Monday, 27 June 2011

Day 141: Varkala (18/06/2011)

After a pleasant bus journey from Allepey to Varkala, we climbed down from the bus and wondered where the beach was.

Varkala is a beach resort in the loosest sense of the term but the town itself is some way from the sea. Squeezing into a tuk-tuk driven by a man who assured us that he knew the way to the Hill Top Palace and would charge us 70 rupees to take us there, we puttered off in the right direction.

Half an hour later and hopelessly lost in a maze of flooded back streets, he was stopping every few metres to ask for directions and starting to make noises about why we should book into the Bamboo Palace, that conveniently appeared on the left hand side, moments after its name was first mentioned.

Nice, as I am sure that the Bamboo Palace was, we wanted the Hill Top. So unfolded a war of attrition. Tuk-tuk’s efforts to rehome us were met with our increasing intransigence. In the face of the deepening flooding and an increasing sense of disorientation, we turned again and again in the muddy, watery labyrinth of low rent Varkala.

With hindsight we should have connected the dots. The sound of the sea was not far away and we parted company with tuk-tuk, on less than harmonious terms, in a litter strewn dead end and on the losing end of a 100 rupee dispute. He had us clocked from the start. The consolation was not that Bamboo Palace was down three guests but that tuk-tuk was deprived of the kick back that accounted for his temporary geographical dementia.

Following the sound of the sea for 50m through the back gate of a perfectly manicured estate of Indian gites, we were suddenly confronted by a cliff top path with breath taking views. At the bottom of the vertical drop below us, the Indian Ocean crashed onto the rocks. The air was heavy with salty spray thrown up into a haze that hung in the air. Raffish establishments clung to the cliff top that bent around the bay in either direction. And just to our right was the mystical Hill Top Palace, clearly having just materialised for the moment like some Keralan Brigadoon.

But it was shut, as was just about everything else we tried.

After a while the situation was looking desperate and camping on the beach without the luxury of a tent was seeming more likely as time went on. And then Paranthi Cliff came to our rescue and the delightfully shaggy and permanently apologetic manager welcomed us into to his otherwise empty establishment, nestling amongst the cliff top palms. As he prepared the rooms, having not expected any custom at this time of year, he talked of his twin battles.

The first was keeping the water out. Monsoon rains and sea spray kept him at the handle of his squeeze all day long, pushing the advancing tide of water out of the foyer and corridors. The other was his tooth ache. Visibly in distress, he had only just returned from an, as yet unsuccessful, trip to the hospital to relieve his pain.

Settled in, we made for the string of bars that dotted the cliff top like a necklace - and didn’t actually leave until the taxi driver forcibly prized our fingers off the bottle, three days later.

Varkala promised rain but gave us uninterrupted sunshine, threatened one big off season closed sign and opened like a flower as we buzzed from watering hole to eatery and back again. From Café Del Mar to the Sunrise and Sunset Bars, we meandered, repeating the sybaritic routine with each passing day. The Keralan food was a revelation. A combination of delicious fish and mouth-watering vegetable dishes assaulted our senses at every seating. Seaside food in the UK is served in polystyrene and usually made of it too. Here, the colour, smell and taste of every dish enticed us into a moment of silent appreciation. With each, first mouthful we sat in silence as we savoured it, in a way that rarely happens at home.

Dolphins jumped, far out in the bay. Below us, Sea Eagles rode on the rising thermals at the cliff edge and swooped for their prey in the clear waters beyond the surf.

Looking down on the eagles, I felt a pang of Prog Rock guilt.

Our next bed was at The Hotel California.

Day 140: Backwaters (17/06/2010)

After a night listening to the frogs and rain, we rose to monsoon skies and a day cruising the Keralan Backwaters.

Breaking our golden rule and booking on Palmy’s recommendation, we rick-shawed to the quayside, expecting to be faced with a floating deathtrap. After an ominous walk along partly submerged paths and under increasingly threatening skies, only a dubious gang plank stood between us and time aboard the ‘Balasal’, a clinker built hulk with what an elaborate hut constructed from palm leaves, on the top.

Men worked around us, excavating mud from the bottom of the quay, using only their hands, whilst leaning adventurously over the sides of their teetering canoes. The shallow water was little consolation as we wobbled like tight-ropists and the gang plank rocked alarmingly beneath our feet. Once aboard, with bags stowed we met the crew. Kadagan was the driver, Mani the captain and chef, and confusingly, Boss was introduced as engine-man. Together they would waft us seamlessly across the waters, whilst feeding and entertaining us for the next 24 hours.

Mr K fired up the engine and we reversed from the quay into our own choking plume of diesel fumes. There are 500 similar boats that ply the backwaters at high season. In the off season they disperse for repairs or to serve as a home for the crew and their families. Fifty or so remained at the quay as we left, waiting for the elusive off season tourists who can drive a harder bargain than they probably realise. Our boat was 25,000 rupees in December but only 5,000 rupees today, and that was without any haggling. It seemed churlish to squabble over $70 between three of us for the day and night’s use of the boat, with three crew.

The quay opens into Lake Benbenara. White crested Fish Eagles patrol the air and black Cormorants dive the waters in between drying their open wings, whilst sitting on clumps of floating weed. Fish jump and Egrets swoop to intercept them. We processed across the lake at the stately pace of one knot. Any faster and a collision would have been inevitable as the helm was as responsive as a corpse. Clare took charge and immediately one of the few boats ahead of us changed direction at ramming speed. Furious spinning of the wheel took an agonising length of time to have any effect and only frantic parping of the horn persuaded the other boat to take evasive action.

Disaster averted, we left the lake at a side canal and entered an eerie world of flooded land lying alongside the thoroughfare. Two narrow man-made fingers of vegetation formed the boundary of the canal, but as it was monsoon, water lapped happily over the levee and into the surrounding fields, flooding them as far as the eye could see. The effect was of an inconguous palm tree fringed corridor planted across the middle of the lake. Antiquated dredgers worked overtime to keep the channel clear while levee construction raised the land a precious few inches above the waters.

Kerala’s neighbouring state, Tamil Nadu holidays in the monsoon and balloon festooned boats passed us, laden with drunken, high-spirited Indians, oscillating madly to the Banghra beats pumping out of the deck speakers. The Cormorants dived for cover and surfaced when they were gone, with beaks full of fish.

The guest book forewarned us that a compulsory pit stop at the local fish market would occur shortly and we duly paid multiples of the market-price for mackerel and king prawns that Mani cooked up in stinging clouds of chilli that wafted to the forward deck. Dinner was delicious and plentiful, but as we ate, so we were consumed. The water hosted an armada of mosquitoes that took to the air at dusk. only heavy weight DEET repelled the attack, whilst the Ghekos mopped up.

We moored for the night and before the moon rose like a balloon over the palm trees, we walked the canal-side path with water lapping at our feet from both sides. How the small communities living on the pencil thin stretch of land cope with the monsoon inundation, isn’t clear. Pigs, goats and chickens roamed the paths, at home with the flood that spilled over the canal sides with the wash off every passing boat. Children splashed in the water pooling around their doors. Women laundered clothes in the shallows and men cleaned themselves after the labour of the day was ended.

We slept fitfully, nibbled by insects and woke to more grey skies and rain.

The guest book entries claimed routinely that this was a once in a lifetime experience. Maybe for some, but not for me.

After all, I’ve been to the Norfolk Broads.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Day 139: Allepey (16/06/2011)

Fort Cochin shrunk into the distance as the ferry carried us across the river to the Ernakulam quarter. Gone were the sleepy 16th century Portuguese back streets, the clouds of spices, the churches and temples.

The tickets were 5 rupees or 3 pennies for a 20 minute ride. We queued in the humidity, shirts darkening as the ticklish trickles of sweat ran down our backs. Men and women were segregated for no apparent reason as the two queues snaked through a bicycle shed, mere inches from each other. Only two tickets were available at a time and five Indian men ran the operation when one would have done. We could only rustle up a 100 rupee note to the annoyance of the ticket office and we received a fistful of 5 rupee notes in exchange, with three pink, dog eared tickets that seemed to have been printed in 1932.

The ferry passed giant smoking freighters moored at loading pontoons, cutting a swathe through the weed that clogs the channel. Indian men in small rowing boats eased across the water, moving baled goods and providing a cheaper taxi service to those who could not afford the 5 rupee fare.

The rain launched a fresh salvo as we docked and the passengers scattered to find cover. We regrouped at The Indian Coffee House. Up a dank, unlit set of concrete stairs, ICH is like Starbucks before the shop fitters arrived. Bare concrete floors, rusted chicken wire walls and octogenarian plastic garden furniture.

Coffee and biryani arrived in short order, delivered by a smiling man dressed as a 15th century Mughal soldier, compete with head fan. The rain hammered through the chicken wire as we ate. At the end, he asked for 111 rupees for three square meals and drinks. It was embarrassingly cheap and for a moment we looked at each other, wondering first, whether there had been some mistake and second, why Starbucks couldn’t do it half as well for twenty times the price.

Sated, with the rain finished for the moment, we rick-shawed to the station for the mid-morning fast bus to Allepey, the gateway to the Kerelan backwaters. The battered Tata appeared to have been hauling Indians for at least 50 years. There was no pretence at anything beyond mere functionality as the Meccano kit vehicle lurched out of the Cochin bus station. No glass in the windows; luggage piled unceremoniously around the driver’s gearstick. The bench seats were firm and definitely built for less well-nourished frames as we squeezed three to a row, bags cutting off the circulation to our legs. There were no goats and no chickens in cages but there was definitely Kerela’s equivalent of a guitar playing nun somewhere at the back.

Three hours later, with the wind having brought every conceivable sound and smell and each passing squall through the cabin, we climbed down, surprisingly refreshed from Kerela’s answer to National Express only with better views, better air conditioning and, frankly, more comfortable seats.

In south-east Asia, everyone markets their products and services pretty aggressively to the tourists, as they descend, bleary-eyed and disoriented from the bus. The same imperative operates here but in a slightly more relaxed way. The sales patter is conversational but perfectly honed to establish how much you are willing to pay. And they are insistent in a relentlessly friendly way that is hard to shake off without seeming rude.

The best defence is to find out what they are selling, and plead a prior booking, just up the road, that is fully paid for in advance. Sometimes even this doesn’t work as things are so cheap here that it is entirely plausible that you could be persuaded to forgo the fruits of your three pound investment in order to sample the delights of an alternative Nirvana. Commission influences most tourist transactions here, as does the perennial assurance that what you have already booked either doesn’t exist, or worse, is now under the management of a mad aunt trialling her new acid bath spa treatments.

Opting for the newly constructed ‘Palmy Residence’ by the main canal, we trudged across the threshold before the rain set in, admired our host’s new dental braces and dumped our bags. Dinner at Sawasthra across the canal was a never ending Thali delight presented in primary colours on a jail canteen tray. The owner refused to ignore the challenge of an empty plate, shuttling repeatedly between the tables to refill the slightest gap we managed to make in the mountains of gobi and oceans of dhal.

Happy and dry, we settled down for the night on new beds, adrift on an expanse of freshly laid marble.

Day 138: Cochin (15/06/2011)

Cochin is a city of a million people and spreads across islands and estuaries on the coast in Kerala.

Goa, to the north, is its more famous cousin.

It has always produced herbs and spices and the city quickly established itself as the trading hub for region. Ruled by the Maharajas for centuries, it drew trade from China and the Arab world before attracting the attention of first the Portuguese and subsequently the Dutch and then the British, each of whom fought with their predecessor to wrest control of the lucrative trade.

Cochin, like south India, has been an example to the rest of the world in how to exist as a successful and tolerant multi-cultural community. The Jews came in 72AD after their expulsion from Jerusalem by the Romans and the Maharaja welcomed them, granting them a principality in 372AD.

Catholics worship at Basilica Santa Cruz and Syrian Catholics at the Syrian Orthodox Church next door. Hindus venerate Shiva at caged street temples on every corner. Muslims are called to prayer five times a day from the minarets that tower over the low rise city. Nuns rub shoulders with Buddhist monks. The Halal butcher trades next door to the Syrian Bank.

We wandered the streets of Fort Cochin in the old town, soaking up the atmosphere. The Jewish quarter, huddled around the picturesque synagogue dating from 1568, is a warren of winding back streets lined with shops selling lace, linen and cotton. Hasidic Jews with curly ringlets and black coats and hats nip down side alleys. The Star of David or some Hebrew script appears on every shop, whether it be run by Afzal, the Muslim souvenir seller from Kashmir or Seeta, the Christian garment maker from round the corner.

Some may say that Fort Cochin needs a makeover as many of the buildings date back to the Portuguese and Dutch occupations in the 16th and 17th centuries. The monsoon rain has soaked the buildings to the core but they are old spice and tea warehouses, with walls six feet thick and it will take many lifetimes for the appearance of decay to end their working lives. Long before then UNESCO will take this oasis of history under its wing and soon it will become a sensitively renovated destination for the spa seeking bohemian crowd.

For now, hessian sacks of rice, tea and spices are piled high within the cool interiors. The air is thick with the pungent aroma of cardoman and ginger, fennel and chilli. Goats roam the streets, long since having learned to avoid the puttering rickshaws as they rattle past on the rough cobbled streets.

We ate fish for lunch from the river, caught by the Chinese nets that are raised and lowered at five minute intervals in a way that has not changed since the first Chinese fishermen arrived 700 years ago. We drunk ginger, cardoman and masala tea, upstairs in the Ginger Palace spice warehouse and chewed ginger candy, dried in the sun on mats in the courtyard below.

Filming for a Bollywood movie drew crowds on the river front. Cochin restaurateurs have adopted the Delhi call centre fashion and mimic a basket of international accents to attract tourist trade. We opted for the three storey pillar box red Khoder House, built in 1808 in England, for the eponymous Jewish owner and founder of the Cochin Electrical Company, before being shipped out in pieces. Khoder was polymath who dominated the city and who founded a salon, as Dutch Honorary Consul, that hosted Presidents and Prime Ministers. His children continued in his footsteps, receiving Queen Elizabeth II and Indira and Rajiv Ghandi, to name but a few. Sadly, Queenie, the last of his line, lives alone in the Mattancherry quarter, marking the end of one of Cochin’s great dynasties.

The monsoon rain pursued us all day. We dashed for cover, ruing our decision to refuse Ginny’s offer of a brolly, at each downpour. We wilted in the humidity as the rain rose again in the heat, ready to repeat the cycle.

Catching the ferry to the Ernakalum quarter, we passed giant freighters sharing wharf space with traditional canoes. The rain forced us into The Indian Coffee House for biryani and sweet milk coffee before we caught the bus just as it was leaving.

Today’s Fort Cochin is also leaving soon so catch it before it goes.

Day 137: Bastian Homestay (14/06/2011)

Our hosts for the last couple of days have been George and Ginny Bastian.

They live just off Prince Street in the port city of Cochin on the coast in Kerala in South West India.

There is a pothole at the end of the road that George has been asking the city corporation to fix for months but they still haven’t got round to it.

They are going to Mass tonight at the Catholic Church down the road. Their son loves Chelsea and watches all the matches and is in year eight at the local school. As we arrive back, he has just returned from football practice and he dumps his dirty kit by the washing machine, expecting his mum to sort it out for him.

He wants to go to university to study engineering. His cousin is at Leeds and he thinks he might go there as well as he hears the social life is good. He is texting on his mobile phone.

They have a lovely five bedroom house. Ginny does a mean scrambled egg for breakfast and George is partial to a brandy before bed time. Their internet router is causing them some problems but their seven year old usually sorts it out.

George works at the airport as a customs officer. He says people are always trying to bring prohibited items into the country when they come back from their holidays abroad. His dad died last year and tomorrow they say Mass for his soul on the anniversary.

George and Ginny decided to take in paying guests to raise a little extra money, in 2009. Since then, the guestbook has accumulated 39 pages of visitors and he is pleased with the way that things are going. He admits that it was a big decision as he had to pay for an extension to the house and since then lots of other people in the neighbourhood have started doing the same thing.

George and Ginny are both in their late forties. Ginny is very pretty and could be much younger. She has a lovely smile and beautiful eyes. George is a little over weight and Ginny has put him on a diet. Tonight her parents are coming over for dinner as it is her father’s birthday. He is 78. She is cooking a beef casserole in the pressure cooker and they are having prawns to start and vanilla ice cream for dessert.

It could be Pinner.

Apart from the noisy frogs and monsoon rains, not to mention the sacks of tea and spices that overflow from every doorway.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Day 135: Dune Bashing (12/06/2011)

There are not many days like this.

Driving 75km into the Liwa desert.

Waiting for a pickup in a pen full of inquisitive camels and goats.

Clinging to any fixed point in the interior, while the Nissan careers up the steep face of a sand dune. Yelping with exhiliration as you hurtle down the far side, the nose ploughing into the sand, throwing clouds into the air. Watching in wonder as the second truck repeats the exercise in your rear view mirror, defying the laws of physics and certainly invalidating the warranty.

Eating dates and drinking bitter coffee, sitting on the sand, dunes rearing up around you in all directions for as far as the eye can sea.

Riding on a camel and clinging on for the mount and dismount as the creature folds and unfolds it long legs like the world's most badly made scaffold.

Trying not to stare at the beautiful belly-dancer's plunging cleavage as she tilts and gyrates about you.

Gorging on Arab Fayre, fresh from the fire.

Smoking cherry shisha.

Laying back and watching the stars in absolute darkness.

You don't have many days like this.

Day 134: Big Boots to Fill (11/06/2011)

From the cool of the apartment to the unbearable heat of the city we slunk.

For five paces from the front door you really believe that today will be cooler. Then you move beyond the cool waft of air escaping from the interior and beads of sweat well up with each step. Today we went to the only museum in town.

Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan died in 2004. Our destination was neither his mausoleum or a museum, but a Morrocanesque building housing his personal effects where you can see his collection of rifles and machine guns in glass cabinets, between his leopard and lion skin pelts and Mercedes gull wings.

His pictures line the long cool corridors. As the first son of the first sheikh of modern Abu Dhabi he looks gauche and ill-at-ease. As a young ruler, he has grown into his looks. By his forties, his teeth have been fixed and he has perfected the thousand yard stare of a matinee filmstar.

Even as an older man, he had a firm jaw and look about the eyes that suggested he would deal with it, whatever it was. He seemed at ease as a man of the people, even if they were a carefully selected group of accolytes, pre-briefed for the press release.

He took Abu Dhabi from the stone age to the space age and still seems genuinely revered by the people. While his son, Sheikh Khalifa, has occupied the throne for seven years, he still feels like an heir-apparent, so heavy does his father's legacy lay over him.

Inheriting the family estate with the books in order may seem like a blessing, but you can hear something Arabic, whispered on the wind.

'Big boots, son. Big boots.'

Day 133: State of the Nation (10/06/2011)

Abu Dhabi is a wonderful place but to the casual observer, there is a crisis brewing.

An identity crisis.

As I look across the citiscape from the high rise balcony of my friend's apartment, the heat haze obscures the view today but in the brightness, a thousand points of light sparkle in the desert heat, as cars passing far below reflect the glare.

We are all accustomed to stepping off the plane into the heat of a holiday destination. Even at 5am when the  flight landed, we were greeted by the offspring of a sauna and a hairdryer. Chilled by the air conditioning, our sunglasses steamed up and our skin became clammy as the moisture condensed in the saturating humidity.

As the taxi pulled into the city, the sun was an orange disc, rising into the early morning haze, sillouetting the avenues of recently completed skyscrapers; peeping through the skeletal super-structures of more under construction.

At the very least the city is a testament to mankind's ability to prosper in an inhospitable environment. Summer temperatures exceed 50 degrees with high humidity as the moist winds blow off the Persian Gulf. There is no fresh water to speak of and nothing grows naturally apart from the date palm and desert scrub.

But more than this, some may say it represents the very pinnacle of human achievement. The Emirate, one of seven forming the United Arab Emirates, has conjoured a stunningly modern high rise metropolis from the desert in less than 50 years. The first oil tanker left the newly constructed terminal in 1963. Since then oil revenues approaching $150 billion per year have propelled Abu Dhabi to a constellation of superlatives. It accounts for 57% of the UAE's total GDP. It is the richest city on earth with an average revenue per man, woman and child exceeding $500,000 per annum. Each individual is reputed to have assets averaging $3 million.

Overshadowing its more glitzy neighbour Dhubai, whose oil has largely run out and who teeters of the verge of insolvency, Abu Dhabi occupies a position that far exceeds its diminutive population or land mass.

But beyond first impressions, the contradictions start to emerge.

In all countries, wealth fosters self indulgence and the heat breeds indolance. Like a throw back to Victorian England, it is the norm here for any self-respecting home to be run by servants. Despite palatial residences, kitchens are tiny, almost after thoughts, as Emiratees themselves would never have cause to use them. An indiginous population of 600,000 is supported by an army of ex-patriates approaching three times that number. Some bring western technical skills and others menial labour.

We wandered the city in the heat. There are almost no houses, only skyscrapers crowding close together in avenues like New York in a heat wave. There was no public bus service until two years ago. There are no trains, trams or metro. The first public library will open later this year. The city has one art gallery and no parks. If a giraffe is a horse designed by committee, then Abu Dhabi is a city designed by a statistician; angular, utilitarian and modular. Breathtaking, but at the same time strangely uninspirational.

The route of the problem, if that is how you see it, is this. Money has come quickly and in staggering amounts to this small place. The state and the family have a tight grip on a young Emiratee's destiny and there is little scope for self expression. Few women work and few men have to work hard. Opportunity, like low hanging fruit, is so freely available for the taking that there is no need to strive. The luxurious life is assured almost regardless of merit or effort.

How can ambition and aspiration thrive without need?

Abu Dhabi is like a gangly teenager with a no limit credit card. It is in the process of a growth spurt that its cultural development cannot hope keep up with. Its architecture screams for attention; the Guggenheim and the Louvre will parachute outposts in next year. Its spending patterns look like the shopping spree of a summer job's first pay packet. There are no classic cars on the roads and no classic buildings on the foreshore. Leisure time revolves around the giant shopping malls and fast food outlets. The incidence of obesity and heart disease are rising fast. Per capita road deaths are the fourth highest in the world.

Money allowed Abu Dhabi to leap-frog the normal development cycle and step straight from Start-Rite into hand tooled Gucci.

In the mad dash to acquire the newest and the best, little of the past has survived. When the oil runs out, will Abu Dhabi have constructed something permanent and sustainable?

The great Egyptian and Nubian desert cities were engulfed by the sand in past times, when trade and water was diverted.

Time will tell whether the same fate awaits this great city.

Day 130: Up and Down (07/06/2011)

Thessiger explored it.

Lawrence recruited from it.

In 1930 Abu Dhabi was a vast expanse of desert known enigmatically as the Empty Quarter, where nomadic tribes eked out a living with goats, camels and trade.

Then came oil and by 1939 the first concessions were being negotiated by the ruling families. The first proper shipment did not leave until 1963. First onshore and then offshore fields came on line and the emirate was propelled to the top table as money flowed in faster than imaginable. The desert gradually gave way to development. By 1950 a small town of two storey buildings had sprung up. By 1970 these were demolished to make way for ten storey blocks. In the 1980’s these were removed to provide building land for twenty storey replacements.

Currently, there is a further wave of demolition and construction as buildings, forty stories and more are erected.

The trend illustrates Abu Dhabi’s cash happy attitude to investment and heritage.

Little, if any of the old town remains. Aerial photos from the 1940’s are unrecognizable as even the coastline has been changed by massive ground works and land reclamation. This a disposable society on a scale far beyond the West. It is not only cars and household appliances that are replaced long before their useful life has finished. Serviceable buildings are pulled down daily as modern versions in steel and glass take their place.

But the flip side of this excess is also the key to understanding much of the cash rich Arab world. Some say there is a thrifty mentality to the Emiratees that seems at odds with their new-found wealth. Like a lottery winner who still buys from the supermarket value range, something deep within ties them to the frugal existence of the past.

They commission  multi-billion dollar projects but insist on savings that westerners would regard as fundamental. The demolition of buildings constructed on the 1970’s and 1980’s is partly to do with the desire to have newer, more modern replacements. But it is also a matter of necessity in some cases as foundations were often inadequately cheap and so the life span of many buildings was seriously compromised before the first brick was laid.

Even modern buildings are often topped out without window cleaning facilities. Sometimes, Indians scrub and mop the windows, twenty stories up, from precariously swinging gantries. More often than not, the buildings are not cleaned. The desert blows in and in time everything looks shabby. Unattended, the desert would be three feet deep on Al Hamda street within the year.

But there is a delicate balance here, between doing enough to keep up appearances, whilst still saving on the bottom line.

The skilled Arab knows which is which.

Day 129: Indian Visa (06/06/2011)

As a result of a vitriolic dispute between the washing machine and Clare’s passport, the latter developed a disintegration based malfunction and a new one was needed at short notice. This meant that we couldn’t apply for our Indian visas before we left the UK but we knew the embassy in Abu Dhabi would ride to our rescue on a proud Indian, visa bearing stallion.

Unfortunately, what we didn’t know was that shortly before we arrived, it had outsourced the messy business of issuing visas to BLS Indian Visa Services who, in turn, had sold the nag to a local Emiratee Glue Conglomerate in exchange for a kilo of post-it-notes and a three-legged donkey.

Thrown into the arms of the BLS, we stepped into a world of organised chaos which gave us a small insight into what lay ahead.

The process for obtaining a visa is simple. Complete an application form and file it with a prescribed fee and two passport photos and the visa will be delivered to you by courier at an address of your choosing within five working days.

Simple enough?

Clearly, BLS didn’t think so. Add them to the equation and everything takes a quantum leap in complexity. And the fee goes up like a balloon.

The Indians and the Emiratees do not have a tradition of queuing patiently. Perhaps it is the heat. They squabble and shove in the general melee, all to the exasperation of the Visa Officer, who could really do with a bare chest and a bull-whip.

Here, the pecking order of Emiratee society, where visiting workers from the Indian sub-continent come marginally below household appliances, is turned on its head. Emiratees, who are used to having Indians at their beck and call, are suddenly forced, not only to stand in a queue with fragrant Indian builders and street workers, but also to wait their turn. Gratifyingly, their turn is considerably delayed by the bureaucratic revenge that BLS staff exact for decades of perceived mistreatment of their fellow citizens by their hosts.

Sharp-dressed Emiratees huff and puff as scruffy Indian labourers push in front while BLS turns a blind eye. When they try it themselves, there is sharp and instant retribution as the crowd erupts in protest. The Arabs are not on home turf here and it soon dawns on them that the Visa Officer has his colours nailed firmly to the mast.

But if they are all in the same boat together, it is a leaky one. As the broad ocean of bureaucracy laps over the gunwales, BLS staff spend more time bailing out their sinking ship than paddling it forward. Time slips through everyone’s fingers here as processes are duplicated and triplicated. Nothing can be done in a single step.

First, you must join the queue to obtain an application form. Then you must join another one to ask for guidance on answering the ambiguous questions. There is another to hand in the completed the form for checking and another to have your photo trimmed to size. Yet another is needed to obtain a photocopy of your Abu Dhabi visa. With the end in sight, there is a queue to pay the fee and another to obtain a receipt. Finally, the last queue is to hand over the accumulated documents to the processing officer, from which point the picture is one of seamless efficiency.

At least that is, until the delivery courier calls to say he is at the wrong building and you chase him around the city block as he ignores your request to stand still while you track him down. In a game of cat and mouse, you are always one step behind. You miss him at the foyer of the neighbouring building when the concierge shouts vague directions as the door closes behind you. The man at the shop has seen him just seconds before but can’t tell you where he has gone. The laundrette is more helpful and following their lead, you see him disappearing around a corner as you emerge into the midday furnace, but when you get there he is gone.

All the while you call him on his mobile phone but, it transpires, he is calling your host’s home number and so his line is engaged. Finally, with intelligence from the host, you learn he has made it to your building and you follow him, sure in the knowledge that there is no escape as the net is closing.

Up you go in the lift. He will be waiting with your host, with papers to sign. Of this, there is no doubt.

But, alas no!

When you arrive, he has gone down in the other lift to find you, shaking free from your host’s grasp as she tries to pin him to the wall long enough for you to arrive. More phone calls; more chasing. Eventually, he is there. You take the package with passport and visa and he makes a bee-line for the door.

“Check them!” whispers your host. “They get it wrong all the time.”

Barring the way, you tear feverishly at the plastic wrapper and check the visa to ensure that all is in order.

Off he goes into the heat of the day to run someone else ragged with his desire to help.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Day 126: Poros To Athens (03/06/2011)

The day started badly, with a scalded perineum.

For some reason that science has yet to determine, a cup of hot coffee in a sea swell, lacks the grip of its less scalding counterparts, and is more prone to sliding off a table. Perhaps it is to do with heat exciting the molecules and encouraging fluid dynamics at an atomic level, that cause the cup to slide more freely when a lateral force is applied.

Or perhaps it is the Law of Sod.

After all, toast falls jam side down. Colours only run when your best white shirt is in the wash. The hot water runs out only after you have soaped up. But what if we could harness this potential for harmful probability. I've long admired the Cat Curry Monorail theory.

Put simply, a cat will always fall on its feet, suggesting a repulsion between the back of the cat and the floor. A spillage of curry will always fall on the least stain resistant surface available, such as a pale carpet, therefore suggesting a degree of attraction between the curry and the carpet.

Harnessing these opposing forces merely requires balance. Therefore goes the theory, smear curry on the back of a cat and gently release it a few inches above a pale carpet and the attraction of curry to carpet will counteract the repulsion between the cat's back and the floor. The cat will float. It has a host of industrial applications just waiting to be exploited.

But I digress.

The coffee ran off the table and onto the bench between my legs. I thought I had got away with nothing more than a pleasant warming sensation in the trouser department, until the flowing liquid found its lowest point and began to pool. The rest is history.

I mention it for no other reason than as a minor illustration of how quickly life can take a turn, for the better or the worse.

Five minutes before, we had been watching a pod of dolphins frolic of the port side, congratulating each other on the jolly fine time we were having. And now I found myself only a hair's breadth from calamity.

It can turn on a dime, this life thing, so make the most of it while you still can.

Day 125: Hydra To Poros (02/06/2011)

One of the nice things about Hydra is that, being so small, there is no room for the ocean going Gin Palaces that sweep across the Mediteranean from Monaco to Marmaris, burning enough fuel to drive an SUV to the moon and back.

Sailing, when you can do it, is exciting,

The boat leans to the point that you feel you might slide off if you don't cling on. The sails flap furiously if you are doing it wrong. The hull rides over the swell of passing ships like speeding over a hump back bridge. If you are lucky, dolphins play in your bow wave while you hang over the rails delighting in the oneness of it all.

We saw jumping tuna and flying fish on the way and marvelled at the might of giant freighters ploughing past at speeds that would earn tickets on land.

Terry Wogan had it right when telling the story of his first family holiday to the Greek islands.

Looking out of his villa one morning, he saw a super yacht had pulled into the harbour over night. As always happens, it caused a stir and necks began to crane for a glimpse, not of the undoubtedly fat old man who owned it, but the statutesque blonde who would be sunbathing on its foredeck at some stage during the stay.

The next morning, Terry looked out to see an even bigger super yacht parking provocatively along side yesterday's king of the harbour. Within an hour the former was gone and the newcomer had assumed the throne.

You might think that the moral of the story is about not hitching your value systems to the acquisition of  material possessions because there will always be a bigger boat. But you'd be wrong. Its that when you buy something expensive for the wrong reasons, nobody is looking at you, or even your shiny new purchase.

They're looking at your girlfriend.

Returning to lovely Poros, the same was not true.

Some seriously big boats had taken up residence in the deeper water mid-channel. Five decks, 200m at the water line and weighing in a $1 million per metre, you could lose a small family of sperm whales in their on deck swimming pool.

But although it sounds trite, I really wonder whether it makes them happy. Crew we have talked to previously to said the owners were as miserable as sin. Wives sat on palatial rear decks completing Sudoku. Husbands had nothing to do but get irritable as the boat was so large, you needed four post graduate degrees just to start the engine.

In essence, they are ferries. Nice ones, but ferries all the same.

I think we had a much nicer time, stealing internet time from unwary wi-fi networks, struggling with the continetal toilets and eating at the family run, hole in the wall restaurant further up the quayside. Mamma served Cleftikado and Stifados that had been in the oven all day and literally melted in your mouth. Pappa brought round after round of complimentary coffees, liquers and delicious strawberry cream tarts. Cats wrapped themselves around our legs for tit bits and the family dog slept off the heat of the day at our feet.

Ferries can be quick, luxurious and reliable.

Sailing can be hot, wet and sticky.

But, then again, aren't all the best things?

Day 124: Dhokos To Hydra (01/06/2011)

Today was race day; a grudge match days in the making as Richard's 451 was pitted against Tom's 437. The vessels circled about the start line like hungry sharks. The tension was palpable as the cat calls rang out.

Terminal velocity of a yacht under sail is calculated by an equation too dull to bore you with. Essentially, the longer you are, the faster you go. Richard was two feet longer than us, a fact that the male members of his crew were secretly rather pleased about.

The klaxon sounded and the yachts surged across the start line, manoeuvering for the wind and coming close to collision as we jockeyed for position. Expectant crew lined the high side to extract every ounce of power from the sails. Mast and rigging creaked under the strain. Heat resistant tiles began to peel away from the bow and fish stunned by the sonic boom, floated to the surface in our wake.

Tom radioed an all channels warning to shipping in the vicinity as we tore across the gulf towards Hydra at dizzying speeds approaching one tenth of a knot.

After ten minutes we dropped the sails and motored sedately, like a day trip from the Hydra Nursing Home, stopping to swim en route. Splashing about in 5m of water is like an innocent joy from childhood. Treading water when there are 400m of blackness beneath you is an entirely different experience. At times like these, you believe in the existence of Kraken.

Whisper the word 'shark,' even in jest, and you feel a primevil terror rising in your throat. Involuntarily, you push weaker swimmers beneath the surface and claw your way up the bathing ladder, hoping against hope that your legs are still attached to your torso when you flop into the cockpit.

As the breeze quickened, we surfed on a fender towed behind the boat and Adrian learned the perenial lesson taught by waves to bikini wearers, as he forgot to tie the draw string on his swimming shorts.

Pulling into Hydra, with Richard, only slightly smuggly tucked up against the breakwater with all lines secured, was like taking your new Bentley to the super market, only to find the carpark had been comandeered by the local chapter of Hell's Angels.

For bazooka practice.

Hydra's harbour is best described as possessing limited space to maneouvre, even at the best of times. So small is it, that scientists are using the Large Hadron Collider to establish whether it actually exists. Parking four deep is common, and when three out of those four are usually Germans, the teutonic tendency to annexe the poolside sun loungers finds a new and guttural outlet for expression. Leathery German husbands at the helm, scream prison camp commands at long suffering wives, if the anchor drop is a  milli-second late.

The postage stamp space in the middle of the harbour, available for delicate turns, was squarely occupied by a hapless yacht trying vainly to retrieve a crossed anchor chain 5m below. Three other boats were circling gingerly in the single lane highway that developped in a clockwise direction around the stricken vessel. A fourth, inevitably crewed by Russians, saw a wisdom that had escaped the rest, and barged counter-clockwise, to add to the mayhem. And then the wind picked up and the bow, that was only ever behaving under sufferance, started to wander.

Round and round we went, waiting for an opening. With each rotation, the Russians became more belligerent and the crew of the yacht in the jam became more exasperated.

The Bentley was whimpering as the trigger finger tightened.

And then, the cosmic tumblers clicked into place, the wind came onto the beam at just the right moment and we reversed neatly into a slot that had been beyond reach a moment before. The Russians glowered. The other boats gave up. We had some gin.

Hydra, with a population of 20, was a trading port that prospered under the Ottoman Empire. Renowned for its skillfull sailors and boat builders, it threw its lot in with the Greeks during the war of independence in 1821 and was pivotal in the victory against the mighty Turk. Trade moved on and Hydra transformed its wealthy merchant housing stock to the entertainment of the rich and famous for the next hundred years.

To walk all four of its winding streets is to stroll in the footsteps of everyone from Oscar Wilde to Pink Floyd. Indeed, the current harbour master, who finally untangled the anchor debacle, is credited with introducing Byron to opium.

Night life in Hydra is a cross between Blackpool and Venice. The wide quayside plays host to open air cafes where smart waiters serve cocktails and strong coffee with hot milk. But as Hydra is a carless island, donkeys loiter amongst the tables, to carry all the produce that is shipped to the island, and small children, if the need arises.

We ate and drank freely into the early hours before stumbling across the decks of dozen yachts, in search of our own.

Someone nameless brought a  brunette back to the boat. After twelve Mythos, the guys thought she was cute and she loved the attention. I thought she was a complete dog.

A labrador, in fact.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Day 123: Poros To Dhokos (31/05/2011)

Poros town is the jewel of the Argolic Gulf, nestled in a channel between Poros island and the Greek mainland to the south.

Like the Venetian Grand Canal in microcosm, the channel snakes in an elongated S-bend. While the great church builders passed Poros by, the town is comprised of a cascade of white washed merchant's houses that tumble down the hillsides to the harbour. A white clock tower stands on the rock around which the town is built and acts as an essential navigational aid for vessels approaching the channel from the north west, at both day and night.

The approach to and departure from the channel is delightful as the town opens up gradually and reveals itself from behind a headland at either end. Small ferry boats glide across from side to side. A larger car ferry traverses the widest point like a pendulum, back and forth through out the day, sounding its horn with each crossing.

So charming is it, that as we left, we had already planned to return later in the week.

Rounding the headland with sails raised, we debated which of three routes to take to the small island of Dhokos, where we intended to anchor for the night. In the distance was the headland around which we had to turn and beyond it, the islands of Skilla and Sapia, between which lay two tantalising channels, offering a shortcut.

But which to take?

By this time the depth sounder had nailed its Otis Redding impersonation. Sadly, it was his lesser hit 'Dying in the Cockpit' rather than 'Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay'.

The 16 feet clearance in the northern channel was too close for comfort. Feeling brave we opted for the 33 feet depth of the middle channel but even this seemed a little foolhardy given that the navigation charts issued for the area by the Greek Naval Hydrology Service were prepared in the 19th century. Bizarrely, they also contain an explicit exclusion against liability, not from the map makers but from the GNHS themselves.

Needless to say, the only floating part of The Greek Navy now consists of four planks and three vegetable oil drums. Mind you, it hasn't held them back and they came a creditable second in the Thessaloniki raft race last year, but were pipped to the post by the other competitor.

To add insult to injury, our right of way as a craft under sail and our efforts to maneouvre in the narrow channel were brutally disregarded by the Flying Dolphin Hydrofoil that stormed through the gap at 35 knots, right at the critical moment. I was so angry, I spilled my gin. But then again, Greek drivers (I can't bring myself to call them sailers) have as much respect for The Collision Regulations as they would for a Turk offering them a financial bailout.

Safely in Dhokos Bay, after an otherwise uneventful passage, gin time was only slightly marred by the realisation that we had forgotten to turn Adrian during his marathon sunbathing session on the foredeck. After scraping off the black bits with the boat hook, we woke him up, blamed it on the jet exhaust from the Hydrofoil and thrust a gin into his hand. He didn't seem to notice the barbeque smell that followed him around for the next day or two, and we cunningly covered our tracks by barbequeing on the boat that night.

After rowing us to shore to collect pebbles, Simon re-enacted 'Lord of the Flies' on the beach by dancing around with a goat skull on a stick that he found, before re-naming Adrian as 'Piggy', tying him to a post and setting fire to his trousers. Having lost all sensation below the waist as a result of 9th degree sunburn, Adrian admired the flaming pantaloons for some time before realising that he was still wearing them.

Fortunately, a local Greek man appeared with his dog who he commanded to extinguish the flames by its own organic means, in return for Simon's half smoked cigarette. Later, Simon told us that he was less than pleased to part with his fag as the goat skull had told him he had to give up smoking after this holiday and he had to get as many in as he could in the limited time available.

After tea, Jenny, Adrian and I rowed into the blackness of the lagoon in search of phosphorescence in the water. Predators were feeding below us and the water around us boiled with jumping fish. The surface shimmered and flashed with the tiny discharges of light as Jenny first plunged her hands into the watery darkness and then escalated her assault on the tiny acquatic sparklers by repeatedly whacking the surface of the water with an oar.

In the morning we woke to find ourselves the shocked victims of the now infamous Dhokos Beer Thief. The cunning devil had crept aboard as we slept, rifled the beer locker and made off with our week's supply, leaving only the empty cans littering the dishevelled cockpit as consolation.

However, all was not lost as the fridge had long since packed up, fortuitously allowing nature to ferment the unconsumed dairy products into something closely resembling a potent cheese based pilsner which sustained us until fresh supplies of Gin and Mythos could be acquired.

Yiamas Dhokos, we salute you.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Day 122: Vathi To Poros (30/05/2011)

Any harder and someone would have called the cops!

Yeah, we did some sailing today but you don't want to know about that do you?

You want to hear about Tom's sausage surprise, hysterical drinking games with Vlassis at Asteria's Bar, slamming Melon Tequila from the belly button of some Greek Goddess and debauchery in the toilets of Club Malibu at 4.30am with Holland's answer to Fox Force Five.



Oh well, perhaps another time then.

Day 121: Angistiri To Vathi (29/05/2011)

Late departure from Athens limited our range in daylight and we made for the island of Angistiri.

Pulling stern to on the town quay, the light was fading and the purple dusk, so characteristic of the Greek islands in summer, was descending to the horizon as the first stars began to appear.

Yachts 451 and 437 moored alongside each other and disgorged 13 hungry crew into the arms of the mamma at the quayside taverna. Eight Mousaka and five Stifados later we watched Barcelona beat Manchester United 1-0 on Greece's largest TV screen before rolling home for bed time Mythos, The Breakfast of Champions.

Morning was bright and hot by 8am and after breakfast in the cockpit we set sail for Vathi, on the Greek mainland. With light winds we managed 3 knots before the speed log started giving eratic readings. Jenny added it to the list which already contained blocked pumps, non flushing heads and jamming sails. A short while later, the eratic readings ceased, to be replaced by no readings at all.

As we pulled into the harbour at Epidavros for lunch, midway to our destination, the depth gauge began to look a little suspect too. The sea in Greece is usually so clear that the white sand shines brightly from the seabed in less than 5m. As the clearance of the keel was over 2m, there was not much room for error, particularly with the added slop of the swell. With Simon taking soundings from the bow, we eased into the bay before persuading the anchor to drop with a heafty clout from the winch handle.

After lunch we took the tender to shore for ice-cream and cigarettes and a fruitless search for a diving mask. Epidavros is home to Greece's oldest and best preserved ampitheatre with seating for 2,000, constructed in around 50AD. The acoustics remain so clear that you really can hear a coin drop from the back, thirty rows deep and 75 feet up. The Temple to Athena, an ampitheatre in minature, also remains, now nestled amongst orange groves that cover the headland.

Motoring across the channel to Vathi, we sparred with a Sun Sail flotilla for the few remaining slots against the quay, and after a brief contretemps at the harbour mouth, rudely barged a hesitant yacht out of the way. Life has a splendid way of getting even and no sooner had that yacht found a spot, than by spectacular coincidence, off popped Adrian's former colleague, to red faces all round.

Things picked up when George Michael reversed his glamourous power boat into the slot next to us, complete with ridiculous fold up sunglasses only marginally smaller than the double glazing on a respectable semi. Then his scantily clad girlfriend shimmied off the bathing deck in tottering heels and the celebrity aura evaporated as we realised he was just an ordinary idiot.

Matters took a turn for the worse as we crossed anchor cables with him, threatening a knot of epic proportions in the morning as we both tried to leave. The harbour diver makes a good living by descending into the murky depths to untangle the mess and some say he surreptitiously knots chains in the darkness of the night for his own profit and amusement.

Beers delivered by a nymph on rollerblades warmed us up for Simon's veggie slop for dinner washed down with Greece's finest boxed wine.

Air guitaring into the early hours, we rocked Vathi like it has never been rocked before.

With a nice cup of Horlicks and a few hands of whist.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Day 120: Athens to Angistiri (28/05/2011)

Yacht handover was scheduled for 12.30pm today.

We might have surged out of harbour, powered by the white heat of indignation at 5.30pm, cursing everyone we could think of to the seventh generation. Instead, as the heat of the day had passed, we sipped on sun-downers and eased past the super-yachts, out of harbour and into the freedom of the Argolic Gulf.

Between 12.30pm and 5.30pm, Jason, our friendly handover manager took us through the yacht's inventory and showed us the ropes....literally. Cups and spoons all accounted for, there was the small matter of the anchor that wouldn't release (and presumably wouldn't raise if it did release). Not relishing the prospect of spending the week forcibly at anchor in the mouth of the harbour, we flagged it as an issue.

'If it no work, heet wiv hammer' he said in an accent honed in the fires of the Marmaris Kebab Shop.

'But there is no hammer on the inventory list' we relied limply.

'You no worry. Heet wiv GPS instead' he responded with a rogueish glint, but not, apparently, any practical suggestion for how to explain the shattered GPS casing to Stubbled Greek Boss Man on our return.

'Where is the auto-pilot?' we enquired.

'Eez in the port locker but you no need it' he explained with a shrug. 'Theez boat, she sell like a mer-med'.

Ignoring the unflattering comparisons between our home for the next seven days and some scaley sub-acquatic fish-women who didn't even have a Competent Crew certificate, we accepted that the AP was broken without exposing the poor man to the embarrassment of actually having to say so.

When you discover that you have chartered a lemon, there is very little you can do. The barriers to normal pre-departure negotiations presented by language, distance and the absence of anyone with access to the receipted credit card payment slip, are usually enough to frustrate your best efforts. Add to this the actual bars on the charter company door and the deal was probably sealed, and not in our favour. The best we could hope was that the lemon was juicy and would go six ways in our departure Gin and Tonic.

Before embarkation, Stubbled Greek Boss Man appeared on the quayside enthusiastically waving a silver lapel badge for the skipper. Reluctantly I pinned it to my chest and instantly regretted not having put my shirt on first. He pulled me to one side as I dabbed my bleeding decolletage with a tissue.

'You no careece ma spray-hood. Eet cost alot of many' he whispered menacingly.

As the breeze blew the bow around, we cast off. We narrowly avoided sinking both the security deposit and the neighbouring boat, unhelpfully parked at 90 degrees to us, all the time feeling the laser beam stare of Stubbled Greek Boss Man boring into the back of our necks. It was nine months since our last sailing excursion and it was all a bit rusty. Add to this, the heightened performance anxiety that flows from nearly trashing not one but two, hundred thousand pound play-things, whilst maneouvering like an excited labrador on ice, and drinks were well deserved.

As the badge glinted in the early evening sunlight, a sense of gin-fuelled doom descended on me like a cloud. What did they teach me in Classics and Mythology? Ah, I remember.

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Day 120: Happy Birthday To Me (27/05/2011)

By Greek law, it only rains on one Saturday between May and September and when it does it comes with such force that a third of the Athenian population get washed out to sea. And so it was that today was that day.

Conventional rain aims to soak you in the traditional way by falling from the sky and catching you if it can, on the way down. Athenian rain is cunning; so cunning in fact that aerial protection of whatever calibre is ineffective. It defies gravity and hammers into the pavement with such force that it bounces right back up at you, bypassing what ever protection you may have complacently assumed would do the job.

The bus deposited us into this vortex of five dimensional rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning that lashed and crashed about Symtagma Square, close to the parliament buildings. Protesters scurried for cover as we made a desperate, electrical appliance saving dash from the bus stop, across the square and into the Metro. It would have been easier to swim the length of the Metropolitain fountain, and probably drier too.

When we made it down to the Metro, we were welcomed by the cast of the next Greek disaster movie. The ticket areas and platforms were awash with a tide of dripping human flotsam, washed in on the surging waters. Even a representative sample of Athens' vagrant canine population had sought shelter there. We waited for Spiros Gyllenhaal to save us but when it became apparent that he was draining his fourth Ouzo elsewhere, we caught the train to Konstantinou and the Hotel Achilleon, were fortuitously, they proclaimed to the world, in an amusingly fitting magnetic fridge magnet, that life begins at 40.

It certainly seemed that way later, as we ploughed through the thirteenth bottle of something toxic.

Tom, Jenny, Adrian and Clare toasted me into my fifth decade at a variety of watering holes in the Greek capital and Adrian even brought fizz to the party as Clare and I enjoyed a few pre-match sharpeners in the hotel bar before the evening's proceedings kicked off in earnest.

Simon was due tomorrow lunch time and the boat hand over was also scheduled at Kalimaki Marina for 12.30pm. But yacht chartering companies are no slaves to the deadline. Invariably, a team of hard working deck hands make everything ready in good time but inexplicably things always seem to get held up by a heavily stubbled Greek type who assures you that the boat papers will be returned from the harbour police in the next half hour.

For 'heavily stubbled Greek type' read picky charter company owner taking an overly detailed interest in the smooth running of his maritime empire. For 'harbour police' read slightly overweight Greek naval fellow packing heat, valiantly assisted by a bevvy of doe eyed underlings in skin tight fatigues. Cumulatively their role is to spend 60 minutes perusing your papers, ask you whether you plan to pump sewage into their blue flag marina, and charge you the princely sum of 1.91 Euros for the privilige.

It would probably be cheaper and quicker for the Greek state to give every yacht charterer 100 Euros at handover and send them on their way. This would dispense with a creaking bureaucracy and protect Greece's precious water cleanliness credentials by expelling beer fuelled yachtsment out to sea promptly, rather than have them loitering in harbour, defiling the town quay with their emanations.

And so it was that we set the stage for tomorrow's battle with The Kalimaki Massive by arming ourselves with blinding headaches and the slightly wired sensation that comes with sleep deprivation; perfect allies in the war against petty injustice.

Happy Birthday me!

Thanks to everyone who helped to make it happen.

Day 119: The Catalan Connection (26/05/2011)

I am sure that guy is watching me!

With my 40th birthday fast approaching and sailing in the Argolic Gulf beckoning as a reward for surviving this long, we flew from Bristol to Barcelona to stay with Clare’s brother and sister-in-law, Pat and Elena for a couple of days before getting on with the serious business of loafing in the sunshine.

I say Barcelona because that is what Ryan Air calls Girona, overlooking the minor detail that it is 40 miles away. You make that mistake once, whatever the Ryan Air destination you select. After the angry red dawn of indignation, the day light of realisation reveals that 12 euros cannot be a money making fare between Bristol and Bath, let alone a destination nearly 1,500km away. Sometime soon, someone will realise this and Easy Jet, Ryan Air and a host of others will simultaneously implode in a cloud of straw donkeys. Until then, the improbable financial equation will balance and we will continue to travel a significant proportion of the earth’s surface for less than the cost of cinema ticket.

Sadly, Pat and Elena had to work during the day, but in keeping with our form for ruthless exploitation of friends and relatives over the last few months, they bought us a delicious dinner at their new haunt, 'El Melic'. This may translate to 'The Belly Button' in Catalan, but as we loosened our belts after the starters, I was seriously considering sneaking back in the night and rearranging the letters to spell 'El Gastric Bando'.

Or at least I would have, had all Catalunya's heavy lifting equipment not been fully engaged on other more pressing civil construction projects at the time, such the widening of the Llobragat high street to accomodate my pendulous girth as we swayed home, full of great wine and excellent food.

The following day, my 35mm camera having only recently been discharged  from intensive care following the Otway Light Station Coffee Tsunami (Day 39), I went to the camera shop to buy a replacement. It was only fair to put anyone within earshot, out of their misery. I had bleated on about doing it, ad nauseam since Otway. I had extracted more than generous birthday cash on the explicit understanding that I would. My pictures were becoming increasing indecipherable on account of the dried coffee on the inside of the lens. It was a no brainer.

No surprise then, that I ummed and ahhed, paced and scratched my chin and generally gave a master class in the art of indecision whilst agonising over whether it should be the Cannon EOS 550D or the Nikon 5100.

Eternal thanks then to Clare, as Pat was rocking gently in the corner, weeping quietly, and the sales assistant was bleeding from the eyes whilst trying manfully to answer my increasingly arcane questions about which was less likely to slide of a yacht deck in a force 4. The sudden and burning desire to possess the Cannon may have had something to do with the sudden and burning pain in my ear as Clare first grasped and then twisted it further than anatomically wise, whilst calmly but vehemently whispering comparative advantages of the Cannon's 18.2 megapixel sensor.

Decision made, we went home, only to discover instruction manuals in Portugese and Spanish only. Fortunately, the unthinkable consequences of jamming the rotator cuff mechanism into the flange assembly aside, it all seemed pretty straight forward. Within the hour I was taking equally bad pictures, only in 18 megapixels rather than 4.

Boarding the plane for Athens, more than one traveller must have arrived home, wondering whether they were under surveillance, so diligent was my snapping in the terminal.

Instead, it was my Truman Show moment as we boarded. Mr Bleeding Eyes from the camera shop was checking boarding cards at the gate as his Friday job. A dead likeness of Adrian (anchorman) was sitting to Clare's left on the plane and Simon's doppelganger (sail trimmer) brushed past as drinks were being served.

Are there cutbacks at the studio?

Monday, 6 June 2011

Day 42: Tsunami (11/03/2011)

It's a great view of Melbourne from the 43rd floor of the AMP Tower.

Just another great thing to add to a day full of great things.

Exploring the National Gallery. Eating lunch in the sunshine. Buying a CD of street Flamenco from a pendulous Iberian Siren. Director's Box seats to watch The Rebels play The Sharks to a nail biting Rugby League final in a one point in it, end of season clincher.Fish and Chips and a beer for under $6.00. Flame grilled cocktails in a dark side street bar resembling Sweeney Todd's.

Sadly, not so good for the east coast of Japan, rocked by a massive earth quake and then washed away by 20 foot high tsunami waves. Jaws slack in the queue for late night kebabs, we watched the waves roll in, whole neighbourhoods submerged and water streaming inland.

They say Fukashima is under water and they have a nuclear power station.

Suddenly, the world seems a much smaller place.

Day 41: Taxi! (10/03/2011)

Mooching in Melbourne we experienced the full spectrum of life.

$70.00 for Clare's haircut in a swanky up town salon.

$7.00 for mine. And that included a free beer while he shaved my head and The Doors played at ear bleeding volume; the walls adorned with what can only be described as erotic gypsy pin ups in varying states of undress. I could have got a tattoo if I had wanted it. After a beer it didn't seem such a bad idea.

Instead I scared myself repeatedly on the walk home, catching a glance of my newly shorn appearance in every window I passed. The whiff of dope at every door way marked the territory and possibly explained the shambling Aboriginies congregating around the park benches as I passed. I might have been a bit scared but a beer before lunch bouyed me up and my new haircut seemed to intimidate them more than it did me.

Haircut raising an occassional eyebrow that evening, Dirk and Victoria's Bon Homie stretched to its elastic limits as they entertained us at Melbourne's Taxi. Not a kebab and a Strongbow in the back seat of a cab as the name might suggest; rather a twelve course Degustation Menu at the eponymous retaurant, peopled by the beautiful and patrician accolytes of the fine city. And that was just the waiting staff.

Sashimi, pork belly, coconut soup, elaborate chocolate and caramelised sugar nests; each course was a triumph of.....of......

Well, it was delicious anyway.

And I think they were extra nice to us.

May be because I looked like I might have caused trouble give the slightest provocation.

Or perhaps because I spent the afternoon perched on the Pope's Kneeler.

Really, I did!

Day 40: The Russians Are Coming (09/03/2011)

The word 'Gullible' has been removed from the dictionary, apparently. Or so the good burghers of Port Fairy would probably believe.

If you kept a straight face.

After all, it was they that jailed a hoaxer who let it be known in 1855, that the Russians, already hilt deep in the Crimea, were also planning to launch a pre-emptive strike on Port Fairy (population 9).

You can't help wondering whether this was just an opportunity for the Town Elders to settle a few old scores by coming down hard on a first time offender, in lieu of asking any searching questions of themselves, about the nature of past town expenditure.

In 1811, Port Fairy bought some very large cannon forged in England, when prices were peaking in the preamble to some Napoleonic Peninsula bashing in 1812. In 1835, they invested heavily in a Battery and Powder Magazine upon rumours circulating of further hostilities with some imagined foe.

Either they had a persecution complex or the local Sea Bass population really was massing for an attack.

Nowdays Port Fairy is a pretty, well-heeled seaside town, populated largely by equally well-heeled tourists. The fishing boats are gone, replaced by yachts and the cannon and battery? Well, they do what they always did. Nothing much. But the town is still small. Small enough in fact for yesterday's hotel manager, Brynn, to scour the cafes and restaurants to find us and personally return Clare's mobile phone that she left in the room.

And it turns out the hoaxer was right all along.

The Russians did come; they just didn't bring their tanks.

Day 39: The Twelve Apostles (08/03/2011)

Today is Pancake Day!

We celebrated by buying a plastic spoon from the supermarket to eat our cereal, having lost yet more cutlery along the way.

After the savage but greatly under reported Coffee Tsunami at Otway Light Station, the camera was laid to rest, cold coffee still leaking from its innards. Of no lesser significance was the loss was the orange and carrot cake that was also engulfed by the brown tide that surged across the table, mere nano-seconds after the waitress turned her back.

The casual observer may have attributed the disaster to my poor motor control, as my reaching hand spasmed at the critical moment unleashing hot caffeine hell. The more astute will recognise the malign confluence of The Two Backpackers of the Apocalypse, as we have now been labelled, and the Furry Lieutentant of the Dark One (aka Wombat Terror).

Bearing this in mind, and pausing only to accept a free replacement from the waitress who inexplicably felt responsible for the spillage, we headed for the Twelve Apostles to seek absolution from whatever unspeakable sins of a former life that were responsible for these Marsupial machinations.

The Apostles are limestone stacks eroded from the cliffs beyond Otway and before Port Fairy. The Twevle are merely a few of the formations that litter the coast line for ten miles. Their beatification is a recent occurence, having previously been known, less pleasingly perhaps, as the Sow and Piglets. There are really only eleven now since a recent collapse. The spectacular fall of London Bridge arch just down the coast, stranding terrified hikers, illustrates the dynamic erosion that created the formations and which is continuing the process, with no respect for the requirements of the tourism industry built upon them.

After exploring the strange enclosed bay of Loch Aird Gorge where 57 perished in a nineteenth century maritime disaster, we passed the Bay of Martyrs, a mini-me version of the Apostles, before leaving the coast and heading a short distance inland to the Tower Hill State Game Reserve. Emu and Kangaroos lounged lazily in the roadway, unconcerned by our presence, in a way that made the behaviour of the animals at Wilson's Promontory seem capricious.

Arriving in Port Fairy, we booked into the Ashmont Hotel, discovered the manager had lived a mile from us in Bristol, chased crickets across the threshold, missed the famous pie dinner at the Irish Bar due to the chef's mysterious incapacity, and settled for noodles at the Kung Fu Kitchen while the local dive team complained about sharks at the next table.

All appeared to have been forgiven.