Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve

It has become a regular occurrence for me to write a blog post on Christmas Eve, with a photo of this year's Christmas cake. I'm not sure at what point a regular occurrence turns into a tradition. Either way, it has happened sufficiently often that it is now on my general list of things-to-do-in-the-runup-to-Christmas.

Not that there are all that many things on the list. We have simplified as much as we can, while keeping to the things we like. This year we still had two Christmas puddings and a large tub of mincemeat left from last year, so I didn't even have to make those.  I ordered UK gifts online, early in December. I wrote our newsletter around the same time, and posted about thirty along with Christmas cards, to relatives and a few close friends. Most of our friends send email newsletters rather than cards now, though;  each year the number we email has increased, and the number of cards written and sent has decreased.

Should anyone reading this, who is not on our mailing list, wish to see our newsletter it's now up at the family site:  Family Christmas newsletter 2018.

We decorated - in a low-key way - a couple of weeks ago.  I printed out the newsletters we received by email, and added them to the handful received by mail in a folder, so we can read them at our leisure. We ordered our turkey mid-December and collected it, along with other food items we need over the next few days, yesterday. I prefer not to shop on Sundays if I can avoid it, but we definitely didn't want to fight the crowds in the supermarket on Christmas Eve.

I have a few things to do today - to bake an alternative cake, and make some vegetarian sausages, and, this evening, help Tim with some of the vegetable preparation for tomorrow. He's made stuffings and the turkey is gently roasting now. Doing it on Christmas Eve, carving in the evening and then re-heating for an hour before Christmas Day lunch, works beautifully for us.

As for the cake, I baked it late in October, fed it a couple of times, made marzipan (without almond essence) about ten days ago to cover it, then iced it (again, making icing in the food processor - so much easier than beating by hand) a couple of days ago.  There was leftover marzipan so I made a few rough balls as it looked rather sparse after I added the least tasteless of my plastic cake decorations.

Wishing everyone a peaceful, relaxing Christmas, and a hopeful New Year.

PS if anyone would like to hear/read a rather different perspective on Advent, this is one of our son Daniel's rare blog posts with something he wrote recently:  Audio Advent Calendar

Monday, December 17, 2018

Christmas Decorations... and a few aberrations!

We don't do a great deal in the way of decorating the house for Christmas. I'm not artistic, so we tend towards minimalism - anything more would look cluttered rather than attractive.

But we always put up our artificial tree, bought nearly thirty years ago in the UK when we left it a bit late, and there were no real Christmas trees to be had (or not for a price we were prepared to pay). It has become an annual tradition, over the past nine years, for me to have help from my friend Sheila and her daughters. As they gave grown older, they have started decorating without much assistance, and this year they put the tree together by themselves.

They all remembered that the branches are of differing sizes, marked with letters of the alphabet to match the slots in which they go.

We were amused that K (13) was finding one branch at a time, locating its hole, and slotting it in.  H (10) was checking each branch in turn as she searched for those marked 'A', which she wanted to put in first. And E (8) was trying to sort them all into alphabetical piles before starting.

Despite these differences in approach, the tree was put together with surprisingly little argument. K then lost interest, and the younger girls did most of the decorating. I wasn't watching what they were doing... they decided to be creative, and made it look (as they explained) like a face:

They didn't expect me to keep it like that, so after I'd taken the photo H decorated more traditionally, and I didn't have to change anything later:

Well... other than picking it up and replacing a few items more firmly, after the cats knocked it down. But that has only happened twice so far, within a couple of hours of it going up. Since then, they have ignored it.

Meanwhile, E decided to get out the nativity characters which I knitted back in 2016.  Again, I wasn't taking too much notice, until she told me it was set up:

The donkey and sheep, she told me, were having a snack at the manger. Joseph had just acted as midwife for Mary, so he was exhausted and taking a nap (when I said I thought Mary would have been even more tired she rolled her eyes). One of the shepherds was so worn out from his walk to the stable that he had fallen over. And E was still not quite sure what to do with the Magi, since (as she pointed out correctly) they arrived some time afterwards (probably days later, maybe a couple of years later) when the shepherds would have gone home.

I adjusted them later to a more traditional scene:

The post to Cyprus at this time of year is remarkably slow. Most years we receive at least half of our Christmas cards after the New Year.  I've got into the habit of keeping the current year's cards in an envelope, to hang up the following December - not that there are as many as even five years ago, as fewer and fewer people send cards.  Only five have arrived so far this year, and they're up on a bookcase. But I had thirty-three from a year ago.

Yesterday I decided it was time to hang up last year's cards.  I managed to get the shorter string up, and hung eleven of the cards only to have Lady Jane take a decided interest:

While she was occupied, I started putting up the other string, which is a bit more complicated. I didn't expect her to come leaping towards me along the pelmets.  She didn't expect that brushing against the clock would knock it down and shatter the glass front...

I swept up the smithereens, and thought the clock was history. Then I noticed that it was still ticking. So I thought that perhaps we could at least rescue the mechanism. Further investigation revealed that the oval frame at the front of the clock was undamaged, as was the face, although the two had come apart and there were several broken-off pieces from around the edge. Richard said he thought that perhaps he could repair it...

... and succeeded in doing so.  So the clock, without a cover, is now back on the wall, as are the rest of last year's cards.

Oddly enough, Lady Jane has not been back to check on the Christmas cards or the string... and since 'her' human will be arriving this evening, for nine days in Cyprus, I hope she'll be too occupied over the next week or so to think about them again. 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Another Breadmaker

When we first moved to Cyprus, we regularly bought bread at an excellent bakery nearby. I knew that it would be less expensive and more healthy to make my own bread, but I didn't get around to it very often. Kneading by hand was hard work - exhausting in the summer! - and although I had a food processor with a kneading blade, I didn't like to use it too often as it felt as if the motor was struggling, sometimes.

Then just before Christmas 2005 we bought a breadmaker. After a couple of false starts, it began to make excellent bread, and we used it several times per week until the summer of 2012 when something went wrong with the motor. It had more than paid for itself in the savings on bread over six-and-a-half years, so we decided to buy a new breadmaker. It was a fairly inexpensive one, a shop's own brand:

Then it started going wrong. I don't remember what happened, or why we were unable to take it back, as I'm pretty sure it was still under warranty.  Or maybe it still worked, somewhat, but the bread was heavy. Perhaps we had it fixed under warranty, and it still didn't work properly.

I didn't blog about it.. and so have no reference point, other than in our accounts application, where I can see that we bought our next breadmaker in April 2014.  It was from Lidl, on special offer. I remember having a discussion about whether or not it was a good idea to buy another inexpensive shop-brand one, and deciding that we'd try just one more time.

It was a good breadmaker. It had various functions, although as with most appliances I used just a couple of them probably 99% of the time.  I wasn't making bread nearly as often as I did when we had our sons living here, but every couple of weeks our friends with several children come over for a kind of high tea on Sunday afternoons, and I usually make two loaves then, slicing and freezing any leftovers. I sometimes make a loaf at other times, too.

All was well until just over a week ago when we were hosting a birthday party for a visiting friend. I decided to make a loaf of bread for the evening buffet, so put the breadmaker on, only to realise that only one paddle was working.  I tried turning the tin around, so the dough would mix at both ends, and it made some unpleasant graunching noises.  Eventually I took it out, mixed and kneaded it by hand, then put the dough back in the breadmaker, without the paddles, on 'dough' setting so that it would rise.  I made some bread rolls which I cooked in the oven, and they were fine. But I didn't want to do that every time.

Nor did I want to go back to buying all our bread from a bakery. We like home-made bread, and I love the convenience of a breadmaker. Perhaps this one could have been mended, but it was over four years old, and didn't owe us anything; we worked out that using a breadmaker for about six months means it pays for itself in the savings on buying bread.  We hate the fact that so many modern appliances are 'disposable' - getting it mended would probably cost almost as much as a new one, and with no guarantee of continuing to work.

So I went to the website of George Theodorou, where we usually buy large appliances/white goods. Relationships are important in Cyprus, as is customer loyalty.  And they've always given us good service. However they only had one breadmaker listed; it was over 100 euros, and when we checked against Amazon, it was evidently somewhat over-priced and not very highly reviewed.

Last Friday we decided to see what else we could find in Larnaka. Lidl didn't have any on offer, although they probably will at some point. But I didn't want to wait, possibly months. I looked at the website of another shop that sells appliances, but they didn't have any breadmakers at all.  We went to a couple of big DIY shops that sell electrical appliances: Leroy Merlin didn't have any breadmakers. Super Home Centre had one, but it was even more expensive than the one I had seen online, and looked a bit flimsy. We went over the road to Debenhams, but although they have some kitchen things, they don't appear to have any electrical appliances.

We were almost ready to give up, but I suggested we go to the 1st April Street thrift shop, where we've occasionally bought appliances in the past.  And there, in the corner, was a breadmaker. Phillips brand, twenty-five euros.

It looked almost new, so we thought we would try it. It's not a design I would have chosen:

breadmaker from the thrift shop, with a purple stripe

Nor did it have an instruction guide or recipe book included. I was able to find them online, though - the advantage of an unusual looking breadmaker with a purple stripe is that it was easy to find the model via an image search - but decided that I would try, first of all, my normal recipe which has worked in all my other breadmakers.

It worked.

bread made with the Philips purple-stripe breadmaker

We've got used to longer loaves with our previous two-paddle breadmakers, but this one has the advantage that the bread comes out very easily, rather than getting stuck (which was the worst problem with the Lidl one).

So we're very pleased with this new (to us) breadmaker, and hope it will last us at least as long as the previous ones. 

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Walking along the Salt Lake trail in cooler Cyprus weather

As mentioned in a previous post, my friend Sheila and I resumed our early morning walking in the middle of September. It's a pleasant way to start the day, but in September we were often far too warm by the time we had finished, even if it was only 7am. I always feel as if September should be the start of Autumn, although I now know, intellectually, that it isn't in Cyprus. It's almost as hot as summer.

October continued warm at first too, with temperatures in the lower 30s Celcius, although the humidity was much reduced and the nights began to be a little cooler. Once or twice we rejoiced in a high of 29, only to have it a degree or two warmer the following day.

Then, on Wednesday, it rained.  There were gale warnings on parts of the island, and some places saw hailstones, but here in Larnaka it just rained. Not even for very long, but quite heavily.  The temperature dropped a degree or two, and it felt almost chilly overnight, under just a duvet cover. Thursday morning I over-slept, and didn't go outside until almost 6.45am.  Just as well, really, since it started pouring. Sheila and I sat under our outside tin roof on the swing, wondering if we would walk at all.

Then it stopped, and we saw a bit of blue sky, and decided to risk at least a short walk. The Salt Lake trail was quite muddy and I nearly slipped a couple of times. We had to negotiate our way around - or through - several long branches which had fallen with the rain:

plants, weighed down by rain, along the Salt Lake trail

The Salt Lake had water in it, for the first time in months, and to our astonishment, we saw flamingoes on the water.  We wondered how they could possibly know that there was water here, as they fly in from various places for the winter in Cyprus.

water in the salt lake - and flamingoes too

My phone doesn't take very sharp photos, so even if you click to enlarge this one, they won't look like more than a row of dots. But they were quite noisy.

There were puddles along the trail...

puddles along the salt lake trail

And some attractive cloud formations in the sky:

clouds after a heavy rainstorm in Cyprus

However, we didn't walk the entire trail, as we reached a place that was too wet to go past, so we returned, thankful to have stayed dry.

By Thursday evening I was feeling almost chilly, so I got out our thin duvet, and it was very nice to snuggle into it. We had the ceiling fan on for an hour or so, but then I turned it off.

On Friday evening, when we went out, I decided to wear jeans, and put away my shorts. I found my jogging trousers too for walking this morning. I was glad I did, as it was decidedly chilly first thing.

We walked the other way this time, almost to the Airport Road, and saw more flamingoes in the distance:

Tonight we put the clocks back throughout Europe, so the early mornings will be lighter, but the it will get dark quite early in the evenings. I'm glad it's a little cooler by the end of October, but am aware that Autumn is a short, almost non-existent season here in Cyprus.  All too soon we'll be wearing a couple of layers of warm sweaters, wanting the thicker duvet, and getting our central heating serviced.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Changing our Cablenet Contract

Four-and-a-half years ago, I wrote about how we decided to move our landline phone and Internet provider from the national company CYTA to the somewhat newer Cablenet.  It saved us about ten euros per month, and gave us a faster Internet connection.

I still have the original documentation, which shows that we signed up for the 'cable/talk + surf + view 20M' package, at €44.64 per month.

At the time, all the Cablenet packages had cable TV included, although we weren't in fact interested in that as we don't watch TV. We thought we might - but it hasn't happened. We wanted to keep our landline phone although we didn't use that much either. And when our last physical phone handset gave up working, we simply diverted the number to Richard's mobile phone; the landline was barely used, and we haven't missed it.

A couple of months after we took out the contract - which was 20M download, and 2M upload, though I'm not entirely certain what the two figures refer to - we were upgraded to 30M/3M, at a slightly inflated cost.  Perhaps that was part of the initial contract; I don't remember. Anyway, for a couple of years it worked well, and we were paying €46.90 per month for the package, plus the occasional few cents if someone dialled the landline and it was then transferred to Richard's mobile.

Shortly after that, we were upgraded again to 75M/5M, and then, earlier this year, 100M/6M. Paperwork arrived with the bill, sometimes, and we glanced at it, wondering if we would do better with a different package. Richard thought that perhaps he could transfer his mobile number to Cablenet as part of one of their new packages which included a mobile. But somehow we never got around to it.

The monthly price had gone up to €52.90 per month, which seemed rather on the high side, when compared to costs elsewhere. But a six euro increase - along with much faster speeds - didn't seem too bad in four years.

Then in the summer, we were away for over a month. Our Cablenet bill for August (it's always paid in advance) had arrived just before we flew, but by the time we collected it from the PO Box, I had turned my computer off. I knew I had until the end of the month to pay it, and since I was taking my laptop with me on our travels, I thought I could easily log into our bank before the end of the month, and pay online. So I popped the bill into my laptop case... and forgot about it.

The Internet connection wasn't great for our first couple of weeks away. But then we stayed for a week in a villa in Coronado, which had a reliable connection. I found the bill, and paid it online without any problem, despite it being about six days after the end of July.

Richard flew back to Cyprus towards the end of August, and visited our PO Box where he found our electricity and water bills, but no Cablenet bill. I was able to pay the other utilities, despite them also being rather late, but was surprised that there was no phone/Internet bill. Everything was working, and I didn't think about it until about ten days ago, when we went to check the PO Box again. Still no Cablenet bill. 

So we went to the Cablenet office. A very helpful lady was able to print off our bill - both the one we should have received in August, and the one for September which had not yet arrived. When we asked why we hadn't had the September one, wondering if they had gone paperless and we'd missed something, she said it was because the August bill was paid late, and attracted a re-connection fee of five euros.

No, that didn't make any sense to us, either.

We asked if we could pay then. Yes, she said. Did we want to pay just the September bill (which included the reconnection fee), or the October one too?  I said we might as well pay them both at the same time, and produced my debit card.

Meanwhile, Richard had been looking at the special offer card that was sitting on the desk.

It was all rather confusing, with several different offers, nowhere near as straightforward as it was four and a half years ago.

I asked if we could have an Internet connection that didn't include TV, since we didn't use that, and the lady suggested a couple of options. However, both of them had rather slower upload speeds than we had been using - and for Richard's work, he likes that as fast as possible.

But after some discussion, we realised that we could get a connection that's almost as fast (5M rather than 6M upload) with the package labelled '2play 60M Purple 2', which costs €39.90/month.

This has no TV, but does include, in addition to home Internet, a mobile phone with a monthly allowance of 400 minutes, 200 SMS and 1gig Internet.  There wouldn't be much point having my phone on this package, since I only spend about €15 per year on pay-as-you-go. I write perhaps thirty text messages in a month, but I don't think I use more than about 60 minutes a year of talking.  And even with my new-to-me smartphone, I don't want to use mobile Internet, other than, briefly, on wi-fi when I'm at home.

However, Richard's phone, which was on a CYTA contract, was costing about €20-30 per month. The basic contract was only €2.50 with what's considered low usage, but he paid another €8 or so for 300m mobile internet per month, and typically at least €10 in charges for calls and texts. Until recently he had used it mainly for work, but now he mostly uses online calling for work calls to people abroad, so the call/text charges to his mobile phone were mostly local. I had felt for a while that we should now be paying this rather than his work (which has been doing so).... 

So once the Cablenet lady had established that his current contract doesn't include any minutes or SMS, she agreed that we would do much better with a new contract. It should save about thirty to forty euros per month.

We had to take in a former CYTA bill in order for the process to begin, but since we already had a Cablenet contract, there were no further charges. Richard was given a new sim card for his phone, and told to change it when he received a text message informing him of when the transfer was done.

On Monday morning he was sent an SMS telling him to start using the new sim card at noon on Tuesday...  and shortly after lunch on Tuesday, when he realised his CYTA connection was no longer working, he changed the card, and everything - so far - has worked perfectly.

All of which is a very long-winded post to say: it's well worth checking special offers with phone/internet companies.  Facilities change, and what seems like a great deal at the start of a contract may not be the best one a couple of years later.

Will we remember to check the options in another two years time....??  That remains to be seen.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Early Morning Walking Resumed

It took me nearly a week to feel as if I'd recovered from returning to Cyprus. Not that I had any trouble adjusting to the two-hour time difference. And although I'd had a bit of a broken night before flying (continually waking in case I'd missed my alarm...) a couple of good nights' sleep easily made up for that.

Instead, I felt unutterably weary, my brain foggy, my actions slow. Partly it was returning to the heat, I'm sure; yet the humidity is down, less than it was in July before we left, and the temperatures are no more than 31-32C in the hottest part of the day. As I type, it's almost 6.00pm and a not-too-warm 28 outside. It will be dark in a little over an hour.  I had air conditioning on in my study earlier, when the temperature was a bit higher, but not now.

But partly it's something I've come to expect each time I return to Cyprus. Perhaps it's resuming responsibilities for looking after the house, and the cooking, and so on. Perhaps it's a kind of reaction to the end of an enjoyable holiday. Or perhaps it's the way I experience jet-lag, though it's odd that it only ever seems to happen when I'm back in Cyprus after a break.

Still, by Tuesday I'd decided I could manage an early-morning walk with my friend Sheila. It's mostly light by about 6.00am and a pleasantly cool 23C.  We exchanged text messages, and I put on some socks and my trainers, untouched for the past three months.

I grabbed my camera as I left, and took my first photo as we approached the entrance to the trail:

The Salt Lake, when we saw it, has completely dried up.

That doesn't happen every year, but we'd had no rain since at least May, and far less than the normal amount in the past year. There are strict water restrictions in place. Not that water gets turned off, as it did when we were first here. But heavy fines are being imposed for people who use hoses to wash their cars, or their patios/verandas, or the pavement outside the house.  Or rather....fines are imposed for people caught doing these things. First thing in the morning, and late at night, we've seen neighbours use their hoses, surreptitiously, to clean their outside areas anyway.

The lack of recent water shows in the general brownness of the sides of the trail:

We walked, as usual, to the aqueduct and then back to the opening. About two km in each direction. We weren't walking at all fast, but then neither of us has done much walking in the past few months.

On the way back, I was struck by this rather pretty display of purple flowers:

However, some long-forgotten memory of the basic horticultural education given me by my parents told me that it was bindweed. I don't know why I thought that, as the bindweed I vaguely remember from my childhood was white. I suppose there's something about the shape of the flowers.  And, as we looked more closely, we realised that this plant is wrapping itself around branches and even leaves of other plants.

Neither of us recall such a profusion of these purple flowers in previous years. But bindweed is insidious. I doubt if anyone will do anything about it. Most people will admire its beauty rather than worry about what it's doing.

There's a rather obvious spiritual lesson there, which I won't expound upon.

We walked again on Thursday.  Yesterday, there was some rain in the late afternoon. It wasn't heavy, but it was enough to make the whole street look wet. Inevitable, perhaps, as we were planning to barbecue with our friends in the evening - but happily the rain finished in plenty of time to do so.

It was nowhere near sufficient rain to make any different to the Salt Lake, but as I looked out of the window prior to walking this morning, I saw some clouds and wondered if there would be a pretty sunrise.  I was about to grab my camera when I remembered that my new-to-me phone had a built-in camera.

When the moment came that I wanted to take a photo, I wasn't entirely sure how to use the phone. But it wasn't difficult to find the camera icon and press the button on screen.

This afternoon I wondered how I would get the photo from my phone to my computer. Google searching suggested plugging them together via the charging wire, and installing an Android connection app on my computer.  I did that... but the app wouldn't recognise the phone. Perhaps it's too basic.

I looked at the photo, wondering if I could email it to myself, or download it, but there were no options to do so.

Finally, I opened Google Photos, wondering if I could put it there temporarily....

... and to my astonishment, the photo was already there. So I opened Google Photos on my computer, and was able to use it.  Not that it's great quality. It's nowhere near as sharp as my camera photos. I certainly won't be abandoning my camera any time soon.

But it gives a general idea of the colours in the sky; not as impressive as some we've seen in previous years, but still: my first phone photo:

Now that I've got used to using an on-screen keyboard, I don't miss my old phone at all.  I haven't yet worked out how to make phone calls on the smartphone... but I can send texts, and WhatsApp messages, and even quickly browse Facebook without having to switch my computer on.  Richard installed some more hard drive a few days ago - the tiniest hard drive I've ever seen - which means I'm not running out of space any more.

The weather forecast sites don't show any indication that the temperatures are going to drop in the next ten days; 30-32C remains the expected maximum temperature, 22-24C the expected overnight minimum. But with humidity no more than 50%, it's not unpleasant.

September usually marks the last month of summer in Cyprus. Perhaps in October it will cool down a little.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Trying a (basic) smartphone...

I didn't even have a mobile phone until 2007. By then, almost everyone else in Cyprus had one, and landlines were starting to vanish. After a couple of occasions when I realised it would have been useful to have a mobile, I was persuaded to buy one. As simple as possible, just enabling me to make and receiving phone calls and text messages.

And yes, it was useful. Four years later, when its battery was almost worn out, it was much less expensive to buy a new phone than a new battery. I opted for a similar kind of phone, which had the addition of predictive text, and slightly better storage capacities. And it's done well.

It's been dropped a few times - hence, if you look closely, some missing plastic at the side of the keypad - but has continued to function. It fits nicely in the side pocket of my handbag. I have a camera for photos, and a computer for accessing the Internet, so I had no need for anything more advanced. 

I'm also extremely sensitive to vibrations and radiation, even harmless kinds, and when I've had to hold other people's iPhones, they have become uncomfortably 'tingly' within a minute or two. And I found the navigation and usage very confusing. No way did I want anything like that...

In the past six months or so, however, our family on the Logos Hope have been sending photos to Richard and other relatives via WhatsApp, which - for some reason - is one of the few things that works reasonably well on the ship's slow Internet connection. Each time I had to ask Richard to download them on his phone and forward them to my email address, so I could see them on my computer.  It was a bit frustrating to learn that WhatsApp can be used on a computer - but only when connected to a smartphone WhatsApp account.

In April, when I was in the UK, I remembered that my father had stopped using a basic smartphone which he found frustrating, and moved on to an iPhone. I asked my resident technical experts if it would be able to use WhatsApp, and learned that it could.  My father was delighted to pass it on to me, and when I got home I was equally delighted that, so long as I kept it charged and near my computer, I could get WhatsApp photos directly on my computer.

But in the meantime, my basic phone was starting to feel squidgy. In the UK, it refused to send messages to my son's phone. Every time I tried to send a text message to anyone, I had to keep re-typing because the space key wasn't working well.  I realised it was reaching the end of its useful life - I suppose seven years isn't too bad these days.

When we were on holiday in Panama in August, I had to use Richard's second (Android) phone (with a UK chip) to send text messages a couple of times, while he was driving. To my astonishment, it didn't make my hands tingle, and I found it surprisingly easy to use - at least, for sending messages. For the first time, the idea of actually using a smartphone began to seem less unreasonable.

I'm told it's still possible to buy non-smartphones, and I may still decide that's the best option. But in the meantime, I asked Richard if it would be possible to put my Cyprus sim chip in my father's old phone (which is on the Android system) so I could see how easy - or not - it is to use.

The only way I knew how to remove the chip from the phone was by dropping it. Happily, he knew a better method, and was able to snip it to the right size for the smartphone. Then we learned we needed to unlock it from Vodaphone UK, but since I'd had it for a few months, that simply required an email with some details. A day or two later, the unlock code was sent, and worked easily.

It 's a lot more complicated to send text messages than either of my basic phones, and I seem to have lost my phone contacts... all twenty of them. But there are only two or three people I tend to get in touch with via text messages, so those are now entered. Along with all my gmail contacts, which apparently imported themselves, but aren't much use as they mostly don't have phone numbers attached.

I suspect I'll stick with it, as other friends have done when given smartphones, at least for now.  Which, I suppose,  means that I've finally been dragged through the gate into the 21st century... 

Monday, August 27, 2018

Out of Cyprus Summer 2018: Taking our time returning to Europe

After saying goodbye to our family, and walking away from the Logos Hope in Panama for the last time, we returned to the guest house where we had been staying. The journey was straightforward this time, and we had a good night's sleep despite feeling a bit sad to be leaving.

The following morning dawned bright and sunny. We didn't need to leave until about 10.30am, so we wandered around the outside of the place we had been staying. It's not somewhere we would want to take children; there's a small swimming pool beside the main house (where the owner lives) and although the three guard dogs are very friendly to family and visitors, there were a lot of dog messes in the grass and elsewhere in the grounds. It made us realise just how well-trained the dogs must have been in the Coronado villa, as I don't think we saw any dog mess at all on the property!

Anyway, the second guest house, much smaller, was great for the two of us and although we didn't visit the beach - at the end of the garden! - I did take some photos of what looked like a pleasant spot to sit and listen to the waves:

It was another striking contrast to the noise, pollution and general claustrophobic feeling of Panama City, just half an hour's drive away.

We said goodbye to our hostess and handed back the keys, then set off down what looked like a winding UK countryside road:

There were some very run-down village buildings, and a police check which we had become so used to that I got Richard's passport and driving license ready before we approached each time. But there was also a lot of greenery.

Then we had to drive over the bridge to Panama City:

By late morning the traffic was running at a reasonable speed, and it only took us about forty minutes to get to the airport. We returned the rental car and checked in... the queues were long but we had plenty of time.

When we looked at return flights to the UK, it became clear that we needed to do the transatlantic flight from Mexico City, where we flew to before joining the ship a month earlier. While, within Europe, it's often cheaper to get two single flights rather than a return, this does not seem to be the case for flying to the American continents. Thus we needed to find 'local' flights from Panama to Mexico City. Finding direct flights proved impossible, so it was clear we would have to stop in another country en route.

That being the case, Richard decided that we might as well spend a whole day in another country, as it's unlikely we'll ever travel in that area again. El Salvador was a possibility but I wasn't keen on going there; happily a better value route was via Costa Rica, a country which our close friends like very much. We would only be in the capital, San Jose, but it seemed like a good plan. We booked into a hotel, and also booked a morning's outing...

Landing in San Jose was a bit depressing; it was pouring with rain, and the hotel shuttle driver, who should have been there to meet us, did not appear. We landed at something like 3.30pm and it should have been a twenty minute drive to the hotel (according to their literature). Instead, when Richard managed to get through to the hotel on the phone, we were told that the driver was stuck in traffic and would be at least another half hour... so they recommended we get a taxi.

We refused all offers of private taxis, as recommended, and opted for a bright orange airport one which was metered. Traffic was appalling; the driver said it was always bad, and it took us nearly an hour and a half to get to the hotel!  With pouring rain and grey skies, it wasn't a great introduction to Costa Rica. Nor were we happy when a hotel porter opened the door of our taxi and grabbed our bags and insisted on taking them up to our room, clearly needing to be tipped. The whole tipping culture of the Americas feels not just alien to us, but condescending and somewhat awkward.

The hotel was adequate - not great, but spacious, and reasonably comfortable. There was a restaurant downstairs, and since we didn't want to venture out in the dark (it was still raining) we ate in the hotel and slept well. The following morning, breakfast was provided free, with lots of choice. The sun was shining, and the shuttle to our morning tour arrived promptly, and was very friendly.

Richard had booked us on a coffee plantation visit - a touristy one which was fairly highly reviewed online; while a bit expensive, it included two shuttle drives (at least half an hour each way) and a good lunch, so we thought it not bad value at all.

We arrived half an hour early, thanks to light traffic, and were able to wander around the visitor area of the plantation, and look in the gift shop, and use the facilities.  There were three or four other English-speaking people on the tour, and probably fifteen or so Spanish-speaking people; we were told that some of them were a group of teachers.

The tour started with a brief explanation of how coffee spread around the world:

The tour was conducted by a young and outgoing woman called Maria, who did most of the talking, switching between Spanish and English. It was like a stand-up comedy act in places, with a young man (whom she said was her cousin, although I didn't grasp his name) as the foil. There was lots of banter and teasing, a few innuendos, and a great deal of discussion of coffee-growing in Costa Rica.

There were times when the Spanish contingent interrupted, and asked more questions, and evidently made jokes and we seemed to miss quite a bit; Maria did her best to translate, but sometimes just shrugged and said it was impossible. However, on the whole it was very well done, and they kept us interested. I was surprised to learn that coffee has to be grown under controlled conditions, ideally in a mountainous climate on volcanic soil, and that it takes three years of growth and care before the first beans appear.

We were also somewhat startled to learn that Costa Rica has over 100 volcanoes, six of which are still active.

We were shown the beans growing on bushes - still green here as it's not the harvesting season:

Then they produced a basket and showed us how the harvesting happens. At least, they were going to, when one of the teachers grabbed the basket and strapped it around herself, and mimed coffee picking - she said she used to work in the plantations herself.

Maria explained that coffee pickers are paid $6 for a full basket, which seemed like very little pay for what is clearly quite hard work. But they shrugged, and said it was fair; their company deals directly with farmers and treats the workers well. Someone asked how much a typical picker earns in a day, and they really couldn't answer the question. They said it depends on how many baskets they pick - and that it could be anything from two to about ten.  They said that too often people get distracted by chatting with other workers - that it's a great atmosphere, and very friendly. We had the impression that they employed a lot of casual workers - perhaps students - and that it's considered a good job.

We were surprised to spot a squirrel, with an orange body and grey tail:

After the main part of the tour - with various locations to taste different kinds of coffee - we were conducted to a small cinema area, where we saw films showing how coffee beans are processed - it's quite complex, with a variety of different machines, with fine tuning leading to different blends.

The lunch was buffet-style with plenty of choice - including coffee afterwards! - and then we had a few minutes in the gift shop before our shuttle driver arrived to return us to our hotel. And although the journey was free, we knew we had to tip the driver.

We could perhaps have fitted another local tour into our schedule, but we were quite tired. The tour had been interesting, but it was loud at times, and we had felt a bit overwhelmed by bright colours everywhere. So we and decided to stay in for a couple of hours, and read.  In the evening we went out for a walk, in the hope of finding somewhere suitable to eat.

The town was a bit spread out, and we rejected most of what we saw, either as dubious quality, or additive-laden fast food. But eventually we found quite a nice sandwich place that provided something similar to Sub sandwiches, only rather more nicely presented. As with Panama, the restaurant was noisy, not just with people talking but with loud music, and traffic outside.  By the time we'd walked back to the hotel we were both feeling exhausted after being bombarded with bright lights and continual noise.

In the morning the hotel shuttle arrived fairly promptly; we had allowed a couple of hours to get to the airport, so, naturally, the traffic was light and we got there in just over twenty minutes. The check-in process was pretty quick and we had lunch at the airport, in a food court - the food was good, but the place we sat was so noisy we could hardly hear ourselves speak.

I took a photo as the aeroplane was taxiing along the runway:

In the evening we arrived at Mexico City.  We were both exhausted, and quite hungry; we were booked into the smaller airport hotel, and had a light meal there before collapsing into a huge and very comfortable bed.

In the morning the sky was clear, and this was the view from our window:

We had a whole day - we had to check in for our flight about 8.30pm - and could see that there was some kind of metro system that might avoid traffic. So we looked online for recommendations about what to do in Mexico City in our circumstances. We didn't want to go far, or do anything too tiring... and were quite relieved when we realised that the almost unanimous recommendation was NOT to go into the city, but to explore the airport mall!

Breakfast was not included in the price of the hotel but there was a buffet breakfast available so we decided we might as well eat there, although the cost seemed rather high. So it was quite a nice surprise when our bill was for about half what we had expected. We queried it, thinking we'd been given the wrong bill, and the waiter told us that we had only had a 'small' breakfast, rather than the 'full' one. We thought we'd had quite a bit...

Mid-morning we walked through the hotel and over the bridge to the airport, which does indeed have a huge shopping mall - bigger than anything we've seen in any other airport on the 'public' side (ie before checking in). There weren't just gift shops and restaurants (although there were many of them) but also a lot of specialist shops selling clothes, shoes, bags... and even the first real local bookshop we had seen on our travels:

It was huge. And although everything was in Spanish, we went inside, and I felt so happy to be amongst books, browsing different categories. This wasn't just books to grab for a flight, but high quality ones in as many categories as one would find in a bookshop elsewhere.

But it was really the only oasis in a huge, bright and noisy environment. Richard loves shopping malls, and I don't mind spending a short time browsing shops, but every one played loud music, and there were flashing lights and more bright colours, and we both felt quite drained.

There's an entire food court upstairs, not offering local food but various chains - including the first Starbucks we had seen since leaving Europe, although we didn't buy anything there. We chose a sandwich shop that had a few inside seats, as neither of us could bear the thought of eating at the extremely noisy tables of the food court.

We were supposed to check out from our hotel by 2.00pm but had been told that, if we wished, we could pay an extra half-day's rate and check out in the evening. By this stage we were so overwhelmed with lights and sound that we thought it well-worth doing.  However when Richard went to book another half day, he was told that if he signed up to be a hotel associate - at no cost - we could not only check out as late as 6.00pm, we could get a 10% discount on all food at the hotel. The only disadvantage was that he'll be sent promotional emails - but it seemed well worth doing. We wondered why we were not invited to do this when we arrived, as we could have saved 10% on our evening meal and breakfast... but weren't going to quibble.

So we relaxed, and read in our room until 6.00pm, then checked out and left our cases with the concierge (free, but yet another requirement for a tip) and ate at the hotel restaurant because we couldn't face going back to the airport mall. And yes, they gave us a 10% discount because we had a hotel card!

Then we checked in at the airport, which all went smoothly; the only incident was when I opened the bottle of water I had bought, only to discover - when it sprayed itself over me, my seat, the floor and some of Richard - that it was fizzy rather than still!

It was 11.15pm when we took off and I was extremely tired; it was another 'dreamliner' aeroplane and there was an empty seat next to Richard so he moved up and I was able to curl up and sleep... albeit waking frequently to move as it wasn't all that comfortable.

We arrived at Heathrow at 4pm UK time the following day, picked up a rental car, and drove to Tim's flat in Surrey. The sun was shining and it was warmer than Mexico had been.  We drove down to see Richard's mother in Sussex on Tuesday, then Richard returned to Cyprus on Wednesday. I'm spending more time here with Tim and then my father, seeing various other people... and return in just over a week.

It's been a good summer, wonderful to see the family, and we all enjoyed the break in Coronado very much. Tim's suitcase eventually arrived on the Logos Hope about two hours before he left, so he was able to distribute the various gifts in it, and it arrived safely back in Gatwick when he returned to the UK about ten hours before we did.