Category Archives: Zoo

‘Patience, wonder and vigilance’

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We have now driven Georgie 7,845 miles, (which sound even better as 12,626 km). During that time we’ve seen changes in landscape, signage, and architecture, as we expected. Less predictable was the naked-from-the-waist-down gentleman struggling to get into a wrestler’s jock strap, at a cafe by a shopping mall. Or this rather buxom lady made of concrete, gazing out at us as we stopped to let a build-up of traffic pass by Georgie.

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This was me on the walkie-talkie: ‘Did you see her? on the left?’

Steve’s reply: ‘Why do you think I stopped?’

In the middle of nowhere we parked by a cafe, because it was a hot day and Georgie’s brakes needed to cool. Around the corner we found a strange little petting zoo in someone’s front garden.  You could wander around the enclosures of kiwis and ostriches, turkeys, goats and pigs, and then leave a donation when you left. It was both sweet and rather sad.

At another roadside coffee stop, a few guys got out of a van and produced a piano accordion. One smiley chap proceeded to play loud, jolly folk songs to the delight of his mates. Other people at the stop were not so pleased and one chap started yelling at him to be quiet. So he played louder. The other chap went up to him and they were nose to nose as he shouted. We thought it was all gonna kick off, but the musician simply raised the accordion and played it very loudly in the man’s face, then started chasing him around with it. Poor guy was furious but I was rather entertained – I’d never seen accordion music used as an offensive weapon before.

One of the van mates had now found a traffic cone and was playing that like a kazoo. The angry man, realising he was both out-numbered and surrounded, backed away pretending that he’d won that round (in the way that cats pretend they meant to fall off that chair). The accordion player finished his songs to much applause, got in the van (with the purloined traffic cone) and off they went.

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It was the roads in Montenegro that first induced Steve to utter the advice, ‘patience, wonder and vigilance’ over the walkie-talkie. They were covered in potholes the depth of Ben Nevis, and petered off alarmingly at the edges. It was mountainous, with seemingly endless hairpin bends, around which herds of sheep or cows would suddenly appear.

This phrase was to become less of a mantra and more of a prayer when we entered Albania, five hours later. Steve tells me that there were no cars in Albania until fifteen years ago, which goes some small way to explaining the way they drive.

We arrived just after sunset and no-one, I repeat, no-one had lights on their bicycles and everyone was wearing black. No-one on a motorbike had a helmet either, and most had at least two passengers, one of which was a child (at the front). They often couldn’t be bothered with lights either. There was no right of way, and no road markings apart from the central white line, which they took absolutely no notice of. I was a jibbering wreck by the time we parked up and went to look for something to eat.

Settled in a restaurant, I used Google Translate to work out what the toppings on the pizzas were. I wanted to check Sallam Pikant, which I was fairly sure would turn out to be salami, but as we were in a new country I thought it better not to make assumptions. So I started typing and good old Google started translating ….

s = s

sa = how

sal = sal

sall = hall

salla = Hall

sallam = sausage

sallam p = salve p

sallam pi = I drink more

sallam pik = I have a pic

sallam pika = I give it a point

sallam pikan = I’m gonna drink

and, finally….

sallam pikant = I’m salty

So, sort of salami, then.

Unable to find a single campsite, we woke up the next day to find we’d parked in the school bus stop. As it was practically opposite the pole-dancing club, in a grim little shanty town, circa Morocco in 1986, we’d thought we were tucked away. Not so. We set off, nervous about the driving, but excited to see what Albania looked like in daylight.

First we drove along past slag heaps and rubbish dumps, stay dogs, and titty bars, but then we hit the road to Golem. The buildings now were all variations on a theme, the theme being, ‘what can we do with concrete?’ (We’d already spotted that the Croatians like a bit of concrete too, but there they’ve decided that greige is the new black.) Albanians prefer to use a packet of refreshers as their starting point, and I particularly liked the ever-popular mint and salmon combo.

Then we got onto the motorway. Well, Google Maps called it a motorway, but I called it a fairly crappy, pot-holed dual carriageway. It had a rather variable hard-shoulder which,  it turns, is absolutely the place to be. There were lots of loitering men, numerous donkey carts and eleventy billion guys on bicycles, some with as many as ten planks of wood balanced across their handlebars. There were wizened little old ladies, in white headscarves, waiting for lifts, or buses or, possibly, death. There were loose chickens, and cows and goat-herders. Goat-herders! There were men who waved plastic bags of something brown at me, and another who waved flowers. At one junction a man had parked his motorbike in the middle of the road and was standing there, bag on the road, no helmet, just waiting. And there were lots and lots of things like this.

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We stopped for coffee and petrol at a garage called Kastrati. Its logo was a petrol pump filling up, um, a UFO? And when we looked to see if they had wifi we found it under ‘Shyti petrol’.

There is simply no explanation for Albania.

 

The road masquerading as a motorway had two solid white lines painted down the centre which, to the average Albanian, is the thing he likes to drive along best. His favourite place to overtake is, of course, a blind corner.

If he overtakes you, he will drive as far as is feasibly possible on the other side of the road, for as long as he can (even if there is an empty over-taking lane to the left of you). When he sees the on-coming traffic, he will wait until the very last second before skidding in front of you. If you brake and swerve he knows he has done it right.

However, if the vehicle heading straight towards him is wide – a lorry, coach or bus, say – then he will attempt to hold his ground over the central lines and see if he can fit in the gap between the on-coming lorry and you. If he succeeds without killing anyone then he knows he is a God amongst men.

They learn this early on, I think. In one town I witnessed a young lad pushing a baby in a pushchair along the road – and several feet out from a totally empty pavement. He was coming towards me.

As for signage – that was … variable. Off a roundabout in the busy town of Fier, Steve attempted to follow the sat-nav instructions and all the other cars down a turning. Oh no, people said, jumping in the way and signalling to him to back out again. Now, we were already a bit frazzled at this point. Double-parking in single lane roads is a thing here, and manoeuvring Georgie around them had taken every bit of Steve’s considerable driving skill. There were people parked on the sodding roundabout, for God’s sake.

As I drove round and round while I waited to see what Steve was gonna do, I saw people stop their cars halfway around, get out, leaving the door open, buy a coffee, and get back in and drive off. So I pulled in behind Steve while they sorted out getting him to reverse back onto the roundabout. Oh no, no, no, they said, in mad but obvious gestures. I had to reverse back onto the roundabout, with all view of me hidden from oncoming traffic by the idiot white van that had parked there! And I had to do it three times because they kept changing their minds about where they were going to let us go!

Eventually we got into the south of the country and headed off through the mountains towards Greece. Here Albania was beautiful but, it’s got to be said, that it’s Mother Nature that’s done most of the heavy lifting. Where the actual Albanians have been involved…. I’d like to say that it’s merely a bit run down, but I’m not sure if it was ever run up in the first place.

We reached the customs on the border into Greece and, boy, were they thorough. Nibbles is only a tiny car and you can see everything through the windows. It is impossible to smuggle using a Smart car, but those guys took no chances – they even had my carpet up.

There was a family of beggars working the queue of cars. I genuinely had no money on me at all, which really got their goat. They sent in the big guns, by which I mean the little girl. All I had was a banana, which I offered apologetically. They looked disgusted, but took it anyway. The little girl endeavoured (quite successfully) to eat it with as much scornful disdain as she could muster. I wished my car was bigger so I’d have somewhere to hide.

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And then we were on our way and driving down the mountains, into Greece and the Shirley Valentine moment I’d been waiting for since 1989. I’ll tell you all about that next time. Until then, thanks for reading, and big hugs to you all. Ciao.

 

 

 

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Mini Hollywood

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Once upon a time an Italian film director rocked up in the Sierra Nevada in to make a movie. That movie starred Clint Eastwood as the famous ‘man with no name’ (this was cool then, I promise), so he went on to make a few more. All westerns. With fabulous titles such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which is so uber. And when he’d finished, all the locals who’d been extras in the films, clubbed together and bought the set that he’d built.

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It’s been run as a tourist attraction for the last fifty years, although it’s owned by a hotel chain now. But honestly, who can resist a complete Western town of backless buildings? Not me. Steve wasn’t that keen to go: he thought it would be okay-ish and that I’d enjoy it much more than him. Boy, was he wrong; it was ACE!!!! And in all the wrong ways.

The best way to get there is to follow Deirdre the sat-nav slut as she takes you the long way around through the mountains. Although we programmed in the quickest way, please, she has selective hearing and prefers to meander. But the mountain route is spectacular and really gets you in the mood. Cacti. Ravines. Sparseness. And in the distance – ooh look, teepees.

So we fetch up at the entrance, which has weird disney characters and odd cowboys on the signage, and is looking a bit the worse for wear. And this is when I start to get very happy, because I love things that are a little bit crap so much more than things that are shiny and impressive.

Because of Dierdre’s navigation we’ve arrived half-way though the can-can show, so we give that a miss and explore the ‘town’. It has everything you would expect; a saloon, a gaol, a bank, etc., but also a mine shaft, a blacksmith, stables, shops, a schoolroom, moonshine stills and – of all things – a local Rabbi.

A photographer is taking pictures of people in costume, so Indian squaws and saloon girls keep crossing in front of us. Children run around in cowboy hats kicking up clouds of yellow dust. And honky-tonk piano music bangs out of the saloon, as the girls dance to the sound of gun-shots and well-choreographed whoops.

We have some time before the next performance of the Wild West Spectacular (and I just know it’s not going to be – I can hardly wait), so we head for the parrot display.

The parrot display? you ask.

Oh yes – because there is a zoo here as well!

And the parrot display is extra brilliant because it is all in Spanish and we can’t understand a thing. It consists of birds with beautiful plumage doing odd tricks, such as finding which cup the ball is under, or doing maths and ringing a bell to show the answer.

There is always a long lead up, with lots of ‘oooh’s from the audience, so we are quite keyed up about what to expect. Then a lady at the back of the auditorium releases a lovely cockatoo with champagne pink feathers and buttercup armpits (wingpits?). And its special skill is ….. flying! I swear. It swoops over our heads to land on the talking chappie’s arm, then flies back again, all to enthusiastic applause. Same thing with a little green parakeet with scarlet armpits. Very pretty, but not exactly a superpower, I think.

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Then we head for the big animals. Steve is interested in the Rhinos which, on close inspection, are a serious bit of kit. But I fall involve with the giraffe, who comes to the fence and lets us all stroke her head. I know it’s cupboard love and she’s looking for grass, but I’m enchanted anyway.

Her enclosure – as with all the animals – has the most amazing view. The zoo sprawls out over the surrounding hillsides, rugged, rocky, and sun-drenched. The mountains fill the horizon. It is more like being on safari than my normal experience of a zoo. I have to keep pinching myself.

Then it is time for us to head back into town for the Wild West show. We get a coffee in the saloon and find a nice spot on a balcony. Steve suggests that they might ask for volunteers, and that I should definitely go for it. I’m so tempted, but then I realise that it wouldn’t work because all of their instructions would be in Spanish.’What instructions do you need to be roped and dragged along the ground by a horse?‘ asks Steve. Good point. You can tell we’ve been married a long time, can’t you.

We are told that the show is going to be an enactment of the last stand of Jessie James. Well alrighty. And this is how it goes:-

The sheriff and his deputy drive a horse and cart into town. The sheriff is pointing his rifle at a guy in the back who is tied up. Oh no – it’s the infamous Jessie James – who then proceeds to quietly jump out of the cart and wait patiently for the sheriff to get down. Not so tough, then. Reckon he had a good spin doctor.

The sheriff puts his rifle in the cart, which then gets parked around the corner. Bit short-sighted, methinks, because although Jessie starts walking calmly to the gaol, it suddenly occurs to him that he doesn’t have to. Bit of string around his wrists, but no actual gun pointed at him. But instead of legging it, he does the old throw my hat on the ground manoeuvre and picks a fight.

He gets biffed up quite a bit before the sheriff remembers he has a pistol (which Jessie has specularly failed to grab from his holster, despite copious opportunity). Jessie now wanders amiably into the gaol, sometimes at gun-point, but mostly not, and locks himself inside. If I were him I would have been very embarrassed, but Mr Thicky James now bellows out of the window at the injustice of having to gaol himself.

Then we get something is about to happen music. For ages.

A guy in a long coat rides right through the centre of the town square. He may have borrowed it from Harry Potter because, although he is clearly visible to everybody, the sheriff patrolling the balcony totally fails to spot him. He sneaks noisily up the stairs and promptly chucks the sheriff off onto a handy pile of straw. The sheriff decides to have a bit of a snooze.

Another chap in an invisibility coat rides into the town with a rope. Together they tie it to the bars of the cell window and the horse pulls the whole shebang out. Jessie jumps through the gap. Hoorah.

Then the new chap decides not to tie up the sheriff. Instead, he positions himself behind a too small barrel and waits for the sheriff to wake up and start shooting at him. It all kicks off and now a deputy runs out from the gaol and joins in the fray. He’s been there all this time and done nothing! What a plank.

Jessie rides out and stops to offer barrel-guy a jump-up, but rides off before he can do it. You know – just before: he’s that guy. And then the other invisible-coat chap does the same. So barrel-guy gets shot. A lot.

Jessie waits until barrel-guy is really dead then, rather than make a clean break out of town on his horse, he jumps off and hides behind a too small water trough. Perhaps this is an homage thing, I don’t know, but I’m sensing a pattern.

And now the sheriff and two deputies are spaced out and training their guns on him, so he stands up and runs into the middle of the triangle. And gets shot. What a surprise, who knew?

But miracles happen (although not to Jessie) and barrel-guy is resurrected despite being shot, like, fifteen times. However, he is still an idiot. The sheriff and his deputies are wandering back to the gaol and – rather than fake it until they go inside and then make his escape – he waits until the sheriff (armed) is next to him (unarmed) and then he gets up and picks another fight.

And it doesn’t go so well and he’s marched off – showing no resistance at all – to the convenient gallows. Honestly, there’s no helping some people. But maybe the whole gang comes from the same shallow gene pool, because then the invisible-coat guy who had escaped rides back into town for the sheriff and his deputies to shoot at him again.

The sheriff chases after him and it is left to the two deputies to get the hanging done. This takes a lot longer than you’d think. Even though he’s strung up and his feet are off the ground, they are all still having a right barney and there is a considerable amount of bad-tempered spitting and kicking. Eventually, the music signals it’s time to stop, so he does a sort of mid-air M C Hammer dance, then waves at all the children, and slumps. Really dead this time. I think.

And now the sheriff comes back and, boy, did he earn his star! Not only did he outrun a galloping horse on foot, but he pulled an armed man off it, caught the horse (without being shot by the armed man), and has now roped and dragged said armed invisible-coat man back into town. Oh yes.

One of the deputies checks that the coaty is alright, before helping him to his feet in order to throw him down again. The dead guy on the gallows pipes up, ‘Shoot him!‘ and promptly gets shot again. Really, really dead, this time.

Now deputy number one waits calmly for coaty to get to his feet again, and starts beating him up. Despite all the yelling, deputy number two continues his sedate walk towards the gaol house. Perhaps there’s been some Health and Safety initiatives, because he doesn’t seem to want to get very involved. And although he has a gun, deputy number one prefers a good old fist fight, it seems. Maybe they are being too noisy, because deputy number two does turn around and points his gun at coaty until he stops fighting. But I don’t think he likes the other deputy much because he then wanders off and lets them carry on.

And suddenly – DRAMA! Coaty has got the deputy’s pistol and has shot the sheriff! Deputy number two has to do something now – he’s beginning to look more than slack – so he does more gun pointing. And coaty – despite being a crack shot (unlike the law, apparently), and only facing a deputy who clearly doesn’t give a shit, and having nothing to lose – throws his pistol back to deputy number one and puts his hands in the air. Mental! Coaty then plays his last card. ‘I’m unarmed,‘ he says. Well, who’s fault is that!

So, get this – they give him a gun!?! And now I see how it was all part of deputy number two’s master plan (cue evil laugh). He waits until coaty has shot the other deputy, then smartly polishes him off. One bullet. He’s given the undertaker plenty of work (bet they’re related) and has risen very sharply up the ranks to become the sheriff of a Jessie James-free town. Neat. Then gallows guy resurrects again, and helps to put the bars back into the gaol house window. Swell.

The kids bloody loved it, and they all got to sit on the horses afterwards and have their pictures taken with the idiot gang. I Googled Jessie James and it turns out he was shot in the back of the head, by one of his own gang, in his own home. So I don’t know what we just saw but I know which version I preferred, and it was here, at Mini Hollywood.