Country 99, Papua New Guinea

Tony is now in country 99, Papua New Guinea. He crossed into the country from Jayapura, Indonesia on Wednesday 4th March. Since then it has been an interesting and eventful journey. Tony is couch surfing on this trip but was unable to contact his first host in PNG. After crossing the border he took a PMV, public motorised vehicle, to Vanimo, the first large town in the country. This lies on the north coast in Sandaun Province, the westernmost province in PNG. The PMV driver dropped Tony at the Catholic Mission Guesthouse where he was accommodated for one night and relaxed. Next morning, Tony’s couch surfing host finally located him and took Tony to his house up on a hill over looking Vanimo. A wooden structure, simple but comfortable. Tony met Wasa, the host’s house boy, Andrew who is blind in one eye, and another boy, Michael, who is totally deaf. You can imagine the scene! Tony later met the neighbours and chatted while enjoying local food of rice, fish and vegetables.

The next morning Wasa and Tony headed to the beach for Tony to take a banana boat to Aitape to change to a PMV for Wewak, his next destination. These boats are long wooden canoes with outboard engines, there is no cover and passengers sit in the sun, rain, wind and get wet by the splashing waves. Once out of Vanimo Bay, the fun began. Waves crashed against the left side of the boat soaking Tony continuously. Tony removed his left hearing aid for protection. The canoe rolled, twisted, bumped and turned all over the Ocean. The wind eventually dropped and the soaking lessened. However, the sun beat down and Tony was badly sunburnt, something he only noticed later. After three hours of bouncing, rolling and twisting with yet again more drenchings by the sea, the boat finally arrived in Aitape. It was mid-afternoon by then and all the PMVs had left. Therefore Tony spent a delightful weekend recovering with the family of the boat captain, his name Gabriel. A lovely kind man in his 50s and owner of Riverside Transport. Tony was looked after by his wonderful adult children. Raylin, Maryan and Alexander, plus Lazarus, Otto, and several others. Tony was introduced to a priest on the Saturday, Martin, who resides in Wewak. Gabriel’s family are Seventh Day Adventists. I listened to their daily family service and enjoyed the singing.

Before departing for Aitape with Gabriel and the priest, Tony was taken to see the World War II American plane, a B27, which resides outside the high school just outside of town. After viewing the plane the journey to Wewak was begun. A long 9-hour bumpy journey over gravel roads with many potholes. At one point the large 4 by 4 vehicle became stuck in mud when crossing a river and the party was left stranded until Gabriel’s son arrived with a larger truck to pull them free. Tony finally arrived at Gala Guesthouse on the outskirts of Wewak at 3 am.

Baliem Valley, Indonesia

Tony visited Wamena, capital of Baliem Valley, with a couch surfing friend, Raymond. Raymond is from Wamena, and Tony stayed with his lovely family just outside the town. The Baliem Valley is home to many cultural tribes most noticeably Dani, Lani and Yali. Raymond’s family are Lani.

The only way to reach Wamena is by plane. Trigana and Wings have several flights a day from Jayapura. Almost all produce is flown in by transport plane, hence it is an expensive area. Petrol is three times the price compared to Jayapura. Once Raymond and I had landed, we visited the local police station to obtain a Surat Jalan, a pass allowing me to visit the region. A passport photocopy was required plus two photographs.

We rented a taxi for a half-day visit to a couple of local villages. The main stop was at Jiwika. This village is home to a 371 year old mummy. I was allowed to take photos with the mummy for a fee! The bones felt like wood and he has a large mouth and no teeth! This is a tourist village and the locals take off their clothes when tours arrive. People used to live naked in the mountains but modernity has come to the area in recent times. For 10,000 Indonesian Rupiah per person, approximately 50 pence, I could have my photo taken with the naked villagers, men, women and children. Raymond gathered about 20 people and I had a quick feel of one naked women – she was very nice!

After this we headed to Raymond’s home about one kilometre from downtown Wamena. I met his family, sister, and his aunt and uncle plus their three daughters. We sat on the grass chatting, Raymond translating. I said ‘Halo’, Indonesian for hello, and shook hands. His house is a simple affair with a front room where I slept on a mattress then several other rooms leading to a simple bathroom. The toilet is a hole in the ground and flushing is by putting water into the hole afterwards. The shower is a bucket of cold water over the head! It rained every evening and on my first night there I met a local priest. He was impressed that a blind man could travel the world and prayed for me. We ate sweet potato and cooked vegetables. I played with kids who spoke some words of English. Everyone has tight curly hair like African people.

On my second day, Raymond hired a motorbike and we explored some of the valley. Visiting local villages and taking photos of the rocky mountainous and tree-lined terrain. Grapes, watermelon, bananas and many other fruits line the roadside and the grass had a coffee smell. We attempted to drive to the mouth of the Baliem River but had to turn back due to dense grass. The water was sighted and also the old Iron Bridge across the Baliem River. Eventually we reached an area called White Sand. A beach-like place with many rough rocks and some trees. The sky was blue with clouds forming. Local kids took photos but we had to pay to visit the area! We raced the rain clouds but they soaked us before we reached Wamena.

My second night was spent by the fire in Raymond’s small honai – a local traditional sleeping house. In the villages, the men and women have separate honais. More sweet potatoes and cooked veggies were eaten and I tried a local delicacy, Red Dragon Fruit. It is somewhat spiky and oval in shape. It is full of oil and your fingers and lips become red when eating it. They boil it on the fire and this creates a pan of thick oil which is drunk with seeds being spat out. It tasted thick and heavy to me, oily and not too delightful!

The third day was spent visiting more old villages and hiking to Napua Waterfall through the forest. This was fun. Raymond lead me and we had to cross the river twice. The second time I removed my shoes and socks and went bare foot. The water was cool and inviting. The ground was very muddy with recent rain and I slipped several times. We climbed down the trail and finally reached the waterfall, a wonderful sound to my ears. After 15 minutes rest Raymond pulled me back up the steep incline of muddy steps to the trail and we retraced our steps. Recrossing the river, Raymond made a video of me walking through the river. Naturally I fell and swore. I made it to the other side and Raymond helped me up the bank, where I once again fell over with Raymond landing on top of me. Ten minutes later we exited the forest and rode back to Wamena.

My fourth and final day was Sunday, everything was closed and most people went to church. Raymond and I relaxed. The previous evening I had bought pork and we shared it around the fire. In the early evening we visited a village where Raymond was born and where his Grandma had recently died. The villagers were overwhelmed to see Raymond and fascinated with me! Again it rained. To leave the village in the dark Raymond had to take the bike up to the road because the fields were muddy. I had to walk in the rain and climb over two fences! That night we had chicken and rice Nasi Aiam at midnight. The following morning we flew back to Jayapura.

Latvia

So my trip of five weeks in Eastern Europe is nearing its end. I’m in Riga, capital of Latvia. Riga is nice with a lively atmosphere and interesting ‘Old Town’ with many 18th-19th century buildings. I mainly relaxed enduring the 34 degrees C heat and sweating as I joined a walking tour around of the city’s more interesting streets and squares.

Before visiting Riga, I’d been in Liepaja, on Latvia’s coast. It’s one of the nicest beach cities I’ve visited and is home of rock music and other musical styles. The soft, white sand of its beach just has to be experienced. A bus takes 3.5 hours from Liepaja to Riga and it is a nice way to see-feel the landscape.

Riga’s main attractions are, the Museum of Occupation, it takes about 3 hours with an audio guide, the river where you can row a boat or go day-time or evening kayaking and spot beavers! There are many adrenalin activities to do in Riga from paintball fights to firing a live ammunition AK47 machine gun in a former nuclear bunker, to bungee jumping or riding a Bobsleigh – on wheels in summer, on snow and ice in winter! I wanted to ride the Bobsleigh but, sadly, it’s only available at weekends.

The other main activity in Riga is drinking! Many English guys and/or girls visit Riga on Stag and Hen weekends to have fun and get very drunk on Latvia’s strong beer. There are many pubs and clubs, bars and cafes to choose from. One place, Alabar have very tasty traditional Latvian food plus live entertainment most nights. It’s in a former wine seller and has nice friendly staff. For fried breakfasts head to Kiwi Bar.

One warning which we were informed about on the walking tour, if two Latvian girls approach you together and start talking to you and invite you to a bar, don’t go with them. They’ll ask you to buy them a drink and when the bill comes, it will be around 300 Euros! It’s a scan, don’t fall for it. Apparently, several other night time establishments have similar scams, so be aware. However, the majority of Latvians appear friendly and very helpful. I really enjoyed this small delightful country and would like to return some time.

Krakow

After leaving the small dwarfs behind in Wroclaw, Tatiana and I took the Polski Bus to Krakow. Our new friend, Izabel, a lovely Polish lady living in Wroclaw, who we met on the bus, organised the tickets for us as we had no internet access. Tatiana’s phone has screen reading activation software, but her free internet connection no longer seems to work outside of Greece! Krakow is a fantastic city for both blind and sighted tourists alike. The city is reasonably easy to walk once someone has explained the directions of the main streets with one of my fingers over a map. The most important landmarks being the Royal Castle and Cathedral on Wawel (pronounced Vavel) Hill and Florianska Gate at opposite ends of the “Royal Way” The main square, once its layout is described, is also reasonably easy to navigate sighted or blind.

For blind travels like Tatiana and I there are twelve important attractions that have tactile models near the actual buildings. Once we found the models with help, we had much fun exploring and getting to understand the historical churches and other buildings I was attempting to photograph. Tatiana met a lovely Polish couple, Helena and Andrew online. They are blind and have lived in Krakow for several years. Andrew knows the layout of the city and where most of the models are located. Along with one of his friends, we spent a delightful afternoon exploring models and buildings in and around the Rynek, (Old Square or market place). Another day was spent attempting to use the hop on, hop off bus! Many locals don’t know where this bus goes from and it took several people before the particular bus stop in question was found. There seems to be two rival tour bus companies operating in Krakow. A big double decker bus and a small single one. They are both red. The single decker bus seems better for tourists: the commentary about each of the 13 locations is announced and described over speakers for all to hear. The double decker provides headphones but the commentary is often hard if not impossible to hear and the headphones are often of poor quality. Several buildings have audio guides, the one in the Krakow historical cathedral next to the castle is particularly informative. This is also where the Royal crypt is found. The castle has a good audio guide but there is not much information and you can’t stop the audio easily if you’re blind.

The food in Krakow is delicious both main courses and deserts. It’s not too expensive as long as you avoid the main square. I nearly killed Tatiana’s legs after dragging her up the former Town Hall Tower one hot afternoon. After descending to annoying patronising applause by several ignorant tourists/locals we met a lovely, kind Australian named Murray. He spent the afternoon exploring with us. We investigated the former Cloth Hall and wandered around the Underground Museum. An interesting place showcasing how early buildings were made and the town/city came into existence. Unfortunately, the audio guide worked to automatic signals and we were unable to use it!

We eventually said goodbye to our wonderful Polish friends and headed to the capital, Warsaw. An interesting city that needed more time to explore, the heat didn’t help. The old town with its castle square is at first confusing. The Royal and Vilanov castles are definitely worth exploring. And one of the best museums I’ve visited, the Warsaw Uprising Museum, is a must. The audio guide is fantastic and 47 rooms full of information gives full and graphic descriptions of the events of the uprising: why it occurred and the consequences and failed and disastrous results for the Poles. The Uprising occurred in 1944 and this year is the 70th anniversary of the event.

Tatiana finally and sadly flew back to Greece and I eventually took a night bus to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. I arrived on the morning of 24th July and took a three hour interesting walking tour around some of the lesser known parts. It was free and interesting. Now chilling.

Travel update

Tatiana and I have been travelling for about two weeks now. First three days in Berlin again, where we revisited the Neptune in Alexanderplatz to feel up the naked female statues! We also trammed it to Voltz Park, people’s park, to explore the fairy tale fountain with all the lovely statues to children’s fairy stories: Snow White and her seven dwarfs, Hansel and Gretel, etc. Then the journey to Poland. We took the train to Poznan and stayed three days. A very interesting, busy and crowded old town square (Stari Ryneck) with old houses and huge town hall and many restaurants. Unfortunately the four interesting fountains were for some unknown reason turned off! We wandered around bumping to tables and tourists alike, tripped over chairs, and generally just wandered about. One kind local guy took us along with his two young daughters to the cathedral on the island in the Warta River, but a wedding was in session, so we left!

Next was Gdansk for four nights. However, the first hostel we visited had only Polish speaking staff in a residential neighbourhood far from the centre. Gdansk seems to possess people speaking little English. We were sent to another hostel near the Fishers market, cheap but not the most helpful staff! It was near the river and only a ten minute walk to the old town. An interesting area with Long Market on the river and Long Street with its many historical old buildings. Its a little confusing as the numbers in this street run in opposing order! The most important and impressive objects being Green Gate at the one end of the Royal Way and Golden Gate at the other end with Upper Gate at the top. There are many houses with different architectural styles, the Lion’s Castle being one of the best examples. A ferry ride of two hours up the river, and on the Baltic sea, took us to Hel. Fine hot day. A picturesque seaside tourist town with one main street full of cafés, expensive restaurants and tourist shops selling the usual post cards and alike.

We also briefly visited Gdynia: a larger town with museum ships. Alas, there wasn’t enough time to visit the ships. In the evening we attempted to visit Sopot, a resort town along the coast about 30 minutes from Gdynia by electric train. However, the train was extremely fast and the doors closed very quickly as one tried to board or disembark. I got stuck between the doors one one occasion when attempting to alight. This frightened Tatiana somewhat and we returned to Gdansk by other transport. The electric train seems a little dangerous for disabled people. Likewise the trams are difficult for disabled people as they have narrow doors, three or four steps and often don’t announce stops. If the do make announcements they’re often too quiet to hear. When you talk to Polish people or ask for directions, they will help, but don’t often approach you without being asked first.

Next was Wroclaw, the nicest city so far. A lovely old main square with several historic buildings and churches. Each city mentioned in this blog has tactile models of important churches and city halls for blind people to feel and Wroclaw is no exception. Tatiana and I explored with our hands the St Mary and St Elizabeth churches, the city hall and St John the Baptist Cathedral. Wroclaw is notable for its 300 dwarfs! Small people who live on the ground and visit and touch people at night! They are interesting and seem to do all tasks from firemen to travellers, professors to disabled dwarfs! Great fun for us, although not always easy to spot! A bear of metal was also discovered on our explorations.

We took an eco-tour in an electric buggy. This cool local guy named Chris drove us around Wroclaw at night visiting some of the most interesting sites. We gained a discount which was cool and he let us feel several interesting buildings, dwarfs and also took us to a few colourful and musical fountains – including the multimedia fountain at the Centenary Hall – a couple of kilometres from the centre.
Now we’re in Krakow, Poland’s home of history and culture, a tourist trap and once the medieval capital of Poland. We go on a boat ride along the Wistler river later and also visit the Royal Castle and Cathedral. Another blog to follow soon.