Sunday, 30 November 2008

Take Care in any Metropolis

I suppose I have some catching up to do since leading the November tour to the Extremadura with David Cottridge. The best way to see what we were doing in this fantastic area is to go to the trip report and read through our week-long birding and wildlife experience!

Let me tell you what happened on the Metro in Madrid.
Being an environmentally aware kind of chap and trying to do my bit on cutting down on greenhouse gasses where I possibly can, I decided to take the fast train, the AVE - all electric of course, from Seville to Madrid.
Getting to Seville was by car, which was an early start for me as the journey is around one and a half hours to the train station. I arrived in time, parked where I have always parked - on a piece of waste ground where lots of other drivers do the same. I then walked the short distance to catch the eight o' clock train.

The AVE is great! It's so comfortable and fast. When the track runs parallel to the Madrid motorway on some sections, you can see the large blue motorway signs coming up and attempt to read the information on them- such as the distance to the capital. No chance! It's just a blue blurr as the train whizzes past without the slightest bump, shake or vibration. None of this clickety-clack-clickety-clak stuff of the old days, it's as if you are low- flying!
At Madrid's Atocha station, I took the metro to travel across town to Barajas impressive bamboo and steel all new, terminal 4 airport building.

The tube was pretty full and within two stops I noticed four South-American looking people, two men and two women, watching me and pushing up the train towards where I was standing. I'd heard the stories of teams that 'work' the underground network and on the streets of Madrid, trying to rob tourists by distracting them in various ways. On my back was my camera bag and I was wheeling a shell-suitcase with all my other stuff. The group split up and two tried to get behind me. I knew what they were up to so I pushed back against the wall of the train. More people got on at the next stop and we were now like sardines in a can. One of the men came right beside me and pushed into me, obviously to try and see where my phone, wallet etc were. I leaned forward and pushed on the man sending him into another passenger. I apologised to both and fixed my stare on the eyes of the first accused. At this point one of the women told me to take my camera bag off my back to make more room. 'Leave it against the wall' she said. I squinted and the two men backed off, signalling to the two women who now realised that I had 'clocked' them all. They then began working once more and looking around the train for someone else.
Two Frenchmen came on board and immediately the four moved in on them. People were pushing and three or four other travellers shuffled towards were I was, still with my camera back tight against the wall and the other suitcase in my left hand, keeping my right hand free. I lost view of what was
happening but as we reached the next stop, the doors opened and people got out and others moved forward in the carriage. Just at the last second as the warning bleepers for the doors activated the four quickly pushed past the Frenchmen and went out onto the platform and disappeared into the crowds. The doors closed and one of the Frenchmen realised that his small shoulder-bag had been opened. Too late! The train moved off and he told his friend that wallet, passport and phone were gone.

Now I am an experienced traveller and have come across all kinds of people in my life and I am always on guard when in cities or places where there is the possibility of having my or my clients property stolen. Robbery is a different matter and I am particularly on my guard where there is the possibility to meet any form of theft with violence whether it's in London, Rome or in Spain's capital. This type of theft aggrivated by the use of a set 'distraction' plan is pretty common, whether its spilling ice-cream or coffee on your clothes and suddenly a group wants to assist in 'cleaning' you! It's always better to know about such people and to be prepared for this when using public transport. Eye contact is always a good way to let any would be predator know that you wouldn't be an easy person to try on. It just takes practice.

The birding tour was a great success and we stayed all week at the Finca Santa Marta, outside of the Medieval town of Trujillo, home of that rather brutal chap Pizarro, who ‘conquered’ Peru.

The birds we saw were exceptionally good for November and of course the fantastic weather had a big part to play. Great views of Both Spanish Imperial Eagles on several occasions as well as many excellent sightings of Golden Eagles. The Sandgrouse, Great and Little Bustards on the steppe areas as well as the thousands of wintering Common Cranes in the dehesas and on the rice-fields were just stunning.

My journey back from the airport at Madrid was frought with problems. A large police operation on the metro slowed everything down and huge queues of angry people formed in the tunnells and passages down below the city. Not wishing to miss my train back to Seville, I had no option to get across town as quickly as possible. I opted for a taxi but then by this time there were quite a few others thinking the same way. It was like Steve Martin's agony in doing the same in Manhattan in the film 'Trains, Planes and Automobiles'.
Friday afternoon traffic was gridlocked on all points into the city. My taxi driver was obviously straight out of Nascar school and had was clearly a dedicated accelerator and brake man. I lurched and bobbed, lurched and bobbed in the back trying ignore his swearing. Anyway I survived, paid the man and caught my train south.

On my arrival at Seville I took my bags to the place where I had parked the car. It was gone, as were all the other cars which had been keeping it company the previous Saturday. Now thick metal posts surrounded the piece of wasteground. Back to the station and to the Police office. After a few phone calls the National Police told me that the local Police had removed the car and it was now in the pound. The pound of course is on the other side of town and another taxi fare set me down outside the cabin of the private firm that ran the city pound. I paid my 160 Euros tow-away charge and was told to expect a ticket for the parking fine in the post. I was also told that new laws had made this area a prohibited zone. Brilliant. I’m going to fly from Jerez next time - that is until they complete work on the AVE line (the fast train like the TGV) from Cadiz to Seville!

The next day I had a day tour with Doug, a medical doctor from Edmonton in Canada. He and his wife had taken a Mediterranean cruise from Barcelona and Doug wanted a day’s birding with myself.
I had agreed to meet him at the dock gates where the ships literally berth close to the Cathedral. I was a bit early, so deciding on having a coffee and still a bit tired after the end of my weeks adventures, I headed across the street to the town hall square where I thought there would be at least one bar open. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The bars were there but the metal grills and shutters firmly down
with darkened interiors.
I passed a taxi rank with one driver standing in front of his cab , leaning against the wind watching me approach. He had his arms folded tight against his chest and wore a surly expression. ‘Are there any bars open for a coffee around here’ I asked. ‘No’ he replied, staring at my binoculars around my neck and reading the ‘Andalucian Guides’ logo on my zipped up fleece. It was cold and windy. “OK’ I replied and wandered off to look up some side streets off the square. Nothing. Re-tracing my steps I approached him once more but he was facing the other way. As I went passed him he dropped his arms and whispered ”Pssst!” I stopped and turned and looked at him. ‘Come here’, he ordered. I moved a little forward and he looked at me and said, ‘So you are an ornithologist - and you want a coffee’. I replied “Yes” and then the taxi driver said, ‘Well, Follow me if you want a coffee!’
We walked about fifty meters to a corner where he knocked on a locked bar door. There was a wooden bar on the inside and the place was in total darkness. It was just getting light outside and no light was penetrating the glass pane in the door from the street. A man appeared and lifted the bar from the
inside of the door. He then opened the door and the taxi driver said, ‘Antonio, this is an ornithologist looking for a coffee’. We both went in and the door shut with the wooden bar going across the door. In this twilight I saw lots of groups of men standing having drinks at the bar or sitting in groups, some playing cards. Most were smoking and the only light came from Antonio’s small torch that he used to work the till under the counter. I ordered a coffee and Mr Taxi ordered a brandy. Now I got it. With one gulp, down went the brandy and he said farewell to all including myself and thanked me. Antonio opened the door once more and off he went. I finished my coffee asked Antonio how much it was and he said, ‘ One coffee and a brandy - that’ll be two Euros’. I smiled and went through the ritual of getting out of the bar.
I walked back past the taxi line and saw that the driver was gone.

Right on time I met Doug and off we went to see birds. 'You’ll never guess what happened just fifteen minutes ago', I started.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Tour Photos of the Extremadura

Here are some photos of last week's Limosa Holidays tour to Extremadura. Brilliant weather, superb birds and it's always a pleasure to spend some time in this rich area.
Once I get some more time, I'll tell you what happened on the way to Madrid. I'll also tell you what happened on the way back from Madrid.
Life is always full of interesting little experiences....... Watch this space!

You can read the trip report of the Extremaduran tour here

Friday, 14 November 2008

I had an easy relaxed birding day with a friend from Medina Sidonia today. We travelled across to the flat, silted plains of the Guadalquivir river containing some very diverse birding and wildlife habitats, within
our very own Cadiz province. There was a strong, chill wind coming from the north and although the sun shone all day, it still felt cold - must be getting soft! I wonder if I'll cope with our family visit to Scotland in February?

The stiff breezes kept a lot of the birds,
especially my Marbled Ducks, away from their usual feeding haunts, sheltering elsewhere. The rare White-headed Ducks were found as well as the ubiquitous Mallards and some Common Pochards.

Four Ospreys were seen and one tried unsuccessfully to fish nearby the mini-bus. A lovely female Hen Harrier was seen en route to the river as were Calandra Larks, Common Buzzards and good numbers of Kestrels. Other raptors included Booted Eagles and Red Kites.

One surprise flypast was a Woodcock - taking us completely by surprise as it flew over the vehicle! Something must have flushed it.

Little Egrets, Common Kingfishers and Whiskered Terns also showed up and we watched Green and Common Sandpipers, Pied Avocets, Kentish and Greater Ringed Plovers, Redshanks and Curlew Sandpipers amongst other waders. Slender-billed Gulls were more in evidence than last week but the wind had pushed the vast majority of Greater Flamingoes out of any reasonable view.

Stopping outside my house I nearly ran over a huge caterpillar. I'm not sure what it is, but if anyone can ID it, I'd appreciate it.

I'm off early to Extremadura tomorrow to lead another Limosa Holidays tour, so back in a week's time.