50 Today!!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, 17 February 2011 – my 50th birthday!  I can now go on Saga holidays, ha ha (as if!!)  😀 

We were woken at 7:10am by the sound of cruise director Ricky’s voice bellowing over the tannoy, announcing that the Braemar was alongside in Bridgetown, Barbados.  We got up and went out on the balcony to have a look; we could see RCI’s Serenade of the Seas which had been in dock when we arrived here.  It looked massive compared to our little ship, but to be honest I don’t think I’d ever want to go on a RCI cruise; their ships are far too big and one of them holds over 6,000 passengers and 3,000 crew – far too crowded and impersonal.  I prefer smaller ships like the Braemar.

Looked in the mirror to see if I could see any more grey hairs or wrinkles, but all I could see was the few extra pounds I’d put on this last fortnight with all the fine food, champagne and goodness knows how many caipirinhas!  🙂

We went to the Palms Café for our breakfast, and we said hello to Paul and Lyn, who were also breakfasting outside in the Caribbean sunshine.  We didn’t actually have to disembark the ship and leave for the airport until 1.30pm, so we had the whole morning to spend in Bridgetown.

After breakfast we went back to 7054, picked up our hand-luggage, and took a last look round to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything.  Then it was “bye bye” 7054 and we went along to the Neptune Lounge where we could deposit our bags for safekeeping until later.

We disembarked the Braemar and walked into Bridgetown proper, as it is only about a mile away.  It is a pleasant walk; the sun was already quite hot but we enjoyed a lovely sea breeze.  We wandered along the sea front and then had a look in the different shops on the way.  Hey, it was my fiftieth birthday, and we had a long, boring flight later on, so I was going to make the most of the time we had left in Barbados.  🙂

Once we were in the town centre, we decided to find a bar and have a “Banks” beer.  This is their local lager and it goes down very well!  We thought we’d look out for a place where the locals drink and have one or two there, as they would charge the local prices and not the inflated tourist prices!

We found a little ramshackle bar and snackbar consisting of a few rickety kiosks and mis-matched tables and chairs that looked just perfect.  The beer was $2.00 a bottle… Barbados dollars that is, so in other words 1 US dollar, or only 67p in English money!!  We ordered a Banks each and sat down to enjoy them.  Loud reggae and soca music was blasting out of massive speakers; yeah man, I could think of worse places to be on my birthday!  😀

The lager was ice-cold… and I mean ICE.  It was actually frozen and you had to wait for it to melt a little before any of it would come out of the bottle.  It was like a beer-flavoured ice pop!  However, it didn’t take long to melt in the tropical sunshine, and we enjoyed it so much we had a second bottle!  We then decided to take a slow amble back to the ship (after first visiting the loos in the bus station).

When we arrived back at the harbour about half an hour later we noticed that the bar there was doing a roaring trade from the cruise ship passengers.  We thought “what the hell” and decided to have one more drink, as it would be our last until we got to the airport.  I had a Caribbean rum punch (yummy) and Trevor ordered a Banks.  His beer was three US dollars, in other words three times the price of the ones we’d had in town!

We then boarded the Braemar one more time to collect our bags and go for a last lunch.  We were called to disembark at 1.30pm, and off we went on the bus for the 45 minute ride to Grantley Adams Airport.  Once again, the disembarkation and airport checking in was extremely efficient; we were off the bus, into the airport and through security in no time, as we already had our boarding passes and our cases were already checked through.

After browsing round the duty free shops I bought a bottle of Barbados Mount Gay rum, then off we went to the Airlines executive lounge.  They had a good selection of drinks and nibbles (although it was too soon after lunch to eat) so we’d thought we’d enjoy the free booze while we were waiting for our flight to be called.  We hadn’t been there very long when in walked Colin and Liz!  They came over to join us, so it was just like extending our holiday a little bit. 🙂

We enjoyed the conversation along with a few beers and vodkas, and then all too soon we heard the announcement for our flight.  We said goodbye to Colin and Liz and off we went to board our Thomas Cook A330 Airbus, for the 8-hour flight back to Manchester.  😦

There’s not much more to write after that.  Same old, same old.  Pre-dinner drinks.  Food. In-flight entertainment.  Cabin lights dimmed.  Boring.  Unable to sleep.  Watch the sky-map to see where we were, what altitude we were flying at, how long we had to go. Boring.  Lights back on.  Breakfast. Coffee.  Queue for the toilets.  Then I perked up a bit when the captain put on the seatbelt sign and announced we were on our final approach.

We looked out of the window as the lights of Manchester on the ground grew closer.  We heard the thud and the hydraulic whine as the wheels of the plane came down.  We saw the ailerons move on the wings, as the lights of the runway approached.  Then… the plane’s engines roared, and suddenly the runway lights began to recede into the distance.  Another whine and thud as the wheels were retracted.  What the hell…?

As the aircraft climbed again we were left wondering what on earth was going on.  Why was our landing aborted?  All the captain told us was that we were unable to land and we had to circle round in a holding pattern a couple of times.  Then we started coming down again and this time we landed.  Hooray!  🙂

Then back in the car for the three-hour drive back to Durham.  At 9.00am we were home again.

Here’s to the next time…  😀

Last Night on the Braemar :-(

Well, we woke up this morning feeling quite sad, as our fantastic holiday is nearly over.  😦

What annoys me about these cruises is that about a week before you are due to disembark the ship, you get delivered to your cabin such bumf as “buy your take-home duty free”, “disembarkation notice”, “immigration form for Barbados”, return luggage tags, etc. etc. etc.  For goodness sake, it’s not time to go home yet – we have a week to go!

But like it or not, today was our last full day and night on the Braemar and tomorrow we’d be disembarking in Bridgetown.  We decided to pack the stuff we wouldn’t be using again this cruise; packing is such a chore so it’s best to get some of it over and done with.  We had received notification asking us to put our cases outside our door no earlier than 10.00pm and no later than 2.00am so as not to block the corridors.  But at 9.45am a large suitcase appeared outside the door of the cabin opposite ours.  What is it with some people?  They want to get a life!

Once we’d filled one of the cases, we spent the day relaxing and wandering around the ship for the last time.  As ever, we had to partake of some of the delicious cocktails up at the pool bar.  🙂  Apart from that we didn’t really do much else, just pottered around.  At lunchtime we went up to the Grampian Restaurant to order a bottle of Lanson’s champagne for the evening, to share with everyone on our table, seeing as it was the last night.  Tomorrow is my birthday, and as we’re due to leave the ship, I’ll probably miss out on any celebration.

So we got showered and ready, and went up to the Grampian for our “last supper” as it were.  The champagne was waiting for us on ice; once Colin and Liz and Paul and Lyn arrived, our waiter popped the cork with a bang and we all enjoyed a glass.  Then came my first surprise of the evening – they’d got me birthday cards and a small gift!  🙂  It was a Braemar keyring and pen set!  It was very kind of them and I was really quite touched; whenever I use that pen or keyring in years to come I will remember the Braemar and the lovely couples we shared our table with.  😀

After dinner came the second surprise of the evening; the waiters arrived at our table with a birthday cake (complete with candle) for me, and sang “Happy Birthday”.  As my birthday isn’t actually until tomorrow, I asked Trevor if he’d arranged this with Fred Olsen, and he didn’t know anything about it.  So that was really good; they must know people’s dates of birth from their passport details and decided that those whose birthday was tomorrow (when we were leaving) could have their celebration tonight instead.  A nice, thoughtful touch on the part of Fred Olsen Cruise Lines.

The cabaret that night was a stint from each of the entertainers we’d seen earlier in the cruise; the comedian, the magician, the singer, the orchestra and the Braemar Show Company – a proper variety performance.  Then we went along to the Skylark Club for the final quiz.  Paul and Lyn came along as well, but this time the combined brain power didn’t work, because we didn’t win anything!  😦

I had a few caipirinhas and we relaxed and chatted and had a really nice time.  We had intended going back to our cabin fairly early to finish packing, but it was well after midnight before we went back.  We filled our cases, put them out, then went to bed in 7054 for the last time, after propping open the balcony door to hear the lovely sounds of the sea.

The Drinks are on Fred

Went up to the Grampian restaurant this morning to find there was another “champagne” breakfast.  Whoo-hoo!  🙂  Enjoyed a breakfast of kipper fillets washed down with coffee and a couple of glasses of the free bubbly.  A nice way to set you up for the day – good old Fred.  🙂

The weather was hot and sunny so we decided to go up and spend some time by the pool with our books.  A couple of hours is usually the most we can tolerate, as the sun is so hot.  We read, people-watched, sunbathed and swam in the pool before a crew member brought a massive block of ice out to the deck.  It was the ice-carving demonstration.  One of the chefs used a hammer and chisel to create a fantastic sculpture of an Indian chief’s head, complete with feathered head-dress.  It would be the centre-piece later on in the Thistle Restaurant for tonight’s Grand Gala Buffet.

Personally, we never bother with the midnight buffet and we can’t understand the people who do.  Don’t they get enough to eat on the cruise?!  Would they normally tuck in to a plateful at that time at home?  Just seems like unnecessary calories to me!  🙂

At midday we sought refuge from the sun in the shelter of the Marquee Bar.  We had a light lunch and I enjoyed a great big rum punch, full of ice and fruit and dark rum.  Yummy!  😀

The afternoon passed by in its usual pleasant, lazy way and then we had to get ready for the Captain’s Farewell Party (boo-hoo).  😦  Couldn’t believe our holiday was nearly over after we’d looked forward to it for so long.  Tempus fugit.

So it was formal attire once again as we made our way, in good time, to the doors of the Neptune Lounge.  When we got there, we saw three old dears already standing in the queue (!!) reading their books to pass the time.  As the time approached 5.45pm, more people arrived to join the lengthening queue, then someone from the entertainment team arrived to open the doors.  “We just need to squirt your hands with hygiene gel before you go in…” she said, but to no avail.  As soon as the doors were open, there was a mass stampede to get the seats at the front.  Queue-jumping prevailed on a grand scale, as all the old farts rushed in as fast as their walking sticks could take them.  In a way it was funny, but in another way it was just sheer bad manners; pushing to the front when it was obvious people had been waiting longer.

We chose a seat near the front and near the end of the row, so as to be more readily within reach of the passing waiters with their trays of champagne glasses.  😉  More drinks on Fred!  Then Captain Rodberg did another amusing speech and we managed a couple of refills before dinner time.

Dinner that night was lobster thermidor, yum yum.  Absolutely delicious, and beautifully presented and served as usual.  Afterwards it was off to the show lounge, as tonight it was the Braemar Crew Show. 🙂

The men and ladies of the crew did some traditional Philippino dancing and singing, in colourful costumes they’d made themselves.  There was also a comedy element to it when some of them came out in sailor suits and did Village People’s “In the Navy”, also “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred.  So there was quite a variety in the show and it was all very entertaining.

When we went along to the Skylark Club later on to join Colin and Liz for the quiz, a surprise awaited us – Paul and Lyn were there too!  They are “morning people” so they usually go to bed fairly early on, so the fact that the quiz didn’t even start until 10.00pm was a late one for them!  Maybe they decided to see if another two brains would help us break our winning drought; tonight’s quiz was based on The Body.  All the questions were cryptic, and the answer was a part, or parts, of the human body.  You had to use a bit of lateral thinking in some cases.

Anyway, it worked – because our team won with 19/20.  Yay!  So yet another free bottle of vino on Fred.  🙂

Heading North

Woke up this morning feeling slightly worse for wear – I wonder why?!  😀  Decided that today was going to be a booze-free day.  While Trevor went to the Palms Café for breakfast, I decided I would give it a miss, and instead make use of the tea and coffee facilities in the cabin.  Trevor said he would fetch me back an orange juice and muffin, as the malaria tablets we were taking needed to be taken with food.  🙂

When he came back from the restaurant he had his GPS with him, and it showed that we were actually crossing the Equator at that moment, heading north again.  We were due back in the open sea tonight, where we would spend another three days at sea before arriving back in Barbados.

We didn’t really do much today apart from pass the time pleasantly on our balcony, or wander around the decks.  At 11.30am the Braemar put on a “Crossing the Line” ceremony.  We went up to the pool deck in good time to bag a decent view.  “King Neptune” and his entourage “boarded the vessel” where there were a couple of thrones laid out for the king and his queen.  Some of them were dressed as mermaids, as well as a mad doctor, a sullen deck cleaner, and other characters, a lot of them men in drag!  Cruise Director Ricky was the clerk of the court, reading out the charges.

Certain members of staff had to kneel before King Neptune to answer why they were daring to venture into his realm by crossing the Equator.  It was a “trial” and invariably each person was found guilty.  For punishment, they had to be soaked in ice and “seaweed” (in reality, green crepe paper which stained the water a lovely emerald colour) then thrown into the swimming pool in all their clothes!  It was very funny, especially when they all grabbed Ricky himself and threw him in!  All good fun.  😀

Later that night we found we’d received a Crossing the Line certificate.  We’ve also got them for crossing the Arctic Circle (in 1999 and 2008) and the International Date Line (2009) so this was another one to add to our collection.

After dinner that evening we went along to the Neptune Lounge for the show.  As it was Valentine’s Day, they put on a rendition of “Mr & Mrs” and asked for three couples.  We didn’t volunteer this time, as we’d already won it on our previous cruise, so we thought we’d let someone else have a go.  🙂

The cabaret this time featured Andrew Green the magician for the first half, then Jamie Michael Stewart the singer for the second half.  Not the best show you’ll ever see, but decent enough.

The quiz tonight was Valentine themed.  Once again we didn’t win!  🙂

As we were now in the open sea and no longer at the mouth of the Amazon (and therefore bug-free), we were able to prop open our balcony door overnight once more.  🙂

Caipirinha Capers at Alter do Chão

This morning, the Braemar was due to drop anchor at another tiny village, this time Alter do Chão. Having looked at some photos of this place, it seemed as though there was a lovely sandy beach, so it had one redeeming feature at least. 🙂

We were due to set sail early afternoon, so we decided to go ashore fairly early so we would be back by lunchtime.  We put our swimsuits on underneath our clothes to save having to change; we could do that later once we’d returned to the ship.  We got the liberty boat across to the small landing stage and took a look around.

For a start, Alter do Chão, although small, looked a lot more civilised than Boca da Valéria.  There was a small sandy beach with a few trees, from which hammocks hung.  The Brazilians like to come here on a Sunday themselves, and quite a few people were swimming, or walking along the shoreline.  We stripped down to our swimming things and went into the warm waters of the Amazon.  It was lovely!  I swam out until I couldn’t reach the bottom any more.  You didn’t get the waves that you do in the sea, but I noticed that the current was pulling me downstream a little, so I had to be careful.  Trevor also went in for a swim, and we both spent a few minutes enjoying the scenery and the refreshing feeling of being in the water.

Afterwards we towelled off and laid down on our towels to allow the sun to finish drying us off.  In the 30 degree heat it didn’t take long.  Then we put our clothes back on over the top of our cossies and decided to explore further.  We could now go home and say we’d swam in the Amazon!  😀

We passed some wooden buildings selling postcards, stamps and souvenirs, as well as hand-made local jewellery.  There were also primitive shops selling holiday “tat” such as t-shirts with “Alter do Chão” on them, or pictures of toucans or piranhas.  There were also wooden masks, blowpipes and maracas, and other such stuff.  We bought a couple of postcards and stamps, and I bought a bracelet made out of seeds, wood and alligator teeth – certainly something different!

We then arrived at a sort of square which had stalls around its edges, and benches to sit on.  There were a couple of refreshment stalls, one of them selling the inevitable caipirinhas.  At one end of the square, a Brazilian music duet had set themselves up; one playing panpipes and one beating out a catchy rhythm on his bongo drums.  It sounded really good and added to the pleasant atmosphere.

I sat on one of the benches to write out the postcards, while Trevor went to get a couple of drinks.  He came back with a Brahma beer for himself and a caipirinha for me.  He said “you wouldn’t believe the amount of cachaça that’s in there – it’s a strong one”.  I said “what do you mean?”.  Trevor replied “there must be six units of alcohol in that one drink alone.”  Blimey!  😀

It certainly was very strong, but also fruity and refreshing.  One thing about the caipirinhas is that it is difficult to stop just at one.  And you can totally underestimate their potency, as I was about to find out, ha ha.  😀

I wrote out the postcards, then listened to the infectious beat of the music as I finished off my drink.  As this was the last port of call in Brazil before heading back north of the Equator, I said to Trevor that we may as well spend the rest of our Brazilian currency, so he went and got us another caipirinha each!  Mine was strong, but not as strong as the first one I had.

Other people nearby were also drinking caipirinhas and cocktails, and it was funny, because some of them got up and started dancing in the square to the music!  It just looked so comical watching half a dozen or so middle-aged to elderly men and women strutting their stuff. Obviously the drink was taking effect with them too.  🙂

I finished my second caipirinha and decided, “oh, what the hell” and went for a third one!  😉  I could definitely feel the drinks starting to take effect.  In fact, the music got to me and I got up and danced as well.  A lady nearby asked where I’d learnt all the “moves” and I said it was because I’d done Zumba and belly-dancing in the past. 

Time was getting on by now and we had to be back on the ship by 1.15pm so I finished my drink and we went along to join the queue for the liberty boat, part of which was on the beach (the queue I mean, not the boat!).  There were another couple of guys there; one beating a rhythm on his drum and one rattling his maracas.  Well there was me, completely sackless, and I just couldn’t resist – breaking out of the queue I kicked off my shoes and started dancing on the beach, shaking my booty and shimmying my hips, much to the amusement of the other passengers in the queue.  The guy gave me his maracas so I could really get into the spirit of the thing!  🙂 🙂

I can’t really remember much about the liberty boat ride back to the Braemar.  We got back on board and went to our cabin, where I crashed out on the bed and slept for three straight hours!  Trevor woke me with a cup of coffee which I had before making an attempt to get ready for dinner.  I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it!

Anyway… I did manage to shower, do my hair, get my face on and get dressed in time for dinner at 6.15pm.  Tonight was a “Western Night” and Trevor wore jeans and a checked shirt, but as I didn’t have any suitable clothes I just wore a floral print dress.  For once we didn’t have any wine with our meal, or any liqueurs afterwards, lol 😀

We’re not really into country music/western stuff, so we chose to see the Braemar Crew Cabaret in the Coral Club, instead of the “Hoedown Showdown” the show company were putting on.  So we went along to the quieter and smaller Coral Club for the first time; there were six singers, all of them part of the crew, who we normally see in their ‘day jobs’ of  bar staff, croupier, shop assistant etc.  Some of them were really talented and it was a good show.

We then finished off the evening by going along to the Skylark Club, where Hubert Greaves on his steel drums was playing a few cheerful tunes before the quiz, which was a Western Theme tonight.  Not really our forté, so we didn’t win.

Then off to bed again.  We now had three days at sea to look forward to, so it was “bye bye” Brazil.  🙂

Boca da Valéria, Brazil

This morning we woke up to find the Braemar at anchor, and the skies overcast, but with the sun trying to peep through.  Across the river we could see a collection of a few wooden buildings and houses on stilts, along with a small landing stage.  This was the tiny Amazonian village of Boca da Valéria.  Boca da means ‘mouth of’ in Portuguese, and this village was situated at the mouth of the Valéria river, a tributary of the Amazon.

There were no organised tours today; you had to get the liberty boat across the water and do your own thing.  The village was so tiny it wouldn’t be worth doing any excursions and you could see everything within half an hour!

We decided to spend the morning on board and venture ashore after lunch.  We had a leisurely breakfast outside the Palms Café and wandered around the deck.  We could see the tender boats going to and fro; the villagers would come out in their small rowing boats and come right up to the tenders, trying to sell the passengers hand-made souvenirs or asking for money or gifts.

We spent the morning sitting out on deck reading our books, then went to the Marquee Bar for some lunch and a cold cocktail.  We then went along to collect a tender ticket and await our turn to disembark.

As we were boarding the liberty boat, the skies opened.  Once everyone was on board we set away; it only took about 10 minutes to cross.  At the other end, some people took one look at the weather (or, possibly, at the place itself) and decided not even to get off the boat.

We disembarked onto a small landing stage with a sort of ‘pier’ of wooden decking, and my feet had no sooner touched the ground when I was surrounded by a group of grubby local kids, two of which grabbed my hand, one either side.  They practically pulled me along, jabbering away in Portuguese.  I looked around for Trevor, who was quite a way back, so I slowed down to wait for him.  The kids were still chattering away, but I could recognise the words “reïs” and “dollar”, so it was obvious they were after money.

Trevor eventually caught up with me.  I kept trying to pull my hands away from the grabbing hands of the children, but they would keep getting hold of my arm or my hand.  I didn’t really like it all that much; their hands were unpleasantly sticky and one of them kept sticking his fingers up his nose – euyuk!  Also, if they’d been holding the hands of other passengers you could understand how germs and bacteria could be spread.

Eventually I turned my pockets inside out to show the kids I didn’t have any money on me, but this didn’t deter them – they then turned to Trevor, actually touching his pockets.  We wished we had brought some of the night-time chocolates or some sweets for the kids, just to bl***y get rid of them!  🙂

Anyway… Boca de Valéria consisted of a few wooden houses on stilts, a single church, one school, a bar, and a few stalls selling handicrafts.  If you wanted to take photos of any of the people or buildings, the villagers expected you to pay a couple of dollars.  Some of the children had been dressed in the traditional Amazonian Indians costumes, more for the benefit of the visitors than anything, because most of the kids just wore shorts, t-shirts and sometimes football shirts.

As well as the stalls selling handicrafts such as wooden masks, beaded jewellery etc. some of them had animals tied up, such as alligators (with their jaws wired shut), sloths, monkeys and even lizards, birds and insects.  The idea was to charge the tourists for photos, but I really hate to see animals exploited in this way.

One or two of the wooden houses had hastily-scribbled signs inviting visitors to see inside, and charging them for the privilege.  Apparently they depend on the tourism industry to make a living, as well as fishing and growing manioc. 

We wondered just how much all of this was put on for the tourists – were these people really as poor as they made out?  I may sound sceptical, but one of the houses had a satellite dish outside it (!!).  Also, we noticed that some of the locals were quite overweight; they obviously weren’t just living on fish and manioc, and doing manual work!

We walked along the muddy dirt track and decided to seek refuge from the showers (and the kids!) in the bar.  It was simply a wooden shelter with a few tables and chairs and it only sold Bramha beer or soft drinks.  It was packed with people from the ship.  We came across Colin and Liz and joined them for a beer; Liz had some wet wipes in her bag and gave me one to clean my hands.  🙂  The kids, who had followed us all the way, eventually gave up and found someone else to pester.

After our beers we decided to go back to the ship.  We had a look at the stalls but there was nothing that took our fancy.  We went back to the ‘dock’ and queued for the liberty boat; someone from the ship was giving out cold apple juice to the passengers waiting in the queue.

So that was our experience of Boca da Valéria.  A tiny village of less than 100 people, very primitive, very poor.  But how much of it was real?

Jaguar in the Jungle

We woke up in our jungle hut early this morning; in fact, we didn’t really sleep all that well.  Although the room was kept at a lovely cool temperature with the air-conditioning, the downside was that it was very noisy.  At some point during the night Trevor turned it off, and the silence was golden.  However, waking up a couple of hours later, the room was stiflingly hot.  So you couldn’t win either way.

So we were up at 7.30am, and this time we donned clothes suitable for trekking in the undergrowth.  Long trousers, socks and shoes (no shorts and sandals this time) to prevent anything crawling up your legs, as well as long sleeves.  The less flesh that was exposed, the less the mozzies could bite!  🙂

Outside, the morning air was clean and fresh with the scent of growing things and the sun was shining.  Birds were calling in the trees and dragonflies and other insects were buzzing about.  We went along to the restaurant for breakfast.  This time there was fresh fruit, cereals, different breads, cold meats, cheeses and eggs, as well as fruit juice and good Brazilian coffee.  We ate a good breakfast to set us up for the day, then sprayed on our insect repellent and went along to Reception to meet Prakash and the rest of the Jaguar Group for our 8.30am jungle trek.

As the lodge was set in the rainforest, there was no boat-ride this time – we just set off on foot.  Prakash looked the part in his khakis and with a big machete kept in a sheath hanging from his waist.  He led Jaguar Group into the forest, with Julio bringing up the rear.  We didn’t want to come across other guided parties, so we set off at staggered intervals.  The guides had an intriguing way of calling to each other, using bird and other animal calls.  🙂

We had to watch out for tree roots and vines underfoot which could trip us up; also there were palm trees that had vicious spikes on the trunk, so we had to be careful where we were putting our hands as well as our feet.  Prakash was very good at pointing out any potential hazards to us.  He showed us trees with unusual fruits, and also cut some bark from a tree and rubbed it on my wrist; it left a dark orange mark and he said it was used by the native tribes as skin decoration (war paint).

As I didn’t carry a notebook and pen with me, it is impossible for me to remember every tree, plant and creature that Prakash pointed out.  Nevertheless, he showed us plants that could be used as food, plants from which you could drink the sap if water was scarce (he also showed us which leaves were best for collecting water) and plants that were used for medicinal purposes.  He would peel a little piece of bark, or take piece of leaf, and pass it around the group, asking us to smell (or, in some cases, taste) it to see if we could guess what it was.  I recognised eucalyptus and cloves (very distinctive) among them.

Some of the trees were massively tall, and had lianas wound around them.  A liana is actually a thick vine that grows in the ground, but needs to climb up the trees to the top of the canopy in order to reach sunlight.  So the lianas (or creepers) twist and wind their way around the trees, and sometimes neighbouring trees.  Then they let down arial roots which form the creepers we recognise of “Tarzan” fame.

At one stage, Prakash found an ants’ nest and used a big stick to stir them up.  They were HUGE, at least 2″ long and red.  He said that if you get bitten by one of these ants, you will have a fever and the bite will burn and sting for the next 24 hours.  Ouch!  😦    We also saw a tree with loads of termites on it.

Prakash was extremely knowledgeable about all the plants and trees and it was very interesting.  At one stage he found a big fronded palm leaf and he and Julio, while they were talking, made little “gifts” for us by plaiting the fronts into various shapes.  He said that, often at the lodge when all the guests have gone to bed and there isn’t much to do (there is no television or internet, after all!) he sits chatting to the other staff and plaits the palm leaves and thinks of new things to make, to pass the time.  🙂  They made headbands, fans, a brilliant grasshopper, a prawn and a fun pair of ‘glasses’, to name but a few.

Towards the end of the hike, Prakash asked if anyone knew which direction we would need to go in to find our way back to the lodge.  It was no good asking me; I get lost in Durham! 🙂  Everyone took a guess as to which way it was.  Prakash then gave his machete to a Norwegian bloke in our group and said he was the new leader, and everyone had to follow him.  At this point we weren’t really very far from the lodge, and in fact we started to recognise trees we had seen earlier on.

A few minutes later, we arrived back at the Ecopark.  The time was 11.30am – our jungle trek had lasted three hours, but it didn’t seem that long.  We were very hot and sticky; the tropical air was absolutely still and the high humidity meant that you were damp all the time.  My hair was hanging limply round my face, my makeup had slid off, and I had a big wet patch in the back of my t-shirt.  I must have looked a right sight!  🙂

We decided to have a nice cool shower to freshen up a bit before lunch at 12.30pm.  When we got back to our hut, however, we discovered there was no electricity!  Apparently they switch it off for a few hours a day to conserve energy.  Prakash said it should come on shortly, but in the meantime, we decided to go along to the bar and have a – yes, you’ve guessed – caipirinha or two!  They were ice cold, fruity and very refreshing.  We then went for lunch which was the usual selection of meats, fish, fruit and vegetables.  Simply cooked but plentiful and delicious.

We did not have to check out until 3.30pm, so the rest of the afternoon was our own.  We went back to our hut to find the electricity (and the air conditioning) was back on, so we decided to have a nap, as it is pretty draining in the humid heat.

After packing all our stuff up into our overnight holdalls, we went along to reception and handed the key back, then decided to have one more caipirinha.  We sat there enjoying our drink, and a bright green parrot flew in and landed on the bar, where the barman gave him a small bowl of water to drink.

Then Prakash came along and led Jaguar Group to the large boat, for the hour-long journey back to Manaus.  Boarding the bus at the other end took us back to the dock and to the Braemar.  We said our goodbyes and thanks to Prakash for being a brilliant guide, then boarded the ship once more.  We had an hour to shower and change for dinner.

Tonight was a British-themed night, where passengers were encouraged to wear red, white and blue.  This is a tradition on Fred Olsen ships and is usually good, patriotic fun.  Trevor looked very dapper in a Union Jack waistcoat and dicky-bow tie, and I wore a Union Jack t-shirt and white jeans.  I created a stir by wearing a plastic mask of the Queen and giving a “royal wave” every now and then.  🙂

After dinner we went into the Neptune Lounge where they had a British singalong and everyone joined in.  Then the show for the evening was “All You Need Is Love”, the Braemar Show Company’s tribute to the Beatles.  Then it was the usual – off to the Skylark Club, meet up with Colin and Liz, do the quiz, which was British-themed.  We got 18/20 and still didn’t win!!

Then off to bed in 7054 after a very eventful day.

Ecopark Excitement (part 2)

At 3.00pm we all gathered in reception, where Prakash, our guide, was waiting to take us to the boat.  We walked along the dirt track, the duckboards and the planks of wood until we were once more at the landing dock.  This time it was a much bigger boat, with a lower and upper deck.  We went upstairs where we had a seat near the front, affording us unimpeded views of the river and riverbanks.

This afternoon we were due to visit a native Amazon Indian village.  I don’t know why they’re called ‘Indians’; personally I would prefer to think of them as indigenous people.  The boat journey would be around 45 minutes, and on the way there was plenty to see.  We passed small villages and, at one stage, a jungle ‘resort’ which the well-off Brazilians tend to go to.  There were many gleaming boats moored up, and sunloungers, and you could hear the distant sound of the infectious beat of Brazilian music.  Some people were swimming or fishing.  You would wonder why they were swimming when the Amazon is reputed to be full of vicious piranhas, but in actual fact piranhas have a bad reputation fuelled by Hollywood.  Whilst it is true that they are voracious meat-eaters, they certainly don’t strip a human body down to the bone in minutes as portrayed in the movies!  🙂  In fact, they’re more likely to avoid humans rather than attack them.  🙂

We saw more monkeys in the trees, as well as vultures flying around.  Every now and again you’d see catfish jumping.  As it was now well after 3.00pm, the fiercest heat of the sun had diminished somewhat, and there was a cooling breeze as the boat glided through the waters.  It really was an idyllic ride.

Once we got to the shores of the river that would take us to the native village, the boat was moored and the gangplank put in place.  When I say “plank”, that’s exactly what it was – a plank of wood stretching from the lower deck of the boat to the sandy shore.  It was quite precarious walking down it, but luckily there were plenty of hands holding onto me to ensure I didn’t fall.  Goodness knows how the older people managed.

Eventually we were all ashore.  Some half-naked, brown-skinned children came running down to meet us.  We were led by Prakash to a large square area with benches around the outside, and a large thatched roof overhead.  Prakash explained to us that the natives did not speak the usual Brazilian Portuguese, but used their own dialect instead.  They made their living from fishing, growing manioc, handicrafts and tourists coming to visit. 

Quite a few native men and women were around, and lots of children.  Prakash joked that there were a lot of kids because the natives didn’t have a television! 😉  One of the men came in who had a loin-cloth, a sort of ‘skirt’ made of leaves, a shell anklet and a large, feathered head-dress.  His face and chest were coloured in a sort of ‘war paint’.  Prakash explained he was the chief, or elder, of the tribe.  The elder addressed us all in his native tongue, the gist of which was that he was welcoming us to their village, and they were going to play some traditional musical instruments, sing and dance for us.

They started off by playing a flute-like instrument, then they used what looked like pan-pipes.  They also had a percussion instrument which consisted of a long, hollow tube which they banged on the ground, creating a sort of echoing banging sound.  When all the instruments were played together, it sounded quite good.  They then started singing and dancing, going up to each side of the ‘room’ in turn.

The next dance was a type of ritual ‘mating’ dance and the women joined in.  The men and women danced arm-in-arm, with some of the women carrying small children on their ‘free’ arm!  It was fascinating to watch.  When the men were dancing, the shells on their anklets created some extra percussion.

Once the singing and dancing was finished, each member of the tribe (including the children) came around the room and shook hands with each of the visitors.  They welcomed you in their own language and you had to reply with “Bacomá” (or something that sounded like that).

After everyone had been round, the Chief gave his head-dress and some maracas to Prakash, who promptly came over to us and placed the head-dress on Trevor’s head, the maracas in his hand, and motioned for him to get up to join the natives!  Other visitors were given the percussion instruments and had to get up and join in with the dancing!  It was great fun to watch, and I took plenty of photos.  Trevor should be honoured that he was allowed to wear the Chief’s head-dress.  He also danced with one of the women.  😀

Afterwards we were invited to look at some of the handicrafts the natives had made.  There were necklaces and bracelets made out of seeds, shells, wooden beads and alligator teeth, as well as bikini tops made of coconut shells (no good if you’re more than an A cup!), hollowed out gourds used as containers, and blow-pipes.  The blow pipes had arrows included and you could have a go at shooting them; they were surprisingly accurate.  Just as well there was no curare around, lol 🙂

I wanted to buy one of the necklaces for 15 Reïs but we only had a 50-Real note and they didn’t have any change.  The Brazilian currency, by the way, is the Real, and the plural is Reïs, not “reals”.  No-one seemed able to change the banknote so, reluctantly, I had to do without my alligator-tooth necklace.  Hopefully I’d get a chance at a later date.

Then if was back on the boat for another ride along the river; this time we were going to moor up at a small restaurant/bar that had a pier, and fish for piranhas from the pier-side.  😀

On arrival at the pier, we were each given a bamboo pole with fishing line and a hook on the end, baited with raw meat.  Then we had to stand at the water’s edge and see what we could catch.  Prakash made it sound easy; “When you feel a little nibble, pull your line in,” he said.  But the piranhas (and other fish) were sly; you’d feel a nibble and pull in your line, to find no fish, but the raw meat gone!  Every now and again a catfish would jump out of the water and land on the pier, flopping about until someone was kind enough to throw it back.

The sun was fast dipping below the horizon as night swiftly fell in the jungle.  Dusk doesn’t seem to last long, once the sun disappears the hot and heavy darkness sinks down.  With the darkness the sounds of the jungle came alive.  You could hear crickets and bullfrogs singing loudly, and every now and again the cry of a bird or monkey.  It was now time to head back to the lodge.  No-one had caught any fish this time.  😦

We arrived back at the Ecopark, dumped our stuff back in our hut and had a quick wash.  Dinner was at 7.30pm so we had time for a nice cold caipirinha before then.  🙂  Dinner was much the same as lunch had been; fish, pork, beef, manioc, lots of vegetables, salad and fruits.

At 8.30pm we all gathered once again in reception to await Prakash for the next exciting adventure – this time caiman spotting.  When Prakash arrived he bestowed upon us the group name “Jaguar” and said that is how he would address us from now on, as in “this way please, Jaguar Group.”  I liked the sound of that!  🙂

We got back into one of the little rustic river-boats and journeyed along the darkness of the river.  We didn’t have Prakash in our boat this time (he was in the other boat), we had a young guy who I believe was called Julio.  He sat at the front of the boat and shone a very powerful flashlight into the bushes and undergrowth along the riverbanks.  When you are looking for caiman alligators, the light will be reflected off their retinas, making their eyes glow red. 

The helmsman turned off the outboard motor so we were left with the night-time sounds of the rainforest, while Julio slowly flashed his torch around.  Then there was a splash as he jumped overboard, surfacing seconds later with a caiman!  He brought the caiman onto the boat and we returned to the landing stage at the lodge, in order for everyone to get a chance to examine it more closely.

Shortly afterwards, Prakash’s boat arrived back, he too with a caiman.

Julio passed the caiman to me to hold; I had to put one hand round its neck and the other round its tail.  It felt smooth and warm-blooded, and it stayed perfectly still apart from its sides going in and out as it was breathing.  Its eyes were like a cat’s, that is, the pupil was a slit rather than being rounded.

I actually felt quite sorry for the caimans.  They had had bright lights shone in their eyes to hypnotise them, been snatched from the river where they were feeding and brought, in a noisy vibrating motor-boat, to land, where they were passed around, poked and prodded, and every inch of them examined and photographed.  We’d all seen one now; I felt it was time to take them back and release them.  We were told that this is what happens, that none of the animals are harmed in any way, but we didn’t actually see them being released.

The evening time now at the Ecopark was our own.  We had packed a lot into today and were now pleasantly tired.  We had a couple of caipirinhas in the pleasant, dimly lit bar area and chatted to the other guests and to Prakash, who said he had been working for the Ecolodge over 10 years.

Then it was off to bed for the night in our little hut.  🙂

Ecopark Excitement (part 1)

It was with anticipation and excitement that we woke up this morning, knowing that we were going to disembark the Braemar and foray into the Amazon jungle, where we would be staying overnight in the Amazon Ecopark Lodge.

The ship had already docked in Manaus, the capital of Amazonia, and she was not due to sail again until 6.00pm tomorrow night.  Manaus comes as a big surprise to first-time visitors; despite being in the depths of the rainforest on the banks of the Amazon river where the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões converge to form the “Meeting of the Waters”, Manaus is a major city consisting of high-rise buildings, main roads and is a world-wide business trader.  As well as being a major shipping port, it also has its own international airport.  Strange to think that you just needed to go about five miles away and you’d be in the thick of the jungle.

We disembarked the ship and walked over the road, where we were greeted by our guide, Prakash, who would be looking after us for the next two days.  We got on the bus (a much more modern and comfortable one than those in Santarém and Barbados!) for the 45 minute ride to the quayside; the rest of the journey to the Ecopark would be by boat.

Once we got to the quayside, we walked across a floating landing stage to board the motor-boat.  The only access to the Ecopark is by boat, as there are no roads, only dirt tracks.  The journey took about 30 minutes, then we arrived at a primitive landing dock.  One by one we were manoeuvred off the boat and we paused to take in our surroundings.

There was a small sandy beach with a few rustic sunshades (thatched with palm leaves) and sunloungers, right on the water’s edge.  We could just catch a glimpse of the lodge through the dense trees.  We had to walk along some duckboards and planks laid out especially to avoid going in the mud (or the river if the water level was high).  A hundred and fifty or so yards later we walked up some steps and into the Ecopark reception, where a welcome drink of some sort of tropical juice awaited us.  We discovered that this was the exact same lodge that Trevor and I had stayed in (for three days) on our last visit to the Amazon 10 years before, so we were happy to be back, as we’d had such a fantastic time.  😀

We had a lot to pack into our short stay here, so we’d no sooner dumped our bags (check-in could wait until later) before it was time to go to Monkey Island.  This was a natural area where monkeys which had been rescued from the illegal animal trade were brought to be rehabilitated, before eventually being released into the wild.

We had to board small boats to get there; they had half a dozen or so bench-like seats (imagine a big rowing boat) with a shade over them, and an outboard motor.  The first person on the boat had to climb over all the benches until they got to the one at the back; they then pulled up the back rest of the bench in front so the next person could sit down, and so on.  So if you boarded the boat last, not only did you not have to climb over all the other benches, but you got the best seat at the front!

It only took a few minutes to get to the monkey place.  There were lots of wild monkeys around and the rescued monkeys were in large caged areas, so they could watch the behaviour of the wild monkeys, and hopefully learn from them.  A few of the females had tiny babies clinging to them; they were so cute.  It was fascinating watching the monkeys swinging themselves through the branches of the trees; they use their long tails as fifth limbs and are so agile.  There were brown monkeys and these other reddish (ginger) ones with red faces.  They were feeding on bananas and mangoes and making a racket in the trees.  🙂

We spent about an hour with the monkeys, then it was time to go back to the lodge.  In the boat on the return journey, the helmsman switched off the outboard motor so there was utter silence. It allowed us to hear the natural noises of the rainforest, and was so tranquil and peaceful.  We could hear monkeys and toucans and other birds, as well as crickets.  Sometimes you could hear the drumming of a woodpecker.

Once back at the lodge we could check into our cabana, before lunchtime at 12.30pm.  We were allocated number 9A.  We had to walk along a winding path among the trees to find it; it was basically a wooden hut with a corrugated tin roof.  However, it was blessedly cool inside as the shutters were closed and the air-conditioning was on.

The hut was simply furnished, but clean and comfortable.  It consisted of twin beds, small bedside cabinets, a small table and a ‘wardrobe’ (basically a hanging rail with curtains across the front).  There was a white-tiled ensuite bathroom with a shower, toilet and sink.  There was no glass in the windows, just a fine-mesh screen to keep out the bugs, and in any case it was better to have the shutters closed for privacy.  Each hut had a small porch with a rustic wooden bench on it.

We had a quick wash then went along to have a pre-lunch caipirinha.  🙂  The whole reception and bar were very open-air, that is, they had a roof supported by pillars but no actual walls.  This allowed you to get the full benefit of the open air and nature; the sights, the smells and the sounds.  Sitting relaxing with our caipirinhas and enjoying a (rare) breeze was sheer bliss.  We glimpsed a flash of colour and saw that we had a visitor – a scarlet macaw which flew in and perched on the rafters.  🙂

Lunch consisted of a hot and cold buffet meal in the circular restaurant.  Again, the restaurant had a roof and pillars, but no actual walls.  There was fresh salad and fruits and bean soup, as well as a choice of fish, beef or pork and lots of vegetables and the ubiquitous manioc.  The food was very hot and tasty, and you could go back for more.  Dessert was fresh fruit or some particularly gooey-looking cake.  There was also strong Brazilian coffee, as well as bottles of cold mineral water.

After lunch we decided to go and have a siesta.  The equatorial rainforest weather was hot, around 29°C, but it wasn’t the heat that was so draining, it was the humidity.  As we were walking along the path back to our hut, we could smell the heady aromas of damp earth, wet leaves and the warm, slightly foetid smell of the jungle air.  Small green and brown lizards darted across the path and into the shrubbery.  As we weren’t due to meet in the reception until 3.00pm, it gave us a good hour to have a nap.  The air-conditioning in the room was lovely.  🙂

Parintins and Boi-Bumbá

This morning we woke up at anchor in the town of Parintins, where once again the day was grey and raining.  Not to worry though; this morning we were going to visit the Convention Centre to see a scaled-down version of the Parintins Folk Festival, otherwise known as the Festival do Boi-Bumbá.  Usually this takes place in June and runs for three days, but today we were going to be treated to an hour-long excerpt of it.

We decided to go up to the Grampian Restaurant for breakfast for a change, and a nice surprise awaiting us when we got there – another ‘champagne’ breakfast.  Good old Fred.  😀  Then off we went to the Neptune Lounge to get our tender tickets.

We boarded the liberty boat for the short ride across to the shoreside.  We needed our cagoules to make sure we didn’t get a soaking under an equatorial rain storm.  Once we got ashore we had time to look around the shops before the show.  There were a lot of shoe shops and I soon spotted a pair I just had to have.  They had 5″ heels in the shape of the Playboy bunny, and a big platform and diamante decorated upper.  The type of shoes my cousin Alan calls ‘hooker shoes’, lol. 😀   We decided to wait until afterwards to buy them so I didn’t have to cart them around with me.

We went into the convention centre (and out of the rain, thank goodness) and were welcomed with a free glass of caipirinha!  🙂  Then we made our way to our seats, which unfortunately were quite far back, but at least they weren’t right at the back.  Usually when we go to the theatre we try to get seats near the front because I am only 5′ tall and I invariably end up with someone 6′ 6″ in front of me.

The show opened with loud, rhythmic music and singing as the dancers, dressed in elaborate colourful costumes, took to the stage.  The festival celebrates a local legend about a resurrected ox.  It is also a competition where two teams, Garantido and Caprichoso, compete in extended retellings of the story, each team attempting to out-do the other with flamboyant dances, singing, and parade floats.  Some of the floats were really decorative; for example there was a giant turtle which opened up to reveal a beautiful maiden inside, and there were also giant dragons and fish.  It certainly was a very colourful, cheerful show, even if we couldn’t understand all the songs and the narrative.  🙂

All too soon the show was over, and we left the convention centre to find that the rain had stopped and the sun was attempting to get through.  Just as well; wearing our cagoules in the heat meant you were often just as wet inside, with sweat, is if you’d just let the rain wet you.  We went back to the shoe shop and I bought my ‘hooker’ shoes.  Then it was off to find a bar/café for the inevitable caipirinha.

We couldn’t immediately find a bar selling caipirinhas (what?!) so we decided to settle for an ice cold beer.  We found a place selling “Antarctica” beer; we remembered this incongruously-named beer from 10 years ago.  It comes in 600ml bottles and goes down a treat.

We got the liberty boat back to the Braemar and went along to the Palms Café for some lunch, taking our plates outside to sit at the stern next to the Lido Bar.  Whilst there, we noticed that the cocktail of the day was – yippee! – caipirinha.  🙂  So we each asked for a glass.  I’m not so sure that the Philippino barman had ever made one before, as he was going to use lemon instead of lime, so I had to keep him right, ha ha.  😀

There was a young waiter who made a small caipirinha and then ducked down behind the bar to taste it so he couldn’t be seen if any of the senior staff happened to be passing.  When Trevor asked him what he was doing, he replied “quality control”, lol 🙂

We spent the afternoon pottering around the ship and reading on our balcony, before getting changed for dinner. Tonight was a formal night again, and I decided not to go up to dinner but to join them later on for the coffee stage.  You can eat yourself silly on a cruise, and it really is uncomfortable when you feel stuffed and bloated, so it does no harm to miss a meal occasionally.

The show tonight was the Braemar Show Company performing “West End to Broadway”, so it was full of cheesy songs from musicals.  It was OK though.

Then it was off to the Skylark for a 70’s night.  We took part in the quiz with Colin and Liz and were doing great; we really thought we were in with a chance tonight.  The worst thing you can do in a quiz however is change your mind about an answer; this is what we did and it cost us the quiz.  Never mind – we consoled ourselves with some more caipirinha and Liz tried some as well.  We had meant to go to bed fairly early tonight, as tomorrow we would be leaving the Braemar to spend two days and one night in an eco-lodge in the Amazon rainforest, and we needed to pack our overnight things.  However, it was close to 1.00am when we left the Skylark.