As a result, the eve of that Sikkuu was no time for celebrations, preparing feasts, or even Midnight Mass. Instead we planned to lay an ambush for the Merille, suspecting they might try a surprise night attack on our camp in the hope of catching us unawares. "They probably think we'll all be pissed (that is, drunk). So we must be ready for them," our commanding officer had said.
"But, surely, Sir," I interjected, "if the Merille think we'll all be pissed, they'll just take that as an excuse to get even more pissed themselves." To no avail.
So an uncomfortable night was spent lying silently in the sand under a thorn bush, a rifle by my side. Needless to say, we saw nothing and not a shot was fired, confirming the old maxim that soldiers spend most their time waiting for things to happen.
However, preparations were already well under way for the feast and dance, known as an n'goma, with which our African soldiers planned to mark the Big Day that followed our abortive night ambush. Earlier I had taken a truck and land rover out into the desert to find a cattle herdsman and persuade him to sell us a scrawny cow to serve as Christmas turkey. The wretched beast was manhandled into the truck and driven back to camp where it was tied up but well treated, with plenty of water and green stuff to eat.
Now the time had come to turn it into roast beef. My African Sergeant Major emerged with an army rifle, took aim, and put a single bullet straight between its unsuspecting eyes. As the beast wobbled and sank slowly to the ground, a Muslim soldier from the Kenyan coast ran forward shouting "Allah Akaba" (God is Great) and slashed its throat with a big knife, known as a panga and usually used for chopping your way through jungle. This made the meat "halal" and edible by pious Muslims, thus allowing our regiment's small Muslim contingent to join in the Christmas feast.
Skinned and cleaned, the cow was roasted for several hours in an open pit over a roaring fire of thorn bushes collected from the surrounding desert. It tasted quite good. Beer was served, and spontaneously the African soldiers started to dance around the embers. As planned, sikukuu was ending with an n'goma.
But suppose the Merille attacked us that night, instead of Christmas Eve, when we were digesting our roast beef?
"Don't worry," the officer in the tent next to mine said. "I'll start throwing grenades. I've got a box of them under my bed." I was far from reassured.
Paul LewisContinue Reading:
But that is what it is--the first colony in the New World. Here, spread over some four or five city blocks, are the New World's oldest cathedral, its first university, Columbus' own house, the houses of many of the Spanish conquistadores, the palaces of the first Spanish governors of the lands he had discovered, and innumerable churches and houses from those far-off days, all perfectly preserved.
A good way to get an overview of the Zona Colonial is to jump on the little tourist train, called the Chou Chou Colonial, which leaves from the Cathedral square every hour and makes a 40-minute introductory tour of the area. This is sponsored by Coca Cola, a drink so popular in the Dominican Republic that the company has put its name on just about everything. But a ride on the Cocoa Cola train will give you an idea of where the principal tourist sites and shops are situated and the restaurants on offer.
The principal building is the Cathedral, which is remarkably large and built in a very severe Gothic style. It was started in 1515 but only finished in 1540 because the first bunch of imported Spanish stone masons scarpered to search for gold in Mexico, a better-paying job. The high altar is of hammered silver, but the rest is unadorned. However, a welcome touch in summer is that it is one of the few cathedrals in Christendom to be fully air conditioned.
From the Cathedral, take the Calle Isabella la Catolica or the Calle las Damas, which run through the old city, past Columbus' old house and numerous ancient Spanish buildings, down to the old Governors Palace, or Casas Reales. This is now an excellent museum full of old Spanish furniture and antiquities and the most interesting single building in the Colonial Zone.
A vendor of cheap farmer broad-brimmed hats for US$4 is usually to be found in front of the building, and his wares are very useful during the hot sunny summer. (Shops also sell genuine Panama hats from Ecuador for a bargain US$50, but they are for more than keeping the sun off your head. Combined with a stogie and a white suit, they are part of the colonial master look a tourist may adopt.)
Nearby stand the remnants of the old stone walls that once safeguarded the city, which was a constant prey for the pirates and buccaneers who roamed the early Caribbean--particularly Sir Francis Drake who extracted large bribes from the city in return for not burning it down.
Across from the Casa Reales are a number of reasonable restaurants in the Plaza de Espana. But my own favorite is La Taberna Vasca, a Basque restaurant owned by two French settlers in Dominica, which is only a block away on the Calle Las Mercedes in a shady courtyard. I particularly enjoyed the dressed crab washed down with cold white wine.
The principal shopping street in Santo Domingo is the Calle Conde, a long pedestrianized thoroughfare which runs westward from the Cathedral Square and houses every imaginable kind of shop including many ice cream parlors. And hatters. And cigar stores.
Traveling between the hotel and the Zona Colonial on foot is perfectly possible but a bit arduous in the heat of summer, especially if you don't enjoy clambering over piles of broken paving stone. But most private cars turn out to be taxis if you are a gringo. Be firm on the price: 300 pesos (about US$8) should take you anywhere you want to go.
"Forget about areas ripe for letting during the London Olympics this summer; they are already discovered. Moreover, the most affordable part of Olympicsland is a huge slum zone called Poplar, the poorest district in all of London. Try to avoid it at all costs.
"I would focus on areas with amenities that will enhance property values in future years even if the Olympic boomlet is elsewhere. Areas I like are E10 and E16. In E10 I like around the Canning Town express Underground Jubilee Line to central London, near the Excel Exhibition Center and the City Airport. On the local tinker-toy train, called the Docklands Light Railway, you would be near stops like Beckton Park, Royal Albert, Prince Regent, Customs House, and Royal Victoria, a total of 1 to 5 stops from Canning Town, the rail center in E10. In E16 you are just south of the new City Airport and the Thames flood barrier, with the Silvertown or Star Lane DLR your communications link.
"Now you have to agree that these names are veddy British. These bits of the Far East End were overbuilt massively for the future Lehman Brothers staffers, Bear Stearns bankers, and AIG credit default swap experts who were going to move to London to work at Canary Wharf. The amenities are American-style.
"For retirees and anyone over 62 years of age, the transport situation is pure bliss. With a fixed address, you quality for a 'Freedom Pass,' which gives you totally free transport by bus, train, DLR, underground, or overground, throughout the entire London Transport System and any railway travel within the city limits. This is worth thousands of pounds annually, and the system is laxly administered by the local post offices.
"Another benefit once you have become a resident is the National Health Service, which leaves Obamacare and other programs in the dust. This is free and covers medical visits, drugs, and hospitalization. Your U.S. Social Security pension is not tapped for NHS fees. You also will not be taxed on your Social Security pension by either the United States or Britain if the total is less than US$85,000, but, of course, you need to check about unearned income and private pension payments.
"The cost of living in London is somewhat higher than in the United States, but traveling to European destinations is a lot cheaper from this base. Other bargains include basic staples such as milk, potatoes, bread, and, goody, wine. But be ready for sticker shock on the prices of clothing and shoes and also getting shoes repaired. Dry cleaning and laundry are cheaper than at home. It's a mix.
"The Far East End area was a center of build-to-let, a British yield play appealing to people seeking fixed income. Many of them have not found the tenants they need to pay their mortgages. Prices have therefore dropped precipitously overall, and, moreover, there are special situations you can profit from. One example: the Drushba program at the local public (free) school at Prince Regent has attracted lots of Russians (not the oligarchs, but those providing them with financial and legal services), who want to keep their children speaking Russian. You hear more Russian than English along parts of Prince Regent Lane.
"The area is open and has lots of parks and often appealing views of the River Thames or canals and tributaries. It is more suburban than London in feeling. I think most people would not miss a car and use the free public transport.
"However, to be perfectly frank, the main appeal of London retirement and real estate for North American expats-to-be is that everyone, just everyone, speaks English. You do not have to study Spanish or French or Portuguese. What a relief!
"Having said that, be careful of some terms of art in the estate agent lexicon that you will run into in this depressed market. 'Local authority' means that the apartment (flat, in Britspeak) was put up for housing poor people. Many such buildings were privatized over the decades, and they are often good value. However, in E10 and E16 there are plans afoot to actually tear down some social housing areas right around the Canning Town center of the borough. In perhaps five years, these apartments will be bought by the government at market value-plus, and you would have to move. The plus ranges from 7% for apartments rented out to 10% for owner-occupiers.
"And because of the overhang of destruction to come, you cannot get a mortgage for these apartments. You have to pay cash. The result is that the cash is actually a huge bargain, if you are willing to inconvenience yourself and take a chance that you will be able to buy something better after staying in your council flat at Canning Town in E10 for five years, I think a good bet. For an asking price of GBP165,000 (negotiable) you can buy a three-bedroom apartment with reasonable centrally heated facilities, including a living room, an eat-in kitchen with all the necessary appliances, and a full bath. It is on two levels so you have to take the stairs. There are public green spaces in the complex, but the area is heavily industrialized.
"In another council building in E16 at Colman Road also under planned tear-down there is a huge four-bedroom, two-bath, a good walk from Custom House DLR station, for GBP240,000. It's offered by W.J. Meade agents, from their Stratford office (local phone: 020-8166-8073). It's on three floors (the master bedroom floor does not have a bathroom), is in very good order, and has a spanking modern kitchen and its own parking. It is a good walk along Prince Regent Lane to the DLR station but very near the King George Park and the Newnham City Farm, where you can buy fresh produce (veggies and eggs) from the allotments. It is a bit like living in an English village, although, of course, you are in London. Note that there are not many restaurants and shops, just as in an English village. It is also far from the DLR, a good 20-minute walk.
"A third council flat is at Ripley Road on the corner Prince Regent Lane in E16 with four bedrooms and one bath--really proletarian. It is a three-story maisonette with a fitted kitchen (clothes washer but no dishwasher) and tiled bathroom, plus a small balcony. It is under reference 527787478 at Your Move James Muir (local phone: 020-3318-7515) and appears not to be slated for tear down. It is cheap, GBP165,000. It is also near the King George V Park and the Newnham City Farm but nearer the DLR at Prince Regent.
"Other offers are for time shares, or shared ownership, a special market in E10 and E16. These are apartments in new blocks rented out now, usually on one-year renewable leases, whose owners need cash. Sometimes the rents do not cover the mortgage. So owners are selling a half or a quarter of the apartment (done by quarters of the year, not by rooms) under time-share rules. For someone wanting to live in London, this does not mean you get to stay for three months or half a year. It means the income from a tenant for that period goes to you rather than to the seller. You may be able to negotiate to inhabit the apartment and buy out the owner over time."
Kathleen PeddicordContinuing Reading:
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Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter.
Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.
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