Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Old City, Needs Care


By which I mean both that Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja has many buildings – in some parts most – in need of restoration, and that the visitor needs to be wary both of the undoubtedly treacherous pavement and also of possibly treacherous inhabitants. It is at best disconcerting to have one’s hostess announce that on leaving the building after dark one should on no account turn west towards the post office tower, while heading east would be quite safe. Especially when re-entering Casa Sarandi’s apartment building requires one to turn one’s back to the street while wrestling somewhat painfully with a large and recalcitrant iron key. Don’t misunderstand, I quite liked Montevideo, but it did occur to me that staying on the edge of the Old City was perhaps not my best idea.


It took me the better part of a day to get from Puerto Iguazu to Montevideo, flying via Buenos Aires, because I didn’t trust the short layovers offered by most of the options, and because I wanted to arrive in daylight. As it turned out, my inbound flight was an hour late, and I would have been hard-pressed to make the shorter connection. Even if I had made it, my luggage might not have done: the young couple who arrived at the Casa Sarandi my last evening had to wait around until 21:00 for their luggage to catch up to them. I, on the other hand, ate a leisurely if unimpressive lunch in the terminal building, and sauntered through security. (Note: don’t plan to eat or drink after clearing security, the service just for coffee was abysmal.)

Riding the shuttle in from the airport I was immediately impressed by how much nicer Montevideo looked than Rio had. Admittedly, we started out along the no-doubt upmarket waterfront, but even when we turned inland the low rise buildings were neat and well-cared for. Until we got to the Barrio Sur. Must be the wrong part of town, I thought, no doubt it will improve when reach the Ciudad Vieja. It didn’t. The shops had already closed, and the solid metal shutters had an unwelcoming effect, as did the graffiti – it wasn’t even artistic graffiti. During the day, at least Monday to Friday, when the shops are open, and the vendors out on the pedestrian streets, the eastern part of the old town is a nice place to wander, although even then I found the western section very run down and deserted, aside from the area around the Mercado del Puerto.


I did a lot of walking in Montevideo. Some in the old town – in daylight, some along the waterfront – not recommended as the views aren’t much and there is no shade at all, and some on the way to Parque Rodo – where I encountered mosquitoes, an ancient fun-fair and little else of note. From the Parque I made my way past some posh apartment blocks to the Punta Carretas shopping center. It seemed a pretty standard mall, with many brands I recognized, and also AC, drinkable coffee and wifi in the cafes. Montevideo’s best feature, though, may well be the pretty parks strung along Av. 18 de Julio, and the trees, currently a feathery spring green, lining many of its streets.


According to the map provided by the T.I., there are twenty museums in Montevideo, ranging from coins to Carnaval. I confess to only visiting two, and only enjoying one, the Decorative Arts museum in the Palacio Taranco (which I just noticed isn’t actually listed as a museum!) I also had a cultural evening at the Teatro Solis, which anchors the south side of the Plaza Independencia, across from the Radisson, but it was Swedish culture. I was in town for the last night of the Seventh Percussion Festival, and went to see a group called Kroumata. It was undoubtedly interesting, but clearly I have not kept up with the trends in percussion, for some of the pieces were way too avant garde for my taste. Thin metal rods and plastic plates? A bemusing assortment of items having nothing to do with traditional percussion instruments. Two pieces for oversized xylophones…

Since I travel alone, I generally eat alone, which means that I usually drink the house wine by the glass. So I was glad to notice a shop in the old town, Esencia Uruguay, offering tastings. Not free, but not too pricey, either. I tried three wines, with bread, a nice cheese, and a preserve. A Cabernet Franc, a Tannat, and a Cabernet Franc/Tannat blend. I preferred the Tannat, a grape I hadn’t met before, but not enough to buy a bottle.


One of my friends seems to think I write too much about food, but I can’t write about Montevideo without mentioning the truly excellent beef I ate in two different restaurants (with apologies to the vegetarian friend). One was at the very touristy Mercado – at a place just outside the entrance, to the left of a green iron sculpture, with red umbrellas – where I had kidney and steak. I like kidneys, but I was a little taken aback to be served one giant beef kidney, simply cut in half. I managed about three quarters of it, but needed to leave space for the best beef I’ve ever eaten. It was matched on my last night, when I skipped the tapas place I had planned on when I found it hosting some very loud music, and walked on in search of Fodor’s recommended El Fogon. Fortunately I stopped just short of what looked like a major tourist trap, and was talked into Locos de Asar by a combination of the host outside, and an English habitué inside. I had a nice chat with the Englishman, and another excellent meal.

A good cup of coffee or tea seemed harder to come by, especially if I wanted to drink indoors, and I downed an especially bad cup of green tea in especially attractive surroundings at a bookstore just off the Plaza Independencia. Unlike the lovely little apartment I stayed at in Budapest last fall, the Casa Sarandi came with pots and pans and china and glass, but essentially no comestibles, and I was reduced to drinking Nescafe for breakfast.


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If you are after fun in the sun on the sand, and/or partying into the small hours, I feel sure that Rio is your town. For culture vultures, not so much. And then there is the security situation. I generally felt OK, but I was definitely on high alert for pretty much the whole time, and I took taxis after dinner when elsewhere I would have walked. I was told that being on the beach after dark was an invitation to a mugging, and I figured that the street my hotel was on (just a few blocks inland from Copacabana Beach) was only safe because there was often a police car parked on the corner.

There are good-looking modern buildings around. There are good-looking older buildings, some in need of TLC. There are history and art museums I didn’t get to, but I really don’t have any urge to go back to see them. Even discounting the favelas (and it’s hard to do that), Rio felt grittier than I had expected. I’m surprised that it was chosen for the 2016 Olympics, and I wonder how much improvement there will be before then. I was in Beijing in 2004, when its abysmal squat toilets were already being replaced by sparkling western ones, well ahead of 2008. Will it be possible to put paper down Rio’s toilets by 2016?


Moving on. I had found the staff at my hotel generally helpful, so I was surprised when one of them made a big deal out of arranging a taxi to take me to the airport. I’d do better to walk to the nearest taxi rank, he said. But his cohort agreed to have one waiting at 7:15 the next morning. I set my tiny, trusty, travel alarm clock for 6:00, and then, for backup tried to set an alarm on my new smart phone. Although it was 23:00 the phone kept saying that my alarm was set for six hours ahead. I concluded I was doing something wrong and went to bed.

Next morning, packed, I went down at 7:00 for a cup of coffee and to check on my taxi. Oh, the companies they used had been fully booked, I’d need to use the taxi rank…. Sure would have been nice if someone had called me. It would have been even nicer if someone had told me about the change to summer time, which I now heard about for the first time. It was actually 8:00 am, not 7:00, and my flight left at 10:00. The last time a time change occurred while I was traveling, in Vienna, the hotel posted notices all over the place. This time no-one even said anything!

I try to avoid traveling on Sundays, but while that would have spared me the time change snafu, it did mean that there was so little traffic my taxi (acquired from the rank by one of the staff) got me to the airport in under half an hour. I was checked in and through security by 9:00. The TAM flight was full, but on time. I retrieved my checked bag, had a word with the helpful woman at the T.I. and joined the small group of backpackers waiting for the bus. Almost everyone else was either traveling in a group or had an expensive car and driver waiting.

Following the T.I.’s instructions, I got off the Brazilian airport bus at the Hotel Bourbon, crossed the road, and settled down to wait for the bus to Puerto Iguazu in Argentina. I was joined by a young German woman, on a round the world trip. She had spent several days visiting the falls, and had been staying at the posh Hotel das Cataratas in the Brazilian national park, a surprise present from a friend. She said that it was a very nice hotel, but you were trapped there after the park closed. It looked nice from the outside, too, unlike the Sheraton in the Argentinian national park, a concrete monstrosity spoiling the view.


After the bus finally showed up, and reached the border, we were surprised to be handed “re-embarkation” tickets, and to see the bus drive off with its local passengers still on board! I have crossed more land borders than I can remember, but this was the first time my transport hadn’t waited for me. I was not amused, and since it was Sunday the border was moribund and we had a long wait.

The day was cool and overcast, and I was relieved to reach the Pension La Sorgente before the drizzle turned to rain. This was a step up from the Edificio Jucati, with a pool, a good if pricey restaurant, a bar, and hot and cold water for the sink as well as the shower. Unfortunately, the restaurant was closed on Sunday and I had to trek back into town to eat.

Over the next two days I would discover that the Iguazu falls were worth any amount of aggravation….


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So, Thursday was sunny and clear, and I booked a tour to Corcovado for the next day. Of course, Friday turned out to be cloudy. Moral: carpe diem. Since I had paid for the tour, I went anyway.

I am really not a fan of tours. I don’t like all the waiting around, and I make a poor herd animal, although when I opt for a tour I do try. This one wasn’t too bad, we didn’t waste too much time collecting the other people, and our tri-lingual guide was good. We had Brazilians, Argentinians, Chileans, one Norwegian and me, quite a mini United Nations. The Norwegian was scouting upcoming World Cup locations, and had just been to Switzerland and Cyprus.

I had opted to visit Corcovado mostly for the views, having decided against going up sugar loaf as soon as I saw the cable car route (my head for heights is not what it was). So, no views at the top, although we did get some glimpses on the way up (if you’re subject to motion sickness take the train) and the clouds cleared long enough for a quick photo of the statue itself.


Then we drove through some of the favelas on the way to the football stadium. I had already seen some on the way in from the airport – the airport bus took the city streets, stopping at the main bus station and the domestic airport, while the taxis take a faster and less gritty route. It seemed that a new stadium was being built, both for the World Cup and the Opening Ceremonies for the Olympics, and looked to be pretty far along. I can’t help thinking they would do as well to build a new airport.

We were supposed to walk through the Sambodromo, built for the Carnaval parade, but it was closed. We had a pretty good view from the minibus, and it’s hardly exciting when empty. I had thought about attending one of the rehearsals, but they mostly seemed to be on Saturday nights, and I needed to get up early on Sunday.

Next up was the modern cathedral (de Sao Sebastiao), which I thought interesting, but rather brutalist. The St. Mary’s cathedral I saw in San Francisco earlier this year was similar in concept – basically a pyramid with stained glass at the cardinal points – but more delicate in execution. After driving by some of the buildings in Centro, the tour would finish at the sugar loaf. Since I didn’t want to visit sugar loaf, and I did want a better look at the buildings, I had the guide drop me at Cinelandia.


The National Library and the Municipal Theater were certainly worth a closer look, although I skipped the English language tour of the library in favor of lunch. Walking towards Praca XV de Novembro I found several passageways with cafes and restaurants, mostly buffets. I picked one at random, and had plenty of choice at a very reasonable price. Then I took a look at the rather plain Imperial Palace (not originally imperial), and what Frommers described as a “slice of old Rio”, a cobblestoned passageway, now entirely taken over by cafes, before fetching up at the very touristy, but photo-worthy (and much photographed) Cafe Colombo. Espresso and a walnut tartlet cost as much as lunch.

Having done my sightseeing duty for the day I retired to the J. W. Marriott, conveniently close to my hotel, for an expensive caipirinha, a good view, and some writing time. For dinner I abandoned Frommers’ restaurant recommendations in favor of Lonely Planet, and ate an excellent duck and brie crepe at Le Ble Noir.


My Saturday tour to Petropolis reminded me, if I needed reminding, why I generally avoid tours. It took an excessively long time to collect all the participants (Brazilian, Argentinian, Chilean and Peruvian), the guide’s English wasn’t great (nor, I was told, was his Spanish), and he started out grumpy, although he improved later. The lunch stop was an expensive, all-you-can eat, poor buffet, and there was an unnecessary shopping op at a chocolate “factory” (we only saw the shop).

On the good side, I really appreciated the scenery, and the old part of town. I quite enjoyed shuffling round the Imperial Palace (“slippers” are required to protect the floors), appreciating the furnishings, the chandeliers and the imperial crown, although the pictures were pretty bad. After lunch we were supposed to wait around while one couple toured the former house of Santos Dumont (Brazil’s claimant to having made the first flight), and then drive to the cathedral. Since I could see the cathedral, past a nice fountain and down a tree-lined avenue, I decided I’d rather walk. The guide was most insistent that I stay with the group, I was more insistent that I was walking. It was a good thing I chose to walk, as there was a series of bridges over a small river on the way, and I got much better photos from them than I would have done at the cathedral itself, plus I got a better look at some interesting buildings. The guide told me he was afraid I would get lost, which seems inconceivable given I could actually see where I was going!


Besides the scenery, the palace, and Petropolis itself, I enjoyed a lunch time chat with a couple from Buenos Aires (or at least with the female half). She did not seem too pleased with the current president, and certainly not with the new travel restrictions. Apparently you now have to fill in a form to get permission to go abroad, and you are only allotted a limited amount of foreign currency. I can vaguely remember currency restrictions in the UK back in the 70s, but they were considerably more generous and you didn’t need permission to leave the country!

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When I left the Edificio Jucati, in search of a very late lunch, I was too focussed to properly appreciate the park in front of the building. Later, I would notice the black and white wave mosaic on the circling pavement, just like those in Lisbon, albeit dustier and less even, the game court, the children’s playground, the chess tables (more used for card games) and the big concrete fountain. I would see other, similar, parks scattered round Copacabana.

Instead, I located the three places recommended by the young woman who had checked me in. One sandwich/hamburger joint and two small buffet places. I am no fan of buffets, but starvation was setting in. Even though Copacabana is surely prime tourist territory, the cafe I picked seemed more of a local place. Unlike the all-you-can-eat buffets helping fuel the obesity epidemic in the US, here I paid by weight. Although the food was merely edible, it was remarkably cheap. Afterwards I walked down to the beach.

As I have written before, I am not a beach person. I no longer want to sun bathe, but nor do I want to slather on sunscreen. I prefer to swim in a pool, and I hate getting sand everywhere. Happily, Rio’s beaches come with promenades – more black and white mosaics – and I could watch the waves and the action without hitting the sand. Actually, there wasn’t much action. On a cool, overcast afternoon I saw more dog-walkers than bikini-wearers.

Eventually I picked a kiosk, one with a bigger buffer against traffic noise than some, and ordered a caipirinha. Now I rarely drink cocktails, being a confirmed wine aficionado, but I was surprised to really enjoy this one. I would learn that not all caipirinhas are created equal. The first, at Praia Skol, was great. The second, at Praia Skol 360, was too strong. The third, which I am drinking as I write this, at the J. W. Marriott, is too weak, despite costing about twice as much. (It’s even cooler, and windier, this afternoon: I opted to enjoy the drink, and the view, indoors.)


Given the weather the day I arrived, I was surprised to wake up to brilliant sunshine. Brilliant, HOT, sunshine – I could feel the heat through the window. Of course, I should have headed up Corcovado, but access seemed a bit involved and I signed up for a tour the next day. In hopes of shade I set off instead for the Jardim Botanico. I took the metro – clean and easy – two stops to Botafogo, where I switched to “above ground metro bus” (with AC, unlike the regular city buses).

I am fond of botanical gardens, despite having a black, not green, thumb and this one did not disappoint (although the one I saw in Kandy last year was even better, and I have yet to find one to equal Kew) but it didn’t take long before I had to break out the umbrella/sunshade. I admired the signature palm avenues, the lakes, the bamboo (always love bamboo) but it seemed too early in the year for orchids and roses.



I had met a helpful local lady outside the garden, and after walking me to the nearest entrance, she recommended a place called Bibi for lunch – very healthy food, she said. So, after taking a look at the pretty Lagao Rodrigo de Freitas, I followed her directions, only to find Bibi to be both very full, and open to the decidedly hot weather. I passed, and eventually tracked down a Frommer’s recommendation: the Atelier Culinario, inside a bookshop. The night before I had been disappointed by another Frommer’s pick, Arab (the fairly new Babylon, in Raleigh, does infinitely better Middle Eastern food) and again, the food was nothing special, although the ambience was fine and the AC divine. (OK, so I should stick to Fodors!)

Then I did the metro and bus combo in reverse to take a look at Ipanema. Everything I had read said that Ipanema was more upmarket than Copacabana, but I really didn’t find it so, aside from a number of newish apartment blocks, barricaded behind metal fences. I visited the Museu Amsterdam Sauer, inside a jewelry shop, as I always enjoy looking at gems and minerals, and had a nice chat with the sales lady (after she realized I wasn’t buying).


This night was churrascaria – more than you can eat meat – night, and I abandoned Frommers to follow my hotel’s recommendation of Carretao. The result was cheaper, and much better, than Arab. The beef and sausages were excellent. and I discovered a taste for manioc. I even found sushi on the salad bar.

Safety note: After reading the paranoid American guidebooks (the British Foreign Office website was less alarmist), I set out the first day with just a small shoulder bag, with the strap worn across my body. The next morning I went back to my usual small(ish) backpack – I needed my umbrella/sunshade, a water bottle, my camera, one if not two guidebooks, a map, an energy bar…. That lot just won’t fit in a small handbag! I did wear it in front on the metro, but I’ve done that on a number of metros.

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Musings on Mostar

Mostar's rebuilt bridge

October 21-23, 2011: I suspect that the Balkan department is where Professors of History send their enemies, that they may be driven mad. While I did some rudimentary research on Balkan history (I recommend Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” and Robert Kaplan’s “Balkan Ghosts“) I don’t pretend to an understanding. The shortest and simplest outline I can manage goes as follows: in the beginning there were Illyrians and Thracians, influenced by the Greeks. The Romans ruled for a while, and after the Empire fell the area was overrun by Slavs from the Caucasus. In the west the Slavs became Croats – coastal and Catholic – and in the east they became Serbs – inland and Orthodox. After the Ottomans took over from the Byzantines, some communities converted to Islam. The descendents of the converts are known as Bosniaks in what is now Bosnia.

When I was growing up (right after WWII, a shockingly long time ago) the comforting mantra about the Holocaust was “never again”. Yet, just fifty years later, ethnic cleansing was once again disfiguring Europe, along with rape camps, and the almost medieval siege and bombardment of cities like Dubrovnik, and of Mostar and Sarajevo, where I was headed next. Mostar was a particularly sad case. After the Croats and the Bosniaks collaborated to defeat the invading Serbs, the Croats turned on the Bosniaks, bombarding their section of the city and eventually destroying the beautiful and historic bridge that was its symbol. (Not that I want to suggest that any one side was noticeably better-behaved than any other.)

There are a lot of graves in Mostar with the same end date

On my last visit to the Balkans I had seen war damage in Croatia, although not in Slovenia, which was able to leave the Yugoslav federation largely unscathed. This time I had seen none in Macedonia, which had left with no fighting at all, or in Montenegro, which had been responsible for the seige of Dubrovnik, but seemed to have escaped damage itself. Bosnia was another matter. The iconic bridge in Mostar had been rebuilt in as faithful a reconstruction as possible (there’s an excellent museum devoted to the bridge), and buildings along the river front have also been restored. But wander a little away from the river, and damaged buildings and even streets are not hard to find, and the place still feels like a divided city.

Mostar and its bridge seem to be well-established on the tourist circuit, although while I had to dodge groups near the bridge, at least during the day, I saw no other tourists further afield. Based on a photo on the town’s tourist literature I trekked out to the Partisan Memorial, built during the Communist era to honor WWII guerilla fighters. Good thing I enjoyed the walk, as the memorial was in a horrible state of neglect. It must have been impressive in its day, but instead of the graves and tombstones visible in the photograph I had seen, it was littered with beer bottles and broken glass. I did encounter three young men there, one of whom managed a successful climb up the central relief. That made a better photograph than the memorial.

I was still fighting my Albanian cold (flu?) and Mostar was a pleasant enough place to wander around, drink coffee by the river or in the rather posh Bristol hotel, and take lots of photographs of the bridge. I walked through souvenir central, cobbled Kujundziluk, several times, but felt no impulse to buy anything. I preferred mosque-lined Brace Fejica, further north. My hotel, the Kriva Cuprija, was well-located along a side stream, but its restaurant was remarkably expensive (partly because of extra charges for bread, potatoes, service, etc) and I didn’t appreciate being constantly reminded to write a tripadvisor review.

Souvenir street

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Lake Matka

September 30, 2011:  It seemed that Lyuba, the Bulgarian tour guide, didn’t care too much for Skopje: she thought three nights was overdoing it. Perhaps she hadn’t visited since the renovations got under way. I stuck to my three night plan – partly because I wanted to slow down, and partly because I wanted to see Lake Matka. I could easily have spent another day wandering around town, picking up some necessities in the sharp new mall near my B&B, and lingering in a cafe or two. Like Belgrade, Skopje was a full participant in the Balkan’s cafe culture, but here I didn’t feel that I needed to be a fashion-forward twenty-something to fit in. And missing Lake Matka would have been a big mistake.

I took a taxi up and a bus back, a fortunate choice. The hotel staff had agreed with the guidebooks about the bus route, so the change must have been recent, but instead of taking me into town, bus number 60 turned its passengers out on the outskirts, and we had to transfer to a number 5. Not a problem going back, but I could have waited a long time for a number 60 going out! My taxi delivered me to the base of the dam at the same time as a coach-load of backpackers, but after we trekked up to the hotel and dock, they took off by boat and peace descended.

Outside the hotel

The guidebook writers seem to think you’re going to the lake to visit the cave churches up in the hills around the lake. I had thought so too, until I saw the hills. When you consider that before the dam was built the uphill trek would have been even more formidable, you appreciate just how much the hermits who lived in the caves valued solitude. Not only did I not feel like trekking uphill, I was feeling a bit churched-out. I settled for the one by the hotel.

I did get some exercise, but I took the mostly flat if seldom smooth path running along the lake shore. I learned later that it was nine kilometers long, so it was a good thing I didn’t try to reach the end. I turned back after about an hour when I ran out of shade, but I thoroughly enjoyed the walk, stopping often to admire the soaring grey cliffs rising sheer from sparkling green-blue water.

Despite the warm sunshine it was chilly sitting by the lake, so I consumed an indifferent lunch indoors, but with a view of the water. The season, at least mid-week, was clearly over. I saw just one couple and a pair of fishermen on the path. Only two other tables were occupied for lunch, and the cafe down by the dam was firmly closed. Like the hermits, I value peace and quiet, so I was happy.

Back in Skopje I rested up in the Rose Diplomatique’s pretty garden, with green tea and the internet. Dinner at the oddly named Dal Met Fu wasn’t much of an improvement over lunch, but I chose it for the location, not the food, enjoying the view of Alexander’s fountain more than a too vinegary chicken liver salad and a tepid “risotto”. (The white wine, Tikves Vranec, on the other hand, was good.) The night before I had eaten at Mulino, closer to my B&B, where the risotto had been more authentic but the sole a little too buttery. An important personage seemed to be dining there too, with bodyguards in the foyer and “protocol” cars waiting outside.

Not being an important personage I left Skopje as I had arrived, by bus.

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Bride and groom at Ella

Jan 22-25, 2011: Although I’m not a beach person, Sri Lanka’s perfect tropical beaches seemed to be so much a part of its image I decided I had to visit at least one. That’s why I found myself getting up early so we could leave Nuwara Eliya at 6:30 am, as my driver insisted it was a long trek to Unawatuna. Turned out he was right, and I didn’t make it any shorter by insisting on some stops.

A good breakfast at the Dream Cafe in Ella was enlivened by a group taking wedding photos, with the bride in a lovely red dress. Ella definitely made my list for a future visit, as I preferred the rugged scenery there, all steep rocky crags, to the gentler tea-covered slopes around Nuwara Eliya.

Just outside Ella we visited the Rawana Falls, but while they were pretty enough I had to share them with far too many other people. Happily I persuaded my driver to detour through a plantation to the Diyaluma Falls, where just one other car-load admired the 720-foot sweep of water with me.

The lower section at Rawana Falls

I let my driver pick my lunch stop, and ate at a posh lakeside hotel in Tissamaharama where I passed on the apparently inevitable buffet in favor of OK spring rolls and tough chicken. The view of the hotel’s pool and the artificial Tissa Wewa was good, though. While I did stop at the 2300 year old Yatala Wehera on the way in I decided I had seen more than enough under-decorated dagobas, and drove right past the Tissa Maha Dagoba on the way out, even though it is said to contain a tooth and bone from the Buddha.

Not sure which southern beach this was, just that it wasn't Unawatuna

For the rest of the afternoon the road followed the coast, where the 2004 tsunami had done so much damage. Sri Lanka’s president came from Tangalla, on this coast, and both the town and the main road have been restored. Although I saw some pretty beaches on the way, I was a bit disappointed with Unawatuna, where I stayed at the Thambapanni Retreat. (Cool hotel, but lots of stairs.)

But this was Unawatuna

The sea was a really beautiful blue, the sand was properly golden and assorted trees edged the perfect crescent of the bay. But. The crescent was lined with hotels and cafes, and the beach populated with over-large tourists in under-sized swimsuits. Rubens might have been happy, but I’ve never cared for Rubens. Despite the number of tourist shops I had a hard time finding a pair of cotton trousers to buy. The style of choice for female tourists this year looks like a long skirt, but is actually trousers, and looks seriously uncomfortable to me.

Also Unawatuna

My hotel was located well back from the beach, and my huge if bare room came with a big verandah, although the view of the beach was hidden by trees – you’d need to climb one final flight of stairs to the topmost room to get the view. The sister hotel, Thaproban Beach House, had been rebuilt after the tsunami, along with a number of other properties down by the water’s edge, and this was already proving a mistake. As I stood on their deck, I could feel it shudder with every incoming wave. A little further along a set of concrete steps have already cracked under the force of the water.

Old town Galle

I had chosen Unawatuna as my beach stop because I wanted to visit neighboring Galle and couldn’t get a reservation in the town itself. The town was as pretty as I expected, but too cute and touristy to be a really compelling destination. The colonial era walls defined the tourist area, the town proper, including the markets, was outside the walls. I did walk the walls at dusk, and I did see several good-looking places to stay, but the whole town seemed to shut down after dark. Of course, it probably came to life for the upcoming literary festival, but I would be gone by then.

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Flying Thoughts

I’ve made it to Batumi, Georgia, where the weather is lousy.  So I figured I’d try to catch up on the blog. I’ve done three of the seven flights on this trip: here’s a summary.

  • JetBlue RDU-JFK – I’d be happy to fly with them again. Seats, as advertised, are a good size with plenty of leg room. The flight attendants were much in evidence. However, my seat-back video didn’t work. Luckily the middle seat was empty, and I watched that one – and JB sent me a customer sat survey the next day, so I was able to complain. The other problem wasn’t really their fault – the over-large guy in the check-in line in front of me (self-check bag drop was closed)  was holding up proceedings. Turned out he was complaining about the charge for his over-large bag, and the agent didn’t have the right change. He seemed to expect sympathy – didn’t get any from me. (My checked bag weighed in in Istanbul at 10.7 kgs.)
  • Turkish Airlines JFK-IST – the good news: edible food and free booze. The bad news: smaller seats and part of the leg room taken up by metal boxes, presumably supporting the seat back videos. The really bad news: not the airlines fault, but one or more kids screamed and cried for almost the entire flight. Good thing I wasn’t seated right in front of the kid, or I might have done something regrettable, but I was close enough that the audio didn’t drown out the noise. I did not sleep.
  • Turkish Airlines IST-BUS – standard commuter-type flight, but again with edible food and free booze, although I passed on the alcohol. Once again, my bag was almost the first off.

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The Book Pile(s)

The books I own

The books I own

Since both my father, and his father, worked for a printing and book-binding company, perhaps it’s not surprising that I grew up loving books. In fact, you could say I’m a book addict – my default activity is reading. So when I started traveling, naturally I started reading (and collecting) travel books.

The books I borrowed

The books I borrowed

For the initial planning stages, I usually rely on the library and the local Barnes and Noble. This is when I spend time with the picture guides like ”Insight” and “Exploring” and Knopf and “Eyewitness”, which are far too heavy to take on the road. (They tend to be lousy on logistics, too.)

After I decide on my destinations, I buy the books I expect to take with me. Almost always, these turn out to be Lonely Planet guides. I’m used to the format, the maps are usually good (for some reason the Morocco guide fell short of the usual standard), the mid-range hotel recommendations generally work out for me, and the logistic information is the best.

My father might be spinning in his grave, but not only do I mark up my guidebooks, I cut them up, too. I won’t travel with more than I can carry, and books are, regrettably, heavy for their size. For this trip I likely won’t mutilate “Jordan” or “Syria and Lebanon”, but I’ll probably cut Azerbaijan out of the ”Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan” guide. And although I bought the Bradt guides for Georgia and Armenia, I’ve found the maps and hotel recommendations infuriating, and they’ll be staying home.

Originally I was expecting to visit more of Turkey than just Istanbul, which is why I have a couple of Turkey guides. The Fodors guide was a welcome freebie: I post on their discussion board (as thursdaysd – http://www.fodors.com/community/profile/thursdaysd), and if something you write is used for one of their “Word of Mouth” sections, you get a free guide of your choice. I think this my fifth!

For New York, now that I have a printer that is also a copier, I’ll just copy a few pages out of the guides, and take some maps along.

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Doctors’ Rounds

Before I leave on a long trip I like to make sure, or as sure as I can, that I’m likely to stay healthy. (Don’t want to develop toothache up in the mountains.) So I scheduled all my annual appointments – dentist, eye doctor, physical – for the second week in August. Earlier would have been better, but some of these people were actually off on vacation.

I wanted to schedule a mammogram and a bone density scan for the same week, but Wake Radiology insisted that I had to wait two full calendar years since the last ones unless I signed a letter saying I would pay the bill if my insurance refused to cover the service. Cigna said they were fine with it, but I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. Seems most insurance companies must insist on a two year wait (and I did have authorization from my doctor).

Well, some good news, some bad. Clean bill of health at the dentist. A new prescription from the ophthalmologist, that he said might or might not help with my fuzzy focus (it did), but my cataracts are progressing. Mostly OK at the doctor, but my bad cholesterol is too high, and a subsequent carotid doppler scan showed that my left artery is a little compromised. My doctor says its time for statins, I say I’ll try improving my diet (mostly, alas, by cutting back on cheese) and we’ll test again in December.

But then some more bad news. I spent yesterday afternoon back with the eye doctor. Monday I was updating my accounts on Quicken, and I noticed that every time I looked up or down quickly, I saw a dark-centered and bright-edged lozenge shape. I’d had floaters before, but this seemed different.

Well, turns out it was a floater, and I’m probably developing Posterior Vitreous Detachment in my left eye. Good news, in so far as there is any: this happens to most people as they age. Potentially bad news: while it’s happening there is a small chance (2% according to my doctor) of a retinal tear or detachment. Verdict: don’t cancel the trip, but if I develop symptoms of retinal detachment I have about a week to get it treated. (Great site for info on this, for others getting older: http://tinyurl.com/5nctdu )

I’m not canceling the trip, I’m not going that far from an airport, but it was an upsetting afternoon. Getting older is a pain!

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