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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Globe-trotting furniture

Our apartment in Montevideo sits empty. We don’t mind that it isn’t generating income, but we do worry that nobody is collecting the mail, cleaning the windows, or paying the bills. To address the problem, we contacted Reynolds, one of the agents that we used when we were originally house-hunting, because we know that they manage short-term lets for tourists and business people. One thing swiftly led to another, and they agreed to take over the maintenance of the flat while we were away.

The idea now is to rent the apartment fully furnished to short-term visitors, giving us the opportunity to use it for ourselves whenever we are in Uruguay. Since the previous tenant took everything with him, the property is completely empty of fixtures, so we decided to fly over this coming December to decorate and to furnish. Bettina, our contact at Reynolds, warned us that it would cost about US$10,000 to furnish an apartment of that size, and that the workmanship was liable to be far inferior to what we were used to. Her advice was to import the furniture from abroad, and just accept the massive 60% import tax that would be levied by Uruguayan Customs. The price would end up about the same, but the fittings would be far superior.

This set us thinking. During a lifetime of travelling, we have acquired a lot of stuff. Flitting as we do from job to job and city to city, we are always moving into new houses. Unfortunately there is rarely time to move the existing furniture from our previous residence to our new one, because usually at the end of a contract we throw our locally acquired junk into some local storage and go travelling. When news of a new contract comes in, we’re usually far away from our furniture and in order to make an immediate start, we have to set up a new place from scratch. We are pretty good now at completely furnishing a new property within a day or so of arrival.

Moving house again!
Moving house again. I can’t even remember where this was.

We had thus accumulated a succession of storage units, each containing a full household’s worth of stuff. In addition, when we sold our yacht Pindimara, we filled yet another storage unit with five years’ worth of liveaboard and cruising gear.

Over the past couple of years, we have been slowly consolidating all our stored items into a facility in Canberra, Australia. Once we were pretty sure that we had everything in one place, we had the whole lot shipped here to the UK, where we happen to be working.

When the container arrived last month, we had no real idea what was in it. Certainly there would be a number of tables and chairs, some washing machines, a handful of fridges and freezers, and boxes and boxes of books. That much we knew. But there was another 10 cubic metres of mystery, stuff that we’d forgotten about, stuff that we thought we’d destroyed, stuff that we thought we’d lost, even some boxes that had been travelling around unopened for over fifteen years. It was time to have a shakedown.

We were renting a three-bedroom cottage in South Wales, and spent a lot of time shuttling van-loads of boxes back and forth between our large lounge and our storage unit. Whenever we had some spare time, we would open a box or two and itemise its contents. Some of the boxes were beautifully packed but contained nothing of any use. Others were a jumble of really expensive and useful stuff obviously thrown in at the last minute. We assembled a collection of over a dozen travel adaptors, innumerable bottles of skin and suntan lotion, and piles of crockery and cutlery.

We've probably got any power question covered
We’ve probably got any power question covered

We were glad to discover that the few remaining bottles of wine from our wedding (gifts from our friends) arrived intact, along with a surprise half-empty bottle of rare whisky and, mysteriously, tucked here and there amongst towels and sheets, a handful of small bottles of cider. Since these latter have no value at all, we could only assume that we couldn’t bear throwing them out at the time and had quietly tucked them away for later, not realising that they would not be unpacked again for years.

Slowly we separated our stash into three piles, representing the three forks of our future plans. One huge pile contained all the stuff that we needed to move onto our new yacht, Elizabeth. One small pile contained sentimental stuff that we couldn’t bear to part with, and which one day would find its way all the way back to Australia and into our building project in Tasmania. And finally, a much larger pile comprised of furniture and fittings which we wanted to ship to our apartment in Uruguay.

On the face of it, it may seem insane to ship several apartments’ worth of furniture from Australia to Britain, and then to ship a large proportion of it on to South America. However, if you factor in the savings of closing all those storage spaces and the time and flights that would have been necessary to sort things out ourselves, and also the fact that we already own all this stuff and so don’t need to purchase it again, it was much easier to pay somebody to load everything into a shipping container and then deal with it here. It’s also surprisingly difficult to freight things directly from eastern Australia to Uruguay, because most of the shipping is travelling in the opposite direction.

There is a great deal of paperwork involved in importing goods into Uruguay. Just for starters, every individual item needs to be photographed and valued, and that valuation must be agreed by Uruguayan Customs, who will then levy 60% import duty against it. Because we envisage that any problems will occur at the Montevideo end, we chose to arrange the freight using a Uruguayan shipping agent, rather than a UK one. This has the advantage that they know how the import duty system works, but the disadvantage that the UK packers and movers are contracting for a foreign company, and calmly inflate their prices to suit.

In order to minimise our costs, we chose to pack our goods ourselves. Generally this just meant unpacking everything, photographing it, and then shoving it back into boxes (and after our clear-out we had plenty of boxes!), but for a few of the larger items, we had to construct crates from rough timber. Luckily there happened to be a power outlet in our storage, presumably for the cleaners, so we’d sneak in at night with a power saw, and then try to sweep up all the sawdust before anybody noticed.

After a good many sweaty nights in the storage, and quite a bit of rethinking and repackaging, we were all finished and ready for the removal men. The next day, the storage facility was hit by lightning, which didn’t damage our goods but took out the freight elevator, leaving us with the prospect of carrying twenty square metres of gear down a small metal staircase. By the time the truck arrived, we had established that the hydraulics were fine, it was just the safety interlock that was broken, and the owners had the good grace to allow us to use it even though the safety doors weren’t functioning. In a world gone mad with health and safety, thank goodness for some common sense.

We heard today that our container has been loaded on board a vessel. Our stuff is en route… but we still haven’t heard whether Montevideo Customs have agreed with our valuation. Still, there’s nothing we can do about it now. Forward to Montevideo!

The Tenant Departs

For a number of years now, we have been renting out our apartment in Montevideo. Once the building was complete and we realised that we were going to have to go and earn a crust somewhere else for a few years, we had a choice of either short-term letting to tourists (for US dollars), or long-term letting to locals (for Uruguayan pesos). Having very little wish to earn dollars, and with a vague feeling that we should be giving something back to the community, we engaged a local rental agent to find us a local tenant.

Uruguayan tenancy law is interesting. Before moving in, the tenant needs to provide an initial deposit to cover six months of rent. Since most people don’t have this kind of cash, they typically achieve this by using the title deeds of their parents’ house as collateral. On the flip side, the contract is unbreakable and the landlord is obliged by law to extend any year’s tenancy for a second year on request, and almost certainly for a third year, provided that the rent has been paid.

One of our early discoveries was that the concept of ‘being up to date with rent’ is marvellously flexible. It’s perfectly normal for the tenant to be months behind, or to make a part payment because they happen to be short of cash. We had one tenant who continued to pay back-rent long after he moved out.

Another aspect of tenancy is that you really do rent just the walls. A tenant will typically bring all their own furniture, white goods, light fittings, and even (and especially) their own hot-water boiler. The tenant can thus choose whether they want to use gas or electricity to heat their water.

Here are some agency pictures of our apartment, taken during an inspection.

The place looks quite different when furnished
The rear lounge, adjoining the kitchen
Bedroom area on the mezzanine
Bedroom area on the mezzanine, looking toward the lounge, with stairs up to the rooftop terrazza

In general, we have had a positive experience of long-term renting to local people. However, our relationship with our latest tenant, and with our agent, has become rather disgruntled of late. Out of the blue, the agent reported that the tenant was upset because the gas company wouldn’t turn on the gas supply due to a fault. This came as something of a surprise to us, because although we do have a gas supply, neither he nor any of the previous tenants had shown any interest in using gas, so it had never been connected and we’d never known that there was a problem.

It took a little while to organise a repair because the fault was located inside a neighbour’s apartment, and we had to knock down part of their wall to fix it. In the meantime, our tenant started withholding rent to compensate his loss, even though he hadn’t been using the gas supply at all throughout his tenancy. He then started angling for a decrease in rent. Instead of fighting in our corner, our agent began backing off from the whole affair and wouldn’t deal with either the tenant or us.

We did a deal with one tenant to fit kitchen cupboards
Note the new gas cooker in the corner, which appears to be working.

To cut a long story short, we got fed up with the whole thing, but we were far from the action and the agent was not providing us with any support. Then suddenly the tenant announced that he wanted to break the contract from his side. Officially he should have bought his way out of the contract, but we jumped at the chance and told him we’d call it quits if he cleared out, while simultaneously informing our spineless agent that we didn’t require his services any longer, and we were going to leave the apartment empty.

The upside is that finally, after five years, we now have the opportunity to use the property ourselves. Even though we have visited Montevideo on several occasions, we haven’t been able to spend even a single night in our own apartment, and we’re really looking forward to it. But first, there’s the little matter of redecorating and refurnishing…

Overwrought over ironwork

Although there seems to be little obvious crime in Montevideo, it is noticeable that many ground-floor windows are protected by wrought iron grilles. We had always assumed that this was a throwback to the bad old days, but when our rental agent asked for a cage over the glass hallway to the rooftop garden, we were happy to oblige because although it is our own private terrazza, it is at least theoretically accessible from neighbouring rooftops.

Iron cage and door protecting the access to our rooftop terrazza
Simple wrought iron grille and door protecting the access to our rooftop terrazza

We were a little surprised when, a couple of years later, a tenant asked for a grille to be put over the lounge window. Bear in mind that this window is indoors, looking out over the building’s main marble stairway. The panes are tall and slender, an attractive feature of the stairwell, and the first thing that a visitor to any of the apartments sees when they enter from the street.

The tenant sent us a photo of the sort of thing he was expecting, even worse than our rooftop bars, like the security on a basement window, a thickly barred affair reminiscent of a Dickensian workhouse.

The subsequent conversation got quite heated. It was his contention that it was his right to demand that the landlord turn his home into a fortress on request, and that he intended to withhold rent until it was done. I was equally adamant that I had chosen the apartment for its Italian colonial styling and the last thing that I was going to do was turn it into a prison, particularly since he had presumably chosen to rent it for exactly the same reason.

If we had been on site or in the same time zone, the situation may well have been resolved amicably, but the increasingly acerbic conversation was filtered by email through the weak translation skills of our increasingly ineffectual agent, who in the end gave up and just forwarded our emails back and forth in whatever language they happened to be written.

Getting rid of a tenant in Uruguay is practically impossible. Officially they must pay their rent or get evicted, but in reality this is more of a promise that one day, the rent might be paid, eventually, if things go the tenant’s way, and until then it seems that they can just sit and argue and make small token payments until the situation is resolved to their satisfaction. Even in the normal run of things, when there were no arguments and everybody was happy, it was perfectly normal for our tenants to be months behind in their rent, which the agent regarded as nothing to be concerned about.

Something had to give, and it seemed that both the tenant and the agent thought that we were being unreasonable in quibbling about paying for pointless structural alterations to our property. Thankfully we had already had experience with the iron-workers who had built the rooftop cage, who had done quite a large job at reasonable cost. We sent them a series of photos of nice ironwork that we’d found on the internet, and asked if they could make something more in keeping with the style of our property.

Luckily they were able to oblige, and if we have to have a grille at the front of our apartment, then at least this one is pleasant to the eye.

Finishing touches in Montevideo

We’ve just had some pictures through from our agent of our property in Montevideo. It’s almost complete. The builders have put in the stairwell, the carpenters have sanded and finished the wooden floors, and the heating engineers have put in the cast-iron wood-burner. The carpenter has also added a few kitchen cabinets, but generally when Uruguayans move into an apartment, they bring everything with them, not only appliances but even the boiler.

Staircase and woodstove, looking toward the kitchen (right) and balcony (left)
View from the lounge of the staircase and wood stove, looking toward the kitchen (right) and balcony (left).

Apart from the upstairs bathroom and the stairway to the roof, the mezzanine level is completely empty. On the original plans, there were two bedrooms and a small hallway here. We asked the architect to skip all the internal walls and just leave the mezzanine open-plan. He looked worried. “But,” he argued, “you’ve paid for a two-bedroom house, and you’ll only have a one-bedroom house. And Uruguayans don’t want their bedrooms to be so big!”
After we pointed out that we didn’t care about either of those arguments, a big grin spread over his face, and he agreed that it would look much, much better the way that we wanted it.

The mezzanine level
The mezzanine level

The roof-top terrazza is almost finished, it just needs some cleaning up and some plants and furniture to make it liveable.

propiedades7_5705
The rooftop terrazza. Stairway to mezzanine to the right. Parilla on the left.

Although this was never intended to be an investment property, we do recognise that it will be some years before we are in a position to move in, and we don’t want to leave it empty. The apartment is (sadly) almost ready to rent.

Montevideo revisited

One of the most relaxing ways of getting from Buenos Aires to Montevideo is to take the three-hour forty-knot Buquebus across the muddy brown waters of the Rio Plate. Naturally one travels First Class, because it’s only marginally more expensive than Tourist, and you get a comfortable lounge and free champagne.

As our high-speed jet boat motored in through the breakwater of Montevideo docks, a bulk carrier was being pushed gently into position by a couple of powerful tug boats, and I noticed that construction of the promised new freight terminal was well under way.

A bulk carrier arrives in Montevideo port
A bulk carrier arrives in Montevideo port

It looked to me as if the new terminal would at least double the capacity of the loading dock, and in addition there were no less than two cruise liners in attendance. This pleased me greatly, because one of the reasons that I like the choice of Uruguay as our future home is that I predict a big expansion in its container industry as the world moves away from air freight, and the country´s commodities market expands.

Sintonia Revisited

We were here to check up on our building project, a small penthouse in a renovated colonial building, which we were in the middle of purchasing.

Our apartment in Montevideo is a renovation project run by a small local building company Viva Tu Casa which specialises in taking old colonial-era buildings, removing all the original mouldings and woodwork, constructing a new building behind the original facade, and then re-incorporating the original materials into the new fabric. We had been impressed by some of their previous work, and had put down a 50% deposit on the largest or penthouse unit of the project of around ten apartments that is known as “Sintonia”. This lies on one of the main thoroughfares through the Parque Rodo district of Montevideo, which we reckoned was a good bet as it is still a bit run down, but sits on the edge of the more prestigious (locals would say “stuck up”) areas such as Pocitos.

In fact, on our arrival we noted many new building projects in the neighbourhood, all similar restoration projects because the city council has forbidden any changes to the character of the area. They don’t want a repeat of the high-rise transformation of Pocitos.

The last time we’d seen Sintonia, it was a hive of construction activity (all labour here is manual, with little or no help from power tools) but lacked a roof and much of the internal structure. We had seen some pictures from a few months ago, when the various floors had been finished but it was still a little hard to see what was going on, but now on our third visit the apartment is almost complete.

We climbed the marble stairs in the Italian-tiled entrance hall, lit by an enormous glass-and-wrought-iron skylight, to our four-metre high front doors.

200903Uruguay60
Sintonia main stairwell from our front door

This took us to our marble-tiled ground level, with ample living space, more skylights, a “social toilet” and a small kitchen and balcony. Still under construction was the open wooden staircase that will lead up to the bedroom and main bathroom, and on up to the rooftop terraza.

200903Uruguay126
This will be our rooftop terrazza

In the original design, the second floor of this apartment was to be split into two small bedrooms with a hallway to the bathroom, but we had arranged with the architect to leave the whole thing open-plan, and we were very pleased with the result.

On the roof, amongst a forest of chimneys and glass skylights, we found our parilla (the wood-fired barbecue without which no Uruguayan house is complete), our gas water heater, cold water tank, and lots of space to lounge about in the sun.

Rooftop parilla
Rooftop parilla, with steps up from the apartment on the left

There remained very little for us to do. The builders were leaving the wooden floor and staircase sanded but unlacquered so that we could choose our own finish, and so we organised a quotation from a floor-polisher who happened to be standing nearby. Saul, the owner of Viva Tu Casa, drove us around to a couple of dealers and we chose a wood-fired heating stove for the lounge. We just need for the builders to finish the stairs, complete work on the lounge window, install the electrical fittings and clean up. A couple of the smaller apartments are already complete, so we got to meet one of our new neighbours, and got a sneak preview of the finished product, with which we were duly impressed.

The sad part, of course, is that we won’t actually be able to move in when it’s finished. Not only is it time to get back to the yacht and start our sailing trip, but we don’t know what the future holds, and so somewhat regretfully we have arranged for the apartment to be rented out for the next couple of years until we have a better idea of what we are going to do next. This might cramp our options a little (Uruguay is a very cheap place to live if we run into financial problems), but we really didn’t want to leave the apartment empty for what could be a span of years, and in our newly unemployed state it’s likely that we will value the rental income.

Buenos Aires

We are in the middle of buying a renovated apartment in Uruguay, and the word came through just as we were to set sail that the work has been finished and the second half of the payment was now due. We rarely need any excuse to visit Montevideo, so we popped over for a week to check it out.

You can’t fly direct from Australia to Montevideo, but Qantas have recently made it a little easier by flying direct from Sydney to neighbouring Buenos Aires; as well as bypassing the traditional stopover in Auckland, it means that we can avoid flying the execrable Aerolineas Argentinas, which is always a good thing.

The plane was overbooked, and Bronwyn ended up in a luxurious Premium seat whereas I got squashed into the back of the plane in Tourist class, but luckily I was flanked by some similarly skinny guys none of whom showed any interest in telling me their life stories, so we all had a reasonably painless trip.

Buenos Aires
People keep telling me how BA is wonderful and exciting, but I’ve never seen what all the fuss was about. Since we were flying Quantas, we did manage to avoid the awful Aerolineas terminal, and since we had decided to take the ferry to Montevideo rather than the plane, we also skipped the painful cross-city transit to the domestic airport, with its attendant shouting at corrupt taxi drivers and endless baksheesh and idiot taxes.

Instead, following local advice (thanks, Patricia) we booked a bus ticket with the Manuel Tiende Leon bus company, generally accepted as the only reputable organisation to operate out of BA airport, and were painlessly deposited at their depot close to the ferry terminal.

The period of calm allowed me to get a good close look at the city that we were driving through, and everything that I saw simply confirmed my earlier impressions: the city consists mainly of crumbling and stained concrete slums, a vista of washing lines strung across dirty rooftops, buildings festooned with wiring reminiscent of Shanghai, and every available space densely packed with what seem to be military early warning aerials.

Classic buildings sticking up through the modernity

The view from the bus on an overpass

I’m sure that there must be a nice side to the city, but I haven´t seen it yet. Maybe when we live in Uruguay we’ll pop over like everybody else for our evening’s entertainment in the big city, but in the meantime I think that we’ll just keep on passing through…

Building in Montevideo

So we’re back from house-hunting in Montevideo, after an interesting flight back to Australia on the always entertaining Aerolineas Argentinas. I always think it’s nice when an airline’s computer system doesn’t recognise one’s visa, and when an aircraft’s electrical systems kick in and out without warning in flight; it gives the journey that extra frisson of excitement.

Before leaving, we did indeed decide on a property. We chose a renovation project in Parque Rodo, sort of a penthouse with rooftop terrace made from the remnants of an old colonial house. The details are now in the hands of the lawyers. Mind you, we haven’t heard anything from them for a while… but hey, that’s Montevideo. Its so very, very relaxed, which is probably why we enjoy it so much.

The architect has sent us some pictures from our Montevideo property using his phone camera. We now have a flat roof, which will form the floor of the rooftop terrace above. In the picture below you can see the kitchen (far back on the right) and the beginnings of the upper floor bedroom above it. Ultimately the bedroom floor will extend towards us as far as the steel cross-beam. The cameraman is standing in the double-height main living area; behind him will be full-height windows looking out into a wrought iron light well over an Italian tiled staircase.

Work in progress
Work in progress

The wooden barricade at the far back on the left indicates the start of our smaller ground-floor terrace, which looks out into another, outside light well. Right now, were trying to get the gas company to fit gas pipes to the kitchen and lounge.

House-hunting in Montevideo

We have decided to buy some property in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo. For weeks we have been scouring the internet for likely-looking properties, and by the time we boarded a plane, we had already booked a full agenda of houses to look at. For the first week of our trip, we stayed in and around the old town, mainly the barrios Ciudad Vieja, Centro and Barrio Sur, while taking a little time out every morning to study Spanish at the excellent a Academia Uruguay.

Montevideo traffic

There is a fascinating array of vehicles in town, a little reminiscent of Cuba. There are tax complications with importing foreign vehicles, so there aren’t that many of them around and those that are, tend to be kept running long after you would think that they should have fallen apart. There are rusty old fifties Chevrolets held together with string, rubbing shoulders with seventies Fords that are mainly patchwork and spray-on undercoat.

Wreck or runabout?
Wreck or runabout?
Chevrolet
Chevrolet

Large cars are rare. Taxis are usually very very small indeed; picture a Fiat Uno taxi, or a VW Polo. They are made even more cramped inside by the installation of an enormous safety barrier behind the front seats, so that there is barely room for passengers to squeeze inside, particularly for Bronwyn and I who seem to be a head taller than anybody else.

Stretch limo
Stretch limo

Mixing in with the cars, buses and motorcycles are a lot of horse-drawn carts. These are all owned by a group of gypsies encamped on the outskirts of town, who have the council contract to clear all the rubbish. Each family seems to specialise in a certain product, so you’ll find a cart parked up next to a skip while the gypsies rummage around for prize pieces. Cardboard and plastic seem particularly popular. When we asked the locals about this, they all shrugged and said “it’s a tradition, and the council can’t change it”.

Any old bags?
Any old bags?

Everybody describes parking as a big problem, but with few vehicles on the roads and what seemed to be a plethora of pay parking sites, it was hard to see what the fuss was about. A parking space underneath your building can often be purchased outright for a few hundred dollars. We would be much more inclined to buy a motorcycle in any case. In marked contrast to the ratty and unpredictable cars, all the motorcycles are new, clean and shiny, and we soon realised that this was because they are locally made; Yumba and Winner seem to be the two most common marques.

Bronwyn shops for motorcycles
Bronwyn shops for motorcycles

Ciudad Vieja

The old town has been in decline dating back to the political problems in the eighties and compounded by the fallout from the collapse of the Argentinian peso. Apart from those buildings occupied by a few prestigious banks and lawyers, most of the fine old colonial buildings are falling into disrepair. The locals describe the streets there at night as ‘dangerous’, although we didn’t think that there was anything particularly alarming about them, certainly no more than in any other civilised city centre.

Montevideo police on patrol
Friendly Montevideo police on patrol

The one part of Ciudad Vieja that is still alive and well is the Mercado del Puerto (Port Market), an entire building given over to the cooking and eating of enormous pieces of meat. They are crazy about meat here. Seared on the outside, soft and tender in the middle, and cooked over a wood fire. You can tell when it’s dinner time, because the town is filled with the sweet scent of wood smoke as all the parrillas light up. To go with it, the Uruguayans have come up with their own wine varietal, known as Tannat, which is somewhat related to a good black Tuscan Chianti. I have decided that this is probably my favourite red wine in the whole world.

Parilla at the Mercado del Puerto
Parilla at the Mercado del Puerto
Parilla Chef
Parilla Chef

Over the last few years, speculators and architects have been slowly moving in to the old town, and one or two of the more spectacular buildings, such as the landmark Palacio Salvo, have been renovated.

Palacio Salvo
Palacio Salvo

Much of the rest of these barrios are still derelict.

Neglected buildings near the docks
Neglected buildings near the docks

Although there didn’t seem to be anything actually for sale in Ciudad Vieja itself, we did look looked at a number of quite stunning buildings in neighbouring barrios, structurally sound and packed with beautiful woodwork, mouldings, stained glass, enormous ceilings, fine wood tiled floors and marbled staircases, all overlain by a fairly thick veneer of dirt and neglect.

Skylight
Skylight

Priced at $60-70,000 (US), any of them would make a great restoration project and a fine residence. If your plan was to re-sell for a profit, though, you would probably need to sit on it for another five or ten or twenty years until the neighbourhood recovers. This is not our plan, as we’re looking for somewhere which ultimately would be our home. The Ciudad Vieja neighbourhood itself contains very little in the way of shops and cafes, but if we did end up living there, then it is an easy walk to neighbouring Centro for supplies.

Centro and Barrio Sur

While Ciudad Vieja has been effectively abandoned, the almost equally old barrio known as Centro is thriving. Here you find the hotels and the shoe shops and the restaurants that you would expect to find in a capital city. The neighbouring Barrio Sur is similar but more residential.

One of Montevideo's few genuinely ugly buildings, which borders the central square. Artegas on his horse quite sensibly looks the other way.
One of Montevideo’s few genuinely ugly buildings, which borders the central square. Artegas on his horse quite sensibly looks the other way.

Where they are being used for commercial purposes, many of the old colonial buildings are in good repair, although the residential buildings are more patchy. In fact, in recent years the architects have been moving in in force, and quite a few of the streets are largely colonial facade, with new building work going on behind.

We visited a couple of similar sites close by in Parque Rodo, and were very impressed by the attention to detail. Behind the preserved facade, the builders had carefully stripped out all the nice pieces of stone, tile, glass and woodwork from the condemned buildings, for incorporation into the new structure. No tower cranes or power tools here; these craftsmen build everything by hand. Certainly the architects are proud of their work and, when they are finished, usually mount a signature plaque or carving on the outside wall by the entrance.

Men at work
Men at work

Here as in Ciudad Vieja there are a fair few homeless people and street urchins. Some earn tips by signalling drivers in and out of tight parking spaces, and occasionally one might come up to you and beg if you hang around in one place for long, but even so they are as friendly and polite as everybody else in Montevideo. It is rare to see beggars pestering customers of terrace cafes, for instance, and the locals seem to view them with kindness. More than once we noticed that somebody might hand out a few coins to a beggar “because he has a nice smile”.

We did hear the occasional hearsay tale of robbers on crack cocaine, but we never saw any evidence of it ourselves. The only drugs on the street seem to be cigarettes, mainly smoked by women, and of course the ubiquitous mate.

Eating and Drinking

An inseparable part of Montevideo urban life, mate is a kind of tea made from an infusion of green herbs. It is drunk from a special cup with a special metal straw, and about half of the Montevideans that we have seen, from the oldest businessman on his way to work, to the sweetheart couple strolling La Rambla, to the fisherman on the pier, to the young girl sitting on the street doorstep, all carry a cup of mate and a thermos flask of hot water to top it up with. Mate is a social experience, meant to be shared around the group.

We’ve been staying at a few hotels in a few different areas, just to get a feel for the different areas, but by far our favourite is the London Palace. One of its trademarks is its breakfast buffet, a fantastic array of small nibbles, mainly constructed from the same basic ingredients of sweet pastry, ham, and cheese, but all different in taste and texture. In addition there are breads and fruits, baked apple, rice pudding, and of course the national indulgence dulce de leche, which is a thick brown cream made by partially burning sugar with milk. It is indeed a glorious confection, and is taken in cakes, ice creams, biscuits, on toast, or just out of a bowl with a spoon.

Breakfast at the London Palace Hotel
Breakfast at the London Palace Hotel
The dark brown stuff is dulce de leche
The dark brown stuff is dulce de leche

In between looking at properties, we did of course take time out to walk La Rambla, the walkway that runs all the way along the Montevideo seafront.

La Rambla
La Rambla

We also dined out in a number of fine parilladas and other restaurants, and snacked in fast-food joints which all sell enormous bottles of local beer and the delicacy known as chevito. This is a huge stack of chips, vegetables, fried eggs, bacon, olives and anything else that the chef can think of, stacked on, under and around a large steak. Fantastic!

Chivito
Chevito

And in between bouts of gluttony, we continued to look for houses.

Dog Sledding in British Columbia

Glenn and I decided to try our hand at dog sledding. An old school bus drove us up Cougar Mountain to a dirt track, where an even older bus with snow chains was waiting to take us up the final ascent. It wasn’t an easy journey, with the bus crashing into enormous potholes and fishtailing up through the snow, but eventually we arrived at our destination, a hut in the side of a bulldozed snow-bank, where we were greeted by some cute puppies.

Glenn and a puppy
Glenn and a puppy

Down here in the relative warmth of BC, pure huskies are too furry to use, because they overheat if they try to run in anything over -20C. Here huskies had been crossed with greyhounds and other small dogs to make a small, short-coated animal more suited to the local climate. We were introduced to the sled teams, all lying around tied to chains in the snow, looking disconsolate and bored.

Our safety briefing could really be condensed into one rule: never get out of the right side of the sled, because that’s where the brake is, and the brake is simply an enormous steel claw embedded in the snow which might possibly pop out and gore you when you weren’t looking.

Glenn and I attached harnesses to a couple of the dogs, who took it meekly and without much interest. Then I climbed onto the sled to act as ballast while Glenn stretched the trace out taughtly in front, ready for the mushers to clip on the dog harnesses.

All hell broke loose! Suddenly the dogs realised that they were going out to run, and went absolutely crazy with joy. Still attached to their chains, they barked wildly and jumped up and down on the spot or ran around in tight circles. The few dogs that had been released fom their chains dragged their hapless handlers this way and that, until they were picked up bodily and carried to the traces. The world was a kaleidoscope of whirling snow, frothing teeth, and excited barking. It was impossible not to get caught up in the sheer abandoned joy of it, and all of us were grinning madly and laughing, even while frantically trying to retain control of ecstatic dogs and preventing them from tangling everything up in their leads.

The dogs start to get excited
The dogs start to get excited

Finally, somehow, six dogs were attached to each trace, and the four sled teams were ready to move out. Glenn clambered in to the sled in front of me, our handler climbed up behind, and with a cry of “Go dogs, go!” we were off.

Go dogs, go!

It was tremendous fun. The sled was a fabric tube slung inside a fibreglass frame, and, seated at ground level with only our heads sticking up in the open, we could feel the ground bumping along beneath our backsides. The dogs kicked up quite a spray as they went, scampering excitedly with the sled bumping along behind, and then one would suddenly stop to have a pee and they would all tumble to a halt in a big pile of kicking legs and tangled traces before sorting themselves out to carry on.

The dogs ran along a prepared trail up the mountain, sometimes silently but occasionally snapping and barking. On one occasion, the sled in front ran into difficulties; it seemed that none of their dogs wanted to lead. The mushers decided to take one dog out of our team and swap it for one of theirs. This entailed stopping both sleds and then ensuring that our own did not run away while the other one was being sorted out. I spent an entertaining ten minutes hanging on the back of the sled with one foot on the claw brake and the other on the snow hook, a small anchor, trying to stop them both from being tugged out of the ground by the wrestling and tangled dogs in front.

When we moved off again, I stayed on the back of the sled with the musher. I was shown how to stand penguin-footed, with my forward foot along the axis (narrowly missing the downward-pointing teeth of the brake) and the other slanted across one of the runners. It was a comfortable and solid stance. Whenever we got to a hill, the lead dog looked back expectantly and we got off and pushed, running alongside in the deep snow.

The team head for the hills
The team head for the hills

The trail wound up through snow-capped forest, past ice-powdered lakes and alongside frozen streams, the trees parting occasionally to give glimpses of white, sun-dazzled mountains. With the dogs pulling hard, the only sound was the hiss of the rails on the hard-packed snow. The crisp clean air smelled of fresh mountain pine, overlain occasionally by the strong whiff of dog.

Go dogs, go!
Go dogs, go!

We pose by the sled
We pose by the sled

On the way back down the mountain and close to home, the sled in front started slowing down, and we pulled out to overtake. Everything went well until we were running side by side, at which point the dogs could no longer contain their excitement and crossed over to the other team to say hello. It all got a bit complicated and we had to hit the brakes before everything got too tangled. Perhaps were not ready to compete in the Iditarod sled race just yet.

Who? Us?
Who? Us?

Snow Shoes in Whistler

Our friend Glenn had taken over as head chef at the Brewhouse in Whistler, and so – given that it was also the middle of the skiing season – it seemed like an excellent excuse to go and visit.

Glenn was working when we arrived, but introduced us to Dave the brewmaster, who took some time out to give us the tour of the brewery. However, when he realised that we enjoy quality beer as much as he does, he sat down with us as we sampled his creations, including a sneak preview of his upcoming and excellent 10% barley wine, until finally he had to call it a night and go to bed.

We stayed on, though; both Bronwyn and myself had fallen in love with his excellent premium lager, Lifty, and besides, we had worked up an appetite. We were shown to a table on the mezzanine level, with views down into the kitchen where we could see Glenn and his staff hard at work.

Its a big restaurant, and very busy, but the action in the kitchen was a dream of smoothly choreographed cooperation. It was a real pleasure to see the maestro at work, and especially interesting to watch our plates make their orderly way along the line – first an enormous stack of chicken breasts, then a pile of beef ribs, some vegetables – until Glenn added a few last artistic touches and sent it on its way up to our table.

We attacked it with gusto, washed down with the last of our Lifty and then some fine wine, before staggering satiated and happy out of the door. Thanks, Glenn.

Snow Shoes
I had never been snow-shoeing before, so Bronwyn and I hired a couple of pairs to hike the trails around Lost Lake. I was very interested to see how they worked, and in the event they were deceptively simple. The lightweight aluminium frame clamped easily to my ordinary walking boot, providing me not only with a large surface area to walk on, but also four sets of crampon teeth. It took me a moment or two to get used to the rolling gait engendered by my newly acquired extra-wide feet, but after that I discovered that I was invincible; I could walk over anything!

Have snow shoes, will travel
Have snow shoes, will travel

Although the trail itself had been groomed by the tracks of snowmobiles and the snow shoes and skis of previous users, the surrounding forest was waist-deep in soft powder, and I took every opportunity to head off the path and bound about on top of the drifts. It was like four-wheel drive for feet.

I'm coming!
I’m coming!

We had started our trip in a gentle drizzle, but as we climbed higher up the mountain, the rain turned to snow. Before long we were gliding completely alone through a winter wonderland of fresh powder and frosted trees. The only sound was the soft crunch as our snow shoes dug in.

The white stuff
The white stuff

We had left the main ski trail and were hiking on a narrow winding path amongst the pine, cypress and birch. On the occasional down-slope, we sat down and slid on our backsides, laughing like kids. We were twelve again, and the whole mountain was our playground.

Seven league boots
Seven league boots

Give way to bears
Give way to bears

Eventually we came out on the frozen shores of Lost Lake, where a log cabin welcomed us with a merry gas fire as we stripped off our ski gear and unpacked our bread and cheese onto a convenient wooden table. Since it was Valentines Day, we opened a half-bottle of wine, and sat and marvelled about how perfectly wonderful it all was. Apart from one passing ranger, there was still nobody there but us and the lake and the silent forest.

Note to self. Must go snow-shoeing again.

Manhattan

It was snowing in North America, and we had heard that US airports were closing all down the Eastern seaboard. Standing in the terminal at Ottawa airport, I watched with interest as a small jet spooled up and began to taxi through deep snow, closely followed by a pair of snowploughs which were in turn being trailed by a private light plane, all on their way to the runway. Clearly, the Canadians weren’t bothered by the conditions.

On our way to the departure gate, I was amused to see that the Canadian bookshops had wheeled out prominent trolleys of US-critical books; the works of Noam Chomsky, various titles incorporating the word “Empire”, and one memorably entitled “100 Ways America is Screwing Up the World”. I don’t know if the stallholders were making a point, or if those titles aren’t readily available in the US, but for whatever reason, they were doing brisk business with passing travellers.

Toronto in the snow
Toronto in the snow

Once in New York, we couldn’t be bothered to worry about taxis and public transport, so we did the obvious thing and hired a limo to take us through to our hotel, which was in Manhattan, just off Times Square. As a first-time visitor, I found the journey strange, like driving through a movie set: The straight canyon-like roads, the big blocky department stores, and the exotically corniced apartment buildings. I kept expecting to see gun-waving movie stars tumbling off the fire escapes.

The standard of driving was awful. Cars criss-crossing all over the place, pedestrians dodging between the hurtling vehicles. Our own driver slalomed around a man tottering through three lanes of traffic on a walking frame and then, having successfully negotiated that hazard, slammed on the brakes as he was cut up by a taxi with JESUS SAVES in the window. “Won’t save him,” chuckled our driver, as he pushed the pedal back to the metal and gave chase. We arrived alive and in good time, checked in to our hotel, and went for a walk to see what all the fuss was about.

Times Square
Times Square

My first impression of Times Square was that it was very tall. My second was that, thanks to the festoons of hi-tech advertisements, it was very bright; certainly brighter than Picadilly Circus in London, and in downright gaudiness it outshone even the Bund in Shanghai. Down at street level, though, I was surprised by how calm everybody was. In London, people would be scurrying along, head down, shouldering aside any fool foreigner with the temerity to hesitate or to pause. Here, groups of people stood around chatting on street corners despite the cold winter wind that cut through the spaces between the buildings. There was plenty of time to take in the views, to stop and to backtrack, even to pause and to take photographs: just so long as you stayed on the pavement (“sidewalk”) and didn’t step into the road (“pavement”). The traffic was still crazy.

In counterpoint to the calm of the civilian New Yorkers, the high-profile security was grim. Quite apart from the officers directing traffic, there were police and police cars stationed at almost every intersection, and immense armoured buses labelled “Command Center” hogged the sidewalks. At one point, a column of (I kid you not) twenty police cars wailed and flashed their way nose-to tail down the centre of the street for no obvious reason. I could only wonder at what possible crisis could have engendered that kind of fire power. Had aliens landed in Central Park? Or had some fool Englishman been spotted jay-walking?

I did notice, though, that although we tourists gawped at the police cars, the locals ignored them completely. Likewise, nobody else seemed to be aware that every shop had its own retinue of uniformed thugs on the door, and in one small shoe shop I counted five security guards. In a shoe shop! I found all this security to be very uncomfortable, and thus had the perfect excuse to loiter on a bench in the street while the girls did their shopping.

Billed as the largest department store in the world, Macy’s attracted Bronwyn and Michelle like moths to a flame. It was indeed very, very big. We made our way to the shoe section, and as I stepped off the escalator, I reeled in shock as shoe racks dwindled to infinity before me. Bronwyn and Michelle dived into the fray, and I sighed and pulled out a magazine and found an armchair. This was going to be a long one.

Some hours later, Michelle approached a Nigerian lady who was on her knees stacking shoe boxes. “May I look at those?” she asked. “No, those are mine!” said the lady, who then proceeded to load some thirty different pairs onto the checkout desk for purchase.

I was surprised at the rudeness of the staff, who seemed much more interested in chatting to each other than actually serving anyone. I overheard one customer ask an assistant about trainers. The worker plucked a boot from a nearby shelf and brandished it. “I do boots. Not snow boots, not trainers, but boots. B, O, O, T, S. Boots!” The customer backed away and, I hope, tried another shop.

The girls have been shoe shopping
The girls have been shoe shopping

Trump Towers
Trump Towers

When travelling alone by plane or by bus, anywhere in the world, it often seems to be my lot to end up sat next to a lady of a certain age from New York. Seconds into the journey, she will inevitably attempt to grill me in a very loud voice on all aspects of my private life. Undeterred by my monosyllabic responses, she will then launch into a long and tedious explanation of the shortcomings of her current or previous partners, followed by a detailed explanation of her own medical problems, and topped by an excruciatingly detailed critique of the shortcomings of everything and everybody around her. The dullness of the narrative will only be exceeded by the volume at which the monologue is conducted.

I had hitherto assumed that this was a peculiarity of The New Yorker Abroad, and that in their home territory they would be as urbane as sophisticated as the next person. I was fascinated, then, to find myself seated in the coffee lounge (actually a Starbucks) in Macy’s, completely surrounded by tables packed with exactly the same ladies all jabbering away at full bore. In moments I had inadvertently learned more about the medical, social, and sexual habits of the nearest half-dozen people than I would have believed possible.

Some minor spillage had occurred on the floor behind me. A couple of male janitors turned up to deal with it, and then, instead of moving on, they rested on their mops and began to congratulate each other in stentorian tones on their delight and happiness with having secured employment at the biggest department store in the world. It was time to move on.

It was time, in fact, to experience the Perfect Martini at a bar in Times Square, where Debra our barmaid let on that she was only doing bar work until she got her big chance on Broadway. We wondered how many of the beautiful people that served us in bars and cafes were waiting for the same thing. On Broadway itself, we booked dinner at Sardis, a restaurant which has been awarded a Tony in recognition of its services to the arts. After a fine meal, we ambled next door to see A Chorus Line, a very entertaining show during which the actors kept us on our toes with their seventeen intertwining musical plots.

Later that night, our taxi was stopped by a police line close to the hotel, and had to make a detour. Further around the block we could see a flurry of police cars and lots of shouting people, some of whom were apparently being removed from a club and efficiently bundled into official vehicles. We gathered from the driver’s attitude that this was a normal evening’s work. Later that night, back in the hotel room, I was awoken by more sirens, and more shouting in the street outside. I ignored it and went back to sleep.

Central Park
Central Park

You must remember that, until now, my entire experience of Manhattan had come from Hollywood films. I therefore pictured Central Park as a perpetually darkened forest populated with bloodthirsty aliens, predatory junkies, and roving gangs of youths with baseball bats. I was somewhat surprised, then, to find myself strolling through a pleasant and airy park with quaint little bridges and areas of freshly reseeded lawn.

It was winter, so the trees were bare, and where here and there bedrock projected from the soil, we could climb up and admire the New York skyline all around. A homeless guy came up and sold us a map, and following its directions we made our way past the Trump outdoor icerink, and on to The Tavern On The Green. The Tavern is an amazing confection of ornate windows, pastel-painted plaster, coloured glass and chandeliers, where we breakfasted extravagantly on Veuve Clicquot, lobster bisque, and seared sea-bass. The staff were polite and professional, and there was not a bouncer in sight. Wonderful.

Outside the restaurant, we came across some horse-drawn carriages, so we took a $40 trip around the corner. It was still freezing cold, but they gave us a nice warm blanket to snuggle under.

Our carriage awaits, outside the Tavern on the Green
Our carriage awaits, outside the Tavern on the Green

Fifth Avenue, where we disembarked, was spectacular, lots of Gotham-style fifties architecture and a wide street down which the winter sun shone with silvery splendour. Even here, people didn’t seem to mind when I stopped to take photos, and we had a very pleasant stroll up to the Rockefeller Center, where we were hoping to get onto the ice rink.

Fifth Avenue 200702NewYork4
Fifth Avenue

The rink was, however, temporarily closed for resurfacing, so while the Zamboni did its work, we decided to climb up to the roof to take in the view. It wasn’t quite as simple as that; first we had to be X-rayed and examined by yet more security guards, but finally we were allowed to enter the express elevator to the top. The views were fantastic. We were protected from the wind by high glass walls, and could see most of the city stretched out beneath us. Some of the older buildings had the most fascinating wedding-cake architecture. Now dwarfed by the Rockefeller Center, they were once the tallest buildings in Manhattan, and I was impressed by the detail and tile work on their crowns, which can at the time only have been seen by the builders themselves, and perhaps by the pilots of low-flying aircraft.

New York from the top of the Rockefeller Center
New York from the top of the Rockefeller Center

Back at ground level, we did get to skate around the rink amongst the laughing locals and tourists, all slipping and sliding about on the roughly chopped surface. We wouldn’t have won any medals for style, but it was certainly a lot of fun.

The rink at the Rockefeller Center
The rink at the Rockefeller Center

The best way to see the Statue of Liberty is to take the free ferry across to Staten Island and back, and the best way to get to the ferry is to take the subway. We therefore found ourselves rattling along in a shiny aluminium train car (no graffiti, no marauding aliens, no gunfights) to emerge in the vast circular waiting room of the ferry terminal. A flustered kiosk girl eventually managed to serve coffee to an ever-lengthening queue of patrons, and then we all filed aboard.

Here, as everywhere else in Manhattan, security guards loomed and checked everything that moved, and on reading the ferry’s safety instructions, I found that there were standing orders that in the case of enemy attack, the crew should rinse the decks with fire hoses to remove any radioactive contamination. Nobody seemed to be attacking at the moment, though, so we concentrated on the scenery, which was very fine indeed on this crisp sunny day.

Famous dude with some chick in the background
Famous dude, with some chick in the background

I have heard people say that they are disappointed when they first see the Statue of Liberty, but I really can’t think why. She is very impressive indeed, even more so when you see her standing in front of all the towers and glass of the Manhattan shoreline, like the last bastion of gentility holding her torch in front the glitzy new crowd, and saying “Hey! Remember how things used to be?”

Still holding the torch
Still holding the torch

Skate the Rideau

Every winter, the city of Ottawa empties the Rideau Canal, floods it with a few metres of water, and then waits for it to freeze over. The resulting ice sheet is, at just under eight kilometres, billed as the longest ice rink in the world. I just had to see it, and to skate the entire length.

First, however, I had to learn to skate. That was easier to arrange than I had expected; despite an outside temperature in the mid thirties, ice rinks are relatively common in my current home country Australia, and so I enrolled on a beginners’ course.

Aus Skate lessons
It soon became clear that Australians tackle skating just as they tackle any other sport; they become experts from about age 5. Thus it was that my beginners group consisted of a scattering of (presumably) slow kids, and a selection of adults from tropical countries who had never even seen ice before, let alone considered skating on it.

Just how does she do that?
Just how does she do that?

First tentative steps
First tentative steps

Our teacher, Slav, who just happened (like most of the other instructors) to be a world class figure skater, had us in stitches as we tried to “walk like penguin”, “balance cocktail on head”, “drive in little car” until, suddenly and miraculously, I found that I was skating.

Skate the World: London
There’s no point in rushing these things, and we were carrying our skates anyway, so we decided to make a couple of practice stops on the way to Ottawa. Every winter, London hosts a number of artificial rinks, including one under the Tower of London, and another in the grounds of Somerset House. The Tower was closed when we arrived, but we got tickets for a session at Somerset House. The rink was beautifully situated at the bottom of the grand staircase, and ringed with flaming torches. It was a little crowded at times, and I was glad of my lessons. Amongst the stumbling Londoners, I actually felt quite graceful, for the first and probably the last time in my life.

Skating by torchlight at Somerset House
Skating by torchlight at Somerset House

Skate the World: New York
Scene of a hundred Hollywood love stories, the rink beneath the Rockefeller Center was a must-do. It’s a tiny, crowded space, and the ice is wet and rutted, but heck it was fun!

The Rockefelller Center rink
The Rockefelller Center rink

Skate the World: Ottawa
On our arrival in Ottawa, the weather was unseasonably warm and the canal had still not frozen. The opening of the rink is central to the annual Winterlude festival, which takes place largely on the ice, and there was muttering talk of relocating it to indoor parts of the city. Every morning, council workers went out onto the ice, and declared that it wasn’t yet thick enough to open.

Tant pis
Tant pis

We just had to wait it out, but it didn’t mean that we couldn’t go skating; we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to a childrens’ birthday skating party. It quickly became painfully obvious to me that Canadians are born on ice skates. The kids ran rings around the adults, and quite a few of the parents took the odd moment out to gently relive their glory days, pausing now and then for an effortless reverse or salchow before continuing to tend their offspring. In contrast, I lumbered around like a drunken ox, and in my attempts to look even slightly stylish I completely messed up a hockey stop and smacked my head on the ice.

Finally: The Rideau Canal
A week later, Winterlude opened! The last time we had been to Dowes Lake, we had pedalled around the leafy calm waters on a tandem bicycle. This time we were presented with a hard white expanse, scattered with benches and tents and hot dog stalls. We donned our skates in one of the marquees, and set off.

Look, its a darn great ice rink
Look, its a darn great ice rink

Dowes Lake itself was beautifully smooth, but once we entered the canal proper, the surface began to differ substantially from that of a man-made rink. Although the ice was patrolled regularly by snowploughs, and any holes repaired each night, the surface had definitely been formed by the hands of nature rather than by any artificial agency. Small pressure ridges and cracks focussed the mind, and the solid and concentrated stance of the locals contrasted with the eyes-high dance steps that I had been taught in my lessons.

 Its open! That orange glow on the right hand side of the picture is spray-paint warning of a hole in the ice
Its open! That orange glow on the right hand side of the picture is spray-paint warning of a hole in the ice

There was, however, plenty of space to go around rough patches and the odd drift of windblown snow, and plenty of time to marvel at the local residents pushing their babies, carrying their shopping, or simply commuting to work, along this ephemeral highway that had appeared in the middle of their city.

Everybody else makes it look so effortless
Everybody else makes it look so effortless

We passed the three-kilometre mark. I was quite pleased with myself. The different surface was not the only thing that I had to get used to; up until now I had only ever skated for perhaps ten strides in a straight line before pausing for the turn at the end of the rink. Here, there was no reason to turn, just the occasional gentle arc to avoid other happy couples, and families towing or pushing their children in sleighs. My thigh muscles began to protest the continual, unfamiliar activity, but I thought that I had it under control.

Bronwyn surges ahead
Bronwyn surges ahead

Kilometre four came, and I paused, panting, under a bridge to take some photos. I was wearing far too many warm layers, even though it was well below zero and we were now entering the notorious wind tunnel, a deep cutting with a perpetual headwind.

The final straight; the Chateau Laurier beckons
The final straight; the Chateau Laurier beckons

At five kilometres, I got distracted while skirting an orange-painted borehole, and tripped over my own feet. Hitting the ice is a bit like being rear-ended in a car accident; it hurts a bit, but you know that its going to be so much worse in the morning. As I sat on a handy bench to recover, a passing lady stopped for a chat as she put on her skates. This was her first time back on the ice since breaking her leg at the previous Winterlude.

The final straight came into view, one or two more bridges and then the welcoming facades of the tents and huts marking the end of the rink. Bronwyn glided effortlessly ahead to buy cups of hot chocolate and beavertail waffles. I, on the other hand, concentrated on forcing my leaden feet into every stroke; left, right, left, right. It was getting harder to find the energy to lift the skate clear, and three times in quick succession I caught the toe-pick and tumbled down. Tomorrow was really going to hurt. And then, miraculously, I stumbled onto a handy bench; I had reached the end of the canal.

Bronwyn drifted up with fried dough and chocolate and marshmallows, and I had done it! I had skated the longest ice rink in the world.

Following the St Lawrence River

Canada is big; really big. We had been under the impression that we were going to Canada for our holidays, but on our return from three weeks of travelling, we’ve realised that at no time did we leave the geographical environs of just one particular river. Admittedly, the St Lawrence does cover a lot of ground, passing through the Great Lakes, including Niagara Falls and Lake Ontario, running up through Quebec and eventually emerging into the northern Atlantic, a distance of some 4000 kilometres, but one waterway does not a country make. On the other hand, we didn’t exactly spend our time sitting on the beach.

Toronto

We spent a week in the Toronto area with our friends Phil and Penny, who live in what can only be described as the posh end of Toronto, the Beaches, with its own lake shore board-walk and an excellent bar called Captain Jack’s, where the wonderful Tanya learnt how to mix increasingly fierce Manhattans for the curious pair of Englishmen, one hairy and the other shaven-headed, who had blundered into her bar in the middle of the night.

We spent our days checking out the extensive selection of locally brewed beers and a number of tourist attractions, some more obvious than others. The CN Tower, a major feature of the famous Toronto skyline and the tallest building in the world, was, well, very tall indeed.

The Badlands, a curious geological feature formed from pink clay, was very weird, and Black Creek, a recreated 1860s pioneer village, was fascinating.

All the guide books warned that we would be disappointed by Niagara (most reprinting the old adage that it is the “new bride’s second great disappointment”), but in actual fact the Falls are awesome, especially when viewed from one of the Maid of the Mist fleet of pleasure boats that take you right inside the curve of the Horseshoe Falls. Looking around me on the deck, I couldn’t see a single face, young or old, that wasn’t fixed in a crazy grin amidst the thunder and the spray.

After the spectacle, we weren’t too keen to return to the bright lights and amusement arcades in town, and the Lonely Planet Guide – which quickly became our infallible bible for the trip – recommended a walk up the gorge, so we took the shuttle bus to the far end of the resort (for resort it most definitely is) and clambered down to river level for the long walk back up the valley. The gorge was indeed spectacular, bounded by sheer cliff faces and packed with enough trees and undergrowth to make the going rough enough to be amusing.

I had spoken to a park ranger at the top, who pointed out that we we were going to get wet. “Rain doesn’t bother us,” I responded… but boy, when the heavens opened, things got a bit messy down there. Those vertical cliffs became impromptu muddy waterfalls, and we were drenched in minutes. The unmarked trail that we were following became a series of cascading rapids, and when we finally got to the famous Whirlpool, we were hard pressed to tell where it ended and the land began. Once we finally dragged ourselves out of the gorge, we found that the buses had stopped running – we’d spent too long sheltering under a rock – but we hitched into town and were very grateful to pour ourselves into a convenient Planet Hollywood, where the staff were equally diligent at pouring cocktails into our rapidly drying bodies.

Kingston

The following week saw us staying with our friend Mark in Kingston, some two hours’ drive downriver. Phil had lent us a spare convertible, an elderly Chrysler le Baron with some interesting eccentricities, the most endearing of which was probably the failure in the starter motor relay system. My first fix involved booster cables snaking out from under the engine, but after Maria pointed out that I’d have to crawl underneath the car to start it every morning, a few moments thought and a couple of minutes with some pliers fabricated the necessary hot-wiring. In order to start the engine, I had to turn the ignition, get out, open the bonnet (sorry, hood), and jam a screwdriver between the posts of my converted solenoid. It worked a treat.

It was Mark’s birthday, and since his parents (thanks Gill and Derek for putting up with us!) have a pool, we had a pool party, which swiftly and appropriately degenerated into a violent free-for-all involving increasingly disintegrating pool noodles.

Kingston has a number of interesting attractions, including a candle-lit evening ghost walk, and the fascinating prison museum, containing all sorts of ingenious weaponry confiscated from the inmates. The town is, however, most famous for being the gateway to the Thousand Islands, and the cruise amongst the islands was really quite something. Almost every island is owned by some millionaire and/or recluse, and each contains a home commensurate with its size, ranging from entire towns to huge castles to tiny shacks perched on a single rock. To add to the confusion, exactly half are technically US soil, the other half Canadian, but the different nationalities are all jumbled in one with another. A real millionaire’s playground, a wonderful place.

Quebec

Moving on, we pointed the Le Baron northward up the St Lawrence river into Quebec, stopping for the night in Trois Rivieres, where we stumbled on the most amazing Bed & Breakfast belonging to a family of chiropractors who also happened to collect mid-19th Century antique furniture. The place had been lovingly restored, and each room reflected a different period or style. Incredible.

Downriver, Quebec City was dominated by the amazing Chateau Frontenac, a Victorian railway hotel of prodigious size which we just had to stay in. Our room on the 17th floor gave tremendous views over the city, but the room itself was something of a disappointment after the previous night’s Manoir DuBlois, looking much like any other business hotel.

Quebec City itself was similar; from a distance it showed great promise, but when you actually got in close you found that almost every building was a souvenir shop. We did find a fascinating purveyor of hand-made mediaeval (sorry, medieval) clothing, and a fine bar with an excellent selection of beers from the province and from around the world, as well as a restaurant specialising in ancient Canadian food, an interesting and on the whole successful attempt to cross pioneer trapper dishes with haute cuisine.

Even further north, in the pouring rain in the middle of nowhere, we came across a trio of young German hitchhikers who were quite bewildered to be packed into the back of a convertible and whisked onto the ferry to Tadoussac, where they squelched into the youth hostel and we checked into the faded grandeur of the Hotel Tadoussac, a forties confection in red and white-painted wood, with rooms looking out over the St Lawrence river.

We stepped out into the deluge to see if we could find a restaurant, but everything was shut so we crawled back to base to eat in the rather fine dining room, painted on all sides with a mural depicting English troops trouncing the City of Quebec.

Whales

The morning found us bouncing around in a Zodiac-style rubber-sided powerboat, hunting for whales. It was still raining, and visibility was very poor, but as we hit the chop at the edge of the estuary it all cleared, and as far as the eye could see there were whales, seals, dolphins, and various sizes of whale-watching boat.

Many who know me well will long have been aware of the existence of The List, an unpublished and constantly changing agenda of Things To Do Before I Die. There is a dark and shady corner of The List that contains things that I really want to do but which, realistically, I doubt will ever happen. One of these is to go into space; another is to see a blue whale. Incredibly, a huge one simply popped out of the sea nearby, and was content to swim along with us while all the other whale boats chased off after other prey.

The huge beast didn’t breach or tail dive, it just shimmered along just below the waterline, giving us tantalising glimpses of its enormous bulk.

Many whales later, I was extremely content, and it was pure icing on the cake when, speeding back to base, the pilot suddenly jinked hard to the left with the cry “La balene blanche!”. There they were, a whole pod of white belugas, swimming around underneath the boat. Marvellous.

Logging

Back on land, it was time for us to head back south, but first we wanted to jink inland so that we could make our way back through a series of national parks. One of the other things on The List was to stay in a roadside motel, as in all the best Hollywood thrillers (you’ve got to remember that this was my first time in North America), and in fact the Lonely Planet recommended a particular one in Chicoutimi, so I was delighted to pull up and check in.

Yep, it looked exactly like they do in the films; a bed, a lamp, and a small bathroom. It was hardly a dive, but I was pleased to note that some of the tiles were cracked and one of the ceiling tiles was leaking insulation; I could pretend that it was vaguely sleazy and, if I squinted a bit, ignore the beautiful views downriver toward the St Lawrence.

In the morning we had intended to visit a pulp mill in Jonquiere, but the tourist office had been shut down, and after a while we gave up and headed off on a road that – on the map – passed through a huge featureless white area that spread northwards as far as the Arctic. I had assumed that this was logging country, and I was not mistaken. The sun, which had remained stubbornly hidden for the last few days, finally reappeared, picking out the many shades of green in the ranks of trees as they marched endlessly over the hills, faithfully reflected in the limpid blue lakes below.

The wide sweeping roads were empty of all traffic apart from the occasional logging truck, and my heart was singing with the wide-open beauty of it all. I really wanted to park the car and just get on out there into the quiet and solitude.

Conveniently enough, we zipped by the office of the St Mauritie Nature Reserve, and a quick U-turn got me inside, where I explained what I wanted. There was a surprising amount of red tape, but I paid eight dollars to register my name, address and vehicle details, and then another twelve dollars to get over the toll bridge into the reserve itself. Only then could we motor the 18 km down unmade logging roads to reach our assigned footpath, a circular walk around a small waterfall called Dunbar Chute.

The footpath was pretty notional, the undergrowth thick and the mosquitoes vicious: it was wonderful! And so very very quiet, just the sounds of the birds and the water and no background noises at all. To a townie’s ears it sounded as though there was a hole in the world, something missing as we paused to admire yet another stunning lakeside vista.

Sadly, however, it had to end eventually, so we de-registered at the control booth and headed for Montreal.

Montreal

The idea was to find a hotel in town, and indeed our guide told us that there were plenty of B&Bs both down town and in the old quarter, so we decided to try both. Down town Montreal appeared to be evenly split between office blocks and lively bars with cool dudes cruising loudly up and down outside. We couldn’t see any hotels, so we tried the old quarter, which was snarled up with picturesque flower-bedecked horse-drawn taxis, but nary a sign of a B&B.

Getting a bit desperate, we cast our net wider, and finally found a whole street full of what appeared to be hotels. At first we ignored the groups of young men lounging around in the lobbies, but as receptionist after receptionist first admitted that they were a hotel but apologised that they were full, I began to notice that every time we stopped, swarthy figures would appear in the windows staring at the convertible and apparently counting the wheels.

By nine o’clock we thought, to hell with it! and attempted to find a highway out of town. By half past ten we were completely lost… but there on the other carriageway was a 24-hour motel. This one was really sleazy. As the proprietor showed us to our room (I’d better help you with the door, the lock sticks since somebody stole the keys), three girls ran giggling from the one next door to a waiting car (I’d wondered why he’d asked how many people I was planning to put in the double bed), and through the (nailed shut) window we had a fine view of a purple neon sign declaring ’11 til 3 video poker’, whatever that is.

I’d asked if there was anywhere to eat at that time of night, and he pointed us in the direction of an all-night diner, but he seemed a bit hesitant so we approached it with some trepidation. However, the place turned out to be an award-winner for its fries and smoked-meat sandwiches, the walls papered with plaudits from food critics, and sure enough the food was excellent.

We sat, well-earned red beer to hand, and listened to Muddy Waters as the chef’s seemingly endless stream of old friends dropped in for a chat and a take-out. Back at the motel, we tried to clear the smell of stale cigarette smoke, attempted to close the blinds against the searchlight mounted outside, brushed the pubic hairs from the nylon sheets and composed ourselves for sleep.

Maria drifted right off, but unfortunately I was reacting badly to some of the day’s mosquito bites, and so watched miserably as one finger swelled up into a big red balloon while the rest of the hand itched maddeningly in sympathy.

Ottawa

An early start saw us on the road to Ottawa, and it was a relief to leave Montreal’s cracked and potholed roads behind and get onto some smooth tarmac. It was simplicity itself to park in the centre of town, and shortly we were standing in the sun on Parliament Hill, gazing at the Houses of Parliament that looked suspiciously similar to the buildings of the same name in London.

With so much to see, we settled on an open-top tour bus which was well worthwhile, giving us a geographical and historical overview of this attractive green city.

Finally, it was back to Toronto to return the car to Phil and Penny, to wander around the pleasant park and beaches that form the Toronto Islands, and of course to revisit the bar Captain Jack’s**, where Tanya was delighted to see us again.

Phil carried me home in a shopping trolley. Need I say more?


**Historical Note. At about this time, although we at this point had never met, Bronwyn was in fact a regular at Captain Jack’s. Possibly she was there in the bar that night. Possibly she was even one of the locals that thrashed us at table football. The world is indeed a very, very small place.

Martinique

The Jumbo 747 lifted off from Paris en route for the Caribbean, and we were on our way on my first trip across the Atlantic. I knew that, whatever happened, the forthcoming week on the island of Martinique would throw up the unexpected.

It didn’t take long for the first surprise. I had been watching the ocean roll past below, marvelling at the sheer size of it and appreciating personally for the first time the well-worn fact that the planet is two thirds under water. After nearly four hours of flying, a tiny island passed below, the Azores and the first sighting of land since France. It was then, noticing a small fishing boat nosing in under the volcano, that I realised that this was the first boat that I had seen. I’m used to the English Channel, and I had always taken with a pinch of salt the tale that it is the busiest shipping lane in the world, but now it all sunk in. Oceans are big.

Another three hours passed before any new obstruction broke the endless wrinkled surface of the sea. Dusk was falling as the plane descended, and the lights of fishing villages twinkled around the edges of the island below. This tiny lump of volcanic rock, forty miles by ten, was to be our playground for the next seven days.

There were no customs formalities, as despite its Caribbean location, Martinique is officially part of France. It took only a moment to get some money and hire a car, and then it was off into the night to find our apartment, ten miles and half an hour away, on the south coast in the town of Diamant.

The hire car’s water pump seemed to be squeaking loudly, and it was only after some discussion about whether we should return the car to the hire centre that we realised that the noise was actually the cicadas singing in the trees. This sound was to become part of our life during every unlit hour, and would often be deafeningly loud, although curiously restful at night.

Diamant was easy to find. It is dominated by a huge rock sticking out of the sea, locally know as La Diamant but regularly saluted by the British Navy as HMS Diamant Rock, in remembrance of earlier times when it was garrisoned against the French.

The next morning set the pattern for the days ahead. Hummingbirds joined us for breakfast on the bushes by the patio, startling the jewelled lizards which scurried away amongst the blossoms. Small flocks of merle, ubiquitous birds the size of blackbirds with the manners of a sparrow, squawked and shrilled in a continual bid for table scraps. The palm trees waved in the breeze, and a few early risers splashed in the pool. This really was the life.

Rain Forest

The island of Martinique is part of the volcanic chain that is the Windward Isles. The northern half of the island is dominated by the active volcano Mt Pelee, almost permanently shrouded by the cloud-cap that nourishes the luxuriant rainforest around its flanks. From the resort village of Diamant in the south, it takes three hours to drive the tortuous forty miles through the forests and plantations, but we did it again and again. This is the spine and lungs of Martinique; all else is froth cast up from the sea.

The rain forest is a magical place. The trees, already immensely tall, are given extra stature by the sixty-degree slope of the volcano. The canopy is far, far above, and it is clear that this is where the action is, not down here in the darkness with the dead things and the scavengers. Not even rain makes it unimpeded through the canopy. First it is caught by innumerable funnels and gutters, channelled into reservoirs and into the waiting roots high above. Only the surplus falls to the ground in grudging little splatters, just part of the continual rain of falling debris – dead leaves, twigs, corpses of small animals, seeds and fruit.

There is no middle ground. High above, the tree canopy. Down on the ground, poking optimistically through a century’s leaf litter, are all the low-growing plants, a mere ten or so metres high, their flowers serviced by hummingbirds and their branches scurrying with lizards. Jewelled is an overworked term, but it is the only word that covers the iridescent green of the hummingbirds, the fantastic blue of the Morpho butterflies, and the vibrant lime of the lizards. Jewelled, every one.

Between the upper canopy and the lower scrub were only the lianas, vine-like roots heading optimistically for the forest floor. These were incredibly flexible, although clearly made of wood, and easily strong enough to support a grown man swinging through the under-brush. I really hadn’t believed that the old Hollywood staple had a basis in fact.

And then, of course, there were the crabs. These amazing crustaceans had filled almost every ecological niche. Far inland, miles from any water, we came across the ubiquitous land crabs, especially the hermit crab known locally as Bernard l’Hermite. Some lived in old land-snail shells, but the big ones had somehow got hold of big whelk shells which they must have dragged all the way up from the sea. Everywhere we went, the ground was riddled with the burrows of several different species of land crab, all brightly coloured in red and yellow and green, some tiny, others bigger than your hand, all moving extremely quickly when disturbed. Seemingly without natural predators, these were the true owners of Martinique.

The humidity was incredible. The only advice given to mad foreigners insistent on wandering was to take plenty of water. We’d packed several litres of water and another of fruit juice, but it was not really enough. Sweat poured continually from our bodies as we climbed up and down the lush verdant valleys, keeping the sea on one side and the brooding heights of the volcano on the other.

It was alleged to be six hours to Precheur, the next village. We came across one traveller coming the other way who said that we could hire a boat that could return us to our car, but he was staring-eyed with heat exhaustion and was wandering in circles when we found him. Without our directions, carefully repeated like a mantra, I doubt that he would have got out before nightfall.

Up the Volcano

The volcano had other attractions apart from just the rain forest. On one occasion we toiled up the endless lava flows to the crater, only to discover that even if the path into the caldera hadn’t collapsed, then the view at the top from inside the dense wet cloud was less than exciting.

A more exhilarating route was up a series of gorges. Guides took us in swimming costumes up the waterfalls, guided by ropes up the worst bits. They supplied waterproof buckets to keep our cameras in, and it was pretty touristy but quite jolly for all that. The journey terminated in a cave full of guano and dead bats behind a huge waterfall that we took it in turns to stand under – for the few seconds before it smashed you to your knees.

There is a third route up the volcano that allegedly ends in a complex of hot springs and waterfalls, but we were thwarted on both our attempts to find it. On one night a huge and extremely angry bull had no intention of letting us past his cows, and on our second attempt the river-bed that formed the only path became distinctly hazardous after a mountaintop storm threatened a flash-flood. Maybe next time.

St Pierre

Nestling under the volcano is the sleepy fishing village of St Pierre, scattered with the levelled ruins of its past glory. There was supposed to be a good museum of vulcanology, but we never did manage to find it. It would have been interesting, because until 1902 St Pierre was the capital of Martinique, but then Mt Pelee erupted and destroyed the entire town and all 30,000 inhabitants. Popular legend has it that only one man survived, a drunk who had been thrown into a small cell for the night, one of the few buildings left standing.

At any rate, P.T. Barnum snapped him up for his circus, though I’m not sure what the poor man made of his life in a freak show.

Rum

When Martinique was a slave colony, much of the island was given over to sugar cane. These days there is more profit in bananas and pineapples, but many of the old colonial cane houses and rum distilleries still stand. In fact, there are an incredible number of family-run rum companies in such a small space. Many are open to the public, and often the machinery is more or less original – steam power is common.

Rum manufacture is a much simpler affair than the complex procedures for whisky or brandy. Mash up the sugar cane, chuck in some yeast, distil it and then, if you want dark vieux rum, keep it in a wooden barrel for a few years. The results are wonderful, completely unlike the stuff we see in Europe. Understandably, the locals sneer at the big commercial outfits, who make their product from the waste from sugar factories.

Rum is drunk everywhere, at all times of day, but never to excess. Traditionally it is served mixed with a little cane syrup as Tipunch, but it also mixes with any of the bewildering array of fruit juices commonly available. Rum and fruit are also main constituents of the ubiquitous creole cuisine, adding flavour to an enormous variety of fish.

Seafood

The seafood is incredible. The langouste are the size of lobsters, and often as long as a man if you include the antennae, and a fish is not big enough to be worth serving unless its head and tail overlap the side of the plate. To counterpoint the fish dishes, most places offer colombo, a sort of curry or stew, and everything is served with bananes jaune, savoury bananas that are out of this world. In fact, all of the fruit has a depth of taste that is completely missing from European imports, with the added cachet that although you can buy it at the market for a few francs, it is almost as easy to pick it up for free from the roadside. There are fallen coconuts and fruit everywhere, just lying around for the taking. As far as I can see, there is no reason to ever starve on Martinique.

Playing Tourist

Most of the island is dedicated to fishing and farming, but in St Anne big business has arrived in the form of a Club Med complex. We went over there one day because the watersports are heavily advertised, hoping to hire a boat or some jet-skis, but we were thoroughly put off by the Mediterranean-level prices and, incredibly, a charge just to get onto the beach. We had a look about but escaped to the sanity of the island as quickly as we could.

In nearby St Lucia, for the price of an hour’s Jet-ski hire, we arranged a whole afternoons scuba-diving on the reef. That was a great experience. The corals were beautifully healthy, and teeming with shoals of multicoloured fish. Great fans of Gorgon coral splayed up from the seabed, sheltering six-inch sea urchins and supporting the bizarre Flamingos Tongue sea snails. Everywhere there were doctorfish, pipefish, trunkfish, and immense mixed shoals, all completely unafraid and often curious enough to try nibbling your fingers. All too soon the dive was over, but we knew where the reef was now, and much of it was in easy snorkelling distance.
On subsequent explorations I encountered – and avoided – barracuda lurking just beneath the surface, and some kind of sea-snake wriggling along on the sandy bottom. Above our sunburned backs soared the huge fork-tailed Frigate birds, the only sea-birds that we saw the whole week, though Diamant Rock is supposed to be a famous sea-bird sanctuary.

Sunset

On the last hour of our last day, we sat on a wall high above the sea, drinking local Lorraine beer and watching the sun set over the fishermen positioning their nets over the coral reef.

The youngsters eased the brightly-coloured wooden boats forward and back on the shouted instructions of their father, duck-diving down to the reef to check that all was going to plan. Some things on this island have never changed, and I hope that they never will.