Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Caribbean Dreams

The beach stretches for perhaps a kilometre, in a gentle crescent.  The sand is soft and powdery and white, and the sea gently lapping it is warm and crystal clear.  The sun shines hot in this tropical paradise, but there is a cooling breeze keeping the temperature bearable and ruffling the palm fronds.  Along the edge of the beach there are dozens of such trees providing welcoming shade when the sun gets too hot to bear any longer.  Further back, beyond the road that runs past the bay, hills rise up to form the centre of the island and provide a natural barrier that shelters this beach from the stronger winds that blow from time to time.  The hills are covered in thick green vegetation, the classic tropical rainforest that is home to snakes and lizards and parrots and even monkeys, and beautiful butterflys with vivid blue and yellow-tipped wings as big as my hand.  There are footpaths through the jungle, and little streams, cool and invitingly clear as they run down to the sea, and from time to time they widen out into welcoming little pools, often fed by waterfalls cascading down from a ridge.

At each end of the beach there are rocky headlands, with little natural pools for children to splash in safely away from the sea, their already warm waters heated even more by the sun and lacking the tide's cooling motion.   There is a small hotel at one end of the beach, no more than 20 rooms, with a pool that no-one uses during daylight (why would anyone use a chlorinated pool this close to the clear warm ocean?) and an open air bar on the terrace.  Lilting reggae music comes from the speakers behind the bar. 

The beach is not too crowded, no more than a couple of hundred people spread out across its entire crescent, and most of them are lazing in the shade of the palms.  Tourists, their skin colour ranging from the white of the newest arrivals, through various stages of pink - including some that look positively painful and radioactive - to the deep brown of those approaching the end of the holiday.  Here and there, local dreadlocked hawkers prowl, selling beach towels, or shell bracelets, or home-made wooden-bead hippie necklaces, or intricately carved pots and drinking vessels made out of coconut shells.  Children of all ages, some naked, frolic in the shallow sea and build sandcastles while their parents read books and drink chilled beer, served from the hotel's pool bar or carried in big plastic cool-boxes.

It's an idyllic scene isn't it?  One that we spent six months trying to replicate last year....but unsuccessfully.

Because you will not find anything like that in Trinidad.

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The prospect of spending a year or more working in the Caribbean, when it was offered to me, was an enticing one, especially when the company agreed to let me take Ania and the kids with me for the duration.  Scenes like the one above sprang to my mind - possibly the work of an over-active imagination - as I considered working in the bank during the week and lounging with my beloveds on a beach at weekends (maybe even after work, in the evenings, too).  A little research soon changed the prospect to a more realistic one.  People I spoke to who had already spent time there - on my project or others - were less than enthusistic.

"Third world country, mate" said my mate Paul, a recruitment consultant.  "Full of pissheads and crack addicts."

"Well, the weather's ok, if you're not in the rainy season," said someone else. "But it gets dark early, and you can't go out cos it's dangerous."

"Sea's polluted," said a third contact.  "Their sewage system is shit." 

Well, yes, I suppose it is......

So forget about personal recommendation, what does the oracle that is Wiki say?  Surprisingly little in fact.  The main page features a little map of the island (and its sister Tobago), another that shows where it is in relation to the rest of the West Indies and South America, some basic demographics (size, population, etc) a paragraph of history (but with a separate linked article), and shorter notes abouts its geography, zoology and economy.  And that's about it.  Oh, and a link to the Trinidad Tourist Authority official website. 

As you would expect, that was much more detailed, with loads of enticing photos of beaches and things, details about climate (hours of sunshine, rainfall averages and so forth), information about tourist attractions like Carnival and the Pitch Lake (what???) and of course hotel and restaurant recommendations.  Now how accurate the information contained on any official tourist office website is likely to be is, at best, open to debate but it gave me a good idea anyway.

Then I looked at the UK Foreign Office website, as I always do when I'm going somewhere new.  Amongst other information, it gives details of visa and health requirements (something my company, generally speaking, knows nothing - and cares even less - about).  It also gives you the opportunity of recording where you are in the country before you even get there, so that in the event of an emergency, like an earthquake or a war breaking out (as nearly happened when I first went to Beirut, courtesy of the bloody Israelis), the Embassy staff there can track you down and help you get out.  The problem with the site, however, is that it always, but ALWAYS, makes it sound like the last place on earth you would want to go to.  Every country, according the website, is "at risk" of random terrorist attack - even somewhere like Liechtenstein or San Marino (I mean for God's sake!  No self-respecting Arab fundamentalist is going to target them....it's where most of their funding is squirelled away, probably....).  Almost everywhere has higher crime rates than the UK, especially violent crime like murder, kidnapping, gun crime.... (Oh, please! The likelihood of me being kidnapped and held to ransom in somewhere like Zurich, where even the beggars are probably better off than me, is remote to say the least....).  I shouldn't mock, I suppose, because the website is a very informative and useful tool that I make a lot of use of, but it really does exaggerate to the most ridiculous degree.

Anyway, its entry for Trinidad said all the usuals (terrorist attacks - check; violent crime including murder, kidnapping etc - check; appalling driving standards, crap roads and worse cars - check) but also some new stuff.  For instance, being naked on a beach is illegal and may lead to imprisonment (unlike in Jamaica and St.Martin and the ABC islands - Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao - , all of which have dedicated nudist resorts, never mind beaches).  For instance, homosexuality is frowned upon and likely to lead to a damned good thrashing if you are gay and caught behaving improperly (very Eastern European or Middle Eastern that one). For instance, certain (named) beaches should not be frequented as there have been instances of armed robbery "involving UK citizens in 2007" .   It was more comforting on the subject of natural disasters - the island is just outside the hurricane belt so very rarely suffers from hurricanes (true, although my God, does it rain sometimes!) but there are frequent earth tremors as it's on the edge of the Atlantic Plate although there is rarely any major 'quake activity (also true, I suppose: I never noticed any tremors in the 7 months or so I was there, but there were certainly no big earthquakes).

Bit of a mixed picture emerging here.  So I asked questions of the people on the project (well, the PM anyway, as he was the only person I was at that time in contact with).  He was reassuring - he had been there for about 4 years and had never had any problems, nor had anyone else on the project team.  He wasn't exaggerating and I found out why later, when I arrived on site.....but read on.

Then I remembered a pal of mine lived there.  I hadn't seen him for about three years, since Sofia and a certain Irish pub, and at that time he was having a bit of a rough time (relationship issues) and I got the impression he was thinking of leaving for Europe again.  I mailed him, gave him the story and after a week or so he replied (he is hopelessly slow when it comes to corresponding, unless you use Facebook or something).  He gave me some good information, but again it was a bit of a mixed bag, and seemed to support what both the Foreign Office and the Trinidad Tourist Authority were saying.....namely yes, it's a great place, you'll have a ball but don't go out after dark, don't go here or there unless you're with a local or a group of people......

OK, fine.  I'm clear now....Trinidad is a great place to be and a dangerous shithole, all at the same time.

Now what time is my flight again?

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My first impressions, when I eventually arrived, were a bit blurred courtesy of a tortuous journey from Warsaw via New York that took just over 24 hours.  I had already attempted it once previously, routing through both Heathrow and New York, only to be defeated by the closure of European airspace due to the Icelandic volcano (see Let the Train take the strain for a little more about that trip).  After a couple of weeks delay while the dust settled and flying returned to normal, I set off again, this time taking a direct flight from Warsaw to JFK as it was cheaper, and connecting there for Trinidad.  Now LOT is a decent enough airline, by Eastern European standards, and I use them extensively, but mainly for short haul flights of a couple of hours, no more.  Long distance is something else again.....and the Warsaw - JFK flight was at best bearable.  The plane was ok, a wide-bodied Boeing 767, but it was beginning to show its age and needed refurbishment  - the seats were uncomfortable and lacking legroom, the entertainment system of questionable quality (a plastic headset that resembled a stethoscope from a child's toy doctor set did nothing for sound reproduction....) and the food merely average.  And the flight was so l-o-o-o-n-g..... The volcano was still spouting its ash into the skies so to avoid it we routed up above Norway, then across the northerly extremeties of Iceland (which at least afforded a spectacular view of the distant eruption and ash cloud, way to the south), then across the toe of Greenland and down the eastern seaboard of Canada and the US.  The detour added over 2 hours to the flight, making it nearly 11 in all.  Then followed the usual JFK transit experience - which is to say a couple of hours standing in line waiting for a surly Homeland Security officer to process your admission, before collecting your baggage and lugging it around for another three or four hours waiting for your connecting flight check-in to open (there is no automatic baggage transfer in the US, passengers are all considered terrorists until proven otherwise) and queueing up again to swap your bag for a boarding card.  Another hour or so to wait, then the night flight to Port of Spain, this time on a Caribbean Airlines 737.

So by the time I arrived in a bright and sunny Port of Spain at about 6 a.m. I was feeling, to say the least, fragile.  I can never sleep properly on a flight, no matter how long the trip, and unable to use a lounge in JFK (I had spent the time in an airport bar instead) I had been awake for getting on for 32 hours.  Yet more delays in passport control meant I didn't get into the arrivals hall until after 7.  I met the driver laid on by the bank, and he led me outside, told me to wait, then strolled off to get the car.  By then, the airport was getting busy, with a constant stream of cars coming and going, adding their petrol fumes to the already hot atmosphere - it was already over 25C at that time of day, and would reach 30 by lunchtime.  It took Paul (the driver - I got to know him quite well over time and he was a nice guy) nearly 20 minutes to return: it's a big car park, he was parked some distance away from the terminal and, mainly, no-one hurries in Trinidad - for anything.  I spent the time looking around at the scenery and the people around me.

The airport lies in a fairly central position on the island.  To the north, and only a few miles away, lies the Northern Range, high hills (or small mountains if you prefer) that stretch along the entire northern coast of the island.  They are covered in a dense rainforest that we explored a couple of times later on in the year and form a natural barrier that shelters the beaches on the north shore from any southerly winds off the South American mainland.  The southernmost island in the Caribbean, Trinidad lies only 7 miles off the Venezualan coast - we went to one beach on the north shore where the mainland was clearly visible, and it was possible to do a day trip there from Port of Spain.  The centre and south of the island is flatter and marshier (there are a couple of sizeable swampy areas, one of them a national park), and relatively undeveloped.  Such agriculture as there is is performed here, but it's a very run-down industry these days, much of it virtually subsistence farming.  Shortly after I arrived there was a general election, and the new incoming coalition government was elected partly on a promise to devote much more energy and resources towards rebuilding the agriculture sector that they stated had been "ignored and run down for over 30 years".  I saw little evidence of change or investment in the time I was there, and the discontent continued - the coalition's honeymoon period seemed to be coming to an end when I left.

The airport was busy with the morning's traffic - there are several flights to and from destinations as scattered as Toronto, New York, Dallas, London Gatwick, and of course the other Caribbean islands and South American mainland, as well as the inter-island service to Tobago that runs every couple of hours - but there were very few people you could point to and say, without doubt, "tourist".  For a start there were very few white people - I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb.  The vast majority of arrivals and departures (and staff) were evidently locals, or other Caribbean Negroes, with a large minority of people of Indian descent, which bore out the population demographic from Wiki.  It also confirmed the statement that most people go to Trinidad on business rather than for a vacation (unless there is a cricket Test match going on or something).  The island is not a typical Caribbean holiday destination but rather an industrial powerhouse (at least by local standards) with major shipping and oil & gas industries - tourism comes a rather poor third behind them in economic terms (but still ahead of agriculture and general manufacturing).  And of course banking, the reason for my trip - we had sold to a regional bank about 5 years before and were busily implementing on several islands across the entire Caribbean area.  There was a good three or four years work still to be done, what with upgrades and converting another bank's systems to ours (they had bought out our client a year or so previously and decided to consolidate everything onto our platform.....nice deal).

Eventually, Paul turned up with the cab and we headed off to Port of Spain.  It was refreshing, after years spent mainly driving on European roads, to find myself on the English side of the road in a right-hand drive car.  When I eventually got use of a car myself it was like old times...although it took Ania a few days to get used to the change.  The drive into town was along one of two motorways on the island, the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway that runs roughly east to west across the north end of the island, parallelling the old Eastern Main Road (the other motorway runs north to south and is called the Uriah Butler Highway).  By the time we joined the road, a mile or two from the airport, the traffic had built up heavily with the morning rush hour, so the drive to PoS, normally taking about 40 minutes, took over 2 hours.  We ran through a few small towns along the route, all looking pretty run down and in disrepair - very common as I found out when I started exploring more - , past one good sized shopping mall (we visited it twice subsequently and found it mostly closed both times: nothing is open on a Sunday) and several sets of roadworks..  As stated on the FO website, the road though quite new was not in the best shape, despite the preponderence for pimped pick-up trucks the cars and especially lorries were mostly falling apart (and the buses worse) and the quality of driving generally poor.  Indicators seemed to be decorative, lane swapping constant without warning, and speed limits ignored.  It was a bit like rural Poland or Lebanon only hotter....and I got used to it quite quickly.  At least the amble in gave me the opportunity to doze a bit in the back seat.

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Initially, I stayed in a hotel, the Kapok.  It stands a little outside of central Port of Spain on the main road out to the suburb of Maraval and the north coast, and a couple of hundred yards from the Queens Park Savannah - think Central Park New York or Hyde Park London.   It was comfortable enough, with a pleasant pool outside, a cozy bar/restuarant next to the pool and, on the top floor, a really good Thai/Chinese restaurant that as well as offering excellent and reasonably priced food had superb views across the Savannah and downtown PoS to the container port and sea beyond.   The rooms were comfortable if a little spartan and noisy (at least those at the front, overlooking as they do the main road), with cable tv and the inevitable mini-bar.  The channel choice was limited to US channels, as you would expect, with CNN International and a few Spanish-language Mexican and South American channels for good measure.  Programming was a bit hit-and-miss - some good movie channels, and some half decent comedy shows (I became quite a fan of the infamous Charlie Sheen and his show Two and Half Men over the months I watched it) especially on the US channels, but it lacked the depth of programming you would find on the BBC or other European networks.  The local Trini stations were poor I thought: a lot of news shows and religious programming catering for the non-comformist churches and Hindu congregations that seemed to proliferate on the island, and as far as I could make out anyway little in the way of "home-made" shows.  The sport was ok, though - I watched the World Cup from South Africa there, and the shows were quite entertaining even if the football wasn't.  Although it has to be said the presenters and pundits were nowhere near as good as on Match of the Day.  An American station, Fox Soccer, was pretty good too - owned by Newscorp it used Sky TV's top presenters Richard Keys and Andy Grey, plus a couple of ex-Team USA players I'd never heard of.  Their daily highlights and discussion show was excellent.

The Kapok was perhaps a 15 minute walk from the office.  There was a free bus provided there and back which I caught most days - it was too hot to walk, especially in the mornings.  The team at the bank were nice too, all from our US offices in Florida, and some of them had been on the project for three years or more.  They all had apartments in Maraval suburb and there was very little after-work socialising, despite the building being about 50 yards from a really good sports bar/restuarant.   This was down to a deep mistrust of the, shall we say, criminal element in Port of Spain - no-one was comfortable being out after dark, even for an hour or so and a couple of beers.  I walked back to the hotel a few evenings after dark, alongside the Savannah and never felt in the least bit threatened, although the area was infamous for its muggings and a centre for dope pushing.  Maybe I was just lucky.  There were other parts of the city that were very definately out-of-bounds, in particular the down-town area of old PoS.  I only went there a couple of times, during the day-time as the Immigration Office where I had my work permit issued was close to it, and it was indeed a very seedy place.  Once I was walking back to the office, and as I passed a shop a couple of fat local girls came out, one of whom barged into me and pushed me off the path into the road.  She gave me a volley of foul-mouthed abuse, accused me of pushing her and threatening all kinds of retribution.  I told her to fuck off and carried on walking to the office without looking back.  I didn't go back to that area again.

Over the months I was there, the warnings I had been given and that appeared on the Foreign Office website became more pertinent.  Crime, especially violent crime, was indeed endemic although thankfully it passed us by.  Every day on the news bulletins on the radio there were reports of another shooting, or knifing or whatever, somewhere on the island (typically in Port of Spain itself but also in a place called Sangre Grande where my mate lived, over near the island's east coast) - but I never heard a single report of anyone being arrested for one of them.  One case sticks in my mind, shortly before we came home.  An American guy, a Marine, was visiting relatives in one of the down-town neighbourhoods (he had been born in Trinidad but his family had moved to the US when he was a kid apparently).  He had gone out for a beer with a cousin and some friends, and walking back to his family after dark took a wrong turn somewhere and found himself in the wrong neighbourhood.  The news story said he had stopped to ask the way, and been shot four times.  He died there and then in the gutter.  The US sent a team of CIA people in "to help the Trinidad police", and the body was returned to the US under military escort.  Whether they caught the killers I have no idea.....but it would not surprise me if they were indeed caught and dealt with in an alley somewhere by the CIA guys.

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For the first couple of months I was pretty much on my own.  Ania and the kids were due out at the end of July, when school broke up, so in that period while she was winding things down back home and packing as much as possible for storage, I was trying to find somewhere better to live and a school for Kuba.  Accomodation was not too much of a problem.  As I said earlier, all of our permanent staff were housed in a couple of apartment complexes in Maraval, perhaps a five minute drive from the Kapok on the same coast road.  I looked at a couple of apartments and settled for one in a complex called the The Greens.   This was furthest away from the office, but the courtesy bus started from there so no problem getting to and from work, and the complex itself was good.  It was basically two rows of apartment blocks, three storeys high, and town houses facing each other across a play area and swimming pool, with plenty of car parking and gated 24 hour security - as safe as you're likely to find anywhere on the island.  The apartment itself was on the second floor, and had two bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, a good sized lounge/dining room and kitchen.  Some of the furniture had clearly seen better days - especially in the kitchen whch really needed a complete re-fit - but it was comfortable enough, and of course it was all paid for by the bank out of project funds.  The pool was maybe 50 yards away, and when the kids arrived they fell in love it with it.  Shopping was a bit of an issue, the nearest supermarket being a 15 minute walk away, so a car was a must.  We eventually, after some minor unpleasantness with one of the guys on the project, got use of one of the staff vehicles during the week and most weekends, so it worked out ok.

School was harder.  The local schools were plentiful, but all very run down and poorly equipped, like most places we saw in Trinidad, and we were also very concerned about Kuba.  For a start, he was likely to find being the only white kid in school tough.  Add to that his relatively poor English (although fluent in Polish, the absence of any English tv and most of the time any English speaking parent - me - meant that his spoken English was was well behind) and we had grounds to worry and the need to find a good private school.   My company, true to form, were unwilling to help out with the cost.  I spent hours on the internet trying to find a school, and visited both the British Embassy and the Department of Education offices (they were within 5 minutes walk of the bank) but neither were any help at all.  Eventually, a lady from the office put me in touch with her cousin who was a teacher at a school close to the apartment.  I met her at the school but it was full up and had 50 kids on its waiting list for the kindergarten year, but she very kindly arranged for me to visit another school where she thought a new class was being started.  That school, the Arbor, was Catholic and about 5 minutes walk from the bank.  I met the head teacher, we talked about our needs and she accepted Kuba straight away - she even gave me a discount on the ex-pat school fees for the term as we weren't sure whether he would stay the full year.  It turned out to be a wonderful choice.  He had a great time there, made some close friendships with the other kids that in turn led Ania and I into local friendships away from the office, and did his self-confidence and, in particular, his English the power of good.  We were very sad when we came home and had to take him out but one of the parents gave us a dvd of the school Christmas concert, in which he took part with the rest of the class, that she had edited especially with a whole series of other pictures of the kids and teachers and personal messages to remember them by.  It was a lovely gesture.

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In the weeks before the family arrived, things were pretty hectic at work, and the bank went live at the end of June.  It got easier then, and with some of the project team going off to the States for a while I managed to get a car and do a bit of exploring. 

First of all, around Port of Spain.  It's the island's capital, but it's a very run-down place despite all the wealth on the island from the oil and shipping industries.  There are some very nice and obviously expensive areas, particularly around Maraval, but many other areas that are squalid and best avoided.  I was told there is wide-spread corruption on the island, and the National Theatre is often cited as the proof.  It stands just by the Savannah and is a very similar design to the Sydney Opera House, although a good deal smaller.  The thing is it cost a huge sum of money to build and when completed the accoustics in it are so bad (as a result of serious and irredeemable design flaws) that it's not fit for purpose.....no serious performer wants to play there, and it's mainly used for one-off conferences and art exhibitions.  It's widely acknowledged that significant amounts of money found their way into the wallets and offshore bank accounts of a number of senior politicians during its design and construction, and the Coalition government used this example in its successful anti-corruption election platform.  Not that the Coalition is without any demons of its own: Jack Warner, probably the most famous politician in Trinidad, is Minister of Transport and a senior officer in FIFA, football's governing body, where he represents and controls the block voting  for the entire Caribbean, Central and North American region.  There have been many well-documented cases of his selling his vote in return for funding for alleged "good causes to benefit sport in Trinidad" but many of the island's facilities are below par and his personal bank accounts bulging with cash.  Just before the last World Cup in 2010, and again a few months later as bidding for the next two tournaments was being finalised and contracts awarded, he was accused of selling World Cup tickets at vastly inflated prices through his family travel business, and selling his vote to guarantee the award of one tournament to England, only to then vote in favour of someone else who offered more cash.  The allegations were of course denied amid threats from Warner of personal lawsuits, and FIFA's management (of which he is a senior member) lack the courage to investigate thoroughly.

So despite the nation's wealth, very little of it seems to have gone in making life better for its citizens in PoS, where gun crime and drug trafficking are major problems.  But what of other areas?

I must confess to not visiting the majority of the island, staying mainly around the northerly area close to Port of Spain (apart from one trip across to Sangre Grande for my mate's wedding).  But within that admittedly narrow experience, I saw very little to suggest that conditions elsewhere were any better.  For instance, I often drove along the North Coast Road, past Maracas Beach  (the nearest we came to finding our idylll as described at the beginning of this piece) and Las Cuevas Beach (the one the Foreign Office warned against), through villages like Filette and Blanchiseusse, until the road disappeared into a rough dirt track in the jungle beyond Blanchiseusse.  Apart from a few spectacular villas hugging the coast and cliffs between those two villages (and all of these surrounded by high stone walls and strong steel gates) I saw few buildings that were much better than corrugated iron and breeze block shacks.  The villages themselves were fascinating, with these humbles houses closely packed on the fringes of the rain-forest, with chickens and wild dogs and cats roaming freely around, and kids of all ages wandering barefoot and dressed in old football shorts and basketball vests down to the (often pleasant looking) beaches.  The beaches in the main looked very good, and rarely had more than a handful of people on them (and most of them were clustered around the ubiquitous pimped pick-up trucks, the backs packed full of beer and rum, with music blaring out at high volume), but somehow I never felt totally comfortable going to any of them - without being overtly threatened, I was in a white minority of one, and thus constantly stared at by people of all ages.

Even Maracas, although a lovely beach, was undeveloped.  Along the road there are several small shacks that sell food and beer and sofr drinks, the most popular (and famous) being Richard's.  His specialty (one shared by all the other diners) is bake 'n' shark - basically a toasted bap filled with a couple of shark steaks and various salads and sauces.  We ate it a few times and it was delicious.....although what sets Richard's apart from the all the others was impossible, for me at least, to tell.  There were also a few stalls selling beach gear - towels, body-boards, flip-flops and the like - and a single hotel at one end of the beach.  And that is all - on any other island, with a beach as enticing as Maracas, one would expect a number of larger hotels and guesthouses, but such development had passed it by: no bad thing, in my opinion.  We used Maracas a lot, as the nearest decent beach to PoS (a spectacular 40 minute drive away).  It wasn't good for swimming, as the surf can be very strong, hence the popularity of body-boards, but the sand is clean and soft, there is plenty of shelter under the palm trees and it's a nice place to chill out with a  cold Carib beer on a Sunday.

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Reading through the last couple of sections, it's easy to get the impression that Trinidad is not a nice place to be, and that we were not really happy there, but this is far from the truth.

We were admittedly living in one of the better areas, and made the best use we could of the pool there (both Kuba and Ally learned to swim there).  We were fortunate to make good friends through Kuba's school, and also with one particular neighbour who lived opposite us, Caryn from South Africa, whose kids ended up best buddies with ours.  We met and got talking in the pool, and over time she showed us many good places (she had been there a few years) and more importantly introduced Ania to a local mother and toddler group - more friends for her and of course for Ally.  So the kids were often invited to parties, and of course either Ania or sometimes both of us went along.  Sometimes it was little embarrassing - everyone else seemed to be living in lovely bungalows with nice gardens and often pools and a couple of cars, and there was us, in our little two-bedroom apartment and shared Nissan Tiida.  People were constantly surprised when they heard that my company were not being more generous...... 

Once Kuba was invited to his best friend's birthday party.  Ally was a little under the weather so Ania took Kuba.  They arrived at a mansion on the hill overlooking Maraval and Port of Spain, and parked the Tiida with the Range Rovers and Porsches and Mercedes and other high level four-wheel drives, and went to the door.  Here an armed security guard checked their names from a guest-list, and took them through to the rear-terrace, where there were two pools, a jaccuzzi, childrens entertainment, a buffet and the most spectacular views across the valley.  It turned out the boy's father is one of the wealthiest men in Trinidad, has his own shipping company and runs the entire PoS Port Authority and Container Terminal.  How the other half live.....

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But we had some good expeditions. 

Sangre Grande for the wedding was the first, a weekend on the east coast.  The wedding and reception was held in a clifftop hotel with a couple of pools and a private beach, and we had a good time.  Our room was comfortable and overlooked the sea from a fairly private balcony, and the reception was fun - no expense spared: live band (who were excellent), a local Indian - Hindu drum chorus (the bride was of that descent, although a native Trini), and a free bar all night.  In the morning, the remaining guests headed off to a nearby beach for a barbecue, but we gave that a miss and headed home.

Caryn also showed us a nice jungle walk just outside PoS (see A Walk in the Jungle) that we returned to a number of times.  One Sunday we were even fortunate enough to see a red howler monkey in the trees above us - he was about the size of a three year old child, hanging from a couple of branches by all four legs and his tail, and watching us strolling along the road.  Before we could bring the camera to bear, he realised we had spotted him, let out a yell and swung away through the tree-tops, deeper into the rainforest.  Although native to the island, the animals aren't seen that frequently in the wild, so we counted ourselves very lucky.....it's just a shame we weren't quick enough to get a picture!

We took another trip, again on Caryn's recommendation, to the Asa Wright Bird Sanctuary.  This is in the forest beyond Blanchisseuse, and on the way there the heavens opened with a typical Trini tropical rainstorm......and boy, did it rain!  The road is not good, once you turn off the North Coast road at Blanchisseuse and head inland, and the rain made it in places nearly impassable - especially for our little Tiida.  To add to the experience, we were very very low on petrol, and the place wasn't too well signposted.  I was becoming increasingly worried that we might end up running out of petrol in the middle of the jungle, but fortunately we made it, just as the storm reached its highest intensity.  We had to stay there for perhaps an hour before the rain abated enough to let us move on, and although it was a nice enough place, surrounded by beautiful rainforest, we saw nothing of any note because of the bad weather.  I'm sure on a good day it would be brilliant, but for us it was disappointing.  The nearest garage was another 10 miles away, fortunately all downhill, and I think we were running on fumes when we arrived there.  All in all, it was an entertaining trip.

Our last expedition, the next day (and just over week before we came home for good) was to the Caroni Swamp.  This is a big national park just to the south of PoS, and is a massive mangrove swamp.  There are boat trips through the waterways and we caught the last one of the day.  It was a two hour trip, and we saw snakes, crabs, extraordinary fishes that have four eyes (they swim at the surface with two eyes protruding above the water) and dozens of different birds including cormorants and the red ibis (the island's national bird).  There are crocodile too, but we missed out on those, which was a shame.   It was a nice ending to our time in Trinidad.

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So.....Caribbean Dreams.

Well, we had them before we went and I guess we still have them.  Trinidad is not the typical Caribbean island, not a tourist paradise, despite what its Tourism website might proclaim.  It's too industrial and poorly maintained to be that.  It needs huge investment to right some of the more obvious wrongs (the lack of decent roads and infrastructure, the obvious crime issues,  and the endemic corruption - to name just three) and I'm still not sure there is the political will to do so.  The Coalition was elected to do just that and was trying to do so, but there were signs when we left that their honeymoon period was over and not enough real progress was being made.   Maybe it is different now, and better.

Did we enjoy the experience?  Absolutely.  We have some great memories - many of them captured on the hundreds of pictures we took while we were there - and made some lasting friendships.   Kuba and Ally absolutely thrived there - their English improved, they became more confident and learned to swim, their appetites improved.  Ally, in particular, had endured a wretched time the previous winter, catching pnuemonia three times and being hospitalised, but the time spent in Trini improved her health tremendously - she is bigger and stronger and more lively, and yes, more beautiful (as Kuba is bigger and stronger and more handsome).  This winter, since we came home, she has been much better and despite the odd cold (which we've all suffered from and always will in a climate like Poland's) she has got through it without concerns - and that in itself has made the trip worthwhile.

Would I go back?  Well, we're planning to return in a few years, so that Kuba can catch up with his many friends, but whether that will actually happen who knows, really?  So to Trini, a probably.   To the Caribbean generally?  You betcha!  I want to go to the ABC islands, where I should actually be now, if my company hadn't changed its mind.  They look beautiful.....and the vision at the beginning of this post might even be found on one of them.  But when.....ah, that's the big unanswerable!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Pass the Eggs please!

So here we are, Easter has rolled around once again.  We have as usual received the customary greeting from Our Charismatic Greek Chairman, wishing us all a Happy Easter and reminiscing about his childhood.  All very pleasant, but somewhat undermined by the mail received the same day from our Less Than Charismatic CEO with his thoughts on our slightly disappointing first Quarter results and subsequent dip in the share price (now there is an unforgivable sin.....worse than the Crucifixion of Our Lord....).   It was of course everybody's fault but his.....Sales not performing well enough, Development not good enough, Engagements not doing their sums properly and as for Services - well, forget it!    The fact that we are all locked into a way of working largely defined by him, a number-cruncher with no real knowledge of what the rest of us do every day (and the struggles we all face in consequence of his brainwaves).  Of course, the situation has no doubt killed any lingering but faint possibility that we may actually get a bonus for last year's graft, but still......I never anticipated anything anyway - been around the block too many times to expect fair play.

Anyway, I couldn't give a toss about him.

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When I was a kid, and when my first family back home were kids, in England, Easter basically meant loads and loads of chocolate eggs, sufficient to make you sick, and later much beer.  It meant Morecombe & Wise re-runs on the BBC and the usual selection of game-show special editions and old movies - a poor man's Christmas in fact.  It meant at least two football matches, on either Good Friday or the Saturday and on Easter Monday.  As players in local leagues, trying to catch up a fixture backlog from the winter we never got to watch the big games (unless injured or suspended of course), and as I played for a couple of clubs - one from a Saturday league and another a Sunday league) I sometimes played all four days.  Happy days.  The religious basis for the entire weekend lost focus as I got older, from my teenage years I guess, until we had the boys.  My first wife was Catholic so Mass on Good Friday and Easter Sunday was a must (and indeed the weeks of Lent leading up to it), and in later years, when my Second Son was about 10 and managed get us both on the reading roster, we participated a couple of times in the Masses.  But overall, Easter was a fun time and a greedy time.

In Poland, it's diifferent.  The country is much more devout than England of course, so the weekend means much more and is less commercialised.  There are fewer chocolate eggs, for a start, so my digestion has improved no end.  Instead, we hard boil a load of eggs and when cooled hand-paint them.  The eggs (as a symbol of new life) are then placed in decorated baskets, together with bread and meat (for a wealthy year), salt and pepper (the symbol for house and family preservation) and little ram figure to symbolise the Resurrection, and then taken to the local church for blessing.  There are regular sessions throughout the Saturday, and it's lovely time as families and kids from all over town or village or neighbourhood gather for the blessings.  The food is then used as a major part of the Easter Sunday breakfast.  Then Easter Monday (always a bit of a non-event in England) is celebrated as Wet Monday - where kids countrywide get water pistols, hose-pipes and God know's what else to give everyone a good soaking.  The fun starts at breakfast time - a few years ago we stayed at my in-laws and I was ambushed by their kids when I got out of bed to visit the loo.....I was drenched in a crossfire from about four SuperSoakers.  It was brilliant.

I'm sure other countries and cultures have their customs and traditions....I'd be interested to hear from any of you readers what they are!

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In the meantime, let me wish you all Happy Easter wherever you are and however you celebrate it.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Lounge Lizard

One of the advantages of doing a lot of business travel over the years is membership of airline alliances.  I'm in two, probably the biggest in the business - those of British Airways (called the oneworld Alliance) and Lufthansa (a.k.a. the Star Alliance).  Aside from a huge range of destinations, courtesy of their partner airlines, that make it easy for our travel people to get the best bookings, I also get to collect air-miles....thousands of them.  Like all such schemes you have an entry level, usually identified by a membership card in blue, then you progress through silver and gold levels, each with increased benefits - the Star Alliance has a top level that provides a black card and chauffeur driven limo pick-up to/from the aircraft door.  Over the years I've got all the way to gold status with BA and back down to blue (when I moved to Warsaw I pretty much stopped using them due to the lack of BA flights from there: a single destination, London Heathrow), and have made silver for the past three years with Lufthansa (whose partners include LOT, my local airline).  I'd like to get to gold - the card does look good in the wallet - but the ratio of status to award miles (which is how the Star Alliance decides the card colour) is quite low, unlike in oneworld where the ratio is 1:1.  It took me a couple of years of exclusive Lufthansa/LOT flying to get to silver and it's taking forever to get any further.  Maybe next year..... 

Anyway, the award miles are great.  I got up to around 150,000 on BA, and used them to make a few trips back to the UK, to fly family to Warsaw from the UK, and to get us away on two holidays.  The first was to Malta before we had the kids (good holiday - we got cheap accomodation from a mate of mine and Ania got her PADI diving licence) and then last year, to use up the last few miles before they expired, we all (including Ania's mum) went to England for a week, business class.  I wrote about that earlier - see the entry That was the Year that was.  I've not used any of my Star Alliance miles, though I'm up to about 175,000 now.  This is mainly because it's a bit tricky.  BA was simple - I decided where I wanted to go, went on line, selected the dates and there you go, all booked.  Simples, as they say.  Last year Ania and I decided to leave the kids with her mum for a week and head off to either the Maldives or Seychelles for a belated honeymoon - Kuba was 6 months old when we got married so we weren't able to get away then, but now the kids are older and happy to stay with their granny we can do so.  So I went on line to try and check flights and so on for Lufthansa.....and could find nothing.  Both the island paradises are featured destinations but for when we wanted to travel (October last year, six months ahead) there was no flight availability.  After several phone calls I managed to get through to a call centre in Hamburg, and was advised that, because they don't know how many seats will be available for awards on any given flight until the last couple of weeks before departure it wasn't possible to book that far in advance.  This leads to a difficult decision to make - do you book accomodation well in advance, to get the best bargains, and hope there is flight availability, or do you wait til the last minute to book your flight and then pay top dollar to get accomodation - if indeed there is any available - at your chosen destination?  I asked Lufthansa - the girl had no idea and told me to send a letter.  I sent an e-mail instead, got a nice acknowledgement, but nothing since.  We're now planning to use them next year to visit a friend of ours (Caryn from Trinidad - see A walk in the Jungle) who has returned to her homeland South Africa.  So we'll have accomodation sorted and should be able to get the flights booked, once we've agreed dates.  It will be an adventure - Lufthansa use the Airbus 380 super-jumbos on the route (the kids, both aeroplane fanatics, will love that!), and Caryn lives in the bush.  Her next door neighbours are lions and elephants and antelope and God knows what else.

So the miles are nice.  But the best perk is, without doubt, lounge access.

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Now the average airport departure lounge is not the most pleasant place to be hanging around waiting for a flight.   Invariably overcrowded with seating that is both uncomfortable and inadequate, with overpriced food outlets and overpriced duty-free shopping, they are unfortunately a necessary evil.  Some of them are quite awful - Belgrade sticks in my mind: a small and dirty buuilding still bearing the scars from the wars 15 years or so ago, with a couple of seedy looking kiosks selling cheap local beer and greasy burgers, an understocked duty free shop and a handful of hard couches to sit on, I was glad I arrived only a half hour before departure.  It may have improved since then (there was evidence of building work at the airport) but it's not one I'm in a hurry to re-visit.   By contrast, Istanbul was excellant.  It's a massive building, with plenty of space and comfortable seating areas, a good range of food outlets and better choice of duty free shopping.  I passed through it a few times on my way home from Beirut (the fares on the route being cheaper than via Frankfurt, Milan or Paris) and each trip had transfer times of at least 10 hours.   But they weren't really a problem: I'd arrive there about 8 a.m. on the Saturday morning and head straight to Starbucks.  Breakfast of donuts or lemon cake and latte.  I could sit there happily reading my book, listening to my music and drinking coffee for hours, undisturbed in a comfortable armchair.  Then at lunch time I would go to a particular restuarant offering excellent local food and beer at very reasonable prices and while away another couple of hours.  Then a stroll around the duty free shops for an hour or so (rarely buying anything), before another trip to Starbucks.  A nice relaxing day.

Heathrow Terminal 5 isn't too bad either, nor Gatwick North - again, plenty of food places and shops but being the UK and BAA managed, ridculously expensive and in some cases lacking service.  Pretty much everywhere in the world you go into a bar or restaurant (whether at an airport or elsewhere), find a seat and very quickly someone will come and give you a menu and take your order.  And keep returning to your table all the time you are there to check if you need anything.  This is true even in JFK, which is an airport I hate.  This is called "Customer Service".  But in the UK it just doesn't happen, at least not as often.  The other week I was passing through Gatwick en route from Geneva to Jersey, and had about 4 hours to kill, over a lunch time.  When I got to the departure lounge, I strolled upstairs and checked out the food outlets.  There was a very nice looking place, closely modelled on a typical English pub, with a good range of beer taps behind the bar and a decent menu, with plenty of seating both inside the place and on the balcony outside, overlooking the duty free shopping area below.  Since this area was much less crowded, I made myself comfortable at a table by the balcony rail and settled down with my book.  Ten minutes later, I was still waiting to be served - while in the walkway between the balcony area and the bar stood 4 staff members chatting.  I waved at them.  They ignored me.  I reluctantly put my book down, walked over and asked for a menu and a pint of John Smiths.  They looked at me as if I was from the Planet Zog. 

"You have to go to the bar," said a spotty faced herbert whose badge said his name was Tom. 

"I'm sorry, " I said, "I thought you worked here." 

The spotty faced herbert shrugged his skinny shoulders.

"We do."

"Then please bring me a menu and pint of John Smiths."

He blinked and sighed in exasperation.

"We don't do waiter service, " he said.  "You have to get it from the bar yourself."

"Well, fuck you," I said.

I got my bag and went to TGI Fridays instead....waitress service and slightly cheaper food.

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So, when you are a member of an airline alliance, at least above entry level, these issues generally speaking disappear - because your sparkling silver (or gold or black) card gives you free access to their Business Lounge.  Happy days.  Comfortable seats, armchairs and tables, often with interesting views of the tarmac and runway areas.  Internet access to check the sports headlines or mail your wife to tell her you're on the way.  Televisions showing a variety of progammes, at least two of which (CNN and BBC World News) will be in English.  Newspapers and magazines to read or browse.  Clean and well maintained toilets.  Sometimes even showers, if you have time and fancy freshening up after a night flight.   You can even work at a desk, if you're that much of saddo.  And best of all....loads and loads of free food and drink (tea, coffee, and a full selection of beers, wines and spirits).    They can almost make air travel enjoyable again.

Airlines and airports spend buckets of money on them, purely to capture and cater for the lucrative business travel market.  Now my cheapskate employer never buys business class tickets, they are way too expensive these days, even on the short haul routes.  But my Frequent Flyer status (as it's called on Lufthansa - or Frequent Traveller on BA), gained through all those thousands of airmiles and hundreds of flights over the years, means that even I, a cattle class pleb, can get the same benefit as your company chairman travelling business class (but not First Class....invariably they have their own little den).  It is a benefit worth having, I promise you.

Again, there is variety.  Belgrade had a business lounge of sorts - a small, dirty, smoky room with a pay bar.  I didn't bother.  Istanbul had a really nice looking lounge, run by Turkish Airlines, but even though they are full members of the Star Alliance they only admit gold card holders.   It's a similar story in Athens (or at least it was last time I passed through a couple of years ago).  Some lounges are quite small and cramped - like JFK, although their free smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels are excellent.  The non-Schengen lounge at Warsaw is a little on the small side too.  But there LOT have opened a new lounge for its travellers that is really nice - spacious and comfortable, and my breakfast there every Monday morning is much better than that provided on the flight.   The old BA lounge in Heathrow Terminal 1 was always good, split level, good range of food and drink and newpapers and tvs, and ok for a spot of celebrity spotting - I saw David Coulthard and Fernando Alonso in there once, on their way to Barcelona for testing.  I've never been to the lounge in the new BA Terminal 5 as I'm only blue so can.t normally get in (we didn't have time on the way home from our trip last year...too much duty free shopping!) but I'm reliably informed it's excellent.

My favourite two lounges are Frankfurt (an airport that generally I loathe) and Zurich.  Both are big and roomy, with a great selection of food both cold and hot - soups and sausages, with potato salads, as well as a super range of fresh cut sandwiches and fruit.  And draft beer.......none of this bottled Heineken or whatever local brew, but draft Lowenbrau.

So on a Friday, as often as I can manage it, I will duck out of work a bit earlier than necessary to get my flight.   I will get to the airport nice and early, hopefully to miss out on the crowds that make air travel so unpleasant these days.  I will do an internet check in the night before travel, to further speed things up by using the fast bag drop desk (rarely more than half a dozen people in the queue).  Then I will spend a relaxing hour (or two or even three) hours chilling out after what is often a diffcult and tiring week, enjoying the hospitality that the airlines provide. 

It makes the reality of being away from home, the security queues and flight delays (on occasional cancellations) more bearable somehow.