Monday, December 09, 2013

Back from Cartagena!

Pirate capital of the Caribbean!

I've returned from what will be my last trip abroad this year, thank goodness.  Although, to be fair, if you have to go somewhere on business then the historic Caribbean city of Cartagena is not a bad destination.  As you can't fly direct to Cartagena, and it takes three flights from the UK to get there, I decided to stay in Houston for 36 hours to decompress and meet up with my particular friend S who was coming in from Florida, where her sister lives.

Houston was not at its usual sunny self and in fact it was pouring with (quite cold) rain ("just like f****** Vancouver" as S observed in her trenchant manner).  Nothing to do therefore but eat drink and, er, relax.  The restaurant at the Hotel Zaza does a very good vodka Martini indeed and as the flight over hadn't been at all bumpy (for a change) the Legatus was feeling in quite a good mood and was able to drink it in a relaxed manner rather than swigging it down in a single stress-fuelled gulp.

The old floatplane terminal in Vancouver before they moved it to build the new convention centre

I have, in the past, used Vodka Martinis to recover from particularly bad flights.  The first time this happened was in 2003 when I had to fly from Vancouver to Victoria.  I had not arranged the transport so was appalled to find that we had been booked on a seaplane.  I had done this trip before but had travelled to the main Vancouver International Airport to fly to Victoria on a proper aeroplane, not something that looked like it came from a pulp film.  It was too late to change tickets so my fellow traveller, Tim, also from England, and I climbed into the plane on a very wet and windy afternoon. And I mean climbed.  You had to stand on the float and launch yourself through the hatch (it was not a door) and hope you didn't drop anything into the water below.  On board, the captain happily told us to expect severe turbulence for the whole flight.  They never admit to "severe turbulence"!  They always say "some" or "mild".  So, the Legatus was already feeling stressed even before the terrifying process of taking off from water.

I took this shot on the flight of doom itself

The captain was not wrong.  As we flew over the islands on the way to Victoria (which would have been interesting on a calmer day) we were bouncing around like mad.  All the Canadians were calmly reading the paper while Tim and I grabbed hold of the seat in front with every lurch of the plane.  I was calculating how far we would have to swim to reach dry land if we crashed amongst the islands.  After twenty-five terrifying minutes we landed in Victoria Harbour.  The only thing worse than taking off in a float plane is landing in a float plane, especially when the waves are up.

Our plane in Victoria Harbour

By the time our meeting had finished the weather was even worse and the flags were sticking straight our from the poles.  Tim and I agreed we really didn't fancy flying back in weather like that.  I remembered there were ferries from Nanaimo down the coast so we popped into a travel agent only to find that they had been cancelled due to bad weather.  These aren't Isle of Wight style floating tea trays either these were proper cross-channel style jobs.  And it was too rough to operate them?  The flight back was even worse than the flight there and we later found out that the winds had been at eighty miles an hour.  We crashed (I wouldn't call it a landing) back into the sea in Vancouver at about four in the afternoon.  Safely back on land Tim turned to me and said "Martini?" (he was a very sensible chap) and we went straight to the bar at the Pan Pacific Hotel.  Aftershocks of trembling fear were cured by two parts Stolichnaya, one part Bombay Sapphire, one part Dry Martini Vermouth and three drops of Angostura Bitters.  Three times.

The food at the Hotel Zaza is not quite as good as they think it is but I had a steak that wasn't too incinerated and S had a quail which looked alarmingly like it was making a break for it from the plate.  Either that or training for the quail Olympic swimming event.  It reminded me horribly of a cartoon strip from Time Out many years ago where Christmas turkeys came to life.  Turkeys are alive of course (although not for much longer)  but these were oven ready ones come to life.  Not that I'm a Time Out reader, I should add, as I'm not a communist, cannabis smoking, tequila drinker from the less salubrious parts of north London.  Incidentally, I noticed that turkey in the US is about a third the price per pound it is over here.  Rip off Britain, again.

Hector, Kiki and Zaza

I spent some time trying to explain to S that staying in the Hotel Zaza  always reminded me of the children's TV show Hector's House.  Given it was French, originally, I thought S might have seen it on TV in Montreal (where she was brought up).  However, she pointed out that she was not even born when it was first broadcast in the UK.  I had a girlfriend at college, C, who (rightly) thought I was two-timing her with her own best friend, K.  K, C  thought, was exactly like Kiki the frog from Hector's House due to her annoying and persistant twittering (not in it's modern sense of course).  She did have a point about her constant talking but she didn't look like a frog; she looked rather nice, in a Rachel Weisz sort of way,  Anyway, things came to a head one afternoon when she discovered I had taken K to the posh restaurant Les Quat' Saisons in Summertown, which had recently been set up by Raymond Blanc.  She marched over to K's room and I followed anxiously.  There was a lot of shouting, some pretty ripe language (mainly from C who was from Birmingham and was rather earthier that the more refined K, who was from Ealing).  It was all pretty noisy but harmless until C accused K of being like Kiki the frog.  Oh dear.  K assumed that C was saying she looked like a frog, not that she spoke very, quickly, constantly and waved her hands about a lot when she did so.  K grabbed C's long red hair, C responded the same way and they were soon wrestling on the floor scratching, pulling and swearing at each other.  It's the only time I have witnessed an actual catfight.  It was most diverting.  In the end I poured a glass of water over them and they calmed down.  Oddly, I didn't seem to be that much in trouble.  C's complaint was with the predatory K leading me on (which she did).  C's main issue was that K wore skintight jeans whenever she saw me.  Her jeans were, indeed, the tightest I had ever seen on anyone (she had fantastic legs) but as she wore skintight jeans most of the time (she had a fantastic posterior too) the argument that they were specifically to lead me on didn't really hold water.  Anyway they soon calmed down and after university I discovered that they had had a fling with each other.  Maybe the wrestling awakened something.  Anyway, it was soon time to leave the Zaza and set off for Bogota.

Who wouldn't want to be interviewed by this fine young lady?

Having picked up a couple of plastic bottles of wine at Houston Airport duty free it was then another five hour flight to Bogota.  I stayed in the Bogota Hilton again, which was a quite different hotel from the other people on the trip which was very useful as I managed to keep S below the radar.  I was interviewed by the local equivalent of the Financial Times by a very fetching lady journalist indeed and ended up getting my picture in said newspaper, much to the annoyance of some of the other people on the trip. Heh, heh!

So then it was off to Cartagena, a World Heritage site and still containing an impressive walled city.  We stayed just outside of the walled city which cut the hotel price from about £300 a night to about £100.  It was very close to the conference centre which was the venue of the convention I was going to, which meant that if said conference got a bit boring (I'm just not interested in green issues I'm afraid) I could slope back to the hotel for a "relax" with S.  in fact the convention centre is built on the site where Cartagena's founder, Pedro de Heredia, first landed in 1533.

Sadly, I only had enough spare time for one dinner in the old town and a brief walk around the walls early (6.30am) one morning before it got too hot. It was up to 32 degrees by the afternoon.  S amused herself by finding an emerald shop!  In fact there are quite a lot of posh shops in the old town.  She bought an ethnic looking bag.  And some shoes, inevitably.  And a dress.  And some more gold.  More embarrassingly she bought me a very expensive Swiss watch as a twentieth anniversary present.   I had thought we had met in Montreal in 1994 but she reminded me that we had met in London in November 1993.  I was supposed to meet her boss with my boss for dinner at Clarke's restaurant in Kensington.  A good place to take non-fussy but indecisive diners as they had no options on the menu; just one thing for each course.  Anyway, both the bosses pulled out so I had to have dinner with S on my own and we hit it off immediately.  Note that in the list above I didn't mention her buying any emeralds.  That was because that was my return present.  Gulp.  Is she worth it?  Of course she is!

The main gate to the walled city

Cartagena has been the subject of numerous sieges and Sir Francis Drake captured and sacked it in 1586.   As a result of this, and raids by pirates, the Spaniards spent a fortune on the, eventually, 11 km of walls around the city.  In fact so expensive were the defences (trillions of dollars in today's money) that Charles II of Spain, when looking at the cost said that for that price he ought to be able to see the defences from Madrid!  Cartagena is the only walled city in South America (Quebec, another city the Legatus had visited) is the only walled city in North America.  Attacks by the British on the city in 1740 and 1741 were part of the War of Jenkin's Ear which will be familiar to anyone who looks at The Miniatures Page, as some members seem fixated by it (or at least, its name).

The defences today are still very impressive and amazingly complete.  On the whole you can't drive into the old town unless you are in a taxi and they often close the gates to them too in the evening.  It's all very Pirates of the Caribbean!

This, of course, means that it is a delight to walk about in, although given the heat and humidty this is really only pleasant very early in the morning.  I had trouble taking pictures at some times in the day because as soon as I switched the camera on, the lens emerged only to steam up immediately.

The lens steams up again

Anyway, I was there for a conference which was like any other conference I had been to except it had dozens and dozens of models in very short dresses decorating it.  One of the Colombians on one of the stands told me that all the exhibitors get letters from Colombia's top modelling agencies about four months in advance asking them if they have chosen their girls yet.

Nearly every stand had one or two models attached to it and they weren't just there to look nice (although most of them were).  I saw several explaining in great technical detail the highlights of a new mountain road project.  This is a typical shot of the trade stands area.  You can see some of the distractions around. The lady whose impressive legs decorate the bottom left corner of the picture was a product of the potent racial mix of European, African and native Indian that you get along the Caribbean coast of Colombia (Cartagena was the main gateway for African slaves brought in by the Spanish).  I wish I hand managed to get a picture of her as she was a world class stunner by any standards.

 The girl on the Swiss stand

One of the mountain road experts.  I do enjoy a good tunnel

It did mean that there was always something to look at during the boring bits.  Now, being with a lot of people from the UK government I had to pretend to be horrified at this politically incorrect use of young women for decorative purposes.  I didn't mean it, of course, I found the whole thing quite delightful!  The Colombians didn't have an issue with it.  The very senior Colombia lady chairing the conference (and how often would that happen in Britain and they have a lady transport minister) kept encouraging the delegates to have their picture taken with Miss Colombia on one of the stands.  Even though I could have added her to my collection of overseas beauty queens I didn't, of course, as the UK government people wouldn't have approved.  I found myself actually trying not to look at the girls, although that was partially because if they caught your eye they would slink over and give you an interesting leaflet on industrial tyres, concrete, diggers or some such.

Now what do you want?

Anyway, the Legatus was more than happy with his team, who did an excellent job in looking after him.  They weren't models (they weren't exactly ugly either) but they were very efficient and quite delightful!

Colombia is perfectly safe

The President visited on the last day so that upped the security considerably, although you always see a lot of people in uniforms in Colombia.  This little team was guarding the main entrance to the conference.

S attracts men like flies to a honeypot as usual

On my last night in Cartagena I got invited to a party which wasn't part of my official programme so S took advantage of this by attaching herself, as it was on the roof of a very trendy boutique hotel.  The two women looking after the invitations at the venue were equally tall and leggy as the girls in the conference and there was some muttering from S about nineteen sixties-style Latin neanderthal attitudes to women.  This of course despite the fact that her dress wasn't exactly knee length either.

The party had a local band, lethal cocktails and some of the most elegant looking nibbles I had seen.  Given it was all lit up with trendy lighting and on the rooftops it was all rather like being in a Bacardi advert, however.  S seemed to enjoy it though, especially as she could show off her Spanish.  The Legatus, increasingly, however, can't hear other people speak when there is music playing, though. Thirty years of personal stereos have done for my hearing so I just tend to wander around looking lost (or looking for the next cocktail).

Nice lounge

Getting back from Colombia was a strain, as usual.  We had to catch the 22.25 flight from Cartagena on Friday night to Bogota.  This was then delayed and we didn't get to our hotel in Bogota until 1.00am. We then had to get up at 5.00am for an early morning flight to Houston.  The plane to Houston was then, really annoyingly, delayed so we could have had more time asleep.  Grr!  Never mind the Avianca lounge at EL Dorado is very nice and was deserted so I could get some tea, or, at least, some hot water for the Lifeboat teabags I took with me.  You can't get proper tea in Colombia and the Legatus is allergic to coffee.

Nice headboard

We got to Houston about lunchtime but it being Saturday there was, inevitably, a wedding reception on tat the hotel.  The Hotel Zaza seems to be hugely popular for wedding receptions but it does mean that the place fills with strapping Texan blondes with lots of teeth (so it's not all bad).  Five of them jumped into the lift with me at one point and they were all as tall or taller than me in their heels, which given I am 6'1" means, heels or not, they were positively Amazonian.  The clash of conflicting perfumes created a sickly fug in the "elevator" which even the ladies realised was potent and apologised for.  It was like being at an air freshener convention.  I think that subtle floral scents are not quite the thing in Texas. Because of the wedding I didn't get my usual upgrade and we had to cope with a small (i.e. normal sized) bed.  This was redeemed by the extraordinary headboard which S took such a liking too she enquired where she could get one.

We managed to get to the art museum the next day, as it is just across the road, and they had this fine hoplite helmet there, which is unusual in that it includes a representation of ears on it (Jenkins ears, perhaps?).

On checking in I discovered that my flight home had been cancelled for no discernible reason, which meant I had to leave four hours later than I had planned which meant sitting around at the airport.   S left, therefore, three hours before me which left me to sit in the KLM lounge (I have one of those useful lounge passes) and have a few (well, four) bottles of St Arnold Amber Ale, a very fine Texan beer.

So, that's it for travels this year.  I don't have anything planned until, maybe, back to Colombia in April but there are also trips to Panama and Peru floating about which may happen before then.  Frankly, I'm very happy not to have to do any more flights for a bit as I've done nearly fifty this year and they're all horrible!


  1. Thanks for sharing the trip sounds delightful

  2. Excellent - a most enjoyable read... in the words of the Pythons however.. you're a very naughty boy....

  3. Great pictures and a fascinating read - you certainly seem to lead the life of Riley, were it not for the dramas of air travel!

    I was looking over my pirate stuff last night, and those building shots certainly inspire me to have a crack at making something for the period... but i must stay focused - need to finish Victorian London first!

    Oh and do try and get more than just a pair of brown legs in the picture... you left me wanting to see more! ;-)

  4. What I enjoy about your rambles is that you always manage to get in some nice pictures. Helmets, old forts, that sort of thing.


  5. I do sometimes remember that this is supposed to be a wargames blog!

  6. That was an entertaining read. The pictures of buildings are great, giving me loads of ideas for South American Wargaming scenery. All the other "scenery" in your photos was also appreciated...