How to be ripped off by a Mexican taxi driver

Take a taxi – 40 pesos. A little more than expected but OK.

Take a taxi back.

The fare jumped to 120 pesos, a 200% increase.

Hand over two 50 peso notes and some coins. Driver looks back at us showing a 50 and a 20 peso note. Seems like I had a 20 peso note mixed up with the 50s?

Hand over another 50 peso note.

Driver looks back showing one end is missing. I hadn’t noticed that. Swap the note for a good one.

Driver asks if we can exchange a 500 peso note for smaller currency. Fortunately we decline.

As we leave the taxi Bruce and I query what happened.

Clearly our taxi driver had some clever tricks up his sleeve, that we gringos were not aware of.

50 pesos is worth about $4.26 in today’s market.

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You can’t explain Cuba

We arrived in Havana and after exploring the big city started an eastward journey. First stop was Cienfuegos, a city colonised by the French. From there we took a road trip to Santa Clara, which is all about Che Guevara and his part in liberating Cuba for Fidel & Raul Castro.

Our next driver toured through the Escambray peaks to reach Trinidad a preserved ancient Spanish colonial town, a photographers treat. We swapped taxis for an intercity bus for the 200+km journey to Camagüey, arriving in time to walk in to town and not get lost. We took another intercity bus 270km to Santiago de Cuba in the east of the country. That was our journey in Cuba.

There is so much that we hear about Cuba – the colourful houses, the classic American cars, the music. It is all here.

There are no rules with colour. I sometimes wonder if a colour scheme was an exercise in coordination of colours or simply whichever paint pot was opened next. Our rooms have varied from soft lemon and purple combinations to ten different bright greens. The trims on the houses will either complement the colour or fiercely oppose it. It doesn’t matter.

Wherever you look, colour has not been spared.

To complement the coloured houses are the brilliantly renovated classic American cars. Duco can be sky blue, grass green, mocha brown, baby doll pink or fire engine red. Upholstery looks magnificent in the soft top versions. These cars are not only for the tourists. They are one of many forms of taxis used throughout the country. The old cars used as local taxis are not nearly so beautifully decked out, but there is no doubt that some very talented mechanics can keep so many of these old cars going.

But USA placed a trade embargo on Cuba in 1961, so the classic cars stopped coming. Instead the classic Russian Ladas were imported. Not nearly as pretty, nor comfortable but very much more practical – the simplicity of these cars mean they will run forever. We saw enough of them in Central Asia to vouch for that.

Music is everywhere, it is indeed the life and soul of Cuba. Bars and restaurants will either have a house band or will allow roving performers to play a few pieces. And at the end of each bracket one of the band members will offer to sell you their music CD and will also ask for a ‘donation’ to their cause. We found it good practice to keep a few coins rather than be embarrassed.

We also discovered other parts of Cuba not so well known.

Queues. The pharmacy, the bank, the post office, the telephone offices, the pizza bars, the hole-in-the-wall markets all support a patient queue of people awaiting their turn.

Empty shelves. Commodities are precious in Cuba. Even buying water proved a challenge. One store only had 500ml water with gas, another store only had 1.5litre bottles of still water and a small street market had the 500ml bottles of still water we wanted. Shelves are scaringly empty and variety is non existent. One type of cooking oil was available. Toilet paper may be scarce in one store, toothpaste in another. We have not seen empty shelves to match since East Berlin in the 70s.

Communication. Most Cubans have been banned from using services such as the Internet and email, and now that there is a little relaxation the cost of computers and related connectivity is beyond most Cubans. Mobile phones have only recently been introduced. For us the difference is not seeing every second person on the street or in a coffee shop or sitting outside their home connected to a device. In the Casa Particulars the house phone rings incessantly, just like I remember when we were a household of teenagers in the 60s.

It was a fascinating and frustrating experience, worsened by the fact that we missed our connection to fly to Mexico after our place from Santiago de Cuba to Havana was delayed by 7 hours.  It cost us an uncomfortable night n airport benches and an extremely expensive rescheduled flight via Panama City.

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Dominican Republic

Our introduction to the Carribbean was in the Dominican Republic. After a long day including a 12 hour stopover in Frankfurt, we arrived here at 03:00 hour – 3am in the morning.

By the time we exchanged money and found a taxi, bed was very welcome and we collapsed.

Breakfast was at a street cafe where we were entertained by a Michael Jackson look alike.

As it happened there were a lot of school children up and down the pedestrian street El Conde. They were preparing for the Independent celebrations.

If ever a Michael Jackson look alike was going to make money, it was from the school children who stopped by and watch his limited performance.

As well we visited the forts of early Spanish times and monuments to fallen heroes.

We hired a car and drove east to La Romana. Here we discovered nearly all the beaches had been gobbled up by one resort or another. No beaches for the common people.

The airports specialise in fly-in / fly-out holidays where most tourists won’t move out of the resort.

But as we drove around this eastern end of the island we saw colourful painted houses and heavily man-powered sugar crops.

Scooters and cars had there own rules such as drive 2 metres behind you, never use indicators and a must – overtake on double lines.

I am behind with my posts and stories, but hope to catch up soon.

Here’s Michael Jackson wowing one group of children.

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Faster than…

One of the frustrations on our recent travels has been the slow response of my website, not only for you the readers, but also for me the writer.

I couldn’t create a new page or upload photos in Firefox.  Internet Explorer was totally unresponsive.  Google’s Chrome managed with difficulty.

So after much research, and even more assistance from Hayden, I have moved my web site to a VPS with SSD at Hostsailor.  For those that need to know – Virtual Private Server with Solid-State Drive.

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So hopefully you will be able to navigate around my site more quickly (ie stay there) and I will be able to upload stories when the connection speed is not so good.  To be realisitc, I doubt if I could upload anything using a dial-up connection, but time will tell.

 

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That was very nice

For Christmas Hayden & Andrea treated us to an Arabian massage and bath in Barcelona. Today we used our treat. Down under the beautiful colonnaded buildings on Passeig de Picasso was a luxurious suite of hot, warm and cool ponds in a beautifully restored ancient bath.

It was Bruce’s first real massage, you can’t really call the ladies on a Bali beach an intimate massage. This was fantastic.

As if we need to relax! But the experience was beautiful. Thank you H&A!

Aire de Barcelona

Aire de Barcelona

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What happened to postcards?

I have always loved receiving postcards and even relish the opportunity to sit and rest weary feet and write postcards.

You just don’t see postcards for sale in great numbers any more.  Rather than have them “in your face”, I have often had to go in search of them.

But what happens to postcards after you have applied those precious words of “remember me…”? I am quite sure not even half reach their destination. Perhaps a few of those postcards destined for Australia end up in Austria. Postcards we sent from China arrived within a month, those from Uzbekistan took about 5 weeks to reach their destinations.

Perhaps postcards don’t even rate for many post offices around the world.

And finding a Post Office is often a challenge.  In Tonga we walked 5km each way because the Post Office in town was “under renovation”.  In Barcelona we walked 3km to the “Post Office” only to find it is an “office”, so it was another 2km to find a retail outlet – and then a 30 minute queue to be served.

I’d like to revive the old postcard. I will happily spend $0.50 to $1 on the post card and somewhere between $1 and $3 for postage. I select my good friends and I feel like I have communicated, shared a coffee, but my shout. It really is incidental cash in exchange for the joy of receiving a well thought out, well travelled picture of somewhere that inspired you. Communication can’t get much better.

Come on post offices of the world. Forget the ROI, just embrace the post card.

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The Statistics of Travel

I know that some people like to know how many, how far, how much, etc. And as a mother of a PhD graduate of mathematics, it really is my duty to publish such information, so here goes.

We left home on 31 August 2014 and flew to Hong Kong. From there our real journey started. Using a combination of road, rail, sea and air we travelled 22,623km to Istanbul in 95 days, of which 49% was by road – sitting in the back seats of cars on often bumpy, dusty roads.

But we didn’t stop in Istanbul. We continued to Barcelona, then on to London via Paris, popped across to Iceland for Christmas and back to London. By the end of 2014 we added 9,500km to our travels in just 18 days. Road travel dropped to 37% but air travel increased to 60%. We love train travel and stayed close at 24%.

In that time I added 15,828 photos to my album, of which 10,376 were on my now struggling Sony HX-300. Evan provided the most astonishing statistic, raking up 2261 of the 4486 photos the family group took in Iceland. But then again, I don’t have a count on Bruce’s photos, as yet.

Here are a couple of table to support the numbers.

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Iceland – ticking all the boxes

Following the success of Hayden’s PhD defence, we decided to have a family Christmas “somewhere exotic”. Think warm weather, tropical beaches and swaying palms. No, that is not exotic enough for this bunch.

After much communication and research, the family selected Iceland as an exotic destination. Three hours of sunlight, snow and cold all seemed far more interesting.

So Hayden & Andrea and Evan & Steph joined us at Gatwick airport for the short haul to Iceland. It was cold and dark, as we had expected and it was also exotic. The highlights were

  • Learning how to walk on icy roads without slipping over
  • Learning how to rug up before heading outside
  • Watching the sun rise at 11:30am over a lake surrounded by snow covered mountains
  • Touching the ever-expanding tectonic plate between Europe and North America
  • Waiting to get the best shot of the spouting Geysir after which all geysers are named
  • Walking on a glacier which was showing off the beautiful clear, frozen, compacted snow
  • Finding frozen waterfalls
  • Walking on a beach on Christmas Day in the snow
  • Building a snowman and throwing snow balls on Christmas Day
  • Bathing in the hot waters of the Blue Lagoon with snow falling on our heads
  • Watching the waving lights of the Aurora Borealis

Eight days is not enough to explore this exotic island, but time enough to have a heap of fun!

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Congratulations Dr. Hayden Stainsby
B.Dig.Sys., M.Eng.(1), M.Eng.(2), Ph.D.

Ten or more years ago Hayden announced he wanted to undertake a PhD. It has been 3 years preparation with two masters achieved, and 4 further years of research and study.

Last night he achieved his dream.  The Mathematics Department of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona awarded him his doctorate for his disertation on Triangular Basis of Integral Closures, and we were very proud to be there to watch his presentation.

Although we understood little of the presentation, it was clear that the panel took great interest in his work.

For us, this is the culmination of our long journey through the Silk Route to Barcelona. Evan & Steph flew in to join us, making it a family affair.

We are particularly proud of Hayden for an outstanding achievement and grateful to the gorgeous Andrea who has given him so much support along the way.

Well done Dr Stainsby!

 

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Silk Route – East to West

We arrived in Istanbul to celebrate a symbolic end to our Silk Road adventure.  It has been an amazing journey where we have seen other cultures and experienced their food.  We have met delightful people and been spoilt rotten by our numerous guides and drivers.

Our journey started on 31 August when we left Melbourne for Hong Kong.  We picked up the “Silk Route” in Xi’an China, following it west in China then to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyrstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Armenia, Georgia and ended in Turkey.  We travelled by plane, train, boat and road (statistics will follow).

We learnt about ancient conquerers and their quest to keep the Silk Route open.  We also learnt about Russia’s involvement in Central Asia since the mid-19th century, and the impact of the collapse of the USSR on these countries.

The “Silk Road” is not a road at all – in fact many routes were used, and in our travels we swapped from one route to another.

The Silk Road Project

The Silk Road Project in Khiva, showing some of the many routes of trade.

In Iran we travelled a highway that had ancient caravanserai (resting houses) beside it every 30 kilometers.  This was a day’s journey for a camel train.  The highway has been built on that route.

The term “Silk Road” is also modern, created by the 19th century German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen who

is noted for coining the terms “Seidenstraße” and “Seidenstraßen” = “Silk Road(s)” or “Silk Route(s)” in 1877.

The journey has been made famous by Marco Polo, and there is much debate as to whether he brought noodles to Italy or spaghetti to China.  He was not the first European to reach China,

but he was the first to leave a detailed chronicle of his experience, recorded in Livres des merveilles du monde (Book of the Marvels of the World, also known as The Travels of Marco Polo, c. 1300)

A new project called the Black Sea Silk Route Corridor describes what the Silk Route really was.

The fabled Silk Road of lore was more than a trade route, it was a road of ideas, a throughway of culture. History’s first transcontinental “super highway” enabled commerce, science, arts, culture and ideas to course the empires and nation states that hugged its spine. Perhaps its greatest gift was not any of these, as important as they are. Still, it was a conduit of peace, for trade cannot travel across closed borders nor can it prosper in times of conflict. At its greatest, the Silk Road promoted tolerance and peaceful co-existence.

Now it is time to catch up on photos and stories from our journey along parts of the Silk Route.  Stories are written in the Central Asia menu, and on Bruce’s blog site.

Thea pointing west to the Silk Road from the ancient city wall of Xi'an

Thea pointing west to the Silk Road from the ancient city wall of Xi’an

At Gate 5 of the Great Bazaar, symbolic end to our Silk Road journey

Thea at Gate 5 of the Great Bazaar, symbolic end to our Silk Road journey

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