Memories of Dad

Aged 18 yrs, in his National Service uniform

Aged 18 yrs, in his National Service uniform

This day, the 28th June in  2001 , my dad passed away peacefully in his armchair from aggressive  lung cancer. I know this because I was there next to him when it happened. We only knew he had the disease two weeks before he drew his terminal breath but I always had a feeling that his love of cigarettes would be the end of him.  It was a hot summer morning, the roses in his beloved garden were in full bloom and the world carried on as though nothing had happened.

He was only 65, young by today’s standards. He left a young family of three children behind; his second family by second wife Julie, love of his life. He and my mother parted long before, when I was eight, my brother six and my sister two. Julie was understandably bewildered; lost and the poor kids, well I don’t know what they must have gone through.

I was 41 when he died, going through a tough divorce and I felt like I had lost my footing. I regretted the lost time spent with him. Eventually I realised that it was even worse for my younger siblings, for although I hadn’t seen a lot of him since my parents break up, at least I had spent some time over the years until I was into my forties.

He was a good dad to his kids – both sets. Not many people get a chance to have two families, twenty five years apart. I guess it gave him a new lease of life! It meant though, that when I started my family, dad had started his new one at the same time. This came as a bit of a shock but once I had got used to the idea, it turned out fine. The two sets of children grew up at the same time and when we visited (they lived a long way away) twice a year, they got on like friends or  cousins. In fact, I only found out when dad died that his other kids thought I was an auntie or friend of the family.  They had no idea I was their sister. I guess he was a bit embarrassed.

Love this photo. 3 of my kids (before Tom) and dads 3 kids with him in the background . 1991

Love this photo. 3 of my kids (before Tom) and dads 3 kids with him in the background . 1991

The facts I know about our father are few and far between. I know he was adopted and this gave him a huge chip on his shoulder. I know he had to do National Service when he was eighteen and didn’t take to it very well. He served his time in Germany, grudgingly and couldn’t wait to get out. He met my mother soon after at Wimbledon race track, I think, and was pushed into marrying her by my grandmother. He was 21, her 17. A recipe for disaster.

This was taken around the time he and my mum were courting

This was taken around the time he and my mum were courting

We didn’t have our own home until I was four. We lived with both sets of grand parents, and a cousin. Eventually we got a prefab in Balham. I remember those days vaguely. He was always on a course during the week, learning how to be a computer engineer. He was one of the first engineers in this brand new industry. He was a pioneer! He worked for ICL – International Computers Limited (I think.) he used to go away Monday to Friday and when he came home, he would always have a present. Normally dresses. I don’t know why he always bought my dresses but he had good taste. Maybe he didn’t trust mum with his money; I will never know.

He enjoyed photography and turned one of the bedrooms into a dark room, I remember the red glow of the light when I went in and watched in amazement as the plain paper gradually revealed images as if by magic. He took many photos of us kids and our pets.

He liked beer but mum didn’t like him drinking. Up until the end, he always had a row of cans lined up in front of his chair that he had emptied over the course of an evening. (My brother has the exact same habit.)  I think that was one of their problems. Also women. Mum said he was unfaithful. I only have her word on that but there were quite a lot of photographs of different women from his photography days.

He was a handsome man!

He was a handsome man!

He was a keen fisherman and I remember fondly, family days out to Godalming and Farncoombe with my uncle John, grand dad and younger brother; they all loved fishing. One night I got up in the night to pee and found a tin full of maggots all over the floor. They had escaped from the tin and I freaked out! They were obviously bait for the next day. I will always remember that tin; it was a blue and yellow tube which originally held gingernut biscuits from Cornwall.

Me and my brother on holiday in Bournemouth, around 1965

Me and my brother on holiday in Bournemouth, around 1965

Another of dads loves was Cornwall. We had only one  family holiday to the Lizard Point. We left in the middle of the night and stopped at a petrol station in the dark and the car had over heated. All I remember was a huge stream of boiling water spewing out of the radiator when he released the cap, it was like a geyser! It was the place he took his new family as well; they used to go to Looe every year. After he died I went to visit Looe, on a holiday to Porthleven, as a kind of pilgrimage to him. I noticed it was a fishing port with plenty of opportunities to go sea fishing, although I’m sure he was a course fishing man.

In latter years he developed a love of cricket. His second son Chris, was also a fanatic and played for the local team. To encourage Chris even further, he took an umpires course so he could become more involved in the game. He was retired by now and it was around this time that he was taken ill. He wasn’t diagnosed at first but spent two weeks in hospital while they did tests. I was on holiday in Zante when I got a text to say he was in hospital and to give Julie a call. I sensed it was serious. I went to him as soon as I got home from holiday and a week later he had the diagnoses. He didn’t make a fuss, he never did. I rallied round and got my brother and sister, who hadn’t seen him for years. They hadn’t carried on their relationship with him, so many years had passed.  But they both went to visit him before it was too late and I know he appreciated it.

He died a few days after their visits and I was so relieved they got to see him before he passed and although it was sad, I was glad to be with him at the end. I wasn’t quite prepared for it but nor was anyone. His spirit will carry on in his six children and grand children and he will be remembered as a quiet, loving man.

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Storm Chasing in the USA

Storm Chasing Adventures

Storm Chasing Adventures

What do you get when you put 18 people together, including a Secret Millionaire, an Irish Priest, a Russian ice cream fan, an Australian Chemical Engineer, an Extreme weather enthusiast, plus 13 random people from different walks of life and put them into 2 white vans and send them 2625 miles around the mid west States of America for a week? A whole lot of fun, that’s what!

We met in Denver for the serious business of chasing storms, arriving on different flights and times, from the four corners of the Earth on a mission to witness some extreme weather. Some people were experienced chasers and came year after year. Others, like me, were Storm chasing virgins, not knowing quite what to expect and secretly hoping that we came home in one piece and not taken  by a tornado. I hadn’t brought my red slippers for one.

I booked this trip on complete impulse after answering an ad on Facebook from an ex- colleague that I hadn’t seen for thirteen years. All because Twister is one of my favourite films and I just had a feeling in my gut that I should go. I like to live dangerously, what can I say?

The tour was to start from Denver and as I came in to land, a magnificent display of lightening lit up the sky and on leaving the airport, torrential rain fell, which the gutters found hard to keep up with. A good sign, thought I. Tired and bedraggled, I was glad to finally get to my comfortable room, after 14 hours travelling.

The next day was spent at leisure and I was glad because all I wanted to do was relax and chill by the pool with my book, in the hot sunshine. I was excited about going to Walmart to stock up on goodies for the trip and couldn’t wait for the rest to join me (plus, they were nowhere to be found!) On the way back I spotted a Liquor store that I wanted to investigate, as I had never been in one before. It was much the same as our off licences, so I bought some wine (for night cap purposes.)

At six o’clock there was an Orientation meeting, to show us what storm clouds are all about but I’m afraid it went straight over my head and I decided to learn on the job, so to speak! As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one. After the meeting, it was time to go to Famous Daves  rib shack for a well deserved meal to socialise with fellow chasers before our adventure ahead. I have to say, their Margaritas were superb. And so big! It wasn’t long before I got a reputation for being a lush, I only have myself to blame! On a positive note, it made me sleep well.image

The first day of Storm chasing finally arrived. It was a hot, sunny day in Denver when we left the snow capped mountains (and the rail track, with its noisy horn that woke us up 3 times a night) and headed towards Kansas, full of optimism after Todd (our leader) had consulted the radar on his laptop and assured us there were some good storms to be had. After a couple of hours driving, it was time for our first “comfort break.” It said in the info about the trip that, where possible, there would be stops every ninety minutes! I have to dispute this but it was very amusing to see who would give in first to a full bladder and dare ask Todd to pull over.

Life on the van!!

Life on the van!!

Let me explain. Our vans were travelling in convoy and the leader of the trip Todd, a man of few words and on a mission to satisfy his customer needs ( to find extreme weather)  wasn’t about to   Waste time hanging around Gas station restrooms at the drop of a hat. The consequence of this was that, when we did stop; it was best that you tried to “go”, even if you could only squeeze a teaspoon out because you never knew when the next opportunity would come. I found this out to my peril and learned my lesson the hard way, which meant I had to wait about six hours until I went, unless I wanted to squat behind the van in the middle of nowhere, whilst everyone else was admiring the storm clouds.

Experiencing downdraft from the storm, windy or what?

Experiencing downdraft from the storm, windy or what?

At the site of the first cloud formation, I had to admit, it was a sight to see. The clouds were indigo blue and brooding and you could see the hot air being sucked up into them in plumes, from a distance. This was called the updraft. (Learning on the job, see?) we took lots of photos and waited for some action. One of the group even thought they saw a funnel cloud (one that rotates and pokes through the main cloud), I think I got that right. But I missed it some how. Then, after a while, a strong, cold wind came from nowhere and this was the downdraft. It was very eery, I have to say. Then it was all over, the storm fizzled out (which they can do, apparently) and we moved onto the next one which was forming.

Dark, looming clouds

Dark, looming clouds

More or less the same thing happened but this time, the cloud sucked up a load of dust and as we were driving through a small town, it came down on us like a brown fog and we couldn’t see where we were going! American Aimee was a co driver (AKA Birdkiller because she managed to bump off some birds with the van earlier!) and was driving at this time. It was good initiation for her and she did a good job. We stayed in a Comfort Inn in Colby, Kansas that night.

Aimee driving with Chris next to her!

Aimee driving with Chris next to her!

Next day we moved onto New Mexico, where we chased a storm for nearly 500 miles. I loved the landscape of this state, it was green and lush before it became mountainous and we drove through a canyon. Ben found a scorpion; he was determined to find a dangerous creature, not wanting to be outdone by a previous chaser who found a rattle snake the  year before. Oh yes, there are plenty of dangerous creatures in America, which is one of the reasons I wasn’t going to squat behind the van! The storm was pretty much the same as yesterday’s; we were hoping for a Supercell with some large hail but it blew itself out again. We stayed in Clayton, where all the restaurants shut at 8 but we managed to find one that served mountain oysters (Bulls testicles) and poor unsuspecting Victoria from Russia was duped into eating them!! We stayed in the Best Western Kokopelli Lodge in Clayton that night.

Clayton fire station, New Mexico. The Stagecoach inn, Ogallala. Postbox somewhere!

Clayton fire station, New Mexico. The Stagecoach inn, Ogallala. Postbox somewhere!

The next day we had 9 hours driving, through New Mexico, Kansas and Nebraska to “get into position” for the storms promised that day. By this time of course, the conversations in the van became rather interesting. It’s amazing how barriers are broken down when you are in a small space for hours on end with people you have been thrown together with. Let the banter begin, along with the toilet humour and you get a very amusing mix. We were literally rolling around laughing. About the “comfort breaks”, who could drink the most fluid and last the longest not wanting to “go”. The state of some of the toothless people in the Gas stations, resembling Hillbillies, to taking the mickey out of people in the other van (who shall remain nameless). When we arrived at our hotel, the Stagecoach in Ogallala, Nebraska (yes, that’s right) it was scorching hot – about 90 degrees and I nearly burnt my hand on the door knob to my room. We had a great night there, playing pool, drinking beer and playing with the monkeynuts that were left on the table. I thought Chris was joking when he said you throw the shells on the floor, for when I looked around, the floor was covered with them! They could be heard being crunched under foot. After the room party we would have gone in the swimming pool, fuelled with alcohol to skinny dip but they locked it up at 10.

Rainbow in Kansas (I think) 2 headed calf in Fort Cody trading post, North Platt, Nebraska.

Rainbow in Kansas (I think)
2 headed calf in Fort Cody trading post, North Platt, Nebraska.

After all the anticipation and driving for hours to get us in position in Nebraska, nothing happened! We hung around to North Platt to see what the weather was going to do. There was Fort Cody Trading post there which was filled with lots of goodies to buy and to look at. There was a stuffed calf that had two heads (?) which I had to take  a photo of and a Wild Bill Hickock show which entailed 20,000 hand made wooden characters re- enacting the battle of little Big Horn. Why, I’m not sure! There was plenty of opportunity to buy souvenirs, which we did to while away the time. As nothing was happening with the weather still, we headed for Applebee’s, which is a famous American eatery chain. And very good it was too. The only problem was that the weather decided to fire into action and we had to ask for doggy bags to take our lunches with us. There’s no hanging about when you are with Todd; when the weather dictates – you gotta go!

New Mexico, stopped at a canyon. Ben, Amy and Paul

New Mexico, stopped at a canyon. Ben, Amy and Paul

Apparently there was large hail where we were headed to but as we were travelling towards it, it changed direction and all we were left with was the tail end of the storm, so rain and a small amount of hail. A bit disappointing but I think that’s the name of the game. Weather is unpredictable. We headed for our next place to stay and it was a Best Western plus hotel in Kearney, Nebraska and very comfortable. The evening meal was nice too, in a steak house called Whiskey Creek, where there was a severe storm warning on the TV, as we were eating. There followed a lightening display which the more enthusiastic  of the group went out to see.

From Nebraska, we travelled through Oklahoma to Kansas again on the trail still of the Super cell. Was today going to be the day? Yes! Finally we were rewarded with magnificent Mammutis (booby clouds) and our first super cell. Things were looking up on the extreme weather front. Full of excitement we clambered out of the van for the hundredth time taking in the sight of the striking cloud formations. We stayed there for a long time and many photos were taken of the spectacle. It was a bit too much to hope that we would witness a tornado but we lived in hope. Eventually the storm dissipated but I, for one, wasn’t disappointed. After all, did I really want to see a tornado? Well maybe a bit! All in all, it was our most productive day and I was quite happy. I was even more happy when I saw my room at the hotel we were staying at that night. We ended up in Garden city, Kansas and in a Best Western plus again and it was like five star luxury. My bed was so big I had to climb up onto it and it was so wide you could have got four people in it (I didn’t try.) There were two TVs; one facing the bed and one in the sitting room area, a mere few feet away! Our evening meal was at Applebee’s again, so I was more than a happy bunny that day.

Supercell and huge Mammutis (booby clouds)

Supercell and huge Mammutis (booby clouds)

In the morning (our last day) we had the usual meeting with Todd and his laptop, which didn’t bode well. There was nothing to chase; just drizzle all the way back to Denver. This was good and bad news really because although we were not going to have anything to chase, at least we would be back early to Denver and could relax on our last evening. Sometimes on a chase, if it is miles from base, it would mean not getting back until very late at night before the long journey home the next day. We had a superb lunch at Oscars, where we had been on Tuesday and it also  meant we had time to have a cheeky drink by the pool, after a few hours in the van reading and watching films on iPads, so it was more relaxing.

In the evening we went to “The Mall” in Denver and had cocktails and a very nice meal in the Olive Garden (another American chain) and a singsong in the hotel curtesy bus on the way home. The bus driver wasn’t too impressed with our singing but we thought it was funny! A few more drinks in the hotel bar before bed and the next load of chasers were there for Todd and Chris to compare notes with.

In the morning, I arranged with my new friends to meet in IHOP for breakfast before the drive to the airport. Many of us had developed a love for IHOP (yet another American chain!) and I had blueberry pancakes this time, which were delicious.

Margarita at Applebee's. Blueberry pancake from ihop.

Margarita at Applebee’s. Blueberry pancake from ihop.

Back to the hotel and Chris was going to give those who needed a lift to the airport, a last ride before he took the van back to the car hire place at the airport. We agreed to meet in the back hotel car park but when I got there, there was no sign of the van or my fellow chasers! I was mortified! Turns out that in the rush, they forgot me, so I had to take the curtesy bus (it wasn’t really a trial) by myself and hope that I could see some of them at the airport. We all had different flights but I was lucky enough to find Ben and Amy and went through check in and customs with them and then once I had got through to my gate, I saw Aimee (AKA Birdkiller) waiting for her plane. We hugged and did a selfie and then I went to my gate. Then it was all over and time for the 14 hour journey home.

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Sultry Salsa in Baracoa

imageHalf way through a road trip of Cuba earlier this year, on a tour called the Revolutionary Road, our bus arrived in a strange town called Baracoa. Situated at the far end of the island, known as the Oriente and the most eastern point, it is practically within touching distance of Haiti. This mystical place sits beyond the mountainous road, La Farola, in a gloomy, forgotten land. It rains a lot here, so the vegetation is lush and tropical. The flat topped mountain, El Yunque looms in the background, whilst the Atlantic Ocean laps its shores. Christopher Colombus landed here before the town was born in 1511, making it one of the oldest settlements on the island. image

Walking around, you get a real sense of poverty; a trip to the ration shop confirms this. Down the road is a home for expectant mothers; such a paradox, for the country is still living on rations, yet the state looks after its own, for the care is free and good quality. image

The real treasure of this place though, is the Casa de la Trova, where our group were promised a night of authentic Salsa dancing. Our guide, Erik, was going to show us his moves on the dance floor, assuring us of his expertise. The unmistakeable beat of the music lured us towards the door of the Casa. A man with crimped, oily hair, wearing a hat that resembled the one that Jim Carey wore in The Mask, ushered us in. He took our drinks orders “Mojito” we said, “Rum or beer,” said he. So beer it was.

We took our seats in the back row; like in an old fashioned tea dance from the forties, until our drinks arrived. Anticipation was building all around. A plump, black lady dressed in Caribbean head gear and scruffy clothes stood in front of the stage, where octogenarian musicians sat; one of them at least looked as though he would rather be somewhere else. She explained the story of the next song the band would play, in Spanish, so we couldn’t understand but it mattered not, but instead added to the magic.

This may be a spit and sawdust kind of joint but the atmospheric surroundings were perfect for the raw rhythm of the music that came from that ancient band. If they looked ready for bed before, they sure came to life once they picked up those instruments. Expertly and for the indeterminate amount of times they must have played, they delivered a sound as fresh and potent as I have ever heard.

Soon people were up on their feet, spinning and swaying to the rhythm, so fast, it took my breath away. I wanted to get on that floor but had to wait to be asked. I didn’t wait long before a local man took my hand and led me there. Feeling inadequately prepared, I tried to copy the steps and learn as quick as I could. He swung me this way and that and I started to get the hang of it. He pulled me close, then pushed me away, only to gather me back and all too soon the dance was over. I hung about on the floor in anticipation of the next dance, which came once the same ritual as before, was performed. Whilst this was going on, the huge windows, wide open, allowed on lookers from the street to lean in and watch. Then Erik, as promised, strutted his stuff across the floor, taking in turn, each lady from our group for a twirl around floor and leaving us wanting more. Intoxicated from the whole experience, I didn’t want to leave, but was dragged away by Mary, my friend, reminding me we had an early start in the morning.

Posted in Memoirs, Music, Travel | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

The 5 year plan, aka where do you want to be in 5 years time?

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In the past, when asked “where do you see yourself in 5 years time?” I have never been able to answer. My life has been so disorganised and unplanned that to see that far ahead was inconceivable. Lack of ambition is a major flaw of mine, as is lack of confidence and drive which do not help either. So you can imagine my surprise, when I realised the other day that my life is actually much improved since five years ago, without me even noticing!

I used to measure success in terms of what type of jobs people have and how much money they earned. But there are lots of other factors to take into account which a makes for a fulfilling life. Money is important, of course and I have had plenty of experience of being without.

Having a career where you have status and respect from fellow colleagues is always of benefit; not being embarrassed to admit what you “do for a living” is a big one for me. There have been times, for no fault of my own, where I have been unemployed and there is nothing so soul destroying.

Family is very important and I am blessed in this department, with an abundance of offspring but some people are not so lucky, I realise. Family are our support network, our raison d’être, although they can be a pain in the neck at times! In the last five years the amount of grandchildren I have has doubled to four and there are now three girls in the family, which I was never able to manage, so I am very happy about that. I am also reunited with my estranged cousin, who lives in Majorca, which is fantastic because we used to be such good friends and are again now.image

Friends are another essential part of our network. How many of us rely on them for support, companionship and assertion? I think most of us have at least a handful of true friends that we can put in this category and most of us, many more. Mine are  still intact five years later and I am making some more.image

Relationships of the romantic kind are high up there on the list of essentials. A good home-life balance makes for happier people, I believe. Although I also know a lot of people who live alone quite happily; better to live with the right person or not at all, is my philosophy. There has been no change in the last five years for me, so I guess I must be with the right person!

When you apply for a new job or college course, why is it that they ask you about your hobbies? Does it say a lot about the kind of person you are by how you spend your spare time? I had a think about it and I think it does. My two main hobbies are writing and travelling (that won’t be any surprise to those of you who regularly read my blogs!). Writing is the main area in my life that has seen the biggest change. And I started five years ago. I have improved so much since I started and it is a big part of my life now. I don’t talk much about it to my non writing friends, but now I have several “writing” friends who see me, foremost, as a writer.

To me, that is real progress. I feel that something defines me for the first time in my life. That probably sounds a bit dramatic but I have been waiting for something that I could be good at (even though there is a long way to go yet!) and be accepted by my writing peers.

My other passion is travelling. I have not been in the position, financially, to travel far afield before. But now, since my divorce settlement, I have taken some really fantastic long haul trips and there are more to come. If I look back to five years ago, I could only afford one week in Wales, although I did enjoy it. So far, in the last two years, I have realised a dream to visit New York, have been to a wedding in Mexico and been on a tour of Cuba. In six weeks time I am going storm chasing in America, so I feel very lucky indeed.

But the biggest achievement, in terms of earning a living is, that after a bout of losing three jobs in as many years, I have managed to stay in employment for three and a half years by my own means. I set myself up as a self employed cleaner, in itself not a perfect job, I know, but at least I have been in control of my own destiny and all the money I have earned, I have earned myself, without the help from anybody else. I am embarrassed to admit I am a cleaner sometimes but am pleasantly surprised when people say I shouldn’t put my self down. This time 5 years ago I was working two jobs and clocking up over fifty hours a week; now I only work twenty six and a half!

I cannot stay a cleaner forever though, so with that in mind, I decided I need to retrain. My poor body won’t be able to take the physical stain of being on my feet all day; the knees creak and the back groans and I can’t draw my retirement pension until I’m 66. I racked my brain and come up with the idea of being a counsellor. I found some courses that would fit in with my work schedule of four days a week and found one that I could do on my day off. I applied and to my surprise, they accepted me! There was a part on the application that asked what my hobbies were. I’m wondering if they were impressed that I write?

So the long and short of it is: next time I am asked “where do you see yourself in 5 years time” I hope to say that I should be a qualified counsellor by then.

And the icing on the cake would be to have some of my writing published.

Posted in Family, Leisure activities, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Spa day (from hell??!!)

imageSpa days have become something of a modern day luxury nowadays, thanks to Groupon, Wowcher and Amazon Local.  As a fairly regular Spa fan, I asked for one for Christmas and so did my Spa partner in crime Tiffany. Today we are going to try out a different venue and are looking forward to luxuriating in the headily perfumed treatment rooms that await us. I just love the aromatherapy oils that permeate the darkly lit, relaxing rooms and the comforting music that plays quietly in the background.

Having been led to the room by your allocated masseuse in the comfy towelling robe they provide, you are left in the unfamiliar surroundings to undress and arrange yourself on the towel covered bed, whilst trying to keep your dignity intact. I always feel a bit silly at this stage and somewhat vulnerable. This feeling doesn’t last long however,  for once the masseuse has knocked (they always knock first, to respect your privacy) and entered, they explain what they are going to do and then all is required is to lay back and enjoy the experience.

On this occasion though, there were no fluffy towelling robes or slippers, or even a dark room. There wasn’t even a separate room because we were asked if we minded sharing the room with just a partition between us! Luckily, we know each other quite well and stripped off to our knickers and positioned ourselves on our beds with towels covering our modesty.

The treatment itself was good and definitely value for money but if you are unaccustomed to strangers placing their aromatherapy oiled hands on your almost naked body, then this is not for you. But if you can let your inhibitions go and just relax, then it is a very enjoyable and therapeutic experience. I have had several back and shoulder massages and have felt wonderful afterwards but when I was on holiday in Mexico last year, I had the full body scrub and massage. It was the best one I have ever had and my favourite part was the foot massage, especially as I had been up till 3 in the morning dancing at a club and had very achy feet! And what really surprised me was that I have really ticklish feet and can’t normally stand anyone touching them but it was bliss.

Most Spa centres normally have at least one form of hydrotherapy facility. I love a sauna, followed by the steam room. Some have a swimming pool and jacuzzi bath. The one I have been to a couple of times before has an outside hot tub and you can watch drivers on the skid pan in the grounds of Mercedes world at Brooklands. It’s surreal sitting in a lovely warm bath in the middle of November putting the worlds to rights with your companion while it is cold on the outside and hot on the inside.

Once in Majorca on another holiday, there was a Spa in the hotel we were staying in and you could use the facilities by paying a meagre 10 euros and could stay as long as you like. It had various showers that all had different aromatherapy oils and one had mud added to it. Another has a zesty lemon spray, whilst one was called tropical rain forest, due to the strength and flow of water. But my favourite part of that Spa centre was the one for the feet. You walked on stones, whilst jets of beautiful smelling water sprayed your feet. The one in Mexico had strong jets of water coming from under your feet, whilst you sat down and also left your feet feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.

Going back to Majorca again and the hydrotherapy pool had different water jets around it. Some you could sit on which was very funny because it made your swimsuit blow up like a balloon and I couldn’t help getting the giggles! Other jets rained down on you from above, taking your breath away, whilst the last set squirted from the sides. I remember I squealed a few times, taken by surprise, much to my friends amusement. When we had finished messing about in the water, there were some nice loungers to lay and relax on? I fell asleep because it was so relaxing and that is what most Spa centres are about.

Unfortunately for us, today after our lovely massage and facials, we went downstairs to use the “facilities” and were met with a pool full of babies having a swimming class! The pool was so small that we couldn’t get in it, without joining the class and it wouldn’t have been so bad if Tiffany hadn’t left her own baby at home with her father, so she could get away for a nice relaxing break! We did use the sauna and the steam room but only stayed half an hour. There were 2 loungers which we used for 5 minutes but lunch beckoned and as it was in with the package, we thought we should go at our allotted time.

We went back to the small changing room to shower and change and all was well until the baby swimming class changed over. Soon we were surrounded by 7 babies and 7 mothers all clamouring for space in the tiny room! There was only I changing cubicle, so I dived in there when I saw the competition and was glad I did because the mayhem was added to by the next swimming lesson that had arrived with even more babies and mummies  trying to enter to get undressed!

Tiffany was not amused and when she emerged out into the reception area, they made the mistake of asking her if everything was okay. She gave them the complete low down, in no uncertain terms and they in turn, refunded our fivers! We couldn’t even dry our hair in there, despite hair driers being provided because we couldn’t get to it!

So we went for our lunch with wet, tangled hair and the experience was saved, in part, by the lovely food and glass of wine we had which went a small way to make amends. On the way out we stopped by reception to air our views, suggesting to them that maybe they should refrain from telling future customers that they could use the facilities in peace, without sharing them with half a dozen babies and their mummies – hardly relaxing and which nearly undone the good work that the girls in the treatment room had provided . I don’t think we will be going back there again in a hurry!

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Suitcases at dawn, a Cuban Roadtrip part one

imageIf If anyone had told me that I would be up before 7am most mornings on holiday, suitcase packed, taken to the lobby, and ready to be loaded onto a coach, I wouldn’t have believed them. It would not be my idea of a relaxing holiday. It’s amazing how you can adapt when you have to; now I know how travelling salesmen or musicians on tour must feel. Except me and my fellow travellers did, at least, have the luxury of enjoying the scenery and cocktails at the end of a full days travels.

Ernest Hemingways watering hole

Ernest Hemingways watering hole

The first day after our arrival in Havana, we were afforded the luxury of not having to deposit our suitcases in the Lobby, as we were still recovering from the long flight the day before and a day of sightseeing on foot awaited us. We wandered through the old town, stopping outside El Floridita, where Ernest Hemingway supped, then onto Ambos Mundos, the hotel where he stayed for long spells at a time.

We visited several Plaza’s; my favourite being Plaza Vieja, but also Plaza San Francisco and Plaza de la Cathedral  where colourful ladies in traditional costumes sold their wears. The Havana Club Rum museum was a firm favourite with most and produce was sampled and despite the obvious reason that I wanted to visit; it was interesting as well!

Friendship Buddy Bears in Plaza San Francisco. Plaza Vieja and Rum museum

Friendship Buddy Bears in Plaza San Francisco. Plaza Vieja and Rum museum

Then it was time for lunch and the first encounter of the coach and driver, the lovely Emilio, who we were going to spend the next two weeks with. Erik told us to make a note of the number; 191 of the Transtur fleet. There was a reason for this; the Transtur company are State owned and there were many at the places we visited on our travels, so it was confusing to know which one to board if faced with several in a coach park.

So we were whisked off to the first of many lunches together, where we made new friends and got to know each other. Myself and Rosie were the only solo travellers but that didn’t make a difference because we were welcomed into the group of eight couples and a pair of old friends, Jane and Jacqueline, making twenty of us in total. The challenge was, in the beginning, to remember which wife went with which corresponding husband and the names of everybody. This was too much to absorb at first but as the days went on, I mastered it. image

After lunch we were taken to Revolution square, which resembled a huge car park but had to be that size to accommodate the amount of people wanting to show their support for the Revolution. There were a lot of Transtur coaches there, funnily enough, so it was handy to know that ours was number 191! Back on the coach, Erik told us about the supply of bottled water carried on board for our convenience at a CUC a piece (Convertable Cuban Peso), which proved an excellent idea, given the climate. All we had to do was add the amount we had taken, 1 at a time and we would settle up at the end of the trip.

Now we had joined Emilio and his coach, we were joined at the hip and were escorted everywhere, like VIP’s. Although we became more like a family, with Emilio after a while calling us his niño’s (children in Spanish) and I stated calling him Papa. He didn’t know much English but we understood each other very well.

We were taken to the Revolution museum, which was closed early that day due to some important visitors, so we had to revert to Plan B and go  the next morning. Another endearing part of the trip was that sometimes (well quite often, actually) some flexibility was needed. Erik would tell us the situation, ask our opinion, then we had to decide whether to do Plan A or Plan B regarding what order we would visit a place, or time we ate etc, and we would have a vote. Sometimes there was need for Plan C but it was always decided amicably.

So we returned earlier to the Hotel Parque Central than planned, but that was good because we had a voucher for a free drink up on the rooftop bar, where there was also a pool. I bumped into Mary and Roger who were having a drink and asked if they minded me joining them, which of course they didn’t and we admired the wonderful views of the city from our vantage point, while some of the others enjoyed the pool. After that, we were taken to the Nine Cannon ceremony at La Cabana Fortress, performed every night since the eighteenth century, with all the pomp and ceremony that they executed all those years ago. Again, there were many Transtur buses there the crowds were huge because it is a spectacle not to be missed on visiting Havana. image

After negotiating our way out of the crowds and Erik rounding us up, with many of the head counts he had to perform, we were taken somewhere else for dinner. Being last to the table, I was perched at the end of one of the two and made conversation with a different group of people. Walking around Havana, we tended to drift into different groups and talk to different people, aclimatising ourselves with each other gradually. But when we ate together, it was a better opportunity to socialise and get to know people in depth. This was the pattern that developed as the tour went on and after a while, I for one, gravitated towards the people I got on best with and I’m sure the others did the same. I was in a better position I think, because there was only one of me to decide who I wanted to sit with, instead of being part of a couple where both had to decide.

The next day was the first of the suitcases in the lobby situation. Though not at dawn, at a more acceptable time of nine. We had to go to the Revolution museum before we left the city, as Plan B but Emilo still had to load the coach and take us there and Erik had to make sure we had handed our keys in to reception and collected our passports. There were a few occasions where people did forget to hand their keys back and were taunted by the whole bus in a jovial fashion. It soon became a bit of a joke to guess who had forgotten something each time we left a hotel!

After the museum, we were on the road for the first time, a four hour journey, travelling to Cienfuegos along the “motorway”, which was a loose description for a real motorway and where we encountered our first “yellow man” (as described in first blog) and the travellers waiting with a fistful of CUCs to be “lifted.” I took in the scenery which got more mountainous as we approached Cienfuegos, as well as the sugar cane plantations that came to be a common sight as we traversed the island.

Cienfuegos is known for its neo classical archetechture and was colonised by the French in the 1800’s. The pastel buildings were beautiful and even our hotel – La Union was a gorgeous mint green colour and full of character. It didn’t have a lift but very steep steps, so I needed a bell boy to take my very heavy suitcase up to my room. This was a routine that followed me to every hotel we stayed at; as I was manless, I didn’t have the means to transport my heavily laden suitcase up and down many flights of stairs. Consequently, many CUCs were spent in tips! We had dinner in the hotel that night, so Emilio had a night off. The hotel had a terrace bar, so I headed up there to join the others and have some “time out.” image

The next morning I rose fairly early and decided to go into the main square to take some photos, as we didn’t need to leave until ten. With my suitcase in the lobby, porter paid, I had an hour to kill, so went for a wander. It was Sunday morning, so there was a relaxed atmosphere. I bumped into Bridget and Richard down on the quayside and walked back to the coach with them to go to our next stop, Trinidad. image

On arrival in Trinidad, we did the sights, had lunch in a buffet style restaurant where flies covered the cold food and I had a nasty suspicion that I would suffer the consequences of eating there. My suspicions were correct and as a result, I couldn’t enjoy the stop at the sugar plantation that we visited next because I didn’t dare go up the tower that the others climbed, incase I got “caught short”, so instead sat on the porch of the Plantation building and had a cup of tea. It was very nice sitting on that porch though. I managed to get through the experience without any mishaps and joined the coach again to travel to our next stop Sancti Spiritus. image

We arrived there late afternoon, had a quick look around and had to park the coach away from the hotel, which was in a pedestrianised part of the town. We dragged our suitcases to Hostal Rijo, which I was pleasantly surprised was a very nice hotel. I loved my room, so much so, I took some photos of it. I only took photos of the hotel rooms I really liked and there were ten of them in the fortnight! The only problem was that, we had to take our dinner and breakfast in the sister hotel down the street. In the morning I was the last one to breakfast and had to have it on my own! I had adopted a routine of getting ready and taking my suitcase to the lobby before I had breakfast and the others did it the other way around, so they feared I would be late for Emilo. I wasn’t. In fact, I was so scared of oversleeping and missing the coach because I didn’t have anyone to wake me, that I woke earlier than I needed to most days! image

Day five on the itinerary was a proper day on the road – nine hours! We were to travel to Camaguey for lunch, after four hours and then onto Bayamo which was another five hours. This was a lot of time to spend sitting down but I had prepared myself for it and as I had the luxury of having two seats to myself, I could spread out a bit. I had my iPad with me so I could listen to music, read an iBook, watch a film I had downloaded, so I was entertained. I also read my Lonely Planet guide to Cuba to swot up on the places we were going to visit. And, of course part of the trip included Eriks informative talks about Cuban lifestyle and history, which we found riveting (most of the time, anyway). Sometimes I just switched off but most of the time the things he told us were very interesting. Other people read their kindles or books or listened to music. Some just slept with their mouths open, catching flies (not really) but we just did whatever it took to get to the other end.

When we arrived in Bayamo, it was nearly dark. Erik took us on a whirlwind tour, then to our hotel. My room just had to be on the top floor, so I got my CUC out again and after I started unpacking, found that my air conditioning machine was literally spewing out water all over the floor. They moved me to another room, I was late for dinner and had to give the girl who helped me move another CUC. This was getting expensive!

The next day we were meant to go to a museum, I’m not sure what happened to plan A or B but while we were waiting on the coach, suitcases loaded, breakfast taken, we saw some lovely little children in cute sailor costumes on the street below us. Apparently it was a national holiday to celebrate one of their forefathers, I can’t remember which one. Bayamo was a bit of a blur to me; it must have been the long day of driving the day before. Goodness knows how Emilio felt. image

Day 6 was the one that I was looking forward to with trepidation. Today we were travelling to the Sierra Maestra mountains and a six km hike was involved in order to visit Fidel Castro’s hideout while the Revolution was going on almost sixty years ago. The coach had to be left at a halfway point and two four by fours were to take us up to the next level, along with our suitcases. We were quite excited, as we didn’t know that we were going so far up into the mountains and wondered where Emilio would be staying. We had become attached to Papa! There was a bit of a delay with our lift and Erik became impatient with the drivers who had let him down. Eventually they arrived and one at a time they took us high up into the mountains, it was so steep, I could see why they coach wouldn’t have made it up there. We got to our accommodation, checked in and were then informed that we were to be taken even further up the mountain to join the guide who would lead us to Comandancia de la Plata. image

The next road was so steep, I don’t know how even the jeeps got up them, at times they seemed to be at a 90 degree angle. But we did make it to the top and the view was stunning once there. The hike was arduous but rewarding and I felt accomplished at the fact that not many people have actually been to the heart of the Revolution headquarters and I would probably never meet anyone else in my life who had. Erik now named us Rebels for completing the mission! I was so knackered after, I had to have a lie down when I got back to my very basic room. Though the accommodation was basic here, the location more than made up for it. The damned cockerels woke me up at four am the next morning though, which I wasn’t very happy about.

After breakfast, the routine of suitcases in the lobby, key check, head count continued to our next port of call, also in the mountains but in nice log cabins and a much more leisurely day was ahead of us, unlike yesterday. There was an optional walk through El Salton Park, which I declined because I was still feeling the effects of yesterday’s hike, so I rebelled. My fellow rebels had been gone a while and I started to miss them and wished I had gone! So I went for a wander but all I encountered was an empty waterfall and a couple of cows grazing near the river, so I went back to my balcony with a couple of beers from the bar and read my book. I was so glad when they returned, I missed my new found friends!

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Paris – highlights and disappointments

imageParis is one of those places that I have often wanted to visit:  it’s abundance of familiar landmarks, the treasures within its famous museums. Everybody is familiar with the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe.  I have passed through the city many times before, on route to other destinations but last weekend was the first time that I actually stayed there, the occasion:  my birthday weekend and as it fell on a Saturday this year, I took full advantage to do something special and booked tickets on the Eurostar for myself and  non- flying partner Jan (the man).

On arrival at the Gare du Nord, we bought our 2 day city passes, put our cases in a locker and hot footed it to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. I’m not quite sure why I have been compelled to go there for this purpose but I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed and was impressed with all of the other famous works of art in there too. The place was vast and we only managed to visit a small proportion of it, otherwise we could have been in there all day!

imageI felt accomplished that I had seen the Mona Lisa, as if it were a rite of passage but the other works of art and sculptures were equally important. Apparently there are 35,000 pieces of art in the Louvre and it is the biggest museum in the world. Here are just three of them.

imageNext it was time for lunch, having only had a croissant, orange juice and coffee for breakfast after our extremely early rise (4.45 am), we were ravenous! We found a cosy little cafe and had omelette and frites, washed down with a glass of vin rouge (as it was my birthday!) By this time  we thought we had better go back to the Gare du Nord for our luggage and make our way to the hotel. Jan the man thought it a good idea to take the bus this time as we had already used the Metro with some degree of success and he does like to try everything. He also likes to think he is an expert on navigation. So off we went in search of the correct bus stop. This entailed having to walk down a very long boulevard, crammed with shoppers, and it seemed, a popular place for the homeless; one of which had collapsed on the pavement and was being dealt with by the emergency services. I saw his eyes as he lay there, with an oxygen mask over the rest of his face and wondered what brings people to this point in their lives. It was something I didn’t want to witness; something I wasn’t expecting to see in this beautiful city of romance. But that is reality, I suppose. It seems that Paris is no different to London; the streets were certainly as dirty and vomit covered and that’s not to even mention the amount of dog poo that we encountered on our travels. It seems the French are not as educated in the ways of pooper scooping.

We finally arrived at our hotel, which was in the 18th arrondissement (district), or Montmartre as it is better known. I chose this area, even though it is the furthest from the centre, because I have seen some fabulous photos of it and thought we would be in the centre of the artists quarter. Wrong. We were on the outskirts! Never the less, it was a nice hotel and had been recently renovated, had comfy looking beds and the piece de resistance was that it had free wifi! This was important to me because, wherever I am in the world, I still like to be connected.

After winding down and settling in, it was time to think of where to spend my birthday evening. I had downloaded the Trip adviser app to my phone before we came away, thinking it a good idea and chose a French restaurant that was very close, going by the reviews. Bad idea!

It looked nice from the outside and was frequented by the locals, which I thought was a good sign. The menu was in French (OK, we were in France) but there were no English translations underneath. The waiter pretended to look for an English version, knowing full well that it didn’t exist, so we had to guess what to order. Now I can get by with the little bit of French I know, and I had a French/English dictionary with me, but not one of the dishes on the menu were in the dictionary. The only safe item to order was the wine, which was the best part of the meal! We both had a duck terrine starter, which was OK, then steak with butter and wine. Now I took this to be a sauce but when it arrived, it was a thick steak with a medallion of butter with dry wine in it which didn’t even melt! The steak was like old boots, I couldn’t even eat it. So, word of warning: don’t listen to Tripadviser!

The next day, was our only full day. We had to cram everything in because we had only visited one place yesterday with our two day pass and so we had to do the rest in one hit! We started in the old Montmartre (the real bit, in all the photos) and this entailed some hill climbing, as it is in the highest part of the city. But we were rewarded by the views, once we had climbed to the top of the Sacre Coeur (no mean feat, I can tell you!) here are some pictures that  I took from the top. imageFinally we were in the artists quarter and what a lot of them there were, all eager to ply their trade by offering to sketch you there and then for a souvenir. We declined but I took a shot of a couple who did partake: imageTime  was marching on at an alarming pace and I really didn’t want to miss the Musee D’Orsay to see some more masterpieces, so we took the Big Bus, after a long walk to find the bus stop, taking in the Moulin Rouge on the way and took advantage of our city pass to get to the museum. We didn’t realise that the first Sunday of each month  is free to get into the museums, so there was quite a queue. The only saving Grace of having already paid in our pass was, we skipped the queues and went straight in. Once inside, I was eager to find the Van Gogh section of the museum. I have been a fan of his since I went to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam several years ago. To say I was awe struck, would be an understatement! For inside, were many of his most famous  masterpieces: two self portraits, Starry Night, Arlesienne, his famous room in Arles ( the one with the bed and the chair) and many, many more. I was in seventh heaven; mostly because I could see the actual brush strokes that the great painter had made himself – it was like being in the presence of a  genius. I bought a print of the Siesta in the haystacks as a souvenir. imageAfter I had recovered from my reverie, I went to look at the work of some other famous painters of that era: Monet, Renoir, Manet,  Lautrec and the like and thoroughly enjoyed their work too. Not sure if the other half shared my enthusiasm but he humoured me all the same! The museum itself, was an impressive building and housed an amazingly huge, gold guilted clock amongst other things. imageTime was of the essence, so we had to get on the Big Bus again to see the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, where we were to catch the Siene cruise, which was also in with the ticket. We went on the open top, which was a bit breezy being the 1st of March but it was the best way to take photographs. We went down the Champs Élysées, which was very long and packed with shoppers, towards the Arch, which we could see in the distance. imageWe had the chance to stop there while the bus waited for more punters to join and while we did, we witnessed the kamikaze antics of the Parisienne drivers as they drove round the huge roundabout in a haphazard order – well, there didn’t seem to be any order in which to drive, it appeared to be a free for all, which kept us amused for a few minutes!

Next stop, the Eiffel Tower, where we took photos, drank cocktails at the quay on the river while we waited for darkness to descend, in order to see the famous twinkling lights of the tower once an hour, on the hour. imageWe boarded the Seine cruise at 7, which took an hour and was very relaxing but by this time, our thoughts were turning to dinner again. After the fiasco last night, the Mr had discovered there was a Hard Rock Cafe in the centre, so that was the plan of action. It may be unadventurous but at least we knew we would get a decent meal of familiar origins. It was raining by the time we disembarked, so we got a cab to the restaurant, after all, we hadn’t been in a cab up until now and hunger made us desperate! There was the obligatory wait when we got there of at least an hour but I saw it as an opportunity to have one of their delicious Margaritas (even if they were a bit pricey) I also popped into the merchandise area to add to my collection of Hard Rock teddy bears (I was very disappointed when I couldn’t get one in Cancun), so was extra pleased to add my new one to my collection (of 2, the other one from New York). After the long wait, we ordered another cocktail and beer from our extremely friendly waiter (I don’t think he was French) and ordered our guaranteed-to- be edible dinner. I had ribs because the smell of them was making my mouth water and they didn’t disappoint. It was such a relief to have a good, hearty meal and we deserved it after all of the sightseeing we had done that day. We had been out and about for 13 hours by the time we got back to the hotel and got a taxi there too because we couldn’t be bothered with working out the Metro route to the hotel! We slept well that night. (Surprise,surprise!)

Our last day loomed and there were a couple of places that we still hadn’t visited. We had seen  Notre Dame from the bus but I really wanted to go inside. We had a quick look around the Latin  quarter, which I liked and made a mental note to stay in this area if I ever returned for a weekend. We had a drink in a nice, typical bar/cafe and watched the world go by and made our way back to Notre Dame. Unfortunately, suitcases are not allowed inside so we had to go in one at a time. It was beautiful inside and I took many photos of the architecture and works of art, all the time being overwhelmed by my surroundings.

Outside, as in the other main attractions like the Eiffel Tower, there was a heavy presence of armed soldiers. About 6 in a group, holding automatic rifles, a sign of the times, no doubt since the murders at Charlie Hebdo. I thought it very sad but I suppose it is to make tourists feel safer. I must admit, the previous day when we were standing at the bus stop to take us to our hotel, there was a carrier bag that contained, what looked like an empty fruit juice container and I have to say, I did feel really nervous about it. Melodramatic maybe, but that innocent looking carrier bag could have held a bomb. I couldn’t wait to be out of there quick enough!image

imageAll good things have to come to an end and after being here for almost 3 days, the other half was getting the hang of the transport systems and worked out that we could get the RER to the Gare du Nord, and do you know what? It was the quickest journey we had made so far! Only 3 stops and we were there! All of the other journeys we had taken and seemed to take for ever.

As it turns out, even though we had arrived early, we would not have known that there was going to be a delay. We found a nice little corner with a seat in a cafe, ordered our food and last drink (of an alcoholic kind) with the last of our Euros and enjoyed our meal. Then over the tanoy came the first of many messages to inform us that there had been a fatality on the line on the English side and all trains were cancelled! Great, we thought, thinking we were stuck there. Apparently, there had been a suicide on the line and of course, police had to sort it out before they could open the line again. So we sat (and we were very lucky to have a seat at that stage, others were not so lucky) and we waited, found some more euros and had some more drinks. The atmosphere in the bar was quite jovial, under the circumstances (maybe people were a bit tipsy, I know I was!) and amazingly, after 3 hours or so, they said we could board our train. This was after offering passengers to get a refund or travel another time. We were the lucky ones because we were already captive when they announced the news; other passengers were left outside of the departure lounge, not allowed to enter. We made it home at 9pm, grateful to be back.

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