Category Archives: Travel

Seminyak

We rented a driver to take us from Ubud to Seminyak, which was supposedly more of a beach resort kind of place. The drive took us through Kerobokan, a kind of overcrowded crossroads for the neighbouring cities, and then down into the snails-pace gridlock of cars and scooters that is Seminyak.

Our residence for the next few days is a couple of rooms off a walled courtyard tucked down a secluded alleyway off the main street. The bedrooms reeked of moth-balls, which was not surprising when we discovered that both en-suite bathroom floors were liberally scattered with the toxic chemical. We swept them out into a bin and blew a fan through to get rid of the head-thumping fumes, and then realised that the door of the bedroom that we had intended to give to Berrima opened out directly onto the sunken pool (and I mean directly, a single step would have you in the water), so we had to scratch the idea of a quiet night in a bed of our own.

The pool is only a step away from the bedroom

The pool itself is a bit of a curiosity. It would make an excellent and relaxing koi pond, perhaps the centrepiece of a miniature Balinese garden, but instead it is supposed to be a swimming pool a little over two metres long and far less than that across. It was at first hard to fathom who it might be intended for (apart from precocious 3-year olds), but on the other hand the house’s interior decoration of whisky adverts and old spirits bottles might suggest the life-style of the usual clientele.

The ‘full kitchen’, rather charmingly situated outdoors, consists of the tiniest microwave ever made, a stove top and a couple of battered pans, but certainly enough to make coffee in the morning, so we’re all set there. 

We headed up the lane to see the delights of Seminyak, passing between the friendly tat salesman and the shyly smiling young girl with the withered arm who was peddling vodka-bottles full of moped fuel at the entrance to the alley.

Wherever you go, fuel is always sold in vodka bottles.

Perhaps I was jaded by the Bali-Belly that I picked up in Ubud, but I found nothing at all to like about downtown Seminyak. It was just a row of tourist shops selling the same tat that they were selling in Ubud, and presumably for higher prices, because we had already driven past all the artisanal streets in Ubud where the stuff seems to be made. 

Feeling distinctly out of sorts, I had a lie down in the apartment, and my magical wife arranged for a scooter-borne Balinese masseuse to arrive on the doorstep. This is one tourist attraction that Bali does really well, and I felt much more cheerful afterward. 

On the next morning, we were up with the neighbour’s rooster, hence off to an early breakfast at a local eatery for a really quite lovely meal. The food is noticeably better in Seminyak than in Ubud. Over Balinese coffee, we planned a walking route down the high street, across to the famous Seminyak beach, along the strand to 66 Beach, returning back to the high street from the other end of town. 

Trying to locate the beach access track, we found ourselves in a hotel bar with no obvious route down to the sand. We initially sat at a sort of circular sun lounger, but were told that there was a minimum 1 million rupiah cover charge. This seemed over the top for a cup of coffee, so we moved to a smaller, less pretentious table. We waited for somebody to come and serve us but to no avail, so we got up and left and, having secured directions from one of the many security guards, found our way onto the sand.

This is supposed to be one of the main attractions of the town, and we had picked our second stay in Bali to give Berrima some beach time. However, when we arrived, the tide was in and both the surf and the “do not swim” flags were up.

The thin strip of gritty volcanic sand was packed with bar tables, sun loungers, umbrellas, and litter. Walking along the small strip of tide-wracked rubbish, the occasional wave washed up over our feet and then attempted to rip us out to sea into the crashing breakers.

All dressed up with no place to play

It really wasn’t very pleasant at all, and we were glad to find an alley between stacks of beer coolers which led back into town.

As travellers go, we can be pretty stubborn in our pursuit of the ‘real world’. Finally, though, we had to accept the obvious; that the whole island of Bali is given over to a particular kind of spend-by-day, party-by-night tourism, and that the tourist industry is the centre of the culture.

Admitting defeat, we spent our final day at the Waterbom fun park, riding the flumes. The experience was surprisingly inexpensive and very enjoyable for all. The queues were short, the rides fun for adults and children alike, the staff delightful, and the food excellent.

At the end of the day, tired and happy, we were attempting to negotiate a return fare with a taxi driver in the street outside. We had reached an impasse where our highest offer had been rebuffed, when a passer-by suddenly leaned in and said that he would take us for that price. He turned out to be a Waterbom employee on his way home, and in short order we found ourselves cocooned in his tricked-up hot-hatch with lurid orange leather trim and violet highlights. 

After a quick change of clothes, we went straight to the acclaimed tourist restaurant Jackson Lily’s for an incomparable steak dinner, easily the most enjoyable eating experience of the whole trip. If you can’t beat them, join them. 


Restaurants in Ubud

Although we enjoyed our cottage hotel in Ubud, with its idyllic setting and friendly staff, we were quite disappointed with the restaurant. Whatever we ordered, it was overcooked and flavourless, and after a while I realised that there was a correlation between eating at the restaurant and feeling ill for the rest of the day or night.

It wasn’t just the hotel restaurant; in general, we found the food in Ubud to be insipid and uninspired, which was curious considering that tourism is their only industry.

Suckling Pig

One of the local delicacies is suckling pig, which involves slow-roasting an unweaned piglet over a wood fire, a dish that we were really looking forward to. In the days before we became disenchanted with our hotel restaurant, we gave them the required 24 hours notice for preparation, and hurried back in the evening to enjoy the experience.

Unfortunately, it was very disappointing. We surmise that the 24 hour preparation time was for the chef to defrost the pre-cooked pig meat and then boil it to within an inch of its life. It was almost inedible, and came with a kind of warm floppy coleslaw. We didn’t even have the heart to insist that Berrima try it, as she pushed it around her plate and ate bread, rice and fruit instead.

Balinese Coffee

One of the other gustatory attractions of Bali is supposed to be its coffee; after all, it’s grown locally and ‘Civet cat poop’ is a big tourist draw. It was curious, then, that initially we struggled to get a decent cup. Eventually we came to realise that you can order ‘Balinese Coffee’ anywhere, even though it is rarely on the menu, which is made by simply pouring boiling water over very finely ground beans to produce a fine, strong-tasting brew. We were even happier when we found that the baristas at the local speciality coffee house The Black Eye, which does not offer Balinese Coffee on their menu, were more than happy to mill some of their espresso beans to the correct grind so that we could have a morning cup from the comfort of our four-poster bed.

Crispy Duck

One morning, after a couple of cups of Balinese Coffee over which we watched the staff collecting flowers for the hotel’s shrines, we got our driver to drop us off in downtown Ubud to see if we could find something decent to eat. He dropped us off at a place that he recommended, but it was really just an expat burger and pizza joint. After a short walk we found a more traditional restaurant, the Warung d’Ubud, that promised Balinese crispy duck and a variety of local soups.

Crispy duck at the Warung d'Ubud
And finally, something to write home about

It was all rather good, with a lovely selection of delicate flavours and some excellent crispy duck. In fact, we were so replete after lunch that we decided to draw a line under any further tourist activities, and spent the rest of the day lazing at the pool.

Curry at the Indus

After a cocktail at the hotel, we headed across the road to the pretty Indus Restaurant, where we ate an acceptable but bland meal of mixed curry dishes overlooking the rain-forest of Tjampuhan ridge, a steep ravine that leads down toward central Ubud. We suffered a bit from the ants and flies that swarmed over, under and on the table, and were somewhat surprised when the bill was about the same as for an equivalent meal in Australia. It’s supposed to be the second best restaurant in Ubud, but we didn’t go back.

Gluten-Free Schnitzels

One afternoon we found an unlicensed taxi-driver sitting in the street outside the hotel, who cheerfully accepted our offer of 50k rupiahs (about $5) to take us wherever we wanted to go. Our destination was the Gluten Free Kitchen, formerly known as the ‘House of Schnitzel’ and thus a perhaps unique blend of grain-free cuisine and Austrian (and Australian!) fast food.

When we got there, we found that there was no power to the street, so we could only pick items on the menu that were made without electricity. This became a bit of a game, but after a while we established that there was no coffee or smoothies, no pan-fried items such as meat and burgers, nor any boiled food such as vegetables. In fact the only appliance that was running was the gas-fired deep-fryer, so we had what turned out to be a rather nice lunch of pork and chicken schnitzels, accompanied by empanadas and onion rings.

Empanadas, onion rings and schnitzel at the Gluten Free Kitchen
Empanadas, onion rings and schnitzel at the Gluten Free Kitchen

Canting Bali Cooking Class

A few years ago, we’d greatly enjoyed a local cooking class in Penang, so we’d booked what we hoped would be a similarly enjoyable and illuminating Balinese cooking lesson.

A small group of us met up at the local market, where we were introduced to the raw ingredients that we were going to use. Then we moved to a paddy which was almost ready for harvest for a discussion about the life and times of rice workers, then on to the school where we joined up with about 30 people to prepare a feast.

Rice is almost ready to harvest in Ubud
The rice is almost ready to harvest

We had a fine time pounding spices, extracting coconut oil, and chopping (and chopping. and chopping) vegetables and roots, initially preparing a basic sauce and then expanding it into a number of different dishes.

We ground up tuna and barbecued it on skewers over coconut-shell charcoal, curried tempeh with vegetables, put together a soup of chicken and enormous oyster mushrooms, and steamed fish inside packets of banana-leaf. The resulting meal was very pleasant, and we were certainly all ready for it after a morning of preparation.

Salad

About half way through the holiday, my guts turned to water and I spent a considerable amount of time napping between doses of pills while the girls went swimming. At length, feeling a little better, I reckoned I could face dinner if it was going to be simple fare, and we planned to go into Ubud to find something special. However, we’d waited too late in the day and our little treasure grumpily insisted that she wanted to eat in the awful hotel restaurant, largely I suspect because she enjoyed feeding the fish in the Balinese garden.

Enjoying the traditional Balinese Garden at the hotel
Enjoying the traditional Balinese Garden at the hotel

But if I just chose a salad, how bad could it be?  The headline green salad was off today (which should have rung alarm bells!), so I ordered the ‘grilled vegetable salad’ instead.

There are no other words; it was truly disgusting. As far as I could tell, the chef had taken a jar of pickled vegetables, poured it into a saucepan, and boiled it until soggy. I gave up and went to bed, and suffered the most horrible symptoms and fevers, over which I shall draw a respectful veil.

Still weak the next morning, I had a bit of a lie-in, and then we all trundled out of the door and a few buildings down the road to the Elephant Restaurant where I nearly cried with pleasure over a perfect green salad, with a root juice on the side, on a peaceful veranda overlooking the Tjampuhan ridge.

Afterward we sat over perfect Balinese coffee, watching squirrels climbing inside the tree-top mango fruit and nibbling out the soft centres, and wished that we had discovered this gem a little sooner.

Mason Elephant Park

The idea of an Elephant Sanctuary on Bali is a bit odd on the face of it, because they have no elephants there. However, you can do pretty much anything you like if you are a foreigner with money, so a local businessman set about “rescuing” work elephants from Sumatra and setting them to work pleasing the tourists in Ubud. We went to visit them at the Mason Elephant Park.

The elephants – over fifty of them – seemed happy enough with the deal, and some of them were breeding with the ornery old bull that they kept chained up in a corner of the large and very pleasant grounds.

General view of Mason Elephant Park, from the coffee shop.
Mason’s sanctuary doesn’t seem a bad place for an elephant to retire to.

Bronwyn and I have ridden and swum with elephants before (most notably in India), but this was a first for our little daughter so we purchased the “wash, feed and ride” option.

We gave our elephant a good hose-down and scrub, which she endured stoically until I found a nice bit to brush behind her ears.

Bronwyn and Berrima hose down an elephant
A bit wet behind the ears

The family pose with an elephant
Family pose

At the feeding station, you can purchase baskets of cut fruit for a line-up of ever-interested animals. The large ones were a bit daunting for children, so Berrima got to feed a baby elephant.

Feeding the elephant
Time for a snack

Then it was time to saddle up for a ride. Bronwyn and Berrima went on one elephant, and I went on a much larger one. Ensconced on a hard wooden howdah only thinly disguised by blankets, we ambled slowly around the extensive grounds, pausing to look (at eye level!) at coconuts and jack fruit hanging from the trees.

The ride of an elephant is not jarring but there is a fair amount of side-to-side sway. Occasionally both mahouts would stop for a photo opportunity, posing each animal in the obligatory tourist pose that we have seen the world over, with the trunk curled and raised.

The riding elephant poses for a picture
Smile for the camera!

Bronwyn and Berrima going for a wade with the elephant
Amphibious vehicle

At the end of the ride, we found ourselves by the rather thick green waters of the bathing pool. We have swum with elephants before, and knew to some extent what to expect, so we had declined that particular package. However, we stopped to watch a number of brave souls get submerged on top of their elephant.

Tourist going for an elephant dunk
The elephant goes for a dip, with passenger on board. Note that the mahout is staying as dry as he can.

The elephant-poo collector
What she didn’t see… this is the man with the full-time job of catching the poo in the bathing pool

Ubud

We landed at Denpasar airport with the intention of spending a few days in Ubud on the Indonesian island of Bali. After an easy and friendly Customs clearance, we emerged into the main building, an interesting construction of what appear to be modern glass-and-metal tubes running through the decoratively carved red stone gates and walls of an old temple, although in fact the entire structure was recently built as a whole, due to a local bylaw that states that all buildings must have at least some elements of traditional architecture.

Fusion architecture at Denpasar airport
Fusion architecture at Denpasar airport

Our driver arrived and loaded us into his car. The capital city around the airport is scattered with extremely impressive and flamboyant sculptures of heroic scenes from Hindu mythology, sometimes the size of buildings.    The traffic reminded us of downtown Kuala Lumpur, if not India, with families of three and four on little scooters passing us on either side, the ladies often riding side-saddle.

As we reached the outskirts of Ubud, we started to see mopeds carrying entire pop-up food stalls, and in one memorable case, the pillion was steadfastly carrying at full vertical arm’s length not one, but two intact car windscreens.

Out here, there appeared to be at least one temple every few hundred metres, all intricately carved towers and gates. It wasn’t until much later that we realised that these were not temples but regular houses, because every house has at least one “home shrine”, and it is not unusual to have many more.

A Hindu home shrine near Ubud
A home shrine (or two) in the garden

The roadside was packed with artisans, not only a bewildering number of stone-masons who seemed largely to have the same repertoire of metre-high Hindu gods, but also quarry stonemasons with enormous piles of hand-cut volcanic rock, and wood merchants with sections of hard-wood tree wider than the spread of your arms.

Woodworker teaching his son in Ubud
Passing on the family business

Our hotel comprises a number of thatched chalets scattered amongst rice paddies, coconut palms, and endless statues and flowering trees. It was very picturesque. Our chalet boasted a family-size kidney-shaped stone tub, and an enormous solid wood four-poster bed with thick cotton mosquito-netting.

Our little house at Ananda Cottages, Ubud
Our little house at Ananda Cottages, Ubud

The staff were very friendly, very relaxed, yet very focussed on making the place look beautiful. Hinduism is the major religion here, and so there is a continual whirl of colour as small baskets of flowers and food are placed thrice daily before each of the ubiquitous shrines, and every day new flowers are tucked into crevices on the myriad stone statues.

Every morning, we were woken to the sound of sweeping, as the staff combed the site for fallen frangipani and other tree flowers, gathering them for use during the day.

Collecting fallen flowers to decorate Hindu shrines and statues yin Ubud.
The morning flower collection
Tropical carpenter bee Xylocopa latipes
Flowers being visited by a tropical carpenter bee, one of the largest bees in the world.

We had hired a driver for the week, Komang from Abracadabra Tours. He had planned a thorough itinerary from which we cherry-picked the more toddler-friendly options.

One day, he took us to see the volcano. This was not Mt Agung, which is famously still erupting and out-gassing, but Mt Batur which hasn’t done anything much since the sixties, although it is still classed as active. We understand that the trek to the top to see the sunrise is a popular pastime, and in the past we would have done that ourselves, but on this occasion we took the child-friendly option and planned to view the peak and the caldera from a ridge-top restaurant.

From the moment that we left Ubud, the road climbed steadily. It was a striking drive, because the flags were still flying from the recent Independence Day celebrations.

The road up from Ubud took us from the sea-level rice-paddies and banana palms, to the higher altitude orange plantations. We stopped at a roadside shack to buy some small sweet tangerines, and also a handful of hard-skinned purple fruit that we ate by sucking out the pith, not completely unlike a pomegranate in flavour.  Possibly they were a kind of passion fruit, but nobody we asked seemed to know what they were called. One great hit, though, was the snake fruit, so-called because of its scaly skin, which had lovely firm white flesh reminiscent of a lychee.

We were glad that we’d stopped at the roadside vendor to enjoy the fruit, because when we got to the viewpoint (roadside entry fee applies), there was only a dodgy buffet to eat in the supposed restaurant, on wobbly chairs overlooking a cloud-shrouded peak in the far distance.

The volcano Mt Batur
The volcano Mount Batur, from the “restaurant” lookout.

Somewhat underwhelmed both intellectually and gustatorily, we drove back down the mountain to visit another tourist destination, the Kellalalang terraced rice-paddy fields, which seemed like an odd idea because we’d been driving through and walking around terraced paddy fields for the whole day.

Nevertheless, it was one of the region’s attractions, so we drove up to the village (an inevitable roadside entry fee applied) and entered the village. It consisted of a single road lined with wall-to-wall retail outlets all selling exactly the same tat, looking down on what obviously used to be rice paddies but were now an exceedingly well-worn set of concrete steps interspersed with over-priced cafes, children selling postcards, and what seemed to be a recent craze of rope swings slung between palm trees. We handed over our ‘donation’ and clambered down the track, past more child card-sellers and photo-opportunity “rice farmers”, and then, confronted by another donation booth, clambered back up to the retail outlets.

Tegallalang Rice Terraces
Tegallalang Rice Terraces

We’d arranged to meet Komang at the driver’s car park a little out of town, and when we arrived we were confronted with a large government sign which warned against the locals soliciting donations, and strongly recommended not descending into the paddies as it “destroyed the unique heritage site”. It would have been nice to have known that ahead of time.

Donation for trekking and taking photos at Tegallalang Rice Terraces
Another donation booth

One morning, we booked ‘breakfast with the orang-utans’ at Bali zoo. On our arrival, we were ushered into an outdoor area filled with trestle tables, with a couple of ropes looped overhead for a young orang-utan, and a couple of elephants leaning in over a low fence.

Breakfast with the Orang-Utan
Breakfast with the Orang-Utan

It was quite fun. As well as the usual buffet food, there were short-order chefs sorting out omelettes and so on, and the opportunity to get up from the table and hang out with the orang-utan, elephants, parrots, and even a somewhat nervous pangolin.

Breakfast with the elephant
Breakfast with the elephant

Later we toured the zoo itself, which tended heavily to Sumatran and Benghal  Tigers, and a wide selection of gibbons. It was quite pretty and the animals seemed in good shape. One nice touch was that all the enclosures were decorated with rock-carvings and the ubiquitous pillar shrines of the rice paddies.

Tiger and small girl
Breakfast with the human


One great aspect of Bali was the ready availability of seriously good massage. Wherever we went, there was always somebody who could come to your room, or drive you to their spa, and then for a handful of notes subject you to a wonderful 90 minutes of pounding and squeezing.

Another facet of the culture is that if you have a car, then you are a driver for hire. Haggling with an official taxi driver outside a water-park one day, we were interrupted by a worker at the park who was going home in his tangerine-and-purple hot-hatch, and offered to drop us off at our hotel for whatever price we cared to pay.

There was no benefit in taking a “proper” taxi anyway. On another day, it started to rain while we were in downtown Ubud. Suddenly all the previously ubiquitous kerbside taxi-touts dissolved out of sight, but we stopped a passing official cab. Once we’d agreed on a price, the driver set off firmly in the wrong direction. It turned out that not only did he not know our hotel, but he didn’t even know the road it was on (ie the main street past Ubud museum), and in any case he didn’t seem to know which way his taxi was pointing.

He had two GPS units but one wasn’t working, and he didn’t seem to be able to use the other one. Finally Bronwyn fired up her own GPS and gave him directions, but at every turn he shook his head and demurred “one way” although it clearly wasn’t, until he smiled in shocked amazement when we popped out on the main street, facing in the correct direction.


Where are the latest updates?

From the timeline of this blog, you might be forgiven for thinking that nothing has changed here for quite a while. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Since we have temporarily stopped travelling until our daughter is slightly older, I have been filling in some of the gaps on this blog with older tales that I had not previously published. However, I back-date the blogs to the date they actually happened, so they don’t appear at the top of the list like a regular blog would.

This is what I have been working on recently:

Europe by train

 

New Life, New Crew

The voyages of our previous boat, Pindimara, were at least partly a test to see if this was a lifestyle that we might want to embrace later in life. Regular readers of this blog will know that we found that it agreed with us rather well, and even though the practicalities of our post-cruise finances meant that we had to temporarily return to the corporate world, we began to plan ahead for our permanent retirement from the rat race.

It took a few years to arrange affairs to our satisfaction, and family matters meant that we were constrained to stay for a while in the UK. However, we finally quit our jobs in the city, and slowly segued into a different pace of life. Bronwyn started a new degree course which should enable her to find outdoor maritime work as we cruise, and I began a local gardening company which brings in just enough cash for us to eat and to pay the marina fees, while getting me fit and out into the sunshine. At the same time, our daughter Berrima was born, and for a while we dropped out of public ken, overwintering on Elizabeth and concentrating on bringing up a child and building the new business.

 

The commodore surveys us from the companionway

The commodore surveys us from the companionway

Both our daughter and our business are now nearly five months old. One is starting to show intelligent interest in the world, and the other has for the first time turned a profit. I finally took a day off to do nothing but lounge on deck and play with Berrima, and finally felt the muse take me to update our blog.

We have been understandably busy and haven’t really spent much time working on the boat, but on the other hand we are taking a long view. We can’t set sail for good until Bronwyn finishes her degree, and in any case we want Berrima to be old enough to be comfortable on her sea-legs. This gives us a three-year window to get everything ready, and then the plan is to spend a year or two cruising around the Mediterranean, cross over to the Caribbean, and then finally cross the pond to Australia.

Almost a year after we bought her, this month was the first time that I actually skippered Elizabeth

Almost a year after we bought her, this month was the first time that I actually skippered Elizabeth

In the meantime, one of the downsides of living with a pre-toddler is that despite our best intentions, the interior of our yacht resembles an embarrassingly un-seamanlike cross between a caravan and a laundry. On the few occasions that visitors have prompted us to take the time to go for a sail, it took a full morning to prepare the boat for sea (i.e. to shove half the stuff into lockers, and to hide the other half ashore) and even then we were essentially sailing single-handed as Bronwyn needs all her faculties to concentrate on feeding our ever-hungry passenger. This has tested the limits of our adaptability and we have temporarily declared the boat a visitor-free zone until our new crew-member is able to cope a little more independently.

Bath time on Elizabeth

Bath time on Elizabeth

Beaches and Plumbers

Our furniture is still in a bonded warehouse just down the street, Despite the fact that they’ve had the inventory for months, Customs keep coming up with new and interesting reasons to delay signing off the paperwork. The most recent one required a description of the precise chemical composition of the insulation foam in the freezer (how would we ever know that?), and a signed letter stating that we wanted our domestic freezer for, er, domestic use. In the meantime, we are camping in the apartment in sleeping bags with one plate, two mugs and a coffee machine.

Christmas is round the corner, and so it doesn’t look like they’re going to deliver our stuff before we leave at the end of the year. This is quite frustrating as it means that we’re going to have to fly back here in the new year, but as a Brazilian lady said to us in the hardware store the other day, the only way to deal with South America is to stay tranquillo.

We stopped worrying about it and took a two-hour bus ride to the resort town of Punta Del Este. Unfortunately an enormous storm rolled in and battered the town with 40-knot winds, so we didn’t get to spend much time on the beach, but we amused ourselves by trying out different restaurants and bars and thoroughly enjoying the experience of a room with real furniture.

Bronwyn rediscovers the wonders of bedroom furniture

Bronwyn rediscovers the wonders of bedroom furniture

Unemployed foreign gentleman of no fixed abode

Unemployed foreign gentleman of no fixed abode

El Mano de Punta Del Este, in strong wind

“El Mano de Punta Del Este”, in a gale

Bronwyn is surprised by a cold foot bath

Bronwyn is surprised by a cold foot bath

Eventually we dragged ourselves away and back home to Montevideo. The search continues for a carpenter to help fix our weathered windows and to install some shelves and cupboards. Carpenters are mysteriously hard to track down, and although we did finally get one to come to the house, in the end he decided that he didn’t want to do the job. Today we had a visit from a second carpenter, a friend of the electrician who helped install the air conditioning. Hopefully he’ll come back to us with a proper quote.

Plumbers are much more relaxed than carpenters. The gas and central heating specialist turned up today and moved a radiator for us, because it had originally been installed smack in the middle of the bedroom wall, right where we wanted to put the bed. While he was bleeding the radiators, he checked the whole system and also decommissioned our old electric boiler, and all for just a handful of dollars.

We were just about to catch the bus into town, and Bronwyn had popped up onto the terraza to hang a towel on the washing line. A sanitation engineer hailed her from the neighbour’s roof. It turns out that each apartment has a grease trap under the sink, and once a month somebody is supposed to come round to clean it out. I doubt that ours has been done for years, as it smells pretty bad, particularly since we’ve dismantled all the kitchen units and exposed the drain cover.

Under the big round lid is a big smelly basin full of old grease

This big round lid (previously underneath the kitchen sink), hides a big smelly basin full of old grease

It didn’t take the engineer long to vacuum and deodorise our grease trap, and lift and clean all the drain covers. Since he had been engaged to stay on site all day, and since we were practically the only people home on this working weekday, he was going to have to hang out on the stairs on the off-chance that somebody else came home. Instead he went round our whole apartment, turning on taps and flushing toilets and making sure that all the drainage pipes ran smoothly, removing several years worth of hair in the process. He tut-tutted at the slow drainage in the upstairs sink, disassembled the pedestal, removed a good handful of old builder’s putty, and then reassembled it all with fresh sealant. Since he’d accidentally spilled about a teaspoon of water onto our already filthy tiles (we’re currently cleaning all our tools in there), he took it upon himself to scrub the floor, toilet, bidet and basin sparkly clean, and then repeated the process in the downstairs bathroom. Amazing.

Renovation Time

After five years of long-term tenants, we finally got to stay in our now unfurnished apartment in Uruguay for the first time. We arrived equipped with decorating tools and building supplies, because we intend to redecorate and move in our own furniture and offer the apartment for fully-furnished short-term lets when we’re not here, giving us the opportunity to use it ourselves once a year or so. The furniture is currently snarled up in red tape at Customs, so it is lucky that we also brought camping gear.

We were pretty glad that we came prepared to do some work. Although we easily fell in love with our apartment all over again, the previous tenant had left under a bit of a cloud, and it soon emerged that our previous letting agent has utterly failed to do any proper maintenance over the preceding years. The paint is peeling from the windows, there’s no cold water supply upstairs (including to the toilet) and no hot water supply downstairs. The chimney has obviously never been swept, the shower trays are leaking, and the very expensive US$1500 painters engaged by our agent had simply splattered white paint everywhere, including over the woodwork, radiators and electrics.

The paintwork needs attention

The window frames desperately need attention

The stove is warped and sooty

The stove is warped, partially dismantled, and sooty

The tenant left us his curtains. Thanks.

The last tenant left us his curtains. Thanks, mate.

Might need to tidy this up a bit

Might need to tidy this up a bit

In theory I suppose we could go back and argue with our previous agent, but we’d much rather just draw a line under the experience, roll our sleeves up, and get on with a renovation.

Some information has been lost during the shuffle between tenants. For instance, we were a bit puzzled about why we had been left with both a gas boiler and an electric boiler, apparently simultaneously making hot water in the same system. We brought in a gas engineer who established that the gas boiler was all that we needed, so we disconnected the electric one. A friendly plumber soon discovered that our tenant had randomly turned off and disconnected some of the pipework, which was another easy fix, and while he was there he replaced our leaky toilet cisterns.

While a couple of the light fittings have been upgraded by tenants, most of them are still the temporary single-bulb mountings put in by the original builders, so after five years it’s really time to sort that out. Shopping for lights is no hardship here. Montevideo glories in lighting shops; there are hundreds of them in our area alone, often side-by-side. It is a mystery to us how they all co-exist, but it certainly provides for a lot of choice.

Let's paint the mezzanine. You can also see the original light fittings.

Let’s paint the mezzanine. You can also see some of the original “temporary” light fittings.

A typical Montevideo light shop

A typical Montevideo light shop

There's always time for a snack while shopping

There’s always time for a snack while shopping

One of our tenants had fitted some kitchen units, which were fine in themselves but had been arranged in a curious way so that it is impossible to fit standard-sized appliances. We talked through a few options, and then simply ripped the whole thing out.

There goes the kitchen. It's restaurants from now until Christmas.

There goes the kitchen. It’s restaurants from now until Christmas.

In the new year, kitchen fitters will install something a bit more impressive to our own design. One bonus of removing the old kitchen is that we ended up with two rather expensive pieces of granite, complete with double sinks and plumbing, which we are planning to install on the rooftop terraza.

These sinks will go nicely on the roof

These sinks will go nicely on the roof

New light fittings, much more classy

New light fittings, much more classy

Summer is in full swing, the temperature is climbing into the thirties, so we ordered an air-conditioner. A couple of lively lads came to install it, which was a lot of work that took all day, but it works wonderfully and will be a good selling point when we rent.

We had the air-conditioning fan installed in the light-well of the building. The trouble with looking out over a shared light-well is that your lounge and bedroom look directly into your neighbours’. Many locals get around this by installing wooden panels over their windows, or keeping the curtains permanently closed (as in the photo below left), but we had thought of a sexier solution and had (not without some difficulty) imported some rolls of plastic film from England, which we used to make our windows translucent. It worked out rather well, giving us privacy while letting through the sunlight.

The air conditioning guy has a fun job

The air conditioning guy hanging out in the light well

Through a glass, obscurely

Through a glass, obscurely

And finally, we have always thought that our 4.75 metre ceiling deserved a chandelier, so after a lot of entertaining window-shopping and many changes of plan, we finally had one installed. We think it looks rather nice.

Luckily we found a brave soul with a tall ladder

Luckily we found a brave soul with a tall ladder

Because every man needs a chandelier

Because every man needs a chandelier

The Box Embargo

We were late for the airport, thanks to an idiot pre-booked taxi driver who hadn’t bothered to research his pick-up address. However, we weren’t too concerned because we’d already checked in online and just had to drop off our luggage.

We’d deliberately flown American Airlines because their allowance is two 32kg pieces each, and we had a lot of tools and decorating equipment to take with us to Uruguay, including a roll of specialised frosting film that we intended to use on our windows. At first, the check-in ladies reckoned that we could only take a single piece each, but that misunderstanding was swiftly cleared up because Bronwyn knows her small print. Then, just as our luggage stickers were being printed, the lady said “Isn’t there a box embargo on this flight?”

We were beginning to suspect  a conspiracy. The US government had already done its level best to prevent us from paying for our container shipment (see previous blog), and now they were randomly instituting a rule against our box of window film.

This “embargo” wasn’t mentioned anywhere even in the very small print of our tickets, which we had read very thoroughly because our box was only one centimetre short of the maximum length for American Airlines luggage. We encouraged the flight staff to check in more detail. Eventually it emerged that while there was indeed a “box embargo” on American Airlines flights out of our stopover destination Miami, the rule did not apply to flights into Miami. Our bemused but helpful assistant agreed to check in our box for the first leg, as long as we promised to repack the box into a bag in Miami, as apparently this would satisfy the regulations.

We had a pleasant flight, and no trouble with Miami Customs, especially as we got to bypass the enormous queues of US citizens’ waiting to use their “streamlined” automated gates. Instead we ambled up to the “foreigners” exit where a cheerful young man stamped us through without any delay. Our box was even waiting for us on the baggage carousel.

There was a dicey moment at the airport Left Luggage office when the rude attendant demanded to see our boarding card before he accepted our luggage. Who keeps their boarding card after getting on a long-haul flight? Luckily Bronwyn found hers screwed up amongst the empty food wrappers in her bag. We dropped our other three bags of tools and made our way to the Miami metro system with two small carry-on bags and a one-and-a-half metre box over my shoulder.

We found ourselves unable to decipher the metro map, but were helped by a friendly transit cop who showed us where we needed to go. He then accompanied us to the ticket machine, which didn’t accept notes larger than $20, something of a problem because all of our currency was in a paper bag full of hundreds (see previous blog). The machine supposedly accepted credit cards, but not without a numeric US ZIP code, so we couldn’t get it to accept our foreign cards. The nice guard spent a lot of time trying to find a US postal code that would work with our cards, or to get it to accept a truncated foreign post code, but in the end he reasoned that if the system was too stupid to let us buy a ticket then we might as well ride for free, and waved us through the barrier.

Much of Miami seems to be under construction

Much of Miami seems to be under construction

Out with the old

Out with the old

Little boxes

In with the little boxes

Miami streets from the elevated train

Miami streets from the elevated train

The box arrives in Miami

The box arrives in Miami

After delivering the box to our hotel room, we took a long bus ride to the waterfront and enjoyed a stroll, a paddle and a nap on Miami Beach.

Catching some rays on Miami Beach

Catching some rays on Miami Beach

We had pre-booked a late dinner at the excellent River Oyster Bar, reasoning that if we ate really late after lying in the sunshine we would reset our body clocks. The food and the ambience were wonderful, and we whiled away the hours over salt-encrusted bronzino, grilled mahi-mahi and excellent local wines, before returning to the hotel and sinking into a deep and satisfying sleep.

On Sunday we woke with a whole day to tackle the problem of finding a bag for our oversize box. The tourist shops only held expensive regular-sized rolling luggage, but while exploring some of the poorer Spanish-speaking quarters of the city, we eventually came across a little shop that carried simple nylon bags. The helpful lady located her largest bag, technically 50 inches, for just 20 dollars.

With that job out of the way, we returned to the River Oyster Bar for a happy-hour feast of oysters, locally caught cobia, and wine.

Lots and lots of oysters

Lots and lots of oysters

We headed back to the hotel, and found that even though the roll would probably almost fit inside, there was no way of getting it through the mouth of the bag. We knew from our original architectural plans that our film was oversized for the windows that we were going to fit it to, so we borrowed a pair of scissors from the bemused receptionist and shortened the roll until it fit.

Finally we grabbed a taxi to the airport, had no trouble checking in our box-in-a-bag, and enjoyed a relatively comfortable red-eye flight to Montevideo.

On our arrival in Uruguay, we quickly made our way through Customs and down to the baggage hall. We found our new bag patiently circling on the carousel, and to our complete lack of surprise, noted that it was sitting amidst a plethora of cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes. “Box embargo”, indeed.

 

A Container Full of Dollars

We were shipping a container full of furniture from the UK to Uruguay, without any clear idea of the import charges that would be levied at the other end. The wheels of South American bureaucracy grind but slowly, so although we had already forwarded a full inventory of our intended shipment complete with individual photos and descriptions of every item, the deadline for our own flight to Montevideo was looming and so we just had to let the container go, otherwise there would be no chance of it being there when we arrived.

Fast-forward to several weeks later, and we finally heard back from Uruguayan Customs when our container was already steaming past Brazil and just days from docking in Montevideo. At this point, of course, they could have imposed their 60% tax on whatever valuation they chose and we’d just have had to pay it, so we were pleasantly surprised when they gave us a figure which, although still in the thousands of dollars, was about 25% less than our own valuation.

We took a deep breath and set out to pay the bill. International bank transfers into Uruguay are problematic at the best of times. Uruguay’s banking laws are very strict and secrecy is paramount; for instance our simple monthly statement cannot be trusted to the postal system and must be couriered to us once a month. Since the peso, although currently well-behaved, has a slightly dicey past, most medium to large transactions are denominated in American dollars. Unfortunately Uruguay’s privacy laws offend US authorities, so getting any money through the international banking system is always interesting.

We had previously paid our Uruguayan shipping agent via Western Union, which had gone reasonably smoothly after we had supplied sufficient documentary evidence to prove that we weren’t international terrorists. Sadly, the US had changed the rules overnight, and our attempt at sending the balance of our account was refused. We were informed that we had infringed some international terrorism criterion somewhere, but were not permitted to know which one, so there was no way that we could fix it. To add insult to injury, having rejected our transfer, Western Union now get to keep our money for several weeks, presumably so that Homeland Security can wipe their bottoms with it or something.

Luckily we still have enough remaining funds to cover the bill, so we’re going to put used hundred-dollar bills in a paper bag and take them overseas in our underpants. It’s perfectly legal, but isn’t it the kind of thing that American money-laundering regulations were put in place to prevent in the first place?

What the heck, we have a plane to catch.

Zipping up Elizabeth for winter

Zipping up Elizabeth for winter

Goodbye to our cottage in Wales

Goodbye to our cottage in Wales