One of the most remote places we are visiting around Australia is called Kangaroo Island – the country’s third largest island off a remote peninsula in South Australia.
This island was once attached to the Australian mainland until the thaw following the last ice age created a sea passage between the island and Australia.
It has a chequered history.It’s first inhabitants were from Stone Age but never developed further after being isolated. It was the subject of Aboriginal stories and myths including one that the sea passage was created after a group of rebellious women fled a tyrannical leader who caused the sea to rise up and drown them.
At one time the island was deserted leaving its unique animals and birds to have no fear of humans. But then in the early nineteenth century a group of settlers and ex convicts moved in and there followed a massacre of its animals and birds for food and profits.
One species a dwarf emu became extinct just like the more famous Dodo as settlers ate them all. They then turned on the huge kangaroo population and decimated them. They also killed off most of the seals for their skins but ignored their valuable oil which meant eventually their community collapsed . ASA last gasp they started to kill off the whales of the coast but this was only seasonal.
But it has a well stocked supermarket, petrol station,post office, cafes,a cricket pitch and a craft market and a number of tourist attractions. Also a number of new species have been introduced including koala bears and bees. Indeed the Ligurian bees on the island produce a unique honey as the population is isolated from any other bees.
Today’s island has recovered and many of its unique mammals are flourishing again.The main threat to them are wildfires which have destroyed a lot of the vegetation not people as the population is very small. Penneshaw the port where ferries link to the mainland has just 300 people.
There is a splendid open air sculpture trail on the island where hidden in the dense bush you can find wallabies and kangaroos if they don’t run off to hide. I have put up pictures of the trail below.
When I was there the bush was tinder dry with a few flowers in blossom.Here is one below.
It was meant to be the highlight of the centenary world voyage of the Queen Mary 2. Cunard chose the iconic site of the Flower Field Gardens at the Bay in Singapore. They promised “ you a night to remember”. Instead it became a night you wanted to forget.
The combination of the chaos at the event and the long bureaucratic Singapore immigration system which meant long queues both took the pleasure out of the evening.
It began with a long 45 minute wait for immigration to allow anybody to leave the ship.When we had cleared immigration we met our next disappointment. Cunard had promised to lay on disability transport to the event for people like my wife who is in a wheelchair. When got there we were not on the list to get any transport.Indeed from what I saw of the list only six people out of hundreds attending the event qualified. They did rustle up a minibus with two high steps which we shared with another couple who was also not on the list and who was hobbling around on two sticks.
Getting to the event added to the disappointment.Cunard had promised that all diets especially diabetics would be catered for . Their FAQs with the invitation said waitress would be”educated” about diets. Well apparently not. Presented with six starters we asked our waiter for advice about which were lactose free. His response was to go and find his manager. Worse was to come when we joined the long queue for a curry. Asking the server which food was diary free I got the brusque response “everything has dairy in it “
Eventually after someone just ordered rice and flatbread I got someone to give me just that – but helpfulness was not on the agenda. No wonder we learned later that one group of guests had spurned the Cunard haute cuisine and gone to the Gardens on site McDonalds to have their meal.
One group of guests spurned the food at the venue to eat at McDonald’s
So we’re there any redeeming features?Yes the Lion Dance was good and the flowers gardens beautifully lit up.
But it was not over yet. Going back we encountered the same problem in getting disabled transport back to the ship as we were not on the list.Luckily a Cunard rep did intervene and she got a shared minibus.
The gremlins at Singapore immigration had their last throw. At customs we were diverted to an empty line as my wife was in a wheelchair to speed us up. What we didn’t realise as we went straight ahead is that we had joined the line to board the Spectrum of the Seas the other cruise liner in port.actually It was only a person checking passengers passports who realised the green sticker on our passport meant that we must be on the Queen Mary and diverted us.
Finally I must thank the kindness of fellow Cunard passengers who took great care to help my wife on and off the minibus and the one kind gentleman offered to take my wife Margaret down a staircase that we had been misdirected to at the venue. We did decline and later found like the rest of Singapore the venue had wheelchair lifts to get to the lower floor.
Ho Chi Minh City is famous for a number of tourist sites including its Post Office,Notre Dame Cathedral and its Harrowing Vietnam War Museum.What is not so well known is the city’s history museum telling the story of the country for the last 30,000 years.
Tucked away in a side street off a main road next to the city’s botanical gardens this gem of a museum includes numerous artifacts dating from the Stone Age to the present day.
When you get there you are greeted by a large Buddha in a room full of Buddhas from different Asian countries.
The Buddha here is a reproduction of the oldest known Buddha in Vietnam dating back to the eleventh century
The museum had some fine costumes and an interesting exhibit showing how ethically diverse the South Vietnamese with no fewer than 34 different indigenous groups in the country .
The sad thing is that we weren’t able to see the whole museum including more modern exhibits.officially designated as disabled friendly some of the rooms were inaccessible to wheelchairs because you had to go up a flight of steps.Also the ramp to the entrance was so steep that I needed the assistance of some fit young Vietnamese lads to get to the top.
Our taxi driver also helped Margaret get up the stairs to the museum’s cafe. On the plus side it had a very good accessible disabled toilet.
Finally since we were last in Vietnam the number of scooter boys and girls has grown on the roads. See a previous blog. So much so the latest new expressway has a a segregated lane for the daredevil scooter drivers Even there they move faster than some motor vehicles weaving around to overtake each other – just like in Ho Chi Minh City.
On the edge of the centre of Kuala Lumpur – a city dominated by huge skyscrapers and apartment blocks – near the greenery of Lakeside Gardens is a modern museum dedicated to Islamic Art.
The Islamic Arts Museum opened as recently as 1998 is not on Cunard’s shore experience programme and consequently has few Western visitors.But this is not a local or even a Malaysian national museum but an important international one.
It has over 12000 artefacts, a large reference library and tells the story of the spread of Islam from the Middle East across Asia and China through Islamic Art.Missing are artefacts from Spain after it was occupied by the Moors.
The collection is impressive. It covers metalwork,ceramics,textiles,jewellery,weaponry, manuscripts, China and furniture.
With 12 galleries it is almost too much to take in but it also a very cool Restuarant and Cafe to have lunch and a break. What is fascinating is how Islamic art adapted from Turkish carpets to delicate China through a rather extravagant costumes in India.
There was also an interesting collection of weaponry including heavily decorated rifles as illustrated below.
Textiles and ceramics were well represented.
The light and airy building makes the museum pleasant visit especially as Kuala Lumpur has very high humidity and temperatures often top 33C.
My first visit to the Gulf states of Oman and Dubai has been an eye opener and shows how two relatively poor Arab Nations have been transformed by the rise of petrodollar. Both are effective absolute monarchies that still have authoritarian rulers. Yet both have used their new found wealth to benefit their indigenous people.
This may explain why both are stable states and largely popular with the Emirates and Omani population. In Oman the 50 year reign of the late Sultan saw his people benefit from the wealth provided by oil. In 1970 Oman had only three schools now it has nearly 1100. Education and healthcare is free for the 1.5 million Omanis and when they start a family they are given a free plot of land to build a house. The younger generation are bilingual as all pupils learn Arabic and English and all signs are in both languages.
Strict regulations lay down how each house in Oman should be built on a 650 square metre plot.It should be no more than two stories high and occupy a third of the plot with a high wall enclosing a garden and garage .
In Dubai the government also give a contribution to building costs. The main city is ultra modern and full of skyscrapers and modern apartments. In this heavily trafficked city of five lane roads parking is also free – there were some limited parking charges in Oman in Muscat.
What is really jaw dropping in Dubai despite its authoritarian stance on alcohol, gay rights and on insisting how modestly Muslim women should dress is how cosmopolitan it is. The Dubai Mall said to be largest shopping complex in the world with 1600 shops is a complete mixture of people with women in Western Style dress walking among Arab women covered from head to toe. While young men in shorts walk among young Arab men wearing full robes.
Of course expats don’t benefit from the largesse the Emirs show to their own people But professional Westerners benefit from high tax free salaries, cheap petrol and low utilities bills that are becoming more of a rarity in the UK as the wealth gap grows.
As an example my daughter who is a Dubai state school science teacher earns a tax free salary just short of £50 000 a year plus free and efficient healthcare and fuel bills of just £20 a month. Here in the UK the government is boasting that teachers will soon get £30,000 a year before tax and will have huge fuel bills and petrol costs. There is no comparison.
I noticed that Emirates airlines are now targeting Brits in the hospitality sector to work as cabin crew. They are offering tax free salaries,free training,free accommodation and healthcare as part of the package . In the UK the same person will be lucky to get just above the minimum wage working for Wetherspoon.
The situation is not the same for workers from India,Pakistan, and the Philippines who take more menial jobs in construction or as maids to wealthy Arab families. They miss out big time and are on low wages and/or work long hours for little money.
One last interesting point.What happens if you have a car accident with a camel in Oman? According to our guide if it happens in the day the owner will claim it is his most valuable animal and you will have to compensate him handsomely. If it is after dark the camel owner will have to pay for all the damage to your vehicle. The trouble is that owners don’t always admit that is their camel and can be difficult to trace.
This modern museum is a joy to visit and also for my disabled wife Margaret as it is easily accessible and staff extremely helpful.
These artefacts are part of a huge collection of thousands discovered in Crete dating back to 6900 BC of both the early Minoan civilisation and later palace societies housed at Heraklion’s Archaeological Museum.
The wonder of these exhibits is that they were created by people who couldn’t read or write yet perfected some of the most exquisite jewellery and crafted pottery. Most of them were discovered in early tombs because our ancestors believed they would be needed in the afterlife.
The sport section had a dangerous sport that that has died out involving bulls that has died out in ansoort that hasdangerous sport involving
The fertility symbol of a child bearing woman is almost universal to early civilisations.We saw a similar statute in Lima in Peru dating back thousands of years to the civilisation that precede the better known Incas.
The murals come from the Knossos Palace as most of the original ones have been removed or tarted up.The figure was thought to be a prince – originally known as Prince of the Lilies – but now thought to be more likely to be an athlete or a boxer – a sporting hero years before Christ.
Bull leaping as a sport
For a civilisation associated with the Minotaur the sport section had-a fascinating game which has died out. Known as Bull Leaping or Bull Vaulting intrepid athletes would have to grab the horns of a charging bull and leap over it. This rather dangerous sport was open to men and women, showing that sports equality is not a new phenomenon. It existed centuries ago long before the recent prominence given to women’s football and rugby.
In my short visit to Lisbon I intended to visit its Castle. But when i arrived I found queues of tourists running out into the street trying to get in.
I changed my mind but some 150 yards away I noticed a rather shabby building called the museum or museu das artes decorativas. On impulse I went inside.For a modest charge of ten euros I gained admission but was told I had to go on an English speaking guided tour that had just started.The view above is close to the museum.
Expecting another horde of tourists I found instead I was just one of three people -two Brits and one American including myself. It was almost like a private tour.
What I had stumbled across was a rather quirky museum run by a foundation over five creaking floors of an old palace. It contained a collection of Portuguese furniture and objects de art dating from medieval times to the days of Napoleon Bonaparte. This had been gifted by a wealthy philanthropist and run by the Fundacao Ricardo du Espirito Santa Silva.
Now I know nothing about Portuguese furniture but the place is an eye opener on how the better off furnished their homes over the centuries.
The earliest furniture in the museum is in the heavy Baroque style but according to our guide contains a series of small beds.This was because the Portuguese at that time slept propped up because they believed to lie flat would mean they could die in their sleep.
The half tiled bedrooms reflected the strong Roman Catholic belief with many pictures of the Virgin Mary. Later the style of furniture became much lighter first influenced by Portugal’s relationship with China and a tradition of inlaid marquetry grew up which is still followed by students today.
Two extraordinary facts emerged from the tour. For those who think flat packed furniture is an invention by IKEA and that recycling is a new phenomenon think again.
Early Portuguese furniture could easily be dismantled – chair backs could be replaced with leather of different colours and one settee in the museum could be easily dismantled to become two arm chairs and a table.
And wood could be recycled in the 18th and 19th century. Sturdy wooden crates to transport valuable sugar from Brazil were reused to make furniture.
There is also a fascinating collection of. Small tables that can be converted to play backgammon and chess for family members to. Play during the evening.
There is a fascinating Portuguese website – use Google Translate to read it – with details about the foundation and the museum with pictures of the rooms. The link is www-fress.pt. Unfortunately the place looked as it had seen better days. The cafe was closed but the museum deserves to be better known.
Last year was the year when Brexit limited the right of millions of people to travel and work across 27 EU countries – ending not only the freedom of movement for people to come to the UK but also go abroad.
The situation has also been made much worse by the global Covid 19 pandemic which saw a huge shutdown across the globe where people could not go on holiday or visit countries for work.
While all this was happening there was an almost unnoticed countervailing trend which is seeing massive new opportunities for the young and tech savvy to leave the UK and the US and work elsewhere.
Countries across Europe and much of the rest of the world are falling over each other to attract bright young entrepreneurial and tech savvy people to come, live and work there with special visas and tax incentives and ignoring normal restrictions – including the new ones imposed by the EU after the UK left – to stop people staying there.
Post Covid 2022 could be the year of the rise of the digital nomad – that young, free wheeling person who with a laptop can run a business anywhere from any country.
This phenomenon was highlighted this weekend on the website Dispatches Europe which has just launched an updated guide to cope with growing number of countries now offering opportunities.
The link to the guide is here. Basically much of Europe is covered plus the range of places goes from the Arctic Circle to the Caribbean.
For the most adventurous the most extraordinary place is Svalbard – a Norwegian island nearer the North Pole than Oslo ! You do not even require a visa to live there -only an address and a job – and you can stay as long as you like. It is cold -in the summer the sun shines for 24 hours a day and it is totally dark all winter. Intriguingly for a place with only 2000 residents it is nearly as diverse as London with 70 different nationalities finding their their way there. Watch the video below and seriously watch out for polar bears.
At the other end of the spectrum is the former Portuguese Cape Verde Islands nearer to the Equator than Lisbon. This year the authorities have released visas to attract Europeans and Americans to go and set up businesses there. just created Remote Working Cabo Verde, a tax exempt digital nomad visa designed to attract 4,000 foreigners, The visa is just 54 Euros valid initially for six months but extendable for up to a year. A video is below.
In the Caribbean visas have been set up for Aruba and Curacao, both self governing parts of the Netherlands and in the EU, the new Republic of Barbados, ( expensive visa costing nearly £1500) Bahamas and further north in Bermuda ( though the latter is aimed at high rollers – they can include staff and chauffeurs- and is expensive). So far 400 have come.
I wrote up a piece on Aruba when I visited it two years ago on a cruise – it is almost in South America as it is only 22 miles from Venezuela. It is a fascinating desert island. The link is here. The only thing you have to beware of is you can occasionally find a boa constrictor in the bath – but Aruba’s pest control are used to dealing with them. ( some foolish person brought them to Aruba and they have escaped and bred)
An even more ambitious digital nomad project is planned for Italy where they have over 2000 ghost villages in the country and want to attract remote workers there- the fund could top 1 million Euros. So far one Tuscan village has jumped the gun- Santa Flora is offering 200 Euros a month rent subsidies for apartments there – and wants people to decide to settle a buy a home. So you can swap our drab winters for vineyards and olive groves.
Other countries planning to attract digital nomads include Spain and Croatia has just started a scheme – allowing you to be based on the Dalmatian coast and able to rent a place for 350 or so Euros a month. The visa is for one year in this EU country and digital nomads are exempt from income tax. They have to earn over $31,514 a year (just under £23,200), to qualify.
Compare all this to London and the UK. The UK does not seem to have any special digital nomad visas relying on a normal visa application to work here. It is regarded as an expensive country, housing costs are through the roof, public transport and fuel is expensive, though its cities are well known for cultural and night life. The best city for a digital nomad is said to be Newcastle-upon-Tune which has a good night life and is cheaper to live than elsewhere.
What seems to be clear from all this is that for many young people – the attraction of all round beach life ( unless you go to Svalbard), cheaper accommodation, combined with high speed internet and for young as opposed to old people, not too expensive health insurance make it a one way bet.
Boris Johnson has made much of claims of ” Global Britain” and the wonderful future he promises all of us. But looking at all these offers abroad I think clever young tech savvy people will see the wonders of a global life and opt to leave the country as soon as possible.
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Boris Johnson loves mad grandiose building projects ( remember the third London airport in the Thames Estuary) and more recently a tunnel/bridge under the Irish sea from Scotland to Northern Ireland.
But what is emerging is that that even the most basic grandiose project -London’s Crossrail link and the high speed railway from London to Birmingham can’t be built on time to cost or even properly completed. A failure to integrate Crossrail with the rest of the railway system and continual cost rises for HS2 are the main reasons for delays.
MPs on the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee last week achieved one first – getting HS2 to provide some proper figures on the real costs. The entire HS2 project – if ever built from London to Scotland – will be £98 billion if not more. The first phase from London to Birmingham now has a budget of £44.6 billion – of which £11 billion has already been spent but we won’t see any results for the travelling public until 2029 at the earliest if not 2032. And probably in reality even later.
What is more disturbing is that service will initially run only from Birmingham to Old Oak Common in west London -not to London Euston where it can connect with other services.
Whitehall still quarrelling over the plans
Worse still internal Whitehall quarrelling means that they haven’t even fixed the most crucial arrangement – what will the Euston terminus look like.
“The redevelopment of Euston station is currently estimated to cost £2.6 billion. Despite HS2 Ltd telling us last year that the design of the station was ready for planning consent, the Department has spent the past 15 months looking for cost saving options and efficiency opportunities, including the potential for a smaller station.
” HS2 Ltd asserts that it is getting close to the point where the programme will literally run out of time if a decision is not made soon, and that Old Oak Common is being set as the London terminus when the railway first opens to decouple it from the risks at Euston.”
This is an extraordinary situation. It is made much worse because the area around Euston Station is now one gigantic building site after homes, shops and private businesses that border onto the existing station were demolished. And people living next to the site are being moved because of the noise and dust. And all for a new terminus whose configuration has still to be determined by the Department of Transport and which could be smaller than currently planned.
Further up the line there are disputes involving the land they are purchasing, environmental damage and pollution problems created by the development.
Volume of complaints rising
The MPs report: “We are already concerned about the volume of complaints on disruption from the programme which does not bode well for the future as more communities will be impacted as construction progresses. HS2 Ltd estimates it has handled 124,000 queries over the past three years and interacted with over 76,000 people along the route.
….”the number of complaints from the public about High Speed 2 has increased as main construction on Phase One has started. Complaints to the Independent Construction Commissioner HS2 rose to 86 in the first quarter of 2021 from 74 in the previous quarter. The majority of complaints are about the impact of construction on roads and traffic, vegetation clearance and about noise and vibration. Due to the scale of the programme and the time until the railway is complete, complaints are likely to increase.”
As part of its ” levelling up ” programme the government has promised to reskill the nation so people can get jobs as part of the regeneration of Britain post Brexit. Yet again the MPs point to further failures. The much trumpeted National College for High Speed Rail was a failure in attracting students and has had to be renamed the National College for Advanced Transport & Infrastructure and, most recently, merged with the University of Birmingham.
The MPs report: “The Department admits that the performance of the college has been disappointing and hopes that its latest merger, new leadership and new curriculum from September 2021 will be an opportunity to get the best out of the arrangement. Yet the Department’s involvement with the college has been limited as it falls under the Department for Education’s accountability remit.”
As for extending the railway to Scotland via Leeds and Sheffield that is in doubt and could be scaled back to Crewe. This has been partly confirmed by Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, who in an interview yesterday with the Financial Times has cast doubt on whether the line from Birmingham to Leeds along the eastern side of England will ever be built – hinting that other projects may have priority.
“We want to make sure we get trains to Leeds in a way that actually benefits people on the network and not blindlyfollow some plan invented15 to 20 years ago which no longer benefits people.” he said.
This completely contradicts what he said only in May when he promised the government would “complete HS2 and include HS2 on the eastern leg to Leeds”.All this suggests that costs must be mounting up with another U turn in prospect.
If this is levelling up – it is farcical
So what do we have here? An extremely expensive part built railway that may not even initially link Birmingham and central London beset with issues and aeons away from the dream of a high speed line linking Scotland with central London.
If this is to be an example of ” levelling up ” Britain it is just farcical. Meanwhile in the European Union we left the high speed train network goes from strength to strength with new lines and a sleeper train network planned that will reduce the need for air travel – all part financed by British train customers as most of the companies running our train services are owned by state rail companies based in the EU.
Our new high speed train system is going nowhere soon and causing nothing but pain and disruption.
A report out today by Philip Alston, the former United Nations rapporteur on human rights, condemns the outcome of Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation of the country’s bus services for denying rights to the people of the UK. He came to the UK to interview people about bus services and contacted some of the bus companies.
In a stinging review he finds that many people have lost jobs and benefits, faced barriers to healthcare, been forced to give up on education, sacrificed food and utilities, and been cut off from friends and family because of a costly, fragmented, and inadequate privatized bus service that has failed them. “Over the past 35 years, deregulation has provided a master class in how not to run an essential public service, leaving residents at the mercy of private actors who have total discretion over how to run a bus route, or whether to run one at all,” said Philip Alston, who authored the report with Bassam Khawaja and Rebecca Riddell, Co-directors of the Human Rights and Privatization Project at New York University’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. “In case after case, service that was once dependable, convenient, and widely-used has been scaled back dramatically or made unaffordable.”
He describes the form of privatisation as the most extreme possible – with the exception of London where Transport for London has overall control of how private operators run services.
He is also critical of the government’s new bus strategy started by Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, saying merely tinkers with the existing system, offering ineffective half measures that fail to address the structural cause of the country’s bus crisis.
Some of the points in the report.
“People living in London, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland can get a concessionary pass to travel for free on buses at the age of 60, an important measure that guarantees older people access to transport. But in England outside London, the government has tied the bus pass to the female state pension age—which was changed from 60 to 66, severely penalizing those on the cusp of retirement who had every expectation that they could rely on a pension and a free bus pass in the next phase of their lives. The UK government should rectify this injustice
“The abysmal state of the bus system in many rural areas is perhaps the strongest argument against a deregulated, for-profit approach to public transportation.
” There is no reason why rural parts of the United Kingdom cannot have a functioning bus service. The Zurich region of Switzerland guarantees villages of 300 people or more at least an hourly service seven days a week. In North Hesse, Germany, bus routes reach all communities with more than 200-250 residents on at least an hourly basis, with ambitions to double public transport use by 2030. Notably, none of these systems rely on an unregulated market to provide this essential service.”
He makes a strong case for bus services to be returned to public ownership and for Parliament to lay down minimum standards for the provision of bus services.
This really is a damning indictment of the state of bus services in England and it has human rights implications because women, people with disabilities, the poor and those living in rural areas cannot access services or get jobs because of poor transport. As usual ministers are pretending they provide good services while other similarly rich countries -like Switzerland and Germany -provide services that English people can only dream about. In the meantime the bus operators make good profits by not providing the services they need.