A Travellerspoint blog

USA - A New York State of mind

by Kt

The journey from Canada

We took the train from Montreal to the US and it was a pretty straightforeward, if slow, trip. The train was well over an hour late and no message of apology ever came. This seems to be a given. This, I would imagine, is why people don't take the train in the US.
A couple of tips for anyone taking the train from Canada to the US (this train was the New York city train):
- When you arrive at Montreal there are some porters hanging about who for a tiny amount (I can't remember exactly what it was but as backpackers we didn't bat an eyelid) will look after your luggage when you arrive at Montreal station so you can wander about and then take it down to load on the train so you get on first (seat aren't allocated). This is apparently due to the recent rules since the Boston bombings - people have to get on with their luggage so if your luggage is looked after and put on - you have to go with it. It was all kind of odd and a bit unofficial seeming but it all worked perfectly and we got great seats nice and early.
- Your ESTA form is not valid for travelling overland into the US. We had to cough up some more money to pay for our VISA entry into the USA. We were a bit p'd off at this as it had not been mentioned anywhere when we'd looked up travelling in by train. The reason seemingly is because the passport check seemed to use no technology whatsoever. Our passports were manually checked over by someone who came to each passenger. If they though you'd have to pay of there was anything that needed talking about - you went and sat in the buffet carriage and waited for someone else to come around to chat to you. This process took forever - we must have been there a good hour and a half. It just seemed bizarrely disorganised and as is too often the case, some of the passport control guys had attitude problems. Our's seemed very annoyed that he had to look through our very full and disorganised passports and even more grumpy at the concept we'd been travelling. But we didn't get it bad at all compared to anyone who was hispanic or asian. Jeez. I guess you don't often witness the questioning of people so close at hand but downright rude seemed to be the order of the day and if they didn't speak English well, then just loudly, aggressively, impatient repeating seemed to be the order of the day. This wasn't all the staff to be fair but the bad ones are the ones you remember aren't they? This experience definitely put me off getting into the country this way again. It was undeniably good value but turning up with a bad taste in your mouth and super late, is never a fun start.

Experiencing the real US of A

So, my main reason for visiting upper New York state was to visit family so I won't go into the personal details of my utterly delightful stay but will just talk about some of the things we did/places we went, because as well as loving being with my family and getting huge crushes on my gorgeous nieces and nephew - we also got a bit of a crush on this lovely area.

We were staying at my sister Patty's, in a place just outside of Maine, Broome County with the largest big city being Binghamton and the postal code being Johnson City. The signs as you drove through said Johnson City Village - all this was rather confusing to say the least! My other sister, Shani, lives in Harpursville - a 45ish minute car ride away which in these parts is considered close by. Being such a vast country, it's such a long journey to get anywhere, however, the roads and quick, the traffic, quiet by UK standards (VERY quiet by south east england standards), so the journeys tend to be smooth so not a big deal. Patty and my niece Kim picked us up from Schenectady (we never worked out how to pronounce this) which was a couple of hours drive each way for her (not to mention the wait for our delayed train) but she was cool about it as she is so used to such distances. When drives to relatives and dentists and such like are that kind of distance, it's not such a big deal. We definitely found that the journeys weren't remotely arduous - as compared to travelling the relatively short distance from say London to Devon - the whole thing a blood pressure inducing crawl, these smooth, big roads, in big comfy cars were a doddle. On the way back from the station we got to stop at a proper diner too which was cool.

We were staying properly out in the country but you could be in the centre of Binghamton super quickly - everything was super convenient but of course you have to drive! We were fine of course as we were ferried about by long suffering relatives but you definitely see how much of the US gets missed out by anyone travelling/back-packing as it's not so easy to get about and explore unless you have a car. I definitely want to do a huge road trip at some point. The landscape around here was lush, green and pretty epic. There's lots of wildlife - large deer are particularly common and we saw some hanging about out front of the house one time. You can also tempt them in with apple cores apparently.
Deciding to get a bit of exercise and explore one day we walked to the end of the road and back. My niece Kim does this walk regularly so we thought this would be a lovely idea. Wow that was a hike - especially the large uphill bit on the way back - Kim is clearly way, way fitter than us two layabouts. Despite knackering ourselves out - it was a lovely walk - nice to check out the local properties - huge houses - mansion like to people from England - manicures lawns, out-buildings and barns the size of a Brighton apartment block!

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Much of our stay was spent hanging around with family and I was lucky enough to go out and about to do a bit of girl shopping without a moaning Mark in the background.I had my first real 'shopping mall' experience. I've obviously been to them in cities, but never a kind of everyday out of town one. Could have knocked me down with a feather at the price I paid for some jeans and a top - you'd be lucky to pay that in a charity shop at home. I was also quite bewildered by all the sch-peal from the shop assistants - your rounded up change going to charity and doing surveys online and yada yada. It quite bewildered me. I cottoned on soon enough and by the time I hit NYC I was no longer a rabbit in the headlight at cut them off pretty sharpish.

I was also sadly excited by the supermarkets. Wegmans is a great store. I was impressed that they had special attention on things that were in season - peaches were big time while we were there. And not only that the produce tasted so good. This being an area with lots of farms, they clearly aren't going to accept fruit and veg that tastes of nothing that we get so used to in the UK from supermarkets. And also - in the kids sweets section, they had an overhead model train - how can you not love that????
We also sourced some yorkshire tea here and lots of cheese. I was being proper spoiled!

The local farm shop was obviously a delight. Corn from their cornfields growing right next door (with dried corn cobs decorating the wooden building that holds the shop). Freshly baked pies. The hugest, juiciest peaches and lot's of other interesting bits and pieces.

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Diggin it

My brother in law, Steve, runs a construction company and has a bunch of trucks, diggers and the like. Mark and I were like little kids climbing into the driving seats of things and pretending to drive. Yep, we made broom, broom noises and everything. It was ace!!

Check out the big shed that houses a load of stuff which uses old lorry bodies as walls:

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I noticed in this picture also, that you can see the kind of landscape of the area too.

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Our biggest thrill (who needs theme parks when you live round here!) was getting to have a go on the big excavator type thing - we went out with my nephew, Ryan, and the three of had a bit of a go at excavating rubble. I went first and was a little gun-ho and swirled the cab round at quite a speed that gave Mark a bit of a heart attack. It hadn't occurred to me to check that the digger arm was hanging higher than the rubble. Luckily I was clear by a few inches - may have rocked the cradle somewhat if it hadn't been. I think my brother in law had given me a little more credit for having common sense, than I deserved!! Once you get the hang of the controls it's actually a super enjoyable, almost meditational thing - picking up the rubble on one side and swing round and position it on the other. Sounds odd but I could do it all day. Apparently it's not quite so enjoyable in smaller vehicles that are a lot less sturdy and therefore produce a bumpy ride.

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Riding high (and low and in a ditch)

Other countryside toys included the atvs (quad bikes). They owned a couple of fields a little way up the road which were perfect for bombing about in.

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Mark was keen to have a go and my teenage niece Jenna basically gave me no choice. We were sensibly helmet-ted up (don't let the photos/vids of Mark fool you - he took the helmet off to look cool (which is the least cool thing ever, right?).

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I went out on the back with Jenna (trying not to cling on too hard to the poor girl) and she was, I believe, quite enjoying herself as we went over big dips and she charged a group of cows, only to turn at the last minute while I screamed. "You're such a baby" I seem to recall her shouting, gleefully!!! But I have to confess it was great fun and I did, just about, trust her not to kill me. Mark was in his element and thought he was Evil Knievel or some such hero.
I did have a go in 'the easy field'. It was quite fun but I think I enjoyed being the passenger as I don't trust myself. I was hurtling at quite a speed (read very slowly and tentatively) when I heard "mind the fence" - there was a low wire fence which I hadn't noticed at all. After realising I couldn't trust my senses at all I went off the idea a bit. Plus my hands had seized up where I'd been clinging onto the handles so hard!!

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My second fail was trying to climb Jenna's favourite tree. It had a few helping notches but I couldn't pull my weight up onto the leg that was sprawled out into the air. And when my hip nearly seized up, I realised I was also the least cool person around - along with Mark. Though he did manage to get up the tree - where they both sat, looking down laughing at me!!!

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Mark had a second atv experience with my nephew Ryan. They live much more out in the sticks, surrounded by woodland and so that was a bit more of an adventurous, rough, ready and wet ride, as of course, 16 year olds have no fear.

And his third go was going out one evening with Steve. This was apparently quite a hard core experience - going right into the woods through terrain he didn't think a bike could go. He was quite pale when he came back. "I thought I was going to die" he whispered to me. Though he was also exhilarated and you bet, given the chance, he would have gone out again the next day. I was ok with it - he's quite well insured after all!!

Woodland, waterfalls and wine

We went out on day out with my sister Shani and brother-in-law Bill where we headed up to Ithaca, home of Cornell university and the finger lakes.

On the way we went to an open bird sanctuary area connected to a college, I can't remember which. This was a gorgeous hideaway - though not many birds about, wrong time of year, maybe, it was a magical little place. Lush and green, ponds covered with lilly pads - a really peaceful ambiance.
I got quite excited by seeing a bit of word that had been gnawed by a beaver.

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Sounds sad I know, but when you see it and you haven't seen it before, it's kind of cool because it looks just like you'd imagine or how you'd see beaver gnawed wood appear in cartoons. We also, while looking over the huge pond area, saw 2 large red deer with white tails having a drink by the waters edge.

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This is where Mark had his first bout of camera envy. Bill's had amazing lenses and he was getting great shots of things we could barely see if we took on our SLR.

We headed further south up to Ithaca itself which had lots of big, interesting houses and seemed an interesting, vibrant place.
We went to Walmart which I was chuffed about as I've never been to the infamous Walmart. We got ourselves a lovely little picnic and went to go eat by the massive, gorgeous lake at the Allan H. Treman State Marine Park. This is kind of the beach for people living round here, it being so far from the coast. People have their leisure boats moored up here, some simple, some very grand and swish. The water is clear and the scenery is breath taking.

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After our picnic and walk around the edge of the lake (and Mark becoming dr doolittle trying to befriend some ducks) - we headed north to go to Taughannock Falls. I was super happy as with all our travelling we'd not really seen a proper scale waterfall anywhere. We'd not seen one at all since Fiji, getting on for 2 years ago. And this waterfall is definitely impressive. There was what seemed to be a wedding that had gone on there which was must have made for some great wedding shots. Mark and I both actually had an intake of breath when we rounded the corner of the viewing steps and saw the waterfall for the first time. Wow! Impressive to say the least. This is where Mark almost gave up trying to take photos when he could see the great ones Bill was setting up.

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Next stop was for a wine tasting. Not too shabby for Katie :) Believe it or not, wine lover that I am, I have never done a wine tasting and it's something I'd really wanted to do on this trip. After not doing it in Oz I thought I wouldn't get the chance after Napa got knocked off our list of places to visit so this was a great bonus for me. A waterfall and wine tasting in one day :) Yey!!! And the place was a gorgeous. A vineyard looking out over the lake and the mountains beyond. Talk about giving any view in Tuscany a run for it's money.

We did a panoramic photo of the view but it really does no justice.
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So, we did a tasting of 4 wines. It said which each one was and the price and it was interesting to find your preference and how the preference changed slightly as time went on. I was surprised just how much wine you got. Shani was designated driver that day and for sure, you couldn't get away with driving and having one tasting - it's a lot, not just a sip. Beautiful wines. Would have loved to have gotten one but wouldn't have been able to carry such fragile cargo - all the room is taken up carrying Mark's fragile ego - boom boom!

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It was quite a drive back but a great chance for a girlie gossip as the boys in the back both fell asleep. Luckily we only did the one tasting - tempting as it was to go on, because if we had we'd have been in no state to enjoy the evenings festivities.

A little bit of country baby

This Tim McGraw gig had come up before we went so we knew my sister had gotten the tickets which I was proper excited about.
I don't know a lot of artists but have experienced a few road trips in the US and more surprisingly, Australia, where the only music radio stations we could get were country and predominantly I always think of country as fun. The words to the songs are amazing and quite often tongue-in-cheek. One of the songs that popped on the radio when we were on the way to the concert was legendary - it was all about getting his red neck on. I LOVE this and decided then and there that was what I was going to do that evening - get MY redneck on.
The concert was put on by Dick's Sporting Good - how all american does that sound for a star - and was setup in the grounds of a golf course. It drew a pretty impressive crowd and we traipsed through armed with our foldup chairs. How prepared is that - I am terribly unprepared for such things normally and it was so worth it to have a nice seat while we waited for proceedings to begin. They weren't going to pussy foot about with a support act (super pleased about that - it so drags out an evening) and pretty much bang on time Tim came on. For those of you who doesn't know who he is (I did know of him but not really any of his music), he is famous for wearing a black cowboy hat and is married to Faith Hill, who is a little more famous in the UK. We'd lined up our chairs in 2 rows and during the wait, my nieces Heather and Jenna amused themselves taking photos. I shouldn't have pulled those funny faces as those photos have come back to haunt me on facebook, let me tell you!!!
There was a bit of a problem with the sound, so people sitting on one side of the stage - us for instance - weren't able to hear the words very well. This actually ended up being a blessing as lots of picky, not used to things being spot on, type people didn't like it and left. So - we had loads more room around us - result!! I didn't need to hear the words from Tim because either the crowd were singing them loudly or my sister Patty (who is a fun drunk without the drinking!). There was some real hum-dinging tunes I can tell you (see I have my redneck on).

There's Something like that with the lines "I had a BBQ stain on my white T-shirt, She was killing me in that mini-skirt". Then there was Truck Yeah - with the song title being the heavily chanted chorus, Mark decided to change the words to other vehicles in honour of our fun trip "atv, yeah" "digger, yeah", "excavator, yeah" and so on. Mark also knew all the words to one of the songs, as he'd recorded in his music studio, unknowing it as a Tim McGraw song. Shani said she was surprised when all of a sudden she heard someone belting out the song from behind her, to turn and see it was Mark ;) I think the fact that for some reason, I guess as people had driven and it was quite a family event, the line to the beer and wine stand was pretty much always non-existent, aided his newly found enthusiasm. Yes people of Britain - you didn't have to queue to get a drink at a gig - utopia?!?! I was personally rather partial to 'Live like you were dying'. I can't remember the others - I must get my family to write me up a playlist.
We'd been lucky enough to get to park nearby in a friend of Shani's yard. This says it all about the size of houses etc round here - this was a town house but he'd fitted 80-90 cars in the back garden. We hung about on the street for a while waiting for the traffic to clear but once we got out it was 15 minutes home. Patty thought this was terrible traffic - I've had worse on a work commute! Really seeing the appeal of living up round here.
Especially after being entertained on the way home by my super talented niece Jenna.

Come on baby light my fire

Now I love a good fire. Burning things is so satisfying no? It's not something you get to do much these days. In fact, you don't even get many bonfires on Guy Fawkes night - it's all about the fireworks, which I love, but fires have become few and far between in our over packed with people, health and safety conscious britain. Well probably not in the country, but I didn't hang out there much these days. Anyway, one night we had a massive fire. It was huge and Mark and I's eye boggled. This was just burning general waste from the woods and construction sites etc. And we only burnt about a quarter of it. And by all accounts this was an incy fire compared to the one they had at my niece Kim's graduation. I'd totally forgotten how relaxing and lovely it is to sit around a fire. Well, sit for a while - then realise your face is melting so back up a bit, only to 10 minutes later realise your eyelashes are singing so move back further, until 20 mins later as the fire calms, you shuffle forward again. Add to the lovely ambiance of a fire and family - what's that we hear in the difference - only bloomin kayotes, that's what??? How cool is that? Howlingly cool! I was feeling a bit Dances with Wolves. Of course if anyone had left me out there in the dark, on my own with the howling, I would have been howling myself, like a baby, in about 30 seconds.

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We also got to try Smores. This is, if I can remember it correctly, Graham crackers (remember Brit's it's not pronounced as we would (*coughs* properly) but as 'Gram', with chocolate and marshmallows sandwiched in the middle and then put on a stick and stuck in the fire. Yum! The dark choc one was definitely the way to go.

Food

Our first big family meal with all my nieces and nephews would have been great regardless of the food but let's say that the mac n cheese cooked by my nephews own fair hands - for the first time - was pretty darned good. The second batch he did a few days later was even better (Heather was right - it did need a little bit more cheese!). I could eat that all day everyday - best comfort food in the world.

Patty doesn't much like cooking but she dropped herself in it by rusling up a peach and blueberry cobbler which was so bloddy tastey that we badgered her until she agreed to do another one before we left.

Spiedies

This is a locally loved thing which is essentially marinated chicken pieces. The key is in the marinade. I first got a whiff of it at the concert and then having had it a couple of time on the bbq, I see what the fuss it about.

Pie

I'd never had an american pie so was keen to try one. It was yummy but was surprisingly sweet. I think it's when I have had pie as desert in the UK - probably back a few decades - it as usually quite tart - rhubarb, apple etc.

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We went out for breakfast at a nearby farm. It had a few animals including a friendly (and hungry goat) who wondered freely about the place and who Mark was quite taken with until the goat ditched him with no bye or leave, for someone else with a handful of food.

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As part of the breakfast I had a side of sloppy, cheesy potato heaven-ness. I had small pancakes which were pretty big in my eyes and it was proper lovely. Luckily we had my nephew, with hollow legs, with us to finish up what we couldn't manage.

Jelly Babies

This was a big treat for me, brought over my some of my sister's relatives, also from the UK - very much to my delight. The american contingent hadn't heard of them/tried them before and I can confirm they went down VERY well indeed! I of course instructed that you need to bite the head of first.

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Wildlife

There's lot of interesting wildlife in them there woods - most of which we never got to see. Mark was dying to see a woodchuck but it just never happened. At Shani's house which is in a lovely location - even more out in the sticks and surrounded by woodland - they have some even wilder animals - bob cats and fisher cats - no I hadn't heard of them either - check them out on google- they are rather weird looking - kind of like a large weasel. Unfortunately the downside to all this wildlife is there's a lot to watch out for on the roads. A few days after I left a day trip was ruined for Shani & Bill after they hit a deer. Those big deer do a lot of damage!

Things that made me smile

- I learned that referring to the Boondocks is similar to saying 'the back of beyond' and love to use this now!

- The announcement of the lost girl at the Tim McGraw gig described her as a young girl wearing tight blue jeans - she was 11, so this sounded kind of creepy, bless him!!

- The snow mobile that Steve has tucked away in the garage awaiting action - I sooo want to go on this one day!

- There is a very old lady who lives down the road who is a bit of a character. She's pretty deaf and pretty blind but is certainly an independent old chicken. She collects her mail from her mail box by driving down her drive way, parking her large car straight across the road - covering it so no-one can get by. Then slowly (for she is elderly) getting out and getting her mail. Which she goes through. Slowly. Then gets back into her car and either drives back up to the house or goes off into town . It's best to go the other direction as, as I say her eye sight ain't too great.
We'd heard about her as folk lore and then we got to see if for ourselves. While we were waiting (quite a while) for her to finish up, we got the opportunity to take a snap.

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Trip down to NYC

I had decided to break our journey to New York City down by stopping at Lazy Meadow motel, in the catskills on the way. The stopped proved to be pretty un-necessary as the drive was really easy and quick - great American highways again. But it did give us the chance to explore the area a little.
On the way we went through some cute touristy towns where we picked up some food for the evening in our cabin.

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Lazy Meadow

I had always wanted to go to the Lazy Meadow - which is a motel that was brought by Kate from the band the B52s. She had then set about decorating it in a kitschy retro stylee - hence my desire to visit. There's a few suite rooms, a couple of cabins and even an airstream. It wasn't quite out in the sticks as I'd thought and was in fact set back off a main road but it did back onto a rather amazing creek.
The room was very cool, but I'm not sure they'd made the most of the site. It felt a bit like the enthusiasm for looking after the place had waned over the years which was a shame - especially as the prices are pretty high!!

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The suite rooms had vcrs (how retro is that!) and a range of cult movies to choose from. They had great furniture and each one had it's own themed. I'd opted for the one that had gnomes white water rafting. There was a kitchenette so we'd decided to enjoy having our own place for the night before we went to an airbnb apartment in NYC.

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There was a cute chipmunk who pottered around outside our suite. He looked just like chip and dale!!

Down by the creek, for whatever reason, there were little piles of rocks - so we added our own. I'd gone exploring with a glass of wine in hand - hence the red glass.

Woodstock

Woodstock is a funny old place. It definitely has the feel of what it is - a nice, rural liberal town full of ex New York City folk. Incredibly right on with expensive tastes!!

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Check out Janis who was interestingly juxtaposed behind the virgin mary!!

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They had these big blue signs all over the town - standing up against the unjust!

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We finished off our mini roadtrip the next morning with the quintisential diner experience. A nice old fashioned one - not in the chrome 50s diner style - but in a brown, 70s, seen better days style with characterful people - an old lady waitress, a grumpy chef and some crazy russian locals moaning about their health issues.

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Posted by KtandMark 10:00 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Canada - Montre-all the fun after a capital time in Toronto

by Kt

TORONTO

We were in Toronto for just a few days but it was a great chance to relax and refresh after months in Central America and having been not too well.
Things run smoothly in Toronto. People are friendly, helpful and laid back. Quite the culture shop.
First a bus ride then a tube ride from the airport which I thought would be hellish but turned out to be smooth and cheap as chips. We hadn't had to carry our bags that far for a long time and tired and under the blazing sun that wasn't the most fun but as we arrived at our cute little apartment in an up and coming, quiet Toronto neighbourhood of Ossington, I knew we were in the place we needed to be. The airbnb apartment was cute and the room we were staying in was totally at the opposite end to the owners so was great for privacy.
We were still suffering from some illness we'd picked up in Cuba but luckily we'd been to Toronto before so seen the major sites, so were happy to potter around and enjoy the magnificent sunshine that was blessing the Canadian capital.
We visited a local park, wandered around the streets, enjoying the peace and quiet. We had Vietnamese food, we went to the local vegan bar, Discograceland (see what they did there), which was a cool place.

There was a little street festival in Ossington while we were there, which bored the pants of Mark but I rather liked as there was a fair few vintage stalls going on and it was just somewhere to potter about.

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We also met up with a friend Mark used to work with, Peter and his lovely wife Joy, who'd moved to Toronto a few years back. Always good to get the gen from a local and they didn't have much bad to say about the lifestyle compared to England (Joy is actually from Canada but had lived in London for 15 years, so had done the time!). We had a lovely relaxed meal at the George a downtown restaurant with the friendliest service ever and just had a lovely evening chin-wagging (nice to meet a girl you can talk about M&S and Dotty P with).
It was a very low key few days but was much needed and also a good introduction back into western life after so long and also modern city life after a while in the Caribbean. My time in Toronto taught me a strategy to not find the lack of choice too overwhelming. Just pick a category/page on a menu and choose from there - don't look at the whole thing - too much choice for my brain!
We were catching the train from Toronto to Montreal which was an interesting experience. Finding your way around Toronto station can be a challenge (and not much fun to be heading there during rush hour). Then the system for boarding the train was most odd. They have a little post up in the middle of the concourse and people queue behind it - no allocated seats and so people start queuing ages before the train is due to leave. Then they move the post nearer the entrance of the platform and everyone trundles along (especially fun with heavy bags). They check your ticket and then check it again just before you're about to board the train which is rather awkward. Then we had to board the train in the old fashioned sense - it was up some high steps to the carriage and no-one was around helping anyone. They then send you onto a carriage, which us being at the back of the queue had become full and while they barked at you to take every spare seat, we went up to the next carriage along which was empty!!!! I can't work out for the life of me why they can't allocate seats. Later on in the journey they had people who were sat on their own moving so they could seat families together. Not the end of the world, but just seemed a bit pointless, when even in less developed countries seats are easily allocated. Anyhow, apart from the fiasco of getting on the train it's a really nice, comfy experience. Lovely countryside rolling by. It wasn't the dramatic Canadian scape I was hoping for - I think maybe you need to go further north or inland for that, but it was pleasant and very Anne of Green Gables I thought. You had sockets to charge your phones, large comfy seats and lots of space - plus wifi! I was actually rather gutted when we arrived in Montreal 6 hours later - I could have sat happily for a few hours still.

MONTREAL

Montreal station turned out to be smaller and simpler to work out. We had to get the metro and then a bus but it was all pretty straight forward. Annoyingly when you added together 4 lots of fares, we probably could have just gotten a taxi as actually, distance wise, it isn't very far.
Our studio apartment had a fair bit of space - a nice big table which has been nice and is really light. The kitchen wasn't quite as equipped as
I had been hoping for - our sink/hob combo was particularly interesting. It was actually quite difficult to cook if you wanted to use more than one hob without burning yourself, especially with no worktop space on either side. So, lots of cooking came off the cards pretty quickly. The other rubbish thing about the apartment was the teeensy sofa bed. It is so small and has a kind of step in the middle - the silly thing is that there's actually plenty of space for a double-bed in there. I'd seen people mention it on the airbnb reviews but I thought they were being fussy and we were much hardier travellers so it wouldn't bother us. I was wrong. After one night we were dreading 3 weeks of aches and pains and that is pretty much what we got. I often used to sleep half way down the bed with my legs, knees downwards, hanging off!

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But the location of the apartment made up for it - having since wandered all over Montreal, this is still my favourite area. Lovely houses, parks, people, shops, food - with a really relaxed vibe. We're really close the university here so that helps with the laid backness and also helps have places with good prices. I know the street by us can get quite loud and busy at weekend nights but we're usually home hours before the raucousness begins.

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Just up the road is a large park with a massive hill in the middle of it known as mont-royale - which is a great reference point as you're walking about. A few streets down from us is a massive hill which you cannot avoid if you're coming up to the plateau from anywhere near the river. It's a steep hill old hill and it is Mark's nemesis. Some of the the slopes on the side streets are like an amusement park ride. Good exercise to work off all the cheese!

First night big city

We had so much nearby and a nice, friendly bar where Mark could play pool (on his own, or with some poor sucker he stalked in the bar) is Bar Boeufstek. Decent prices and nice hangout but their wine was often on the near side of off.
Another place just round the corner from us was the Go Go Lounge - an amazingly dec'd out bar with glam girls in silver, glittery catsuits (in other cities you could easily expect them to have been stand offish but they were sweethearts). The music was 90s and so I was in my element while Mark was scornful.

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Afterwards (we needed a few drinks to pluck up the courage), we went for our first poutine. Poutine is a Canadian creation and favourite. It is basically chips (or fries for non brits) with cheese curd and gravy. It sounds horrid but actually it's really nice and the perfect post drink feed.
The guy in the shop was lovely and let us photograph our first pouring of poutine gravy for posterity (we had a slice of pizza as a backup in case we thought it was foul!).

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About town

Walking down our main street (Boulevard Saint Laurent) into town offered up a mixed bunch of places. We'd start with the nearby trendy vicinity, lot of of street art, cool shops, restaurants etc.

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Then you'd get into a interesting bit in the middle which had a tyre shop, some odd shops selling novelties and souvenirs, a fabulous second hand shop.

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Then you'd get to the huge country and western clothing shop and the army surplus stores, then onto the corner of st catherines, one of the main streets - which will take you to the gay village if you go left, with arts and shopping to the right.

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Then past the sex shows, the national theatre school (within yards of each other - this is why I love Montreal!) and onto China town.
Our absolute favourite restaurant is here - we ended up going once a week and would have gone more if it hadn't been a bit of a trek. There's lots of so called vietnamese in Montreal but when you looked at the menus these so often just mixed up Vietname, Chinese and Thai which was a bit odd. This place was bang on and a bargain to boot. Not fancy, but cosy and quick. The news is always on the TV and I think Celione Dion was on the new everytime we went in for whatever reason. The first time they also were playing the Howard's Way theme tune in the background. Love this place!

Past chinatown and off to the right a bit, you've got the Palais des Congres. A big 60s building which they've done a nice job of prettying up with some amazing coloured windows. They also have some fuschia tree trunks in there for some reason. Worth a quick detour for.

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Then heading towards the river and you get to Old Montreal - the biggest tourist destination. Old buildings and cobbled streets. It's nice but we didn't spend much time there - I found the streets up where we were staying way more interesting. After a quick wander around, unless you wanted to shop or eat at an expensive restaurant, there wasn't much to do. There was a lot of champagne about though, I just closed my eyes and walked by! It is very lovely, but as Mark said, it's a bit like walking around Covent Garden - it doesn't really have it's own soul, it's for visitors is over busy and over-priced. Though neither business or prices were anywhere close to London.

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I think Mark fitted in well though....

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Just for Laughs

By pure chance we were there during the worlds most famous comedy festival just for laughs. We couldn't miss the opportunity to book a show and we also found a lot of free things were on wondering around the streets.

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They had a great art competition with some weird and wonderful works.

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We'd left it late in the day to book and didn't want to spend a packet, so although I would have liked a show with a mixture of comedians from all nations, we were a bit wary that if we went to a mainly American/Canadian show it would go too much over our heads - particularly as we'd been a bit out of the loop for a while. So, we booked to see a Best of British show which had some comedians we knew (and some we'd even seen at the Brighton comedy festival) and was hosted by the very not British but very much loved and honorarily British Rich Hall. The place it was in had no specified seating but was setup around a small stage with tables and chairs. A really cosy feel and really reminded me of Brighton. The show was utterly brilliant and with an early start of 7pm (oh and they start things right on time there) - we were out plenty early for a bite to eat.

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When we left there was tons of stuff going on around the main place d'es arts where they have stages etc setup. Particularly brilliant was a huge inflatable bottle setup with people kind of half dancing/half acting inside. Really reminded me of the kind of thing you'd see in Amsterdam or Copenhagen - very European.

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One of the simplest and silliest thing we saw over the last few days of the festival that we were around for, was a guy with an open parachute on his back with world war 2 flying hat, just wandering around the streets looking confusedly at a map. So stupid but was funny everytime.

The gay village (gai village - it's properly called that!), like many things was walking distance from us (or walking distance for people that like a bit of a walk - Mark moaned much of the way). You know you're getting close as you start to see retro furniture stores popping up and then you really know you've arrived when you look up to see strings of pink baubles covering the long area of St Catherine street that consists of the gay village. It's bloody fabulous quite frankly. Puts the rather bland San Francisco Castro to shame I think. It's a great people watching area and great for eating and drinking. The prices are better than in the centre of town too. We grew particularly fond of a place with umpteen floors but still a cosy feel which seemed to be decked out with too themes - a pharmacy and a circus. It had all kinds of grand things about the place - quite an eclectic mix.

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Even the metro station is cool:

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The first time we went we planned to go to the fireworks competition afterwards. This is something that goes on in summer and on something like 6/7 nights mostly Wednesdays and Thursdays in June/July, different groups compete with their themed fireworks displays. You can pay a fortune to go into the La Ronde amusement park to watch in a seated area where they place the accompanying music, or you can go to somewhere in Montreal to get a good view - particularly on or around the big Jacque-Cartier bridge is popular. It doesn't start until about 9pm and on our first attempt out we couldn't find the enthusiasm to hang around all afternoon/evening but we went back again and although we couldn't work out how to get up onto the bridge, enjoyed the show from just underneath it.
It was, without doubt, the best fireworks display I have ever seen. Really amazing. I ADORE fireworks and I was completely buzzing with the amazingness. There was music which accompanied the show and some people had radios so they could listen along. We could here these faintly in the background and were pretty pleased that we couldn't here them any louder. Bit cheesey - some Beatles and even ending on the Final Countdown. Was an amazing night though and the amount of people sat/stood around the streets for the free show, gave the whole thing a real festival/shared experience feel.


The Brunch

Food is a big thing in Montreal and is definitely one of my favourite things about the place. I was fancying to get a good brunch somewhere. There were some ok places round by us, but after a bit of research I decided a nice walk would do us good so we had a nice, sunny half hour walk (no of COURSE Mark wasn't moaning) at which in the end was rewarded by the best brunch ever. The place is a low key restaurant called Le Toasteur. Mainly french speaking, I'm not sure if they had english menus, but if there's one thing I know in French, it's my food. Though I did have to later look up petoncles which I saw on their lunch menus - scallops apparently! Anyhow, we both had the Spécial Toasteur. This was a little bit of everything - eggs as you like, sausage, potatoes chunks, crepe, french toast, fruit and beans and toast too. The portions weren't insane but there was a lot of elements and each of them was sublime quality. The french toast nearly made me faint and I normally never order it as find it too sickly sweet. I didn't eat the home-made baked beans which I think saved me as they took Mark just over the edge of full :) The biggest revelation was the amazing maple syrup. I now see that there is maple syrup and there is MAPLE SYRUP. My god, it was gorgeous.

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We followed up our big feed with another long walk, designed to walk it off, further north in the city to the famous Jean Talon market. This is a produce market famous for it's fruit and veg. The idea was to pick up some veg for tea but by the time we got there we were still so full we couldn't bare the thought of ever eating again. It was an incredible market though. I've never known such strong smells and colours from fruit and vegetables that I'm not even close to. And the the heavens opened and we declared our venture north a bit of a disaster and we got the slow and clunky metro back home.

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Jean Drapeau parc

This park is on 2 islands which were basically created for the Expo 1967 World Fair. What is fantastic about it for a retro geek like me, is it still has things from the expo on site and more important, well looked after. The Biosphere is probably my favourite and a delight on the blue-sky day on which we visited the park.

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There are various sculptures sprinkled about the place but it was a bit confused when we were there as the weekend before they'd had a 3 day music festival - Osheaga (which we were a bit gutted we couldn't get tickets for) and there was still fences and tents sprinkled around they were still clearing up.
The other amazing site is now the casino, on the second island. The casino, as casinos often are, is a little sad and depressing inside (a beacon for odd folk), but the building is stunning and thanks to the casino is beautifully maintained.

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After enjoying the park and a bit of a sunbathe, Mark... wait for it... came up with the idea of walking back over the mammoth Jacque-Cartier bridge which took you back over the mainland. It was quite a hike but definitely worth it. The most amazing views.

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It was very peculiar though because you can't get off it until the very end and it goes way over much of the city so we found ourselves far from where we'd intended to go next.
At one point I was trying to suss out whereabouts we were by trying to match my map with the street I could see below to find the gay village as a landmark, when Mark pointed out that it was rather obvious where the gay village was. The sea of pink baubles looks simply spectacular from the bridge!

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Another day another brunch

Well you have to, don't you. Another excuse to explore the neighbourhood a little further afield and north of Mont Royale park, was Eggspectation.
Great name and a great menu. It's actually a chain and has a few places across Canada and the US but it really delivers.
I had their Russian Rhapsody which was - poached eggs with a pancetta, vodka and pepper sauce over english muffins with lyonaise potatoes on the side. It was actually a fair bit lighter than the heavier one Mark went for with salmon, asparagus, spinach etc, still, we had at this point found we could only have one proper meal a day as it was all rather filling.

Freebie art

Something I'd heard is great for backpackers in cities is that they often have times where they let people in for free. The Contemporary art museum
in Montreal does on a Wednesday between 5 and 9pm and it was well worth the visit. There was, as with most art galleries and especially contemporary art, a whole lot of stuff that didn't interest, but then there was a lot that did. They had a great screening room downstairs showing music videos by the likes of Arcade Fire and Grimes - around the theme of movement.

There was also some great sculptures and interesting ideas, including a replica room of the office of Uri Gegarin, reproduced from a photograph and then photographed itself, a tap with running water that was on fire and a skip with an inside like a swimming pool.

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Some nights in the neighbourhood

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After abandoning our first stop at a nice bar on Rue Duluth which had on an interesting, yet slightly wailey female modern jazz singer we decided to just grab some food, go home and watch a bit of downloaded Miss Marple. But something stopped us. We walked past a place round the corner from us that we'd walked past a ton of times before, but never noticed and saw they were doing karaoke. I don't know why this was a draw - neither of us do karaoke (apart from an ill fated night many years ago in Blackpool which involved singing Love Shack and resulted in us both getting bad tattoos in the parlour next door). It was probably the disco ball. There's disco balls all over Montreal and I'm like a moth to a flame. This place just had a couple of groups of friends going up and having a laugh - a really friendly atmosphere. Not the kind of karaoke where the wannabees come every night to try to be noticed - just people being un-afraid to be bad. Mark for some reason got brave and did a song. Oh and then the showbiz bug must have bitten because then he went up again, and again. Bare footed - what was that about??!! He thought he was Sandi Shaw or some indie rocker - who knows. He wasn't the worst it has to be said. We'd both forgotten until the morning after that he'd done a Chas n Dave number - that must have gone way over the heads of the 20 something quebecian crowd! It was an unexpectedly fun night though. I didn't go up of course. No amount of red wine was gonna get me up there, but I had a good old sing song at the table (it was a big place, there was plenty of space around me, not to alarm people!) There was a lot of Cliff Richard in the karaoke book rather worryingly.

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The day after the karaoke and Mark in particular was feeling rather delicate, but after a day stuck in the apartment working, I felt we may as well bite the bullet and continue with my original plan to hit a few bars up on Monte Royale road. We took a convoluted route to get there which wasn't ideal and the first pub suggested wasn't worth the extra walk - La Verre Bouteille has pictures of the bar that has been around there for years but on the inside they'd ripped it all out and apart from some brickwork was pretty bland and dull.

So we then headed to the Candi Bar - which is a sister to the GoGo bar with the amazing deco, down the road from us.
As the name suggests this is a candy themed bar and the deco was definitely up to scratch. I had a slushie cocktail which was super sweet and icy (I had major brain freeze), chosen from a big lollipop menu and had gummy worms hanging in it. The place was empty when we first go there which meant we cold unashamedly play with the 'legs' bar stools and take pictures in the cool bathrooms. I knew we'd just have the one drink to check it out, but it was worth the trip for that amazing decor. The mens toilets have lips urinals - which actually they have in a bar in Kemptown in Brighton but they'd added the little faces tiling here which was cute. Oddest thing about the ladies bathroom was the cubicle with two toilets facing each other. I guess for girls who want to chat!?

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After dropping in on a couple of bars along St Denis we headed for the famous La Banquise - known for it's incredible selection of poutine.
This time we were going to take it to the next level with a topping. Mark went for Le Elvis, involving ground beef and I had a topping with hot dogs, onion, mushroom. Despite having had poutine the week before and liked it, I still struggled with the idea of it but this was bloody lovely. The place is really good too. They've got their act together. You're in, you order, you get water, you pay, you get your food, you're out. But it doesn't feel rushed and the places has a quirky and homely feel.

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Street art

Montreal doesn't let you down in the street art department. There are works everywhere and it creates such a colourful, cheerful environment. Generally very different to the types of work you'd see in Melbourne, which is more graffiti style, which is more my cup of tea - but the works here are on a grand scale and work really well with the much older architecture.

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Architecture

We took the days fairly easy, doing lots of work in between walking around various areas of Montreal. I liked to go different routes whenever we went anywhere as I could never get sick of the architecture which is kind of distinctly Montrealen yet also often very different from street to street and even house to house. Mark got beyond bored of me stopping and taking photos of what he thought were not nondescript buildings but I found the place fascinating and almost wanted to catalog the differences to a certain extent.

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The iconic spiral stairs

The last part of Expo 67 I wanted to see was Habitat 67. This is out on another man made island and I was going to take a trip over there but then I heard you can't really walk around it anyway so I made do with the view of it from the Old Port area. This places is a design marvel. A housing estate design which is still going strong and is lived in. Mark thinks it's an ugly mess but I could look at it forever and would love to live in it.

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Food

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Smoked meat sandwiches are big here. I had a sandwich in a diner up the road and it was lovely - just in rye bread, a little mustard and pickles on the side - but the thickness of the meat is really just crazy.

There is a place up the road from us which I kept wanting to go to as it's supposed to be amazing but no matter the time or day the queues were always large.

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What they did on a few places near by us, what asian restaurants, when it came to the evening, put up a table in there doorway and sold cheap basic sets - like chow mein, gyoza/spring rolls, tempura etc. Bargain prices and good food. We found ourselves partaking of this a little too often, as we realised when the couple from the Japanese round the corner and the chinese down the road started greeting us enthusiastically whenever we went by.

Frite Alors - there's a couple of these about town, based on the simple concept of chips (fries) with sauce, normally mayonnaise based, as is big in Belgium and lots of Europe. I liked this place it was simple food wise - they didn't try to do lots of crazy thing. Though Mark did get the picalilli dip which the waitress had warned him didn't really work as a dip. I had a burger with brie and apple - you wouldn't think that would work but it does. And of course, the name is just cute.

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Burmese - Ruby Burma. Despite being not all that far from the Burmese border when we were in Chiang Mai and the city having Burmese food available, we never got around to partaking. So, we decided to try the Burmese restaurant near us which always smelt so lovely.
It was really interesting and kind of what I'd expect. I had a pad thai like dish but then it had extra flavours on top - kind of more dry, smokey flavours. It really was kind of what you'd expect of a nation sat between Thailand, China and India.

Vietnamese - I was so excited to get vietnamese for the first time since Thailand and we found the most amazing place in China Town - Pho Cali. It was a bit of a trek for us to walk down here, but we did it a fair few times during our stay as it was amazing and a bargain too. Too many of the places advertising Vietnamese had weird mixtures of Vietnamese/Thai/Japanese/Chinese - but this was the real deal and their Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup) was to die for.

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I generally liked all the food in Montreal - but teenager in a bun didn't sound tempting:

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Bars

For a bargain go to Casablanca on boulevard st laurence, somewhere near Duluth. Pool table, juke box. Think it's russian runs, but you couldn't get cheaper and it's quite cool and kitschy with lai's hanging about the place. It also has good people watching if you sit out by the street.
Wine same price as beer

Unusual with amazing beer = Billy Kun
This is a big, trendy but friendly bar which has mounted ostrich heads up all over the walls. Their home beer is amazing. Prices aren't bad for the style of place and are good at happy hour.

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Style - as mentioned above, Candi bar and GoGo are amazingly decorated. You don't want to hang around all night but they're fun for a couple of drinks and they are friendlier than you might think.

The bad
I've heard people talk about offishness in Montreal but we haven't experienced this at all. The only time we had this which was really odd was at the blues bar on St Denis. We literally stood at the bar being ignored. So we walked out in the end. Most odd.

Shopping

For a retro and oddity lover there are some greeeeat shops in Montreal. Vintage and kitsch shops aplenty on Boulevard St Laurence - between Monte Royale and Avenue de Pins.

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My favourite was actually kind of a junk shop, but an organised one. Brimmed full of strange things, but had grouped things together so it wasn't a complete mess to try to sort through. I think it described itself as a shop for collectors. You could spend hours and many dollars in this place. They had quite a bit of nazi memorabilia which you don't see often and is quite interesting. God knows where he got it from. Hair irons, ancient photos. Not being able to really buy anything due to not being able to carry much, I settled on some old postcards from the Expo 67. I would have loved to have lived nearby to a shop like this - a real treasure trove.

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There was also a big, weird and wonderful second hand shop on St Laurent, just down the hill from Sherbrooke. If I had the room in my luggage and a home to go back to, I could have picked up some great bits. The clothes are great too, but knowing we needed warm clothes for returning home, we couldn't face buying jumpers when it was so hot.

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Parks

There are so many parks in Montreal of all shapes and sizes. You can't walk for 10 minutes in any direction without coming across one. They are used for relaxation, fitness, get togethers - real little hubs and it really helps makes the city what it is.
I'd wanted to go look for the white squirrels in Toronto but we'd never had the chance so was delighted to come across this little fella, though not a white squirrel, but kind of a beige one - in La Fountaine park.

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Montreal Notes and tips:

Costs

Montreal is cheaper than Toronto by far - food, drink. It can actually be very cheap if you find the right places to go.

ATMs

I've no idea why but we had a real nightmare with getting money out of ATMs. We ended up having to go all over the place to get money and could never count on ATMs working, which is annoying as a lot of places are cash only and so have ATMs inside. We did find in one shop that it only accepted our debit card if we said it was a credit card, although other shops accepted it as debit. But then we tried that in certain ATMs and it still didn't work. It was a right pain and so we always tried to make sure we carried plenty of cash from the machines we knew that worked for us.

Buying booze

It's a bit odd here - you can buy some booze in the supermarket which you couldn't in Toronto, but not much.
They have big fancy bottle shops, SAQs I think they are called, but they don't open that late and aren't great for beer. Fantastic for wine though - everything you could imagine, reasonable prices and some good deals. On every other street corner then, they have little shops which open later which sell predominantly beer and wine. The wine is rubbish and is Argentinian/Chilean - why not french is strange.
Bring your own bottle is absolutely massive here and I think adds to keeping the cost of living down and the enjoyment of life up. It's really strange seeing people walking about the streets with bottles of wine in their hands all the time. If that was at home they'd probably be heading down a park to neck it back with some alco pops. You get a lot of drinking on the streets and especially the parks too - in a nice, chilled out way.

St Denis

This is one of the roads that runs down through Montreal. If all else fails when you're looking to eat head here - wherever you are on this road you'll find something. It's also got some nice shopping, up past Avenue des Pins and the food gets better the higher you go up towards Mont Royale.

Signs

This perplexed me. I get that Quebec is french speaking but it is in Canada which is partly english speaking and pretty much everyone in Montreal does speak english and more importantly - it's a tourist city - so why do they have no signs/notifications in english. It seems a bit like they are doing it to make a point. It didn't matter for us - we're from the UK so have good basics in French (which I think most English get whether they mean to or not having such close proximity to France). We can read menus, signs, and get the gist of most bits of writing, but lots of people can't and it's a bit odd to have no signs on the streets and in particular in places like the train station in another language. It doesn't even have to be english - but it seems a bit obstinate to only have things in French. They don't in France. They don't in most other countries not add at least one other language to the national one.
Saying that - Montreal isn't great with signs in general. You can walk around in the vicinity of the Central station without even so much of a sniff that one's about or where it may be. The signs in the metro are pretty limited as well. It's just puzzling - you have lots of tourists - help them! I personally loved all the French - was happy when it was a french only menu and so on as I'm so rusty it got my little grey cells working as Hercule Poirot (in Belgian of course) would say. If you try your french out on anyone, the second they realise it's not your first language they speak ot you in english anyhow, so it's not like anyone is trying to get people to even try to speak french bizarrely. Très bizarre!

Sirens

We will remember it as the city of sirens. There were forever sirens blaring out - so often in a fairly quiet, uneventful city, we were a bit perplexed. They are un-necessarily loud, especially at night with little traffic. Some of them sound like a 1920s siren and others simply as if they are notifying us of world war 3.

Odd driving

More than once we watched cars parking and bumping into the one behind. Not unusual for a city, but these were in places that had decent size spaces and this was with both cars being quite fancy - not old bangers where a dent won't matter. We watched one guy, from our window, reversing into a car behind - slowly but nudging it so it bounced around - but there was no cars at all in front of him- what the ?!??!

Culture and art

This is taken seriously in Montreal and it's really impressive. They have a whole area called the Quartier Spectacles that is setup to host events all the time. Two large open spaces have permanent huge white light systems setup. The centre of the area is the place' des arts and around is various museums, theatres. So whenever something is going on, it takes over the whole environment.

Bixi

We never got around to giving these ago, mainly because I liked to walk everywhere, but they had stations everywhere and it would save time if you didn't want to savour the journey as much as a walk, but still be in the fresh air. I know they have them in London - but I'd never dice with death and try them there, but this is a very cylist friendly city. It's not heavy with traffic and especially you can cycle/walk around the side streets and barely see a car, so it would be a safe and pleasant way to get about.

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Building work

For some reason, the sides of buildings which were being prepped or whatever for constructions had this amazing mustard colour - not sure if it was painted that colour for some reason or it was some kind of treatment that happened to be that colour - but it's now synonymous with Montreal for me.

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Pianos

There are pianos dotted about the Plateau/Monte-Royale area for whoever fancies it to have a play. They move locations from time to time - god knows how - I like to think the piano fairies come around at night. There are some great players and some not great players - but it's a nice idea and nice for anyone who needs to practice and doesn't have their own too! Some of them are interesting decor - a bit of gilt and pink.
We watched one young guy who was doing a 10 hour playing marathon - he was on his 8th hour and was super talented, even with tired hands.

Bi-lingualness

I can't even speak English, as I'm sure bi-lingualness isn't a word, but anyhow it was so surprising that people would slip from French to speaking English with no trace of an accent. It was kind of weird - you couldn't often tell who was french-canadian because of this - everyone - in cafes, checkouts and even the homeless, switch seemlessly. I've even heard people having conversations mixing the 2.

Summary

A fantastic lifestyle city - there's a lot of creativity and people seem to take their down time seriously. I obviously have only seen the milder weather but by the looks of it, then have things sussed for winter, with an entire underground network so workers, shoppers and students can get about if it's freezing/slippery up top.

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I think this bar sign sums up Montreal - all you'd need to add on the end is 'la nourriture'.

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Posted by KtandMark 11:49 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Cuba - Havana'n amazing time

by Kt

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I've always wanted to go to Cuba and although it's was a a bit of an extra big cost, I couldn't resist when I realised how easily you could fly from Grand Cayman where we were to change at from Honduras anyhow.

As soon as you land in Cuba, it's like no where else I've ever been. The passport control is really plain and you just go up to these little, almost hidden cubicles, quickly get stamped in, then head to the arrivals area with just the 2 luggage carousels. So small and basic for the capital of a fairly large island (about half the size of the UK). You're in and out pretty quickly as there isn't tons of flights coming in. We had someone meeting us from our accommodation as because, like so many countries, you get lots of taxi drivers taking you to their friends accommodation rather than the one you're booked in and so we thought it'd be easier to get picked up. If in doubt, in any country, I find it's good to get a pickup as it's when you're at your most vulnerable - often tired, confused, not knowing how things work and what's what. He also took us, on the way, to an ATM so we could get out some local currency which was great as we were concerned we'd only be able to change up the US dollars we had at a huge charge (see money matters below). Despite what was said during my research - we never found finding ATMS or getting money from them a problem.

We weren't picked up in an old classic car in the true sense but we picked up in a pretty beaten up old car, because that's what most people drive. You see photos and footage of Havana and you see the old cars but I've always kind of thought that there were lots about alongside 'normal' cars. Not so - the average car on the street really is many decades home. This, along with the lushness of a Caribbean island, tumbledown buildings and the odd revolutionary paintings on said buildings, makes for a pretty powerful first impression on your drive into town. It's not often I get such an overwhelming buzz about somewhere so soon after arriving. Probably Vietnam and Japan, which were 2 of my favourite places, but also because they have such a strong visual identity. Anyhow, by the time we turned up at our accommodation I was already in love with Havana. Mark, as he usually is, was feeling a bit reticent and I think his first impressions were clouded by the crumbling buildings - this gives the place a look of real poverty that doesn't really balance out with the reality of the place. I knew to expect this so I didn't find it off putting. I think if you see buildings looking like this in any other country it would be a sign of huge deprivation. Sure - Cuba has it's issues and people aren't exactly flush but in terms of most countries in Central America and the Caribbean the standard of living is high. Not by western standards maybe, but there's much worse in South East Asia and even places you wouldn't expect so much like Fiji. The buildings are tumble down because most are state owned and the state and the people don't have the extra money to do them up. This is changing little by little. There's a ton of work going on in central Havana to restore the glorious old buildings - by state and by allowing foreign investment. For the first time since the revolution, selling of homes has been allowed recently. This is a huge thing. People could previously only swap homes. If people aren't taking on and improving homes, the situation will never improve and I think the government has recognised this.

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Havana Home

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A lot of people staying in Casa Particulars in Cuba and I cannot recommend this more highly. It's just like a b&b really, where someone opens up a few rooms of their home. I cannot imagine we would have had the same experience if we'd staying in a hotel. We turned up to a Havana back street to the hugest door I'd ever seen and entered our home for the next week - Casa Miriam (booked through hostelbookers).
The guy who runs doesn't speak great English and check-in takes a while, but he is lovely and tries to help best he can. He gave us a reassuring talk (I think) about how in Havana no-one will shoot you but they will get you with their talking. He pointed out that no matter what anyone said to us out on the street, he has no brother or uncle or relatives living in the street. I had heard that was probably our biggest threat (for want of a better word) - people with the matter feeding you a line - the kind of scam where you're not even sure if you've been scammed or not after. These are purportedly common in Thailand and especially Vietnam too, but we'd never had a problem and never did in Cuba. I think we have, after all this time, lost our fresh, bewildered, nervous traveller faces and so there's much easier marks than us.
Anyway, along with a lovely owner, I was blown away by the accommodation itself. On the second floor of a grand old building - it was slightly crumbly on the outside but well looked after but full of character on the inside. I have never seen such high ceilings and being from the UK, they are not that uncommon in old houses. There was a huge window at the front and a balcony out onto the street. This big front room was the communal room and where meals were eaten. It was decorated with old but quality furniture with an interesting mix of art and family photos. There were 3 guest rooms off the side and the back opened out to look down on a courtyard below, with the family living at the back of the property. I recognised the building layout as being similar to the shophouses in Georgetown, Malaysia - with the courtyard area in the middle included to help with the air flow and that along with the high ceilings keepin the place cool. We did have a fan and aircon, but actually the place was kept generally pretty cool anyway.

Our bedroom and bathroom ceilings were also stunningly high. We had a window slot directly above us which they'd close off somehow at times - I think maybe some pulley system with a piece of wood. Sometimes they'd forget to pull it back open to let in light but being such a large room it would never feel dark and gloomy in the day.

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We had a super comfy bed and everything was of a kind of family quality - we'd gotten a bit used to scratch sheet and threadbare towells, so although not luxurious, was lovely for us. Proper cotton sheets! Everything is built to such a high standard as well. They don't do things by halves in Havana I found.

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Our street was a mixture of building styles, but all high and grandiose. The lady across the road would send a piece of rope and a bucket down to bring her milk up to her. There was a line just down the road full of dangling shoes. Due to the lack of number of cars, kids played football on the street. Full of character and charm.

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Everywhere you go in Cuba people are hanging off big balconies - talking to someone or watching the world go by.

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About town

We were about a 10 minute walk into the centre of town, with the Parque Central and we could also in about 2 minutes, be up by the Malecon, the seafront where in the evenings/nights people congregate just to hang out. Every time we walked up there we'd see the guy playing his trombone and everytime someone walked by and he made a comedy slide it was childishly funny!

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On our first day we walked along the Malecon and then down into the centre of town via Paseo Del Prado. We accidentally stumbled on something we'd been recommended to go see. On Sundays, in the pedestrain walkway in the middle, I think it's called the Vedado - there are people selling art and more enjoyably, people from the local dance schools come out to do demonstrations. It was funny to see a couple - she in a dress and killer heels and him in his jeans and trainers, dancing an impeccable Tango.

There are huge and grand buildings everywhere and I could never tire of just walking the streets. In the centre of town you have the Capital building which is a great landmark for working out where you are.

There's amazing huge buildings, fabulous cars, horse drawn carriages - colourful, friendly people - music coming from everywhere - it's sunny but not to hot - you can only be in Havana and it's an incredible feeling.

We started our first day quite tenatively by going to some tourist classics - La Floridita is a Hemingway haunt where he'd go for a cocktail. It's gorgeous inside, if on the icey side, with the air con. It's pricey but classy and has to be done once. We then had a bit of a wander about before heading to Sloppy Joe's - another touristy place but it's cool and welcoming and the drinks are half the price of La Floridita!

Over the week, I traipsed Mark all over Havana, exploring little areas and I was just happy walking about anywhere in the city - no where is bland that is for sure. The Museum of the Revolution is a must. It's not always that explanatory, but there's lot's in English and lots of interesting artifacts. Mark was fairly clueless about the whole thing but was excited to see Fidel Castro's boots and glasses.

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The museum is set in a building which was actually attacked during the revolution and there is bullet holes in the entrance way and even in the cafe floor.

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The building was then, for a long time, where the new government was based. It was kind of weird to be in the room where huge decisions were undertaken and in Fidel Castro's office - imagining him looking out over the city. It was a bit like the untouched offices in Ho Chi Minh - places where time has been a little frozen are always fascinating. It's also interesting, of course, to see the revolution from the Cuban perspective.

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They are renovating large areas of the building, which in itself is a work of art. I love the juxtaposition of these painted ceilings and some new modern works of art (including one showing Fidel and Chavez) they had about the place.

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This doll was used to smuggle something and was a tad sinister but interesting.

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There was a small section dedicated to Che which was great as it covered a few bits that I'd gotten confused about. I knew he'd died in Bolivia and wasn't Cuban (Argentinian), so I'd been surprised by the Cuban adoration. He's such an icon figure and continues to be. One of those things about dying early I guess but also he was strangely good looking.

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There is a very different place we popped into (free but a donation is welcome) - the Museum de Reuinion, which is essentially part museum and part still functioning drugstore. Large pots and quirky jars - is quite an unusual and visually stunning place to take a look at.

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One place that is very touristy but actually also very fun is Bodeguita Del Medio - another Hemingway hangout. There is a restaurant out the back and the bar at the front which is tiny but they fit in a band playing there at all times. This is allegedly the birth place of the mojito and it's definitely not the best one I had, but you have to, don't you? It had lot's of groups coming in that were on day trips into the city from the resorts. They'd literally come in, have a mojito, buy some souviners and leave. This was kind of our plan, but we settled into our stools at the bar and it turned out to have a great atmosphere and during our time there, two great bands.

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There's a curious little attraction just on the edge of the Plaza Vieja - Camera Obscura. Based on some design by Leonardo de Vinci, they have a little contraption which makes you able to zoom in on scenes from all over the city. The view from the top of the building, even without going into the little camera session is fantastic.

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We went on the Havana bus - which I think couldn't really be described as a sight-seeing bus but really it's a good bit of hop on hop off transport to take you about the city - particularly for those staying in bigger out of town hotels. But I think for most tourists, including Mark, it's quite a dull experience. I loved it myself as it took you all over town to wear people live and work and you saw all kinds of styles of building and shops and was a fascinating overview. Something interesting for instance is the road systems are large and modern but there is so little traffic on them.

The monument area is probably the most impressive and notable stop.

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We went out to the Coppelia ice-cream parlour, which is allegedly the biggest ice-cream parlour in the world. It's essentially a whole little parc complex and is a huge draw. Like with much of Cuba there is 2 prices - one for locals one for tourists and you had to go to separate areas. Security would guide you to the tourist place which had no queue really and the locals could join the massive, long line of people queueing to get local price. The ice-cream is allegedly good but we weren't really in the mood by the time we got there so never sampled it. I was more interested in the 60s designed space aged style building. The Coppelia site is on La Rambas - a street well worth a wonder down, which will take you back to the seafront.

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All about Autos

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I love old cars. I'm not majorly knowledgeable but I do love an automobile museum and particularly in different countries as I love seeing cars I don't recognise. So, I was utterly in heaven in Havana. It wasn't so much the classic cars, it was all the weird and wonderful ones - funny little trucks,

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You hire many of the old cars to take you about town. It's not expensive - it's how the locals get around. We went out one day with that in mind - I thought it was more interesting to get in one of the older, less pristine cars for a ride, but as we wondered about at the front of the capitol building, a guy with the most beautiful car offered us a ride for a fair price that we couldn't refuse. This car was a 1952 Buick. Shiny and blue. He was a suave guy too - which his hat and crisp white shirt. (If anyone visits and want to hire the car and driver, I still have his business card so his details are - Ricardo Mejias Garcia - Phone: 260-0365 Mob: 05-282-4386)

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Taxis

There are a few ways of getting about town. The old cars are cheap and easy and you can get them anywhere. They're also not expensive as you might think. We got a ride home from town for much the same price as we'd been paying the rick-shaw cycle taxis. It was a beautiful mauve car with the most incredible sound system and lighting inside. It was a cool ride home!

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Usually, as I said above, if we'd walked enough we'd get about by nabbing a rick-shaw taxi. You've really got to haggle, which we never did well as we paid a huge variety of prices and we realised a few days in this is where lots of our money was going. But then you do always feel sorry for some poor bugger lugging us too fat arses around.

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The other type of taxi, which sadly we never got around to using (you don't actually need taxis that much if you're in central Havana as it's very walkable), is the bubble taxi. I love these. Great idea and always delighted in seeing them.

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Then there's the normal taxis. I guess if you're going along way, but with all those other choices - why would you?

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Side-cars

You see side-cars about a lot, but no-one is ever in them. In fact, if there are 2 people on a bike with a side-car you can guarantee the second person is holding onto the driver. I think they just use them to scoot stuff around.

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Police

The police in Cuba are a good looking bunch. There's something very glamorous about them. Maybe it's the uniform. I've seen a lady officer, in her kind of jump suit uniform, stood by her bike - she wasn't a young chick - was likely late 40s even, but she was hot and cool at the same time.
The bikes are generally really cool too.

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The same can't be said of the vans. I thought this was just someone using an old police van the first time I saw it. Then I saw another, and another and realised these were active police vans.

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Music

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I have never known such amazing live musicians as I have come across in Havana. It's such a part of the experience to sit in a bar or restaurant listening to an incredible band sweep you up with the distinctly cuban vibe.

The places I thought were best for music were the aforementioned small, Bodeguita Del Medio.
Then a great, fun place to go is a restaurant/bar on Obispo called Bar Lluvia de Oro this is a large, friendly space where they had quite a big band. It's family friendly too - the guy who runs it has clearly been at it for year, it has an amazing old built in bar and prices are really reasonable. The musician guys would swap between instruments, singing and dancing and were fantastic. They'd tried to get you up to dance with them (imagine my horror - I'm English for goodness sake!), but lots of other tourists (always of the latin american variety I note) would get up and dance so brilliantly - it must be an extra gene.

At a different end of the scale was a small, friendly bar, again on Obispo called El Escabeche. They had just two guys playing, a slightly gentler set. They would swap instruments at the drop of a hat, playing each beautifully. Mark was fascinated and had a go on one of their guitars - trying to play along. He's no slack on the guitar but he was terrible because rather than do the chords the guy was telling him to do, he was doing what he saw the guy doing - which wouldn't work because of something musical and technical that I forget. Lesson learned Mark - do as I say not as I do!

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Our favourite ever was not in a bar, but a band of three old guys who'd walk around the streets and play at bars restaurants that didn't have their own band. They were characterful, soulful and super talented in a way that time has aged perfectly.

Food

We went to Cuba's china town that first night. It wasn't bad but it was the kind of food a student could probably cook for themselves if they were being a bit adventurous with out much ingredients. The downside of Cuba really is the food. The lack of ingredients available means there's not much variety and interesting food to be had but it's not bad. Most restaurants you get a chicken or fish and rice dish. They try to jazz it up in a variety of ways. There's also a few Italians. I liked the Neptune restaurant on the corner of Neptuno opposite Parque Central. It's kind of 80s deco and it's italian with sparse ingredients but it's friendly and comforting food. I had a four cheese pasta which was so simple, we could make at home but it was tasty and filling. One of the ways you can see the lack of ingredients is the tiny portions of butter they'll give you with the bread they bring you as a starter. They fluff it out with a sprinkling of herbs, but you really do see austerity in action.
Another place I liked, which again had a rather 80s aesthetic, was a couple of doors away from La Floridita at the entrance to Obispo street. I thought this place would be pricey due it's location but actually turned out to be really reasonable. It had pizzas and pastas but for some reason they weren't available the evening we were there (maybe had run out). I had chicken, rice and veg in gravy basically. Simple but actually was quite tastey - kind of like decent home cooking. Decent and well priced red wine too. I can't remember what it's called (and unlike most places in the world, can't look it up on the internet) but it's on the corner of Obispo and Bernaza. They also have a good toilet with seats (rarer than you think).
One of the more surprising things I had was at a restaurant which was nearer the sea/the cathedral and was quite pricey for the money. We had starters - one of which was chunks of cheese, I kid you not - the other was a ceviche - which is essentially raw fish which has been cooked by soaking in lime juice. This was definitely a clever way of working with what you've got. Seafood is something they have access to, as are limes - you'd see lime carts all over the city. It was simple and delicious.
We actually got ill during our time in Cuba, which I don't think was anything to do with the food as we'd had different things, but was likely a parasite or something, but it was pretty tricky when the last thing you'd eaten was "something and rice" so you really didn't want to have that again but yet, there wasn't much else you could have.
We went into a shop at one point to buy water. It's not like going to a 7'11 - these shops have limited stocks and the locals have rations so you don't go in and gorge yourself on snacks or bits and pieces. We weren't even sure if they'd take the tourist currency, but they did (essentially the water costing about 4 times as much as if we'd bought in local currency). But going into the shop and seeing the sparse and simple ingredients that people have available to them - it's hats off all the way what they come up with.
Of course, I believe it's a different experience if you're staying out in the resorts or are in the fancy hotels - I think this one rule for them issue, which goes against the grain of the revolution, which is helping lead to more relaxations in what people can and can't do. They need tourism but they need cash flow moving through the country. For the first time, recently, they have allowed people to become self employed in a number of areas and you can see little enterprises popping up all over the place. I only learned this after leaving Havana, and it made sense - as I'd been a bit confused how there were these little businesses when in theory everything was supposed to be state run. It's definitely an island on the change and I'm sure they can do it in the right way without losing the essence. People are apparently now able to own pieces of land and work the land so hopefully this will shake things up and bring about the growing of a lot more produce and perhaps more livestock too. I have to say I was puzzled why so much was imported into Cuba when it's a fair sized country with potential for growing lots of things.

Drink

You can get more wine that I had suspected and it's well priced. Buying rum is the cheapest way to go, but after a nasty rum encounter in Utila I couldn't face it, and Mark couldn't touch it, but you'd often see people walking the streets drinking rum. In another country this would possibly look dodgy, but here this is what you did when you were chilling out. Grab the family or your friends, grab a bottle of rum and head out to the seafront to hang out.
The local beer we drank most is called Cristal and we never got tired of the joke about drinking Cristal all day (as in the stupidly priced champagne).
Mojitos - They are synonymous with Cuba and I did partake of a few but they are a little too sweet for my taste so I got sick of them pretty quickly. But my goodness they make them strong there!!

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Cigars

Never had a cigar in my life and haven't smoked for over 10 years now, but there was something intriguing about the whole cigar thing and so I did have a few puffs on some cheap cigars we bought on the street from some lovely ladies.

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I pretty much couldn't inhale anyhow as it took too much of a draw to bother without screwing your face inside out. On the day we bought the cigarettes we settled outside in a bar to watch the world go by and have a few drinks. Once we actually started smoking, or should I say, playing with the cigars, we basically spent a good couple of hours doing terrible impressions of people we thought of who'd smoked cigars. Mainly New York style show business people or business. Things along the lines of "I'm gonna take you all the way kid - we're gonna shoot for the stars" or "Bonds I tell you, that's the way you gotta go kid - now get yourself down to 7th and 3rd and buy me a pastraaaami sandwich". This entertained us greatly, sad, sad folk that we are.

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Architecture

Cuban buildings are incredible. They just don't knock down a perfectly decent building and I love that. Through lack of progress or whatever you want to call it, they have retained stunning, if slightly crumbling buildings. Buildings that are hundreds of years up to great examples of 60s and 70s architecture that was built to celebrate the revolution.

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In many cases, with the re-construction, everything behind the facade has been removed - an understandably cheaper and easier way to deal realistically with the saving of these buildings.

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Bus stops

Even the bus stops had a strong and unique design.

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Mini parks

These are sprinkled all around the city and it reminded me certain parts of Paris. There were usually sculptures and art in these areas.

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Shopping

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The lack of stuff, meant that store front displays would be rather pathetic. You would have just a few things spread out in a window display. Not so much in the tourist areas, as I guessed they got the tourist money so could source a little more but definitely in the normal streets where everyone lived and shopped. We didn't get many photos because it seemed a bit rude and patronising, frankly, to take a photo of the place where everyone shopped - a bit like pointing and going 'ooh look, is that all you've got'. But it was such a fascinating thing. Something I've never seen before. Shops that just had a couple of plastic buckets and colourful items, maybe pegs out the front window because they couldn't spare the goods to put out there. It's not like stuff isn't available - there's TV and hifi shops, but just not on the huge scale we are used to.
It's the first place I've been to that's properly not capitalist. It's actually quite pleasant to be somewhere that doesn't have adverts screaming at you everywhere and shop after shop of the same thing and just stuff - lots of stuff. I felt such an overkill of stuff before we went on the trip - it was something I wanted to get away from but actually, a lot of the time in somewhere like Bangkok for instance, there's even more stuff and it's out on the streets jumping at you. So, I found it interesting and it certainly gave you a feeling of times of old. When I was little we lived in a place so small it was barely a village. There was the one and only village shop. You got pretty much everything from there - there wasn't massive supermarkets you went to to get your food and clothes and electronics. You didn't buy as much stuff. There wasn't as much stuff about. I'm sounding very old now, but I just remember the less stuff about, the more you coveted what you did have. You didn't get a toy every other week so the toys you got on your birthday or christmas you cherished. There was a sense about that in Cuba. Recycling is not a thing there, as it isn't in many non western countries - but in reality they do it more than anywhere I've known. If something stops working, you fix it - there aren't hundreds of cheap replacements. They fix everything in Cuba - electronics, cars, shoes - everything. They keep stuff going and it really is the opposite of our disposable society. You see carrier bags hung out to dry, which was something actually we saw in Vietnam a lot.

Something else which is most unusual is the lack of mobile phones. I'm guessing (again) that this is a bit of a tricky thing to introduce into a country - to build an infrastructure but particularly if you're trying to control information. People do have them but it's not like everywhere else where every other person is either talking on them or looking at something on them. And I don't mean just wealthy countries - it's something I've found interesting in various places where people are living in essentially huts, with no electricity - perhaps south africa, fiji, cambodia - but they mobiles.
So not only did the lack of mobiles show but the fact that there were payphones everywhere with people on them.

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So, this was a fascinating and charming side for me, but of course it's probably not for the Cubans and wouldn't be for me if I lived there. Do I want to be able to buy whatever I want, whenever I want. Yes, I do. I get rather narked in places where the shops shut on a sunday. I hate that there's too many products and too much advertising but if I want something, I want it. But then that is what I'm used to. Less choice definitely makes life simpler.

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One day as we passed a building which was being pulled down, that we'd passed many times, Mark noticed the sign was for the old RCA records. A store that would have been shut down after the revolution but still had this little bit of history, barely still standing.

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If you want tourist bits and pieces or just to window shop, I'd head for Obispo - this is a lane that goes from the centre of town to the sea and it's always an interesting place to be.

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The other place which has a place you can get art and other bits and pieces, is La Rampa.

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Books

Literacy rates are high in Cuba, something the revolution tried to make available was education for all. There's a lot of book shops about, though there is a heck of a lot of books about the revolution and I imagine that there isn't a freedom for any/all books to be available in the country - though dont' quote me on that.
There's a fabulous, touristy book market towards the end of Obispo which has lots of revolution literature, Hemingway etc.
It also had for sale old magazines - american magazines from before the revolution that people had held onto which is interesitng.

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Looks & style

The Cubans are a stylish bunch. I always felt a complete tramp (hobo for my US friends) there around everybody in their pristine white and vibrant colours.

I'm not sure how to put this tactfully, but there are outfits that they wear here that anywhere else they could be mistaken for extras in a 70s porn film. But here - it's Cuban glamorous and it works. Big time! Even the older folk and the stranger folk - still have this certain something. Maybe it's the way they carry themselves.

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There if of course the odd exception, but she's still got a certain punk-eque androgenous flair to her and the Che look is always worth a try isn't it?

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Tuft-tops

Shaved heads with tufty tops, reminiscent of the late 80s/early 90s - they were all over Havana. But again - they rocked that look well!

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All in White

One thing that I got a little obsessed with, was their propensity to wear all white outfits. How bling is that? Call this a poor, sad country? You don't get bright whites in poverty - they're proud and pristine! Male and female, old and young, it's alright to wear white!

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Art

Cuba is big on art. It encourages people to work in the arts. As you have the same wage if you are a painter or a doctor - if you are artistically minded, you are not held back. Ballet in fact is a big thing in Cuba and you would get your training paid for if you excelled in this area. Something quite elitist in other countries, but here Cubans can pay very little to go to the ballet and it's common entertainment.
There is a lot of art galleries.

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We were surprised to find free galleries, like this Cermaic arts gallery. Normally what I'd find to be quite a dull medium, they had some incredible examples of unusual work here.

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Not my favourite piece but definitely a shock factor when the lady leaned over and quietly told us that the fetus inside this sculpture was real.

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Oddities

I don't know how to classify the guy who took his dog and rat for a walk, literally together.

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Havana Tips/Notes:

Getting Around/Maps & Guides and Tourist Info:

I would definitely bring a guidebook with you. We had no way of getting one and it didn't feel worth the money for such a short period but it would have been very helpful. We learned on arrival that google maps is wrong for a start - it had the streets around our accommodation completely wrong. I'd printed that map off so I could always have an aide to get home, so luckily our host put us straight on that one straight away. Because of the way Cuba is, without a lot of money and extra things - there isn't a plethora of leaflets and maps everywhere, like you get in most tourist destinations. I'd thought I'd pick up a map there, but it wasn't until about halfway through the trip I found one and then I had to buy it (cheap though of course). But there's not really info out there about things to do and places to go so you really need a reference point (unless you're staying in a fancy hotel and paying a fortune for it, you don't get any internet). I had a simple guide I'd gotten on my kindle, but that's no good for walking around the streets. I actually found an app that I had used a few times in other countries - Triposo - incredibly useful for Havana (particularly because it works offline). The offline map alone was a life saver and it had some interesting suggestions of places to go and eat and drink.
There is, I noticed late into our trip, a large tourist information place at the town end of Obispo Street, so if you're after some info or a map - head there. There is also a smaller info kiosk, further down Obispo street, when you're getting nearer to the sea - I think it's on the opposite corner to Cafe de Paris.

Language:

I was, as an arrogant English girl, quite surprised to find how little English was spoken. I guess you just get used to it being spoken widely wherever you go. On our entire trip I'd certainly found it to be spoken way more than I expected when I left. It's not really a problem, but a spanish language guide could be a good idea. We got by with a little spanish and just the usual pointing and non verbal communication. In the more touristic areas it is more widely spoken. I guess it's because although they have a lot of English speaking visitors - Candadians, British, Australian etc - they often go straight to resorts and venture into town/other areas on trips. The majority of tourists in Havana were definitely from Spanish speaking countries.
It actually was a bit of a benefit to not speak Spanish. There's not a lot of hassle at all in Cuba, but if someone did come up and start a patter with you - often when they realised that you didn't speak Spanish they'd just give up!

MONEY MATTERS:

Getting currency

You can only change up certain currencies so it's not a bad idea to get a load of these before you go - GBP, Euro, Canadian Dollar and Mexican Peso, among others. You can change US dollars but on top of the already high exchange costs, you get an extra 10%.
We were in a bit of a tricky situation coming from Honduras were we could only get lempiras with no where to change up currencies, we then travelled to Grand Cayman but over the weekend and Butterfield bank, the only bank which was open on a saturday morning, had run low on foreign currency so was only offering to their customers. We could get dollars out in Grand Cayman so we just did that and thought if we could not get money out using a card we'd change that up and take the hit of the extra cost. In the end we found getting money from ATMs not to be a problem at all. Our airport pickup took us to ATMs on the way from the airport initially and then when we found our money wasn't going to last we got some out from central Havana.

I'm glad we didn't have to go and change money because there was always massive queues at the exchange places. I'd heard you could jump the queue if you had foreign currency - but who wanted to do that person. If we had decided in the end to get local currency, we would have had to lump the waiting.

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ATM location

The ATM we used in Havana is very easy to find. If you are in the Parc Central you just head up the main promenade towards the sea and a couple of minutes up on the right is an ATM. The bank is the metropolitan I think. You'll likely see big queues outside there but they are to go in the bank, it's unlikely you'll have to wait long to get to the ATM. You can do the whole process in English as well.

Costs

Cuba is not a cheap place to visit as a tourist. Your money could stretch further if you got some local currency and bought some of the uber cheap street food but on the whole, even with bargaining things somehow work out quite pricey. I'm not talking London prices here, but you can often pay for a very simple meal, the same as you could pay for something bigger and better in New York that's for sure.

Toilets

Take tissues with you at all times - it's very common for no toilet paper to be available and if it is, it's often outside the cubicle so you take it before you go in. There is a big lack of toilet seats in many restaurants and bars too - the toilets are ok, but that may put a lot of people off.
If you are in central havana my top tip for a breather is Sloppy Joe's. It has icey air con and toilet seats and paper!!! The other restaurant I talk about which is just down from La Floridita also has good toilets.
It's probably not a bad idea to pack some toilet roll too if you're staying in a casa particular - they're not tight with it or anything but with things being sparse they don't put out 2 at a time or anything.

Summary

I loved it. Mark loved it. It's unique. It has incredible ambiance. It has incredible music. It's friendly. It's safe. It's grand. It's interesting. The food gets boring quick.

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Posted by KtandMark 16:33 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Honduras - Thrilla in Utila (or not)

by Kt

So we spent a very long time here - just under 4 months. It's kind of difficult to write a blog about it as in essence not a real lot went on, well not for me anyhow. We came for Mark to dive and do dive courses, I was just to hang about, hopefully make some money and get some sun. Well, in the end, despite powercuts, and often dodgy internet I did manage to get some work, which was cool as without that I think I should have gone mad. I didn't get much sun, as apart from diving, there isn't really anywhere much to go to get the sun on this little island. It's all about the diving. It's full of dive shops and pretty much every visitor is there to dive. It's all anyone talks about too which could also get a tad tedious, so I would say to anyone who might like to come-along with a diver, think long and hard about that.

There's lots of not so great things I could say about this small, often frustrating island but in these months I have had some good times and met some fab people. I've also met some not so fab people, but I'll let that go.

First up - our trip here was fraught with problems, out 7 hours stopover in Miami turned into about 30 minutes due to delays in San Francisco - this meant we were unable to get any US dollar to bring to the island - our brief stopover in Grand Cayman didn't help as the airport ATM was out of order. We had just enough dollars to pay the guy who gave us a lift from La Ceiba airport to the ferry dock. Not a taxi I might add - the tourist info guy came out of his booth to get us a taxi but ended up sending us off with some random guy - oh well, we made it, we may have not been convinced we would, but we did.

So, I'll start with the bad stuff - get it all out in a theraputic styleee.

The bad and the ugly....

We ended up staying in the same apartment block for the whole time. Not the greatest but it was kind of a case of better the devil you know and it was at least central. When we turned up we got a room rather than an apartment for 2 nights which after 3 days on the road from Tokyo to Utila, we were did not need. This turned out to be typical Utila. Someone hadn't left, she wasn't going to turf them out, so it was tough. After about 5 weeks in the first apartment we moved next door to the better situated one which had more light, more windows and less noise. This made a huge difference and probably prevented me going completely and utterly beserk - only just though.

Money

There are 2 ATMs on the island and no other way of changing money. The ATMs were often out of service and sometimes just out of money. They didn't allow you to get much money out at a time and the costs for each transaction were high. One of the ATMs, near the rotisserie chicken shack was only in Spanish, but was kind of easy to work out. The dodgy thing about this ATM though was that you had to exit/essentially log out. We've been in behind people who hadn't done this - we didn't of course take advantage of this, but there would of course be plenty of people who would so if anyone's going to Utila, be aware of this! This ATM was also more tempramental and you sometimes had to try a few times to get it to work. Unfortunately this could flag up with your bank at home so I ended up having my card cancelled to make life even more complicated. You basically had to make sure you never let yourself run out of money before getting some more. That wasn't always possible, for instance during the dive festival it was out of money for quite a few days due to the extra number of people on the island. Having a stash of dollars for backup would have really helped us as they will accept them a lot of places.

Visiting costs - there's an entry and exit fee to Honduras and if you stay for longer than 3 months, as we did, you pay extra too. However, it is a really easy process in Utila to extend - just go to the Immigration office down by the ferry pier. It's all in Spanish but fairly easy to work out.

NOISE!!!!!!!!!!

Unless you go out to the towns edges, Utila town is noisy. Really noisy. Someone is always shouting. There are virtually no cars but the quad bikes, tuk tuks (I know - v wierd having just left south east asia) and motorbikes driving down the narrow road somehow bounce a wall of noise off all the wooden buildings. Everything being wood, the vibrations cut right through you from any traffic, drilling, loud music etc that you have been blessed with that day.
The absolute worst was our neighbour across the road, who pretty much every other day, entertained us all with his electronic 80s organ - at an unspeakable volume as he sung (badly) along to terrible country and western - the bass shaking our floorboards. The ant-social (ie rudeness) of this probably drove us the most mad but seemed not to bother the other neighbours though I think it's because they were all related anyhow. If I was ever going to have a Falling Down, go crazy moment - this guy would have been the final straw.
Everyone here shouts. They don't walk over to the person they want to speak to, they shout. You get used to it, but as none of the buildings have any insulation it's generally like you have a few people in the room with you shouting at each other.

We also had parrots. Their chattering and singing of happy birthday and old mcdonald was cute and amusing at first. Not 4 months on when you've got kids running around the place shouting and screaming and setting them off and you think if you don't get some peace soon you really will lose what's left of your mind.

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Mark didn't really 'get' this until the last month or so when he was home more. Before he was out for much of the day diving/doing courses. When he spent long periods at home in the daytime, trying to concentrate on things - he realised why I'd been going slowly mad all those weeks. I guess that's the thing - if you're here to dive, this wouldn't affect you so much as you're out for chunks of the day and the night time wasn't generally quite so bad. I know it did drive other people in the building crazy too. When they were painting the building you'd often have someone shouting, banging singing, right outside your open window. I particularly enjoyed this first thing in the morning.
I took to staying up into the early hours as, along with it being cool, this was the most peaceful time.

May-heey

Our other noise, bizarelly bothered me the least. Our neighbour in the house next door liked to sit on the porch and scream and wail and shout abuse at all hours. To be fair I don't think he ever went in the house - no idea if it was his or not, he seemed to live on the squalid porch. Our first room overlooked (very closely) his porch so we never opened the window or even the curtains. The house smelt bad as you went past it and when we were in that room we got a heck of a lot of cockroaches. He disappeared for a few weeks at one point and we were a little worried but he came back, possibly a little quieter but sadly, I think, a bit more disturbed. I don't know if he'd gone to hospital (I doubt it) or jail or what, but he seemed angrier at first that was for sure. The reason he bothered me the least, was even though he would be shouting abuse at real or imagined people at all hours of the day and night, he was properly mentally ill, so he couldn't help it. I used to hear him have full on shouting matches with a wife, kids and mother in law that I gradually realised weren't actually there. Sometimes during his rants you realised that he was actually quite an eloquent guy which made it all the sadder. The strangest thing of all was that if someone spoke to him mid rant, he'd nearly always quietly, politely answer back. This softly spoken response was so strange - he literally snapped straight out of whatever world he was in before. I always made the effort to smile and say hello. I figured this would save me if he ever did go on the rampage but my friend Cheryl was convinced this was wrong and that he'd remember and therefore single me out with his machete!! He did have a machete - I saw him carrying it quietly through the dark streets on one of our first nights here, though bless him, as far as I knew he just used it to cut fruit down. He is called May-heey by us because we always called him 'matey' and our friend Cheryl, from St Louis, didn't get our bad english, with us dropping the T, so that's what she heard us saying and since then this is what he's known as. They've opened up a little shop next door to him and so someone's cleaned up the yard. I think they might be giving him money/food to stay out of the way from time to time as now sometimes I hear his rants coming from somewhere out the back. Sometimes it sounds right next to me and I wonder if he has indeed come to get me!!

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Attitude

OK, so we'd come from Japan, which is the politest place in the world, but before that, having been in south east asia, we found people could be off sometimes but where generally friendly and pleasant. It was a big, big, shock our first weeks on the island. We're kind of used to it now, but it's never going to be something that sits that well with me. People in shops will literally serve you without even acknowledging you. They'll carry on phone or face to face conversations without so much as look in your direction. They won't say hello or thank you. This is very common. It's a real treat when someone's a bit friendly and I always tended to try to go back to those places as it was such a nice place. This isn't true for restaurants etc as 95% of the time the people working in them are not locals but people their for the diving. They get paid pittance wages, but survive on tips and being fed. But this is weird I think - there's so much this separation on the island that I don't think this helps. Babalu had local staff and is all the better for it - Buccaneers and Mango Inn also do & really nice people too.
There's kind of differences between the islanders and the mainland hondurans as well - and it certainly doesn't cover everyone, there is lots of lovely people - just lot's of everyday exchanges can be blunt and unfriendly. It's such a funny place, and I know it wasn't just us that found the place, verging on hostile. I don't know if it rubs off on the the dive schools or they are just run a particular way, but people generally seem to lacking in some basic social graces. It's like the manners are dropped off at the ferry port. I've seen certain dive staff being downright rude, churlish and aggressive. In turn, they perhaps teach those learning from them that this is ok and it just snowballs into a few too many people with bad attitudes.
There is a lot of youngish people here but I've been in other places with lots of younger travelers before and you always get the odd bad seed, but I've never known such a bunch of bad mannered, loud, arrogant and selfish little toads as I've come across here. To quote a friend - they had been 'brought up by wolves'. It's a shame as they overshadow the decent on such a small island and sadly, the most dysfunctional folk seem to stay long term, as it's clearly a good fit for them. Without doubt there are lots of nice people, but even some of the nice people display moodiness - in the dive-schools case, to paying customers. I can't imagine anywhere else where you could kind of get away with it. So, it was a mixture of things - culture, circumstance but it didn't make the island my favourite place. Having left the island I certainly noticed a difference - Grand Cayman, Cuba and Canada - all very different places, but a lot more courtesy all round.

Food

It's easy to say the food on the island is bad but it's not so much that it's that it's all the same. It's generally fried, there is that grim processed cheese and there's just not really much choice - chicken, fish - rice, fries, burgers. The ultimate accolade of a restaurant seems to be 'they do a good burger'. There isn't really any high end or even mid-range dining to be honest.

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The cooking options aren't great either. Fresh veg etc and new stocks comes in twice a week and so there's long periods where you can't get anything remotely healthy and the range isn't great anyhow. The veg then sits about until it's far from fresh - especially our local shop that leaves it out in the sun. You could get a fair range of dried goods but overpriced and often had been sat around for a long time, if not years so never quite how it should be. I had a nic stash of Japanese things to begin with so that got me through a few weeks - some cold soba with sesame oil and soy sauce was a real treat.

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The thing that struck as time went on was we felt so unhealthy. Even the water was laser treated so had no minerals in it. Mix the heat and bad nutrition and we felt drained all the time and I started to get ill those last few weeks and couldn't bounce back from any of it. I know the long termers go over to the mainland and stock up on things, but even then I couldn't imagine living with this kind of food forever. I so wished we'd had an oven - there's a lot more you can do with limited ingredients and when all that was available was fried I sure as well wasn't keen on frying at home. I tended to poach chicken but anything that took cooking more than 20-30 minutes heated up the apartment so much it just got unpleasant.

I can't work out for me why more isn't grown on the island - it's a tropical island for goodness sake - very green. Other than some fruit, there doesn't seem to be anything home grown - seems crazy to me.

Anything good to eat?

My recommendations for anyone who might visit Utila, food wise, are - Babalu - you get the food separate to the bar and it's really good. Driftwoods is a lot more expensive but the better quality is worth it. Their burger really is good! RJs is only open a couple of times a week and like the stuff at Driftwood they cook a lot on the grill so is pricier but healthier/nicer.
Pizza Nut, which is open in the evenings in Camilla's bakery - the pizza base is really, really thin, so is probably the healthiest thing on the island :)
Camilla's bakery during the day does nice bagels and bits and pieces and is very friendly and nice - on the pricier side for Utila.
The pizza at the Mango Inn is also good. We never ate at rehab but their menu had some slightly different choices and it always smelt good.

Shopping - the store next to Mermaids is a good little place for decent quality veg - there's also a place on the left as you head to rehab that's friendly and got good veg - somehow they seem to have veg at times other than when the boat has come in. It was always a bit too far from us to shop at regularly though.

Mermaids restaurant itself does amazing ice-cream. Not sure if it's home-made, sure tastes like it. The rum and raison and coconut are lush!
And the guy who runs the restaurant is very friendly and nice.

Bitey things

This affected me way less, but all the divers ended up looking a right mess!! The sand flies are tiny, you can't see them but they nip you a blinder and leave a lump as bad as the worst mosquito bite. They seem to like decking, so all the divers hanging out at the dive shop piers get pickled. I was always pretty careful to spray up in the evening and without the other bits and pieces like coral burns, I got away with it pretty much. Mark however and so many other divers, are tanned to high heaven with pale pink patches all over the place with all those scars.

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Electrics, Dodgy showers & Power cuts

Electrocution fun in the showers is something you hear about all over the island. We had this in both apartments - my favourite was when the shower tap was kind of 'live' so having turned it off it was vibrating so vigorously you could barely switch it off. After various fixes, the wall was kind of live despite the fact there was supposedly a shower off switch and the water heated up so much it would steam and burst the shower head. In the end we just took the fuse out of the shower and stuck with the cold water. Along with the electric issues, they would burst so the overflow would fall out. Trying to stick that back on so many times and in the end just settling to standing under a cold, weak drip. Suffice to say, feeling clean was an achievement hard to achieve.

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Power cuts were fairly frequent, not unsurprising on a small island, but they could be frustrating none the less. You always think a fan does nothing until it's not on. Half a day or more without electricity, especially for non-divers was a total drag. The internet could be dire as well, so you couldn't ever count on anything.
Oddly the price of electricity for such a poor island is extortionate. Aircon was barely used as the bills racked up so quickly. It's surprising that solar power has not been made more use of due to these crazy prices.

The good....

A place of our own

This was the first time we'd had a proper apartment with a bedroom and a front room. It wasn't fancy in any way, shape or form, but just being able to have the space from being in 2 different rooms was a treat!

I kinda decorated it with left over xmas decs, kewpies and odds and ends I'd picked up in japan - as well as putting photos up on the fridge.

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One thing I could always make as it kind of requires things to be overripe was guacamole. I picked up a simple recipe from a guy from South America and it became a bit of a weekly treat - for me at least. Mark tended to find it to avacadoey or too limey. Mark is lucky he didn't end up wearing the guacamole incredible hulk stylee.

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Babalu

This is where you could find us more often than not, of an evening. Just a little down the road, we stumbled across it my accident in the first day or so and were always happiest here - often more so than at home. It was a large ramshackle bar with a pier to sit out on over the sea. A simple place but with lots of oddity and curiosity.

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A large area in the centre - a hole cut into the deck so you could watch the fish. Left over food was thrown in there so you'd get a frenzy of fish polishing it off.

One time we were there and while Mark was at the bar, one of the sides of the place kind of collapsed. It felt like the whole place would fall down, but it never did. Over time, the floorboards were more worn and occasionally you'd get a bit of a patch up job. But that was so part of it's charm. It was always funny to see someone going there for the first time, tentatively making their way over the holey floorboards.

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It has the coolest glasses

vintage flowers and fruit and jam jars!!

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It has the coolest sunset views

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It has luminous plankton

Little neon plankton photo-somethings that appeared after a full moon. Some kind of mating thing - they swirl around like mini glow sticks at a 90s rave. The sea could be full of them and you got to watch it off the end of the Babalu pier.

]I fell in love...

..with Lula - who stayed next door to us briefly on the island. She was an Aztec hairless breed. Stroking her was kind of like stroking an elephant.
She had the most lovely nature and I was totally smitten and wished I had kidnapped her.

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People

There were a few diamonds in the rough and I met some lovely people who restored my faith in humanity. A special shout out to Danielle and Cheryl my girlie buddies, both of whom I bonded with over common thoughts and findings. We had walks, laughs, watched bad and good tv (Danielle introduced me to Game of Thrones and painstakingly explained the entire first series!) and most of all they saved my soul - thank you ladies! :) There were others Mark met through diving who were great and made us smile. Not forgetting Michelle, the best yoga/fitness teacher I've ever encountered and who stopped me from vegetating.

Weather

We had the most amazing storms here. There was often lightening out at sea even when there wasn't storms. When the big storms did hit, they'd go on for hours and the buildings would shake at the strength of the thunder rolls. I love storms so I always enjoyed it even if it did seem like the apartment and possibly the whole island would collapse.

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Rehab

Our second favourite bar, which was a bit of a walk to get to but we did like to watch the sun go down there, particularly when our friend Nadim, who always made us laugh and was often Mark's dive partner in crime, started working there.
And of course everytime we went we could make the same jokes about 'they tried to make me go to rehab'.

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Diving

This of course was the point of us being here and Mark had an amazing time, qualified as an instructor and often bored the pants off of me.

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There was a 'dive festival' while we were there. A few bits and pieces going on, most notably the Boat parade (I'm a sucker for fairylights
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and Mark becoming a Record Breaker as part of the worlds biggest underwater pyramid!!!

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Floating

I tried Float Utila out towards the end of my stay and wished I'd gone sooner. I'd seen the advert and had assumed it was a flotation pod, as I'd used back in London, but although I'd loved it wasn't sure in the Honduran heat, if I'd fancy it here. Then one day we followed the path down to check it out and discovered a huge specially build floation chamber. I floated in there twice and it was absolutely bliss, both mentally and physically. It was large enough so even someone 6 foot something could stretch out I'm sure. There was a dim light which you could switch off for full sensory deprivation. The noise and the chaos that we lived amongst seemed a million miles away and so many aches and pains dissipated.

Random island things...

Fossils

There are coral fossils everywhere you go - mainly brain coral which makes a cool fossil!

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Hummingbirds

There are tons of hummingbirds on the island - various varieties and you never get tired of them - they are amazing.
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They are also, I have learned - aggressive little buggers - always picking on each other.
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After the hummingbirds, in the evenings we'd then get bats stealing all the sugar water out by our apartment.

Crabs

There are crabs inland everywhere along the sides of the roads. Massive ones too and they can often be found wandering into bars.

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My favourite are the ones with one massive claw, totally disproportionate to the rest of their bodies. They are comedy gold!

Iguanas

Tons of ignuanas on the island and you don't have to go far to see them sunning themselves. They'd potter around our apartments. And on a nearby abandoned building there was a family of them where the daddy was huge!!!

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Munchies restaurant has an area out the back where there's lots of iguana holes though I must say I never saw any.

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Eagle rays
I missed out on a lot of the wildlife, not ever going out on the boats but I did a fair few times, have the pleasure of eagle rays floating about on the piers when I was sat in either Babalu or Rehab. Gorgeous they are too!

Treetanic

A bar set in the grounds 'built' over the years by a local artist. It's an amazing place. In fact, the most interesting place on the island, shame it doesn't open until 7pm when it's dark so you can't really see it. The bar does do the best Bloody Marys.
There is a restaurant attached 'Jade Seahorse' but that never seemed to be open the whole time we were there. The area behind the bar/restaurant is where the most amazing things are and there are a few cabins that you can stay it which are cool.

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Divelodge

This place has a little bar which is another haven from the craziness, a pier with swinging chairs and great views.

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Monkey magic

I'm not a big fan of people owning 'wild' animals as pets but this monkeys life seemed a pretty good one - he's basically free to roam about up by his home and you can see him swinging around the trees up there as well as sitting on his owners shoulders as they drive through the streets on a moped.

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All in all...

It was definitely an experience. It's difficult for me, as I had a very different experience to most who go there. I don't think I met anyone else who wasn't there to dive and I did often get a look of bewilderment when I told people I didn't dive as they would wonder what on earth I did with my time.
In a way the timing was bad - I would have liked to have dived a bit and maybe take a few trips to nearby islands, but being so close to the end of our travels I was all too aware of cost and saving money was higher on the priorities than spending. Earning money in particular seemed important as to me the time I was spending there felt rather pointless. My work picked up well towards the end, though it could be incredibly frustrating when external factors scuppered me being able to work as well and efficiently as I would have liked.
It definitely backed up my feelings about living on as small island. As I suspected, I found it quite stifling and frankly boring. There is just so little diversity (if you're not going under the ocean surface) and everyone knowing everyone's business and never quite getting away from it all - had the feel of a small village which, as a private person, I've never been to fond of. If anything happened on the island or in the diving community the gossip and rumours spread pretty quickly.
It's all good though, part of knowing what you want to do/where you want to be, is knowing what you don't want to do and where you don't want to be. It's all valuable experience and at times the place was a lot of fun and the sea was beautiful on the few occasions I went in. There were blue sky days. There was interesting wildlife. And Mark left a dive instructor and record breaker! :)

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Posted by KtandMark 11:00 Archived in Honduras Comments (0)

Japan - Summary: odds, ends, oddities & eats

by Kt

Food

Food is one of the best and most interesting things about Japan and I have to say it was a complete suprise to me as although have eaten lots of Japanese elsewhere, I was surprised it was generally much heartier than I'd expected with bigger portions. This turned out to be great as it was winter, but it's amazing how everyone is so healthy with all this eating!!

Bread & Cake
Noodle and strawberry sandwiches had to be up there with the strangest but you got such interesting bakery goods.

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Sake & beer
I would really like to have tried more sake. I know you could do flights, like in wine testing but the budget didn't stretch unfortunately.
Hot sake we both loved on those chilly days but mostly I became familiar with the one-cups you pick up in the convenience stores.
It amazed me that beer was often more expensive that wine. I imagine this is because it is taxed so much, but that wine would fall into a category with sake and they don't want to tax that so much because of it's religious and cultural associations. Just a guess.

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We found beer always had a big head which annoyed Mark to begin with until he realised it was just a thing.

Food display
This really is one of the most amazing thing and actually one of the most handy. You might not know exactly what you're going to get, but as a tourist in a place that doesn't speak much other than Japanese, having these really helps when you first get there and they are just frankly so cute. I could fill my house with it.

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You also get some quirky little displays too.

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Curry
I've had Japanese curry before but had no idea what a massive thing it was. It's also really good value for budget wary tourists. You often get it for good prices at the ramen shops and there is also specific curry places. The one we went to was called CoCo. The principle was very simple - you had curry and rice, but you could pick everything - umpteen different sizes, different heats of the curry and of course different foods in the curry.

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It looks really unappetising doesn't it? but trust me, it's delicious.

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You can't go wrong with katsu, pork cutlet curry for me, but Cheese curry? Hmm, not sure, but didn't try - it could have been amazing.

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Cute food
Why not dress your food up? I love it. I'm totally like a little kid and I love that in Japan that sure, the cute food dishes are for the kids but no one bats an eyelid if you have anything cute as an adult too. Play with your food :)

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Mayonnaise
Mayonnaise is a bit of a thing - you get it on all sorts. Certainly wasn't expecting that. I'm not quite sure what it is - it's not cheap jar mayonnaise but it's not fresh, posh homemade mayonnaise, but you'll often find if you buy street food it will be put on so make sure you speak up quick if you don't want. But actually, although it seems like it won't go, it generally just works.

Convenience store bits and pieces

Lot's of weird and wonderful things to be found in the convenience stores.

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This ice-cream is from a vending machine in Ueno park and is delish!!
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Kit kats
Green tea and wasabi flavours - why not?

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Eating Etiquette & Environment
I didn't learn much eating etiquette but I did learn that you NEVER leave your chopsticks in your bowl. It's something that's done at funerals/associated with death somehow.
And you don't tip -it's rude. This actually makes life very easy - tipping is often such a pain and confusion when you're travelling.

For some reason so many restaurants play Jazz. All over. All different types. And I hate jazz. But somehow it was never that annoying jazz they play at mediocre Italian restaurant sunday brunches back home. It was ok. It's like it had been scientifically researched to be exactly what it should be - soothing background music. Well it is Japan!

Queuing at the bar - in an orderly line - it's a sight to behold.

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Cooks and bar staff, shouting out when you leave bars/restaurants, particularly in ramen shops, is a bit disconcerting but you get used to it. They are basically shouting some kind of formal thank you for being their customer.
Similarly, in restaurants where the cooks etc are behind the scenes, when you have paid your bill, the person serving you will often do this in a quieter manner, but which often goes on for a lot longer. It is a verbal patter and don't feel you have to stay till the very end everywhere. It feels really impolite to walk away, but if you didn't, you'd never get anywhere.

Pocari Sweat
I gave up most soft drinks years and years ago. Apart from the odd tonic (can't go without a g&t now), I pretty much avoid them but have found in the hotter climates when travelling I occasionally drink them as need the sugar for energy. Now, Derek-san had suggested Pocari Sweat as a little helper the next day after drinking. We'd noticed this advertised about the place and found it's name unappealing to say the least but when feeling a little weary on day (I had been taken by a terrible cold!), we got some out of one of the vending machines and hence began our love affair. It's not like a soft drink as such it is a very smooth, unfizzy drink which doesn't have a particularly strong taste but definitely works well as a pick me up.

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Cuteness

The girls style is so adorable and it is so odd that what in other cultures would be seen as a bit sexual just isn't. You see very young girls with short skirts and over the knee socks. But actually, this originally came from the look of school girls and has somehow been turned into a more sexualised look because of school girl fetish type stuff. Anyway, that's not what this is about. Cuteness is just everywhere. From the lolitas to the normal school girls. They are just adorable.

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The really little kids, maybe 5 or 6, you see with these very smart uniforms and a big leather satchel on their backs. I so wish I'd taken a picture. They are scrumptious.


Shopping

I noticed a real difference to the shops in Japan and the shops in South East Asia, particularly in Bangkok. You can buy everything in Bangkok, often the same things, but the shops are jam packed and you're almost overwhelmed. The shops in Japan are chocca but the stuff is pretty organised which I just find so much better - it's easier to hone in on the individual items. Though this is actually a bad thing because I wanted to buy so much. So much stuff, from clothes, accessories, cosmetics, home stuff - all my style. I have vowed to go back one day and buy the place up.

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Loved this place where you could go in and get your dog photography!!

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There are lots of specialist shops for traditional Japanese things. Tea, chopsticks, kimonos etc, especially in the Ginza area. This is really nice to see as in the UK, so many of these kind of shops close down each year.

These are the shoes that are traditionally worn with Kimonos (and socks). I believe they are often used as slippers too.
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This however, was just not acceptable:

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Kewpie

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I love Kewpie and Kewpie was everywhere. It was too much to bare. But I did manage to buy a few pint sized ones to take on my travels with me.

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I liked the tattoo'd Kewpies, particularly as Mark has the massive Kewpie tattoo himself.

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The trip also coincided with Kewpie's 50th anniversary - go Kewpie!

Dolls

Dolls are kind of a thing in Japan and for me. I like Blythe which I won't explain if you don't know what that is but if you do, I stumbled across an exhibition of another similar doll, Pullip. Mark ran screaming while I spent a little time going around the timeline exhibition and loved it!

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Engrish & Signage

Mark always love a bit of engrish, but unlike through most of asia which was often just spelling mistakes, the engrish in Japan is quite special. It is often a correct translation but just the way it is translated and the way the Japanese language is put together, sounds quite funny.
It's often really quite beautiful when something very straightforward is translated - you get a very floral language. I so often delight in a translation in a tourist information leaflet, for instance.

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Signs are generally more animated so are quite cute:

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This was a hand washing sign that went into very detailed steps:

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Architecture

There was lots of interesting architecture in Japan. Old and new. Often new, particularly in Tokyo for obvious reasons. What I like is all the different yet complimentary designs. There is such great style all over. And they're not afraid to throw in a replica old building if they feel like it either. Odd, but they get away with it.

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Transport

The old fashioned looking taxis were intriguing. We tried to avoid them as they can be pricey but we did have to use them a couple of times.
The driver is often suited - at least with shirt and tie - sometimes even white glove. Many have kind of crocheted/lace style backing on the seats.

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The train system, both local and national were amazing. Like with bars, you queue to get onto trains in an orderly fashion, in the designated areas.

Something we found at a few stations was they were playing bird noises - presumably to put off other birds. We weren't sure especially as this included some underground stations.

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Occasionally you would see some interesting modes of transport. There wasn't as many cars as I had expected in Tokyo at all - it never felt particularly congested. I was surprised by the lack of little cars though - not full of smart car type vehicles, like I'd have imagined.

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We loved these cool, long bikes that we saw a fair bit about the place (usually in the really trendy areas).

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Masks

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So, I'd gotten used to people wearing masks everywhere and I'd even become quite attached to wearing one myself. But the thing I can't get my head around is why people wear them in cars they are in alone. Cannot fathom this.

Japanese Baths

Lot's of the places we stayed had the same setup. A shower over a deep, short, bath. Bathing is a big thing in Japan and they like it deep. It tends to be a ritual before bed and they shower before hand so they are clean when they bathe. I've never liked baths much but partly I've never liked that half of you is out getting cold - I get it much more in these deep tubs. Particularly when it's cold to ease aches and pains. I was particularly in love with the bathroom in the traditional Japanese family home we stayed in and would love to translate this into my own home one day.

Japanese TV

It's very odd, I was watching it one evening and it went from young men/boys in big white underpants cleanings urinals to a quiz with young kids winning prizes.
There's some great quiz shows. They are super kitsch and glitzy. There was also a kind of Japanese catchprase which had the similar noises and characters from the UK one.

Mark's favourite was the English language show on the Japanese Open University. There was a rather eccentric and charasmatic English guy with his younger Japanese sidekick teaching people English in the most bizarre way. They were teaching them regional accents. Brummie of all things. It was truly amazing. I thought the guy had somewhat of the David Soul about him!!

Efficiencies, rules and respect

I just found that everything made sense. Be it products, services or rules. Much differently to how you'd imagine. Japan doesn't feel like it's about over consuming. I don't think anyone has the space to over consume and fill their homes with crap. It seems more that things are bought for quality and purpose or for beauty, less so just because.

Some of the mundane things that tickled us along the way were:
- In a tea shop - the most functional tea strainer I have ever used. We were in awe.
- Rests for your handbag at the counter in hotel receptions and shops
- Water fountains and phone boxes are available all over the place, outdoors and in, simply because of the lack of vandalism
- It's so safe that really, really young kids travel about on trains on their own to go to school etc. I mean super young. The kind of young you wouldn't let out of your sight even in the back garden in the UK (depressingly). The first time I saw one I freaked right out and was looking around to where the parents might be or who I should tell about this child at risk? Later I saw little groups walking around Tokyo city on their own as well. I think they weren't going far, but they were so young and definitely not accompanied by an adult - it's a gob smacking sight. It's lovely that it is so safe that this can still happen and long may it continue!!

What didn't I like about Japan?

- Finding way around was tough
- Smoking everywhere in bars and restaurants
- Lack of Wifi & especially wifi - only LAN in hotel rooms - wtf?? and even Starbucks you had to be a member
- The cheesy cheetoh crumb on First Kitchen's fries - grim
- That I couldn't afford to be there for months and months
That's it - not much of a list!!


In summary

We, especially I, adored Japan. It surprised and interested and charmed and delighted. I literally pined for it after I had left. I know it's not perfect, no country is and of course it has it's dark sides like everywhere. It has challenges to be there for longer, like cost and language, but I would love to spend more time there. I felt a real affinity. It really just suited my personality and tastes in so many ways. There is always something beautiful, quirky or interesting going on. I love the people, the food, the shopping, the art, the food, the architecture, the culture, the food. Luckily, this is my last Japan blog so you won't have to hear anymore gushing after this. But did I mention I loved the food?

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Posted by KtandMark 10:39 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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