Thursday, 26 March 2020

Mad as a March hare

Last Monday - March 16 , after the UK Health Secretary's crass announcement on Sunday morning that the over 70s would be expected to self-isolate to protect themselves from Coronavirus, we decided that we had better get ouselves out to do some shopping before even more draconian measures were announced. Our first port of call was the local garden centre. It was quiet -well we don't usually go to the garden centre on a Monday morning. That did not take long. So the next stop was the local Costco for some provisions. As we turned into the access road to Costco the traffic was very heavy. In fact heavier than we had ever seen there. We were soon directed into the car park by marshalls who were directing the traffic. Once in the car park there was really no way out. It was grid locked - not helped by the traffic lights at the end of the access road, which only leads to Costco. We initially thought that we would just go home and come back some other time, but we decided that we might as well go into the store, as strangely parking was not really a problem. However, it was a twenty minute crawl to get into a space.

As we entered the store we were told that they were out of toilet rolls and chicken portions, neither of which were on our shopping list. The tills were busy, but the store itself was reasonably quiet. Everybody seemed to be in the car park. Our aim was to stock up with beer and wine, plus a few other bits and pieces, which we did and by the time we reached the tills the queues had gone. However, the car park was just as bad.

It was another twenty minute crawl to get out of it. By now it was after 12.30 pm and the Jeremy Vine Show was on the car radio. We listened as a succession of indignant seventy somethings complained about the government's instructions to self-isolate. I was aghast at these instructions. My husband was 70 last August. When he hit that milestone, he did not suddenly become a frail, little old man. After weeks of self-isolation I hate to think what state he would be in both mentally and physically. Not to mention my own state of mind! Little did we know that by the end of the day more or less all of us would be in the same boat, as the government introduced restrictions that would affect all of our daily lives.

We realised that we would have to adapt to a different way of life within the restrictions. We watched the Prime Minister's daily briefings and the television news with interest and some trepidation as we heard about selfish individuals panic buying and striping the supermarket shelves bare. So I suppose that husband and I should not have been surprised by what we found, when we went to out local Tesco to do our weekly supermarket shop. The car park was only partly full as usual and there was no queue to get into the store, but once inside it looked like a bomb had hit it with empty aisles and bare shelves. There was a board listing the restricted items. I had a quick look at it and thought we would be alright to buy what we wanted, as there were two of us. Shopping completed we headed to a queueless till, where we were soon informed that we could only have three fruit, three vegetables and one loaf of bread. Of the six vegetables in our trolley which did I want and which one of the two different loaves of bread did I want? I protested that there were two of us, but to the cashier we were one customer and that was that. So to you Tesco, a black mark for allowing customers to panic buy to the point were there was simply almost nothing left for those of us who had stayed at home and obeyed the goverment's instructions. We were horrified. We usually shop once a week and we had only been allowed to buy enough fresh food for two to three days, which would mean shopping two to three times a week instead of once. All when we were supposed to be reducing social contact. This meant playing the supermarkets at their own game. There is a big ASDA about half a mile away, which we had never shopped in, but there is a first time for everything. We took two shopping baskets and split our shop between them, then went through the self service check outs. Success and relief and enough food to last seven days. In the following days I spent a lot of time wondering how to manage this week's shop, if it was going to be as challenging as last weeks had been. On Wednesday I went to the local Sainsburys and was pleasantly surprised to find a quiet and much better stocked store than I had anticipated. Hopefully some of the madness is over. Soon March will be too.

Perhaps I should add that over the last few weeks I had built up our stock of food, especially the freezer, but fresh fruit and vegetables and other perishable items need to be bought regularly.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

More or less accommodating

When we were not at the airport on our recent trip to South Africa we were staying in a variety of different types of accommodation while travelling along the Garden Route in a hired car.

Our first taste of South African accommodation was in Cape Town, where we stayed in the same hotel that we had stayed in three years ago. Then we were very impressed. This time we were not. Everything had gone downhill. When husband had booked it he had advised the hotel of the time that we would be arriving. Given that we were from the UK they should have realised that we would probably have travelled overnight and would be tired. However, our room was not ready. They offered us a complimentary coffee, but I was so tired and annoyed I almost burst into tears. When we eventually got to the room it was nowhere near as good as the room we had had on our previous stay, despite booking the same category of room. Two days later we had to move room because of strange noises that were waking us up. We will not be going back there again.

From Cape Town we moved on to Hermanus, a fishing village on the coast, which is popular with whale watchers in the South African winter time. We were not going to see whales, but thought that we would have a look at the place. Hermanus is small with not a lot of accommodation to choose from. Here our choice of hotel was excellent, if expensive. It was the sort of place that we would like to go back to, but I can not see that we will ever go back to Hermanus.

Next stop Franschhoek in the Cape Winelands. This hotel was nothing like I thought that it was going to be based on the impression I had got from its' website. Our room appeared to be a cars' drive from the reception until we found that there was a shorter route on foot. The  room that we were shown to was dark and there was a dripping noise. The air conditioning unit was leaking. The porter thought that this could be fixed by switching off the unit and phoning housekeeping for towels to mop up the water. When a girl from housekeeping arrived with towels she took one look at things and phoned maintenance. While this was going on I was muttering to husband that we were not going to stay in this room and they would have to find us another one. The outside temperature was thirty something Centigrade. We were going to need functioning air conditioning. Maintenance swiftly arrived and said that another room would be found for us, but before that happened they removed the casing from the air conditioning unit and a bucket full of water poured out of it. So we were moved two rooms along to room which was larger and much nicer. All appeared to be well until about 1.30 the next morning when I was woken up by what I though was an animal making a noise. The noise continued for about half an hour and I eventually realised that it was a baby crying - in the adjacent room. Eventually I managed to get back to sleep only to be woken again by this crying baby, which prompted another room move later that day.

The following few nights were to be spent in smaller accommodation. Initially at Swellendam, where we stayed in a boutique hotel and luxury country guest house. Our bathroom was enormous with two showers and twin wash basins along with the usual bathroom equipment. The bedroom which was a good size was dominated by the bed with surplus cushions, a faux fur throw

and a blanket all on top of a duvet. Most nights we ended up sleeping under just the duvet cover. The duvet having been removed from it. We had a comfortable night there, once we had sorted out the bed clothes.

Then it was on to a country lodge outside Oudtshoorn, that we had stayed in on our previous visit and been impressed. In the mean time it had changed owners and sadly had gone downhill. The less said about it the better.

Now for a rather grand sounding country house hotel beside Knysna Lagoon, which was pictured in my Wish you were here post. When we arrived here the power was off as a result of the previous night's heavy rain and an almighty thunderstorm was just getting underway. We had a spacious room overlooking the grey lagoon and our only complaint was with the wet weather.

Our final stop along the Garden Route was at Port Elizabeth, where we stayed in an hotel belonging to the same group as owned the hotel in Cape Town. Here we had noisy neighbours in the adjacent room and the hotel seemed to be large, impersonal, rather sad and basically disappointing.

Now for something entirely different. We were off to Zambia. Our hotel was next to the Victoria Falls. It was adequate. The rooms were small and gaudy. When we arrived the swimming pool had no water in it and the area around it looked like a building site. Even husband admitted that we should have stayed at the more expensive hotel next door whose facilities we were allowed to use.

After two nights we were back in South Africa - this time in Johannesburg for one night. The hotel was nicely decorated and furnished. However, we were thrown by the wash basin taps in the bathroom. The cold was labelled hot and the hot labelled cold! And in the bedroom light came round the edges of the black out curtains. It actually was not a problem, but it could have been.

Finally we got to spend six nights in the same hotel. For us this was to be R&R before we flew home. Night one was alright. Night two was not. The air conditioning, which we prefer to be off when we are sleeping, switched itself on at 2.00 am and decided to switch itself off some time around 5.00 am. So I expect you have guessed - another room move was looming. We explained the night's events to the guy on reception, who swiftly offered us another room and an upgrade and a late check out on our day of departure, if we wanted it. He said that the problem was caused by the balcony door not closing properly. I think that they knew that there was a problem with that room and took the chance that we would not notice it.

By the end of the trip we had got used to adapting to whatever perculiarities that night's accommodation offered us. It was good to get back home. There is nothing like your own bed.

Friday, 14 February 2020

At the airport

During January while away on our latest escapade we spent rather more time than I would have liked hanging around airports waiting for flights. Our 'home' airport, if that is what I can call it, is Manchester Airport.

It is the airport that we are most familiar with, but that does not make navigating security there any easier. If we are lucky we get ourselves a priority pass, which makes things easier. However, it always feels like some sort of boot camp as the staff bark orders at the passengers to remove belts, watches, jackets, shoes and this that and the other. It is always a relief to get through without being stopped, as we diligently pack by the rules, but it is amazing the number of passengers who still try to pack items which are not allowed and have not been allowed for several years. Having got over that hurdle we can then make any last minute purchases and raid the ATM, if our destination is Europe. Next we find somewhere to sit so that husband can read the newspaper, while I visit duty free to buy a few items that I regularly stock up on there.

The first flight or our most recent trip was to Dubai, where we arrived around midnight local time, although you would not know that as Dubai Airport functions 24 hours a day. Here we were in transit and had to go through security again, despite having already done so at Manchester Airport. However, surprisingly or maybe not surprisingly Dubai is not as fussy about things as Manchester is. Then we had to take the underground style train to another terminal. Dubai is an enormous airport and we had plenty of time so we occupied ourselves by having a walk around. We had just spent the last eight hours sitting on a plane and we had a further nine hours of flying to do before we reached our destination. Our next flight to Cape Town was to depart in the middle of the night. At the appointed time we made our way to the appropriate gate for boarding only to find that it was locked and it remained locked. We waited and waited. Eventually the gate was opened and we were ushered onto a bus, which seemed to drive us round and round the airport. By now it was 4 am and I was beginning to wonder if we would ever see this plane. Did someone have something else in mind for us?  Thankfully there was a plane waiting for us at the end of the bus ride. Next stop Cape Town and by now we had been travelling for 24 hours and I do not remember much about the airport.

After two weeks of travelling South Africa in a hired car, it was time to hit the airport and fly again. By now we were in Port Elizabeth. From there we were supposed to fly with South African Airways (SAA) to Livingstone in Zambia via Johannesburg. However, SAA changed changed our flight from Livingstone to Victoria Falls Airport (VFA) in Zimbabwe, leaving us no option but to accept the change. But first we had to fly to Johannesburg on a flight timed at 6.45 am, which meant setting the alarm clock for 4.00 am in order to be at the airport in time. In fact we arrived before the check in staff. The plane for the flight was small and even so there were several empty seats, as there were only fifteen passengers and three crew. We arrived at Johannesburg with plenty of time before our next flight. The airport there is huge with two terminals and no obvious demarcation between the two terminals. We went up escalators and down escalators, walked this way, that way and the other way before working out where our gate was. And again we had a bus journey to our plane. Once on aboard the plane I was surprised to read the following statement in the SAA in flight magazine about  Johannesburg Airport - the central terminal building is designed to give passengers a smooth and uninterrupted travel experience. That was not quite our experience. But never mind that, before we could get out of VFA we had to purchase a visa, which had to be paid for in cash - US dollars, GB pounds or South African rand. Despite asking about this, we were unaware that this would be the case. Luckily we had enough cash between, as credit cards were not accepted. Welcome to Zimbabwe! We had arrived.

Two days later we were back there again, for a flight back to Johannesburg. The check in was painful, as their computer system went down just as we were checking in and must have taken about five minutes to come back up again. It seemed like an age. But remember this was Zimbabwe. The next hurdle was buying a drink- coffee actually, which had to be paid for in US dollars. Luckily husband had some. Credit card machines weren't working.

After an overnight stay in Johannesburg it was back to the airport for a flight to the Seychelles. By now we had the hang of this airport as we found our way to check in desk number 103. Our destination airport would be much smaller, but we still had to be back there six days later, two hours before an 8.40 am flight. So another early rise and breakfast of waffles and the plane as we headed back to Dubai. Here we were in transit again, which meant a security check in our arrival terminal and another one in our departure terminal, with a bus ride in between the two. This time here was no hold up at the departure gate and we were soon on our way home to Manchester.