Category Archives: Travel

Messing about in boats

We had a wonderful holiday in the Philippines over New Year, particularly the week we spent on Cuyo island. We stayed at the excellent Coco Verde Beach Resort and had the place to ourselves for 4 nights. We spent our time snorkeling and relaxing, enjoyed great food, cold beer and even wine with dinner. One day, we took a trip to Quiminatin island, a good two hours away by fishing boat. The snorkeling at Quiminatin was gorgeous – we saw dozens of species of fish, brightly colored living coral, huge clams, and lots more.

But the thing that really got me about the snorkeling trip was the boat ride. It was uncomfortable: sitting on a narrow plank for hours, particularly in wet swimming trunks, doesn’t make for a happy backside. But the thrill of the sea really got to me. Scudding along with a mild swell and your destination visible on the horizon: is there anything better? (Actually I’ve a sneaking suspicion that there’s more than a little salt water in my blood. Perhaps this was my inescapable destiny).

Carta Nàutica

I’d talked about trying to get a boating license for a while. I can’t even drive. so it didn’t seem like a top priority. But that boat ride to Quiminatin and back convinced me. I signed up with the Corsa Nàutica school in Barcelona last month and did an intensive course over a weekend. Friday a couple of weeks ago, I took the theory exam in a high school in Sarrià (you’ve never seen so many floppy-haired posh types in your life) and today, the Generalitat has confirmed that I passed. Damned good of them. That’s the only test necessary to become a Skipper of Recreational Vessels so I now have to turn up for some hours of practical experience and radio communications and I’m done.

Shiver me timbers, and avast!

(If you’re thinking about doing something similar, I had a pretty good experience with the Corsa Nàutica school, based at the Port Olímpic in Barcelona. Friendly staff, decent course materials and so on.)

Here’s some additional information about the PER qualification.

There are 5 standard qualifications in Spain for boats and yachts: PNB (Patrón de Navigación Básica), PER (Patrón de Embarcaciones de recreo) – the one I’m working towards, PY (Patrón de Yate), CY (Capitán de Yate) and PPER (Patrón Profesional de Embarcaciones de Recreo). I understand that the PPER is needed if you want to work as a professional skipper.

The PER exam includes questions about parts of the boat (this bit’s basically a vocab test), beacons and other signalling apparatus, safety, simple navigation, international legislation, and nautical charts. The nautical charts section involves being able to find your location based on compass bearings to two charted objects, tides, correcting for magnetic deviation, and that sort of thing. You’re allowed up to 13 errors in total, and only two of them can be on nautical charts.

The exam is the only part of the qualification which you can fail – the other components being 2 days’ practical and several hours’ radio experience, which need to be done with a registered school.

Here in Catalonia, the exam is in both Spanish and Catalan, something which can actually help at times, if you speak both (e.g. ‘el bichero’ in Spanish is called ‘la gafa’ in Catalan, which gives more of a clue as to what it’s used for). Doing the exam when neither of these languages is your mother tongue is tricky but then the vocab is new to most people. And if Clive James can teach himself French by reading Proust, you or I can get through a few dozen multiple-choice questions with a bit of study beforehand. I have a feeling that you could probably pass the exam without doing the course, but you’d need to be a better student than I.

Review: Restaurant Ter Mar, Toroella de Montgrí (Girona), August 11th, 2015

A long-awaited meal at a new favorite restaurant, Ter Mar in Toroella de Montgrí, ended with us promising never to return.

[I didn’t have the presence of mind to take any photos to back this review up. You’ll just have to trust me.]

We’d eaten at Ter Mar several times previously and this was the 2nd or 3rd time that we decided to take some friends along. Since we discovered it last year, it seemed like the perfect restaurant for us: decent seafood and rice dishes, not too expensive, and only 10 minutes drive from the dog-friendly beach at l’Estartit. So we were looking forward to this summer’s lunch.

I’ll start with the service, because that’s where pretty much any experience with a restaurant starts. Ter Mar is clearly a family-run restaurant and the service is carried out by, I presume, four members of the family: the parents and two daughters. Of these four, only one of the daughters is any good. The other three are generally impatient, rude and unhelpful. They have all mastered George Costanza’s art of looking very stressed and angry all the time, in order to look like they’re busy. The ‘nice’ daughter (I don’t know any of their names) is friendly, solicitous and far more efficient than the other three put together. That said, we never had any real problems at Ter Mar. Until this visit.

There were three of us plus Larry, and we were meeting a couple of other friends at the restaurant. We arrived 10 or 15 minutes late but the covered outdoor dining area wasn’t full and this didn’t seem to be a problem. We ordered some drinks, agreed on some starters, and picked out a black rice and a paella to share. Gemma and I had shared a lobster rice last time we ate at Ter Mar (in May), and it was very good.

The starters arrived: fried whitebait, baby octopus, frogs legs, maybe something else. It was all pretty average both in flavor and presentation but not terrible. We were hungry after a morning at the beach, so we ate most if it. Next came the black rice. This is where things started to go wrong. The rice was below average in quality. It didn’t taste of much, even after adding the alioli. It was pretty disappointing but again, we were hungry so we persevered.

And then came the paella. The (nice) daughter who delivered it to our table immediately apologized for it “not looking very good” but insisted that it would taste just fine. It looked unlike any paella I’ve ever eaten. the ‘bits’ – the langoustines, mussels (yes), etc appeared to be positioned entirely at random. A good plate of rice is generally a little better arranged than that. And the color. The rice was an odd shade of grayish brown, clearly lacking even the smallest amount of saffron (which, as anyone knows, adds not only color but also flavor to paella).

I served everyone and we tried to eat it but no one got further than a forkful or so. The paella was dry and sticky, almost tasteless and very stodgy. This was rapidly turning into one of those situations where you rave to a friend about a restaurant you’ve discovered, take them along for a meal and are the served the worst food you’ve ever had. Between the five people at that table, we must have eaten hundreds of paellas. This was one of the worst that anyone had tried. You’d find significantly better paella on la Rambla, and at a better price.

The lads say it’s fine

We called the head waiter (the father) over and explained that the paella was below the standard that we expected. We explained that it didn’t look rice, didn’t feel right and didn’t taste right. He irritably asked what we wanted instead but we preferred to move onto dessert. So he moodily took the paella away with him and said he’d bring the dessert menus. Which he did, a few minutes later. But as he handed them over, he said that “the lads in the kitchen have tried it and they say there’s nothing wrong with it”. This wasn’t a good move. If the customers – a whole party – say something’s not up to scratch, it’s not. We each responded with our own suggestions for him, mainly along the lines of “Well, good for them. They can eat it”, or “Maybe that’s the problem”.

After a botched attempt at ordering desserts (we hesitated for, seriously, a second and the not-so-nice daughter spun on her heel without a word and left us hanging), we finally received our desserts and coffees. Nothing wrong here, so we cheered up a little and then asked for the bill. Which, when it arrived, included Paella x 3 – a bit of a surprise given that we’d just sent that back.

Don’t come back

Gemma went to have a word with the father and that’s where things really broke down. He refused to take the paella off the bill because “it was fine”. Gemma made it clear that we’d been there a few times and that we weren’t trying anything on, but the food wasn’t good enough. Finally, he shouted at her “Fine, I’ll take it off the bill. But if you don’t like it, don’t come back!”. Now that’s service.

So we won’t be going back to Ter Mar, and that’s a shame. it seemed like the kind of place that could become a regular fixture: three or four times a year we’d have lunch there. We’d take our friends and they might end up taking other friends. Instead, at the request of the owner, we will not be returning. Instead, I’m sharing this review with the world with the hope that someone, somewhere, might see it and decide against eating there.

Don’t bother going to Ter Mar. With few exceptions, the food is poor and the service worse. Try Picasso, just up the road from it.

A game of GeoGuessr narrated

 A trip to Canada in GeoGuessr

 

OK I’m on a bridge. It’s made of metal and looks to be a couple of hundred metres long.

Mountains to the south and east

Sign: Tourist Attraction – Hagwilget Canyon
So it’s an English-speaking country. The snow on the mountains rules out South Africa, I think, and this is definitely not the UK or Ireland.

Head west along the highway.

Speed limit sign indicates 30 KM/H. So it’s not the USA.

Sign: Hazelton 2. Gas, Food, Lodging, Camping, Tourist attraction.

I’ve got a suspicion that this might be Tasmania. The vegetation would fit, I think. Maybe New Zealand but I don’t know for sure that they use metric distance measures there. They probably do. Hmm.

Continuing northwest along the highway, there’s a commercial building, white with a blue roof, and another road sign in the distance. Also, a pcik-up truck. They’re popular in Australia but I’m now realizing how little I know about New Zealand.

The building is a garage. The sign says Two Mile Services. So we’re two miles from something. And that despite the kilometres on the road sign. Hey, are they metric in Canada? I see more pick-up trucks in the parking lot and on the hill behind, a large and quite brashly designed house. Or a small modern church, not sure which.

The entrance to Two Mile Services says Auto Parts. I can’t make out any markings or bank logos on the door, so it’s no help.

I’ve just noticed a U-Haul trailer in the parking lot. Not sure how relevant that is. But maybe this is North America after all.

Another sign that says 2-Mile and then something illegible beneath. The sign’s illustrated with a picture of a man trying to drag a mule into action. There are some boats covered with tarpaulin in a yard nearby, so we’re close to a lake or the sea. Probably.

Sign: Silver Standard Rd (or Rt?) Ahead. Coupled with the mule, this sounds like mining country.

Ah, now here’s Silver Standard Rd and some sort of Adventist church, and the Triple Creek Ranch B&B. Ando now a sign that reads Suu Dee’s Local something or other. Not helpful, Suu Dee. Not cool.

A truck in a lot on the side of the road gives me a big clue. E.W.J. Kendall – Highway 63 – Hazelton B.C.

So we’re in Canada. British Columbia. Near Hazelton possibly on Highway 63, north of some pretty big and spiky mountains. Possibly near water.

Sign: Welcome to Historic Hazelton – Founded in 1866. Elevation 720ft 220M. I guess Canda must have gone metric some time in living memory.

Sign: Gitanmaax/Hazelton Reservoir. Please protect your water.

But where is Hazelton? And where’s Highway 63? I can find 93 but that’s no use.

Hazelton village is on a river. And it has a pleasant little riverboat on the bank which is used as a pizzeria. So not a lake. And not the sea.

Back to my starting point and heading East to get a better picture. I was being followed by a police car!

Sign: Hitchhiking – Is it worth the risk?

Aha! Found another highway route sign: Route 16 East- West. Back to the guessing map. For about 15 minutes. I follow Route 16 for hundreds of miles and suddenly: Hazelton! Look for the right road… look for the bridge… GUESS.

6.12 KM away. Damn. Still, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about Hazelton, British Columbia and Canada during this short trip. Thanks, GeoGuessr!

Going off-grid – a necessity or a self-imposed exile?

Vacation time approaches.

This year, I’ve made the decision not to take the various items of personal computing technology that I normally use multiple times every day. No iPad, no MacBook Air, no movie library, ebooks, digital magazines, Ara subscription, Seinfeld episodes…* and my phone will be switched off except when I call my parents on my birthday. Real books? Yes. MP3 player? Yes. But that’s it. The aim is to achieve about 3 weeks of non-connectivity, what some people call going off-grid. Why? Because I spend so much time every day looking at and interacting with a screen of some sort that I really feel like it’ll benefit me to go all early 90s on my brain for a while.

Part of me feels a definite need for disconnection: sometimes I’m not sure I can take another day of reading asinine comments on Cif about how if the Spanish had worked a little harder, they wouldn’t be in crisis currently. I lack the self-discipline to disconnect on ordinary days and I do feel that I should take advantage of the time away to just not worry about that stuff so much.

But is that true or am I just imposing a sort of analog fast on myself for no reason other than I think it makes me feel clever? And would that be such a bad thing anyway? And wouldn’t I probably do my body and brain more good by simply giving up wine for three weeks (which isn’t going to happen… not on vaycay anyhow)?

Mention disconnecting for a few days at work and generally you get a knowing “Oh that sounds so amazing we really do spend all our time in front of computers, right?” sort of response. But one of my colleagues, tech blogger Elena, simply shrugged and asked me why? Why bother?

I read an essay (or rather, book review) a few months back that talked about the way our brains are physically changing thanks to the internet. That’s not as grave a thing as it sounds: our brains physically change thanks to all sorts of stimuli and systems we subject them to. But given that we, you and I, represent probably the last generations for a long time who’ll have spent at least some time growing up without ubiquitous computers, I think it’s interesting that I can even consider see-sawing back into my early internet-free headspace. I guess my little sisters wouldn’t understand the point. Elena doesn’t, so clearly her brain is younger and more advanced than mine. But I do feel there’s something to be said for at least experimenting in changing one’s habits from time to time. I think I’m the kind of person who can only do so radically.

I’m no luddite. I adore technology and my career is based on understanding, using and thinking about it all the time. So I don’t agree with Jonathan Franzen when he says that Twitter is stupid. I like Jonathan Franzen’s writing… and I do think that great writers have an important secondary role as geist critics. But I also love Twitter and blogs and the internet. That said, perhaps I actually am just a secret traditionalist trapped in the body of an information technologist? Perhaps when I warn colleagues not to get too nostalgic, I’m less worried about them confusing our readers and more worried that I’ll slip up and start writing about how great the old days were. Maybe I secretly yearn for a world without the internet? Maybe I really just think that I’m being way cleverer than you?

Is going off-grid then a sort of cultish fast that I’m just telling myself I should go through? Will it really benefit me to revert to pen and paper for the notes I’ll have to write, and just hard copies for the research I plan to start while in Menorca? Is self-imposed exile necessarily such a bad thing? You see, I already have too many questions to try and answer, and the internet won’t help with that.

I’m going to give it a try. If anything, maybe going off-grid for three weeks will help me focus and remember how to write in a way that doesn’t produce a jumbled mess like this blog post.

The apartment we’ve rented has a TV, anyway.

______

*Burglars: I will be depositing all said computer equipment in a safe place. So don’t even think about it.

How I resolve to live in 2012

New Year resolutions are generally just a list of regrets from the year before: “actually quit smoking”, “lose weight”, “find a man”. A litany of past failures presented as optimistic hurdles that will ruin the year to come. Here’s my list of non-regret-fuelled resolutions for 2012.

  1. Learn Jazz. I’ve been listening to jazz for years and feel like I need to spend some quality time this year learning its history and how it works so that I can better enjoy it in years to come.
  2. Do poetry. I used to love reading and writing poetry and realised recently that it had been out of my life for a decade or more. I should fix that.
  3. No smoking indoors. While I haven’t yet smoked a cigarette this year, I now pledge not to do so in our flat. I will smoke in bars if Rajoy leaglises it, though.
  4. Read at least one book in Catalan and one in Castilian too.  2012 marks 10 years since I moved to Barcelona. I ought to progress beyond shoddy newspapers.
  5. Find new living quarters in Gràcia (or even Poblenou); swim regularly; eat less meat; visit Paris and Lisbon… (these items are perhaps the regret-laced resolutions I warned of).

 

Have a fun, safe and happy 2012.

How to Explore Like a Real Victorian Adventurer

From this month’s The Believer, “HOW TO EXPLORE LIKE A REAL VICTORIAN ADVENTURER

Victorian adventurers rarely took a step into the wild without hauling a small library of how-to-explore books with them. Among the volumes Burton carried into East Africa was a heavily annotated copy of Francis Galton’s The Art of Travel: or, Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries. Originally conceived as a handbook for explorers, and sponsored by En-gland’s Royal Geographical Society, the book was required reading for any self-respecting Victorian traveler. Before rolling up his sleeves and getting down to the hard business of exploring, he could turn to page 134 to learn the best way to do exactly that:

When you have occasion to tuck up your shirt-sleeves, recollect that the way of doing so is, not to begin by turning the cuffs inside-out, but outside-in—the sleeves must be rolled up inwards, towards the arm, and not the reverse way. In the one case, the sleeves will remain tucked up for hours without being touched; in the other, they become loose every five minutes.

The amiably neurotic Galton left nothing to chance. His index is studded with gems like “bones as fuel” and “savages, management of.” If Burton couldn’t find the advice he was looking for in Galton, he could always consult one of the other books in his trunk that were written with explorers in mind.

I’m really into this stuff at the moment. As Trevor at Kalebeul has pointed out a million times, there is a ton of material like this to read over at Google Books.

See also: this Salon review of Wilfred Thesiger’s ‘Arabian Sands’ which is on my reading list RIGHT NOW. I’ll write more about exploration and travel soon.

Our trip to Sierra Leone (part 2: Bureh and Lumley)

Note: I feel that I should point out that we were only in Sierra Leone for 9 days, and spent all of our time on the Freetown peninsula. Naturally, I could never claim to be an expert on the place after such a brief and limited visit. But I hope that my impressions might count for something, especially for anyone who’s never had the chance to visit.

(Part 1 here)

We arrived at about 4am on a Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca that stopped in Monrovia, Liberia, on the way. Royal Air Maroc was fine, far better than I imagined it would be based on people’s internet reviews. I can only imagine it has improved greatly in recent months, or else people who write internet reviews expect a homogenous travel experience wherever they go in the world. Lungi airport, as I mentioned, can be quite a daunting experience. Our friend met us at the Pelican water taxi dock (Lungi is on the ‘wrong’ side of a large inlet, so to reach Freetown, a water crossing by boat or helicopter is essential), and drove us to his house, located in the hills above the city. After a few hours catch-up sleep, we had lunch (rotisserie chicken from the Lebanese-owned St Mary’s supermarket), drove around a bit and then headed to Roy’s bar on Lumley Beach for some drinks. We met plenty of people at Roy’s, organised dinner, went to a party at the UN, and before I knew it, we were dancing to a mixture of local and Lebanese pop at Atlantic nightclub, with the sound of waves breaking on the beach in the background.

After breakfast at Bliss bakery (the best bakery in town, and producers of as good an omelette as you’ll find anywhere), we went on one of our two main trips out of the city. Bureh beach, an hour or so out of town via the mountain road, is simply an idyllic spot. Kilometres of sand so fine, it squeaks with every footstep, lined with coconut palms, and without a single built structure in sight. I often say I don’t really like the beach. But if it’s Bureh, I’d go any time. There, we met Michael, a local entrepreneur trying to develop some sustainable tourism in the area. He set us up with an open hut and a camp fire, cooked us some fresh lobster and manfully shared a glass or two of scotch as night set in. Before the scotch, we had a night swim and enjoyed the ever-captivating sight of phosphorescent plankton sparkling in the water as we swam.

Bureh, simply enough, is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I think Gemma enjoyed celebrating her birthday there. I just hope we can visit again soon, and that as development increases (which it must, one way or another), Bureh’s natural beauty isn’t blighted by massive resorts. Of course, there is room (and indeed, a need) for some of that kind of tourism in Sierra Leone but one would hope that the lessons of other countries’ experiences might make the SL government more cautious than they were.

We took the coastal route back to Freetown and relaxed at home that evening, playing Pass the Pigs, Settlers of Catan and Trivial Pursuit. Wild times.

Next day, after a slow start, catching up on developments in the Middle East on Al Jazeera, Gemma and I ventured forth into Freetown on our own for the first time. Walking from our friend’s house down Spur Road to Lumley and up Lumley Beach to Roy’s bar again. Well, we were thirsty by then. The walk only took an hour but it was pretty hot and dusty. Pretty much every taxi and poda poda (shared minibus taxi) that went past beeped its horn at us, seemingly incredulous that we’d want to walk in the sun.

Many of the main roads in Freetown are currently undergoing major widening work, resulting in much demolition. Walls throughout the city are marked with indications like “10m back”, meaning that the road will expand 10m further, often through the middle of a house or compound. We were told that several people have died trying to salvage property from demolished houses. It is not just private residences that are affected, though. Even the headquarters of the armed forces (RSLAF) has had its entrance partially demolished. Government officials plan to have the road-widening project complete in time for this year’s independence celebrations which will mark 50 years since the end of British colonial rule. Locals seem uncertain as to whether the project will be completed on time, even though crews are often working through the night. The most important target is to get work completed before the rainy season starts (which more-or-less coincides with the independence celebrations in April anyhow). We were told that negotiations are still taking place over some stretches of road, but I got the impression that the bulldozers won’t wait.

Lumley beach is yet another beautiful stretch of sand which extends north to the cape, where several hotels, casinos and nightclubs are located. The beach used to have lots of bars and restaurants on it, but many were demolished as part of the roads project. A few have sprung up again recently, and the one seemingly en vogue at the moment is Roy’s. A cold Heineken (the local beer, Star, isn’t great) and a cooling sea breeze went down a treat after our walk.

Flickr set here.

Our trip to Sierra Leone (part 1)

Note: I feel that I should point out that we were only in Sierra Leone for 9 days, and spent all of our time on the Freetown peninsula. Naturally, I could never claim to be an expert on the place after such a brief and limited visit. But I hope that my impressions might count for something, especially for anyone who’s never had the chance to visit.

Visiting Sierra Leone

Despite its stunning natural beauty, Sierra Leone doesn’t seem to strike people as the perfect holiday destination. Mention the West African state’s name to anyone here at home (and we did, ad nauseam, until we left), and they’ll generally respond with vague knowledge of war, bloodshed, diamonds, cocaine and guns. This is understandable because Sierra Leone isn’t generally mentioned in the media in Europe except in those terms. Films like Blood Diamond and Lord Of War, the only recent Hollywood depictions of the country, help to promote this view. But that was then. The civil war officially ended 9 years ago and ever since, Sierra Leone has been putting itself back together.

But at the same time, people are sort-of right: Sierra Leone is not a perfect holiday destination. We were lucky enough to be visiting a friend who works for a foreign agency in the country. Pretty much all the non-local people we met work in similar jobs, for various NGOs or for the UN. The rest were visiting friends who worked there, or were returning for a holiday having already spent time working for an aid agency. As I understand it, very few ‘complete’ tourists (that is, people with no-one to show them around/provide accommodation) ever seem to make the journey. And to be honest, I struggle to recommend such a visit at the moment, unless it’s done through the TribeWanted eco tourism project.

Sierra Leone, you see, doesn’t just lack tourist infrastructure. It lacks infrastructure. There are relatively few major metalled roads in the capital, Freetown, and only a handful outside, making travel in 4×4 practically essential. Lungi airport, the only realistic way of arriving in the country, is the most basic international airport I’ve ever used (it apparently has no computers, so check in when you leave is an entirely manual pen and paper task). There are relatively few shops, so visitors and ex-pats tend to rely on a handful of expensive supermarkets and the market area in town, where availability of goods can never be guaranteed. There are hotels, but some of them are, according to what I’ve been told, pretty dodgy.

All that said, Sierra Leone is a beautiful, enchanting and wonderful country. The beaches and forests of the Freetown peninsula are about as gorgeous as you’ll find anywhere in the world. Freetown itself, for all the dust, is a great city: full of movement, work, fun and music. The Sierra Leonean people we met were quietly confident about the future of their wonderful country and far more open to talking about local issues and their aspirations than people in many other countries I’ve visited. The restaurant business seems to be picking up, and while I need to return to try more of the local food, visitors can eat well in plenty of locations in Freetown.

Next part: Bureh & Lumley. You can see our Flickr set of our visit here.