Month: February 2017

Philippines – Cebu

Cebu was my final destination and brought some unexpected pleasures. It seems I missed Sinulog, the biggest event of the year. The Sinulog-Santo Niño Festival is an annual cultural and religious festival held on the third Sunday of January in Cebu City, and is the centre of the Santo Niño Catholic celebrations in the Philippines. However, on the fourth Sunday of January, the spirit of the festival remained. The English mass at the Metropolitan cathedral was packed with all stackable chairs in use and people standing at all entrances.

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Not far from the Cathedral. crowds were pouring out of the Basilica of the Santo Niño. This is where the statue brought by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 is venerated. Alongside there is a pavilion with another much venerated object – the wooden cross that marked the spot where Magellan baptised the first Christian Filipinos, Rajah Humabon and Queen Juana and about 400 followers into the Catholic faith.

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For my last few days, I devoted more attention to healing my injuries…Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a brand new hotel that allowed me a greater degree of comfort. Unfortunately it was located at the end of an unsealed road – a dirt track…moreover the pavements where they existed had great holes down which you could disappear without trace. Taxis proved to be the best way of getting around. Staying at a hotel also allowed me space to offer peer support to someone who had contacted me prior to the trip…it turned out to be a great pleasure and a privilege.

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After exploring the intriguing triangular fortress of San Pedro, I was approached by a group of young people who wanted to do an interview for their course work. They showed me badges that confirmed they were genuine university students. Naturally, I had no hesitation in agreeing to their request…and suggested we crossed over in to the park where it was relatively more quiet. Questions ranged from why I had come to Cebu to my views on the importance of intercultural communication. It was my personal story, of course, which aroused the greatest interest. Condensing 75 years into a few minutes is a hard task…but I did my best, focusing on education as subject we had in common. My early upbringing in post war Britain and the repercussions of living 33 years with HIV were listened to with respect, and close attention…but the one fact of my personal history that had them laughing in disbelief was my age!  Bless!

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It would be difficult to make a comprehensive list of all the benefits I get from my adventures…it is always great to have a chance to read and take photos…however, the thrill of visiting new places, tasting different food would come higher up…but it is the joy of meeting people and making new friends as well as reuniting with old ones that would come out on top.

 

 

 

Philippines – Manila

According to ‘experts’ jet lag is less terrible when flying west because that direction adds hours to our days, giving our bodies more time to adjust. For me, it’s quite the opposite. Maybe it is because I am returning home from summer warmth to dark,cold winter, or my circadian cycles are wired in the wrong direction. Whatever the reason, it normally takes me days after returning home before I feel anything like human. This year I tried an experiment…I would make the return journey by business class to give me a chance to sleep. It wasn’t possible to upgrade just the final leg of my RWT (round the world ticket), but business class for the flights from Auckland onward was.

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The hop from Auckland to Sydney made little difference, but the flight from Sydney to Manila on an Airbus A330-300 certainly did. At the press of a button my seat turned into a bed…I was able to get decent periods of sleep. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of trying to put travel socks over my bandaged ankle. I succeed in getting the socks on…but had created ridges with the bandage in the process. Whilst I was asleep, these acted like tight rubber bands on my swollen foot. I woke up in agony…but there was nothing I could do apart from massaging the painful areas until Manila. The bandages needed scissors to remove them…and as everyone knows such sharp objects are banned from cabin baggage…no matter what class. One of the perks of business class is that your hold luggage is given priority…so I was able to collect my bag almost as soon as arriving at the carousel. What a relief!

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Sunset happens quickly in the Tropics…we landed in daylight…by the time I had sorted out a taxi…it was dark. Traffic into the city was heavy, but Philippine drivers seemed a little less aggressive than in Vietnam. Although there were plenty of two-wheeled vehicles, they were far less prominent…instead there was a new traffic danger – the Jeepney.

Jeepneys are the most common form of public transport throughout the Philippines. In Manila they are so numerous, there is almost  constantly traffic congestion. The jeepneys don’t have air-conditioning – they have open windows. Most of the time the jeepneys are over-packed. They offer one of the cheapest ways of getting somewhere…but seldom have  a special place to stop – the drivers slow down enough to enable the passengers to jump on or out. With my reduced agility…travel by jeepney was not an option!

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Bahay Kubo Hostel in Maria Orosa Street, is a well situated friendly place with very helpful staff…even if I did have to improvise curtains from towels for privacy in my individual room. In the morning I was woken by the sounds of drums and people marching. The hostel owner explained that it was a parade to welcome me! In fact it was a ‘Walk For Care’ showing solidarity of community concern and respect for the environment.  Admirable!

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The hostel was in a busy part of the city close to bars, restaurants, and museums. Rizal Park lies the other side of Robinson Place…a huge retail mall that has security checks at its entrances…but worth the bag-search hassle for its air conditioning and cornucopia of retail outlets and eateries.  I explored one side of Rizal Park on Thursday, discovering groups of young people doing physical exercises and dance routines. It would seem that parks in Manila are just as well used by all ages of people as they were in Saigon. I got as far as the National Museum…well worth visiting…and free!

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Friday I strolled on the other side of Rizal Park, taking me past the outdoor amphitheatre and Chinese Garden. I was impressed to find an area dedicated to senior citizens…who also have a special line at airports giving them the same treatment as VIPs…which of course, is only right and proper. Finally, I reached the walls of the old city, which is remarkably well-preserved – or more likely well-restored given that Manila was the most bombed city in World War II, second only to Warsaw. The cathedral interior is almost entirely new, but the church of San Agustin seems to have survived much better…its most serious damage appears to have been the loss of one of its towers in the strong earthquakes of 1880.

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I could have spent much longer wandering the fascinating old city of Intramuros, but considered the welfare of my injured leg should take priority…and so took a taxi to the Robinson Mall for tasty Filipino evening meal and an early final night in Manila.

Auckland

2009 was the last time I visited New Zealand…so it was a bit like a home-coming reunion to meet up with old friends in a country I fell in love with at first sight in 2004. Like Rome, Auckland is a city built on hills…and consequently somewhat of a challenge for my injured leg. Bruce, the Chair of Body Positive New Zealand not only invited me out to dinner on my first night, but also picked me up from the doorstep of Auckland International YHA. Along with a few of Bruce’s friends, we had a delicious meal at an Italian restaurant in Mission Bay. Fine food, stimulating company in a beautiful setting…what more could one wish for? Wonderful welcome!

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The magnificent new organ at Trinity Cathedral won’t be finished until June and the fine instrument in St Mary’s won’t be restored until March…however, this did not prevent the resident organist, Philip Smith, from performing magnificently at the service on Sunday morning…demonstrating what a master musician can do with a simple substitute electronic instrument. It was a great insight to be given a guided tour of the work done and understand Philip’s vision of the new instrument which when completed will be the largest cathedral organ in the Southern Hemisphere.

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Monday was spent with Owen, Ian and another Bruce… with four legs and a furry coat. Although I have travelled extensively throughout New Zealand and always make a point of visiting the Botanical Gardens in major cities…I had never visited the gardens in Auckland. No doubt, because their considerable distance from the city, close to the airport. Was Owen’s suggestion to visit them wise, given the state of my foot? No worries, there were plenty of places to sit down…and I reckon the exercise did me more good than harm. We discovered a wide variety of fascinating plants and trees which covered a vast area. However, the greater part of the gardens was taken up with rain-forest trees, which we were able to skip to concentrate on a shorter more varied walk around the lake. A pleasant lunch at an eatery in Grey Lynn was followed by shopping at the local supermarket where I was able to stock up on first-aid equipment.

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There is nothing like moments of domestic bliss to raise your spirits when you are far from home…not that my spirits were ever down. But to relax and catch up with the lives of friends is something very special. It was also good to bond with Bruce who had put on quite a lot of weight since I last saw him…but seemed content enough having his ears tickled. More engaging conversation over a scrumptious homemade meal with a fine glass of wine completed a perfect day.

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Auckland Transport Hop Card, provided a helpful solution for getting around that was much cheaper than taxis. The Crew Club Restaurant on the harbour front offered exquisite dishes…I opted for the fresh fish of the day and was not disappointed. Afterwards I took a harbour tour…something else I had never done despite always making Auckland the base of all my New Zealand adventures. The four-seasoned weather, for which Auckland is notorious, came into play. We sailed out from the quayside in bright sunshine, but by the time were were underneath Auckland Harbour Bridge, it was blowing a gale force wind. Rather than risk further injury, I braved out the weather until we tied up briefly at Rangitoto Island…I then went down below inside the main cabin where I remained for the rest of the voyage.

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On my last day Bruce and Billy took me to Devonport on the shore opposite Auckland City where we had a relaxing lunch at the grand old Esplanade Hotel. This was my shortest ever visit to New Zealand, but I am so glad I went…and it is definitely on my list for a return trip next year.

 

 

 

Melbourne

Last year the Melbourne Vintage Men’s Group made me a lifetime honorary member. In fact it is they who gave me inspiration and encouragement to develop the LGBT Older People’s Group in North Staffordshire. So there is a feeling of mutual respect. Because of my injured leg, I felt it unwise to meet up with Gordon and Paul at Joy Radio…that would have meant an early start and a long walk to Alexandra Park. Instead, I took a taxi from the Metro YHA directly to the park. The timing was perfect, I arrived just as they were unloading their cars with stuff for the stall. Whilst unable to help with heavy items, my assistance throughout the day allowed Gordon to do a live radio interview and Paul to sing with the choir at Midsumma Carnival. Together with David, the Chairman of the group, we sold loads of books and DVDs….raising a useful sum of money for Vintage Men.

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On Monday, I felt fit enough for a day at the seaside…so took a tram to Bourke Street where I caught the 96 tram to St Kilda Beach. The interchange stop was close to site of the terrible car attack that occurred on the Friday whilst I was flying to Auckland.  Monday, however was a peaceful sunny day, but with a very strong wind…so after a tasty lunch and a short stroll along the seafront, I headed back to North Melbourne. Before leaving Australia, I managed to see an interesting Banksy Exhibition in a tent behind Federation Square car park and the David Hockney Show at the National Gallery of Victoria. For the latter I am indebted to Paul who kindly pushed me round in a wheelchair.

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Although this was my shortest visit to Australia, I succeeded in my objectives of renewing friendships as well as attending social and cultural events. In addition, I also met some delightful people like Pan a Chinese student in E-Commerce who couldn’t believe that I was older than his grandfather.

Hoi An

Arriving at Da Nang airport in the daylight allowed me to see the huge commercial developments taking place on the coast…including a complete Sheraton Resort. It would seem that foreign countries are investing in Vietnam. I wonder how many of them will contribute to upgrading the transport infrastructure as the traffic on roads increases. Thankfully, there appeared to be less vehicles on the road than in Ho Chi Minh City…but still the same cavalier attitude to driving. There were fewer Cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) but plenty of scooters and motorbikes.

img_6357_edited My accommodation in Hoi An was in a small hotel on a main street, just outside the old city. This turned out to have been a wise move considering the events at the end of my stay. From any perspective, the town is fascinating…it is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. ‘Hoi An Ancient Town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique heritage site.’ UNESCO  Its markets are piled high with a wide range of produce; its traders engage customers with a smile and an unbeatable offer. It is also famous for its clothes making – you can find tailors’ shops on practically every street.

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Amongst the many traditional folk arts that are celebrated in the town, a water puppet theatre has recently been added. Previously people had to go to Hanoi or Saigon to see performances, but the one in Hoi An is within the large Sports and Culture Stadium with raked seating allowing everyone a good view. Another highlight of my stay was a trip to the Marble Mountains…that unexpectedly called for caving and climbing skills. Just as well this was before my accident…otherwise I would never have scaled the tricky passage up the Gateway to Heaven. The view from the top was worth the effort.

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Bad weather foiled my attempts to sail to the beautiful Cham Islands…instead I decided to explore Cam Kim island which until recently could only be accessed by ferry. It now has a footbridge…used of course mainly by two-wheeled vehicles, many with large, wide loads. Wearing inappropriate footwear for the weather conditions and attempting to avoid a wide loaded scooter, I slipped and fell down the steep concrete slope. Three local youths out fishing came towards me to help…but I waved them off, wanting to assess the situation. Nothing seemed to be broken…I poured clean water over the bleeding cuts…then hobbled back to the hotel to administer first aid. My self diagnosis – sprained ankle, bruised knee and cuts…including a nasty gash on my shin.  I was immensely grateful for the reassurance from medical friends and family members that I was doing the right thing by resting as much as possible, applying compression, and elevating the sprained area whenever I could.

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My travel insurance would have covered any medical costs…but who wants to spend a holiday being examined by doctors and admitted into hospital? Not me…if it could be avoided. I am sure that my injuries would have healed sooner if I had stayed indoors, with an ice-pack, and my foot raised on a stool. Needless to say…that wasn’t to be the case.

2017 Birmingham – Ho Chi Minh City

Sunday 1st January 2017 saw me at the English Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was a warm sunny day; the cathedral was packed. The mass setting sounded familiar, so I was able to join in following the plasma screens on both sides of the nave. There was a pipe organ in the west gallery…but the accompaniment for the service came from an electronic instrument.

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I took a taxi out, but walked back to the guest house where I was staying. Traffic is a nightmare…and it takes some courage to cross roads. If there is a highway code…no one seems to take much notice of it, especially drivers of two-wheeled vehicles. Scooters and motorbikes can be seen passing through red lights, travelling in the opposite direction to the flow of traffic…and driving through crowds of pedestrians on the pavement. Scary!

The start of the New Year was made even more memorable, when the duty manager at the guest house noted that the flight I had booked to Hoi An…was actually from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City… her reaction was brilliant. She found the details of the flight provider and told me that I could change the flight by going to their office. Problem: the office was at the other side of the city and it closed at 6.00 pm. It was already way passed 5.00 pm when the taxi she called arrived. I eventually arrived in time to correct my error…but when I returned to the street, the taxi driver was nowhere to be seen. Without printed details of the unpronounceable name of the guest house…I was in a bit of a pickle. How I solved the dilemma, is material for a story in itself. However, I did arrive back safe and sound…then planned a trip to the Mekong Delta.

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Of the options on offer, the two day trip seemed to be most suitable to fit in to my schedule. It was an amazing excursion that brought me into contact with a lovely bunch of people, with whom I shared some remarkable experiences. Perhaps the one that stands out most was the dawn visit to the Cai Rang floating market… seeing a pit full of crocodiles at close quarters was definitely the scariest.

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