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The Charade Continues

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

If you’ve been following my recent travels, you probably know that transferring flights between VA and BWIA at Bridgetown takes more than the allotted 2-2.5 hrs because no baggage agreement exists between the carriers and you must clear immigration, customs and check-in. On my return I miraculously made it, but only because my luggage emerged early (as part of the main luggage—not on a separate transit belt this time), and somebody put in a word for me before the customs officer arrested me for being pushy and obstinate (“give the poor girl a chance”—only in the Caribbean!).

I was shaking all over when I made it to the international check-in counter because it closes one hour before the flight is due to leave. Thankfully there was still a long queue.

Well, we have put in a complaint (several, actually) because I don’t want others to go through this kind of stress and I don’t believe the ticket was advertised correctly. Flight transfers ought to follow certain guidelines, or so I thought.

The initial reply by followed from the misunderstanding that the luggage would be checked straight through (as I had been informed by VA check-in staff at Gatwick):

Impossible Baggage Label

The minimum connecting time for your return flight is one hour fifty five minutes and you have almost 2 hours in hand, to take the connecting flight. As per the airline you will have sufficient time to go through the immigration formality and take the connecting flight. There will a through check-in of your luggage, you do not have to manually carry your luggage to the connecting flight.

Lastminute is standing by this claim, only now they admit that immigration and customs must be cleared and the required (‘standard’) connection time has been decreased to one hour fifteen minutes.

Having studied the points raised in your e-mail, I would like to take this opportunity to offer my sincere apologies for any inconvenience that may have been suffered, after investigation into your case please note the standard connection time for Barbados [BGI] – Barbados [BGI] ], for an international flight is 1 hour and 15 minutes.

The connection time allocated for the outbound flight was 2 hours and 30 minutes, and 2 hours for the return section, the standard connection time is allocated including the time taken to collect and check-in baggage.

(Note to LM: quit the grovelling—it changes nothing!)

Who is allocating such times? People who try to break the speed-immigration record? They are not meant for people like me, for sure, nor the lady who was sitting in the seat next to me and moves somewhat more slowly at eighty years of age (I don’t think she’d ever make it to Trinidad, so it’s just as well that she was staying in Barbados). No, the people who allocate these times must imagine that a plethora of specially dedicated staff awaits us at the airport to whisk us through customs and immigration, hand us over to the VIP check-in and probably carry our bags on the way there.

They sure don’t travel in our shoes.

It’s worth noting that this complaint reference has gone through ABTA, so I wonder what their response will be.

Trini-influenced Blueberry Pancakes

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

I’m currently listening to the Soca Show on One Xtra and checking out the amazing carnival pics on Flickr.

In the UK, carnival is a more modest affair—i.e. non-existing, except for the overcrowded but vibrant Notting Hill Carnival, which is really a Caribbean festival that happens nowhere around carnival time. I do remember the German version of Karneval, but it’s nothing like what happens in Trini or even Notting Hill, especially with home-grown British talent thrown into the mix.

Anyway, the closest thing that we have around this time that harks back to Christian traditions is Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day, which is essentially the opposite of Fat Tuesday. Trust the Brits to do penance while the rest of the world throws one final, all-out party on the day before Lent.

But any excuse for a pancake, I say.

In Trinidad (or more precisely: in Dougie’s Bar in Manzanilla) I discovered the secret of the bake, which has influenced the way I now make pancakes.

½lb plain flour, 2tsp baking powder, pinch yeast.
Mix with enough water to knead, rest, form patties and deep-fry.

The secret lies of course in the yeast. If baking powder alone is used it affects the taste.

I don’t use exact measures for pancakes: the final batter should be the consistency of thick cream. You can always add more milk to thin it. Adding an extra yolk greatly improves the flavour.

About 300g plain (preferably 00-grade) flour, 1 egg, 1 egg yolk, milk, ca. 1tsp baking powder, pinch yeast, small pinch salt.
Beat the eggs, mix everything together until smooth and rest in the fridge overnight.

[EDIT: you must sift the flour, even if it’s extra fine :/]

[EDIT 2: half the suggested amount of flour. God, I hate pastry 🙁 And imperial measures >:( ]

Adding apples or blueberries: Bring some butter to sizzle in a pan and gently swirl the mix to spread it until the bottom sets. Press the fruit into the half-cooked batter. Continue to cook over a low heat until the top just starts to set and flip.

These pancakes tend to fluff up and break easily. Tossing them isn’t an option if you don’t want pieces of fruit flying around the kitchen, so I use a smaller pan and a big spatula to flip them over.

That’s the theory anyhow. We’ll see tomorrow.

Still Red Hot—not!

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009


I cringe each time Virgin Atlantic’s latest advert appears on TV. Cribbed from the Leonardo di Caprio movie Catch Me If You Can, it shows a bunch of red-clad mannequin stewardesses fawning over a dashing airline captain as they march across a drab airport to the tune of eighties music—just to show that in a quarter of a century nothing has changed.

But that isn’t quite true. I’m seeing more male cabin crew now, although I have yet to encounter a female pilot. And passenger service has declined sharply. My return flight from Barbados had the worst service that I have experienced in a quarter century of travelling.

It all started so well. VA has an image of being young, cutting-edge and fun. I was ecstatic to be flying with them again after my great trip to Nippon 2007. But the Barbados route is not Japan. On the Japan route they would never get away with that level of attitude. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but in future I will pay extra not to fly Virgin again.

Setting aside the complete lack of assistance by ground staff (that is another matter) the service was appaling. It isn’t just that drinks are dealt out in thimble portions: for about three hours after dinner I was waiting in vain for a drop of water. With an elderly passenger sleeping in the aisle seat, I could not get to the bathrooms. The cabin crew took a long time to respond to the signal (in the end I had to stand up in my seat and call out to someone as he was turning his back to me) and the response was “we have only just finished with the duty free”.

“So you don’t believe in giving your passengers any liquid?”

“You’ve had liquid from the bar and you’ve had liquid at dinner.” With a huff, the young man turned on his heels and returned with a beaker containing about 100ml of water.

Usually I take my own water on flights (and I usually do not need it), but in Bridgetown the final check point is past the drinking fountains and I had to discard the water from my bottle. I wasn’t tempted to refill it with the tepid water in the bathrooms.

I should have done.

Why Won’t The Bed Bugs Bite?

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

Yesterday night we watched a repeat episode of Victorian Farm in which Ruth is scrubbing down the beds and walls with salt and turpentine to get rid of bed bugs (in a room that hadn’t been slept in for 50 years).

It seems that back in the day it was teeming with bed bugs everywhere, which begs the question where the critters are now. I don’t make it a habit to clean the rooms—certainly not with salt and turpentine—and I have never in my life seen a bed bug nor been bitten by one.

This strikes me as odd. While bed bugs may have disappeared from the modern home with the advent of central heating or whatnot, plenty of people still encounter them on the road. I have travelled the world, stayed in hundreds of sub-standard or downright seedy establishments, and I have never encountered any. (Unlike Steve to whose blog I’m currently addicted!)

Maybe I just don’t react to them? Or maybe the mozzie coils I use in the tropics get rid of them? Or maybe the guesthouses I choose top stay in are all meticulously cleaned, even the downright hovels (unlikely)?

Come on now: where are the bed bugs? Maybe I should make it a point to seek them out on my next trip.

Smitten with Manatees

Friday, February 13th, 2009

No reply from the OUEC yet. I suppose expedition proposals have to be in by October, and from what I remember of the club they don’t have regular meetings during term time, just some speaker events. Maybe somebody will pick up on it next academic year…

I may only have seen a grey back arching out of the water, but I must say I’m smitten with manatees. Somebody told me that they are used to keep waterways clear of weeds in Guyana. Apparently there are many of them, so I’m looking up Guyana as a potential destination for next winter 😉

I’m finding out surprising things. Here is a link to a blog entry about a boy feeding grass to two manatees as if they were ponys. They are surprisingly tame. Note the tiny eyes—manatees in the clear waters of Florida have bigger eyes.

[EDIT: no wonder, they are Amazonian manatees (Trichechus inungius) (see comments in blog link), not Trichechus manatus, the West Indian manatee which occurs in Guyana as well and is the principal species used for weed control, as far as I know. Interesting to see bank feeding in Amazonian manatees which have poor eyesight.]

The Manatee Pond

Friday, February 6th, 2009

17th January 2009:

[long entry…]

It was past eight o’clock, and I was still waiting for Mr. Boodoo. Or rather ‘Shortman’, his sidekick, who Mr. Douglas had said would come to pick me up.

Heavy grey clouds held the promise of rain. I watched them pile up as the clock turned to eight-thirty, then ten to nine.

“Still playing the waiting game?”

I wondered what it looked like to Mr. Douglas. He’d seen me arrive with a different guy every day, and now I was sitting and waiting for half a morning—after having waited in vain for Truckman for half a day—to be picked up by yet another man.

But he knew Mr. Boodoo. “It’s odd,” he said. “He is normally on time. This is not at all businesslike.”

Mr. Douglas let me use his phone and Mr. Boodoo sounded surprised that nobody had come to pick me up. At least he hadn’t forgotten about me.

“Hold on,” he said.

I did.


Shortman arrived five minutes later, with two boys in their early twenties along for the ride. He apologised for being late, but he wasn’t serious. Neither was I. They were here: that was all that mattered.

“It’s Saturday,” he said. It’s our time for liming!”

And with that we were off to d’Hammerhead Bar.


“Look at that moth,” Shortman said and grabbed my arm. Something about his eyes made me hesitate. A moth?

I looked and my heart stopped for an instant.

Giant Moth in 'd'Hammerhead Bar'

It sat there under the ceiling like a painting, each wing the size of my hand. A museum-specimen come to life. Except that I knew that it wouldn’t move again until dark. With that insight, I could breathe again.

The jungle had come to the bar, and it was time for us to leave.

Calaloo Crab

I wondered when—and if—we would meet the mysterious Mr. Boodoo as we drove up to the RAMSAR sign that marked the entrance to the Protected Area. The school-maxi driver had told me that here I would find guys who knew the swamp. The guy in question lived in a house right next to the sign. His name was Bobby.

He showed me his catch of calalloo crabs and cascadoo. The crabs sold out before we had finished lunch: a delicious curry stew prepared by Shortman who maintained that men were the better cooks.

I found these men a refreshing change from those I had encountered so far.


[read on]

Nariva Swamp Writeup

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

I’m nearly finished with the writeup, but I need to do some editing on my last day’s entry. The rain was soaking the pages, and all I have are some photos and hastily scribbled notes. I’m struggling to convey what it was really like.

“Rights worth having are unruly things”.

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

“Rights worth having are unruly things”

There is hope for civil liberties in this country!

Transcript follows:

Thursday, 5 February, 2009 5:02 PM
Add sender to Contacts

Aldermaston Women’s Peace Camp(aign)


A Ministry of Defence (MoD) byelaw banning camping ouside the Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston was quashed by the court of appeal today. The case, heard on 26th November 2008, was an appeal in the Judicial Review of the Secretary of State for Defence’s decision to introduce byelaws which would have criminalised camping as a form of peaceful protest.

The case brought by Aldermaston Women’s Peace Camp(aign) hinged on whether the government’s ban on camping violated their rights to freedom of expression and assembly guaranteed by Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Aldermaston Women’s Peace Camp(aign) have been camping outside the Atomic Weapons Establishment every month for the last 24 years, in opposition to the manufacture of UK’s nuclear weapons. Following the original hearing on 1st February 2008, the court quashed a byelaw outlawing the attaching of banners to the perimeter fence. The MoD chose not to appeal. Today’s judgement reverses the original ruling that the ban on camping was justified.

In a unanimous verdict, the Court of Appeal today rejected the Secretary of State for Defence’s arguments saying, “Rights worth having are unruly things”. The byelaw prohibiting camping was quashed and the women’s peace camp is no longer criminalised. This ruling has an impact beyond AWPC and the Aldermaston nuclear weapons factory. It strengthens the right to protest and legitimises camping as a form of protest.

Speaking outside the court after today’s judgement, a representative from the Aldermaston Women’s Peace Camp said “We welcome today’s outcome, which is not only a victory for the women’s peace camp but an important judgement on the right to protest. Aldermaston Women’s Peace Camp will continue to hold our lawful camp to protest against the government’s unlawful nuclear weapons”.


Media contact details / 07887 802879

Further information
Full background briefing and high resolution images available at


Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

16th January 2009:

I got up to a late start because I had to increase my dose of Vitamin X and wait until I was calm enough to venture out. Those final few days were taking it out of me.

It was past noon, and it was clear that I wouldn’t manage to walk all the way to the Cocal Estate and back before dark. I set off down the road anyway.

The roar of an approaching engine made me turn. I leapt out of the way as a PSTC bus thundered past without slowing. It was almost empty. It seems that not even the locals know when to expect them or where to track down the elusive tickets. However, I still had that 3TT ticket in my wallet. If only I’d paid more attention to the traffic instead of day-dreaming.

After that I threw caution to the wind and flagged down the next car that came along, treating the driver as if he was driving a route taxi, although it was plain that he wasn’t and that I would be his only passenger. He was easy with that. We passed the bridge over the Nariva River and he pulled over, asking whether I wanted to go to the beach with him.

“No, here’s good. How much?”

“How much do you want to give me?”

I handed him 10TT, and he was easy with that too. Sometimes things just are.

I would worry about how to get back when the time came.

I walked back to the bridge. The Nariva river continued for as far as the eye could see with no sign of an estuary. The banks were a dense thicket of mangroves, as impassable as any fence around a military installation.

Nariva River, near the mouth

The river runs parallel to the road and going along the beach suddenly didn’t seem such a bad idea. I walked to a deserted spot—well away from any parked cars—and picked up a sturdy rod of bamboo. Then I continued along the beach, using the seam of mangroves to point the way.

It took me twenty minutes to reach what passed for the estuary. Aside from two fishermen on the opposite bank, I hadn’t seen a soul.

Nariva River Mouth

The Nariva River is a classic blackwater river, the water dark like tea, with visibility between 30-45cm. It is rich in organics and fish, but there was nothing which the manatees could conceivably feed on.

Dejected, I turned back. The manatees wouldn’t be at the estuary—I wasn’t looking for dolphins.

The estate was about an hours walk away. It looked out of place with its large sheds; similar to a farmyard back home. Two lads were working in the yard. They greeted me and shouted for the boss as soon as I mentioned the M-word.


And there he was: Mr. Michael ‘Yankee’ James, wearing a Manatee Conservation Trust shirt.

I felt as if I had been caught in a surreal dream, standing on a farmyard with palm trees in the distance, talking about manatees.

“Come, I show you something,” Yankee said and took me to a large house opposite the estate. A wood-panelled room opened to a panoramic view of the sea. Its walls were covered with press clippings, maps and photographs of manatees.


Yankee stood by while I studied the newspaper articles, many already familiar from pdf scans on the MCT website.

“Any questions?”

“Yes, how many are left in the swamp?”

“We think about forty-seven.”

Forty-seven? My mind was reeling.

“But— I thought the last estimate was about twenty!”

“Twenty-two in fact,” Yankee said, and grinned.

“They don’t breed that fast! Ohmigod—you found another population!”

His grin widened. “That’s right. There is another sub-population.”

That was all that I could find out from him for now. Yankee was a busy man and I didn’t want to keep him, so eventually I came out with my intent. “I was told that I should contact you about seeing the manatees.”

“No, not me. I’ll give you the number for a Mr. Boodoo. He can make arrangements.”

“Oh—” what had I expected? “Tomorrow is my last day. I’ve spent a whole week chasing after manatees and only just found out about you!”

Yankee regarded me with open amusement. It was clear that I had gone about the matter all wrong. To top it off, tomorrow would be a Saturday.

“I’m sure he can accommodate you.”

So near and yet so far… And yet, I was elated as I bade my good-byes. Forty-seven manatees!

“How will you get home?”

“Oh, something will turn up.”

Something—or rather somebody—did. A man called George dropped me right in front of Dougie’s. I had met him and his friends a couple of days ago, but had forgotten his name. I kept meeting too many new people.

Mr. Douglas let me use his phone to call David Boodoo (6683133; cell 7504688, if you ever want to see the manatees), who was (who’d have thought!) a good friend of his. Somebody would come to pick me up at half past seven tomorrow morning.

Despite the shaky start, it had been a perfect day. I rounded it off with some of Sherna’s excellent food (her tiny kitchen in the orange trailer in front of Dougie’s is a secret so well-kept that I would probably have lived on bakes all week if she hadn’t pointed it out herself) and a few beers at the bar. Even when one of the few man-pests started talking to me (only the second one this week), he couldn’t spoil it. I left and sat on the balcony to watch the sunset.

Tiny stars floated among the trees as fireflies came out to greet the encroaching dark.

Manzanilla Bay

Edging Closer

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

15th January 2009:

I spent two hours waiting for the Truckman, but he didn’t show and I only got his voicemail.

He was probably busy. They were expecting the results from the solitary monkey specimen today. Maybe he was miffed because I’d said they should have sampled more of them. When will I learn to keep my big mouth shut?

At noon I gave up and went to d’Hammerhead Bar, but the landlord wasn’t there.

The new field station was supposed to be close to a bridge. It must be near to where I had seen the sign for the RAMSAR site, nearly all the way to Ortoire. I hesitated: it was too far to walk, but it wasn’t straightforward to flag down a ride with no route taxis running, and I did not want to be picked up by a single guy looking for entertainment.

I got stuck at d’Hammerhead for a while because a fisherman called Lambi kept buying me beers. He mixed his with rum, and I asked if he’d finished work.

“No, I’ll go back when the tide is low.” He squinted at the beach “—which is now!” With that he smiled and left, walking perfectly straight as if he’d be downing lemonade for lunch.

He’d offered me to come with him, but said that I’d have to change into short clothes at his place (they wade chest-high into the water to launch the boats), so I declined. Sometimes I regret that I’m not a guy.

The afternoon turned out to be nice, so I decided to walk up to the lighthouse on Brigand Hill. This proved to be the right decision. The steep road was arduous, but the view was worth it:

View from Lighthouse

However, it wasn’t the view that made the walk worthwhile. On my return, I met a Mr. Davis from the Forestry Commission.


“The monkeys are falling from the trees!”

This was the strange manner in which Mr. Davis introduced himself. He and a friend were standing at the corner of the Plum Mitan Road.

“Pardon? Oh, you mean all the dead monkeys they’ve been finding.”

Mr Davis nodded grimly. “Yellow fever, I think.”

“Do they have the results yet?”

He regarded me for a moment and I told him about my meeting with the Truckman, but despite working with the Forestry Commission for twenty-seven years, Mr. Davis knew of nobody who went by that name.

We got talking, and he mentioned a recent Oxford University expedition studying trees in the Nariva Area. He had worked with the expedition and with scientists from all over the world.

I asked him about the manatees.

“Ah, you have to talk to a man who calls himself ‘Yankee’. He’s the boss. You find him on the Cocal Estate. The manatees are on private land, but of course the rangers need access. He’s the one to talk to.”

For the first time, I had a concrete lead. There was only one working estate on the way to Mayaro, about twice as far away as the abandoned field station. That had to be it.

I took out the useless map, and both the ranger and his friend, and later Mr. Douglas, confirmed the location. The Cocal Estate was about half-way down the Manzanilla-Mayaro Road.

It was just about walkable.

Evening Walk