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Monday, December 29, 2014

Some things I won't do before I die....


For those of you who are convinced I have a death wish - here is a list of some of the things I won't do before I die.  Well maybe.....

Sunday, December 28, 2014

How far would you travel for an Oyster?

The Citadel

September 12, 2014

Halifax is not a large city – according to Wikipedia it’s rated 14th in population size in Canada  –  about 300,000 - just a little smaller than Victoria on the opposite coast.  Both cities boast small downtowns with few buildings over 10 stories.  Both were important British naval ports and their layouts are similar.
Our hotel is right across the street from the Citadel – a must see sight in Halifax – we wander over right after breakfast.  As with many of the attractions (as we discover around the trip), the events  at the fort are in the “shoulder season”  which means that things have been scaled back. The reconstruction of the fort is impressive as are the tours led by docents in period costumes answering questions. Plan to spend a couple of hours there.

Halifax to Dartmouth Ferry
We do the usual – take a harbour ferry, check out StPaul’s Church, the oldest building in Halifax – still sporting shrapnel from the 1917harbour explosion and meander along the harbour  esplanade.

We have been warned that in Halifax the pedestrian is King.  Cars must give way to pedestrians or face a healthy fine.  It’s a novel experience to see that as soon as we approach an intersection cars and trucks immediately screech to a halt.  It’s also scary to watch pedestrians blindly crossing streets without even looking sideways – absolutely certain that the cars will stop for them.  I feel sorry for these people:  they wouldn’t last two minutes in Vancouver or two seconds in Montreal.
Alexander Keith Brewery Tour

My son-in-law highly recommended the Alexander Keith’s brewery tour.  It turns out to be the lowlight of our day.  It’s way overpriced for a glass of beer and bad theatre ($17.00 Geezer rate).  You  can definitely give it a miss.  (NOTE: TripAdvisor gives it a 4.5/5 out of five )

 September 13, 2014

The following day we climb into our rental car and head out into the wilds of Nova Scotia. For someone from British Columbia where a short jaunt would be two or three hours I am surprised how close everything is – usually only 30 or 40 minutes.

We’ve heard a lot about the “lighthouse route” so we chose to take the scenic ocean route rather than the “freeway.”   We thought we’d see oodles of colourful lighthouses.  What we didn’t realize was that the “lighthouse route” doesn’t actually run along the ocean – but is often a half a mile or more from the shoreline.  If you want to see any lighthouses you have to turn off the road and head down to the ocean.  Often these “scenic routes” aren’t marked and signs are scarce – even on the highways.  This is in stark contrast to the highways in the rest of Canada where there’s a sign telling you “something” every 50 meters. I guess Maritimers believe if they tell you once that’s  sufficient - or you should be smart enough  to know where you’re going.

For the most part we rely on Google Maps.  I brought my dashboard mount for my cellphone and we have, for the most part, a reliable guide.  The friendly guy at Budget Rent-a-car was willing to rent me a gps unit for only $15.00 a day.  For the cost of a two week rental I could have bought a deluxe GPS unit.  Don’t fall for that: use your phone.

September 17, 2014

One of the “must see” destinations on our list is the Bay of Fundy.  I’ve heard about the unbelievable tides and wanted to see them for myself.  I’d experienced incredible tides on HaidaGwaii (The Queen Charlotte Islands) a few years ago on the longest day of the year.

At Haida Gwaii we had arrived  at the water’s edge early in the
Queen Charlotte City: Tide out!
morning – just as the tide was falling.  We carried the first kayak down to the water and returned to the truck to get the next one.  When we arrived back at the water the first kayak was high and dry and the water had retreated about twenty feet.  We moved both kayaks back to the water’s edge and leave to get the next kayak.  

By the time all four kayaks are down to where the water’s edge was previously the water in the harbour was completely gone – leaving only a mud flat.   We were forced to reload the kayaks and drive around the island to find a suitable deep water launching site.   I am told the tides in the Bay of Fundy are even more impressive. 

Alma at Low Tide...
Our destination is Alma - a small town in New Brunswick.  We have the option of driving or taking the car ferry.  We opt for the car ferry from Digby to St. John – a choice I would not recommend. The car ferry is an ancient relic that must have seen service as a cod transporter, because the car decks absolutely reek of rotting fish. 

Alma is a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy and a great
...and a few hours later
place to experience the most extreme tides.   Like most of the other areas we traveled to the town is basically closed for the season.  Most of the restaurants and tourist attractions close after Labour Day leaving only a couple of restaurants, a motel and a gas station open to service the local residents. 

We pull over at the public wharf on the edge of town.  Several large fishing boats were resting on the mud twenty feet below the wharf.  We continue on to check into our lodgings then head back to town to check out dinner possibilities.   When we pass the wharf we visited only a few hours earlier, the fishing boats are all afloat and just about up to the wharf level.   This in the space of only a few hours.

September 19, 2014

As I mentioned earlier Google Maps was fairly reliable with one notable exception.  I’d heard a lot about  Malpeque Oysters.  They are supposed to be among the best oysters in the world.  A visit to Malpeque Bay on Prince Edward Island was one of the first “must sees” I put on our “to do” list. 

Confederation Bridge
Of course this means a visit to Prince Edward Island and a trip across the much vaunted Confederation Bridge.  If you’re not interested in Anne of Green Gables or Charlottetown  you can probably see all of PEI in a day. 

Checking the guide books I find that “the” place to have Malpeque  oysters is the “Oyster Barn” right on the water.  I program the address into my GPS and we head off.

It’s about a 40 minute drive from Summerside and I am encouraged by the numerous signs along the way proclaiming the culinary excellence of the Oyster Barn.
An empty Malpeque Bay

As we arrive in Mapeque  Bay the Google Map Lady (GML) announces our destination is just ahead on the right.  The only building in sight is a shuttered barn-like structure.  The faded sign proclaims it to be the “Oyster Barn.”  It appears to have been closed for some time.  We look around for another eating establishment but can’t find any.  In fact we don’t see a single soul.  It appears like with many other attractions we have arrived too late.

I consult Google again and am surprised to find in one of the many listings for the Oyster barn there is another address.  I assume perhaps we have arrived at an older establishment or perhaps they have another restaurant in a nearby town.

I program the address into Google Maps and off we go.  We follow  GML’s directions down a paved highway.  After about ten minutes she has us turn onto a gravel road; a short time later she has us turn onto a rutted seldomly used road, and finally as we come into a small complex buildings she informs me to“Turn left now” onto a grassy strip that seem to run between the backs of two rows of houses.   A short time later she proclaims:
“You have arrived at your destination.”
The only thing I can see is a guy pressure washing his driveway.  He looks up as well pulled to a stop.
I roll down the window. 
“I’ve come for the Oysters,” I inform him.
“What?” was the puzzled reply.
“According to the Google Lady, this is the Oyster Barn.”
“Never heard of it,”
“That can’t be.  The Google Lady says it is, and at that moment she confirmed it.
“You have arrived at your destination.”
“This ain’t the Oyster Barn.”
I hold out my phone.  
“Do you want to argue with Google?”
After a short conversation the gentleman tells me that he knows of a fish store a bit down the road that might have some Oysters.
I get the name of the place from him, look up the address in Google, program it into the GPS and off we go for round three.

After retracing our steps, GML puts us on a paved road and twenty minutes later we arrive at the fish store.  There is only a bike in the parking lot, but it appears to be open, so I am encouraged.

I enter and find the store manager loading the last of a tray of Oysters into the bike owners saddlebags.
“You do have some more in the back don’t you?”
“Sorry,” is the reply.  “That’s the last of them.  As of tomorrow we’re closed for the season.”
I briefly entertain the thought of grabbing the bicyclist’s saddle bags out of his hand and making a dash to the car.  But since he appears a lot bigger and more fit than me I give up the thought.”

I explain to the store owner that I have come all the way from British Columbia for Malpeque Oysters and am am sadly disappointed I can’t find them.

“If you don’t mind a bit of a drive, there’s a bar in Stanley Bridge, that probably has some.”
Well, in for a dime in for a dollar.  We’ve come all this way and the day is half over.  Why not?

I program the bar’s address into Google and off we go again.  About half an hour later we pull into the tiny town of Stanley Bridge and find Carr's Oyster Bar.  I’m not encouraged – there are no cars in the parking lot.

We park and walk up to the door and are pleasantly surprised to find it open.  Once inside I am confronted with a huge table filled with ice and oysters.  The waitress observes me staring at them.
“How many of them would you like, sir?”
“All of them.”
A plate of Malpeque Oysters
“You’re joking, right?” she replies.
After a brief discussion on the merits of the different sizes a compromise is reached. I will take twenty of the small ones. Michele and I retreat to the outdoor deck overlooking the bay and wait for the waitress to shuck the oysters.  

A few minutes later my oysters and a cold beer arrive.  It had taken the better part of a day and I don’t know how many hundred kilometers to get these oyster and I am suddenly worried that it might not have been worth it.

Was it worth traveling 6000 km?  You bet!!
My concern proves unnecessary.  They are definitely the finest oysters I’ve ever eaten.  If you like oysters, you should definitely give Carr’s Oyster Bar in Stanley Bridge a visit.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

That's no lady that's my wife.... in that car

Checking out the Atlantic Provinces has always been on my bucket list, but I thought I’d like to get the more exotic destinations off the list before I tackled something so close to home.  For all my world travels I’ve only seen about two thirds of my own country – not having ventured much beyond Montreal.

Many of our friends have visited the Maritimes and speak glowingly about them.  My wife, Michele, expressed a desire to “maybe” take a trip with me to see them.   She said “maybe” because she still has memories of the last major trip we took together – our honeymoon – some forty years ago.  With Michele bad memories die slowly.  However upon further consideration she concluded that if I could travel around the world for more than ten years and still return in one piece she might chance another trip with me - particularly since it wasn’t too far from home.

Michele likes to research things incessantly – so she googled everything Maritimes.  Our plan was travel after Labour Day when crowds have abated and rates dropped.  We’d fly to Halifax, rent a car and drive around for a couple of weeks, then head back to Halifax and home.

While Michele researched the” “must see” sites I tackled the rent-a-car situation.  After a lot of on line research at the usual sites: Priceline, Travelocity, Expedia, Etc., a friend informed me the best deal is to book through Costco.  Of course you need a Costco card –which I just so happen to have.  I checked out the rates on line at  Costco for Alamo, Avis, Enterprise, and Budget.  Costco’s online site lets you compare each companies’ rates for comparable cars.  All of the quoted rates were less than anywhere else and  I was pleasantly surprised to find  Budget’s rate for a Kia Rondo was less than any of the others. 

There was one question I couldn't find an answer for online.  The other car rentals included a second driver – there was no mention as to whether or not Budget offered the same.  I called the  help number on the Costco site and was told by Daina,  the Costo representative ,that a second driver was included – if it was a spouse.  I asked for a moment to confer with my wife to find out if she still considers herself my “spouse,” and after a few moments she ceded that she still might be. 

Daina wanted to know if I wanted to book with her.  I told her if she could meet or beat the price I’m currently saw on my computer I would.   She asked if I had ”something else” she could work with.

“I’m a member of the auto club,’ I offered.
“So is everybody.”  She replied.
I tried several other clubs and associations.  Finally in desperation I said.
“I’m a senior.”
“Aha!” she replied. “Now that’s something I can work with.  You qualify for the geezer discount.”
She worked through the math, and when she finished the quoted rate  for the Kia was actually 40 percent less.  Truly amazing. 
“Book It, Dano.” I said.
“My name is Not Dano, it’s Daina.”
“Whatever.”
“There’s just one thing, I have to tell you.”
“I knew there was a catch.”
“To get that rate you have to prepay in full now.  However if you can’t make it, you can get a full refund if you let us know 24 hours in advance.”

I told her I thought that was reasonable and gave her my credit card information, along with all the other pertinent information.  She also asked for our flight number in case the plane should be delayed.

During the next several weeks Michele and I poured over books and Brochures, trying to decide what to see.  We immediately realized that two weeks wasn't much time to see four provinces. 

The first thing to go was Newfoundland.  We decided that  it required a trip of its own.  We were also worried about the weather on the Rock in September – it could be great or horrid.  So Scratch Newfoundland.  That left us with three provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. 

We couldn't fly direct from Vancouver to Halifax so we opted for a quick stopover in Calgary.  What we hadn't counted on was an unseasonable early fall snowstorm in Calgary.  Who would expect a full scale winter blizzard on September 7th?  The snowstorm played havoc with Calgary’s power grid and the airport experienced a power outage as we made our final approach.  For half an hour we flew loops around the airport before power was restored and we could land.

We arrived in Halifax an hour late and I headed over to the Budget booth to pick up the car and that’s when the fun began.

What kind of a car would you like, sir?”
“I don’t know,” I replied surprised that he would ask since I already had booked a car.  “What kind of cars have you got?”
“Oh all sorts, Beemers, SUV’s, sport convertibles.”
“All for the same price I’m paying for my Kia?” I asked amazed.
“Oh, no sir,” he replied. “They’re more – starting at only ten dollars a day more.”
“No thanks,” I said.  “I’ll just take the Kia I reserved.”
“Oh I’m sorry sir.  We don’t have that car anymore.”
“What?” I replied.
“Oh yes, it’s gone.  We had to release it.  You were an hour late.”
“Fine.” Then you can fix me up with another car.  The common practice is to upgrade me to the next car you have available if you don’t have the car I booked.
“Certainly, sir. We can get you out of here right away. It’ll be only ten dollars more a day.”
My temper began to rise.  “Listen, you don’t understand.  That was my car you let go.  I prepaid for it.  It’s like a hotel room you prepay for.  It doesn’t matter if I check in late. It’s mine for the period I rented it - even if it sits in the lot.  You had no right to release it. “
“You were late,” he replies not giving an inch.   The line behind me is growing longer by the minute. “Besides the lady who took my order in Vancouver asked for the flight number which you have there on the monitor in front of you.  You knew the flight was an hour late.”
“I’m sorry sir.  But we can get you out of here for just ten dollars more.”
“Have you heard of bait and switch?”  This is against the law.  I want the car I reserved.
A large sigh.  “Okay, but I’ll have to have one brought in from Halifax.  It will takeat least  half an hour.”
“Fine.”
Michele and I retire to the side and begin to wait.  The next couple steps up to the front of the line and the same story is repeated over and over.  This seems to be a standard ploy by Budget in Halifax to get more money out of you. 

The crowd of unhappy customers begins to grow beside us.  Finally after forty minutes I’d had enough.
I took a business card out of my wallet and sidled up to the front of the line and handed it to the attendant.
“Here.  You might want to give this to your boss.  I’m an international travel writer and he might want to keep an eye out for an article in the papers next week.”
He studies the card for a moment and picks up the phone.  Within 60 seconds my Kia is at the door. He also hands me a bunch of coupons for discounts on future rentals (like I’m going to ever use Budget again).  On the way to the car I hand out the coupons to the other unhappy customers.  So after an hour at the budget booth we’re finally on our way.

Lesson Learned: Which ever company I book with in the future (and it probably won’t be Budget) I will ask point blank what happens if I’m late.  Do they hold the car?  If so for how long?  What happens if the car I booked was not there?  What’s the policy then.   I’ll then make sure I have the person’s name and employee number. 

By the time we pull out of the lot it’s dark and Michele is driving since my eyesight isn't what it used to be –especially on rainy nights.  I pre-booked our first night at the Cambridge Suite Hotel in downtown Halifax.  The hotel has glowing reviews in tripadvisor, is reasonably priced and they threw in two nights parking for eight bucks.

I take out my phone and program Google maps to the hotel address and off we go.  The route takes us over a pay bridge.  I look for a guy in a booth collecting tolls, but all there is a bucket you throw a toony in and the arm lifts and off you go.  How many million dollars did we spend here in Vancouver to find an automated  transit fare system?  They could have bought the Halifax system for a dollar fifty.

Google routes us through a series of dark one way streets finally bringing us to a dark strip mall and announces: “You have arrived at your destination.”

I don’t see anything that looks remotely like a hotel lobby - but there is a light on in a  doorway.  I tell Michele to pull up to it and I’ll go and see what’s doing.

Once inside the doorway I discover a small lobby so I’m in the right place.  I walk up to the registration desk and announce myself.  I’m pleasantly surprised that the attendant is the same guy I talked to on the phone when I booked the place.

After a pleasant check in he hands me the keys, tells me how to get to the hotel parking lot is,  and suggests a place for dinner. 

I go out to give Michele the info.  I open the door, step into the car, sit down and turned to Michele.  Then it hits me.  This is not my wife sitting next to me.
“You’re not my wife,” I exclaim to the startled woman.
I look up and see Michele in the car ahead laughing her head off. 

Evidently while I was inside another car pulled up behind her and she moved ahead a bit to make room for it.  I simply blindly got into the car in front of the door.

After a hasty apology we find the parking lot, unload and head up to our room.  It is now quite late and after a long day of travel and fighting with the rent-a-car people we aren’t in the mood to start looking for restaurants. 

The check-in guy had suggested the hotel restaurant and I suggest we go there.  How bad could it be?
Actually it turned out to be quite good – excellent in fact – one of the best dinners we had in the Maritimes.  Evidently the hotel recently snagged a renowned chef and had won a slew of awards.  Not only that the prices were extremely reasonable.  If you’re in Halifax I’d recommend it – even if you aren’t staying at the Cambridge Suites.

We head up to the room to plan the next day’s activities and hit the sack.

NEXT:  CAN GOOGLE FIND THE "PERFECT" OYSTER?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

There's something fishy about the Miss Sardine Contest


THERE'S SOMETHING FISHY ABOUT THE MISS SARDINE CONTEST


The first thing I notice is the cannery appears to be on hiatus – there’s no fishy smell.  I spend the day reacquainting myself with the town and spending time at the beach and the pool.  I visit Lola’s, my favourite beachside restaurant – the owner claims to remember me - but I think he’s lying – hoping for a big tip. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Stuck in Lodi er... Caleta again!"

CALETA DE VALEZ

Caleta de Valez

CALETA DE VALEZ - A GREAT PLACE TO STAY

Our tour ends that night and the next morning Carlos and I head to the airport – he’s off to other parts of Europe scouting for a new GAdventures tour and I’m off to Malaga for a couple of days of R&R in Caleta de Valez, a small fishing village on the Mediterranean.

I was last in Caleta in 2010.  I had been searching for a place to stay in the south of Spain and had found an add on Kijiji for a two bedroom beach front apartment “near Malaga” for the astonishing price of $350.00 a week!   I thought it was too good to be true and emailed the owner in Ontario.

It turned out there was an error: the price was $350.00 for the “first” week.  The price dropped to $250.00 a week after that!  Granted this was on the shoulder season – late May and early June – but it was still an unbelievable price.  

The Pyramids
The place had belonged to his folks who lived in England and wintered in Spain every year.  They had both just passed away and he wasn’t sure what to do with the place – so he decided to rent it out.  Linda and Mike, friends of his late folks, still lived in the building and would look after the details.  He even agreed to get the  internet hooked up for me if I’d rent it for three weeks – which I did.

The place was – as advertised – right across from the beach, had an Olympic size swimming pool (unfortunately it wasn’t due to open until a few days after I left) and tennis courts (which were open – but I don’t play tennis).  The only negative was the apartment was across the street from the fishing port and a very active fish processing plant – so if the wind wasn’t blowing in the right direction it could be a tad smelly.

I quickly fell into the rhythm of life in the town, making friends, and eating with the locals.  Caleta is just down the beach from Torre del Mar, the major tourist town in the area.  From there it was easy to take day trips to the larger Spanish cities such as Malaga, Cordoba or Seville.

Flash forward to the present:

Since I had to return home from either Barcelona or Malaga I thought I’d see if the place was still available.

I couldn’t track down the owner, but I still had the email for Linda and Mike.  Linda replied saying the apartment was still available for the dates I wanted.  Since it was peak season (July) the price would be more – 40 euros a night. (still a steal).  I made arrangements to contact her when I was in Spain to work out the details of getting the keys.

Last time  I visited Caleta Linda and Mike picked me up at the airport, since I’d already been there once and  even though I’m prone to getting lost I can find Caleta myself. 
Airport train

Getting from the airport to Malaga itself is a breeze.  They have a Light Rail Transportation system – almost identical to Vancouver’s Skytrain  - that runs from the airport directly to the bus station in the middle of town.

Making sure I get the right bus turns out to be a bit more dodgy.  I use my poor Spanish and am issued a ticket and told in Spanish which bus I should board.  But given my recent experience in Paris being given bad directions I decide to use my late mother’s method of confirming you are taking the right bus:  Ask at least 20 people if the bus you are standing in front of is the “bus to Caleta.”  - even if it’s clearly marked “Caleta.”  If any of them say no – or even hesitates – ask another 20.”
 
Once on the bus, I still have doubts I’m on the right bus so  I whip out my phone switch on the GPS and watch in real time as the bus makes its way to Caleta.

Since I already have my phone out, I decide to call Linda and tell her I’m on my way.  The phone rings and rings  –no answer.  I try her cell phone – again no answer.  Not to worry - maybe she’s in the loo.  I keep trying every ten minutes during the one hour trip to Caleta – still no answer.  As we pull into Caleta I begin to panic.  I have no “B” plan.

The bus lets me off in front of the apartment building and I sit down on the steps in front of the locked doors and try again – no answer.   A few minutes later an older British couple come upon me and asks if I need help.  Yes, they know Linda Mike, but haven’t seen them in several days.  They invite me up to their apartment and try a few numbers they have for them – with no success.  After an hour I figure I might have outstayed my welcome and head over to the restaurant across the street for some lunch while I keep dialing.   Over a few beers I formulate a “B” plan:  if I can’t get through I’ll walk down to Torre del Mar and look for somewhere to stay until I can sort things out.  There’s only one little hotel in Caleta and it’s
booked.

Just as I’m about to head down to Torre del Mar my cell phone rings It’s Mike – and he’s pissed.  Where am I?  I was supposed to meet him at noon in front of the apartment building.  He waited for half an hou and I didn’t show.  I tell him my arrangements with Linda were to call her when I was on the bus – which I did. He can ask her.

Unfortunately he can’t – as her brother became seriously ill a few days ago  she had to return to England.  She gave Mike the responsibility of getting me the keys.   After a bit more conversation he calms down and agrees to meet me in 15 minutes in front of the apartment – which he does.  He hands me a set of keys, takes the rent money and is gone in a huff – or was it a minute and a huff?

The apartment is as I remembered it – but it appears not to have been occupied in some time.  It’s freshly painted but there are no pictures on the wall and some of the furniture that was there previously  is missing.  It’s as if they’re getting ready to sell; but there’s no market in Spain for real estate right now.  Like Ireland they grossly overbuilt and are now paying the price. 

The good news is the pool is open so I head off for a swim then off to buy some beer and groceries.


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Death In the Afternoon & A town named after an Andy Williams Song

DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON

The Bull Ring in Pamplona
The running of the bulls was exciting  but it was only half of the experience – the other half was what happened to the bulls after they arrived in the stadium – the bull fight.   

I’d read and heard a lot about the bull fights, both in Spain and Mexico – but never experienced one.  I know a lot of people don’t like them, but thought I might enjoy the spectacle and the challenge – one man - armed only with a cape alone against a dangerous animal.  When Carlos suggested we take in one of the nightly bull fights I immediately jumped on board.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Running with the Bulls - The Main Event

Pamplona - July 10, 2014


Today we’re off to Pamplona and the main event.  The bus ride takes a couple of hours. In Pamplona we are greeted by a sea of people all dressed in red and white – the color of the festival.  The Running of the Bulls is a lot like Stampede Week in Calgary – everybody dresses up – and everybody participates.

Our hotel is in the newer part of Pamplona and is quite nice and modern.  After we check in Carlos suggests we head down to the old part of town, pick up our running outfits, and check out where the run will take place the next morning.

street scene in Pamplona
As we draw closer to the old section of town the crowds grow bigger and bigger.  By the time we’re at the outskirts it’s a veritable sea of people.    There are numerous venders selling shirts, pants, scarfs, and sashes.  Moments we’re twenty bucks lighter, dressed in our Pamplona duds and indistinguishable from the other thousand  people milling around. 

Carlos takes us further into the old city and we walk – or attempt to walk – the route the bulls will take the next morning.  The streets are packed with people –a veritable river of red and white – moving in one direction. It is impossible to go against the flow.

The street is only about twenty feet wide – there are no sidewalks only the sides of buildings. There are young people, old people - people with children on their shoulders, marching bands – everyone jumbled together into one big happy throng.  The second floor balconies are packed with happy revelers.  Some of the balconies have small bands on them – competing with the band on the balcony  across the street  the revelers on the street. If you are the least bit claustrophobic this is not a place to be – and tomorrow morning they’re going to release a half dozen or so angry bulls into this throng.

Large  LCD monitors on street posts and in bars are replaying the mayhem from the run earlier in the day.  There are close up shots of people being tossed in the air by bulls, trampled by bulls, and left lying in the street.  I’m beginning to have misgivings about this.  I decide maybe I’ll watch the next day’s running rather than participating.  There’s always a chance to run the following day.  

...and there going to let the bulls go in this???
Lost in my concerns I get separated from the group.  I look around for a familiar person – but everyone is dressed alike.  In a panic I try to head back up the street to find my group but despite my efforts am swept back.   Someone hands me a beer.  I decide it isn't too bad to be part of the crowd. Then I realize it’s Carlos who handed me the beer.  He pulls me into a backwater and heads back into the river to coral  the rest of his herd.  He eventually finds most of them and we head off to a tapas bar to have dinner and watch Germany trounce Brazil in the World Cup quarter finals.  When we leave about midnight to head back to the hotel the streets are still packed.  He warns us to get some sleep as we’re expected to be back down there by 6:40am.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why I hate Paris and Gaudi Architecture

My travel agent has booked me on Air Transat to Paris. It’s not my favorite airline, but it’s not the worst. If the person in front of you reclines their seat, their head will literally land in your lap.

Since there is no direct flight from Vancouver to Spain, I’ve opted for an overnight in Paris, then on to Barcelona.  I’ve learned through hard experience that most European flights land late in the day or early evening and nine times out of ten there isn’t a connection until early the next morning – which means spending an uncomfortable night at the airport.  I prefer to spend a comfortable night in a nearby hotel and take a short late morning flight on to my destination.   I arrive fresh – with minimal jet lag – and ready to begin my adventures.

My travel agent felt that the overall savings in flights were worth flying to Paris rather than Frankfurt – which I preferred.  I should have insisted on Frankfurt.

WHY I HATE PARIS

I forgot how much I hate Paris.  Charles deGaulle  Airport is one of the largest and most disorganized airports I’ve had the misfortune to visit.  On top of that  Parisians are some of the rudest least helpful people on the planet. I experienced Parisian hospitality forty years ago when I last visited the city – and I’m sad to say their hospitality hasn’t improved a whit.

Monday, October 20, 2014

On My Way to Run With the Bulls in Spain!!!

It’s been several months since my last blog and I have to apologize for not writing sooner but it’s been a perfect storm of events and which have included a trip to Spain to run with the bulls, and a trip to the Maritimes to drive with my wife.

But the main excuse for not writing has been due to my injury with a toro of a different sort – a lawnmower.

I don’t like gardening – but I like a neat garden – particularly a well groomed lawn.  When I walk by a house with an unkempt lawn or garden I can’t help but feeling it reflects the type of person who lives inside. People rationalize these lawns are deliberate – they represent their desire to go back to save the planet.  Nine times out of ten these “environmentalists” have a Hummer parked in the driveway.

One the best days of my life was when I hired someone to cut my lawn.  My father-in-law then suggested since I had a gardening service that I bring my old lawnmower up to the summer cottage and cut the grass up there.  And the lawnmower has been there ever since. 

There really isn't a lawn up at the cabin – it’s more like a mine-field.  It’s about 500 square meters of weeds, stumps, hillocks and rocks that eat and mangle lawnmower blades within seconds of their installation.

Lawn cutting day is the sound of the loud “clanging” of the lawnmower hitting rocks and roots, punctuated by colorful swearing.

This year the lawnmower seemed to be suffering from a bad case of metallic leprosy - various parts rusting out and falling off with ever increasing frequency.  On my last cutting the front blade guard fell off.”

I asked my friend Dave if the piece was important and crucial to the task at hand – namely butchering what passes for grass; or maybe, after twenty-five years, I should invest in a new lawn-mower.

“Absolutely not,” stated Dave.  “Totally unnecessary.  I took my lawn mower to the lawnmower clinic and the guy simply twisted that piece off and threw out on the back lawn.”

What I did not take into account was that Dave’s quarter acre is essentially as flat as a pool table without so much as a twig growing out of it.  Dave probably still has the original blade on his machine.

So on one recent June day I found out exactly what some of those “extraneous” parts do – they keep the lawn-mower blade from digging into even the slightest uneven ground and coming to a grinding stop - which my lawnmower immediately did

Several strenuous pulls got it running again only to have it come to another abrupt stop as it encountered the next molehill.  Several more pulls got it going and we covered another ten feet and another lurching stop. Three enthusiastic pulls yielded nothing – put on the fourth the lawnmower rebelled.    I pulled the cord hard – it pulled it back even harder nearly pulling my arm out of the socket.

So for the last four months I've been nursing a sore shoulder.  It’s been hard to do anything at all with my right arm –hence no writing.  I have endured 8 sessions of grueling physiotherapy with my therapist, Calvin, the Asian sadist.   Calvin is big into acupuncture. 

The pain is such that I’m willing to endure anything that might make it better – or so I thought.  I have been led to believe that acupuncture is a sophisticated Asian medical practice where small thin needles are gently placed into your skin and manipulated to bring instant relief.  Not true.

I’m certain the ones Calvin uses are harpoon size, similar to the colorful ones they stick into the bull before they shove a sword into his heart. 

After inserting the banderillas into my shoulder Calvin then climbs onto my back shoves them two or three feet deeper  into my body and proceeds to pull them back and forth with the enthusiasm of a San Francisco brakemen trying to stop a runaway cable car.   But he was right  – the pain in my shoulder is not as bad after the session – but that’s only in comparison to the acupuncture pain I endured during the session.

I've had eight sessions with Calvin before I decided to give up on it and head back to traditional western medicine – heavy duty pain killers.  The eight sessions cost in the neighborhood of 600 dollars (and no, I don’t have a plan).  I hate to think what kind of a lawnmower I could have bought for $600.00.  I’m sure it would have an electric start – and a cup holder.

Even more unfortunate for me was that I was due to leave for Spain for my encounter of toros of the flesh and blood type less than one week after my lawnmower accident.

Running with the Bulls is something I have wanted to do since I read Hemingway “The Sun Also Rises” when I was an undergrad.  Unfortunately it’s only taken me 50 years to get there.

What finally pushes it to the top of my bucket list is discovering a GAdventures Tour titled “Running of the Bulls.”  It’s promoted as a one week tour beginning in Barcelona and ending in Bilbao - the highlight being two days in Pamplona watching the running of the bulls.  

Although the info is very succinct that this tour is only to watch the running not participate in it, one can read between the lines, if you are bound and determined to run, they aren't going to physically try and stop you.  I sign up with the thought that I’ll check it out the first day then “sneak away” and run the next day. I’d survived the mechanical toro – how dangerous can these flesh and blood ones be?
  
Nursing my sore shoulder I head for the airport three and a half hours early to give me lots of time to slowly drag my luggage through the departure process.

What I hadn't counted on was a head-on collision in the tunnel on my way to the airport.  I’m stranded in traffic for two-and-a-half hours until I can inch my way to a break in the divided highway, do a U-turn into the counter-flow lane, and take a long roundabout way to the airport.   I arrive thirty minutes before the flight was due to leave- just as they are closing the check in counter. Since I’d checked in the night before they decide to let me board the aircraft.

“Can you please lift your bag onto the scale sir?”
“No, not really.”
“You’re not making this easy for us, are you, sir?”

I’m rushed through security, and manage to make it to the gate just as they are closing the door. I throw myself into my seat, buckle up and push the button for the flight attendant as the aircraft is pushed back from the gate. 

“Can I help you sir?”

“Yes, a double scotch and two Oxycodones, please.”

NEXT:  Bring on the Bulls!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

I SURVIVE THE SHARKS, THE MOHEL EEL, BUT WILL I LIVE THROUGH THE TYPHOON ON YAP?




A brush with death tends to bring people closer and so it was with our merry group of divers here in Yap and there's plenty more mayhem on the way as I write.  But let’s start at the beginning:

Saturday, June 14, 2014

In Flanders Field the Snorkelers Lie

WHERE THE HECK IS PALAU?

It’s about a two hour flight from Guam to Palau on Continental Micronesia’s 737 shuttle.  The plane flies one way between Guam and Hawaii touching down on several of the Micronesian Islands, then flies the opposite way the next day. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Playing With Fire and Follow that Water Buffalo

GUAM


GUAM IS NOT PART OF MICRONESIA

Guam International Airport, or Antonio B Won Pat as it is sometimes known, is a huge contrast to Saipan’s sleepy little airport.  The airport in Guam is a “serious” American airport with everything you’d expect to find in an airport in Los Angeles or Miami – namely security – lots of security.  While Guam is geographically port of the Northern Mariana Islands – along with Saipan and Rota – it is NOT part of Micronesia.  It’s American – like Puerto Rico – people born here are American citizens – same as if they were born on the mainland – except they can’t vote in American presidential elections – many here think that’s a plus – given the choices.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

I'm a Scratch for the Rota Triathlon

Northern Mariana Islands
[New Jeff here:   A little context is needed for my Rota adventure.  While in the “Big Smoke” of Saipan there were one or two Internet Cafes - on Rota there were none!  Nada! So I had to keep my journal on a USB stick (they weren’t called thumb drives then) and send them when I arrived on Guam.  When I returned to Rota a year later there were not only more Internet Cafes, but many places had wifi!  And all this was only ten years ago!!!

I should also point out that almost nobody goes to Rota (or at least back then).  Bin Laden thought about hiding there but decided he’d be too lonely.  I decided to go because I’d travelled half way around the world to visit Micronesia and it was only a twenty minute flight from Saipan.]

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Float like a Cork: SInk like an Anchor

FRIDAY NOVEMBER 12, 2003

Goose & Fin Internet Shop
Well I’m back at the Goose and Fin Internet shop, trying to concentrate while a bill collector is attempting to get his rent money from the owner – evidently the bottom has dropped out of the goose egg market here. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Would you trade a 1995 Nissan for this 1945 Japanese Tank?


Wednesday November 10,2003

The Internet Cafe - note the goose!
Well here I am in Saipan!  A mere 24 hours after I left Seattle.  Why is it that all flights to the South Pacific seem to land at midnight?  I'm in a combination Internet cafe/fishstore/livepoultry store around the corner from my hotel. It’s one of the few places that has internet here is Saipan!

[New Jeff here.  One year later when I returned there was wifi everywhere!  Amazing how quickly things change!]

My flight arrived shortly before 1:00am this morning. It was a long flight: first from Seattle to Tokyo, then from Tokyo to Nagoya (in Japan) then on to Saipan. 

Summer Holiday Motel
I took a cab to my hotel named The Summer Holiday Motel. I was a bit worried given the name of the hotel since it was November; but I had nothing to worry about as the motel was airy and my room large.  I didn’t bother unpacking but just fell on the bed and tried to sleep since it had been nearly 24 hours since I left Vancouver.

Amelia Earhart - 1928
An interesting thing happened during the last leg of the trip.  I asked an older American gentleman sitting next to me if he had served in the Marianas during WW2 - which was indeed the fact.

He along with some of the locals who had been forcibly conscripted by the Japanese during their occupation of the island had worked loading bombs onto B29's. One of those locals showed him a grave where he claimed the Japanese buried an American woman flyer who had been captured then executed - obviously Ameila Erhart!  The local told my seat mate that he had been on burial duty that day.  Nobody believed the old guy until recently, and now a team has been put together to dig up the grave and try to get a genetic sample. Evidentially the Mariana Government wasn't very supportive; but members of the team got the US State Department to put pressure on the Mariana's government to let them exhume the grave.  

[New Jeff again:  I followed up on this story when I got home – it turned out that my seat mate’s memory was a bit off and after searching for several days the team never found the supposed grave.]

More next time, the smell of dog and geese here in the internet cafe is getting to me.

Thursday November 11th

I woke up this morning around 6:00am (which would be about noon Vancouver time).  My first order of business was to rent a car.  The locals recommended Cars Unlimited, so off I went.  They rented me a  1995 Nissan Sentra (which was the most modern car they had). It made the Corolla  I rented last year in Rarotonga look like a 2004 Mercedes.  

I had to go through the ritual of going out with the guy and marking on the diagram where the car was already damaged.   I suggested it would speed things up if we just marked the diagram with parts of the car that WEREN'T damaged - which essentially meant nothing!

I was also warned not to park the car in any 'bad places' as the car wasn't covered for vandalism.  I wanted to know if there was anything left on the car to vandalize?  If this car was left in the worse neighbourhood in Watts they'd actually put parts BACK on it!!  I was given a map to find my way back to my hotel and told it was physically impossible to get lost.

I got lost.

Because it's a small Island, I eventually found my way back to my motel. (No,I did not go around the island twice!) Driving along the road I was overwhelmed by the amount of Poker Parlours and Pawnshops, which sort of makes sense in a weird sort of way.

Saipan was home to some of the most horrific battles in WWII.  In the space of one week in July 1944, over 30,000.00 troops lost their lives (approx.. 30,000 Japanese and 8,000 Americans) – and that’s just one Island. The scars and memorials of the battles are everywhere here, both above and below the sea.        


Suicide Cliff
I decided to get into my luxury chariot and do a little sightseeing: If you have a yen for suicide then Saipan's the place for you - with colourful places like  Banzai and Suicide Cliffs to name just a couple.  These are places where the Japanese occupants of the island threw themselves off of such places  during the war rather than surrender to the Americans.  Today I nearly witnessed a re-enactment as a Japanese tour group was lining up at the edge of Banzai cliff to have their picture taken. I offer to to take a group picture for them.  
”I can't get you all in the shot. Everyone take one step back.”
And who says the Japanese don't have a sense of humour?  

Speaking of Japanese tours, they make up about 90% of the tourists to Saipan. It’s only about 4 hours from Japan – so they look at it as their Hawaii.

[New Jeff again: “That suddenly stopped the following  year, when the Saipan government gave an ultimatum to  JAL to pay the highest landing rights in the Pacific or have their landing rights revoked.  JAL told them to stick it and pulled out of Saipan.  Now the Japanese only make up  a small portion of the tourists.  The Chinese have replaced them.]

The Last Command Post
My next stop after the Suicide Cliffs was at the “Last Command post.”  This is a ruin built into the rock where the last Japanese commander committed suicide.  What I want to know is what happened to the “Second Last Command Post?” Was there a penultimate Command Post? Maybe if that General held out one more day, he'd have been famous and have people lighting memorial candles and lighting incense in his honour for sixty years. I posed this question to the Japanese Tour leader who either ignored me or feigned he didn't speak English.  


I was taking a picture of a destroyed rusted out Japanese tank in front of the  Last Command Post when one of the Japanese tourist asked me, “Is that a Japanese Tank?”
“No,” I told him, “It’s an Israeli tank. They were big during the Pacific War.  Weren’t you guys there??  What does it look like? A 1995 Nissan?” I said pointing to my car.

Irony doesn’t seem to be a Japanese trait.  At this point the tourist was whisked away by the tour Leader who was considering   offering to take my picture at  the Banzai cliff.

Japanese Tank or is it a 1995 Nissan?
I also had a small problem with the park security guy.  He was not happy with me trying to move my rusted out Japanese Nissan next to the tank thereby giving a graphic illustration that the Japanese haven’t made much progress on rust prevention in 60 years.  I seriously considered leaving my car there and driving the tank back to the motel.

I kept meeting people I had met on the flight from Nagoya.  I began to feel we were on some sort of pictorial scavenger hunt with whoever getting the most pictures winning.

If the projected monsoon holds off I’m going to take a boat over to Manyagaha Island for some quality snorkelling.

NEXT:  Float like a cork - Sink Like an Anchor: My first Micronesia dive experience

Saturday, April 12, 2014

ADVENTURES IN PARADISE - MICRONESIA

ADVENTURES IN PARADISE 2004 – PREAMBLE

Where the heck is Micronesia
April 12, 2014

Ten years ago buoyed by my success in surviving my trip to the Cook Islands, I planned something far more adventuresome – three weeks in Micronesia.  I would be visiting the Islands of Saipan, Guam, Rota, Tinian, Palau and Yap.  For those of you who don’t know where Micronesia is, it’s approximately half way between Hawaii and the Philippines.

I had always wanted to go Micronesia since I was 12 and saw pictures of wrecked WWII Japanese Zeros and topless women in a copy of National Geographic.  It only took me about 45 years to get there.

Micronesia is a  series of tropical islands in the North Pacific, a spit away from the equator, and a hop away from the Philippines.   Palau, along with Yap was one of the I’d be visiting.  Technically speaking, Palau isn't part of Micronesia: In 1978 it withdrew and became an independent republic despite the fact that the entire population would into fit into a good size hockey arena. 
Battle of Midway in the Pacific

Some of the biggest naval battles in WWII took place in the waters surrounding Micronesia and the ocean bottom is strewn with wrecks.  I had taken an “introductory” dive in the Cooks and thought it couldn't be much more difficult to get my certification and explore the wrecks for myself.

It wouldn't have been challenging if I had taken the certification thirty years earlier – but at 59 I was the oldest person in my scuba class.  The next oldest student was 25!   Somehow I managed to huff and puff my way through the course and a few weeks later was awarded my “open water” certificate.  I would be off to some of the best and most challenging diving in the world with a total of two (my qualifying dives) under my weight belt.


Most divers can make a tank of air last more than an hour.  My personal best at that time was about 15 minutes.  The thought of being trapped underwater with a limited supply of air, and being reduced to number two on the food chain tends to make me hyperventilate and it’s difficult to breathe into a paper bag underwater.

To help compensate for my inexperience my son, Elan, an experienced graciously offered to accompany me – as long as I was paying – a decision he would soon came to regret. 

I spent several months during the winter researching my planned trip to Micronesia - costing my options on wear to stay, how to travel between the islands and the best dive sites.  One dive company I contacted was MDA in Guam.  When I explained to them the scope of my trip they offered to cost out the whole trip (minus the trip to and from Saipan) including accommodation, flights, and diving.  I figured it was a lot cheaper arranging it myself online - but thought what the heck- it’s not going to cost me anything to find out.  I was shocked to find out that MDA could do it a heck of a lot cheaper than I could – almost a third cheaper!  It was a lesson I learned and put to work on future trips as well.  I found that dealing with a travel agency based in the country I was going to visit could put packages together better and cheaper than I could – and if anything went wrong they were on site to fix it.  This worked extremely well for me on later trips to Africa, the Philippines and Vietnam.

To make this trip a bit challenging I planned to travel standby via Seattle-Tokyo-Saipan.  However I learned from my previous trip to the Cook Islands not to chose an airline that go out of business before  I planned to return.

So, without further ado, I give you my Adventures in Paradise.

Monday Nov 8, 2003

THE SHROUD OF TINIAN

Best Value Motel Seattle
My flight to Saipan leaves tomorrow.  Right now I’m in Seattle.  I decided to take the Airport shuttle to Seattle and spend the night in a “budget” motel near the airport.    Looking online I found the “Best Value Motel” near the airport which looked like a good deal. Now here's my question?  If it's called the “Best Value Motel" is there a “Least Value" Hotel?  What would it be? A packing crate under an overpass?

The Shroud of Tinian
Actually it isn't too bad - except for the scary stain on the sheet.  I think it's blood. It's not a big blood stain - just a few drops dribbled out along the top right hand corner.  It's my own shroud of Turin, or should I say “Shroud of Tinian?" That’s because it looks strikingly like the Northern Marianas where I’m headed.  I can see the islands of Guam, Saipan, Rota and even tiny Tinian.   I’m not too concerned because it’s a king size bed and I can always sleep on the left hand side.  I settle the matter by covering the stain with bath towel.
The Northern Mariana Islands

Now I know most of you are asking why I don’t just ask the Better Value folks just to come up and change the damn thing.  Well that would mean I would have to take down the barricade I've erected in front of the door.  I put that up after I paid a visit to the office to complain to Rasheed, the night guy, about a non-functioning TV remote control.  

 “No problem, man,” he says. “I’ll come up to your room and reprogram it.”
“Can't you do it here?” I asked, not wanting him in my room.
“Nah, I need to have the remote and the TV together.”
I seriously consider carry the TV down to the office.  About a half hour later Rasheed shows up with my remote and piece of paper with the programming instructions.  He's distracted by the MP3 player on the desk.
“So how much did that cost?” he asks.
“I don't know,” I respond. “It was a gift.”
I can see the wheels turning inside Rasheed's head.  He notices my camera on the bureau and picks it up.
“Nice Camera.”
'Yeah, but it's old.” I say, trying to make it seem that it might not fetch a good price at the Sport's Bar up the street.  

Rasheed finishes programming my remote, tosses it on the bed, and with one final appraising look around my room leaves.  That's when I decided to erect the barricade in front of the door with the
heaviest object I could find, which according to the airlines, is my luggage.

Well tomorrow morning it’s off to Saipan!

Next:  I FIND AMELIA EARHART!!!

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