An update on my five new countries visited in 2017: only 2 of them did not have a McDonald’s ! (Maldives and Haiti) I was surprised to discover that Cuba has one on the Guantanamo Base which is open only to their staff. To round out the five, Kuwait has 75 of them and Malta has 10….four countries that I have visited in the past have closed theirs: Bermuda, Jamaica, Montenegro and Macedonia. And it looks like at least 4 out of the 5 I hope to visit in 2018 also have none….Iceland, Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC.
While McDonald’s has never been my first choice for dining in a new country, I have to say on a couple of occasions they saved me. Once in Japan on a limited budget they were one of the few places I could afford and another time almost 20 years ago in Australia when I wasn’t yet weaned on drip coffee and needed a large cup.
Why McDonald’s and not Starbucks? While both are ubiquitous Starbucks is on track to be bigger but not yet!
This last trip took me to Barcelona during a contentious time due to the Catalonia region considering ceding from Spain. While I saw crowds and heard the banging of the drums I managed to stay away from those hot spots. The most difficult disruption was the inability to get a taxi.
I went from there to Malta just a few days after the car bombing of the investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia.
New friends in Barcelona were having fun naming my blog entries with a “Debby does…” hence the title of this blog. My brother-in-law told me of an article he read about the 20 most dangerous countries for tourists and wondered how many I have visited. Unfortunately I have missed six of them!
Malta was the last country in all of Europe left for me to visit. Surprisingly there were a number of tourists on the main island….they came by ship, by plane and with multiple tour companies. More Americans are exploring there now that Carnival Cruise Lines have added this shore excursion.
My hotel was filled with a large group from Finland who had a plan that included both breakfast and dinner. Consequently the food served was buffet style and pretty much tasteless. Their wines were decent however!
This small country is known to have more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any nation and a great deal of religious and military architecture still intact from ancient periods. I did a bus tour of the southern part of the island that included Valletta, the capital. Unfortunately the audio system with historical details about the various sites was not coordinated with the route. I saw many interesting places but had trouble understanding which was which and who did what etc. Plus it was pretty windy and cold on the upper deck!
Returning from the tour I took a city bus from Valletta to St. Paul’s Bay and unintentionally got off about 5 miles away from my hotel. As I don’t have phone service outside the USA I was in a bit of trouble. Luckily English is the second language everyone speaks (Arabic is the first) and I was able to interact with many different locals in my attempt to find my hotel and had a great workout to boot!
Malta’s Co-cathedral of St. John’s hosts two of this artist’s original paintings. While I find art interesting I certainly am not well-versed in the subject in spite of the art appreciation course I took in college about 50 years ago.
A while back one of my friends suggested I read a book called “The Last Painting, the Caravaggio Trail ” by Jonathan Harr and I loved it. When I found out this cathedral in Valletta, the capital city, housed some of his work in its museum I realized it was a must see. The church itself was also worth a visit. In fact there were lines of tourists doing just that.
As a non-surfer I was surprised to see the number of boards being loaded off the plane. I didn’t realize that one or two of the atolls were ranked in the top 30 best surfing spots in the world. My prior knowledge was mainly about the over water bungalows, expensive resorts, and the fact that the country is sinking! This is the closest I got to one of those luxurious accommodations:
I stayed with the locals on the most populous island of Male, also the capital city.
While it took forever to get there from here….San Diego to Seattle to Tokyo to Singapore to Colombo to Male and many many hours in airports between flights….it was an enjoyable visit albeit much shorter than the journey.
The streets were more like alley ways and bikes were the preferred method of travel along with boats. Because it is part of a traditional trading route, the food embodies the spices and tastes of Indian food combined with lots of fish. Since it is a Muslim country one is not allowed to bring in any alcohol or pork products. And one is forbidden to take out any sand or seashells! Tourism and fishing are their major sources of income.
Villingili is an island just a short ferry ride away where one can leave the heavy foot traffic of the city and enjoy some peace, quiet and cooling feet in the warm Indian Ocean. Western style swimsuits for women are restricted to the private resort atolls.
I was lucky to discover an alternative to exploring the underwater caves and reefs. There is a submarine that has been outfitted with a large porthole at each seat that descends over 130 feet stopping to see colorful reefs, fish and even what looked like a two-headed eel!
Truly a paradise….hard to tell the sky from the sea!
Before leaving I read an account of how millions of dollars of foreign aid to Haiti, after both the 2010 earthquake and the 2016 hurricane, were not spent wisely so I knew not to expect to see a country in recovery. I soon discovered a gross understatement of any relief success. After a couple of hours I was ready to leave. My hotel room was not ready and I was told to wait there because it was not safe for me to go “exploring” alone. So I was forced to spend a couple of hours in their patio restaurant with a sandwich and bottle of water at high resort prices.
Later I was able to hire a local guide to walk with me through the city. Jean was originally from Uganda but had lived in Haiti for years. He showed me the scars on his head where he was hit with falling bricks and was most gallant in leading me through the ravaged neighborhoods making certain he was on my outside navigating through traffic and then again when some men on a corner made some, what I assumed to be, disparaging remarks about me.
There is no traffic control and the huge potholes are the least of their problems. When a gust of wind hits it’s not dust that flies up, it’s dirt and garbage. There are make shift shacks everywhere and the famous iron market runs around and through the area.
I had an opportunity to talk with various aid workers, volunteers and directors of projects. While I have no expertise in how to solve any of the problems facing the Haitians nor do I speak Creole or French, I was amazed with the people’s fortitude and ability to survive in such conditions.
My observations confirmed what I had read about misspent funds, NGO’s not knowing how to best help, and countries like the U.S. hiring their own companies to do the work even though they didn’t speak the language or know who to trust. A representative of Alnap, an international network of humanitarian agencies explained that: “The coping strategies of local people were overlooked. Opportunities to support local businesses were missed and this explains the mixed reception foreign humanitarians get in the country. With an estimated 10,000 non-governmental organisations operating there, locals ironically refer to Haiti as an “NGO republic”.
Seven years later the country has little to show for the billions of foreign cash received and the economy doesn’t show any signs of improving. However there are a few areas of Haiti that exhibit a different lifestyle like the hillside suburb of Petion-Ville with its beauty salons, fitness gyms and restaurants as well as the private cruise ship port at Labadee.
Since my divorce 20 years ago I have lived alone and have slipped comfortably into the skin of an introvert. The fact that I have a large loving family made it easier to not seek out new friends. I am working on this however.
Recently I went on a group hiking trip in Italy with my two daughters, 10 strangers and a couple of guides,also new to me. On day one we started out at 11 in the morning and hiked for about four hours, waiting until evening to formalize introductions.
Inspired by a glass of wine (might have been two) I somehow suggested that it would be fun if I introduced everyone instead of going around the circle and telling something about ourselves. What was I thinking? My daughters thought this was hilarious and encouraged the group to let me give it a try. While trudging along I had time to visit with others as my daughters surged ahead and the new me was practicing their names and asking questions instead of talking about myself.
my My new friends were intriguing : among them were a former competitive ballroom dancer, an international driver of road rallies, one of the best orchestrators in the world and of course, local Italians, with many talents!
By the time I reached number fourteen I was actually sweating. Thank goodness everyone was gracious and helped me out when I got stuck.