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. 

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Out of Cyprus: last few days in Panama

It wasn't until we returned to near Panama City that we realised how good the weather had been during our break in Coronado. Perhaps that's why so many people have holiday homes in that area, and go there for weekends. When we returned the family and Tim to the Logos Hope on Sunday, we learned that it had rained, sometimes heavily, every day while we had been away.  In Coronado, we'd seen a few showers, some early mornings and evenings, but mostly it had remained fine and sunny.

We left the holiday villa around noon on Sunday 12th, and stopped for lunch at a Subway, followed by yet more ice creams at Gelarto. Esther fell asleep soon after getting back in the car, and it took us around an hour and a half to get back t the Logos Hope.
We wanted to see as much of the family as possible in our last few days, so we went onto the ship too on Sunday afternoon. Had I realised how high the tide was (and thus how steep the gangway was) I might have decided otherwise - but the pull of spending more time with David and Esther was strong. Becky acquired red 'shore guest' passes for us. We went to the 'fun deck' for a while with the children, as they had been stuck in the car and were full of energy. David showed Tim some of the ship, and we ate dinner there.  Afterwards, Richard read to David, and was joined by Esther:

We wanted to get to our guest house before eight o'clock if possible, and it was supposedly a half-hour drive. As the cabin was a bit crowded with seven of us, Richard and I departed shortly after 7.00pm.

Unfortunately Richard's phone navigation application isn't totally up-to-date for Panama. It tried to take us the shortest route, which was fine until we reached a barrier, with no way to get through. Richard phoned the lady who owns the guest house, and she spoke in Spanish to the man on duty at the barrier, but all we gathered was that we were in the wrong place.

So we back-tracked and tried a different route.. only to come up to another barrier, with another gated community (perhaps something military).  This time the guard was more helpful; he spoke a little English, and called a man on a motorbike to direct us. The man on the motorbike phoned someone else who told us in English where to go... and eventually we were on the right route, free of barriers.

In all, it took us over an hour and a half to reach our location. We could have got back to Coronado in that time! We were met by a friendly lady with reasonable English, who made us very welcome. She also has a padlocked high gate and large dogs - this seems to be very common here in Panama. We were shattered and slept well.

I didn't take photos of the guest house until Tuesday morning, by which time we had changed to a smaller rental car:

There's a little outside area, which we had to ourselves as the other guest room isn't yet finished:

Inside, the room is spacious and comfortable. The kitchen is well-equipped, with a fridge, coffee-machine and kettle. We hadn't been shopping, and were too tired to go out on a hunt for a supermarket after we arrived Sunday night. But we had some of Daniel's ground coffee with us for the morning, and some cereal bars which I'd bought in Cyprus for our flights.

When I opened the kitchen cupboard, I found various things, probably left by previous guests, including a jar of Coffee-Mate. This posed something of a moral dilemma as this product is made by a company whose products we don't buy, due to many of its unethical policies. However, we hadn't bought it ourselves. It appeared to be free of any ingredients that would give me a migraine or block Richard's ears, so we decided to use a couple of spoonfuls in the morning.

Thus we were able to have coffee and cereal bars for breakfast on Monday morning.

Just outside our room was a row of what my subconscious memory tells me are Amaryllis plants, growing in profusion.  Maybe they're something else (and they're quite bedraggled by rain) but they must be stunning when in full bloom.

We were due at the Airport on Monday at 9.00am to return our ten-seater van and pick up, instead, a smaller car for the two of us to get about. Our hostess told us we should leave by 8.00am. She would be leaving at 6.00am, she told us, to get her two teenage daughters to school - an hour's drive away.  She told Richard later that she does about six hours of driving every day to get her girls to and from school.  This kind of thing is not uncommon in a city with far too many cars, although a kind of over-ground railway system is being built, which should revolutionise the traffic problems in a few years.

We set off shortly after 8.00, and had no problem getting over the bridge (over the Panama Canal). But once in the town, traffic was appalling.  And what a depressing city, full of huge apartment blocks... and cars.

It was well after 9.30 by the time we got to the airport, but since we'd had problems collecting the van originally, they weren't going to object.

Having returned the car, we had to wait a few minutes for our replacement to be available, so we embarked on a search around the airport, to see if we could find out anything else about Tim's missing suitcase. We asked at a helpful information desk, and were sent to the 'lost and found' office, which was filled with shelves of suitcases, smaller bags and other lost items.

We explained our problem and were told that if the case had arrived at Panama, it would not be in the publicly accessible area of the airport - this was for luggage that had come through Customs. They sent us to Customs.

We found the Customs people - going past randomly placed suitcases of all shapes and sizes, though mostly black (Tim's case is red), and were told that we had to go somewhere else. We went somewhere else, and a guy checked yet more luggage... and sent us to the American Airlines office.

We had to keep waiting outside there while various people checked up, and a helpful guy called Jason said they had all the details of the case and were still looking.  But he seemed to think we were asking about compensation, and told us the path to follow. We said yes, we knew about that - but really our son wanted the case more than the compensation.  He didn't seem to hold out much hope, though.

By the time we left the airport it was about 10.45am. The rest of the family had booked a taxi to the Albrook Mall, largest mall in the Americas, and one of the largest in the world. Monday is the ship day off, and it seemed like a good idea to get out somewhere; Tim needed to do more shopping to replace a few more things from his case, and Richard very much likes malls.  We knew it didn't open until 10.00am, but had been in touch with Tim via WhatsApp. He had managed to buy inexpensive phone chips from the UK that would give free data and roaming in most of Latin America, so we were exchanging messages around Panama at no cost.

It should have taken us about half an hour, at most, to reach the mall from the airport. It took us over an hour and a half. Traffic was abysmal. When we found the mall we couldn't find the multi-storey car park and ended up parking at a somewhat expensive outdoor car park (where the tariff was 4 cents per minute, up to a maximum of $20 for a day) but it could have taken another half hour to drive around the mall to find somewhere else. We were tired and getting hungry.

Tim had messaged that we should meet at the 'Carrusel' - the mall is mostly organised by animals, so we entered at the 'lion' area, and went past a section with huge giraffes. The 'Carrusel' turned out to be a merry-go-round (or carousel - we're not entirely sure what the difference is) with a food court - although the shops were all fast-food places, mostly American. But that wasn't a problem. The endless noise was draining - all the shops seemed to be playing music, and there were bright lights everywhere, and the carousel itself was playing music.

There are only two storeys to the mall, but it must be a kilometre or more from one end to the other, and it branches off in different directions.

Richard and I had burritos for lunch, Daniel and the children shared a pizza, and Tim and Becky both opted for a shop called 'Suvlas' which sold something strongly resembling a Cypriot gyro... called a 'yeero'.

Afterwards, we'd promised David a ride on the merry-go-round, and he wanted to sit in the teacup. So he, Esther and Becky had a ride.

However there wasn't much else for children. And while there were lots of shops, none of them really interested us. We wandered around for another hour or so, looking in a pen shop (for Tim) which was very expensive, and a cloth/material shop (for Becky) which didn't have anything appealing.

The children were getting tired, so after stopping for coffee and more ice creams, we headed to the car park, via a supermarket where we bought some almond milk and fruit juice. We don't know what the laws are here, but since it was only a short drive to the ship, we put the children on laps, and headed back.

We had dinner on the ship, and played with the children a little but they were tired so we departed about 7.30pm. Unfortunately we missed the turn-off to Veracruz (the place where we're staying) and ended up going several extra miles down the highway.  However this had the benefit of taking us to a large supermarket, so we stopped and bought a few extra things for breakfast. We would have liked some fruit, but the mangoes and papayas and other tempting looking produce were so hard that it would probably have taken a week or more to ripen them, and we were only here for three more mornings.

So we bought some bananas, and yogurts, and little bags of fruit and nuts that were on special offer, and headed back.  Excluding the time spent at the supermarket, it still took over an hour to get to our guesthouse - and once again we were very tired and slept well.

Tuesday morning dawned bright and sunny. We had said we would meet the family on the ship around 3.00pm when David finished at the ship school, and Esther would have woken for her nap, so we had the morning to ourselves. Richard chatted with our hostess, and she suggested driving along a causeway not far from the ship, which her husband had helped to build in recent years.

We were both suffering from quite bad mouth ulcers (canker sores) at this stage. Probably because of eating high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a product which is restricted and uncommon in Europe but which seems to be in just about every product here. It isn't a migraine trigger, so I had eaten breakfast cereals, ketchup and one or two other items bought here, not realising it's a common mouth ulcer trigger.  Not that there's much we could have done about it unless we had cooked everything from scratch, and that's not something I wanted to do on holiday.

I had brought a small amount of coconut oil with me, but had used it all up on my first batch of mouth ulcers; we had been unable to find any more. But research online showed that it could be found in some branches of a large supermarket called El Rey. We'd been to one in Coronado and hadn't been able to find any, so we decided to check one which looked as if it wasn't too far from the ship, albeit the other side of the bridge.

Driving over the bridge wasn't a problem, but it then took us nearly an hour driving at snail's pace through the outskirts of Panama City before we finally found the supermarket and a place to park.

Happily we were able to find some coconut oil, albeit rather expensive. But by then we were hungry and there was nowhere obvious to eat. We walked over the street to an indoor mall (much smaller than the Albrook, and not air conditioned). It had a food court, but when we went in the smell was unpleasant and none of the shops looked appealing.

So we bought pastries at a small coffee house, and they filled a gap.

We still had over an hour before we planned to go to the ship, so we set off for the causeway.  It was indeed well worth seeing - it's quite long, lined with trees, and (unusual for Panama) there are plenty of roundabouts to enable cars to return at any point. It connects three former small islands to the mainland, although there doesn't seem to be anything much on them.

There were lots of boats anchored somewhat randomly in the bay, so Richard got out and looked, though by this stage it was too hot and sunny for me to leave the car and there was no shade. Perhaps, as the trees get bigger over the next few years, there will be pleasanter places to sit.

We were intrigued by an odd-looking building with brightly-coloured roof pieces, so we parked and went inside.

It's a bio-diversity museum, with sections about animal and plant life, and one big section about the over-use of plastic.  A little ironic, then, that next-door to this is a restaurant serving drinks in plastic cups, with plastic straws....

As we came out, we were struck by the contrast between this peaceful causeway and the city just a few miles away:

We arrived at the ship in time to collect David from school; a good thing as Esther was still asleep, and woke up while we were gone. As ever, he wanted books read to him, and also asked for his playdough; so he and Esther spent some time peacefully playing with that:

After dinner, he got out his racing car tracks and Tim helped him put them together. David and Daniel were both feeling chilly, so they put on jumpers - and I was very pleased to see that the Postman Pat jumper I knitted over a year ago still fits!

By the time we left the ship it was starting to rain, and by the time we reached our guesthouse it was absolutely pouring.

Wednesday morning was our last time for visiting the ship, and Daniel had suggested we arrive in time for lunch. Since it was raining hard when we got up - so bizarre to lie in air conditioning hearing rain pouring down outside! - we had a lazy morning at the guest house, catching up on Facebook (and, in my case, starting this blog post), then got to the ship about 11.45.

After lunch, when David was back at afternoon school, and Esther was asleep, we played two more Settlers games with Becky. Then the fun-deck with Esther, while Richard read to David and played with him for a while, followed by dinner, and more stories, and then a sad goodbye.

The Logos Hope at Panama City

It's probably a year until we will see them again. It's been wonderful spending time with the family, and getting to know Esther properly; she's so different from the nine-month old baby whom we said goodbye to a year ago in Cyprus.

.. and in stop-press news, for anyone who's read this far, Tim's case has finally been found.  In Gatwick (UK). Where it has apparently been for the past ten days, despite his having collected and returned it to the airline in Tampa (USA) on Sunday. Perhaps the helpful Jason whom we spoke to at Panama Airport on Monday finally managed to get something done. 

Not so good is that BA called and woke Tim at 5.30am, not realising he was still in Panama, and then spent ten minutes trying to persuade him that he could collect his case when he returned through Gatwick on Monday.  

He argued that half the contents were presents for the family here, and eventually they agreed to send it to Panama, to arrive at the ship (hopefully) some time tomorrow.  This is good news, if it arrives in time, but Tim flies out of Panama on Sunday, and they won't deliver it if he's no longer here. He had pretty much given it up for lost and had stopped worrying about it up to this point. So whereas it's good if it arrives safely, in time, it's going to be another stressful 24 hours or more trying to keep track of it, with not much time left....

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Out of Cyprus, Summer 2018: Coronado Playa, Panama

After the frustrations of our first couple of days of family holiday, we settled down to a - mostly - relaxing break together. It's the first time all seven of us have been together for about a year, so it's been wonderful spending lots of time with our grandchildren.

Today we check out and return to the area close to Panama City. Tim is going to spend a week on the Logos Hope; Richard and I will stay in a much smaller guesthouse nearby for a few days, then begin our journey home (including a brief stay in Costa Rica).

To get the negatives out of the day first: Tim's luggage still hasn't appeared, which has meant he's had to spend at least half an hour each day on the phone to American Airlines, and at least a couple of hours trying to find suitable clothes (which should eventually be refunded by his insurance). Esther hasn't been sleeping well, meaning that Daniel and Becky have had very broken nights, and in the past couple of days Daniel has had a bad sinus-ish cold.

However, overall it's been an excellent break. When looking for a suitable place to say, Richard had several criteria: he wanted it to be in a safe place, child-friendly with at least four bedrooms. he hoped for some outdoor space for the children to run around, and - if possible - a beach nearby. He found all those things in our Air BnB villa in Coronado Playa.

The whole village is in a closed area; to get in, we have to stop at a booth and explain where we're going. It's not particularly secure - usually Richard just says we're going to a friend's house, which he was told to say - but is protection against some danger. Not that it's a particularly dangerous country, but petty theft is fairly common, and this is quite a wealthy area. The owner of this villa lives in one of the cities, and this is her family holiday home. This appears to be the case for many of the owners of properties in the neighbourhood; they're mostly empty at present, although the weekend saw quite an increase in people locally.

The villa itself has a high fence around, with padlocked gates at the front. There's a caretaker who lives in a little house on site, and three large (though extremely friendly) dogs which live outside and bark at any hint of activity nearby during the night.

For me, one of the best things about a holiday is not having to cook or even think too much about food. Becky and Tim both enjoy cooking and planning meals, but we had decided to eat out a few times anyway, to save time and to experience some of the local cuisine. Not that we managed the latter. While there are some inexpensive 'fonda' restaurants (roughly what we would call tavernas in Cyprus) they're not child-friendly, and mostly only have outside eating areas near the street. Many only offer breakfast and lunch.

We've eaten twice at the closest child-friendly restaurant, an Italian one.

There are plenty of vegetarian options, although rather limited in dairy-free items at first glance. But they were happy to make a cheese-free pizza for Tim and were excellent with the children. There was a high chair for Esther, pictures and crayons offered almost immediately to both, and their food was ready before ours.

One lunch-time, after finding a department store that sold clothes suitable for Tim, we decided to have lunch at what looked like a fast-food non-chain place. There wasn't much that was dairy-free, but I had an excellent vegetarian lasagne, and once again there were pizzas, though not as high quality as at the Italian restaurant.

Mostly we've eaten at the villa: Becky organised fajitas for the first evening that Tim was with us, after picking up ingredients at a large supermarket in the afternoon. One evening Tim made some curries, which we ate with Arabic bread (available here, though naan doesn't seem to be). One evening we had a barbecue:

We ate outside, and asked the caretaker to join us. But there were a lot of mosquitoes around, and this rather high-class barbecue didn't produce any smoke to drive them away. So the rest of the time we ate indoors.  We had cold lunches - or evening meals, when we ate out at lunch-time - with bread and cheese and eggs and salad, and whatever random bits were left from other meals.

Yesterday we ate out again, this time at a Tex-Mex place called CBC which seems to be an international chain.

We weren't sure what to expect, but it turned out to be excellent as well as very reasonably priced. There were tortilla chips with dips 'on the house' as a starter, and cinnamon fried tortilla chips with a caramel sauce as an extra dessert.

Becky managed very well communicating in Spanish as we tried to make our order, but when it was done, hoping it was correct, a friendly American guy (apparently the owner) appeared and ensured everything was correct, as well as chatting to us all and being extremely helpful.

So much for meals... though I mustn't forget the excellent ice creams, to which Tim treated us all on a couple of afternoons. The closest place, not far from the CBC restaurant, was called 'gelarto'. We found the spelling rather odd, as if it were a nod to British pronounciation. But hardly a problem.

There were many choices, including some sorbets which Richard and Tim could eat. I tried a Belgian chocolate cone the first time, and it was so good I had the same the second time.

David did very well with his cones (chocolate brownie the first time, mint choc chip the second) but Esther, who tends to eat quite slowly, had to have some help. Here's a standard toddler-eating-ice-cream photo...

There was the added bonus of a shoe shop next door, where I was able to find some very comfortable flip-flops for indoor wear, and also some soft, light walking shoes. Esther, who likes shoes very much, thought it a wonderful shop.

Shopping inevitably took up more time than we had hoped, as we had to try and explore various supermarkets to find such essentials as bread, fruit, toilet paper and so on. We had to buy containers of drinking water too, as the tap water isn't good for drinking (though fine for brushing teeth and washing fruit). And Tim had to find suitable shirts and underwear, as his luggage continues to be missing.

The beach is about 500 metres from where we are staying, an easy walk down a country-type lane and a short alleyway. The sand is black in places, something new to us, and rather messy when walking on it! We've been a couple of times when the tide was quite high, and yesterday Richard and Tim took David to make a castle when the tide was much lower. There's no shade, so it's not a place to stay for more than a hour or so, and I haven't been other than in the early evening.

When we (or some of us) have been, one of the dogs usually accompanies us.

One late morning, when Daniel, Becky and Tim took the children to the beach, Esther's hat blew away and was swallowed in the sea; the waves were quite strong and there was no sign of it. On the off-chance that it appeared at high tide, we went for a walk the following day, and found some rocks to sit on a little way down the beach, while David hunted for shells.

The hat didn't turn up, however.

We had thought about making some day trips a bit further afield, but none of us really wanted to spend an hour or more in the car, and then another hour or more back. The only real attraction locally other than the beach is a golf course, and as none of us play golf, we haven't explored that.

But it hasn't been a problem. The children have played outside for at least half an hour or so each day (other than one day when it rained). It's been hot and quite humid, so it hasn't been possible to spend as much time outdoors as we had hoped. But David and Esther have had fun in the tree house, or on the trampoline, or running around with the dogs. Esther was very nervous of the dogs at first; as Daniel commented, she's seen more crocodiles than dogs in the past year. But now she's much happier around them.

We've read lots of stories to them; Esther immediately accepted Tim as one of the family, and David loves the way he reads, so he's been a popular choice:

and we've played some games with David....

He has reached the age where he likes simple board games, and is also beginning to be able to play games intended for slightly older children, such as Uno.

Becky brought a selection of toy cars/trains, and building blocks, and activity books and it's been great just to hang out and enjoy spending time together, rather than rushing around doing things or seeing places of interest (which probably wouldn't interest the children).

Both children are usually in bed and asleep by around 7.30pm, sometimes earlier. So we(or some of us) have played board games every evening. Becky brought Above and Below (confusingly in a Settlers expansion box), Ticket to Ride (even more confusingly, in a Carcasonne box) [with the game boards separately], and, most importantly, Settlers of Catan. We've played that four times in all; it's still our default favourite game, one we never really tire of.

Last night, our final night in the villa, all five of us played.

Daniel won in the end but it was a high-scoring game where any of us could have won. Almost all the cities were built and we used up just about every building spot.

This morning we're tidying up and packing in preparation for leaving about noon. As we have no idea what wi-fi access we'll get in the next week, I've hurried to finish this so I can post it before we leave.