Florida – minus Mickey and Friends

I cant believe its been a week since we left a very warm and sunny Spain for the first leg of our Caribbean adventure starting in Florida. The animals are staying at home being looked after by a house sitter and will hopefully all get on well eventually. Mine isn’t the most sociable animal and the attempts to socialise her wasn’t as successful as I had hoped. The last I heard was that she had taken up residence in the garage – but was eating as normal. Hoping she will be ok.

I have never been to Florida without theme park tickets and the plan to spend a fortnight riding some of the best rides I know and seeing lots of cuddly characters, but this time that is exactly what happened. No tickets and no plan to visit any theme park.

The flight over was uneventful.  I am happy to say that I managed to watch a couple of films this time. Last time my screen wouldn’t work so it was a long flight. The cabin wasn’t too full so we managed a row each which meant I had a window seat. It was cloudy so I didn’t get to see much – so wasted opportunity. The thoughts of the long wait at immigration and customs were pushed to the back of your mind as it is always a nightmare in Orlando airport. I think last year we queued for 3 hours (be prepared for Brexit), so this time I made sure I had water, reading material and comfortable shoes. I have sailed through here once before when they had installed electronic passport readers. This year they have all been removed and the system changed once more. However, surprised that the queue, although long, moved along at a steady pace and we were through immigration within one hour. In fact we made it from plane to hire car in less than 2 hours – AMAZING. We even got to Walmart in good time to do a shop.

I had signed up to do the Disney marathon as someone else was going to be joining me to do it together. So day one was spent at the marathon Expo at ESPN Wide World of Sports. A place where athletes go to spend lots of money on the newest and craziest sports gadgets available. Always good fun (as it is free) and lots of goodies to be picked up or sampled. Plenty of photo opportunities and my chance to get a Disney fix as this was going to be it. Then it was back to the house for a chill and visit to the pool.

We picked up coloured water bottles at the Expo which were great for gin and tonic and brandy and coke at the pool as you don’t spill any. We got to the pool and had to gate-crash a man party which was taking place in the hot tub. 12 of them in a 7 person tub, with rules that say maximum of 7 people, no more than 15 minutes, no alcohol. We managed to squeeze in between them and spent a very enjoyable hour chatting with them. It was an annual golf holiday for them without wives. Lots of beer, (they took a large cool box with them), lots of chat and lots of fun. They didn’t worry about the security cameras so it must have been ok.

So what do you do in Florida without theme parks? Well you visit the RV and camping sales lot to see inside the vans of course. Amazing!!!!!!!. They are so big they even have a small bath in the bathroom. Full American fridge and cookers, but they only do about 8 – 10 MPG so not a lot better than mine. But they were really comfortable.

We took the time to visit the Warbird museum in Kissimmee, one of those little attractions which go unnoticed amongst the big boys, a great place if you are interested in flying, planes and history. We were lucky enough to be able to watch an engine being fitted to a plane which was in the hangar. Fascinating to watch the precision of the loader as they were fitting. Moving the piece an inch or two at a time whilst playing with the owners dog.

We also went on an airboat ride. 2 years ago I had tickets for this ride but couldn’t find the park and assumed it didn’t actually exist. This time we went armed with instructions. It took about 2 hours to find it as the sign was so small (strangely for America) and wasn’t lit up. But we found it. We took advantage of the ear defenders provided after about 30 seconds as it was so noisy but it was good fun. Our driver found us some alligators to look at – mother and young but didn’t get close enough for a good photo. Then it was back to the clubhouse for a quick coffee. We were tempted to try the gater poboy. (Found out later that a Poboy is a type of sandwich and yes it was made with real alligator) but it wasn’t gluten free so didn’t bother.

With 2 early wake ups of 0330 to get to the marathon start it was a chilled couple of days. We ventured down to the used car auction on the Highway 192 as it was enormous and looked as though there were some great classic cars. Apparently one car was sold for $1 million. We paid the $10 car park fee and meandered round to the entrance. We absolutely refused to pay $30 to get in as we didn’t plan to purchase. We only went to be nosey. The same day we went to Kissimmee Oldtown. Lovely, and what you think America should look like. Shops, cafes, and friendly locals. Found a lovely tea room with tablecloths, chandeliers and cakes. They make their own Devonshire cream. Looks like clotted cream and served with scones but they don’t serve jam with it. They couldn’t understand why you would want to put cream AND jam on a scone.

So marathon days. The WDW marathon takes place over 4 days with a selection of events from 5k to full marathon, plus kids events. An absolutely brilliant event for its organisation, people management, medals, and goody bags. Each coral has a firework send off but you could be starting up to an hour after the elite runners if you are at the back. There are the ‘balloon ladies’ who maintain a 16 minute mile throughout and if they pass you, you are out and get a ride back to the start. I met them twice. The thing with Disney is that you get your medal even if you don’t finish. It doesn’t seem right to me (as I feel you need to complete to earn the medal) but you don’t get your challenge medal (only right). But the bling will look good amongst the others I have earned. If I do it again I will be fit enough to complete and earn the medal. I haven’t ruled out 26 at 62 – got a couple of years or more to sort myself out.

And then we did a Disney day!!!!!! Animal Kingdom was the park of choice as my sister had never been and it is usually a lovely chilled day out. Online tickets purchased and some fast passes booked and we were off. $25 to park a car – scandalous! When you think how many people visit each day and how much they charge for park entry. With a poor exchange rate this year it equates to about £20 a day. We arrived early hoping to join the queue for the Avatar ride but they won’t let you in the park early unless your are staying at a Disney hotel. When we got to the ride the wait time said 3 hours but we opted to join the queue. Happy to say that the queue time was only 1.5 hours and it is a fantastic ride. So good my sister wanted to queue again straight away but I wouldn’t let her (We did it twice more later in the day) and we did the Na’vi river – again a long wait but so worth it. I did a couple of things I had never done before and missed a lot more. A baby giraffe was born unexpectedly first thing in the morning which closed down the safari jeep ride for a time. And I saw the Rivers of light show last thing – which was nice but would rather have been riding the Everest coaster.

So that was Florida in a nutshell. The next time I go will be for my next big birthday when I plan to ride a rollercoaster or 6 and have a character dinner with family and friends – I just need to decide which park and which restaurant so am open to suggestions.



Not My Usual Stuff

I usually write lots of drivel about my latest jaunt across the world to some wonderful place (well to me they are) and in normal circumstances I would have been travelling to India for my trip of a lifetime next Monday. But these aren’t normal circumstance so here goes for something a bit different.

I am employed by a small Cornish charity which supports children with disabilities and their immediate families. Whilst we all lock ourselves into the comfort of our homes it would be easy to overlook just exactly how ‘self isolation’ can affect people. Cornwall is a still very rural county despite the extensive house building taking place. Without the support of local networks self isolation etc can become a very lonely experience.

The essay below has been written by one of the parents in our group and she will be identified by many who know her. I have changed the names to protect the innocent and I do have her permission to share this as I have a much wider audience than she could hope to reach. There are no other changes.


Some others see me as a useless piece of shite… say the wrong things… even scare them…. but I would like to explain why.
My life has not been easy…. no need for violins… just me explaining why I think the way I do… I am not immortal… I will die one day… and I like to state facts instead of burying my head in the sand.

Some of you do not realise that many years ago, I was married…. I got together with my childrens father… he already had a son called SIMON… SIMONS mum died suddenly when he was 1 year old… he was 2 ½ when we got together. I was told that I could not have children (endometriosis, polycystic ovaries and also ½ cervix taken away through cancerous cells)…. we were a little family…. I caught pregnant, developed diabeties, and TOM was 8 weeks premature….

Sounds like it was hard enough right?…… Tom was 6 months old when Simon got diagnosed with ALL (acute lymphoblastic leukemia)… the most common childhood 99% curable type….. 26 weeks we spent in Bristol childrens hospital…

Tom was stuck in his buggy or left in cornwall with my mum and dad… it was hard…. Darren was getting stressed and violent towards me too…. the only time his family visited was to raid the bank account…. I would spend 18 hours next to Simon then get back to CLIC house to find someone has nicked our milk… still we made it through and got home….

We tried to make things the best we could, got married with 7 days notice, Simon was 3 weeks away from getting the all clear…. then it returned with a vengeance. 28 weeks back at Bristol… 5 weeks in the bone marrow unit… I was given a choice, be with Simon or Tom…. NOT both….. I left Tom with my mum, crying all the way back to Bristol…. the bone marrow transplant failed and was killing him quicker…. I had to argue to get him home….

He died 22/03/2005. A child’s funeral is not easy. Going to 4 others that you got to know whilst in such surreal circumstances is hard. My mental health was shattered beyond belief.

While trying to help my husband through his grief, getting beaten when I had done nothing wrong, trying to protect a silent Tom…. well, lets fast forward a little bit…. I caught pregnant…. was given the choice of “it had better be a girl or you will have to abort it!” I can tell you I chose my baby.
I like to think Hope was Simons little present to say thank you.

My life was living back with my mum and dad, helping my mum care for my housebound dad, who was dying, and raising my 2 kids the best I could. The stigma of being a “single parent”…. the accusations that come along with it… benefit scrounger, fat slag, dirty, husband stealer, utter shite…. I never asked for any of it…. never even flirted with anyones husband…. ok, I don’t do posh, because that is just not me… but I have never felt so low…

Dad died 18/6/2012. Another big hole in my life… the only male influence Simon had.

By this time I was 21 stone in weight… I had given up on myself… my mum saw me through the worst times… and I helped her back.

01/02/2020 I had a heart attack….. laying in hospital worried sick about my kids… I have no will, no life insurance, no savings, no back up plan except my mum…. who is 70 years old next month….

So I pose a question….. WHEN DO WE TALK ABOUT DEATH?
Do we wait until its too late?
Do we have a chat with our loving partner when kids are in bed?
Do you have a partner? Or should it be with your parent? Sibling?
Do you know if they would like to be buried/cremated/donor?
This virus is scary…. but maybe we need to talk?
The majority of fear is the unknown… when… why… where…. who….
If you have a plan in place for your loved ones is there no need to be so scared…?
Do you know what to do when someone dies?
Do you know who to ring?
Do you know everything? …… because even with what I have been through….. I know I DON’T!

Because our charity is very small we don’t have the resources or the expertise to help all of our members as we would like to, all we can do is signpost to services. In these days of coronavirus everyone should be thinking about the what if? question. I couldn’t help this mother other than to offer some platitudes and hopefully point in the right direction.

Ant and Dec relaunched the #BritainGetTalking campaign on their #Saturdaynighttakeway show last weekend. So if you can’t get out and about to see your loved ones, or you are a great listener or talker why not volunteer to help keep your community in touch with each other by signing up to one of the many campaigns being launched across the country to support each other and to support our NHS

A week in Nijmegen

The day started well at 0345 when I got up to go to the airport. Usual time etc. However I wasn’t prepared for the enormous queue which greeted me at the Ryanair bag drop. People were snaking around the space and some had been queuing for an hour. I had plenty of time until they announced that the drop for my flight was closing. Guess who got bumped to the front of the queue.  I am so used to breezing through Alicante airport that it never occurred to me that it would be busy with holiday makers. It also makes me want to travel with another airline if I have luggage.

Security was okay. Certainly better than Newquay airport where I usually have to take my shoes off and stand with arms akimbo for a grope. (Sorry, I meant pat down. No I meant grope. I am sure they see me coming and change the settings on the scanner so it makes a noise as I go through) And it’s a thorough groping let me tell you. And for the first time ever I stopped at duty free for a bottle of gin to keep me going for the week. Another queue. Not too bad I thought until the queue stopped moving forward. I gave up on the gin in favour of a quick toilet stop on the way to the plane which was now boarding – and I didn’t manage to get to the lounge for my breakfast.  I think it’s an honour to be the last priority person in the line and be whisked to the front of general boarding. (I could get used to this queue jumping malarkey). The flight was uneventful thankfully and I managed to get some sleep – a doze really.

And so to Eindoven airport.  For the plane spotters out there it is a brilliant airport – although you need to come by plane to see the military aircraft and interesting planes unless you like to capture Ryanair or Whizzair numbers. Just chainlink fencing surrounding the perimeter so you can see everything.  I’m not sure what the departure lounge looks like or even if there is one as all the departing passengers were queuing outside in lines separated by fencing. Really strange, but will look forward to seeing what it’s like when I leave next week.  I can only think that it reminded me of Newquay airport back in the olden days when there was a cattle grid at the end of the runway( REF: for those of you old enough, Jasper Carrot in his heyday) when Brymon Airways used to fly Dash 7s into Heathrow and I could afford to fly in for the weekend. If you do fly to Eindhoven, don’t head for Starbucks for your coffee but turn left to the self service shop (Albert Hijnes I think) and get a great drink and freshly baked pastries for a third of the price. Unless you really want a creamyfrothymochochoccywhatsit. 

Collecting my hire car was simple enough and the drive to Nijmegen quite effortless. Let’s hope it’s the same for the journey back next week. I had forgotten what it was like to drive a small car (Kia Picanto).

The sports hall was empty this year when I arrived so I had the pick of the beds .(well almost) Bed made, it was time to go shopping. Nothing exciting, just gin and goodies to keep us going when the going gets tough later in the week. And a cup to drink my gin from, it doesn’t taste the same from a metal cup.  I found a great cup with a lid.  It looks just like a coffee cup and was perfect to enjoy a stealth G&T (very large G&T)

The ladies side of the sports hall
Stealth G&T cup

Early on Sunday morning the peace is shattered when the coach arrives with the walkers and supporters. With the van unloaded and after a quick bowl of cereal it was time to head out for the day. I chose to head to Arnhem to visit the Airborne museum at Haartshorn. This is a brilliant museum to visit and very moving.  I listened to a piper whilst visiting the war cemetery just up the road.  And then I went to look for something to eat. I found a roadside restaurant Den Strooper Pannenkoeken. A pancake house. If only my Dutch was better I would have gone to McDonald’s or something and not a pancake house. Although my savoury choice was okay they didn’t offer anything vegetarian and so mine was fairly tasteless, but there was plenty of it so I couldn’t finish it. Lovely coffee though.

Airborne Museum Arnhem
War Graves
Brie with sundried tomatoes and rocket pancake. Enormous

Unless you have visited Nijmegen during the 4daagse (or walk of the world) it can be hard to understand why nearly 50000 walkers plus family and followers and support staff from across the World would descend upon this university city and go through the agony of walking up to 200 km in 4 days across the Dutch countryside. And some people really do suffer, with blisters and sore feet mainly, but let’s not forget the sunburn if it is really hot, chafing (who would have thought you would still be using nappy cream at a ripe old age?), dehydration, lack of sleep because you hurt too much to move or just whole body pain from the exertion. Even the most hardened walkers can suffer.

Foot treatment BDWF style. An amazing team

As a member of the BDWF (British Dutch Walking Fellowship) we stay in a sports hall in dormitory style beds. We have no home comforts, no privacy, no ensuite facilities, no tea and coffee making facilities(I think you get the picture).  Why? because we get to see people we come to regard as friends and extended family for just one week a year. And it makes us appreciate hotel facilities a bit more. We get dressed and undressed in the dark, making as little noise as possible so we don’t disturb our neighbours. Everyone gets up at different times depending on their distance and start time. We have wonderful support staff who stay up and work the night shift whose duty it is to wake everyone up at the allotted time. If you forget to book your wake up call you get to see 0230hrs when the first walkers get up for breakfast (50km walkers). No phones or alarms are allowed in the sports hall to avoid disturbing the others. Snoring and farting don’t count apparently and if it disturbs you then the office staff are happy to supply earplugs to help you sleep.  (Although noisy my snoring is not the loudest apparently)

All meals are provided during the week with a plentiful supply of snacks whilst out on the route to keep you going. This is in addition to the thousands of supporters who line the routes every day handing out sweets, cakes, hugs, beer, coffee, drinks and anything else they think a walker needs. Forget hygiene concerns just grab some sweets as you go. I haven’t heard of any health problems caused by eating the freebies on the route.  The caterers provide a lovely service with plenty of nourishing food to keep the walkers going although there are some strange concoctions sometimes. Hot soup with bread is supplied at one of our rest points each day which provides just the boost needed to cover the rest of that days miles and  makes a nice change from all the sweet snacks. The other 2 rest points along the route will provide squash and snacks and chocolate (always welcome but can become squidgey). All three rest stops are manned with first aiders who will treat any foot problems to get the walkers back out there. And although nobody thinks about how it happens each day the rest point staff have to get up as early as the walkers to get to the rest points before the roads are closed for walkers. Once the last walker is through the rest point is packed up and returned to the sports hall ready to man the first aid room each night to treat those sore blistered feet. Which means that the support staff are the last to bed (lights out at 8:30pm) each night as the vans need to be loaded ready for the next morning. The one big advantage to being last to bed is the luxury of locking the shower room door and having a solitary shower before bed.

Special meal ticket
Great catering with lovely food
Even on the rest stops the standards are maintained with hot soup and bread for the walkers

I mentioned the local support lining the route each day, what I didn’t mention was the number of students manning the start line every morning ready to cheer on the walkers and wish them ‘success’ . They also try to take walkers flags from their rucksack to get souvenirs. Most of them don’t go to bed from the previous night and just treat it as a week long party. The Dutch really do know how to party. Each village or area has a different theme throughout the week providing photo opportunities , or sampling different local delicacies such as beer in Bier, enjoying the spectacle of pink Wednesday where anything goes. There is music everywhere whether it be sound systems, local bands performing in makeshift stages of just the sound of marchers singing along to their own music being played through Bluetooth speakers or singing marching songs where everyone joins in.to break the monotony of the quiet but long loops.

And then before you know it, it is Friday and the end is in sight, medals within grasp and the biggest street parties of the week. Where even the patients from the local hospital are wheeled outside in their beds with drips attached so they can join in. The BDWF are privileged to be able to set up their final rest point No4 in Charlemagne field (usually only reserved for military units to gather) on the final day and prepare for the final march into the city, a short distance of 5km but feels like 100 when you have walked so far. This is the one opportunity some of the support staff get to walk in with the teams and enjoy the sights and sounds of the Vierdaagse, listen to some of the military bands and wave at the crowds lining the route and collect gladioli along the Via Gladiola (renamed on the Friday of 4daagse from St. Annastraat)  You never know who you will see on the VIP stands as you walk past. The King of the Netherlands will often come along to enjoy the day and many high ranking military personnel will line the route to take the salute as their troops march past.

Via Gladiola on Friday
The end of the 4Daagse

During this long week many say, I can’t do this, I want to drop out, never again etc. etc. But come Friday they are already thinking ahead to the following year when they get to do it all again. Many won’t do it again and although there have been 103 Vierdaagse only 635,300 (2018 figure) medals have been issued to individuals. There are many who do it every year and collect their number pins but all who collect their medal can take pride in the knowledge that they are special people who have completed one of the most unique and amazing events on earth, where everyone is wished ‘success’ .

Will I be back next year? You bet. Will I be walking? Most probably. I want my second medal.

For full information regarding the Walk of the World visit https://www.4daagse.nl

To find out more about joining the BDWF and enjoying the support and camaraderie of a family of like-minded people for a week like no other visit http://bdwf.org.uk or email bdwfinfo@gmail.com for further details . Or follow them on Facebook,  just look for British Dutch Walking Fellowship

So what was departure like at Eindhoven?  A giant bus or train terminal.  Bag drop was great as it was self service – much quicker than Alicante.  Security no problem.  Departure lounge ? hard seating and no lounge – so once again I was denied my breakfast.  I didn’t even mind queueing outside in the fencing pens.  My big objection was the lack of water fountains – when I asked the young girl to fill my bottle (having paid €3 for a coffee) I was told to use the water in the ladies loos which I didn’t fancy.  In these days of single use plastic awareness the failing of many airports is the lack of water fountains to fill your  own bottle. Instead you have to offload your 60p bottle on one side of security and buy one in the departure side for anything up to £3.  Its about time this was sorted out.  Come on world – lets start a campaign!!!!!!!

Nijmegen town centre decorations
Just a few walkers
Pink Wednesday rest stop 2
Eindhoven departures
The Walk of the World

Whats next?  Short term not sure – long term some really exciting trips

Mexico – week2

Our second week in Mexico was very similar to the first one.  Lots of pool and beach time.  Yet again we failed to make use of the watersports on offer – oh well perhaps next time. 

We did escape the confines of the hotel for a couple of visits though.  We decided to go back to Isla Mujeres in the sunshine as our previous trip was cut short.  Taking the local water taxi which was almost next door to the hotel we ended up in Downtown Mujeres as opposed to the tourist beach of the previous week. OMG what a place! You are accosted as soon as you walk out of the ferry terminal with vendors offering their wares – mostly silver jewellery and diamonds and everyone offering a discount.  The greatest thing about walking into those sparkly shops is the air conditioning, it just hits you in the face after the furnace outside.  Walking around the corner and into the small side streets you find the smaller vendors and souvenir shops each selling pretty much the same thing as each other. There are only so many souvenir shops you can see without losing the will to live.  Anyone who really knows me knows my tolerance level is quite low for souvenir shops.  I think its a Newquay thing.  Then we hit the café and restaurant streets. Lunchtime!  We tried a couple of local Mexican restaurants, one didn’t take card payments (no nearby ATMs) and we didn’t have any cash.  The other couldn’t cater for a coeliac. We ended up in a burger bar. Yes I know.  We were in Mexico yada yada – but a burger after 6 weeks in the Caribbean was like ambrosia on the tastebuds – and it was good quality meat!  Then a quick trot down to Playa Norte (North Beach) which we were told is the best beach for swimming and chilling.  They were packed on there like sardines.  There were bodies everywhere.  Granted there weren’t any knotted hankies and white socks but the sun loungers were in regimented straight lines which would make the army proud and you could hardly squeeze past the bodies to get to the water.  We lasted five minutes and gave it up as a bad job.  It took us 30 minutes to walk along the street towards the ferry terminal.  This part of Isla Mujeres just didn’t do it for us.  It was good to visit Downtown but even better to leave.   Hotel beach was much less crowded. 

The trip we were really looking forward to was to Tulum with Playa del Carmen as a second stop.     Our time in Tulum was very short – about 2 hours in total and we would have loved to have stayed longer.  This site is a lot smaller than Chichen Itza which we visited last year.  The beauty of it isn’t spoiled by market traders or the huge crowds.  Our guide was great; she really knew her stuff and was proud of her heritage.  And then it was on to Playa Del Carmen, which we were told was a great place for swimming and snorkelling.   But………………IT WAS JUST LIKE North Beach!  We wandered around the upmarket shops for 10 minutes before we found the beach.  But we didn’t stay. It was just one packed beach too many although I did like the heart shaped bottle top collection point on the entrance to the beach.   I was thrilled to watch the Mayan pole  and rope dance (don’t know the right name for it) which involves four men climbing to the top of a 100’ pole in Mayan costume and carrying long ropes.  To the sound of a flute and drum playing they proceeded to wind the rope around the top of the pole.  A fifth member climbed up when this was done and next thing we knew they had thrown themselves off the top of the pole with a rope tied around their waists and gently swung their way to the bottom with the rope unravelling as they did so. It was lovely to watch.  And then we caught the local bus back to Cancun.  It was a journey of just over an hour.  The coach was really comfortable with a film playing throughout the journey.  A vendor got on to sell snacks at the second stop which is quite normal apparently.  He was like an old fashioned cinema usher.  The local buses are brilliant and so cheap. 

Further trips were curtailed or stopped because the weather forecast wasn’t very good.  But they got it 100% wrong for the whole week.  So it was a week by the pool and beach. There was very little to see in our own part of the beach because the currents were quite strong and churned the water too much. But someone was kind enough to show me a sea cucumber and live conch.  I had spotted some sea urchins myself. 

From our hotel restaurant we watched the ships and boats crossing back and forth regardless of the time.  Breakfast would see the ferry leaving from the terminal next door, lunchtime would see the speed boats and jetskis from the hotel next door, and then of course the pirate ships at night.  I did spot some mayan gig type training one morning.  This is for a competition later in the year.  Just like Cornwall.

On our last day we were given a free trip to the jewellery factory (showroom with some making going on) and also a tequila tasting next door.  For this we were rewarded with a zipline activity in the jungle and a swim in the cenote.  We weren’t expecting great things of the zipline activity but it was so much fun.  We had six different rides high up in the trees.  The guides jumped ahead and clipped us on and pushed us off.  The worst part was climbing across the road bridges to get to the steps up to the platforms.  Sadly the cenote didn’t measure up.  We weren’t the only ones to refuse a swim in this one.  We were expecting crystal clear water but were faced with green murky water with a greasy scum on top and lots of biting insects. Yuk!  Previous ones have been crystal clear with lots of fish.  It would have been a miracle to find anything in this one.

Our final two days had to be used to get as many pina colada and lovely Mexican food down our necks.  The barman put different amounts of rum and cream in each time so there was no way we could get the recipe but I certainly plan to try.  My favourite dish was chicken chimichanga, with homemade guacamole and salsa.  Shop bought guacamole will never be the same, so roll on the avocado glut and cheap prices.

Our journey home was uneventful but long.  First a ten hour flight to London and then  a few hours wait for a connecting flight to Alicante.  We finally reached home at 5pm –  a 32 hour journey with hardly any sleep.  But that double bed felt fantastic when I finally collapsed into it at 10pm  and then slept through till 7 the next morning.

And that just about sums up the past 6 weeks.  Florida, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Cuba and Mexico.  Its been a blast.  I have taken part in the Disney marathons, climbed a waterfall, rode a bobsled down a mountain, seen starfish, turtles and iguanas in the wild, as well as hummingbirds, been into a completely natural crystal cave, and zipwired through a jungle as well as so much more.  Now it is time to start planning the next epic journey which starts in August but before then I have a campervan to get on  the road and some local adventures to have with my cat.

Boat race training
Bottle top recycling
Zipwire in the jungle
Tequila tasting
I still don’t know what this animal is but they sure are cute

Mexico – Week 1

Well we have been here a week and done very little. Its been a time to sit by the pool (again) and look at the beach.  The sun has continued to shine almost every day – I’m not sure monsoon weather counts as it is so warm its like taking a shower.

Our trip over from Cuba was by Aero Mexico. We were offered an upgrade at the airport which we accepted as we then didn’t have to pay for excess baggage and we got really comfortable seats in the plane with dedicated steward services – LOVELY! and worth doing

The Harris Hawk bird scarer
Just one of the birds who bathe outside our condo
Sign on the footpath
Pancho – just one of the enormous crocodiles in the lagoon.
Chocolate making the Mayan way
Ixchal – Female Mayan Goddess

Our hotel/resort is right on the main road of the Cancun ‘strip’ of Kukulcan, so we are hearing an awful lot of road noise.  This is helped along by the building site next door who start work at 0630 and heavy machinery at 0700 and also the kitchen staff trundling their trollies along outside from 0500hrs when they open the storeroom opposite my bedroom window.  But it is a lovely hotel.  The staff are fantastic and always so friendly – a lot different to Cuba.  They aren’t well paid so rely on tips to increase their take home pay. They are also aware that tourism is the main income for this region.  We are in Mayan country.  A land of tradition, culture and architecture.

I am happy to say that we have made use of the local bus service which runs past our hotel about every 5 minutes.  It doesn’t matter how far you go; 1 stop or 20 it only costs 12 pesos a trip (about 70p).  The drivers skills are amazing as they just pull out in front of moving traffic and lurch their way forward screeching to a halt with an emergency stop when someone puts their hand out to stop the bus.  Some are a lot smoother drivers than others but if you are standing you just really hang on tight.

We booked some excursions before we arrived using the tour company we used last year.  We did manage to bag a few bargains as they were having a sale.  Our first planned trip was to be to Tulum to visit the ruins but on arrival at the collection point we managed to change our booking and we are yet to visit. But we did make some chocolate!

Although I booked the chocolate workshop I wasn’t too sure what to expect as we had no details from the tour company.  But we got on the local bus to the workshop area which was in the Plaza de Fiesta which at first glance looks like any other souvenir shop (which it is) but look closer and you find some wonderful Mayan and locally made arts and crafts.  The colours used in the knitted and embroidered cloths are so bright and vivid.  Really ‘happy’ colours. And it is inexpensive.  Sadly I have no space in my suitcase or luggage allowance to take home anything more than a keyring and a bottle of vanilla essence.

But we met Jorge our chocolatier who was running our workshop.  And it was just two of us.  Jorge is of Mayan origin who speaks 5 languages (which includes Japanese apparently) and has a terrific personality.  We learned of the origin of chocolate and its place in Mayan culture and then started the process of making it by grinding the seeds by hand and adding flavourings at the start (I chose coffee and vanilla) and then pushing the ground chocolate through a mincing type machine a couple of times before tasting the finished article.  It was great fun and the chocolate tastes like nothing you get in the shops. 

Our next trip was to Isla Mujeres (the island of women) which we can see from our hotel.  So we trundled off to the meeting place just up the road ready for our departure.  The day was dull and overcast so we didn’t take any swimwear and we were expecting more rain like the previous days monsoon.  We  were offered a  couple of ‘upgrades’ which we declined (we later found out that everyone is offered this and the upgrade is a bit of money making scam) and settled into our comfortable seats at the back.  The drinks start to flow almost as soon as you board but I waited until 1030 before I had my first gin of the day.  I just felt that 10am was a little early. Near the island there was a quick snorkel option – cut short because the weather was turning and then onto the Island and lunch.  It had taken us 2 hours to get here.  The lunch was surprisingly good.  And then it was onto the optional golf buggy tour of the island which we opted for. The island itself is a mix of rich and poor as it is across the rest of the Caribbean with the tourist areas cut off a little from reality. We saw the temple of Ixchal which is the first place to see the sunrise each day but had just 10 minutes to look around.  Before we knew it our hour long trip was over and then it was back to the catamaran; where we were told that the trip was to be cut short as the weather was becoming worse and the waterways were being closed to all shipping.  This meant we didn’t pay the extra for the buggy. Result! Especially as we found on our return trip that you can hire one for $20. 

When we arrived back at the ferry terminal in Cancun we found that most other trips had also been cut short and we pulled up alongside the party boat from the hotel ‘Temptation’ which looks innocent enough from the road.  We never realised that it is an adults only hotel which means anything goes and is known the world over apparently.  Anyway the naked people shared our dock and were then directed to the left whilst we all went to the right.  It would seem that you can’t be naked on the street – but it looked as though they had lots of fun and didn’t have to worry about their clothes getting wet.

The wildlife outside our condo is lovely to watch as the birds are lovely colours. I don’t know what any of them are called except the hummingbird which comes along occasionally.   The hotel employs bird scarers for the pool area who bring in a harris hawk each day to fend off the blackbirds and seagulls so they don’t steal food from the holiday makers.  And I have seen a miniscule frog in the gardens which was probably no bigger than my thumbnail.  But there aren’t many lizards or geckos though and the ones we have seen are very small.

Sounds quite a dull week really compared to all the other weeks.  But I have made use of the hotel gym – which has a fantastic view from the treadmill. Thee Pina Coladas keep coming and I really don’t have any calories to spare as the food is gorgeous.  I might have to make my own guacamole when I get back.  It tastes so different to the stuff you buy in the shops.  And there will be an avocado season in Spain when they practically give them away.  And it has been a chance to relax and recuperate from the previous few weeks.

Cuba – A step back in time


And so we bid a farewell to the Cayman Islands for our week in Cuba.  Why do you panic about leaving for the airport so that you get there in time even though you know it is only 30 minutes away from your accommodation, security won’t take forever and you are already checked in?  Because you think – I can take some pictures of the aircraft – no there is a mesh fence all around the building.  You can go to the lounge for a drink and snacks from the bar – No the lounge has been removed whilst building work goes on. Security will take an age – No you are the only people in the line (therefore they do a really thorough job).  It will take ages to offload the heap of rubbish we hired from Budget cars this week – No its just across the road.  So now we are sitting at the departure gates – think Newquay airport but this one has 7 gates, with seats that are the same as Newquay (so hard on the butt) the only difference really is that the aircon is working really well, the staff are really happy, the coffee tastes better and doesn’t cost as much and the destinations are much more exotic.  Its only 2.5 hours till departure.

Only a minor but major mishap which could have been disastrous for the next 3 weeks.  We got to check-in (my case gained 5Lb between the flat and the scale but they let me off – phew) and we needed to pay for the visa for Cuba (cash only).  Went for the purse to find that it wasn’t in my hand luggage – I had used it just 10 minutes beforehand to buy petrol so reckoned I had left it in the car.  I legged it back to the happy helpful ladies at Budget to find that the car had already departed for cleaning (amazed!) Fortunately there was one lady who was happy to help, she made a call and the chap brought the car back.  So relieved when he got out of the car holding my purse as it has my credit and cash card in it as well as cash.  Panic over. 

So we are off to Cuba where the temperature is expected to be similar to Cayman thankfully. But no Wi-Fi although like last year I will buy an hour long card and eek it out over the week.  Not getting many Facebook updates anyway but we do need to be able to keep in touch with what is happening back home.  If only to find out whether there is a deal or no deal, what MPs are in jail and what the weather is doing.

Oh Cuba how soon you forget the previous years arrival at Havana Jose Marti Airport. A quick dash to the loo soon reminds you that you should never leave your room without a packet of tissues and hand sanitizer in your bag. This goes for the hotel too.  Toilet roll is not always provided  (unless you pay the lady or man for a single square as you enter) and water doesn’t always come out of the taps.  The first time I saw a toilet without a seat I was horrified but you soon realise it is normal out here.  Onto the booth which passes for immigration and passport control. Glasses off, look straight into the camera.  No chit chat and only a small smile as they release the door catch and let you out the other side.  Almost like Orlando airport but more friendly. Then you get your bags scanned before you collect your baggage – security is pretty serious here.  Go to the carousel to collect your suitcase and then it comes onto the belt marked Newark whilst the other passengers luggage came on the belt marked Cayman. Thank heavens my multi-coloured belt made it in one piece this time.  And straight through customs and out the other side.

There is something nice about being met at the airport by a man waving a placard with your name on.  Makes you feel quite important.  Our taxi driver tried a couple of words in English but soon stopped trying as neither of us understood the other.  It was great to see the old cars still working hard at the airport and even nicer to see them outside of Havana city.  Our drive down to Varadero enabled us to see a little more of the countryside.  Lots of chickens and goats at the side of the road, we could have been in Cayman or Jamaica.  And much as I like to listen to Cuban music we both lasted about 10 minutes before we put our headphones in to listen to our own music.   Although mostly unspoilt countryside the urban areas are very run down with chimneys belching black smoke into the air next to the ocean and a small town.  And so interesting to see oil derricks working at the side of the road, although the area has an overwhelming smell of oil.

And so to our luxurious abode for the week.  OMG what an awful place (but it could be us just being snobby)Our hotel is an ‘all inclusive’ resort in the tourist town of Varadero (purpose built for tourists apparently back in the late 80s and updated many times since then).  Just 24 hours in and we wanted to pack our bags and leave for somewhere a bit quieter.  The ‘bungalow` we have been assigned has a double bed only and much as I love my sister I really don’t want to sleep with her.  Bungalow number 2 had a shared living space – really not ideal.  But third time lucky!!!  Twin beds and a separate and personal living area – Yippee.  Our gourmet dinner (buffet style) had to have the worst quality food there is.  Lots of it but unless you like ham or fish in all of your pasta, eggs, rice, potatoes etc you don’t stand a chance.  Abandon all hope if you are a vegetarian or Coeliac.  But there are some very clever chefs working here – I have seen the wonderful fruit and vegetable sculptures they decorate the salad bar with, its just a pity the cleverness doesn’t spill over to the hot (not)food.  Apparently the heated food lamps don’t work so the food is always cold.

I wonder what has happened to my sense of adventure.  I think I must have lost it between reception and our assigned accommodation on check-in .  It is possible that this happens to the majority of holiday makers. But I have to say that the pool area looks lovely as we can see if from our balcony. The sun loungers which are spaced out in perfect symmetry and the blaring disco music pumping out don’t know how many decibels for hours on end.  We have come to the conclusion that the all inclusive resort thingy is definitely not for us as we can’t drink as much as all the gorgeous young things around the pool shouting and screaming at all hours of the day and well into the early hours.  Hell on earth!  No, we were there last week – got the stamp in my passport to prove it. (and it was so much nicer)

We found a second, smaller pool and once we had plugged our headphones in and turned the volume up we were able to drown out most of the other noise.  It did keep conversation to a minimum though but we have read lots of kindle books between us.  But you can only do this for a short time (3 days actually) before you lose the will to live and decide you really don’t like Cuba as it has nothing to offer and you could be in any beach resort in Europe, UK (although it is very warmer here) the world etc.  The hotel information doesn’t give you any and reception really aren’t helpful.  There are some organised coach trips available (Yuk!)  our saviour came in the shape of the security man at the front door.  He knew a tour guide.  One quick phone call and day four was organised with a day trip with a taxi.

Enter Dainyris (her real name, who has long blond hair but has never seen GOT, although has heard the name Targaryen) our tour guide, and Franklin our driver for the day.  We even got a classic taxi which was an unexpected bonus, a 1959 Chevrolet Belair.

We had decided that we wanted to see a bit of the ‘real’ Cuba as it was supposed to be fantastic.  And we did and it was.  Our car had open windows as the aircon and dodgy door handles which meant that Franklin always had to open our doors to let us out, but oh so comfortable once you were sitting on your towels to prevent you from sticking to the plastic seat protectors.  We bounced our way along roads without direction signs or much in the way of road markings and no sat nav.  I wondered how they find their way around and apparently they just learn.  I have to say that car could motor.  Up to 70mph without effort along those roads.  Loved it.  We found out later that is has a Toyota engine in with we don’t know how much horse power.

We headed down towards the Bay of Pigs as we were in need of an educational or cultural fix.  Dainyris speaks 4 languages fluently and is a great tour guide.  I would certainly recommend her services if you need accommodation/tours/information etc sorting before you go.  She will be happy to help.  The locals have just been given data/Wi-Fi/internet services which we take for granted and her website and facebook page is still in its infancy but contact her before you go for a great service  www.recorriendocuba.com

When speaking to the Cuban people you soon realise that they are proud of their country.  They have free education, free healthcare and are given basic food rations each week which supplement their wages and ensure that nobody is hungry as the majority are on a basic minimum wage.  One of the leftover gifts of Fidel.  He also built hundreds of schools to ensure that the nation was educated.  They are also a pretty healthy nation without the same weight problems we suffer in the UK.  There are no fast food take-away outlets (yet) that I have found, either here or in Havana, which obviously helps.  They don’t import a huge amount, so if the food can’t be grown, caught or killed then it isn’t readily available.  Forget having an orange in January if there aren’t any in the shops.  The season ends in October or November.  And they accept this as a matter of course.

I had very little knowledge about the Bay of Pigs uprising and always assumed it was led by the Americans against the Cuban people.  A quick trip to the museum at Giron (landing beach for the invasion) and also a documentary (maybe some propaganda) film about the invasion soon had me educated – I think. At least I have a better understanding now.  The film is fairly graphic even in black and white and shows some of the action.  Really was worth a visit.  The names and photos of the heroes and martyrs are shown here as well with fresh flowers as a tribute.  Then onto Giron beach itself.  This beach is the paradise beach you always dream about.  Pure white soft sand and warm Caribbean waters with tropical fish swimming around the shallows.  Absolutely fantastic.  We were shown another couple of beaches used by the local people and not known about by tourists.  Our idea of heaven.  Then it was off to lunch and a local restaurant which served lunch for 17CUCs each.  No choice but the lunch of the day was a selection of freshly cooked chicken breast, lobster, crab and white fish served with rice and beans, salad and banana chips (salted and not like the variety we have at home).  Real Cuban food cooked at the rear of someone’s house and one of those little places that only a local will know about.  The best meal of the week.  Divine. And it was hot and we didn’t have to fight for it.

As we are 7 day residents we are able to have 2 a la carte meals which are available on specific days throughout the week. We opted for Mexican (hopefully next weeks Mexican food will be a bit different) and also Spanish.  They do import olives and they have been really lovely.  These are life saver meals which bring you back from the brink of food despair.  They are ok and hotter than the buffet bun fight.  But they are not A la carte as we know it.  You can choose your main course from the menu with a choice of about 3 items.  No sides but the salad buffet starter is generally nicer than the main restaurant.

 I have focused a fair bit on the food available here.  But with a Coeliac it really is fairly important for a good choice.  I am also a fussy eater as I don’t eat pig or fish so will find myself with just some potatoes on a plate.  We did have roast beef one night but the slices put on the plate were still mooing and no way could it be eaten without causing some vile stomach upset.  It is sad that the ingredients available aren’t finished to a better standard which is such a shame.  None of the staff are aware of what gluten is or how it can affect a person who has a serious allergy, but I am sure this will change in years to come as Cuba becomes a more popular tourist destination.

Today we walked into the local town.  We managed this with a few stops on the way for coffee, cold drinks etc.  Our final refreshment destination was at the Pullman where we  (r only really stopped to use the loo but ended up staying for 2 Pina Coladas.  OMG they have to be the best I have tasted yet.  Freshly made by a barman who knew how to make a drink.  So different from the poolside drinks we have had over the past few days at the poolside in plastic cups.  We finished off with a ride back to the hotel in another classic car taxi – a 1927 Model T Ford, bright yellow in colour.  Well it just has to be done.  We only have one more day left

We couldn’t face a final day poolside or on the balcony so decided to go in search of some caves we had spotted on an information board. (We just assumed they could be visited)  We called Eileen our driver with the model T and asked her to take us.  First to Matanza which is approximately 35Km from Varadero.  An open top Model T is possibly not the best option for a long fast drive( not sure what engine she had in hers but it certainly motored although it sounded like one of the cars at the Tomorrowland Grand Prix at Disneyworld).  The Matanza Caves are amazing.  Totally unspoilt although a little damaged.  It is inexpensive 5CUCs each but then you pay an additional 5CUCs for a phone or camera if you wish to take photos inside.  Mine really don’t do the cave justice but after climbing through such narrow spaces (no hard hats here) I have the greatest respect for the Chilean cave rescuers and the wonderful job they did in 2018.

And it is finally the last day.  Our taxi to the airport still hadn’t arrived 45 minutes after the agreed time so it was down to a local taxi to take us on a 2.5 hour drive back to the airport.  I just wish we could use the lounge as these seats are pretty hard to sit on.

Would I come back to Cuba?  On the face of it, it looks like a resounding no but with our day trip to Giron and escape from the hotel to find new sights I would say yes definitely.  Cuba does have a lot to offer once you get away from the all inclusive nightmare and speak to some of the local people.  Havana is amazing if you love old buildings, history, art and sculpture and the countryside is fascinating with its history and landscape.  Just find a local guide, negotiate your price and get away from the bustle of the tourist towns with the usual souvenirs.  Although there are people in our hotel who have been coming for the last 13 years and love it.  But they are from Canada where their home temperature is -47 apparently. So they escape to here every year.  Me – I would choose a better hotel or AirBnB (check it out)  been told that you can live like a local in some wonderful homes (and that comes from a Cuban).

Finally, I think the Cuban mosquitos are the most vicious yet, which I have encountered on this trip.  Multi bites in one day (I counted 15) including one on my face. They hurt like hell after the itch.  I have abandoned the witch hazel I bought as it has no effect and have resorted to the wonder cream which is sudocrem. Sadly white and red splotches are not a good look.  And I also really love real Cuban coffee which we had for the first time on our escape day, so smooth I was able to drink it without any milk or whitener.   I always liked strong coffee and this really does hit the spot.  Decaf doesn’t quite cut the mustard but it also doesn’t keep me awake half the night.

Cayman – Iguanas and Lizards

I can’t believe the amount of stuff I am carting around the Caribbean on this little jaunt.  We are into week 3 and our third destination and I have just really realised that I have yet to unpack my suitcase and wear most of this clobber.  Time to think about serious downsizing for the next trip.  It would be so easy to offload the clothes I haven’t worn and make things lighter but I know I will need them when I get back.  I have already started to check out Amazon for a new case which is smaller than the one I have but still has four wheels which I love and is necessary at my time of life.  It will also have to be reinforced against baggage handlers.  Last year it came home which a huge dent in one corner (Cuba) and so far this year I have had to retrieve my brightly coloured luggage strap twice, which helps me identify my bag on the carousel, it has also come off elsewhere and been tied to the handle of my case and it has suffered a crack in one of the wheels which I am hoping will last until the end of this trip.

So we have arrived in Grand Cayman which although only an hour away by plane from Jamaica – Cayman Airways has to have one of the prettiest decals on its planes, it is a million miles away in terms of culture and lifestyle.  One of the first things to hit us was the lack of noise – music, there are signs which say no loud music, no honking car horns and no shouting people – they are softly spoken and not in a rush.   Frustrating at the car hire place where all four ladies were too busy playing games on their phones to serve us and the least friendly so far.  Apparently this particular place has a bad reputation – I feel a trip advisor review coming on so we can warn everyone.  Our very small car has seen better days – but was the cost of a luxury car in Florida as it is pretty battered and has dents all over it, apparently the Americans have a problem with driving on the left and often crash them. The money  is simple to understand as there is a standard conversion with the US dollar so you don’t feel as though you are being ripped off and the prices in the shops aren’t too bad considering this is an island where everything is imported.

Day one we set off to explore the island in our battered little car (we replaced it later on) with a ride down to Kaibo which is the end of the road and you then have to turn around and go back.  We decided to return via the Queens Highway (opened by HM in 1986) and got excited when we saw the signs warning of iguanas on the road.  So Iguana spotting we went.  I love lizards and think Iguanas are pretty special too.  We later found out that there is a cull of grey and green Iguanas going on  at the moment as they have a detrimental impact on the blue iguana ( a bit like grey and red squirrels)  and each one is worth $5 if you take it to the collecting place. But we didn’t know that till later.  We were thrilled to spot them roadside and tried to take a picture or two but they ran like crazy when we stopped the car.  We took a few side turns onto beaches on our journey down the road.  On one of them we spotted iguanas again.  We stopped the car and got out to take some pictures.  All was going well until there was a very loud splash as something big threw itself into the water from the undergrowth – not sure what it was or whether there is anything large and dangerous here (such as crocodiles) so we exited pretty sharp back to the safety of the car.  We wont be getting the intrepid explorer badge.

Love it or hate it social media really can make good things happen.  I posted a silly picture of a chicken (which are absolutely everywhere on this island) and tagged a friend, this prompted a response from another friend who said ‘I have a friend who is the head botanist at Queen Elizabeth Botanical Gardens you could look him up’.      It was on our to do list so with the wonders of social media we found ourselves having a personal guided tour of the gardens with the lovely Nick Johnson who was the lead at Kew gardens for tropical plants.  It makes all the difference to have things explained by an expert.  A behind the scenes tour and we came across ‘Zena’ one of the parks oldest blue iguanas who has a whole shipping container to call home.  As she and her home are protected she can’t be evicted and will continue to live in luxury for the foreseeable future.  Blue iguanas are being overtaken by green iguanas and slowly becoming wiped out – a bit like red and grey squirrels.  There is a cull of green iguanas taking place at present in the hope that the blue population can be increased.

On the other hand we looked at trip advisor as we were heading down to starfish point.  So many people complained that they didn’t see any starfish and it was a waste of time.  We chose to ignore the comments and went anyway.  Just as well really.  Snorkel masks in hand we went past the boats carrying all the day trippers and found a quiet spot.  Starfish galore – and so many small tropical fish in amongst the corals – it was like swimming in an aquarium.  We even witnessed a feeding frenzy but not sure what the predator fish could have been.  I think our trip advisor moaners may have been expecting something like performing fish and starfish like you find in a theme park rather than the natural environment.  And before anyone mentions it, I know I don’t like fish (to eat) but I really like to see them in their natural habitat, not performing in a theme park.

National Heroes day found us up the north end of the island (it is really simple here) North, south east and west and being nosey wondered why so many people were crossing the road.  Turtle farm!!!!! They breed and release green turtles and the cost of admission for this day only was but $5.50 each, a saving of $45 dollars each.  It was amazing to go snorkelling and interact with the turtles and other fish in the pool.   We had previously spotted some turtles in the ocean further down the coast but wasn’t able to get any photos.  The breeding programmes ensure that the turtles are no longer fished for food and so are fairly protected in the ocean.

No trip to the Caribbean would be complete without a visit to a rum distillery.   So off we trotted to sample a selection of about 10 rums and other spirits.  Allegedly this rum is matured at 7 fathoms which is the optimum depth for gently rolling the barrels.  Not sure if it is true however.  But the tour was good fun and the tastings not too bad for a non rum drinker.


This has been a fairly lazy week with swimming and chilling and iguana chasing.  Cayman is a lovely island with a relaxed way of life.  It may be a little more expensive to purchase groceries but we have managed to buy Heinz baked beans at a cost of just £2 a tin (so worth it) but you only spend as much as you want to spend.  Beach days are free and the wildlife is fantastic.  You just need to remember that the wildlife don’t perform for an audience and if the weather isn’t to their liking then they won’t come out to play.

We have been to Hell and back (real place) and seen natural blowholes in the fossilised coral.  Been bitten by mosquitos again – no change there but these bites were really painful.  And I wasn’t looking for sympathy as a friend suggested when I mentioned this on Facebook.

I have to mention again that Cayman Airways has to have one of the best coloured logos in the world on its tail – so bright.  And we get to ride it again tomorrow when we take to the skies and head off to Cuba.


Jamaica – Mosquitos and ganga

What should have been a quick flit to Jamaica became almost a long haul, with an early start (again), 2 flights and 2 hire cars and a mad drive from Kingston to Ocho Rios.

Hire car number 1 was returned to Orlando airport as planned where I was handed a ticket with my final charges of $33, not too bad until I queried the fact that it ought to have been around $21.  A quick detour to the counter and the bill was changed to the correct amount.  No query or argument from the counter staff – how often does that happen I wonder!  Then it was upstairs to check in.  Have you ever repacked your case in the middle of the check in area at the airport because your bags are overweight?  Interesting.  But repack it I did.  I’m not sure where the additional 4Kgs came from as I didn’t do any shopping.

Two short flights on American Airlines 40 minutes and 75 minutes respectively with 15 minutes connection time took all morning. We didn’t land in Jamaica until 1330 and then had to get the car hired.  They loved our old fashioned paper licences.  They hadn’t seen one like that from the UK before but it is still valid and works for me.  A small Suzuki Baleno is this weeks car.  Happy to say its a model I was familiar with as leaving Kingston was certainly eventful.  They don’t insure the tyres, now I know why.  Pot holes about every 20 metres.  But that was the least exciting part  of the drive.    Driving through the streets of Kingston you need to be prepared to dodge people wandering across the road as they please, avoid the goats and their minders, avoid making eye contact with the street hawkers when you are stopped at a junction, avoid the craters in the road and preserve your tyres, and listen to the music blaring out everywhere as well as the constant honking of car horns.  I even managed some off road driving when we ran out of tarmac in the construction site.  A new road build cuts across the main road out of Kingston.  No diversions,  no road signs and no traffic cones.  Time to stop and be grateful for all of the above on the highways of good old Blighty.  But once we reached the toll road it was like driving on the A30 across Bodmin in winter.  Hardly any traffic, lovely new road, lush vegetation everywhere and rain.


And so to Ocho Rios – or Ochi as the locals call it – yeah mon!   Well what can I say?  It is certainly a tourist destination with its hotels and beaches.  But it is very much a locals town.  We were soon warned by a policeman in town to stay together and keep to the well lit areas – it was dark and we were trying to get some money from the cashpoint (not very wise) so we could eat and buy essentials. Actually you need to keep to the well lit areas to avoid falling over the holes in the pavement – it will look lovely when it is finished.  But at the moment there are enormous holes where the trees should be – I think some of them may have come down in storms, holes in pavements for no reason, almost like pot holes caused by our cold weather and also some decorative pavements being laid (by hand and by torchlight) – yes really!!

We found a supermarket and bought the drinks mixers and had a Jamaican dinner in a local restaurant. Starter for me was a vegetarian spring roll made with Ackee and spinach.  Ackee is a locally grown fruit/vegetable and has to be cooked in a special way to bring out any flavour. The big black seed has to be discarded as does the fleshy skin and pith leaving just a small amount of flesh inside.   It should only be eaten when the skin has split and opened up apparently or it will poison you.  I love local knowledge.  If I had known this before I ordered it may have put me off but it was a lovely spring roll.  My sister had goat curry which she said was disappointing and not hot enough. However the local gin was ok and inexpensive although the local brandy didn’t quite measure up to standards.

Our hotel adjoins a beach and we have a card to leave the grounds and enter it.  Security/gate keepers let you in and out of the grounds at each point.  We soon found that locals have to pay to go onto some beaches whilst the tourist doesn’t – which doesn’t seem right,  but the people who work on the beach have permits to be there.  Not too much hustling but we got chatting to the ‘Captain’ Sylvester who offered to show us some of the locality with a driver. So next day we set off early in the morning for a full day of sightseeing.

For some reason local guides always think we want to see the big fancy, expensive houses and hotels and seem reluctant to show us the real Jamaica but we eventually got through that we really weren’t that interested.  I think it was when we said we really, really didn’t want to get out of the car to take a photo that it finally sank in.

Our trip out took us through local towns and villages where it was market day with all the locals coming down from the mountains to sell their fruits and vegetables and eventually up to the blue mountain and into the rain forest – beautiful.  We passed plantations of pineapple, banana, mango as well as coffee (apparently Blue Mountain coffee is the best in the world) and nutmeg, cinnamon etc.  We were discouraged from taking photos of people in some of the towns as tourists and outsiders weren’t always welcome which was a shame as I found the market stalls fascinating.  We did stop at a couple of roadside stalls where we tried jackfruit, cut fresh on the roadside with a machete.  Strange fruit which has a sticky substance inside which sets like glue, not overly sweet but interesting.  I also go to chew on some fresh sugar cane and suck out the juice.  Really refreshing and not as sweet as I was expecting but I think that is because we are used to refined white sugar.  The bananas grown here seem to be fairly small but very tasty especially when picked and eaten straight from the trees.

Our day out included a ride on a bamboo raft in the blue lagoon.  I think it was so the driver could have a sleep for half an hour and Sylvester could catch up with old friends and get some lunch.  Food is cooked everywhere here on the streets – jerk chicken and pork and all cooks proclaim that theirs is the best.  I have yet to find some which isn’t dry and as tough as old boots.  But it is tasty.

Montego  Bay was going to be avoided  as we thought it was just a tourist trap where everyone goes to sit by the hotel pool for a week.  But we took ourselves off there for the day.  The drive down is stunning in places as you follow the coast road.  Once in Montego Bay we found a parking place and was quickly given some inside knowledge to pay for the space or be clamped.  So we followed the chap into the market place (expecting a scam) and was taken into the parking office where we paid our money (about 50p) for 2 hours parking.  For this knowledge we had to visit his sisters stall and also her other friends, no pressure to buy but they do like to show you everything.  They also earn lots from the passengers from the cruise ships.  We escaped into the bustling main street and a few minutes walk found us at the emancipation monument.  We queried a couple of items with a chap in the grounds who took us through to the cultural centre – just what we were looking for.  The museum is a fascinating building telling the story of Jamaica, slavery and Rastafari, which is also steeped in its own history as the building was used as courtroom and slave market in times gone by.

We decided that we would have a beach and personal admin day, to save some money and catch up on all those little jobs that need doing such as washing your smalls and shaving your legs.  The sky is a bright blue and the sea a very inviting aquamarine and the sun is shining brilliantly – perfect. There are about 6 sun loungers provided free on our stretch of beach, the rest you have pay for.  We found a bench under a tree and settled down to read once we had had our dip in the ocean.  We were quickly joined by a young man of 49 years who started chatting away. Great for the first ten minutes then we just wanted to be left alone to chill and read.  But he didn’t go away.  As he smoked more he became more garrulous and it was flattering at first to be complimented on my lovely knees and face (I offered him my glasses) and the first proposition was amusing but it soon became irritating and very indecent.  However, I have received 2 marriage proposals, an offer of a gigolo and an indecent proposal this week so thanks Jamaica you have done wonders for my self confidence.  The mosquitos have started to bite and my legs are now sporting some lovely looking red lumps which itch like mad and look wonderful as an accessory to my red heat rash bumps, so maybe the ganga does make everything look better!!!!

Today we are off to Mystic Mountain and Dunns River Falls.  Sometimes you just have to do the tourist thing.

What an absolutely brilliant day! First stop was Mystic Mountain.  We thought it would be an all day visit but no it lasted about 3 or 4 hours in total.  We paid for the bobsled ride (images of Cool Runnings in my head) and general visit.  Neither of us fancied the zip line as it isn’t always the most comfortable of experiences.  We were lucky to be able to see humming birds coming to the feeding stations for a drink of sugary syrup.  Gorgeous, but they are so fast and almost impossible to get a picture of – if you look hard enough you will be able to see them.  We took the nature trail walk with a guide who was knowledgeable about the flora.  The trail ended at the half way point on the chairlift (same as those in a ski resort) where you have to go down to come back up to the top. It only takes 20 minutes!   Thats where we spent most of our time.  But we did see  a mongoose on the path down.  The bobsled ride down through the jungle was such good fun and well worth doing.

Then it was on to Dunns River Falls where we walked up a waterfall.  Not sure what to expect we were put in a group of about 15 people, mostly strangers at the start and all very friendly one hour later.  The guide was brilliant and made sure we all got a good soaking very early  on.  Fortunately we had invested $5 each last week in Florida in Walmart on some water shoes.  Ours were luminous orange whilst everyone else was sporting the Jamaican park shoe in Jamaican flag colours.  If you are ever in Jamaica the walk up the waterfall is a must do.  The guide and group go at a slow pace.  They are happy to take your photo with your own camera whenever the opportunity presents itself.  There is also the obligatory cameraman/videographer with the group who will sell you a DVD at the end.  Only downside for us was running the gauntlet of vendors on the exit from the park – absolute nightmare as they won’t take no for an answer.  But we escaped with our money intact.

Our final day and we found a little known and fairly new nature park with its own waterfall  walk.  Really lovely and inexpensive with an on site museum at St Anns  call Konoko Falls Park.  This was after our drive up Fern Gully which we had been warned off as it was ‘dark with narrow winding lanes’.  Well, all I can say is that they have never driven in Port Isaac or Polperro in Cornwall.  Yes it was winding – approx. 63 turns in 3 miles and not overly bright as the ferns and trees meet to make it quite dim, but it was lovely.  The roadside vendors sell ‘rude’ carvings of men ( I don’t think they would be allowed through customs) and also dress a ‘hide’ with ferns and flowers = pictures for tips which means you don’t have to buy a souvenir.

This makes me sound tight – but I really dislike being hounded and pestered to buy something.  I’m not the best with souvenirs as I hate dust collectors and have nowhere to put things anymore.  But I do like to window shop.  Trouble is when you have seen one Jamaica t-shirt and wood carving you have seen them all and everyone wants you to buy theirs.

One of the sad but common sights you see in Jamaica is the amount of rubbish polluting the rivers, beaches and road sides.  Fishermen were catching fish with litter strewn across the beach behind them.  There are some initiatives in places to reduce the amount of rubbish build up in towns and waterways as the Jamaicans beome more environmentally aware.  Single use plastic is being replaced with degradable containers in tourist attractions and plastic bags in supermarkets are being replaced with bags for life.  But it is likely to be a slow process.

All in all Jamaica is somewhere everyone should visit at least once in their lives.  It is a love or hate destination and I loved it, despite the mosquito bites.

The Christmas Bit

Its only taken a couple of days to unload the van and try to find a home for everything.  I am ashamed to say that I have started a charity bag with my belongings.  Anything that needs hanging will probably have to go.  The cat is coming to terms with living near a dog – in 7 years she had never seen one until this summer.  She growls louder than the dog who totally ignores her and treats the place as her own.  I like to leave the door open and both the dog and the other cat wander in and out.  Mine has learned to eat her food or go without as Kitty loves to come in every morning and have a second breakfast.  If I am quick enough, I pick it up and put it on top of the microwave where neither of them can get to it.   With Christmas just around the corner any thoughts of getting in the van and even sleeping in it have been put on hold for the moment.  I am sad to say I might not get to do this until March as there is so much else going on before then.

The first few weeks in Spain have been spent doing domestic things.  With oranges being given to us from all directions we have made marmalade three times.  Seems so wrong to use fantastic eating oranges for marmalade when I am aware how much they cost back in the UK.  But there are too many to eat, and they have no keeping qualities as they are picked fresh and not waxed or preserved in any way.  Amazing flavours.  We have also been given loads of lemons – far too many for me to use in my gin unless I take up drinking in a big way.  I have also made Christmas cakes in a bid to sell them at a local Christmas Fair.  It is almost impossible to buy mixed dried fruit and peel.  So, have had to adapt my recipes to what I can get.  For the first time in my life I had to make my own almond paste as you can’t get marzipan out here.  This is the land of almond trees as well as citrus fruits and olives. I have been converted.  The taste is fantastic and the texture divine.  I will probably never buy marzipan ever again.


It’s the week before Christmas and we are off to Ireland to spend the holiday with the parents.  I am so looking forward to looking at the mountain from our holiday home – It is called Mountain View.  The car is stacked to the roof with Christmas goodies from Spain, the tree and decorations and the dog.  The drive up to Santander was uneventful but lovely although long.  We arrived at our pre-booked accommodation at 1730hours to find the doors locked and the place in darkness.  It would seem that the booking had been cancelled and Booking.com had sent an e-mail to inform us.  Sadly, without Wi-Fi you can’t read an e-mail.  And it helps if you aren’t driving.  So, after a frantic call to customer services and a bus stop where I could pick up Wi-Fi, we were found a hotel in Santander that would accept a dog for the night with Booking.com paying the difference in the booking costs.  Shame we didn’t get there until 2030hours.  But it was a lovely apartment.  Opposite a beach, a park and some lovely statues and fountains.  And for once it was furnished with real furniture which hadn’t come flat packed from the Scandinavian shop.  Santander has a lot more going for it than just the ferry port.

Well what a bumpy ride across the sea on board the Connemara.  The customs officer who had questioned me said that the crossing was going to be a smooth one.  He lied!.  Captains announcement was that they were expecting gale force winds and a rough crossing in the Bay of Biscay.  How right he was.  As soon as we reached open water the boat started to bounce around.  Decision was made by me not to drink gin or brandy that night.  Good decision although my morning coffee didn’t taste so good on the way up. But it didn’t stop the truck drivers who hit the bar before we left port and were still there the next morning it seemed.  It was a disturbed night and a very rough crossing.  We didn’t find out till lunchtime the next day that they had diverted in the night to avoid the worst of the storm and we were now delayed by about 4.5 hours and wouldn’t dock until nearly midnight.  But they did give us all a free dinner to make up for it.

Our holiday home in Kilmacthomas was lovely.  Absolutely enormous and was big enough to sleep 14 people.  Called Mountain View Lodge, it was set in the middle of green fields with cows for neighbours and we even had our own little donkey for Christmas.  Sadly the mountain was obscured by mist and low cloud just about every day but I did spot the summit briefly one day.  It looked stunning.  The parents enjoyed Christmas .  My dad had an open fire to play with so he was happy (he always liked playing with fire) mother was ensconced in a comfy chair for the duration so was also happy. We just kept plying her with the Spanish equivalent of Baileys.  And both dogs loved having so much space to play in.  All in all a good time was had by all.  Hopefully Brexit wont have a huge impact on the amount of alcohol which can be transported back and forth in a car – else it could be  a dry Christmas next year.

We left Ireland for Spain to get home in time for New Year. Happy to say the return journey on the Connemara was a lot smoother than the outbound trip with 2 nights on board.  I spent most of the day in the lounge situated at the front of the boat chatting to a couple from Ireland who were returning to Portugal.  And I was overjoyed to see pods of dolphins and porpoises throughout the day.  Sadly my attempts to photograph them were abysmal. I take my hat off to wildlife film makers and photographers who are able to capture animals in their natural habitat.  My phone really wasn’t man enough for the job and my reflexes weren’t quick enough.  Trouble is – I couldn’t get them to stand still long enough to get a decent picture.  Maybe next time. My previous encounter with a dolphin was in an artificial setting which I really didn’t like.  And anyone who knows me well will tell you how much I dislike fish.  (Yes I know they are mammals) But they were truly a brilliant site on that dull grey day

I mentioned earlier that we had been given lots of oranges which we used to make marmalade, but living in a rural community in Spain there is an informal system of give and take.  We have a goatherd who comes along the track outside our house a couple of times a week for grazing.  He came into the grounds one day when we left the gate unlocked and ‘trimmed’ our olive tree.  He uses this for goat food as they love the oils in the bark and leaves.  When he brought his trailer along to collect the branches he invited us along to get some lemons.  So we followed him with carrier bag in hand and he showed us to the nearest tree and invited us to pick our own.  And then told us to come back whenever we wished to pick some more. Was great in my gin.

The beginning of the adventure

The Story so far

As I finally get around to writing my masterpiece I notice that it is 7 whole weeks since I left my safe and secure job and life in search of some adventure.  I promised everyone that I would get this started immediately but all the best laid plans etc. etc.

My original plan was to leave work on Friday and give myself a week to complete the six tier wedding cake I had to do, load my van and then leave Cornwall on the following Friday to deliver the cake and attend the birthday party/wedding on the Saturday and then travel to Dover to catch the ferry on Sunday. It didn’t quite work out like that sadly.

On the Wednesday of week one – (packing etc) I realised I didn’t know where my passport was.  Panic set in as I set about unpacking bags, boxes and everywhere I could possibly have put said passport for safe keeping – not a dicky bird.  Plan 2, check out getting a replacement passport; did you know you can’t get one inside a week? even travelling to the nearest passport office and camping out. Wedding cake forgotten and lecture from sister to look again and then again for my passport as it had to be there- SOMEWHERE.  Late on Wednesday afternoon I found it -PHEW! Lurking in a box next to the sofa where it must have dropped off when the cat was cleaning the table.  Panic over!  Back to finishing this cake. 

The garage said my van would be ready to collect on Thursday – only 3 days late; but I would still have time to load it and catch that ferry.  Thursday afternoon – no van.  I was still waiting for the MOT to be done – but it would be done by Friday.  Plan 3, change the ferry booking to the following week sometime.  Then all I had to do was collect the van on Friday lunchtime before I left for Portsmouth and drive my car to Portsmouth and back, load on Sunday afternoon and leave on Monday.  No.  MOT can’t be done until Saturday morning.  But the garage could deliver it back to my sisters house and drop the keys off.  Call from nephew late Saturday afternoon – no van delivered.  Call to garage owner.  The van has an MOT! But couldn’t be delivered.  So van has been left at the garage to collect on Sunday.

In the midst of all this stress I enjoyed an evening in the local Indian restaurant on Thursday night as it was planned to be the last night in Cornwall farewell dinner with family and friends.  It was so nice to sit there and just catch up.  Missing my work colleagues already.  I finished the cake and travelled to Portsmouth in the car and enjoyed my nieces birthday party and surprise wedding announcement to all the guests and returned home on Sunday afternoon.  By the time I travelled to Truro and back on Sunday to collect the van it was too late and to dark to start the loading process.

Monday, finally started loading the van. I can’t believe how much stuff I still have after my ‘clearouts’ (obviously not enough clearing out).  Plan is to leave by 12pm on Tuesday lunchtime.  The van hasn’t been road tested and I have never slept in it.  I don’t know how anything works (or doesn’t) and it is now too late.  Thankfully the RAC were able to give me some rescue and recovery for Europe.  No other company would touch  my van as it is over 16 years old – how ridiculous, what could go wrong?  It has a sparkly new MOT and had thousands spent on it.  And all those weeks spent in the garage having the different repairs done has filled me with an enormous amount of confidence – NOT!!

TUESDAY.  Not sure what plan number I am on but made it to Tuesday lunchtime and finally time to depart for Dover, collecting my sister from Exeter airport on the way.  She was flying in from Spain at wanting to be collected at 3.30pm.  It only takes 1.5hours to drive to Exeter airport so I had plenty of time even allowing for a comfort break on the A30. 

By 2pm I was beginning to realise that plans aren’t going to be workable.  I left at 12.30 and had only made it as far as the rest stop at Sourton.  I got out to go to the ladies and the cat escaped from the open door.  I hadn’t noticed that she had escaped from her harness and then made a bid for freedom.  So I ended up chasing her around the car park and crawling under the lorries parked up trying to capture the cat.  Mission accomplished and it only took 10 minutes. Now time for the loo.  Finally back on the road and I still had an hour to get to the airport.  Quick stop for fuel as I wasn’t sure how much I had (the fuel gauge isn’t very accurate) and I now had 15 minutes to get to the airport.  Finally made it at 4pm – only half an hour late.  Starting to realise that this was going to be a bit of a slow process – but on the positive side, the van hadn’t broken down!

I collected my sister from the airport – she said she new it was me coming up the road as she heard me before she saw me, and she hadn’t ever seen my van.  And the journey is finally starting.  Down to Andover to collect a couple of bits from younger sister who had promised to feed us.  Late getting there as well and then we left expecting to reach Dover by around 11pm.  I hadn’t booked a hotel as I wanted to see how far we could get.  I think we made it by about 0300hrs.  Just because the van is old and slow.  Although I did get flashed by a speed camera on the M25 and then spent the next 3 weeks worrying about it.  I reckon they saw the picture of the van and didn’t believe it was capable of breaking the speed limit.

We found a car park for a few hours of dozing in the van.  Woke up fancying a cooked breakfast.  Found the Premier Inn and the restaurant and it must be the only one which doesn’t open for breakfast.  We then tried for an early departure on the ferry.  Did all the passport stuff and had the van pulled in for  a search – actually they took one quick look inside and really didn’t want to disturb anything so let us go.  Then to check in.  And it was going so well.  Couldn’t get an earlier crossing as I had bought my ticket from a ticket agent and not direct with P&O.  Off to Tesco for a bit of retail therapy (actually to use the loo and kill some time).  Back to the ferry port for the ferry.  We were allowed on the one leaving one hour earlier so a bit of a victory.  I still got to use our lounge passes.  I assumed they would work like they do at the airport and we would get a breakfast or hot snack included.  They offered a glass of sparkling wine and all the coffee or tea you could drink.  Breakfast was from the menu.  What a fuss when I said I didn’t want the smoked salmon on my scrambled egg – could I have a slice of toast instead?  And it wasn’t cheap!  Wished I hadn’t bothered – but at least the seats were comfortable.

And so into France.  What a joyous country!  The scenery is lovely even from the motorway.  All I can really say is that it took 4 long days to hit the borders of Spain.  Staying at only the least expensive self service ‘hotels’ en route as you always have to pay extra for the animal we came upon a level of customer service never really experienced before.  The first one was okay and the further south we travelled the worse it became.  One restaurant wanted to charge full price for a meal we sent back to the kitchen twice.  They wouldn’t let us leave until the bill had been paid so I decided we would have a sit in until something edible could be put before us.  This worked when I bought a packet of crisps from the vending machine, collected an empty plate from the buffet and emptied the crisps on to it and sat at the table to eat.  Still not a great meal from the cuisine capital of Europe but at least we didn’t go to bed hungry.

On day 2 I managed to pull the wiring from my very expensive all whistles and bells radio leaving us in silence.  Thank heavens for bluetooth speakers and ipods and downloads.  I think we managed to listen to everything we had twice over.  As I only had the one socket which was being used for the satnav we became reliant upon my little power bank and a solar charging panel in the front window to keep the sounds going from morning till night when we parked up and plugged everything in to the hotel  electricity points.  Still haven’t had the repair done 7 weeks later, but it is high on my list of priorities. Another low point was taking the wrong exit off the motorway at the start of the evening rush hour near Lyonwhen the lights went out on the dash and apparently at the rear of the vehicle.  Fortunately the front headlights were working but dreaded the thought that the vehicles behind me might rear end me as they couldn’t see me brake.  But because the traffic was crawling along I did manage to admire some of the architecture and get a picture of the gorgeous bridge and a building which reminded me of a Star Wars spaceship.

Finally we reached the borders of Spain.  The land of inexpensive petrol (about 40cents a litre cheaper), sunshine, daily meal deals and friendly hoteliers.  The interesting thing about Spanish hotels is that they are noisy.  Really noisy.  You can hear every word from the room next door and every word of the monumental screaming match/row going on in the corridor at 0230 hours.  Sadly didn’t get the whole argument details but I think I can confidently say that the chap must have done something really awful to get the fishwife treatment.  Thankfully we only had one night in a Spanish hotel before pressing on towards Alicante the next day and my new ‘home’.  It was a long day but the scenery was ever changing.  Sunshine through the windows which meant we could lose the blankets keeping us warm in the van as we travelled along (the heating doesn’t work) and then rain once we hit the mountains. The van struggling to climb on those long upwards slopes and then gaining something in petrol consumption on the equally long downward slopes.  I don’t think I have ever known somebody to be so pleased to get into their own car as my sister when we reached Alicante.  She was gone like a rocket.  I think it was the ought that she adjust her seat to suit her frame and she would be able to go at a speed greater than 40mph in a vehicle that you didn’t have to shout in to be heard. She also was able to listen to music.  It was okay following her but I soon realised that I couldn’t see a thing from my left side and was completely blind at the junctions and hadn’t realised jmust how reliant we had both become on the passenger giving the all clear at junctions.  Simply because my van was loaded and the side windows were full of my stuff. (I can’t believe the difference it makes to have an empty van). 

Having arrived in the dark I didn’t really see my new home until the following morning when I was able to take my coffee outside and just sit in the sunshine and take in the peace and quiet of my new surroundings.  It was lovely.  A small cassita next door to my sisters house. Time to get the cat settled into our new surroundings and start to empty the van.