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The final island on our Caribbean tour was to be Trinidad. The larger part of the two-island state of Trinidad & Tobago, it lies only a few kilometers of the Venezuelan coast. Originally called Iëre – the island of the hummingbird – by the local population, Columbus, who sailed past it on his third journey renamed it to the somewhat generic Isla de la Trinidad. Still there’s some catchy names left in the names of the two channels that seperate Trinidad from Venezuela: the dragon’s mouth and the serpent’s mouth.

 

View of Port of Spain, with the dim outlline of Venezuela on the horizon.

 

The one word to know when coming to Trinbago is limin’. It’s the nation’s favorite pastime and means something like chilling, relaxing and generally having a good time. The people of Trinidad don’t enjoy working that much and contrary to the rest of the world, they actually decided to do something about it. The country has one of the highest numbers of public holidays anywhere in the world.

They start off with a base numer of 14 official public holidays, which have the nice habit of moving to a Monday whenever they fall in the weekend. They then add to that the inofficical public holidays, which aren’t really licensed, but nobody expects anyone to come to work regardless. An example would be the five days around carnival. As if that isn’t enough, there’s also the surprise public holiday. These are given at frequent intervals and normally coincide with some sort of joyous occassion. Any excuse will do. When we were there, it was the return of javelin gold medalist Keshorn Walcott from London which induced the prime minister to call a holiday for Monday at eight o’clock Sunday evening. And last but not least, there are of course the normal holidays that people are entitled to. If you put them all together, you will rarely have a five-day working week left.

 

When it’s a holiday in Port of Spain, the streets turn post-zombie-apocalypse dead.

 

We wandered around the airport a little looking for the driver our guesthouse had sent. A small crowd was beginning to form as soldiers were handing out little T&T flags. By the end of the morning that crowd had grown to 15,000 and several trucks filled with massive speakers blared out the sound of the steel drum bands playing on their roofs. Fortunately, we had gotten out just in time and made our way to the nation’s capital: Port of Spain.

Contrary to all the other islands we had visited on this trip, Trinidad doesn’t really have a tourist industry. The economy is built around the oil industry and most foreign visitors are expats or business travelers instead of cruise passengers. It was a refreshing change.

 

Office buildings in downtown Port of Spain.

 

The city itself was an interesting blend of cultures. After slavery had been abolished in the 19th century indentured laborers had been brought from China and particularly India to fill the gap on the sugar plantations. Today Indian-origin Trinidadians make up almost half the population, and they have stuck to their favorite foods, movies and gods.

 

The largest Hanuman statue outside of India.

 

Temple in the sea in Waterloo, Trinidad. The builder was not allowed to construct it on land by the English colonial rulers, so instead he created a small island just off the shore and built his temple there.

 

Unfortunately, due to the impromptu public holiday, and the two official ones that were to follow in the week ahead, all restaurants were closed with the exception of TGI-Fridays and its sort. So we ate burgers with milkshakes most of the time.

Come to think of it, American fast food chains occupy a disproportionate amount of real estate along the city’s main drags. The reason is quite simple: free advertising. As cable television swept through the region, it brought along all the US-based networks, which carry a lot of fast-food advertising. Locals figured out that all they had to do was purchase the franchise, and watch the money rolling in without spending a dime on getting customers through the door. So you can spot not only the big ones like McDonalds, Burger King and KFC, but also Wendy’s, Pappa Joes, Dunkin’ Donuts. You name it.

 

Trinidad’s favorite restaurant.

 

All in all, we spent almost ten days in Trinidad, most of them in Port of Spain, while taking a few trips to the northeast to watch baby turtles hatch, and to the south to see flocks of the country’s national bird, the scarlet ibis, fly across mangrove swamps. It was a relaxing end to our month in the Caribbean. And if there’s one thing that this country knows, it’s how to relax.

 

Scarlet Ibis in flight at Caroni Bird Sancuary.

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When I was a kid, they used to show a commercial on TV for Bounty, the coconut filled chocolate bar. The tag line was Een Stukje Paradijs op Aarde: a piece of paradise on earth. It showed a tropical beach with the bluest of waters, softly swaying palm trees and a coconut falling and breaking neatly in half to reveal the white cocos on the inside. It’s what I imagined a tropical paradise would look like, and in the Grenadines we found a real life version of it.

After landing in Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent, the largest island in the group, we spent the Saturday roaming the busy market in the quaint little town. On Sunday, the streets were utterly abandoned, as people take their off-days quite seriously here, and we decided to head out the next day to one of the smaller islands in the Grenadines, which lie further to the south.

Vegetable and spice market in Kingstown.

A cargo ferry took us for an hour across the choppy channel to island of Bequia. As we entered the bay, we saw dozens of sailing boats anchored in the shallow waters. The main village on the island occuppied a narrow strip along the sea and houses were dotted across the hillsides that rose up from the white stretches of beach.

Sunset view Bequia bay.

Since there are no major resorts on the island, the village felt much more alive than any of the other places we’d visited so far, in spite of it being the low season. A string  of small bars and restaurants lined the waterside and a small walkway had been created that led past the lot of them. There was a nice beach at the end of the walkway, and two more a short watertaxi ride away.

The Guinness is Good in Bequai, though a little strong at 7.5%.

We stayed on Bequia for a week. Our routine was pretty simple: Wake up early in the morning for some breakfast and a swim. Have lunch and maybe visit one of the other beaches for more swimming and snorkling. Take a nap and go out in the evening for a cocktail or two and some dinner. Life was pretty hard out there.

Even at the local church, they take things in a relaxed kinda way.

As the island was so small, you soon got to meet many of the locals and we heard some of the stories. Even this far away from the business world, the impact of the recession was felt. Tourist numbers were down, a large cargo ship which was anchored on an enormous line and drifted across the bay had been put up for sale and left there for a year now, and a gorgeous hotel with many small bungalows was slowly collapsing in on itself as its owner had fled to France after apparently being hounded by the IRS for tax fraud.

Garden of an abandoned hotel in Bequai.

Nobody seemed too concerned by it all though. When the coconuts, mangoes and papayas still grow abundantly, and a cooling swim is a few meters away, you tend to worry a little less.

Evening fishing for a portion of sardines.

 

 

 

Having just finished the Camino de Santiago in June, I thought it would be useful to put down some general pointers for anyone who’s interested in walking this ancient pilgrims’ route themselves.

Our Compostellas. Written in Latin and where possible, carrying a latinized version of your name.

As a quick introduction, I walked the Camino in two parts. The first half, from Pamplona to Leon in 2004, and the second half a month ago from Leon to Santiago. In those eight years the interest in the Camino has increased enormously, with many websites, guidebooks and even a Hollywood movie (The Way), jumping on the bandwagon. As a sign of how mainstream it has become: My local outdoor store in Dublin had a special section of their floor devoted exclusively to the Camino.

As is to be expected, the number of people walking the route has increased dramatically as well, more than doubling over the last decade. This has caused especially the Camino Frances to become more crowded, but on the upside has also led to a wider variety of accommodation and other pilgrim facilities to be built.

So if you’re planning to go as well, here are some things to consider before setting out.

1. Which Route

Even though everyone speaks of the Camino as if it were one fixed route with a specific beginning and series of waypoints, there are in fact many ways to get to Santiago. Pilgrims in the Middle Ages would start on their doorsteps and walk towards Spain, meeting up with other pilgrims in the cities and towns of medieval Europe, such as Paris or Le Puy-en-Velay. Several routes became more or less standardized along the way.

A map showing the different routes through Spain and Portugal. You can of course start even earlier. Routes through France are quite popular.

The most common one that takes you through Spain today is the Camino Frances which usually begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, and passes through Pamplona, Burgos and Leon. Another route hugs the Atlantic coast and is known as the Camino del Norte. Additionally there are routes coming from Madrid, Portugal and even a short one from the coast where travellers from Ireland and England would have landed.

So which one should you take? The Camino Frances is the most popular. It passes through many medieval towns and villages and the uptick in pilgrims on this route means there is often a choice of albergues (hostel-like accommodation for pilgrims). They are rarely more than 10 kilometres apart. The downside is the other side of the popularity coin. You will not often walk out of sight of other pilgrims. In our nineteen days on the Camino this year, we had exactly one morning in which we did not pass or were passed by other pilgrims.

If you prefer the quiet, the Camino del Norte may be the way to go. The downside here is that there is less accommodation and the distances between albergues can be larger at times. Also, you won’t get to watch The Way and recognize all the spots that Martin Sheen is passing by.

One last pointer, whichever route you take, have a think on whether you want to start on the French or Spanish side of the Pyrenees. Each year a substantial amount of people wear themselves out on that first tough march across the mountains. It’s not compulsory. In fact, you only have to walk a hundred kilometres to get the coveted Compostella, so there.

2. When to go

Northern Spain is colder than you might think. I discovered this back in May 2004, when it started to snow a little after Burgos. Having packed one sweater and only a rain cape as outer wear, it was decidedly frosty. The lack of hot showers at the time didn’t help either, but that has mostly been remedied these days.

Rain clouds on the Alto de San Roque. The last peak (1,270m) before heading into the final stretch of the Camino in Galicia.

You can actually walk the Camino at any time of the year. Broadly speaking the seasons go like this:

Winter, from November to March. Can get very cold. Expect to have the Camino almost entirely to yourself. Expect to have to hunt around for keys to albergues as many of them will be closed.

Spring, from April to June. Generally mild conditions but always be prepared for extremes. It can snow in May, but temperatures can also rise to the high thirties centigrade. It gets busier on the route as the weeks pass in May and June.

Summer, July and August. Some like it hot. As most Spanish walk the Camino at this time, the route is at its busiest. Temperatures can touch the forties which leads to much night-time walking to avoid the summer heat.

Autumn, September and October. Very similar to spring conditions. Crowds are less than in the summer, but still busy enough and cold spells become more common as winter approaches.

Some general points:

You’ll always need a good windbreaker as weather can change quickly for the worse in the mountains.

The Meseta, the high plains between Burgos and Leon offer very little shade and can be difficult to cross in hot or stormy weather.

Galicia, the final province the Camino passes through is very green.  That’s because it rains there. A lot.

3. Fully equipped, no bags or bus tour

Traditionally, a pilgrim would put his belongings in a backpack, carrying a few sets of clothes, a sleeping bag and some toiletries and start walking. It gives a sense of freedom, being able to go as far as you like at any given day, and stopping where you will (accommodation permitting). Of course, it also means carrying a load on your back, though with modern light-weight materials that doesn’t need to add up to more than 10kgs.

The Camino gets busy with all sorts of walkers in the last 100 kilometers before Santiago.

These days, there are several other options.

The first is walking the full length of the Camino, but having your bags transported for you. You’ll only need to carry a day pack with water and some other necessities. The cost can be as little as €5 per day and pick-ups and drop-offs can be arranged with a quick phone call.

One thing to bear in mind is that some of the albergues do not allow ‘assisted’ pilgrims, so you may be more limited in your accommodation when you use a service like this. You can ensure a spot for the night by booking with an operator that offers full packages including hotel bookings, so you’re not dependent on the albergue network. Be aware, though, that if you book with one of these you are essentially committing to walking specific distances each day, and it’s hard to know how your body will hold up in advance.

The second option, for the less active among us, is the bus tour. It’s essentially a week-long, or ten-days, or whichever time period suits, journey in a bus that includes a bit of hiking each day. You stay in hotels, get to visit some other nearby sights and will be dropped on the Camino for a five to ten kilometre stretch of walking each day.  At that time you will be all fresh and happy as you traipse by the unfortunate pilgrims who’ve just lugged a heavy backpack up a mountain for the past three hours… through the rain… in the mud…  No, no, I’m not begrudging you your comfort. Not at all.

Two more quick tips

Shoes

And don’t take them off while drinking a coffee…

If there’s one thing that will determine your enjoyment of the Camino, it’s how well your shoes fit. Make sure that you have plenty of time to break them in. If you can, go to an established outdoor store, try on a couple of different pairs,  and don’t be afraid to go back if they’re causing you trouble. They don’t have to be expensive. Since the Camino is on relatively easy-going surface for the most part, you won’t need that high-end Mount Everest type of shoe. Personally, because of a weak ankle I prefer a boot, but plenty of people use walking shoes as well. Consider in-lay soles to cushion the impact on your knees and shins, as substantial parts of the Camino follow paved roads.

Poles/Sticks

People walk the Camino with no stick, one stick or a set of two hiking poles, and generally feel very strongly about their personal preference. The basic advantage is that using them takes weight off your legs; it can aid balance, and it prevents your hands from swelling as you keep them up by holding the stick. The disadvantage is that you always have a pair of sticks in your hands.  To me there are no real rules about this one, but you’ll probably have a preference for one or the other, so give them a go before setting out.

Enjoy the walk.

The Caribbean stretches out like a necklace from the coast of Venezuela in the South-East to the island of Cuba in the North-West. Almost all the islands are within sight of each other, which makes it easy to travel by boat, you would think, but unfortunately inter-island ferry connections are few and far between.

Martinique to St Lucia is one of the exceptions, though, and we made our way down to the docks to catch the fast ferry late in the afternoon. Fast ferries are the shipping equivalent of airplane travel. You have to arrive an hour or so early, get your baggage checked, and often you’ll have assigned seats and no way to even stand outside to enjoy the sea wind and splash of the waves. This one had a small deck at the back and after watching Fort-de-France disappear in the distance we went inside where ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ was playing on a TV. (It’s my favorite Matrix-movie, which probably requires another post to explain.)

Leaving Fort-de-France on the fast ferry.

We arrived in Castries, St Lucia, around 5.30 pm and were put in a long line to get through immigration. Travelling with an Indian passport always is adventurous in these kind of situations and this time was no different. Even though we had gone to the St Lucian consulate in Martinique and were told that Sujatha could get a visa on arrival, they had forgotten to mention one small detail. The ferry terminal doesn’t issue visas on arrival, period.

Apparently, only the airport immigration staff was in possesion of the required stamp, so the solution was for a driver to come pick us up at the ferry, drive us over to the airport, where we could get the thing done. After some lenghty discussions between immigration staff, we were told to have a seat by which time the entire ferry terminal was empty and all the security guys were just waiting for us to be picked up. They were pretty relaxed about it though. After another fifteen minutes, the driver still didn’t show, and they came up with a different solution. They would hold on to the passport and send it to the airport the next morning, where we could pick it up when leaving the island. As it was getting quite late by now, it had been an hour and a half since we arrived, we agreed, hoping that they couldn’t lose a passport in a country of only two hundred thousand people. Less people, less bureaucracy.

One of the security guys was friendly enough to hold back a taxi for us, and off we went into the St Lucian night. The thing to know about St Lucia is that it’s basically the top of a mountain range peaking out above the water. That means that the roads shoot up and down, curving through tropical forest and past chasms (which we couldn’t see in the dark), pretty much non-stop. A 26-mile ride takes about an hour. We made it to the Hummingbird Resort in Soufriere just in time to catch dinner service, and went to bed soon after.

View of that most perfectly triangular mountain. Petit Piton.

The next morning we woke up to a stunning sight. The resort, a collection of a dozen small bungalows and rooms, sat right on a sandy bay, and behind it rose the most perfect mountain you could imagine. Petit Piton. When you’re a child this is how you draw a mountain, a steep triangle rising sheer from the blue waters.

We ended up spending four days there. The resort was quiet and comfortable, it being the off-season, and the village had a few small restaurants and a great little coffee-shop overlooking the church square. Contrary to the Hummingbird, which sits at the edge of the village, most of the large resorts are hidden away on the beaches, valleys and hilltops of the surrounding area. The bulk of tourists that come here, only venture outside on organised tours, and it leaves the villages feeling a little dead. There’s pockets of wealth on the island, but it isn’t spread very well and local shops and restaurants don’t really benefit.

View from the pool at Hummingbird Resort, Soufriere.

The weather report in the Caribbean at this time of year always includes an update on any storms building over the Atlantic and on our second to last night in Soufriere a Tropical Storm watch was initiated. Ernesto, the first named storm of the season, was located some 900 kilometers to the south-east of St Lucia and moving towards the island at a rate of thirty kilometers an hour.

The next day fishermen started to secure their boats, but apart from that preparation was minimal, as the storm wasn’t seen to be strengthening significantly. Ernesto hit around six the next morning. We woke up to strong gusts of wind and sheet rain falling all around for the next hour or so. After that  the weather abated a little, but heavy showers fell every thirty minutes or so.

Ernesto rains down on the harbor in Castries, St Lucia.

We took a taxi back to the capital late in the morning. The roads were covered with fallen branches and we could see the occassional upturned tree on the hillsides. It took us about an hour again to get back to Castries, this time in full view of the chasms. The prime minister had shut down the country for the morning, which meant that all shops, the docks and airport were closed, and the empty streets had an eerie feeling.

At noon the all clear signal was given on TV, and we made our way to the airport to pick up Sujatha’s passport, which was lying already stamped at the immigration desk. The next morning, in between lashing rain, we went back to take a plane to St Vincent, as there is no ferry connection. Flight time, a massive eighteen minutes.

The Prime Minister and the Director of the Metereological Institute give the all clear.

I knew ahead of arriving that Martinique, a 128-square-kilometer island in the Lesser Antilles, would be quite French. It’s an official overseas department, it uses the Euro and its favorite sport is not cricket. Still, it’s a bit of a shock to see how French the island actually is.

The actual fort that Fort-de-France is named after. It’s still used by the French navy as a base today.

We arrived in Fort-de-France, the capital, named after the seventeenth-century fort that dominates the port and is still being used by the French navy, after a nine-hour flight from Paris. Driving downtown from the airport we passed a Carrefour, an Intersport, a Franprix and all the other retailers from the mainland. Not all that is French is popular, though. Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife, who was born on the island is widely blamed for prolonging slavery as a ways to keep the family plantation going. They beheaded her after the fact.

Beheaded statue of Josephine in the city’s main park.

The city itself has a nice little center of small shops, bars and restaurants along the waterfront, where the island ferries pick up and drop off passengers. There is a beautiful library, shipped over in pieces from the Paris Exhibition, and a impressive cathedral in the centre. We had breakfast in a small cafe where they served coffee and stale croissants. Most of the locals seemed to be eating large baguettes with ham, cheese, chicken and other fillings, leaving the pastries to wilt in the display.

Schoelcher Library. Taken apart and sent by ship from Paris to Martinique.

We spent a day in Fort-de-France, and then rented a car to see the rest of the island. The roads are very well maintained and in no time we reached the former capital of St Pierre, which was burried by the eruption of a nearby volcano in 1902. Ironically, the only person to survive it was a slave who had been put in solitary confinement in a very sturdy prison cell. He went on to tour with the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Ruins of the 700-seat theatre destroyed by the Mount Pelee eruption in 1902.

We then crossed the island, passing through rain forests to reach the Atlantic coast. Over the next few days we mostly relaxed, listening to the crash of the sea from the balcony of the small studio we rented, and visiting an old rum distillery and nearby plantation ruins. At night, the heat would dissipate a little, and a deafening chorus of chicadas, frogs and other insects would rise.

View on the Atlantic from our hotel on the Caravelle Peninsula.

As we drove back to the capital to catch our ferry to St Lucia, we passed a couple of old men standing by the beach in shorts, colorful shirts and flip-flops, playing a game of petanque. One of them had a fresh baguette under his arm as he looked on from beneath a palm tree.

It’s been a while since I last posted. Not because there wasn’t anything going on in my life. (I’ve traveled to the north-eastern states recently, so expect some posts on that briefly.) No, my blogging silence is due a new website I’ve been working on. I spent every waking, post-work, internet hour, polishing up the online presence for a little house I bought in France a few months back and I’m happy to say that it’s up and running.

Right now the site is only available in Dutch – you have to start somewhere after all – but you can still go and take a look at the pretty pics. It’s available for rent as of now :)

Will be back with some new posts soon…Maison Tara website

How can you go to Thailand and not immediately think of that song? I went to Bangkok last week and had those lyrics running through my head, at least the few lines I remember: One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble, and something with despair and ecstasy. It goes well with the madness of the place. I just wikipediad it and the lyrics are actually quite bizar. It’s from a concept album about two chess players and the sordid love triangle they end up in with their female manager. Who knew ?

I don’t see you guys rating
The kind of mate I’m contemplating
I’d let you watch, I would invite you
But the queens we use would not excite you

And no, there’s no double entendre there. But I digress. What I wanted to talk about is not the usual mix of backpackers, fried cockroaches and the way prostitutes work the clubs in packs, always a ‘brother’ present. Maybe I’ll get to that later. I wanted to say something about the wonderful world of Muay Thai or Thai Boxing.

Given the name it’s not surprising that it’s Thailand’s national sport. I saw some matches last Sunday and it’s a fascinating thing. First the fighters come out and perform various ritual prayers, greetings and signs of respect, bowing down deeply. Then they kick the shit out of each other. They do so for 5 rounds at the end of which it’s an utter mystery who won.

Points are awarded for correct and dominating Thai boxing style. I guessed the outcome wrong half the time. You’d think that the guy who was beaten to a bloody pulp for 15 minutes or so is the loser, but you could well be wrong. Points are awarded for defensive style too. It’s confusing. Watch the video below and it seems to be just as confusing to the participants. Can’t tell from their reactions who won.

“A teardrop on the face of eternity…”

From Taj Mahal

It really is that beautiful, the semi-translucent marble of the elegant arches and domes overlooking the river, and that oh so tragic story of its creation: A monument built by a heart-broken emperor for his deceased wife. That same emperor imprisoned by his son, the windows from his palace-cell framing the Taj Mahal in the distance his only reprieve for the eight long years until his death.

That is the first face, the public face, but just like some of the other newly elected wonders of the world, it’s not the only one. Like the Pyramids, which border Cairo’s sprawling suburbs, the Taj Mahal only is peaceful and quiet on its own. Walk five feet out of its entrance gates and you’re in the city of Agra, a dusty conglomeration of a million and a half. Congested, crowded and prone to occasional rioting.

In a way it reminds me of the city of Rome, that was so attractive to fin de siecle travelers. That ruined city where shepherds used the Coloseum as stables and merchants plied their trade from Constantine’s Arch. Myabe a hundred years from now Agra will be modernized, the hovels of Taj Ganj torn down, replaced by a glass-encased Visitor’s Center where tourists arriving on the Delhi bullet train will be whisked through an interactive exhibition on their way to the souvenir shop.

Guns only please…

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