was a balmy 3C outside! It was a pity that the sky was so overcast at this iconic British outpost, famously featured in the documentary “Penguin Post Office”. The historic building is manned by three people for three months of the year, in the Antarctic summer. There’s the official British post office, where I posted six postcards, combined with the souvenir shop where I purchased a t-shirt (Port Lockroy design & logo), place mats, and Christmas tree decorations in the form of tartan penguins, seals and whales! A sort of Scotland meets Antarctica will be hanging from my tree in future. The building is fascinating, with old food tins and utensils left exactly as they were on final mission to the island base. Beds, soft porn images painted by the occupants, and old technology are evident on the island base.

Filipino Buffet
On our second last night it was delightful to partake of a Filipino buffet, prepared by and in honour of the crew, who were mostly from Philippines. I was very excited to experience this Asian culinary experience, and what a delight it was. There were special breads, peppery sweetcorn soup, salads, a beautiful suckling roast pig, and a couple of delightful meat dishes including a dark rich spicy beef stew. Lovely desserts featured too. It was a feast to remember.Drake Passage
As MS Fram set out over Drake Passage it was announced that we would be going full speed ahead as a passenger was in need of urgent medical attention. It was to take just over one and a half day’s voyage rather than the full two days. Of course full speed meant we were encountering the high seas of notorious Drake Passage with maximum impact, so I had to ensure I had my maximum allowed dose of travel sickness tablets at hand. There was nothing scenic to distract the eye, but the relentless waves which smacked hard against my cabin. My strategies to beat the lurgy was to either feed up my stomach when I was ok, take to the open air deck in the Jacuzzi or on a deck chair. Or else take to the bed in my cabin and41 doze.

Arrival back to Ushuaia
The ship arrived in Ushuaia after lunch, and all of us, including myself, who were curious, watched as the seriously ill passenger was taken on shore by a waiting ambulance to the local hospital. He looked totally immobile, and it turned out that the Chinese gentleman was an elder (not very elderly at all!) of a larger family.
Escondido tour
Along the road out of Ushuaia was quite shocking to see huge billboards with pictures of children and young people with rewards offered for returning them safe and alive. I don’t pretend to know much about this hostage/reward situation in Argentina, or the police services or billboard advertising industry or legal situation in the country, but these ads gave me an uncomfortable feeling. It alarmed me to the number of people who ‘disappear’ in the country. The road was blocked by the corpse of a horse who had come to meet his maker on the highway. Horses seem to wander wild and free just about everywhere in the region. Ambulances raced to rescue what I don’t doubt were human victims of the speedy highway. A beautifully brooding landscape and sky added a note a dramatic despair to whole experience.
Our young guide added a more cheery note as he shared his knowledge of the nature and climate of the area. Winters are long and snowy, and skiing is very popular. So is dog-sledding, and we pulled up by a sled dog centre, greeted by the howls of the hounds as we were guided to an area of historic and natural interest. The dogs are all friendly; we were reassured, just eager for a bit of attention. He brought us to an area of special interest, an extensive tract of pure sphagnum moss, which is used as a wound absorbent material as well as having agricultural uses. We were shown a big mound in the earth and asked to guess what it was.  A prehistoric mound? No, it was a bunker for storing weapons during the era of dictators in this part of the world, a store of arms to fight the likes of the Falklands War. Our guide said, nobody wanted any of that nonsense, they never did. The power hungry dictators were the big mischief makers of this region in those bad old days, and some of them continue to further be in more northern countries on the continent.
Some miles onwards we stopped at our ultimate viewing point for a peek at Lake Escondido, a giant stretch of water in the distance beyond a smaller lake in the foreground. A very beautiful area in a melancholic sense, it would take days and even weeks to explore its full riches.

Flight back to Buenos Aires
The seriously ill Chinese man, having refused further hospital treated, was carried to the boarding gate by his family, but refused boarding. Presumably he was forced to return to appropriate hospital care.
The flight from Ushuaia began with a turbulent ascent over the tail end of the Andes, a smooth middle and a turbulent conclusion through a thunderstorm ridden descent down to Jorge Newberry airport in Buenos Aires. Landing at the domestic aerodrome gives the impression of touching down in a city park, with tall trees to either side, all overlooked by an elevation of posh residential edifices. An interminable taxi ride through heavy rain and even heavier traffic took me the modest distance to Hotel Puerto Madero, located in the gentrified old docklands area, which closely resemble that of Dublin. I had got the taxi at a fixed fare rate and the driver was pretty excited to receive my tip.

Hotel Madero
The Hotel Madero is located in a gentrified area of the docklands, which is very like a similar development in Dublin city. I loved this chic modern hotel from top to toe. My bedroom was ultra- smart, and I was delighted to avail of a sm41all swimming pool on the top floor with an open terrace where I could gaze down on the city. Members of staff were helpful throughout and dining was good experience. A selection of house breads provided a taste sensation not to be forgotten. Upon returning home I gave a well-deserved report on TripAdvisor. The hotel’s location made for very enjoyable evening walks along the salubrious pedestrianised docksides, lined with pavement cafes, colourful artwork, and renovated cranes. A place where families promenade with pram and dog in tow, safe in the knowledge that it is very well policed and safe in spite of its proximity of a shanty town area across the water.

Tour of Buenos Aires
I had booked to be on a small group 3 hour tour of Buenos Aires, to get an overview of the city. My intention was to save a better acquaintance with the city on a more in-depth tour which is on offer twice a year with Travel department. I was the only native English speaking person on the tour; the others were Spanish, French or Portuguese speaking and all very amiable folk altogether, much more so than the passengers on Ms Fram. The guide was just delightful and introduced us to the very heart of the city and the Casa Rosada government building where Eva Peron addressed the people from the balcony.

Homeward Bound
I departed Buenos Aires on a frantically wet morning, with the rain thundering down on the glass ceiling of the airport, making a noise that co41uld have come from hell itself. However the 13 hour Lufthansa 747 flight to Frankfort was smooth as silk and I slept throughout in my Business Class seat, only to be woken for breakfast by the flight attendant who said “Wakey, wakey, sleeping beauty, I’ve never seen someone who’s slept so soundly throughout a flight!”
In Frankfurt Airport I caught the short flight home. I had chosen a window seat for the short sectors, but on this occasion I was sorry that I did. I was beginning to feel out of sorts and bot hungry at all, and declined everything except water. The lady beside me had her wine, Campari, and meal laid out on her own and the centre table at the absent seat which serves as an extended buffer to personal space on short haul Business Class. I had developed massively painful belly cramps and nausea, and couldn’t get comfortable no matter what I did. I suddenly had to ask the lady to make way for me to rush to the washroom. Her drinks and food nearly went flying! It became clear that I had suffered an acute blockage in my gut below the stoma, caused by the indigestible and un-chewable sweetcorn I had consumed 4 days earlier at the Filipino feast. I was able to remedy this immediately, and the pain and nausea disappeared, but I was left exhausted for the next hour. It taught me a lesson on what never to eat again!
I arrived home safe, full of memories, happy but a bit jet-lagged after my adventure of a lifetime and with a mental energy for another epic trip!


Monday, 16 May 2016

Myanmar April 2016

Myanmar April 2016

On 3rd April 2016, I was amongst a group of Travel Department tourists who departed Dublin Airport on an Etihad ticket bound via Abu Dhabi and Bangkok to Yangon, largest city and old capital of Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. 

It’s a country I had for some time hoped to visit, inspired by its lack of a presence on the tourism beat. In preceding years travel was deeply discouraged by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but things were changing. She came into a position of quasi-power virtually the day we arrived, following elections and agreements, and the birth of a new democracy had taken place with all the potential which this brought. The military was still to be a part of the government, at least for the time being.

As the airplane approached the runway at Yangon we flew close to an impressive golden pagoda, the first of many I would see during the trip. At the airport we were met by Moh Moh, our guide who turned out to be a very caring individual, a mother hen who went beyond the call of duty when it came to looking after our needs. Our bus had a picture of comical Mr. Bean in the driver’s window, giving the impression that Bean himself was driving the vehicle.

It soon became apparent that traffic congestion is an enormous problem in Yangon, and that it takes considerable time and patience to drive even a short distance. There are no yellow boxes, so jams occur everywhere, and traffic lights are ridiculously biased in many places such that vehicles are at a virtual standstill. It amazed me that all the cars I saw were unblemished by evidence of any collision dents.

After a journey short in distance but long in time, our group of 19 arrived in the impressive modern Sedona Yangon Hotel.  A morning snooze was followed by an afternoon trip to see the glittering gold complex of the Shwedagon Pagoda, which simply breath-taking. At its heart is the immense golden stupa which is surrounded by an array of diverse gilded shrines where statues of Buddha are venerated by the legions of the faithful. Devotees busy themselves by presenting flowers, lighting candles and incense sticks, inserting money in the large glass boxes in almsgiving, and pouring water over Buddha in veneration. Some chant in prayer whilst every now and then a line of young folk sweep the floor with a brush six people wide. Everybody is barefoot, and we were soon to realise that half our holiday would be spent shoeless in the multitude of pagodas and temples we were to visit. Shwedagon is the holiest place in Myanmar, and is to the nation of Buddhists as Mecca is to Muslims. At a nearby shrine we saw one of the country’s giant reclining buddhas.

At some shrines a selection of the Buddha statues are crowned by haloes of glittering multi-coloured lights, which brought to mind slot machine arcades that one might find at Las Vegas, or back at home in the amusement arcades of Bray. To my European mind these looked quite undignified, quite unholy, but these gaudy flashing haloes symbolise Buddha’s enlightenment and are very meaningful to the faithful.

The Sedona, as most of the hotels on this trip, provided a large well-appointed room with a large bed for a great night’s sleep. Breakfast was impressive too, featuring a great selection of dishes from fluffy omelettes, to croissants and pastries. I discovered that marmalade is quite a tradition in Myanmar, dating from the days of British rule. Great tasting baked beans featured in several hotels, produced in Myanmar. This morning the hotel offered an assortment of breakfast items from Korea, and I tucked into these straight after the omelette, bacon and beans. A nice belly full to start the day of touring the most populous city in the country.

The morning was started by a by-pass of golden Sule Pagoda which is rather ignominiously encircled by a “basement” of shops. We stopped by City Hall and the High Court, from where I took a walk in the main city park.  I was amazed by the performance of the conductors of the city buses, who would literally hang out from the door and frenetically scream out the names of the various stops ahead on the route. They would then pull the passengers on board in an effort to speed up the process.
Guided by Moh Moh, we walked the streets of old Yangon, passing by various street food sellers, including a couple of stands where roasted crickets were on offer. The old British colonial centre has some grand old buildings, in various states of disrepair. Not easy on the olfactory senses, the whole city has a characteristic stench of sewage, fragranced by the fermented fish condiment which figures in the local diet. We stopped by to visit the Scott Market, which specialised in stalls selling mainly fabrics, items of dress and jewellery. What caught my particular attention were the colossal fire extinguishers placed at intervals along the main beat.

Our bus journeyed further through the city, and around one of the city’s two major lakes. The Bogyoke Aung San Museum is the house where Aung San Suu Kyi grew up, and we saw her wooden bed where she slept next to her siblings as a child. Her father, Major General Aung San, was responsible for ridding Burma of British rule, but he was assassinated for his efforts. His book collection remains on view in the house, and features plenty of English literary volumes, including works by Shaw. We stopped by the lake shore where a magnificent vista was enjoyed by all, from the rickety wooden lakeshore walk. The sun was setting over silhouettes of pagodas and palms in the distance, and a superbly impressive golden dragon-boat shaped restaurant took pride of place in the foreground, enveloped by beautiful purple jacaranda trees.

After the two nights in Yangon we were obliged to be up and ready for departure by 5am for our domestic flight to Bagan. It was a simple matter of leaving our luggage outside the bedroom to door, from where it was transported for us, to appear again in the bedroom of the next hotel. This was done most efficiently throughout our trip. There was no check-in at the airport, simply a KBZ sticker to apply to our clothing to identify us as passengers as we were waived through and on to the modern ATR turboprop. KBZ is a bank in Myanmar which owns one of the domestic airlines. The safety cards are huge, almost the width of the seat. During the very short flight we were served a breakfast of pastries, a chocolate, orange juice and tea. Obviously they haven’t attended Michael O’Leary’s school of airline operation.

Bagan isn’t a city or even a town, rather an area of over 10,000 ancient temples and stupas which remain in pretty perfect condition. There is a small modern town located in the region, but the airport mainly serves those interested in visiting this extraordinary place which is peppered with an extraordinary medley of places of worship, most within metres of one another. It’s a spectacle the likes of which I’ve never seen before, so many are the monuments. Some are great and elaborate, some miniscule and humble. Some are white, others terracotta, some gilded. The sheer landscape of pagodas and trees is exceptional. Balloon flights are offered, but unfortunately there was no time to avail due to the ever busy schedule.
Our first port of call was the impressive stone temple of Ananda Pahto with its vertiginous steps which I avoided. We also visited the beautiful temples of Gubyauknge and Htilominlo Pahto. The sheer amount of styles and rural landscape surrounding these buildings added to their eminence.
Our hotel for the next few nights was Aye Yare River View Resort, a most lovely establishment spread out over a number of buildings, with a lovely freeform pool. On reflection I think this was probably my favourite accommodation during the tour. It had the cosiness of a small spread of grounds combined with the impression of the seclusion of the various buildings and curving pathways ornamented by plants and trees. Food was excellent which featured delightful fillets of river fish wrapped in banana leaves.
One of my favourite aspects of the holiday was the visit to a farming village community, where the houses are made of bamboo. Each one has a yard where gentle white oxen shelter under bamboo awnings, and chickens roam freely. The oxen are employed in various tasks, one of them being to turn a peanut oil millstone. Everything in these communities is made by hand and labour, with everybody busied with the tasks of living a simple dignified life. We enjoyed the hospitality of one of these houses with a nice cup of tea and roast peanuts grown on the farm.

It’s not exactly the most arable land, but supports the groundnuts, cotton, and some delicious small bananas, fruits and vegetables are grown in the area and sold in the local market. Tobacco is grown and crafted into charoots which are popular with the ladies. We watched the villagers at work on the various crafts, including that of producing the fast fermented and distilled toddy. In order to produce this men climb up the coconut palms, retrieve the fruits, collect the liquid and ferment it overnight for a quick distillation process. It is pure fire-water!

The local bamboo library had no computers, but children were avidly reading their books as I peeped in. It’s quite a different scenario from the libraries I work in, and I don’t think my young customers would put up with books alone to entertain them.

Then there was a visit to a lacquer workshop, where ribbons of paper are formed into the shapes of bowls, small and large, and the most fanciful of urns. They are skilfully dipped and painted in layer after layer of lacquer, with the final product a true work of art.
We partook of an evening sunset cruise on board a very dodgy vessel which was accessed across a narrow plank, with a helping hand from the boatmen. Health and safety is not yet a feature of this developing country, especially in the matter of boating, but I guess this might change for the better within the coming years. It was nice sailing down the Irrawaddy, with a low cliff bank to one said dotted with stupas here and there. We stopped off to visit a cave pagoda, and then turned around the face the setting sun.

The following morning we left Bagan by coach in the direction of Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar. On the way we stopped at a major place of Buddhist pilgrimage, the great Mount Popa which is a flat topped volcanic plug upon which a monastery buildings were constructed. A large number of steps winds around the steep sides, with shrines placed along the way, rather like a “stations of the cross”. Below the mountain there is a medley of some quite fancy buildings, some of them serving as overnight accommodation for pilgrims. We saw a busload of young nuns arrive. These children can decide whether they wish to continue dedicated religious life when they reach adulthood, or like the majority, lead a secular life. Same goes for the monks, who begin their novitiate as children. Like most religions, the males are considered more important than the females.

It came time for lunch. Climbing the hills through a sandalwood forest we dined at the beautifully tranquil, luxurious and elevated Mount Popa Resort, the most deluxe of our lunch stops. Located on an elevation, we had a view across to the fine conical mountain of Mount Popa, upon which top lies the monastery. It is a magnificent sight. At the entrance to the resort are some fanciful carved teak tables featuring the shapes of snakes and dragons. We dined at more practical tables on the veranda.
Roads are improving in places, and we continued our journey on a dual-carriageway. Driving conditions are generally somewhat better than, say, in India. Arriving in Mandalay we were accommodated in the Sedona Hotel, equally as impressive as its counterpart in Yangon, having sizeable rooms, and a capacious pool which I took advantage of no sooner than I had arrived. As darkness had fallen and the pool was illuminated I enjoyed a swim without the scorching sun. Attentive staff handed me towels to dry off afterwards.

Next day the temperature was at its highest during the entire trip, a high dry 45c. I was surprised by the way I coped with the heat, but this was helped by plentiful opportunity for shade in the workshops and temples. During our city tour we stopped on a street where hundreds of white Buddhas occupy the sidewalks in their various stages of completion. Women and men were busy at work chipping the blocks of stone into Buddhas for which there is an infinite market.

A remarkable pagoda we visited is Mahamuni Paya, where sits the most revered and extraordinary Buddha image in Myanmar. Only the menfolk are allowed to go near it, the ladies amongst us had to contend with viewing it by cctv. The tradition is that the men buy an affordable patch of gold leaf and apply it to the great statue as a mark of reverence. This figure has so many patches of gold applied to it that it is ridiculously knobbly in appearance, which in my view renders it comical and extracts from its dignity.

Late afternoon we proceeded in the direction of Mandalay Hill, which could be seen from the hotel. Just below the peak is Kudothaw Pagoda, wherein lies the World’s Largest Book with over 1.400 pages , each set in a marble tablet, every one measuring over five feet tall and enclosed in a little white stupa-like edifice. It all reminded me of rows of bright white mausoleums in a cemetery. At the heart of the “cemetery” is the great golden stupa of the Pagoda.

Stepping out of our tour bus, we boarded small rough vehicles which took us up the steep and narrow winding road with plenty of hairpin bends. At the top was were two towers, one with a lift, the other with a set of moving stairs to bring us up to the crown which is occupied by none other than (you’ve guessed it) a monastery . A floor of shiny hot tiles scorched our feet and reflected the dipping sun. There were great views looking out over the nearby Kudothaw Pagoda and the city beyond. We watched as the sun blazed red and dipped below the horizon.

The morning brought more searing heat, but it was nice and cooling to be on board a nice solid boat which brought us down the Irrawaddy to the ancient town of Mingun. Ox carts brought us to the various antiquities beginning with the unfinished temple which stands as a huge square lump of rock. An astrologer predicted that King Bodawpaya would die upon the completion of the structure, so advised him that it should not be finished. The king also had an enormous bell constructed to go with the temple, and it stands today as the largest ringing bell in the world. Close by stands the delicate and ornamental snow white Myatheindan Pagoda

Later, a tiny passenger ferry brought us across a small tributary of the Irrawaddy to the remains of the old imperial city of Ava, which is now mostly a rural village with some nice remains. In pairs we stepped on board canopied carts drawn by a single small horse. We trekked past the village and out through some of the most delightful and bountiful countryside. Sunflowers, cabbages, sweetcorn, aubergines, coconut palms, oranges, banana trees, tamarind trees, and the most vividly green little rice paddies appeared to either side as the horses clip-clopped through the most intimate little earthen tracks. It was like a magical mystery tour through somebody’s private garden.  Here and there we stopped off by a stupa, the remains of an old bathing pool of the royal estate, and the funny little “leaning tower of Ava”. Our good-humoured cart-driver chuckled with mirth at the comparison with the more famous one in Pisa. Our last stop in Ava was at a great elaborate stone monastery guarded by a pair of stone lions at the gate.

Back on board the tour bus we made the final stop of the day at U Bein Bridge, which is the longest teak bridge in the world. Purely a footbridge it is fairly narrow and has no rails, but the off great wooden post punctuates the vacuum and provides some sense of reassurance of there being “something to hold onto” if needs be.  The bridge is always quite crowded, especially with tourists who often stop in pairs and groups such that one has to negotiate one’s way precariously around them. The riverside provides an interesting scene with boats and shacks on one side and a farm of geese on the other, with hives of activity peppering the serene waters.
Next morning we departed Mandalay on board a very brief flight. Touching down at Heho Airport, we had arrived in Shan state. At some elevation, the area felt that bit cooler, and was a blessed relief from the intense heat of Mandalay. The red soil is so much more fertile here in the undulating landscape.

Our first stop was at the Shwe Oo Min natural cave pagoda at Pindaya. The cave is in a great hill, with a very high key entrance complete with giant spider effigy. It looks more like the entrance to a theme park than a religious shrine! But we’d been there before several times with the “arcade buddhas”.  Over 4000 gold Buddha statues occupied the fascinating labyrinth of passages in this sizeable cave system, with various hues of lighting in in each cavern.

The area has several ethnically distinct tribes which live in harmony among one another. It was fascinating watching the various homesteads as we passed by on the coach, with virtually every home having its collection of livestock, and features of their own ethnicity. On our way to our mountain retreat for the night we passed by the old British railway post of Kalaw with its very English style railway station.
The Hill Top Villa Hotel was our stop for one night, where we were accommodated in simple but pleasant bungalows with beautiful views over the floral gardens to the verdant hills. I enjoyed sipping some locally bought and produced rose wine on my veranda, watching the evening fall on the verdant hills whilst the lights in the hotel gardens lit up and sparkled.

After a simple al fresco breakfast of omelette, juice, breads and marmalade we travelled down towards tranquil Inle Lake. We visited a Shan paper and umbrella making craft centre. Also we called into a pair of monasteries side by side, one stone and one wooden, the latter featuring a couple of delightfully friendly cat families who resided within. Mother cats and their beloved kitten occupied pride of place, being cared for by the monks.

Drawing up to a canal by Inle Lake I was slightly nervous when I saw the narrow motorised canoe-like boats we were obliged to step aboard. Watching others stepping onto their wobbly vessel, I observed how swiftly it departed down the narrow canal. However I soon became confident when I was comfortably seated, as the boat sprinted and harmlessly bounced off another as it paced towards the open lake. Floating gardens appeared either side of us, with water-lilies aplenty, and bird life manifest. I felt elated as the boat entered the broad waters of Inle Lake. At times the spray became extreme on one side, but the solution was right beside me as I picked up and opened the umbrella which was located at each seat. Looking back with an eye to common sense I think it would have been wise for each of us to don the life vests which were provided on every seat.
Now and then we would speed past clusters of purple water-lilies. In the distance I could see the local fisherman performing their ballet. As my boat drew closer I could clearly see one fisherman standing at the stern of his narrow little boat and tip over with his bell-shaped fishnet as he rowed the vessel with one leg. That’s why I describe it as a ballet; it is quite an extraordinary performance, a local tradition confined to this lake. Many such ballet-fishermen were performing on the leg.
We stopped off for lunch at one of the many restaurants which stand on stilts over the water. Crisp fried flatbread, crispy little baby vegetable tempura, pumpkin soup, an array of meat and fish curries, stir fried daintily cut veg, and rice covered with gold leaf. A typical Myanmar luncheon feast, but the edible gold leaf was a first.

Back on board the boats we were brought to some fascinating craft workshops. The most expensive fabric of all, we watched lotus thread weavers producing from start to finish the strong and enduring product. It is an incredibly painstaking process, especially the retrieval of the incredibly fine threads from the stems of the aquatic plant which thrives in the lake.

Returning to the waterside we saw a small pig being transported upside down with legs tied to a pole, from a boat to a nice sun-sheltered canopy where he would be reared for fattening, I managed to get tickling the snouts of some friendly swarthy piglets who were guzzling noisily from troughs under ample shelter.

As we entered the narrow channel through the vast reed beds towards our final hotel, Pristine Lotus Spa Resort, our boat’s propeller got tangled in some reeds and we came to a halt. With a little assistance from another vessel this situation was remedied and our engine once more fired into life, bringing us to the enclosed mooring harbour of our resort-style hotel. The bedrooms here are most interesting. Each one is built in the shape of a wooden “boat” with the bow end forming a balcony with a seated deck overlooking a canal toward the lake, with an ample bedroom with feature sunken bath, a settee, a large bed with mosquito nets, and an open bathroom area with curtained toilet. Reception building is separate to the bar/restaurant buildings and pool area. Another part of the campus is across the reasonably busy marrow road.
Today was the beginning of the Buddhist New Year and the tradition is to throw water over other (“willing”) “participants”. In effect The staff and residents of the Pristine Lotus took part in throwing buckets of water over any passing motorist passing on the road between the two sections of the resort. I enjoyed a swim in the pool, followed by a cocktail and delicious dinner in the restaurant.

Last day, we took a short trip by bus to the nearest village where many people bathed in a lake inlet; a walking tour via a linear sheltered market brought us to a place of a myriad ancient mini temples and cemetery. Another motorised canoe trip took us to lunch. The final afternoon was at leisure with a visit to the natural hot rock spa. In the evening, all I, and practically everybody else, could face was a place of delicious crispy chips with ketchup and mayonnaise. Myanmar can do simple fries as well as the best in the world.

The journey homewards started with a morning domestic flight to Yangon. The airport at Yangon, a work in progress, has just a few stalls which sell souvenirs to take home, a whiskey shop and one café. Surprisingly this café served me the best coffee I have ever enjoyed in my life, and the food on offer looked absolutely delicious. Coffee is grown in Myanmar and packaged as a souvenir which boasted "Italian coffee from Myanmar” in an effort to reassure the consumer that it was a quality product. Some hours later we boarded the Bangkok Airways flight to Bangkok to join the Etihad flight to Dubai. Another Etihad flight brought us back home to Dublin, where I wished my bright pink case off the carousel and out into the perishing cold outdoors of Ireland.